07 September 2006

Impressions of Ireland

We arrived at the Dublin Airport late last Thursday night. The driver of the hotel shuttle jokes with us and the four young Irish passengers as he races through the night on the "wrong" side of the road. I understand about one word in three. The Dublin accent is strong, and they talk very fast.

Next morning, up and off to Galway. Our GPS system gets lost as soon as we leave the main city. We're on a brand-new road. The Tom-Tom shows us driving through a field.

Soon enough, though, the nice highway gives way to a two-lane road. Spoiled by the great roads in Germany, we forgot how an easy 2-hour trip on a highway can turn into a 5-hour trip on a road that goes through every little town.

But what towns they are. From Dublin onward, building projects abound. Road works, houses, whole housing developments. Mansions that would look right at home in the richer suburbs of DC.

We make it to Galway much later than we hoped. The city has grown enormously since I attended a semester abroad there in 1991; and it is even bigger and more congested than when Jon and I visited in the late 90s. The cow pasture I used to cut across when I walked from my house to the University College Galway campus is now the site of "luxury student apartments." In 1991, I read that Irish college students were the poorest students in the world. Evidently, that is no longer the case.

The pedestrian zone in Galway, however, is exactly as I remember it. The older, historical parts of cities in Europe don't change that much. Buildings change hands, but they are usually renovated rather than torn down and replaced. The American-style 50s diner has been replaced by a kebab restaurant, but the jewelry stores and gift shops are pretty much where I left them.

Up early for the trip to Cork, by way of the Cliffs of Moher and Blarney Castle. We and our traveling companions, who have never been to Ireland, repeat three comments as we wend our way down the west coast: (1) "I can't believe how bad these roads are"; (2) "Look at that house. It's beautiful! or It's huge!"; and (3) "Wow. I gotta take a picture. This is beautiful."

Even as we bounce along bumpy, narrow, winding roads (did I say bumpy?) through the wilds of the Burren, we saw new stately homes set in the middle of fields. I wondered where the inhabitants worked. It would be a long commute to Galway, but there seemed to be nothing but rocks, pastures, and in the distance the sea.

Even the Cliffs of Moher were under construction. The low, rickety wall to keep people from the edge of the cliff has been replaced by a high, slate wall backed by mounds of earth. And the hill before the Cliffs has been laid open to prepare for a new underground visitor's centre. There is a temporary centre and parking across the street. Many more people were visiting the Cliffs than I recall from past visits. The gift shop was so crowded that we don't even bother to browse. But the beauty of the Cliffs themselves are undimmed.

Katrina is less interested in the Cliffs than in the slate walls. She can't see over them anyway, unless we lift her up. Jon shows her the spiral-like raised lines on them and explains that they were made by worm trails. She is fascinated. She wants to know where the worms are.

A few hours later, Blarney Castle. The steps up are scarier than I remember. Maybe because I have an enthusiastic 4-year-old ahead of me--really, above me--who has no fear of the spiral staircase, whose feet drift closer and closer to the narrow portion of the stairs. She, of course, is the princess of the castle and all she surveys.

Our bed and breakfast that night is in Cobh, a small town on an island in the Cork harbor. It is not in the Tom-Tom...just like the Cliffs of Moher and pretty much anything outside of the cities. Our map is not great, and our directions to the hotel even worse. After an hour or so of confusion, we finally arrive. Curiously, the restaurant attached to the hotel is Chinese. I wonder how the Chinese wait staff and cooks found their way to a tiny little tourist town on the south edge of Ireland. They are very solicitious of my gluten intolerance, and I have my first dinner in a Chinese restaurant since I was diagnosed with celiac 5 years ago. It is amazingly good, even without soy sauce.

The next day, a short drive to Waterford. Katrina loves watching the glass-blowing at the Waterford Crystal Factory, but the rest of the tour bores her. As does the shopping. The same is true for M., the 11-year-old daughter of our traveling companions.

Later, we take a walk through Waterford's pedestrian zone. Then, the highlight of the trip for an 11-year-old girl: the discovery of a Claire's store. It's evening, so the store is closed. We're leaving the next morning to catch our flight out of Dublin. We plan to be in front of Claire's when it opens the next morning at 9:30 am and back to the hotel to check out by 10 am. Both girls are excited. Katrina can't wait to get some "jewels."

Sure enough, at 9:30 am, both moms and girls are standing outside the door. It takes only 15 minutes for Katrina and M. to pick out approximately 30 Euros worth of assorted gee-gaws. (I did add a bit to Katrina's basket by buying a headband that might not slide out of her hair, as well as a pair of leg warmers in case she continues her dresses-only policy into the dead of winter. Again.)

In the car again, we find that the roads improve the closer we get to Dublin. We make it to the Dublin airport early enough to consider going somewhere else first, but late enough to decide to play it safe. Much sitting around and then standing in lines ensues, which is much longer and more frustrating than the actual two-hour flight itself.

We arrive at Hahn airport a little before 10 pm. Katrina falls asleep in the car and makes a smooth transition to her own bed. We stumble into bed at 11:30 pm. A lovely trip, if a little too much driving. Next time, we'll take it slower.

And as I drift off to sleep, I can't help but smile: with the new day begins a new school year for Katrina.


Dave said...

Thanks for these vivid descriptions - sounds like a great trip!

Another blogger I read also just got back from Ireland, Lorianne of Hoarded Ordinaries. You might be interested in some of her recent posts about it.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jen! Sounds like a wonderful trip-the castle is just gorgeous. I can picture Katrina getting a real kick out of it!

Wendy said...

The highlight of reading this for me is the excitement that legwarmers are back in style! Is that not exciting??? ;)