Summer Winter Vacation VIII
The Emerald Isle
by Jeffrey Scott Duly, Age 45
I had originally planned this trip in the fall of 2009 hoping to go in March 2010. However, while waiting for the fares to hopefully drop they spiked. They didn't go back down close to what they were when I was considering the trip until around February, by which time I was off the whole ides. But I still had the trip planned, so the following fall I looked at fares again. This time I didn't wait too long before booking a flight. Unfortunately in this case it worked against me as a few weeks later fares dipped by about $60 for a few days. Oh well, damned if I do...
Now I realize that people probably don't read any of this stuff I write and that's okay. You can just skip ahead to the pictures here. But if you want to read some pointless notes on my trip, including hyperlinks, stay here.
Prologue: There was nothing of note on the flights over. On my long layover in Atlanta I was trying to identify which of the other passengers were Irish. I figured they were the ones who were whiter (actually pinker), ginger or old. The leg from Atlanta to Dublin was not full and the seat next to me was empty so I was able to stretch my legs a little bit. No sleep however. I still haven't found out the best way to get some shuteye on a long flight. I noticed that there was a baby two rows in front of me and another three rows behind. They made occasional crying noises but weren't too bad, at least through my headphones or ear plugs. Dinner was pasta, salad, a roll, crackers, cheese and some kind of white brownie kind of thing. Breakfast was an egg sandwich and a banana. I put them away for later in the morning.
I don't know why there were no little video screens in the seats like every other transoceanic flight I've ever taken. Maybe it was an older plane. The video was on a big screen at the front of the cabin and some smaller ones on the ceilings above the aisles. There wasn't much to see anyway. The in-flight magazine and the Delta website said The King's Speech was supposed to be the first movie but it never played. Instead it was Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps which I didn't watch, although I did look up at the screen when the actress playing Gordon Gekko's daughter came on. The one I did watch was The Social Network. I guess it was a good movie but it made me want to cancel my Facebook account. The last movie was The Bounty Hunter. I didn't watch that one either although I did look up every now and again at Jennifer Aniston.
Dé Máirt, 8 Márta (Day 1): We landed at Dublin Airport around 5:30 on Tuesday morning. It was still dark. I got through customs and walked into the terminal. I thought it would be a good idea to get some cash at the machine before heading off, so I hit one of the ATM's. The machine said my transaction was temporarily unavailable, so I'd wait until I got into town. I came with €20 I had left over from a previous trip to Europe. I picked up the rental car at the Hertz counter at around 6:00. I reserved a Nissan Micra but was upgraded to a diesel Ford Focus. It was an automatic. It turned out not to be that big a deal to drive on the left, but I thought it might be best not to also have to worry about shifting gears with the wrong hand as well. After putting the address of the B&B into the GPS, I was off to the Azalea Lodge. I told them I would be early, so they were expecting me. Bernadette was nice enough to offer me a cup of tea before I walked into the city.
Again I tried to get cash at some machines at a few banks I passed but kept getting that same message. I was starting to get a little worried. I didn't really have much of a plan for Dublin. Sometimes I just like to walk, see the sights and take lots of photos. I stopped by Trinity College, went by some churches and looked at a lot of Victorian style buildings. The one thing I particularly wanted to do was the tour at the Guinness Storehouse. Since I didn't have a lot of cash on me I tried to use my Visa debit card at a ticket kiosk. It didn't work. Neither did my American Express card. Now I was worried. I couldn't go around Ireland with just €20. Fuel would cost a hell of a lot more than that. Unlike some previous trips, I did not call the bank and tell them I was travelling abroad. So I called the number of the back of the card and had it activated for foreign travel. I also called American Express, but it turns out that was fine. It was just that the kiosk at Guinness didn't take American Express. So I went to a cash machine and I successfully withdrew €100 and I was finally at ease.
