June 23 – 30, 2016 (Summer)
Gratitude: Thank you
Currency: Euro (€)
Visa: 3 months
Cost of living: High
After 12 weeks bouncing around the greater Balkan Peninsula, we still needed one more to put us over the finish line and fully “reset” our Schengen time. Rather than tacking on an extra week here or there, we took advantage of cheap flights to take a bucket-list vacation in Dublin. The capital of Ireland, the city is big but approachable, with an metro area population (and population density) roughly half that of Seattle. The cost of living↗ is just as high though, which meant we had to be much more careful about our spending here. This wasn’t a money-saving play, it was a treat. But between the history, the ambiance, the pubs, and deals that put this stop within reach, Dublin delighted us for every second of our stay.
Where we stayed
The high cost of hotels, especially during the summer season, sent us once again into the welcoming embrace of an Airbnb↗. We rented a tiny top-floor flat in Rathmines, a twenty minute walk from St. Stephen’s Green. Our street looked every inch the picture-perfect Irish avenue, with identical brick rowhouse apartments all along both banks. It was quiet and residential, home to all sorts of recent relocators and short-term interlopers. The main thoroughfare was just a few doors away and featured multiple grocery stores (including this surprising eponymous treat), restaurants, and even a historic landmark or two. The area felt very hipster and reminded us slightly of being at home in Seattle.
Our attic apartment was nice, if cramped. On the other hand, the shower was larger than any we’d seen for months. The closet-sized kitchen packed in an impressive array of appliances, though the sloped ceiling and crammed counters made it difficult to find space to prepare meals. We managed a few dinners there, but not as many (or as robust) as we like. Situated next to the mini fridge was a combination washer-dryer. We only used the washer cycles since it was summer and we had a drying rack, but to be honest, we were a little weirded out by the idea of a combination hot-air-blower and water-slosher anyway. Seems like a fire hazard.
We took Dublin Bus Airlink to and from the airport, probably the easiest and cheapest option. On the way in, we took the 747 downtown and walked about 40 minutes to the apartment, not realizing that with a bit more patience, the 757 would have taken us to within a couple of blocks. We made sure not to repeat that mistake on our way out.
To get around town, we mostly walked. The summer temperatures were generally in the low 60’s F (high teens C), perfect for even a longish trek across town. We usually took an umbrella to deal with the local propensity for precipitation. The city bus routes did come in handy once on our trip to Broom Bridge and Glasnevin Cemetery. The process was simple and straightforward, similar to what we were used to back home – pay the bus driver directly and take a seat – as opposed to the timestamp/zone allowance/machine-validated affairs common in Central Europe.
What we did
Since we were only in Ireland for one week, our schedule was a lot busier than usual. We did a pretty good job of hitting our most-coveted sights, but still left some room for down-time and off-schedule adventures. As this was more of a vacation for us, our sightseeing generally came at the cost of getting work done.
Our top destination (especially considering Danielle’s deep love of books) was the infamous Book of Kells and the Trinity College Library. It is a popular choice – when we arrived, the line for tickets wrapped around the entire courtyard. Thinking quickly, we checked online for time-slot tickets and found the next available to be just five minutes later. We hurried up and bought them, skipping the thousand-person line for just a couple extra euros (earning more than a few bitter glares along the way). The Book of Kells itself was beautiful, and there were detailed explanations of every fact and facet surrounding it. Unfortunately, the room it is in is poorly organized for the size of the crowd it hosted, which made stopping to read anything a challenge. The Library, on the other hand, was easy to love. The Long Room is one of those few places that look as incredible in real life as in the color-enhanced images you see online. Of course it was also crowded, but it was at least possible to get to a side and marvel at the endless tomes unmolested.
Just behind Dublin Castle is another literary treat, the Chester Beatty Library. More of a museum, it began as one man’s collection of rare books and manuscripts but is now open to everyone to appreciate. The history and breadth of the collection was astounding. There were fragments of the earliest-known Gospels, a Koran written in flowing calligraphy and decorated with brilliant flowers, Japanese woodblock prints, and illuminated manuscripts on science and astronomy. We went back multiple times to make sure we saw and had time to appreciate every page.
