Dublin notes

[I spent about a month in Dublin this past spring, and wrote most of this post then. I figured it’s high time I got around to publishing it.]

What I enjoyed most about this stay in Dublin were the little bits of daily life: the grocery stores, the pubs, the friendliness of the people. Spending hours wandering around a giant bookstore full of English books. Cheddar cheese. But naturally I fit in couple touristy adventures, too. We hit several of Dublin’s big sights on our first trip to Ireland, but there was still plenty left to see this time around.

Dublin Sights

Kilmainham Gaol – This no-longer-in-use jail is slightly outside of town, but worth a trip if you’re interested in learning more about Ireland’s political history. The tour was informative and interesting.

Old Jameson Distillery – The €13.50 entrance fee feels like kind of a rip-off, especially since real distilleries tend to charge much less if anything at all. But if you’re up for a Disneyfied version of a whiskey tour, it’s definitely a good time. Be ready to volunteer enthusiastically when they ask for tasters near the beginning of the tour – everyone gets a shot of Jameson, but only a chosen few get to do the taste-test comparing American, Irish, and Scottish whisk(e)ys.

National Gallery – this art museum has a fabulous collection of old masters, impressionists, and Irish paintings. And free entrance! But the best part was the security guard who out of the blue just wanted to let me know that I was “very welcome” in Ireland. When was the last time a German said something similar to you, I ask?

Gogarty’s – in the center of Temple Bar, Gogarty’s offers live Irish music every night of the week in the cozy upstairs bar. Touristy, yes, but the craic is still excellent. Drinking Irish ales by the pint is part of the full cultural experience, which you will surely want to have. Actually there are tons of pubs that offer free live music all over Dublin, so don’t feel like you have to stop at just this one.

Hugh Lane Gallery – a fabulous little art collection plus an excellent exhibit (including his reconstructed studio) on Francis Bacon, everyone’s favorite crazy fuck artist.

Book of KellsEm dragged me here. The book itself wasn’t even on display (I think it’s being restored), but surprisingly I enjoyed the exhibit, which talked about the book’s history and production.

Dublin Eats

The Mermaid Cafe became my favorite restaurant in Dublin after a meal of creative, elegant food in their relaxed atmosphere (great service, too). The seats near the windows make for excellent people-watching.

We also had a nice meal at The Church, a former church which has been beautifully converted into a bar and restaurant. The prix fixe menu felt like a good value in a city as expensive as Dublin.

In more casual dining, I quite liked Juice, a vegetarian restaurant with a good selection of creative international vegetarian and vegan fare. The lunch special was a good deal.

I completely fell in love with Dublin and its people. I’d go back in a minute.

Sligo and more Irish coast

What a lovely Irish weekend we just had – cute towns, sandy beaches, and dramatic cliffs punctuated by heavy but tasty food and creamy ales. Life is good.

Our first stop was Sligo, a small city in northwest Ireland. The guidebooks had mixed things to say, but we found Sligo to be a very nice place to spend an afternoon wandering around. It was a town with personality.

When the B&B; we booked fell through, we went for a last-minute room at The Glass House in the middle of Sligo. The funky architecture makes for some lovely rooms, even if they are starting to wear a little around the edges. We lucked out and got the top corner room, giving us two giant window-walls from which to enjoy the view (and the late-night fireworks).

Sligo had plenty of charming, reasonably-priced cafes and bars (including Garavogue), but all the restaurants we checked out seemed ridiculously expensive. We had a fabulous time watching the drunken locals over a pub dinner at The Ark Bar, and then retired to our room early to watch Norway sweep the Eurovision. Poor Germany couldn’t even be helped by Dita von Teese.

The next day we enjoyed a big Irish breakfast before heading north along the coast into County Donegal. The drive brought us into a Gaeltacht, or region where Irish is the primary language spoken. But we heard a lot more baaing then speaking while we were there.

We also drove past several peat bogs.

Our main destination was Slieve League, reportedly the highest cliff face in Europe. The sun kindly came out for a couple hours so we could enjoy the view. While not as tidy and regular as the more famous Cliffs of Moher, these cliffs were still quite striking.

On our way back to Dublin we stopped in Cavan to find some dinner, and lucked out with our choice of The Black Horse, which had the most delicious pub grub I’ve ever eaten.

Cashel and its Rock

Looking to get away from Dublin and explore more of Ireland last weekend, we set our sights on Cashel. The guidebooks seemed to think it wasn’t worth much time, but for our purposes it worked divinely.

The least exciting part of the trip, to me anyway, was Cashel’s big tourist attraction: the Rock of Cashel. OK, it wasn’t that bad, but over the years I’ve come to realize that ruins just don’t excite me that much. Not even when they’re really, really old.

The best part of Cashel was our evening there, which involved several pints of Smithwick’s and a series of cozy peat fires. For such a small town, it offered plenty of inviting little pubs. Our favorite was Dowling’s on Main Street.