The Guinness Storehouse was pretty neat. It tells the story of the history of Guinness and the process by which it is brewed. To top off the visit, visitors are served a complimentary pint. Well, I suppose you paid for it as part of your admission price. And I needed a pint because my legs were killing me. Just like other trips when I got no sleep on the plane and started walking a lot straight away, my left knee went early and other parts below the waist (no, not that part) started to hurt shortly after. It wasn't quite as bad as Paris several years ago, but it was bad enough to have to limp up and down stairs. It got to where I couldn't bend that left knee. I suppose I'm not as young as I think I am. I didn't feel like finding dinner, so I just grabbed a chicken sandwich at a Spar shop and went back to the room. I fell asleep around 7:00 or so, missing the much anticipated Arsenal-Barcelona Champions League match.
Dé Chéadaoin, 9 Márta (Day 2): I asked Bernadette for some scrambled eggs and toast for breakfast. The juice tasted suspiciously fresh. It was Ash Wednesday and seeing has how Ireland is primarily a Catholic nation I wondered how many people I would see with ashes on their foreheads. (Fewer than I expected but more than back home.) Again there was no real plan. Just more walking. I knew from watching some RTE News before I left that they had just had an election a week or so prior to my arrival. It was just my dumb luck that I happened to be at Leinster House, their parliament house, just as the new Dáil Éireann was entering the building for their first day of the new session. The previous ruling party, Fianna Fáil, lost big and Fine Gael won the most seats in the recent election. There were groups of well wishers outside the gates and also a gathering of honest to goodness socialists, complete with red signs and everything, holding a little rally on a nearby street. I walked around a few parks, saw some sites where Irish literary giants were born or lived, took more pictures of things and got some dinner at a pub on the way back to the house. I had a beef and Guinness casserole which was really just a big plate of beef, mushrooms and mashed potatoes in a Guinness sauce. Not really a casserole, but tasty nonetheless.
Dé Déardaoin, 10 Márta (Day 3): When I got to the house in Dublin, I parked on a side street and left the car for two days. No use driving it around Dublin and worrying about having to park and such. But now Thursday was my first day of real driving. I'd be doing it for the rest of the trip. After some pancakes in the morning, I was off. I didn't have an address for my first destination, so I put in the name of the nearest town in the sat-nav and hoped for signs. I had to do that sometimes on the trip and sometimes it worked well and sometimes not. I was going to see the burial mound at Newgrange. One of the funny things about driving in Ireland is that there are a lot of little brown signs pointing to things of interest. However, sometimes you will make the turn and never see another sign telling you where the thing is. I missed a couple of turns on the way to Brú na Bóinne, but I eventually got there even if it was a little later than I had hoped.
Brú na Bóinne is a complex of ancient Neolithic passage tombs and other archeological remains. The only area open to the public at this time of year is Newgrange. There's another mound called Knowth, but it isn't open until a little later in the year for some reason. After walking around the information center waiting for my tour time, it was a shuttle bus ride up to the site. It's an interesting place to visit. After all, this thing was built by people about five thousand years ago and it's still there. For as large at it looks on the outside, the space inside is rather small. It doesn't go too deep into the mound. And people back then must have been pretty small. The passage was short and narrow until getting into the room inside. No photos of that allowed, however. I don't know why. It's not like a photo would do damage somehow. And to tell you just how the weather can change on a dime, before we went inside, it was quite windy with some clouds in the sky. It started to rain just as we went in. After a few minutes inside, we emerged and it was no longer raining. Like they say, if you don't like the weather in the British Isles, wait a minute.
My initial plan for Belfast was to take the Titanic Walking Tour. I had contacted the person who runs the thing before my trip when I noticed that they scaled back their times during winter. He said that they would be back on normal times in after the first of March, but when I checked their website just before leaving it still had the winter times. As it turns out, I was running late and would have missed the afternoon tour anyway if they had it. The GPS worked well getting into Belfast. The Avenue House had a good address and it took me exactly where I needed to go. The only trouble was that the street had little parking. It actually had lots of parking but it was all taken. I drove around the block a few times before finding one spot at the end of the street. After checking in with Alice I went back to the car to get my luggage and noticed another parking spot just a couple doors down from the house, so I moved it. It's like parking musical chairs. I can't say too much about Belfast because there isn't really much there to see. The City Hall is an impressive building and the architecture of some of the others is interesting, but I can't say that there is any one attraction that needs to be seen in the city. I will say that I had one of the best hamburgers ever in a pub called Robinson's that Alice recommended. It was a bit strange in there though. I could hardly understand a thing anyone around me was saying. And they were speaking English! I watched a bit more European soccer (Liverpool v. Braga) back at the room before nodding off to sleep.