Dublin as a whole is a literary museum. Plaques around the city point out locations featured in James Joyce’s writings (we read Dubliners to warm up for this trip), Bram Stoker’s workplace, or that Oscar Wilde stopped here or there. Speaking of Wilde, he has a more-than-life-sized statue in Merrion Square. St. Patrick’s Cathedral is the modest burial place of Jonathan Swift. There were too many authors to keep track of! We celebrated the excess by taking advantage of credit card reward points to pay for a Dublin Literary Pub Crawl for a better feel of the writers’ favorite haunts. The actors in charge of the crawl did a wonderful job of choosing passages from Dublin’s best authors and masterfully illustrating them, demonstrating what life was like for them (and having a surprising amount of fun in the process).
Ireland is of course also known for its whiskey, but it turned out that almost none of it is made in Dublin (even the well-trafficked Old Jameson Distillery is simply a showroom). Teeling Whiskey is currently the only operational distillery in the city limits. We initially just figured an operational facility would be more fun to tour, but discovered they also make a damn fine product. While the whiskey from their production line won’t be ready for a little while yet (by law, it has to age in barrels for at least three years, and of course, the longer they wait the better), they started the company with a small amount ready to go from a previous family venture. We toured the facility, saw the stuff in the pipeline, and finally sampled several of their offerings. What we tasted was easily the best whiskey we had in Ireland.
Many of the touristy attractions gave us sticker shock (those months in Eastern Europe lowered our price thresholds), so it was a relief that the National Museums were free. Our two favorites were the Archaeology and the Natural History branches. Archaeology is justifiably the more famous of the two: bog butter! bog bodies! clothes found in bogs! Viking items, also from bogs! And it’s all located in a building that would be worth seeing in its own right. There is even a small Egyptian section in case the other mummified remains were not enough. It was fascinating to see the centuries-old jewelry that still looked fashionable and the sheer number of items preserved because of Ireland’s unique geography. The Natural History Museum was like nothing we’d seen before, except maybe in movies. We are used to museums that try to teach you something and generally come with mountains of information and interactive exhibits, but this was just hundreds and hundreds of taxidermied critters, collected and put on display. Right inside the door are skeletons of massive Irish deer that would not be out of place in a fantasy novel. The first floor has stuffed birds and preserved fishes, but the true gem is the second floor. There, the main room is full of mammals and birds and the walls bedecked with horns. Higher tiers were closed to the public pending modernization, but they are visible from the second floor. The floors are old, worn wood. The whole effect makes it seem antiquated but a perfect place to visit and feel transported to a fanciful version of the past.
Glasnevin Cemetery was another place where we felt as though we’d stepped back in time. Its beautifully-kept grounds house all sorts of memorials and stunningly intricate tombstones. It features its fair share of history (some tragic, some more humorous), and more Celtic crosses than we’d ever imagined. It wasn’t actually our original destination though, as we headed up that way for a much nerdier reason. In a city of so many famous bridges (Ha’penny, among others over the River Liffey), it was Kevin’s pleasure to visit Broom Bridge, notable for its relevance to everything from video games to rocket science as the place where Sir William Rowan Hamilton had a flash of genius and felt compelled to record his insight, the formula for quaternions↗.
Our sole trip outside the city limits was an excursion to the incomparable Cliffs of Moher, clear across the country. This really isn’t as far as it sounds – we took a tour bus there and back in a single day. We usually avoid bus tours, but we really didn’t feel like risking a rental car on a country-wide wrong-side-of-the-road driving tutorial. The ride was peaceful and pleasant, giving us an excellent view of thatched roof houses, sheep farms, and the picturesque Irish countryside. But everything felt very flat and level, completely unlike we were headed for a massive cliff-face.