The next morning we woke up to a large Irish breakfast (one of the best parts of staying at a B&B;) and then drove south along a road called “The Vee” which took us up into some low mountains with sweeping views.

Then it was onward to Waterford, where we ate lunch while watching the Ireland-Italy rugby match in a pub full of cheering fans. And of course, where we visited the crystal factory.

Waterford: not your everyday crystal factory tour

The other day we found ourselves in Waterford, Ireland, home of the famous crystal. Naturally we decided to stop in at the factory’s visitor center. We were pleased to find a tour of the galleries leaving right away, led by a charming man who was quite knowledgeable about the pieces on display.

The crystal creations ranged from exquisite to hideous to comical, and we enjoyed the tour even though Waterford Crystal isn’t exactly our style.

It’s a good thing we weren’t interested in buying anything, though, since nothing was on sale that day. Actually, the visitors center wasn’t open for business at all, and our tour guide wasn’t really a tour guide, but a craftsman in the crystal factory – at least he had been until he was fired a couple weeks ago, when he and 480 of his colleagues were sacked as the company ceased production.

Since then, fired union members have been occupying the visitor center in protest. They are worried about not only their future jobs but also their pensions and other benefits owed them by a company in the financial crapper.

The occupation seemed calm and well-organized. At least 20 union members were milling around when we were there, guarding the door, playing cards, talking to visitors, and keeping the cafeteria running for their fellow protesters. The building was decorated with protest signs, many demonstrating a wicked sense of humor.

It was certainly one of the more memorable tours I’ve been on.

A weekend in the north

Alternate title: Hanging out in Ireland’s Canada

Eager to explore someplace new, we dug out our British pounds* and drove north into Northern Ireland for the weekend. Less than three hours from Dublin and we were at the north coast of the island, which I suppose would be northern Northern Ireland. They seem to prefer ‘Antrim’.

First stop was the Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland’s famous natural wonder. It’s basically a rock formation which consists of thousands of columns, broken off at various heights and resembling the ruins of some sort of man-made tiled staircase. I loved it. It made me marvel at the glorious diversity of our planet’s landscapes… yeah, it was that good. The clear, sunny weather and gorgeous coastal scenery didn’t hurt, either.

Having had our fill of nature, next we visited the Old Bushmills whiskey distillery for a tour. It was pretty standard as far as distillery tours go: here’s vaguely how we make it, this is why ours is the best in the world, happy angels, check out this blend that we sell exclusively here at the distillery so act now! etc etc. I’d tell you how much the tour costs, but I don’t know how to make the pound symbol on my American keyboard, so I’ll just say this: taking into account the ‘free’ glass of whiskey at the end, the tour was reasonably-priced.

After a drive along the coast we pulled into our B&B; in Ballycastle, a town I might have chosen just because of its name. The Glentaisie B&B; is in a quiet neighborhood a short walk away from the downtown. It was a lovely little place and I can thoroughly recommend it. The owners are very friendly and helpful, the decor is charming, and the breakfast is yummy.

We spent the evening in town, dining at the surprisingly sophisticated Central Wine Bar and then downing a couple pints at the pub downstairs while taking in the live music and local culture. Ballycastle has a lot of pubs and nightlife for such a small town. Nice place.

Sunday was snowy, and involved lots of sheep. We spent the morning driving through the Glens of Antrim. Although I still can’t tell you for sure what a glen is, I can assure you they are quite lovely and scenic places, even under a dark sky and giant, angry snowflakes.

We stopped in Belfast for a late lunch before heading back south of the border. Overall it was a fabulous weekend, and we found the Northern Irish (is that what they’re called?) to be just as charming as their neighbors from the Republic. I particularly fell in love with their overuse of the word ‘wee’. Adorable.

* In Northern Ireland they actually use Ulster pounds, which are like British pounds except more… fun. But they’ll gladly take British pounds, and give you your change in their less useful currency. Luckily the coins are all British kind, so we just had to make sure to break all our Ulster bills so that we left holding only currency that we’d actually be able to use again.

Irish winter

Greetings from Dublin, where I’m hanging out for a little while. I’m a bit disappointed to be missing out on the harsher winter back home in Munich, but at least we’ve seen a bit of snow here in the past couple days (although nothing like what London got). The sun has made itself scarce.

So far I’ve been enjoying exploring the city and getting to know it better, and using it as subject matter as I get to know my new camera. My diet has been based around cheddar cheese, soda bread, and Kilkenny (although I did fit in a healthier meal at Juice, one of Dublin’s few vegetarian restaurants).

When the weather has gotten too wet for exploring, I’ve been more than happy to stay home and overdose on trashy English-language television. Why hasn’t the E! True Hollywood Story made it to Germany yet?

Which country would you choose?