Dé hAoine, 11 Márta (Day 4): Up and out early again after a breakfast of eggs and toast. I wanted to get on the road because I had a lot to try to cram in this day. First was a drive up to the northern coast to see the Giant's Causeway where there's a remarkable mass of interlocking mostly hexagonal basalt columns. There's a shuttle bus to take people down from the visitor's centre, but where's the fun in that? Besides, my legs were getting rested overnight and walking was always easier in the mornings. I walked down to the shore to see these natural wonders. People are allowed to walk all over them, but you have to be careful. The crashing waves do make them wet and I can easily see people slipping when hopping from stone to stone. I decided to take the high road, the Shepherd's Path, back to the car. That meant climbing 162 steps up the cliff. I counted them on the way up, but it turns out I didn't have to. The little pamphlet I got verified my count was correct.
There isn't much to see in Londonderry either other than the places where they had their sectarian struggles a few decades ago. The wall around the city is interesting and makes for a good walk, but I mostly wanted to go to the Bogside, a neighborhood outside the wall and the area where violent clashes occurred in the 1960's and 70's in such events as the Battle of the Bogside and Bloody Sunday. The first noticeable thing is the "You Are Now Entering Free Derry" sign on Free Derry Corner. There is a Museum of Free Derry where many of the artifacts of The Troubles in Derry are on display. Some of them are quite jarring, if for no other reason that this all happened so relatively recently. The bloody rags and the bullet-ridden clothing of the dead are there as videos of the protests play on monitors. Granted they are now living under the Good Friday Agreement, but I get the feeling that there is still a lot of tension and unresolved feelings there. There is the occasional car bombing that happens over there to this day.
I knew of a few other places I wanted to see before getting to the Arches Country House. The interesting thing would be finding them. The sat-nav had some attractions in it, but it seemed they were never the ones I was looking for. First was the Grianán Ailigh, an old stone fort on the top of a hill. Like many of the old places on the island, they are mostly just there with little explanation at all. Then to Raphoe Castle and Beltany Circle, which fortunately are not too far away from each other. Then to the Arches. I needed to go ahead and get something to eat before going to a soccer match I was hoping to attend that evening. However, that didn't work out. In talking to Noreen when I arrived, I mentioned the match. She informed me that Finn Harps, the local club up in Ballybofey, was not home that weekend. I don't know how I could have gotten that wrong, but there was no football for me that night. Her husband who is a Finn Harps supporters was nice enough to give me a program from the previous week's match. So I was off to dinner at an Italian place in Donegal Town called La Bella Donna and then called it a night.
Dé Sathairn, 12 Márta (Day 5): It was snowing when I woke and it was actually coming down pretty heavy while I ate my breakfast of French toast. It wasn't sticking in Donegal, but it was further south as I would see. Saturday was going to be mostly a driving day from Donegal to Galway. I didn't take a direct route. I rarely did during the week. Once off the main road (which over there is an overstatement), I was on smaller winding roads through the hills and eventually down to the coast and Croagh Patrick. It's a mountain of some significance to the Irish. It is where, as legend has it, Saint Patrick fasted for forty days and afterward banished all the snakes from Ireland. People make a pilgrimage to the mountain to climb usually in July, but there were quite a few people there the Saturday before St. Patrick's Day. I wasn't about to climb for a couple of reasons. I didn't want to take the time and I would have wrecked my legs anyway.
