Monday, December 01, 2008

Shamrocks and Beer in Ireland

For those of you who aren't familiar with the European budget airline market, it is one of the best things about living in Europe. For next to nothing you can get around to most of the countries in Europe, making weekend trips to other countries almost irresistible. Ryanair, the cheapest of all (and you can tell by their planes and the terminals they fly out of), was offering a deal a couple months ago, so I bought a ticket from Brussels to Dublin for $0.03 including taxes (yes, you read right), and off I went to Ireland in the middle of November, amid dire warnings that I would freeze to death and be rained on and it would be miserable (there's a reason they give these tickets away cheap!).

In order to avoid the checked baggage fee, I wore enough clothing that I looked like the Michelin Man on the plane... but in the end, I was glad to have all that clothing, because it was below freezing pretty much every day! However, for 5 out of 6 days, it was sunny and beautiful and didn't rain on me, so in retrospect November turned out to be a great time to go to Ireland, since I could see all the sights without tour bus crowds ruining them for me.

As to Ireland itself, I must admit I wasn't immediately charmed the way I have been in some other countries. Dublin was nice enough, but it seems there's not much to do other than go to pubs and go shopping, and I found the people in general to be fairly unfriendly, contrary to their reputation. In Dublin you can go see Trinity College, Ireland's most prestigious university, and St. Patrick's Cathedral, where the famous St. Patrick is reputed to have dunked the Irish heathens into a well. And there are lots of monuments to the various rebellions that took place in Ireland. In fact, I had no idea they had such a history of racism and apartheid - but theirs, unlike ours, lasted until much more recently and was directed towards Catholics rather than Africans.

Kilmainham Gaol, famous now for being the set of several Hollywood movies, is also a highlight - built to house 112 prisoners, in its heyday it held over 9000, including many political prisoners, several of whom were shot in the courtyard, an act which directly led to Ireland's independence from Britain. After dark, which at this time of year is at 4:30 pm, there is nothing else to do in Dublin but visit the Guinness Storehouse - mecca for all Guinness lovers of the world. Unfortunately, I am not one of them. In any case, it was interesting to see their ad campaigns over the centuries and amusing to see how they tried to make themselves look "socially responsible" by having an "educational" floor where they pretended to talk about the dangers of drinking, and at the top of the building there is a bar where you get a free pint - they even draw a shamrock in the foam for you. And if I hadn't been so embarrassed by my Stay-Puft winter outfit and my ignorance of beer etiquette that led me to take my beer before it was ready and subsequently get chased down by the bartender, I would have taken a picture for you.

Anyway, aside from Dublin I spent three days waiting around for buses because I didn't realize I needed a car (and I was scared to try to drive a stick shift on the left side of the road), and in the meantime visited Carlow, Kilkenny, Cahir, and Cashel, small towns southwest of Dublin. These were lovely and picturesque medieval towns, the latter three famous for their ancient castles and cathedrals. Although there was clearly space for large tour groups, I was alone in my hostels both nights.

On Friday night D. joined me in Dublin and we headed north to Bru Na Boinne, site of ancient Neolithic Passage Tombs, probably the most interesting thing I saw in Ireland. These were built so that at the Winter Solstice the sunrise illuminates the passage exactly, in a feat of Neolithic astronomy and architectural engineering. They replicate it for you when you visit, and 100 lucky people are chosen each year by lottery out of something like 8000 entrants to view the real thing in December.

Then we crossed the border to Northern Ireland to check out Belfast, which has lots of artwork and other reminders of the very recent violence, but looks entirely unremarkable, such that you have trouble imagining that it was a warzone not that long ago. In fact, they had a lovely Christmas market going on when we showed up. The next day we headed up the coast to the Giant's Causeway, a natural formation of pillared rocks on the coast. The area was lovely and windswept and full of tiny towns to visit, and there was a coastal hike that looked like it would have been great in summertime.

And that was all the time we had. Six days was enough to get a taste of the country, and I learned a few lessons, namely: it's fine to go in November, but only if you rent a car! But I'm glad I had a chance to see Ireland before I leave Europe next year.

Next big trip is home to San Diego for the holidays, but exciting things are coming after that, so keep your eyes on the blog...

Adventure map for 2009...