So our two possible destination cities are Limerick, Ireland, and Munich, Germany. We have made our choice, but it wasn’t easy. I’m interested in hearing what you guys would have chosen before I tell you what we decided.

Munich has a lot of obvious benefits, including…

  • Large, dynamic city with plenty of cultural activities and groovy neighborhoods (no, I’m not counting Oktoberfest as a cultural activity)
  • Decent public transport
  • Proximity to Alps for skiing and winter frolicking
  • People speak real German there (well, it’s closer to real German than what we hear now, anyway)
  • Pretzels, Weiβbier, oompa bands and Lederhosen
  • Beer gardens
  • 6 weeks starting vacation

But Limerick, although less glamorous, has some very tempting attributes, as well…

  • Cute little city centered around a lively walking district
  • Lower cost of living (meaning we could afford, among other things, a brand new apartment with a giant, American-sized kitchen. Goodbye, shoebox freezer!)
  • 24-hour shopping
  • Gorgeous nature nearby – especially ocean!
  • Cool, mild weather (remember – I’m not a fan of the sun or summer)
  • People speak English, and with adorable accents, to boot
  • The Irish are incredibly friendly, especially compared to the Germans
  • Cozy, smoke-free pubs serving delicious Irish ales
  • People named Seamus
  • Cheddar cheese!!

So which one would you choose? I have a feeling the responses will be a landslide, but let’s see if I’m right…

Doing Dublin

We spent a little time in Dublin at the beginning and end of our trip to Ireland, split up that way so we could take advantage of the direct flights between Dublin and Zurich on Aer Lingus. It was one of my first experiences with European discount airlines (since most don’t fly out of Zurich), and overall I have to say they seemed to have their act together. Everything costs extra: from checked luggage, to advance seat assignments, to beverages and snacks on board the plane. But I found myself not really minding all that, especially since the plane was new and clean and more or less on time. Direct flights make me happy.

Shortly after we arrived we met up with Beth for dinner in the Temple Bar area of Dublin. Temple Bar is the main touristy nightlife district, and was hopping even on a Monday evening. It was great to meet Beth in person, and a fabulous start to our trip. After dinner, I wandered off to find a pint of Guinness, since, well, that’s what you’re supposed to do on your first trip to Ireland, right?

Since we only had one full day for sightseeing in Dublin (and since we hadn’t bothered to figure out what we wanted to see ahead of time), we opted for the hop on – hop off tourist bus. This is the kind of thing we usually avoid, but it turned out to serve our purposes quite well. The drivers provided cheerful, kitschy live commentary (and how can you not love those accents?). We “hopped off” to visit Dublinia, an interactive exhibit about life in medieval Dublin, where we learned fun facts such as that Vikings never actually wore horned helmets (although that didn’t stop them from being sold by the boatload in the gift shop).

After a greasy pub lunch accompanied by some delicious ale, we hopped back on the bus until it reached the Guinness Storehouse, a gigantic, multi-media exhibit dedicated to the glory of Arthur Guinness and the black liquid he brewed. Although we’ve established that I’m not a fan of the drink, the exhibit was extremely well done, and a fun way to pass a couple rainy hours. We cashed in our tokens for free pints at the Gravity bar and enjoyed the panoramic view (and a rainbow) before heading back to the bus to see some more Dublin sites from the top deck. A yummy Thai dinner was followed by a couple pints of tasty microbrew at The Porter House.

Dublin wasn’t as… what’s the word I’m looking for? It wasn’t as cute as I expected it to be. Perhaps too much time living in a pristine city like Zurich led me to notice Dublin’s rough edges more than I normally would have. But I did enjoy it, and it had a good city vibe. Plus, Ireland had several other towns that more than made up for Dublin’s lack of cuteness.

Driving on the left and other notes from Ireland

We had a wonderful week exploring Ireland. The cities and towns were simultaneously charming and rough around the edges; the landscapes were sweeping and beautiful. The weather was intermittently rainy, but we hardly minded since the temperature was so cool and nice. If only they had real, snowy winters, it would be the perfect climate for me.

English-speaking foreign countries play with my mind. I kept having thoughts like “oh look, this place has a menu in English” and “hey, those people at the next table are speaking English.” Actually this happens to me sometimes even in the US these days.

Although Scott took to the challenge of driving on the left like a pro, both of us had problems remembering which door of the car to approach. Over and over and over again. I wonder how long it would take to start instinctively going to the right side for the driver’s seat?

The ‘fresh’ Guinness failed to impress me, but I was delighted with how good the Kilkenny was in Ireland – it had a creamy head that I’ve never seen in other countries. Hooray for ale.

Two things about Irish women: I was surprised and impressed at how dressed up they got to go out at night (especially during the Killarney races, when they all wore fancy dresses and feathery headpieces); and they have bad aim (at least judging by the pee-covered toilet seats I encountered all over the country. Was that too much information?).

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