Slainte, Ireland! David

Posted on December 7, 2011


Slainte, Ireland! Pictures

Slainte, Ireland! Video

Six months into our journey across Europe, we were about to take our first intra-European airplane flight. It was a short hop from Edinburgh to Dublin on Ryanair, Europe’s answer to Southwest Airlines. Unfortunately, they were missing a few key ingredients to our beloved Dallas-based airline. First, we paid out the nose for checking two bags. Second, the militant gate personnel didn’t exactly display a fun-loving attitude. Third, there was no jet-bridge and we walked across the tarmac to climb the roller stairs to enter the plane. But the tickets were cheap, and we made it to Dublin in one piece with bags intact.

We heard that the Irish are quite friendly, and the first person we talked to in the Dublin airport confirmed this. The cheerful woman at the tourist information desk had a knowledgeable answer for each of our questions, and she went above and beyond our expectations. We left the airport with a Dublin map, a timetable for our cross-country bus to Killarney (our next stop), and recommendations for the closest grocery store to our hotel. From the ground floor of our double-decker bus (I convinced Jenny to ride on the top earlier in the day in Edinburgh, but no such luck here), I was somewhat surprised to see traffic on the left side of the road like in the UK. Ireland is a full EU member and Euro-user, so I assumed they’d adopted driving customs as well.

Looking out the window of the bus into the rain, I got my first impression of Dublin. The sensible streets didn’t seem as grand or historic as Edinburgh, the city we just left. Near the airport, most of the buildings were apartments, pubs, small shops and restaurants: pretty working-class. But when we got off the bus downtown, we saw the avenues widen and buildings become more impressive. Functionalism still seemed to take precedence over aesthetics, though. We walked through a light rain towards our B&B, passing under an old iron bridge and by a steam-filled alley. Everyone seemed to have a place to go and little time to dally. At our B&B, our host was an affable guy with an attitude contrary to the “taking care of business” feeling we had experienced thus far. We joked with him and got recommendations for where to eat.

I had been feeling exceptionally eloquent ever since we crossed the English Channel. With ESL people, Jenny and I make a habit of using basic words and speaking very slowly, sometimes wondering if we are understood. Now, I could return to my old habits of speaking quickly and adding random thoughts and stupid jokes, confident that I’d be understood.  The only minor problem was that with the Scottish and Irish accents sometimes I was the one who didn’t really speak English.

We were hoping for a restaurant off the beaten path, but followed our host’s recommendations to the popular Temple Bar (a district, not just a bar). He answered affirmatively when I asked if he would personally eat there, and stated that there were many legit restaurants and pubs among the tourist traps. Upon arrival, it was pretty much as we had expected- throngs of tourists, overpriced menus, and more pubs than we could shake our umbrellas at. As we explored the maze of soggy streets amid the crowds, we were constantly accosted by menu-toting restaurant promoters- it was like running the gauntlet. We eventually ended up in one of the first places we passed- an order-at-the-counter Cornish Pasty shop. We sat on the only two stools in the place and enjoyed our greasy treats, dropping bits of the flaky crust all over the place as we munched. I was tempted to get another one, but decided I would pass on the heartburn.

The “where to eat?” problem had been presenting itself across Europe. In any major city, there are usually districts like Temple Bar with plenty of options. The problem is that typically these districts are targeted at tourists that will dine there once, and leave the city tomorrow, never to return. So in these places, you usually find overpriced, simplified (inauthentic “authentic”) cuisine served by people wanting to get you in and out so they can move along to the next customer. With a bit of walking and research you can find places that actually retain the good things about dining in Europe, like high-quality food and meticulous attention to detail in atmosphere, preparation, and presentation. You can pay the same price at either type of place.

My solution to this problem is to avoid the whole conundrum by buying food from the grocery store or getting a cheap döner (they are available everywhere). I’d rather spend my effort and money on other activities. Understandably, Jenny gets sick of eating this stuff, and I constantly hear the refrain “I need some real food” and more recently “I just can’t…” when I confronted her some the Chin Chin mix we had been trying to finish for two weeks.

The primary reason we travel is to discover new and interesting people, places, and things. Food is a major component of the “things” category and I understand why Jenny wants to make the effort to explore it thoroughly. However, it’s less of a priority for me. Except for the rare occasion when I want to make an event out of it, I am happy to use eating as simply a refueling stop. We reached a compromise by generally alternating picking where to have dinner and lunch.

For our full day in Dublin, we woke and headed to Trinity College for a walk around the campus. As we struggled against our map to find the one entrance to the place, a new sort of devilish rain did a great job in finding ways around our umbrella. It was a light but persistent mist coupled with a gusting wind that allowed water to ignore gravity and fly horizontally and in some cases upwards. We admitted defeat and ducked into a doorway until it slowed down.

