The Emerald Isle: Part 5

My vacation was coming to a close, and I had some hefty decisions to make as I pointed Seamus to the East in preparation for the drive back to Dublin.  Should I swing south and visit Cork?  Do I try to make it all the way to Waterford in one day?  Or do I go inland to see Kilkenny Castle?  There were several other options at my disposal; hundreds, actually, because Ireland is absolutely teeming with things to see and experience.  It was at this moment in my trip that I realized how much I still had yet to see in Ireland, and that I would most certainly need a return trip in the future.  Considering the Waterford Crystal factory no longer functions in Ireland, it seemed silly to make the longer drive to Waterford just to shop and read a few placards about the crystal making process I wouldn’t get to see.  As for Cork, I was advised not to go unless I had a lot of time to spend there, and I only had an afternoon.  Also, I was a little wary of running into my ex-boyfriend’s family, considering they are from, and still currently reside in Cork…haha…  Kilkenny it was!

I would have moved to Kilkenny in a heartbeat.  It is an adorable gem of a city that has just a touch of modern flair, and boasts history, culture, comedy, art, and great food.  I was deeply torn that I couldn’t spend more time there to see all the other attractions that were nearby, but ended up taking a lovely stroll to Kilkenny Castle and touring it in its entirety.  I’ve seen a few luxurious castles in my time, one of which was the Palace of Versailles, which is grand and ornate — bordering on ridiculous, really.  But Kilkenny Castle has a lovely, more down-to-earth vibe, nearly devoid of extreme narcissism.  I would dare even to call it “homey.”  It is grand, absolutely, and of course dripping in finery, but still holds onto the traditional Irish charm, and makes you feel as though the nobles would still have invited you to place your peasant ass on their gilded couch and share in a shot of whiskey.  Its architecture is more modest than some, given that its original purpose was to serve as more of a control fortress than a fancy noble dwelling.  There is a section of the castle in which the floor is see-through, through which you can view the original stonework for the moat, which ups the level of badassery considerably.  If you ever have the opportunity to tour Kilkenny Castle, I will warn you not to stare through the floor for too long, particularly when about to exit into the next section of the tour.  Directly at the end of the see-through-floor hallway, there is a menacing 7-foot tall suit of armor that seems to be strategically placed to scare the pants off of unsuspecting visitors who are too involved in what’s below them (I was one of them).  Aside from the real live history beneath your feet, Kilkenny Castle also boasts an impressive exhibit of one of the sections of Morpeth’s Roll, essentially a GIANT “farewell” letter to Lord Viscount Morpeth (a.k.a. George Howard) in 1841 after he left his position of Chief Secretary of Ireland.  Somewhere around 300,000 people hand signed the document, which has been digitized thanks to modern technology.  The history and circumstances surrounding this event are fascinating all in themselves, but particularly so if you believe you may have familial roots in Ireland.  After roaming the great halls and cozy rooms of Kilkenny Castle, I strolled through the masterful rose garden.  The drizzly, grey-clouded day seemed only to serve as a perfectly neutral background to some of the most amazing roses I’ve ever seen.

kilkennyrose

I departed from Kilkenny begrudgingly and headed for my last B&B of the trip, located in Rathcoole.  In the morning, I would depart begrudgingly from Ireland, land of good beer, good people, and gorgeous landscapes, and hop back across the Pond to Florida, land of rednecks who swear they’re not Southerners, suffocating humidity, and dirty diapers on beaches plagued with sand gnats.  Rather than mope for the last day of my trip, however, I decided to simply breathe as deeply as possible and really enjoy my last 18 hours in such a lovely country.  Having arrived in Rathcoole and checked into my B&B, I asked my hostess if she had a recommendation for where I could have dinner.  She informed me that aside from fast food, there was really only one pub within reasonable driving distance, and that it was quite good.  She said it was called Anposhunil.  What?  I’m sorry, I didn’t get that.  What’s it called?  Aumprashientail.  Aoanprasteentel.  Einpreshinshtil.  I asked her to say it probably twelve times, and each time it was as though she either said it faster or changed the pronunciation for her own amusement.  I am a linguist.  I have a 4-year degree in linguistics, with a focus in phonetics, and I had no idea what this woman was saying.  She finally wrote it down for me, and I said, “oh! Of course!  How silly of me,” although I still had no idea how to pronounce An Poitin Stil (and frankly, still don’t).