I took a great drive through Doolough Pass along lakes and rivers between huge mountains. There was almost no one else on the road. It was probably about as Irish as Irish can get. Nothing much to see but the natural wonders. I eventually had to get down to Galway, so after a stop off in Cong to see Ashford Castle and the old ruined abbey I high tailed it down to the city. The GPS was once again helpful as I had made a wrong turn but it got me back on the right path to Petra House. After a short walk into town, it was another wander about looking at old stuff, things like Blakes Castle, the Spanish Arch, Lynch's Castle and part of the old city wall, which oddly enough is in a shopping mall. There was a big Six Nations rugby match that afternoon and the pubs were full of Ireland supporters rooting on their side. Unfortunately it didn't turn out for the best for them as they lost 19-13 on a questionable decision by the official. The rugby fans weren't the only ones feeling a little sick. For some reason the fish and chips I had for dinner were not sitting well later that evening.
Dé Domhnaigh, 13 Márta (Day 6):Another day, another drive. This time to Cork via the Cliffs of Moher. I had some porridge and berries for breakfast which was good but I couldn't eat much of it. I did make a quick stop off at Dunguaire Castle just south of Galway on the way out of town. It's the quintessential old castle on the water. Of course at that early hour it was closed, but I got a good look regardless. I got to the cliffs around 11:00 a.m. The cliffs of Dover are white. The ones at the Cliffs of Moher are more just brown and green. There were lots of tourists around as it is one of the more well-visited attractions in Ireland. I found myself driving through what is called The Burren on the way to Cork. It is an area of hills covered in areas by natural limestone pavements. Mostly it's a lot of empty, although there are a lot of stone fences and a few homes and animals. I wondered where the nearest supermarket was, or at least a fairly well-stocked shop. Probably none for miles.
Getting to Avondale B&B was not the piece of cake some of the others had been. The website had coordinates (the address was not in the map), so I was able to put them into the sat-nav. The problem was that they were wrong. I don't know if the coordinates were not right or the GPS was off, but I was about a mile from where I needed to be. So I pulled into a parking lot at a grocery store and got my bearings. I knew where the place was so I found the street on the map and told it to take me there. Once I was on the right road it wasn't too hard. My plan was to get to the Cork Gaol once I arrived, but since getting through Cork was mental it took too long and I didn't know when they closed. So I just walked into town. There is probably less to see in Cork than in any other city I visited. I mean, I'm sure the Corkers or Corkees or whatever they call themselves are nice (Dolores and John were friendly), but there's really no attraction there. I suppose the nearest thing is Blarney Castle a few miles to the north. Yeah, that's where the Blarney Stone is. But it's a bit of a tourist trap so I didn't bother. I had a very Irish dinner of a tuna melt panini and an pint.
Dé Luain, 14 Márta (Day 7): Last day. Just some fruit, toast and tea for breakfast. The only real goal was to get back to Dublin, but I would have to do something today. Rather than go to Blarney Castle, I came across the Rock of Cashel. It was a royal site back in the 4th century and later a cathedral. It sits high on a hill overlooking the village of Cashel. This was probably the best of the ruined things I visited on the trip. The only disappointment was that the chapel was undergoing restoration and was closed to visitors. But the rest was brilliant. After the Rock I took a little walk down into town for a bit and then back on the road.
The last highlight of the trip was something I really wanted to see. It was not on the quickest route back to Dublin, but I had the time. I got off the motorway, only the third I was on during the whole trip, and took the smaller roads to Avoca. You may well ask why Avoca, with a booming population of less than 600? Well it was where the BBC show Ballykissangel was filmed. It was kind of a dramedy back in the late 90's that later played on BBC America. Anyway I really liked it and since it was kind of on the way I wanted to stop by. The exteriors from the show are all there. Fitzgerald's Pub, Kathleen Hendley's shop, the garda station and the church. There were a few other visitors there, all likely fans of the show. I mean, there's really no other reason to be there. After a bit of a wander around I figured I best get back to Big D (they probably don't call it that) and return the car. This is where the trip kind of ended on an annoying note, sort of like it started with the ATM card problem.