Trinity College was close to what we had expected- a beautiful green campus with cricket fields, historic buildings and plenty of ivy. As we strolled, the sun emerged and our walking tour became much more pleasant. Dublin’s charm was easy to enjoy as we followed our walking tour to the George’s Street arcade for a tasty lunch a bit off the main tourist track. We were both happy with the lunch we ate at Simon’s sandwiches, a good example of one of those out-of-the-way, good value places that require research and walking. For dessert, we returned to a cupcakery we had passed by earlier. I got a coffee, Jenny some sort of raspberry cream cheese thing, and we chatted with the friendly counter guy about what to see and do in Dublin, and what life is like back home in Texas.

During our walk, we encountered a sandwich board guy with an advertisement for “free haircuts” in the upstairs hair salon. Although we highly doubted the freeness of this haircut (six months in Europe had taught us that nothing is free), it was well past time for my shaggy head to get a trim. Sure enough, when we got upstairs there was a barber school in full swing, and an open seat with my name on it. I asked for my usual, but the supervising professor/instructor said that style wouldn’t look good and gave his student alternate instructions. She was nervous, dropping the comb and tentatively running the clippers ineffectively over my head. I tried to encourage her by pointing out that unschooled Jenny was my usual barber. I even told her that if she messed up, I had no problem with just shaving it all off. She was most of the way done when the professor came over and finished up the job, coaching her while he cut. Unfortunately, he missed many irritating neck hairs and those infuriatingly itchy hairs around my ears. Jenny does a much better job, and I thought for the umpteenth time we should have packed our clippers. Well, you get what you pay for.

The rest of the day was visits to parks, museums, and churches, ending with catching a soccer game at the “most authentic” pub in Dublin. On our walk home, we passed by the needle-like O’Connell Street Spire monument and ate a cheap but filling pizza meal at a döner shop. (Guess who chose it?)

In the morning, we arrived at the bus station and jumped on our bus to Killarney. The driver was a faux-surly guy who couldn’t help but grin as he growled answers to our questions in his heavy Irish accent. Once we were outside of Dublin, I could see why green figures heavily into all things Irish. Millions of different shades of green defined the countryside, a positive side effect of the surplus of rain that falls on the Emerald Isle. Listening to my headphones and staring out the window at the passing scenery was relaxing and just as pleasant as more traditional tour. After a transfer in Limerick (our crusty and doting bus driver pointed at the right bus as he drove off) we were in Killarney.

Killarney itself was a concentrated tourism machine. Having won the national “Tidy Town” competition year after year, it was a professionally cute. Flowers, manicured grass, a happily festooned Main Street, horse drawn carriages, and rigid public cleanliness standards (except for occasional evidence of the horses) kept this place ready to charm. While it was nice to get away from some of the things like graffiti and trash in more functional cities (like Dublin), Killarney felt a little too pre-packaged, like what “Ireland-Land” might look like at Disneyworld. Luckily, we hadn’t come here to spend time downtown, but rather in the National Park just outside of town.

Our first day was supposed to be spent relaxing and doing light reconnaissance for the “big” hike the next day. We visited the tourist information to get the scoop on the nearby trails and to do our grocery shopping for picnic supplies. The tourist info office in Killarney was the best we had been to in Europe. Judging by the Tidy Town awards and strict attention to fostering their tourism industry, this should not have been a surprise. But still, after the intimate, in-depth one-on-one session with a touring agent, we were pleasantly flabbergasted. We got up from our seats in what could be best described as a “private consultation cubicle” and headed out for the recommended shorter hike around a lake in the park.

The walk to the park was a long one along a moderately travelled highway, but once we were on the shores of the lake, we forgot all about our commute there. The easy to follow path stayed close to the shore, and took us through trees, meadows, and stone ruins. The calm water reflected the silhouettes of the surrounding hills and light from the cloud-dimmed sun. The few people we met seemed overjoyed to talk to us and offered helpful tips on where we were and where we might be interested in going. They all seemed completely bought into making us (obvious tourists) feel warmly welcomed. Even when we encountered the drivers of the horse drawn carriages, hustling for passengers, they were understated and polite, and almost apologetic when we demurred. When we finally arrived back at our B&B, I was impressed with how Killarney had pulled together everything and everyone to enhance the experience for tourists. The only exception was the two o’clock AM, loud talkers in the next room over- but they obviously weren’t from around here.