Regardless of my feeble American pronunciation of such robust Gaelic words, I found Aiprawshenteel with no trouble, and was engaged by a waiter who was terribly friendly.  *ahem*  Extraordinarily friendly.  It was truly some of the smoothest flirting I’ve ever experienced, and I thought to myself, “ah, this must be that ‘Irish charm’ everyone warned me about.”  His brazen overconfidence aside, he was very nice and quite pleasant to talk to, and happened to introduce me to what is still the best whiskey I’ve had to date.  Friends, if you are whiskey lovers, I beg of you to try Midleton Very Rare.  You won’t regret it.  A big thanks to the amiable bloke in the pub who allowed me to taste it, although I suspect he’s still disappointed that I didn’t join him for a nightcap.

The next morning I arrived at the airport and bid adieu to Seamus, my trusty steed.  Having slogged through two security checkpoints and customs, I settled aboard my flight to watch the patches of hunter green, fern green, and shamrock green fade away through the mist.  It was an exquisite trip, more than I could have hoped for, and I will absolutely return to Ireland one day.  But until the day that I can again experience the overt friendliness, the rugged green hills, the sheep, the thin places, the meat pies, the hurling, and the whiskey, I will simply encourage whoever reads this to go in my stead, where I’m sure you will receive céad míle fáilte.

 

 

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The Emerald Isle, Pt. 2

Right, so…Northern Ireland.

Crossing the border into Northern Ireland, I was regrettably and immediately underwhelmed by Belfast.  I get the feeling Belfast is one of those cities that one must live in for a year or so to understand its true potential.  As for me, it seems I agree with Oscar Wilde, who is said to have held the opinion that Belfast contains only one aesthetically pleasing building (which is now apparently a Marks and Spencer).  It’s a moderately confusing city, with awkward signage and nuances to the roadways that guarantee a few extra circles for any newcomer, but I eventually found my way to the main reason for my visit.

The world’s largest dry-dock, where the Titanic was constructed, is tucked away on a lonely little edge of the marina.  It took me a few minutes to find it behind the museums and corporations of the area, and when I did I was surprised to be the only visitor.  The Titanic Pumphouse houses a simple restaurant, ticket desk and souvenir shop, and offers tours, as well as a Choose Your Own Adventure option, which is what I opted for.  There’s a lot more historical information to be had via the tour, but since I was the only one there…you know, that’s just awkward.

The Thompson Graving Dock is one of the more fascinating and confusing places I’ve experienced.  The placards and informational signs around the dock are well-done and, I’m sure, accurate.  But it’s difficult to force your inadequate human brain to comprehend the facts presented.  It’s as though your mind tries to force everything to be smaller, less significant.  Pictures of the Titanic can’t possibly begin to allow your mind the evidence it needs to grasp the reality.  The fusing of facts and imagination really only begin to reveal the past while you’re standing there at the origin of it all.

For example, this is a keel block, which supported the actual weight of the Titanic.  It’s a little difficult to remember now, but I recall it being a bit taller than I was at 5’1″.

keelblock

Looks heavy, right?  I thought so too, but I would never have guessed that it weighs as much as three compact cars.  THREE.  But here’s where the perspective gets weird: in the next picture, you’ll see some of the length of the dock itself, and the line of things running down the center of it are all keel blocks.

thompsondock

I’m loath to post more pictures of this place because I’d rather you go there yourself and experience it.  It’s a fascinating mental exercise, as well as one of the most badass history lessons you’ll get anywhere.  I had lunch in the Pumphouse restaurant,  which was far better than I was expecting, and took advantage of their WiFi to call my Mom.  I love getting to say stuff like: “Hey Mom, I’m eating chicken soup where the Titanic was built.”

