I’ve already alluded to how terrific it was to transition from bouncing around as a solo traveller staying in hostels, to being graciously hosted by family in their home. Solo travel has its advantages: the freedom, the sense of adventure, the constant fascination of discovering new things on your own, and the excitement of having to be resourceful and thinking on your toes. Local hosts, though, are irreplaceable: they can simply show you things you’d never find in a travel guide. You *really* get the feel for a place when you see it through the eyes of local people. And I got a great taste of that with my final two days in Ireland:
After the exhilarating day on the coast at the Cliffs of Moher, my cousins Izabela and Sabina spent a day showing me their favourite hidden gems: really opening up an inner glimpse into the most awesome parts of living in Ireland. We visited the National Gallery of Ireland, complete with its classical European paintings and green walls everywhere. We then took in more green on the Dublin commuter train (green train cars, green seats… man they like green!). The afternoon was spent just North along the coast from Dublin, in the quiet and peaceful village of Malahide. We saw some more of Ireland’s history by visiting the 12th century Castle Malahide, the grounds of which were complete with the ruins of an ancient church and cemetery featuring Celtic cross-marked graves.
I have a complaint about European museums, though. Castle Malahide (and virtually all the other museums I visited) were devoid of live tour guides. Instead, corny and overly dramatic (Disney-like) audio guides took you around and explained the historical information. You couldn’t ask questions, and you couldn’t get the personal insights a knowledgeable guide provides.
Taking the train back into Dublin, I was struck by the skyline: punctuated by dozens upon dozens of towering construction cranes. Ireland has gained a clever nickname in the late 90s and 2000s: “Celtic Tiger.” Over the course of about 15 years, Ireland dramatically went from Western Europe’s poorest nation, to one of its richest. In fact, it had one of the fastest economic booms ever. Various things contributed to the boom: free trade, economic policies and immigration/worker laws that saw the border open to residents of the Eastern European nations that had just joined the European Union. There was a flood of new job openings, immigrants looking to fill them, and new spending in the economy. My cousins were among the people from Poland who took advantage of the opportunity to work and study in Ireland when Poland joined the European Union. Witnessing the boom first hand (such as the vast number of Polish people everywhere) was quite fascinating.
Further testimony to the “Polishness” of Ireland was that evening – Sabina and Izabela took me out for a night on the town… and among the group not a single one of the drinks was Guinness! Rather, many of the beers were Polish like Tyske, Lech and Zywiec. No, all of my cousins’ friends aren’t Polish – but it’s neat to see that they were able to meet other Polish friends in the foreign country they’re now calling home.
Topping the list of things that generous hosts offer you when you stay with them: they can show you the real flavour of local nighlife – much different than the tourist traps. And you automatically get a group to hang out with and show you a fun time. And we definitely had a great time out in Dublin. Dinner at the girls’ favourite noodle restaurant (with all the immigrants in Ireland, the Dublin restaurant scene is very very good and eclectic). We then went to Dublin’s famed pub district, “Temple Bar.” I’ll divert you to the photo gallery for confirmation that it was a great night.
A great night deserved a great morning – and I got my wish. While Izabela and Sabina had to go to work, I got to have a day to myself to relax and explore. Just as it’s terrific to have amazing hosts showing you around, it’s also great to be on your own with no agenda. Especially within my breakneck travel pace, the chance for a little bit of relaxation here and there was very much welcome. After sleeping in, I headed out for some architectural discovery in Dublin.
The beautiful weather led me to idyllic Trinity College, the foremost university in Ireland. Let me first pause to say that my entire stay in Ireland was sunny with temperatures in the high 20s: that’s an unheard of string of luck in Ireland! Trinity College was more picturesque than nearly any campus I’d seen (I’m talking both the architecture and the students…). My cousin Sabina is now studying neurosciences there: smart girl!
From Trinity College, I followed the River Liffey through downtown Dublin. Along my path, I passed by a statue of the famous girl from Dublin’s anthem – Molly Malone – and then visited the National Museum of Dublin. This museum’s fascinating feature was a full-size reconstructed Viking Ship. Literally ginormous, it also spoke to the intertwined histories of the nomadic Celts and Vikings.
Across the river, I spied (and smelled) my major destination for the day: the Guinness factory. The first thing I learned was that the tour is not, unfortunately, of the actual brewery: it’s such a popular attraction that the workers probably couldn’t handle the endless stream of visitors. The black beer is now brewed in a modern, automated plant. The tour takes you through a stunningly-restored industrial icon: the original Guinness Storehouse brewery. I was more impressed with the intricate industrial architecture they left intact and integrated into the museum than the tour itself. But the highlight of the tour, of course, was the very end – the pint of Guinness included in the price of admission. This perfect pour was served in a special bar built high atop the ancient factory. It offered a panoramic view of Dublin… and for maximum effect U2 was playing on the stereo when I arrived.
I descended back to Dublin street level, and then descended even further underground when my cousins met me after work: we went to a wine cellar beneath a gourmet grocery store. Again attesting to how locals can show you hidden gems… this cellar was a popular hangout for 20-somethings. We enjoyed our final night together in Ireland, and I toasted the gracious hospitality of my hosts.
I was soon to learn that open-arm welcome would be the constant theme among my European hosts… everyone really went the extra mile for me when I visited their homes.
Unfortunately, my travel out of Ireland to my next destination – France – was less than smooth. A missed connection to the airport made me miss my original flight (I was only out 20 Euros on my discount airfare, no big deal). The best connection I could find was via London, England. I can now say I’ve been to London twice… and I actually had to cross the whole city once again by “tube” to get from Heathrow to St. Pancras Station: where I caught the Eurostar to go through the Chunnel to France.
Through all the confusion, I was glad to have had the chance to see St. Pancras station. I’m a nut for reconstructed historical architecture. This ancient train station had just been completely restored and opened as the Eurostar terminal. It was the most beautiful station I’d ever seen.
The Chunnel ride, however, was anticlimactic. In concept it’s neat, and it is darn fast… but it’s just a black tunnel. All you hear is the rising pitch as you emerge from the “whooshing” noise of the tunnel.
And with that, I was in France. The journey continues…