Monday, May 28, 2007

Ireland Recap

We're back from Ireland, and it was one of the quickest trips of my life. Maybe it was because it was just six nights (compared to some of our recent trips), but I think it was because we had so much fun. I can't wait to get back to Ireland the next time and explore some new places. I've got our photos from Ireland posted on Snapfish.

Driving in Ireland was pretty much as hair-raising as advertised. I'm glad I had some experience driving on the left side of the road in Australia last year, because I felt comfortable sitting on the right side of the car and handling directions for driving on the left side. Nothing prepares you for the narrow Irish roads, though. The speed limit on most of the narrow winding roads is 60 miles per hour. Unlike the U.S. where the speed limit is merely a friendly suggestion, I believe the 60 miles per hour in Ireland is the absolute speed four wheels can stay on the pavement due to the laws of physics. At the same time, throw in the six foot high stone walls on either side that give you about an inch of leeway to play with. The walls were like bumpers installed in the gutters on a bowling alley except they didn't have quite as much give. Oh, and throw in the rogue sheep, cow, or tour bus lurking around the corner. (With sheep, cows, horses, and other animals everywhere you look, a trip in the country in Ireland is like being on a Celtic safari.) All in all, though, the car really gave us the freedom to see some of the remarkable scenery in the Connemara region in the west of Ireland.

Here are some of the highlights of the week in Ireland:

Place that lives up to the hype: The Cliffs of Moher, County Clare. The cliffs are the most-visited sight in Ireland, which means throngs of tour buses and tourists, but the scenery is absolutely spectacular. The towering cliffs, the pounding surf, and the small castle-like tower on the north side of the cliffs are really picturesque.

Most overrated: The Book of Kells, Dublin. Located at Trinity College, the book is an absolute tourist magnet with little payoff. Our first day in Dublin, the book was not available for viewing because of a "technology issue." The second morning, the line to get in nearly wrapped around the building. We came back in the afternoon when the crowd was pretty light. The exhibition you go through before getting to the book is fairly interesting, but when you get to the book itself, it's pretty disappointing. Only two of the four books are shown at any one time and the books are only open to one page. However, the books are displayed together in this small climate-controlled table, so only a few people can really see it at one time. Like I said, it was pretty quiet when we were there and we still couldn't get a good look because there's too many people crowded around the book. I can't imagine when it's busy. The Old Library upstairs from the book was definitely the more awe-inspiring part of our admission ticket.

Most ironic attraction: The Titanic river cruise in Belfast. The Titanic was built in the shipyards of Belfast.

Biggest surprise: You always hear that Ireland has 40 shades of green, but it was the color of the water that blew me away. In some spots driving around Clew Bay and Galway Bay, the water had a turquoise blue color rivaling that of the Caribbean or the Great Barrier Reef. The color may have been the same, but the water temperature was probably a wee bit cooler.

Biggest reminder of Epcot: The city of Galway. The center of the city looks like a picture-postcard Irish town. The pedestrian mall lined with pubs and shops is pure Irish, but the crowd was overly American. Every pub we went to was filled with Americans, even the Irish-speaking pubs and those on the other side of the river. Once a note of traditional Irish music was played, it was like the Pied Piper drawing in the Yanks.

Best educational experience: Black Taxi Tour of Belfast. Jimmy's Taxi Service took us through the Protestant and Catholic communities at the center of the sectarian violence in Belfast. Our driver, Jimmy, showed us all the murals and important sights and gave us a real insight to the past, present, and future of these neighborhoods. A close second is the 1916 Rising Walking Tour we took through the streets of Dublin.

Proof that soccer players need to toughen up: When Croke Park, the 80,000-seat stadium historically restricted to Gaelic games, opened its doors to soccer, it needed to install a heating system in the field to soften it up to the liking of the soccer players. Those playing hurling and Gaelic football had no need for such a system. Not sure if they spend as much time on the ground writhing around in pain, though.

Most pleasant surprise: Getting to check-in to our room at the Jury's Inn Christchurch at 7 AM after we landed jet-lagged in Dublin.

Best Irish pub: So many to choose from, but the Crown Liquor Saloon in Belfast had the most unique character. The Crown's rich Victorian interior includes exquisite details such as highly patterned tiled floors, elaborate wood carvings, and ornate mirrors. A seat in one of the 10 cozy snugs feels as if you are in a confessional booth with their painted and etched glass and wooden doors and benches. You can press a button in the snug, and an antique bell system will alert the bar staff to take your drink or food order. The Brazen Head in Dublin is the city's oldest pub and also has a lot of character.

Best meal: Cayenne in Belfast. Celebrity chefs Paul and Jeanne Rankin provide an Asian fusion twist on traditional Irish staples, such as lamb, salmon, and cod. The salmon and turbot that we ordered was fantastic.

Most mindblowing scenery: Doo Lough, County Mayo. We pulled over and spent only five minutes or so here, but I think I could have spent all day and not been bored. It was one of the most serene places I have ever seen. Green mountains rose above the blue lake. A road wound its way across the landscape. The hills were filled with a small group of sheep. The only sounds were the wind, the echoing of the bleating of sheep, and the random ringing of the bell around the neck of a sheep on the move. It's also a poignant place with its memorial to the Irish Famine and the numerous people who died on the road through Doo Lough trying to get help for their terrible plight. The picture can't really do it justice.

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