I left Belfast that afternoon and headed NW towards Bushmills (yes, like the whiskey) and made my way to Giant’s Causeway.  Giant’s Causeway is a natural phenomenon that has caused “fields” of hexagonal stone columns to rise up from some past volcanic event.  I got lucky with a warmer afternoon, although not so lucky with the horde of school children who joined me at the Causeway.  There are multiple walking paths of varying degrees of difficulty, and in addition to the wonder of the structures, the folklore stories of Finn McCool really make Giant’s Causeway an excellent tourist stop.

causeway   gc

I stayed the night in Bushmills at the Valley View B&B, and Valerie and her family were absolutely lovely.  If you ever travel Ireland, I highly recommend staying in B&B’s.  It’s definitely a hit-or-miss experience, but it’s worth it for the chance to meet so many wonderful people.  I felt welcomed and cared for even though I was only staying one night, and had a wonderful chat with my hostess over tea and shortbread.  The next morning I departed after a perfect Irish breakfast cooked by Valerie herself, and was sad to leave that little nook in the country.

IMG_2361 vvbird

Before I departed from Northern Ireland, I had to make one last stop at the single location that had spurred me to visit Éire in the first place: The Dark Hedges.

There is a small stretch of relatively unknown road in Northern Ireland, near Ballymoney, where there are some beech trees.  These trees were planted in the 18th century and have grown to create a twisted, fantastical gateway to…well, a golf club.  But it is a place that encourages the imagination to not only run wild, but to run amok, kick open hidden doors of consciousness, and perhaps briefly believe that there’s such a thing as magic.  It’s said to be haunted by the Grey Lady, a ghost with many possible stories regarding how she got there.  She reportedly slithers between the trees, but has never been seen off the paved dirt of Bregagh Road.  The Dark Hedges is also said to be a place of literary inspiration for several famous authors and poets.  It is a wondrous place, so full of intrigue I can hardly stand it – it is, so far, my favorite place in the entire world.

darkhedges

I got there early on a perfectly sunny, crisp day and was able to revel in its graceful oddity for about a half hour before several other sight-seers appeared.  Its mystery was shattered once it crossed over from “thin place” to “tourist kerfuffle.”  You can experience my angst and woe in the video below.  I apologize for the extremely poor quality which doesn’t really allow for a proper view of what I was trying to describe.

And so ended the most magical hour of my life, and I proceeded to poke my way through the Irish countryside in search of a highway.  Upon finding one, Seamus and I began our longest-ever stretch to County Galway, a mere 6 hours away!  County Antrim to Derry to Donegal to Sligo to Mayo to Galway, and the whole day was sunny and bright.  I stopped for gas and picked up a Twix bar after a friend recommended that I try one.  The moment I took my first bite, I swore to never taste a Twix bar again unless it was from Europe.  I don’t know why (although I suspect a lack of preservative chemicals), but it’s fresher – the cookie was softer, the chocolate was sweeter, and damnit if the caramel wasn’t smoother.  Twix bars, who knew?

I meandered my way through the Irish countryside and was surprised that I never once tired of the rolling hills or the color green.  It really is a breathtaking country on all sides.  I snapped this photo with my iPhone while zooming down the road:

ireland

No filter!

Despite the challenging driving conditions and the unfamiliar roads, it really was one of the most relaxing road trips I’ve ever taken.  I was completely content for 5 hours in the car.  No radio, no cell phone – just the road, the highway signs, and the glorious scenery.  I sang to myself for probably an hour, stopped to pet some cows, stuffed my face full of Jaffa Cakes, and generally did whatever I damn well pleased for the entire day.  It was lovely.  But then I arrived in Galway. *music transitions to minor key*

Every story has to have a conflict, right?  Some low point, or valley of despair?  Sorry, Galway, but you were it.  It began with the traffic:

I finally reached my B&B in Spiddal, and it appeared as though no one was there.  I rang the door bell, knocked, walked around to the back of the house, looked in the window for a “closed” sign, but there seemed to be no sign of life anywhere.  After about 20 minutes, I decided I would go try to find dinner and come back later…only to have someone swing open the door and ask, “well, why didn’t you ring the bell?!”  I reminded myself that it takes all sorts to make the world turn, and introduced myself.  The hostess was very kind and showed me to my room, and gave me these instructions to get to town:

“You’ll go out, just out, right here, and 1 kilometer down the road, to the right,  find the sign with the squiggles on it, and then go right, and the road looks like a road, but it’s not really a road, and then there’s the water.  Oh, and the water is lovely right now, didja plan to come this late in the season? It’s a good time, a good time.  But right, so you go down to the water, and there’s a thing like a road, but not a road.  Not the one you were just on, but another sort-of-road, and you’ll go by the beach, and there’s some bridges, and then you can eat!  Got it?  I can draw you a map if you need it, but you seem smart enough, and it’s just down the road, there, to the right, to the sign with the squiggles…”

I lied and said I definitely had gotten it, and started off by turning right out the the drive way.  I eventually found the squiggles:

tra

I eventually found the beach, too, and took my time strolling towards town:

After an incredible dinner of seafood chowder and Guinness, I decided to take the route through town to get back to the B&B, where I met my new bestest buddy:

friend

Upon arriving back at the B&B, I fell ungracefully into the Most Uncomfortable Bed Ever, and fell asleep…for about 30 minutes.  I awoke to the sound of children screaming.  I thought the building was on fire or someone was being murdered, surely.  I got up and ran to the door, and just as my hand wrapped around the door knob, I heard counting.  Counting?  Who the $*#% is counting?!

“I found you!”

“You’re not the one finding, you’re the hiding one.  Let me finish!”

And so, at 10:30pm, the little English brats in the hallway began their game.  They continued to scream at each other from opposite corners and floors of the house, sprint down the hallways, fight, cry, etc. for the next 3 hours.

“Where are you?!”

“I’m upstairs!”

“WHERE?!”

“UP THE STAIRS!”

Someone was about to take an unexpected and painful trip DOWN the apples and pears when their father finally stepped up to handle the situation, which he did in the most British way possible.

“Ok, guys, time for beddies.”

Another hour of them crying and calling for him and wanting water and “I DON’T WANT TO SLEEP YET,” and finally he either took a brick to them or they fell asleep.  4 hours later, I woke up for breakfast and departed.

Stay tuned for Part 3, in which I almost die, and then later crash a wedding.

The Emerald Isle, Pt. 1

Ok ok, I know.  I was in Ireland in September, and it’s now March, and “where’s the blog about your trip?!”  Here it is, so you gibbons can quit your whooping.  I took some (poor quality) videos on my phone throughout my trip, mostly as proof to my Mother that I was still alive and the messages I sent her weren’t actually from my captors/murderers/pimps.  I hope you enjoy  my falderal.

Ireland was everything I expected it to be and more.  It’s a fascinating place, largely because it’s one where individual perceptions rarely vary too far.  With most locations in the world, everyone is eager to give their opinions and stories, perceptions and favorites; but all of those experiences differ between people.  When I went to France, many told me that going up into the Eiffel Tower wasn’t worth the wait or the money, and that the real splendor was seeing it from the ground all around the city.  I decided against their judgement and clamored up the metal staircase behind a group of 20 raucous French 3rd-graders and didn’t regret a moment of it.  If you were to ask me if the diving is good in Belize, I would advise against it: a few rays, a few fish, a few rocks, but nothing you haven’t seen before.  However, I met a couple on the dive boat who said they travel to Belize to dive every year because it’s their favorite location.  In Ireland, however, everyone seems to have remarkably similar experiences.  I’ve heard tales of people who were rained on for a solid two weeks in the middle of summer and still had the time of their lives.  I met a couple in a B&B who said it was their 22nd trip back to the Emerald Isle, and they had never once been disappointed.  While I’m sure there are people who have had less than stellar experiences in Ireland, I can’t seem to find them.  Perhaps it’s just the novelty of being away from regular life or the thrill of a new place, but I was able to think more clearly, breathe more freely, and really absorb my experience, rather than just traveling from landmark to landmark and checking them off the list.

