Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Hello, Dublin

October 21, 2008

Ok, so I officially love Ireland, and Dublin in particular! This past weekend was one of the best yet. I spent 2 amazing, full days in Dublin with my friend Gabi. We did one of those hop-on, hop-off bus tours to see as many sights as we could in the limited time we had, and we couch surfed for the first time, too! All in all, it was a fantastic, albeit exhausting, trip, although I'm coming to realize that the 2 often go hand in hand : )

Day 1, 10/17/2008 - Hello, Dublin!

Our trip had a pretty early start as Gabi and I left had to catch a 7:30am train to Bologna, where our flight was out of. When we arrived in Bologna andtried to get a taxi to Forli airport, we found out that although it is considered an airport of the city of Bologna, it is actually in nearby Forli (hence the name, duh), 30 minutes away by train! We quickly run to catch the next one, and the whole time there we are freaking out about time because we had no idea how long it took to get from the Forli station to the airport. Luckily, it ended up being only 10 minutes by taxi, and we made it to the airport and through check-in and security with plenty of time. On a funny side note, Gabi and I had been pondering why our reservation showed our outgoing flight as only taking 2 hours while our return flight, going the same route, took 4 hours... It wasn't until on the way over that Gabi finally figured out that we hadn't taken into consideration the 1 hour time difference, and actually the flight both ways was 2 hours each : ) I'm still bitter that neither of us ended up with a window seat because when we were flying over Ireland we could only catch glimpses of the beautiful green landscape, making clear how it earned it's nickname, the Emerald Isle.
When we arrived at the airport and went through customs, we were super ecstatic to find out we got stamps in our passports! And not just little plain ones, but big green ones that took up a whole page! I know thi seems silly, but when we travel to other Schengen States from Italy (i.e. Germany, France, Spain, etc.) it's essentially like traveling in the same country; we aren't required to go through any kind of customs because our visa is valid in these countries. And since a passport is a travel document, it's fun to be able to look and see where you've been. We stopped and got bagel sandwiches (bagels seemed to be a weekend trend as they were sold everywhere!) and then made our way outside. On our way out, there was a great little sign on the wall paying homage to Ireland, saying: "When I went to those great cities I saw wonders I had never seen in Ireland, but when I came back to Ireland I found all the wonders there waiting for me."
We caught a bus into the city center, walked around a bit. The first thing we realized was that although everyone spoke English, their accents could sometimes be so heavy that it was like another language! In fact all weekend I had a lot more trouble than I expected understanding the Irish, but it was still refreshing to be in a country where my native language is spoken. Another thing we noticed right away was that all the signs were in English and Gaelic! Considering the fact that Gaelic is sort of dying out (something like 30% of Irish speak it) we were quite surprised to see the translations everywhere.
Finally, we went to the train station. Since we only had about half a day Friday, we decided to check out a nearby little cliff town on the coast called Howth (although we pronounced it like 'house' with a lisp, we were quickly corrected and told it was like 'hoe-th'). The town was like a picturesque fishing village you'd find on a postcard; it was absolutely charming. There were wildflowers along the shores, the water was speckled with colorful sailboats, and the cliffs behind the harbor were magnificent in shades of green and red. There was a wonderful little island in the distance, a memorial to sailors lost at sea, as well as a quaint lighthouse. Unfortunately the sky was a little gray, but that didn't stop Gabi and I from taking a plethora of photos.
After about an hour we were pretty cold and decided to make our way back to the city, where we were greeted by a gorgeous sunset in shades of purple and pink. We had called our couch surfing host when we arrived in Dublin and he'd given us his address and told us which bus to take. I think at this point I should explain couch surfing: The CouchSurfing Project is a free, Internet-based, international hospitality exchange network. In plain English, you become a member of the website and can then find hosts in different cities willing to share their couch with you during your stay there. In return, you can also be a host for others. It may sound sketchy at first, but it is such a great way to meet peole from around the world, not to mention save money. Hosts often will show you around the city or give you tips and advice, something you are less likely to find at a hotel or hostel. So anyway, our host was named Brian, a student at Dublin City University, although his roomate Joe, also Irish, was very much a host as well. I don't think we could have asked for a better "first time" experience! The guys were wonderful, friendly, open-minded, and funny. Brian met us at the bus stop and walked us back through his suburban, college student neighborhood back to his house. Gabi and I each had a couch to ourselves in their living room, so the accomadations were quite comfortable. Upon arrival Joe made us coffee, we talked for a while about random things, and then Brian looked up a good Thai restaurant for dinner and we hopped on a bus back into town.
Dinner was fantastic! Gabi and I shared spring rolls as an appetizer and I had noodles with veggies. It was so nice to eat something ethnic for once, it made a great change from Italian food! To show our thanks for hosting us, we bought Brian's dinner. Afterward, he took us to a quiet little Irish pub where he bought us our first glasses of Guinness beer! It was much darker and richer than I expected and a little too bitter for me, but certainly not bad. The foam on top was so creamy and thick that we immediately made mustaches! I drank maybe half my glass then made Gabi finish the rest.
Next we headed to the famous Temple Bar area. Although there is an actual pub named Temple Bar, the name actually refers to a few streets lined with pubs and restaurants and known for their night life. It was fun to walk to streets and observe; people of every age roamed with varying levels of intoxication, couples and friends dined in the array of ethnic restaurants, live music provided passersby with free entertainment. We went to a much busier and "hip" pub than the previous one, with great live music playing covers of some popular songs, and with these really cool colorful mosaic "columns" here and there. Brian bought us another beer, something a little lighter than Guinness, and again Gabi had to drink half of mine. But the environment was still really cool, and the whole evening the 3 of us had had some really great conversations, on everything from politics, traveling, and drugs, to music, being gay, and getting mugged. We had a long day ahead of us and were still exhausted from traveling, so we took a taxi back and went straight to bed.