Even from the park’s doorstep, it seemed like there was not much to see. But as soon as we closed the gap with the edge, the world fell away, straight into the Atlantic. The ocean, which appeared totally normal on the horizon, sank further and further the lower we looked, until it finally reconnected – hundreds of feet below – with the very rocks we were standing on… where it was trying its best to rend them out from beneath us. It undeniably looked the end of a continent. Signs everywhere warned of the danger of straying too close to the windswept precipice, and they were not to be taken lightly. One moment the day would be calm and serene, the next, 40 mph winds would sweep away hats and pebbles into the abyss. The trail was therefore set back quite a bit from the edge, though this didn’t stop fool-hearty picture-seekers from wriggling their way to the limits for the sake of a selfie. Luckily, there was more than enough room for us to take memorable shots from relative safety.
After saying our goodbyes to the end of the world, we had another leisurely ride back, broken up with the occasional castle, meal, and other roadside curios. One small town was most memorable not for its ideal riverside beauty, but because countless buses before and since have failed to make the hairpin turn within.
Food & Drink
Ireland isn’t usually known for gourmet cuisine, but that lack of reputation isn’t entirely deserved. Before we arrived, our idea of the local fare was “corned beef and cabbage” and “potato,” but thankfully, we now know better. On recommendations from our Airbnb host, we tried local seafood dishes as often as possible, and were never disappointed. Apparently, there is a resurgence in interest in fish and shellfish, which, given that Ireland is an island, seems like a no-brainer. We sampled flavorful chowders that featured salmon, haddock, pollock, and more. Fish sandwiches and fish and chips were also common and tasty. Oysters, which we have missed since we left the Pacific Northwest, were fresh from the Atlantic shore and paired well with local beer.
Dublin is very much an international city, and we appreciated once again having access to foods from beyond our present borders. We had very passable pad thai and char koay teow on our first afternoon in town, things we’d been craving since leaving Thailand↗. There were Polish, Asian, Middle Eastern, and Mexican groceries in our immediate neighborhood, with restaurants to match. It was the most wide-ranging set of meal choices and ingredients we’d seen in quite some time.
We were only in town for a week and ate out more than we usually would due to our limited kitchen set up. But even so, we cooked a few nights to save on our already overspent food budget. Our local chain markets were Lidl, Tesco Express, Spar, and Aldi. Since we were still more in the city than out of it, they tended toward smaller convenience stores rather than hypermarkets, but between them and the niche grocers, it was easy to find a wide range of products. Everything seemed on-par price-wise with what we remembered from the US, which was positively exorbitant after Romania and Croatia. Notably, and for no discernible reason, Aldi had cheap kangaroo steaks on sale; not local, of course, but we could not pass them up. The taste fell somewhere between rabbit and bison. We didn’t snack much, but Tesco’s “Mature Devonshire Cheddar & Caramelized Red Onion” chips were a delicious exception.
Ireland might be best known for whiskey (see Teeling above), but they also have a reputation for a decent beer or two, and the craft beer scene is catching on in a big way. Galway Bay Brewery and McGargles were two of the brands we tried, both with excellent products. Of course, as with everything else, the prices here were higher than in Eastern and Southern Europe. Bottles were generally of the 0.33 L size (standard size in the US, or a Central Europe small), while draught beer is served in Imperial pints of 20 oz or 568 ml, larger than the US’s 16 oz/473 ml pints or Europe’s 500 ml pours.
Stuff of interest
We used Vodafone again for mobile data↗, but the most basic tourist plan was pricey enough (about $34!) that we got by with just one SIM for the week.
Despite us being there at the end of June, the weather felt more like spring or late fall. It was cool enough to wear jeans every day and a rain jacket was mandatory. It rained every day we were there, often more than once, though like Hawaii, it generally came in short bursts and never lasted too long.
We arrived on the day of the UK’s Brexit vote, and the upset result dominated the local news coverage. People we spoke with were quick to put ideological distance between the two nations, emphasizing Dublin’s embrace of multiculturalism and the new look of their country. The famously Catholic nation was surprisingly progressive in other ways as well, as we got to witness the huge turnout for Pride. It drew a sharp distinction with what was going on next door, and reminded us that for all the bad that was happening, there are bright spots as well.
What we learned
We could definitely live here.