My adventures in Ireland began when I touched down in Dublin and couldn’t see a damn thing.  Fog.  There was so much fog it felt as though it was raining.  I hopped in a shuttle van to the rental car lot with 6 other strange travelers, most of them American.  Within 2 minutes of our 12 minute ride, the driver had somehow conducted introductions of everyone in the car, given a few basic tips on driving on the left-hand side of the road, explained the difference between black and white pudding, passed out maps of Dublin, and was deeply into a hilarious Q&A with the backseat when we arrived.  There was a collective, “aw,” but we all exited the van and said our goodbyes and well-wishes to each other.  If you allow it to, Ireland will turn you into a nicer person than you were before.

My brain kicked into problem-solving mode as I hunted out my rental car in the lot.  I have driven a manual transmission car for years, but never with my left hand on the gear shift and never on the other side of the road.  My travel method can be generally described as: buy a language book, be aware of major threats, figure out the rest when you get there.  I located my tiny red Fiat, with its wimpy engine and many zip ties that fastened the passenger’s side hub cabs to the wheels.  Wimpy as it was, I developed an anthropomorphic fondness for it, and I named it Seamus.


So I survived the rental car parking lot and successfully navigated the Irish highway system into Dublin proper.  The driving itself is not at all scary or difficult.  The new spacial awareness, however, is downright terrifying.  Coming from the US, I was unaccustomed to allowing my car to come so close to other cars, walls, cliffs, etc., and there were many times I was shocked not to hear the screeching of metal against a pole or other obstacle.  I could have sworn I just hit that pole, but nope – I had just never experienced maneuvering a vehicle with only a 2-inch margin of error.  I was forced to find my courage in a parking garage.

And yes, I was instinctively reaching for the gear shift with my right hand.  It was my first day, alright?!  I finally checked in at the Croke Park Hotel*, and took a 45 minute nap, and then a shower to try and shake off the jetlag.  I spent the rest of the day walking through Dublin.  I somehow joined a small group of retirees and explored with them for a short while.  By explored, I mean we compared maps and tried to orient ourselves for a solid 20 minutes.  They were lovely, good-natured people and together we found our way into the heart of Dublin.  I branched off and headed straight for the one thing I was determined to see in Dublin: Trinity College Library.  Oh, friends.  I can’t express how glorious and reverent this place is.  If you’re a book lover or history/anthropology buff, I highly recommend it.  To get to the library, you’ll pass through the The Book of Kells exhibit, which is well-done and very informative, although be prepared to spend quite a bit of time there.  It’s very possible to flit through to the library, but the historical and culturally significant information there is worth taking the time.  Below are a few images I took while in the library when I wasn’t standing still, slack-jawed and drooling.

trinity trinitystairs

I spent the rest of the day wandering Dublin, eating fish and chips, and generally being a tourist.  Dublin is a very interesting city, and I enjoyed my time there, although it was no highlight of the trip.  Out of the European cities I’ve been too, Dublin is the dirtiest, hands down.  The smell of urine meanders boldly down most streets, and the buildings and walls are covered with a special kind of seemingly permanent grime.  While listening to the radio in my car the next day, there was an entire segment of listeners calling in to discuss the issue of public urination in Dublin, and many contributors were of the opinion that it’s just a fact of life.  So while Dublin is teeming with culture and history and good times to be had by all…wash your hands.

I left Dublin the next morning and headed to Belfast with little-to-no idea of where I was going except “north.”  Throughout the entire trip, I was very surprised at how easy it is to navigate the roundabout-laden highway systems in Ireland.  I found myself many times without a map or a functioning GPS, and still never got lost once.   If you have to, you can get around Ireland just fine with a brain, a functioning pair of eyes, and a few tidbits of local advice.

Adventures in Belfast and the remainder of my time in Northern Ireland will be continued soon.

*Hotel and B&B reviews will be written soon. Eventually. I’ll get to it, I swear.