Day 2, 10/18/2008, Hop-On, Hop-Off

Saturday we got up pretty early and headed back into the city center via bus. We got bagels for breakfast (haha) and then headed to our bus stop. We had made prior reservations for a hop-on, hop-off tour bus to maximize our sightseeing without dealing with public transportation or maps. Some of the drivers were pretty entertaining, too, providing colorful commentary as they drove us from one stop to the next. This brings me to the point of Irish driving...the whole weekend it creeped us out that they drive on the right side (I even took a pic of our taxi driver and when we told him why he laughed)! It's just not normal. We caught the bus on O'Connell Street, Dublin's main thoroughfare, full of restaurants, stores, statues (including the world's tallest, a silver column extending toward the sky in the middle of the street), modern "art" (a digital screen w/ an orange stick figure walking eternally?), and monuments.
Our first stop was the beautiful Trinity College, home of the famous Book of Kells. With many buildings, both old and new, ranged around large courts, called squares, the campus reminded me of those back east, like Cambridge or Yale. Making it an even more beautiful place, everywhere we looked there were signs of autumn, with trees whose multi-colored leaves gave them the appearance of being on fire. I love being in places where there are distinct seasons, and fall is one of my favorites : )
After exploring the grounds, we went inside the Old Library, one of Ireland's biggest tourist attractions, containing over 4.5 million books, and, most notably, the ancient Book of Kells. The book is by far the Library's most famous book, and can be viewed in an exhibition along with the Book of Durrow, the Book of Howth, and other ancient texts. The Book of Kells is a lavishly decorated copy, in Latin, of the 4 gospels of the New Testament, probably produced in the 9th century by monks. A masterwork of Western calligraphy, it also represents the pinnacle of Insular illumination with it's Christian iconography and ornate swirling motifs. The handwritten books were mindblowing, with the most intricate images and details decorating the perfectly written text. I can't fathom how steady a hand mut have been, or how much time they must have taken. Nor did I expect the texts to be so beautiful! The closer I moved my face to the pages, the more awed I was by the tiniest of details.
The Old Library also incorporates the vast Long Room, which holds over 200,000 of the library's oldest and rarest volumes. Nearly 65 meters in length, the Room's walls are lined with rich wooden gallery bookcases with shelves full of the well-worn spines of books. Marble busts of famous writers (including Shakespeare!) line either side of the room, and down the center are display cases showcasing some of the most important volumes. Photos were not allowed, but Gabi and I worked as a team and I was able to snap several of the Long Room : )
Before we left, we were shocked to discover an identical sculpture to the golden mechanical-style sphere found in the courtyard of the Vatican Museum in Rome! We still aren't sure if it was a duplicate or the original, but it was pretty shocking to see.
On our way to the next stop, we passed through a few streets with the famously colorful "Doors of Dublin". Almost everywhere in the city, you can find doors painted every shade of the rainbow: yellow, pink, blue, turquoise, red, white, green... According to our bus driver, this is because residences in Dublin used to not have address numbers, so they painted their doors distinct colors to distinguish their house from others. Regardless of the reason, it is one of the quirkiest things I've seen in Europe, and certainly one of my absolute favorite things about Dublin! All day, Gabi and I snapped pics of the various colored doors we passed : )
We got off at St. Stephen's Green, Europe's biggest "square", but in reality, a lovely park, complete with small lakes, walking paths, carrousel, monuments, and plenty of trees. There were even holly bushes! Like Trinity College, the colorful trees throughout the park were breathtaking.