We did many more miles than anticipated the day before, but were still up for the twenty plus miles we set off for that morning. Our bag was full of treats and water, and the full Irish Breakfast that morning was powering my footfalls as we briskly walked to our trailhead. The plan was to reach the end of our trail, and then cruise back across the lakes to our starting point on a boat. In order to do this, we had to be at the docks by four o’clock. To gauge our progress towards this goal, we had reference points on our map that our consultant at the TI had marked the previous day. We don’t usually do well with races against the clock when on vacation, and this was no exception. We slept a little longer than planned, and once we got into nature, I couldn’t bring myself to walk quickly- there were far too many places that deserved sitting and reflecting, and of course taking dozens of pictures.

We soon got off the paved (and more popular) trails in the lakes area of the park. As a rule, the further you are from a parking lot, the fewer people there will be. We were totally isolated during our trek up and over the lonely “gap” connecting two valleys. Through the first densely treed narrow valley, we emerged into an open field. Amid the tall grass and occasional gnarled tree, the sun and storm clouds took turns in the sky. Although we were in a boggy meadow, we passed several distinct streams and even a good-sized waterfall. Finally we began our descent from the elevated and beautifully bleak meadow into a true bog. The only reason we were able to walk without sinking was a narrow series of railroad ties that went on for over a mile. This soon changed to a rock-strewn path through and old forest heavy in moss, and eventually into the lakeside environment we had experienced the previous day.

The difference between today and yesterday was that we were now on the far side of the three lakes and it was foggy and lightly rainy. Oh yes, and we had walked about twenty miles. Jenny was exhausted, and we were still not yet to the boat that would zip us back home. We had very little idea how close we were, but we knew that it was only thirty minutes before it was scheduled to leave. Missing the boat meant another ten miles or so to a lodge where we could call a taxi. Not liking this option, I took off and walked ahead not knowing if I could make it to hold the boat for Jenny. Luckily, I met a hiker coming the other way who said the docks were only a quarter of a mile up the trail, so I slowed a bit (but not too much), and took opportunities to take some of the pictures that I would have passed on at the earlier pace.

The boat had not left, and as we purchased tickets at the dock’s attached restaurant, we felt the eyes of dozen of tourists who were also taking the boat. They had arrived by bus and were (for the most part) dry, in nice clothes, and enjoying a civilized afternoon snack under a roof. We, on the other hand, had been walking through the rain and mud for the past six hours and looked pretty beat. I felt a bit like a feral tourist- I hoped we met standards for re-admission into the Tidy Town.

A sign indicated that tables were “only for food bought at the restaurant,” so we once again headed out into the mist and ate our snacks standing on the dock. Carrots, apples, hummus, cheese and sausage never tasted so good. We had the prow of the wooden boat to ourselves, and in our own little world, with our backs turned to the rest of the passengers, we watched the scenery slide by. It was still raining, but we covered up with the provided tarps and were quite cozy after having earned this moment of relaxation. For some reason, getting a place the hard way makes it more enjoyable. An hour later as we pulled into the landing dock we realized we had about another mile or two before we’d be back at the B&B. Not the most inspiring news, but we had food in our bellies and a little time to rest. Besides, what’s a mile more when we had just done over twenty?

I was truly sad to be leaving Killarney. We had looked through the iPhone pictures our last night over milkshakes at an American style 50’s diner, and I still was astonished with the area’s beauty. The next morning, our bus to Cork left from the mall, and we were soon checking in to our last hotel for the European trip. It was actually a B&B, and impossibly, the host there was friendlier than any of the already incredibly friendly people we had met. She was chatty, but still interested in letting us talk. After mock scolding us for only allowing for one night in her beloved Cork, she shooed us out the door encouraging us to see as much as possible before dark.

Cork seemed like a prosperous place. It still had a practical feel like Dublin, but also a few frivolous artistic touches and a prominent high-end shopping district. We were only staying in Cork because we needed to use their airport (Killarney’s closest airport didn’t offer any affordable options) so we felt no urgency to see anything. It was all upside. We lazily followed the walking tour, stopping when we felt like it for shopping at a sporting goods store, eating a snack at the English Market, sitting along the riverside, or looking over the town from on top of the hill. On our way, we learned that the Blarney Stone was a bus ride away, but felt no real pangs of regret for missing it. Our final adventure was a walk through a riverside park fifteen minutes before it closed. It would have been funny to spend our last night touring sleeping on a bench outside in the dark. We sighted the exit to the park over a modern looking pedestrian suspension bridge, and breathed a sigh of relief.

Safely in bed with the promise of a tasty Irish breakfast the next morning, I was sure I would sleep well. Logically, I knew the significance of this night- it was our last as “tourists” in Europe. The rest of the time would be spent on buses, trains, and planes trying to get back to Dallas. It made me glad that today was so lazy- there would be plenty of time for hustling in the future once we landed back in the real world.

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