After topping of the tank with diesel and picking up a sandwich for later, I drove to the airport to drop off the car. After the first loop around I had not seen where the Hertz lot was. So a second time around was necessary. On this pass at least I noticed the place where I picked it up on the bottom level of a parking garage, so back around for a third time. I found the garage and pulled in. Unfortunately, this was not where the rental returns were and I found myself in short term parking. So quickly out of the garage and around for a fourth time. This time was the charm as I finally spotted a small sign that said Hertz and arrived at the lot. Signage at the Dublin Airport is severely lacking as I will further note. I had taken a chunk out of the left rear tire and put some scratches on the left side of the car so I'd have to pay for those. I can hardly be blamed with the lousy narrow roads over there, but I did tend to keep to the left side of the lane so I didn't really have any defense. Anyway, after finally dealing with that I went to the terminal to get something to drink and some cookies to go with my sandwich and catch the shuttle bus back to the Holiday Inn Express. Somewhere along the way I lost my cap. That make the fifth I have lost while on a vacation. It's getting to be a tradition. At least it was at the very end of my trip. Then I waited at the place where signs indicated for busses. I had just missed the 6:15 bus, so I'd have to wait for the 6:45. At around 6:40 I saw the bus driving past departures, so figured it was on its way. Then 6:45 passed. No bus. 6:50 and still no bus. Bugger! I wandered down the road a bit and found another area where busses were. Not well marked by the way. I walked around there and found mostly Bus Éireann busses and one place for a different hotel shuttle. What the hell? I asked some airport representative where my bus stop was. He pointed off in the direction of yet another small lot. How was I supposed to have known that was where I needed to go? Honestly, some signs coming out of the terminal would have been great. But anyway, after a couple of hours spent returning the car I finally got back to the hotel. I tried to get to sleep early because I was going to be up before dawn for the shuttle back to the airport.
Dé Máirt, 15 Márta (Day 8): What I liked about Dublin Airport was that there was a U.S. immigration pre-check. That meant that I wouldn't have to go through security again in Atlanta, which is always a bit of a pain in the neck after a long flight. It was kind of weird that the U.S. immigration guy was asking me so many questions. I don't think I look like a threat to national security, but I guess it is his job. The plane again had no individual video screens. It's like Delta uses older planes for their flights between Atlanta and Dublin. I got a chuckle when they announced what the snack was going to be. You know sometimes when you travel to another country they'll serve something that is kind of related to your destination? Well they served (and I'm not kidding) pizza and ice cream on the way back to America. Yep, that seemed appropriate. I watched two movies this time. Secretariat was good. That Diane Lane sure is an attractive woman. And Life As We Know It, a fairly predictable rom-com with the also lovely Katherine Heigl. We were landing just as the movie was coming to an end. The credits rolled as we were taxiing to the gate. Strangely enough, the only leg of the flight with video screens in the seats was the last from Atlanta to Nashville. I played a little solitaire, listened to some music and before I knew it we were back in Music City.
Epilogue: I can understand why people might question why someone would take a vacation to Ireland. There really is no one attraction or iconic thing that comes to mind like the Eiffel Tower in France or Stonehenge and Big Ben in England. But just about every road has a little brown sign pointing to some castle ruin or old cathedral or ancient site. One could spend weeks finding them. But after the week I was ready to go home. I enjoyed the trip. Driving was much easier than I thought. The GPS ensured that I would never really be lost. The weather was good most of the time. Sometimes sun, sometimes rain, sometimes snow, sleet or hail. I got to eat prawn cocktail Walker's crisps and listen to BBC Radio 2 while in the Northern Ireland area.
Not only did I get my weeks mixed up when hoping to see the Finn Harps, I also had them mixed up in terms of daylight savings. I thought that the time would change in Ireland when I was over there and then again over here the week after I got back. I was mistaken. It never changed while I was in Ireland and it did in the U.S. That's why for two days after I returned home I didn't know what time it was. All my clocks were wrong, except for the watch I took with me which was correct because I set it to what the airport clocks said. And the jet lag didn't help my comprehension. When I thought I got to sleep at 5:00 p.m. that night, it was really 6:00. And when I woke up at 12:30 a.m. it was really 1:30. I thought I was getting in early at the office the next morning at 6:30 and was surprised that it was 7:30. I just couldn't figure out why there was so much traffic on the interstate at what I thought was 6:15 in the morning.
I'm better now.
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