My favorite part was the lake, however. It was full of wonderful mallard ducks and on one bank, there was even a family of swans! Although at the time I thought they were geese, I was later corrected by Joe when I showed him my pictures of them : ) There were 2 beautiful, HUGE, white ones, and four smaller grey "babies", and they let me get super close!
Across the street from the park is the fancy brick Shelbourne Hotel, where the Irish constitution was once signed. Nearby was a Celtic Whiskey Shop, full of every imaginable whiskey as well as other types of liquor, including absinthe! I really wanted to buy one of the cute little bottles of Irish whiskey but didn't want to risk taking it on the plane. Also in the area was the pretty mayoral house with European Union flags flying.
Then we wandered onto Grafton Street and the main shopping area of Dublin. We wandered the streets here for a while, trying to find a decent place to eat lunch. On our way we stumbled upon the red-doored church of St. Ann, where Dracula author and Irishman Bram Stoker was married. We finally found a cool restaurant for lunch called Nude, serving organic and healthy dishes. We spent a little too much time with lunch, however, and realizing it was 3pm (most things close between 4 and 5:30) we had to hussle.
At this point, we had to make a tough decision. The bus only operates in one direction, and it stops at 6:30pm. We had really wanted to visit Kilmainham Gaol, a now-unoccupied jail which once housed the leaders ofrom 5 Irish rebellions. Unfortunately, this stop was toward the end of the bus route, and there were still several sights before it that we wanted to see. So we had to forget about the jail, and instead made our way to Dublin Castle. Looking less like a typical castle and more like a vast governmental fortress, we were limited to the exterior because the wait for the next tour of the interior was far too long for us.
We walked to our next sight, Christ Church Cathedral. From the outside, it was a beautiful brick building, connected by footbridge to an Irish heritage building housing an exhibition on the history and Viking influence on the city called Dublinia. Even the doors around the church were fancy!
Inside the church was somewhat plain, however, especially compared to the lavish churches we're used to in Italy. Highlights included an underground medieval crypt, an impressive display of church treasures, and the celtic-style flooring. Also, we were lucky because a choir happened to be practicing while we were there.
Back outside, we rushed to try and find our next sight, St. Patrick's Cathedral. On our way, we passed 2 other churches: St. Adoen's, a Roman Catholic Church with one half resembling the Pantheon with large columns and the other an old stone castle surrounded by wildflowers, and St. John's a gothic-style church which we mistakenly thought was St. Patrick's from a distance. When we couldn't find the Cathedral, we ran to get back on the bus, figuring we'd at least see the church from the bus as we passed it since it was the next stop on the route. Luckily we hadn't spent too much time or effort looking for it, because when we passed it, we saw that it was covered in scaffolding! It was quite a disappointment, but we really didn't have enough time to see it thoroughly anyway.
Our final stop of the day was the Guinness Storehouse, home of the famous Irish beer. The restored 1904 building houses an exhibit, called the Guinness Experience, an innovative, sightly interactive museum of sorts allowing visitors to discover all there is to know about Guinness beer, including the history and how it's made. The storehouse has something like 8 stories, each hosting a different aspect of the beer-making process or history. My favorite level was the one with all the ingredients: hops, yeast, barley, and water of course. There was even an actual waterfall to represent the last ingredient!
The final stop on our tour of the Storehouse was the Gravity Bar, where visitors can enjoy a complimentary pint of Guinness while enjoying 360-degree views of the city from the glass walls. I declined my pint, and instead enjoyed the views. From the Bar we could see St. James's Gate Brewery, exhaling bales of smoke, where Guinness is actually produced, and the tall, redbrick, pointed St. Patrick's Tower with a green dome, formerly an old windmill which has now lost it's blades.
