Adventures / art / culture / food / Out and About / Things to do

An American Abroad: Eight Days Wandering the Emerald Isle

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This is the eleventh in a weekly series that will extend until the end of June. It will chronicle my travels in Europe and the interesting things I come upon or wish someone had told me before I left. I will spend three weeks on a rail and boat trip ending in Budapest. This is the first leg of that journey. 

Ireland is incredibly, indelibly green. It is lush in a way that is quite startling to someone who grew up in the semi-desert dryness of Southern California.

I came into Dublin on the ferry Ulysses from Wales. It was a huge ship, with shops, several decks, and even a cinema on board.

I was only in the city for a couple days, which I can tell you right now, is not enough. It is lively, interesting and surprisingly literary. They love James Joyce so much that he is practically their patron saint. There’s even a James Joyce walk, where you can follow the 14 paving stones engraved with quotes from his books. It might even be worth taking a look at one or more of his books before coming to the city. I hadn’t read any and I felt like I was missing something without that prior knowledge.

Recommendations for Dublin:

Eating: Il Capo– cheap, quick, and delicious. This Italian take-out place is perfect for pasta and designing your own pizza.

Drinking: Anywhere outside of Temple Bar- According to the locals, the famous artsy bar area has become a complete tourist trap. If you spend any more than 6 Euros on a drink you’ve been ripped off.

Staying: Isaac’s Hostel– A big but very friendly hostel. They have organized pub-crawls and tours heading out everyday. The hostel is also very affordable and geared toward a student or traveler’s budget. A couple downsides: their Wi-Fi only works in the public areas, which can be really annoying when you are on the third floor and want to access the internet, also, their lockers are in the basement, which again involves a lot of stairs if you’re three floors up. However, these are not too much of a nuisance with a certain amount of planning.

Sightseeing: Trinity College-Founded by Elizabeth I in 1592, Trinity is the oldest university in Ireland and is quite pretty to walk around. It also is the home to the Book of Kells, a famous and very pretty illuminated Bible.

Dublin Castle– A small castle in the city, now a major government building, it housed the British seat of colonial power up until 1922. An interesting complex to wander around and full of local history.

The Irish Parliament– Another pretty government building, this time a good example of Neo-Classical architecture. It also contains the National Library and the Archeology Museum, both of which are free.

St. Stephen’s Green– A big, gorgeous park in the middle of the city. It is a peaceful respite from the urbanism around it and quite nice to stroll through, also great for picnics and general lounging around.

Next, I went up to Belfast. The train ride was beautiful and very green. I fell asleep twenty minutes from my stop and nearly had a heart attack when I woke up and realized the train had stopped, thinking that I had missed my stop. Luckily, Belfast was the last stop and I was perfectly fine.

 

Recommendations for Belfast:

Drinking: The Crown Pub– A gorgeous Victorian era pub that has been preserved just as it was built. If you’re lucky you can snag one of their private booths and have a secluded drink amidst a hundred years worth of graffiti.

Sightseeing:The Ulster Museum– Combining collections of art and natural history, this museum is interesting for a range of tastes. It’s also free, which just adds to its appeal. The only problem with it is that the natural history floors are a little badly organized, it’s hard to go through it and see everything without doubling back a couple times. Suggested exhibits: The Art of the Troubles, running until Sept. 7th, this exhibit is moving and really powerful. It really helped me understand what it was like to live during the thirty years of the Troubles. Also, the Elements exhibit, running until Feb 28th 2016, this is a fun little exhibit that makes you think about the periodic table of elements in a much more concrete and practical way.

The MAC– A modern art gallery located in the Cathedral district of Belfast, right next to Saint Anne’s Cathedral, which stands out because of the giant spike sticking out of the top. The MAC has a couple gallery spaces and run shows of all kinds, especially experimental dance and theatre.

City Hall-A nice example of Victorian architecture, complete with Queen Vic herself embodied in bronze out front. It also has a lovely mural from a famous local artist John Luke.

Shopping:Victoria Square– This shopping mall and the streets surrounding it are great for finding all sorts of things. If you go up to the viewing platform at the top, you can treat yourself to a fantastic 360 degree view of the city. It’s quite worth the climb.

Day trips up the North Coast: If you’re looking for some scenic beauty, rent a car and take a drive up the North Coast, there are amazing views just driving and on the way keep a lookout for these great stops. Just be ready for the narrow winding roads, they can be a bit challenging.

Tor Head– the ruins of a coastal outpost, this is worth the narrow road just for the view and to laugh at how incredibly loud the sheep are.

Carrick-A-Rede– A nice, easy walk to a rope bridge leading to a pretty little island. On a good day you can see all the way to Scotland. The walk back can be a bit more of a challenge, but that’s just because it’s uphill.

The Giant’s Causeway-This is the big one that the tourists all go to see, really interesting rock formations but a little underwhelming. Great visitor’s center, though.

The South Coast: Since I planned to take the ferry out of Ireland, I headed down the Southeastern coast via Wexford County. Now this seems like a great idea on paper, the area is gorgeous, the weather is warmer, and the trains can take you directly from Dublin to Rosslare, where the ferry port is. However, if you planned to stop for a night somewhere along the way, like I did, you have to plan carefully. Or have a car, because once you get off the national train line, the public transportation in the country is infrequent, and somewhat pricier. I got lucky when I was trying to get to my hostel in Wexford County and caught the only bus of the day, which turned out to only run on Saturdays and Mondays as well. So I had to take a cab the next day to catch the train. It wasn’t too much more than taking the bus had been, so it wasn’t the end of the world, but still not something I particularly wanted to do.

When I got to Rosslare, I found the ferry port to be rather isolated and sparsely stocked. Ferry ports really are not like airports in that way, as much as it would make seem to make sense for them to be. The beach behind it is kind of nice to hang out in, as I found out as I waited an hour and a half for my bus. I got to my B&B after getting misled again by my GPS again and finally using the directions the place itself had provided. There isn’t very much in the town, by where I stayed there was only a couple rather overpriced pubs. However, the next day when I went into town, I found Café Lily’s in a strip mall overshadowed by the SuperValu [no typo here] Supermarket. It was quite a nice homey little place with an excellent veggie soup and amazing soda bread. The prices were quite decent too.

I left Ireland the same way I came to it: by boat. This time however, instead of spending a couple hours at sea, I decided to go all the way to France and spent the night aboard the Oscar Wilde. While the shorter journey was fairly pleasant, I do not recommend taking an overnight ferry. The one I was on had terrible Wi-Fi and had it only on one floor, it was also overrun by families with young children. This wouldn’t be so bad if they had reigned in their offspring. Instead there was near constant screaming until about 9 pm. And whatever deck you happened to be on, there seemed to be children running back and forth above you. I also made the mistake of thinking I could sleep in one of the reserved seats. I ended up sleeping on the floor, just like everyone in my cabin, the metal aisle markers digging into my hip and head.

And now, I’m back on the continent on my way to my next leg of my whirlwind tour: Vienna and Venice!

Until then, Sláinte!

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