Back on the bus, our driver was a lively fellow who pretended to have drunk a couple of pints himself as he swerved the bus down the road. Although we couldn't stop anywhere else since everything was closed and it was getting dark, we were able to enjoy the driver's commentary on the last few places along the tour. A big disappointment, however, was when we passed Kilminham Gaol and he told us it was an amazing sight, "one not to be missed before leaving Dublin"! Damn. We drove past the vast Phoenix Park, Europe's largest urban park, covering 1,750 acres. Within it's boundaries lies the homes of the Irish President (random fact: both the current and former Presidents were women!) and the U.S. Ambassador, Dublin Zoo, sports complexes, and a herd of wild deer. More disappointments followed: the national museums and galleries (in Ireland they're free!), the Old Jameson Whiskey Distillery, and Smithfield Village. Although we still saw a lot I knew we wouldn't be able to see everything, it still sucked just a little.
We got off along the River Liffey, which runs through the city, right by O'Connell Street. We tooked pictures of the 2 most famous bridges: the thrice arched O'Connell bridge, connecting busy O'Connell Street to the hip Temple Bar area, and the spindly Ha'Penny bridge, lit green at night (it's called "Ha'Penny" because it used to cost half a penny to cross! thanks Brian). We wandered O'Connell street, stopping for an absurd amount of time in a souvenir shop where I spent at least an hour trying to decide what gifts would be best for each person.
Finally we were ready for dinner, and headed into the Temple Bar to find a restaurant. Everything was ridiculously expensive, but we finally found a burger joint that was fairly reasonable. For a place that only serves burgers, they had a surprising number of vegetarian "burgers" to choose from! I got an amazing one stacked tall with eggplant, portobello mushroom, roasted bell peppers, sweet potatoes, onion jam, and camembert cheese. It was one of the most divine things I have ever eaten!
After dinner we caught a taxi back to Brian's. Gabi accidentally told him the wrong address by a few letters, which lead to a little detour, but we eventually made it, and also booked the same taxi to take us to the airport at 3:30am! Back at Brian's, we hung out with Joe, watching TV, drinking coffee, chatting, and best of all, sitting by the real fireplace!!! Oh my goodness, we were beyond excited and oh so toasty : ) We discovered that Joe is among that 30% of Irish who speak Gaelic, and he kindly ignored my ignorance when I asked him about the conflict between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Basically, Joe was an extremely cool guy, as was Brian, and maybe one day they will crash on my couch in California! We ended up staying up til around 2pm, and decided to just take a nap until our taxi came.

Day 3, 10/19/2008 - I Feel Dead

Basically, the next day was nothing but traveling and an exhausted blur. We got breakfast at the airport and then I napped til it was time to board. I slept the entire flight back, and then the entire train back, and was still dead tired when I finally made it home around 2pm. The weekend was absolutely worth it though, and I wish I could go back! One thing is certain, Ireland certainly has a place in my future.
This week is crazy busy. I have to figure out the classes I want t take winter quarter back at UCSB since my pass time to register is Saturday, and we leave Thursday for Barcelona, so we've been squaring away all those details, but I can't wait! Also exciting news, I just booked my flight and hostel to go to Krakow, Poland in November! I know this sounds odd, but it's where the infamous Holocaust concentration camps, Auschwitz and Birkenau are located, and I'm planning on touring them while I'm there. Also, notice that I added a list of my travels on the right-hand side of the blog, in case you were curious what I have planned for the next couple months!

P.S. Only 2 more months til I come back to the states!


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I always feel like I'm almost right there with you when I read your blogs and look at the pictures. I'm not sure about where, but I'm sure we will travel together. I'm glad you got this chance now. I miss you and love you. mom