Sunday, 21 May 2017

A weekend in... Ireland

I knew I would kick myself if I didn't take advantage of Bristol's proximity to Ireland and Wales to explore the west side of the British Isles. We didn't manage to get decent flight prices last year because we always remembered to book flights when it was too late but this year we were prepared. Now planning a city break in Easter isn't very easy and with the added conservative nature of Ireland's Catholicism, it's necessary to plan your stay ahead of time. 

The weekend away began with an early flight from Bristol's airport to Dublin on Thursday. Our first stop was Beanhive Cafe for some brunch: I had the vegetarian brunch and James had the standard Irish breakfast. Both of us struggled to finish the meal, but only because they were excessively generous with their portions. We headed straight to Trinity College to walk around the college grounds (and to walk off our breakfast). I couldn't help but be surprised how small the university felt, like the size of just one college in Cambridge University, but I had to remind myself that the whole university was still spread across the city. Nevertheless, it felt a little familiar while walking around. We also went ahead to see the Book of Kells and the beautiful Old Library Exhibition also hosted in Trinity College. 

We wandered around Temple Bar area a little, crossing the River Liffey via Ha'penny Bridge and stepping into Temple Bar itself for a drink. We were still too stuffed from our brunch to have any food (that's how generous the portion was!) so we took a bus to Kilmainham Gaol. The jailhouse itself cannot be explored without a tour and as it is so popular, I strongly recommend booking ahead of time. We completely overlooked this and as I was scrolling through top sites of Dublin on the Tripadvisor app on our bus from the airport, I saw the warnings from previous tripadvisor reviewers. We instantly went on the Kilmainham Gaol website and saw that the next four days were booked out and only a few places were available on Thursday. Lesson learnt. The tour itself was excellent and gave us so much insight into the independence and partition of Ireland. On our way back to the city centre, we took a stroll through Phoenix Park.   

No one can escape Dublin without a night in the Temple Bar area so we went back there for dinner at a Spanish tapas place The Port House Pintxo. Now if we fell in love with one thing in Ireland, it was this place. From the cheese and honey dishes, the burgers and especially the empanadillas... We couldn't get enough of the menu. The restaurant itself had a pretty cool vibe to it, perfect for a date night. James was convinced that we had found the place and that we should have all our meals here. Even though we didn't return, because I'm pretty strict on trying as many different places as I can on a short city break, my tongue still dreams of this place.  

We started promptly on Friday as we were driving up to Belfast. Good Friday is considered a "dry" day because of a ninety year old law banning alcohol on particular christian holidays. This meant that all the pubs, and restaurants serving alcohol, would be closed and all the other restaurants and museums were likely to have shorter opening hours. Northern Ireland doesn't have the same laws and any information we found online suggested that everything was going to be open as normal, so we thought we would be making the most of our time spending the next two days in Belfast and around.

We couldn’t leave without having some breakfast and the cute little bakery Queen of Tarts near the Temple Bar area was on the top of our list. I opted for the smoked Irish salmon with free range scrambled eggs and toasted home-made brown soda bread and James tried the smoked bacon and leek potato cakes with poached eggs and roasted cherry tomatoes. Of course we needed something sweet from the bakery and we had the chocolate pecan tart and apple crumble to complement our savoury dishes (both were double YUM).

I wish I could say more of the drive up to Belfast, but in all honesty, I was asleep for most of it. We drove straight to the Titanic Belfast museum for the “Titanic Experience” exhibition. We originally planned to stay there for two hours…. Three at most, but we ended up staying til 6 pm (four hours!). It’s a very detailed museum, giving you details from how Belfast changed as a city during the industrial revolution to what the different class of rooms looked like on the Titanic. We drove a little around the harbour side to see the famous port that made Belfast what it is today.

The city still faces strong tension between the Catholic and Protestant communities and one of the ways this manifests is through the Peace Walls that have been built in a number of cities to separate the two and reduce "inter-communal" violence. The first Peace Wall was built in 1969 as a temporary solution to the Northern Ireland Troubles and the 1969 riots. However, they've only increased in number and size since then and approximately 109 Peace Walls are thought to exist across the country. The biggest and longest Peace Wall separates Shankill Road and Falls Road, which is the one we went to see. Although a poll in 2012 showed that 69% of residents believe the Peace Walls are still needed, the first Peace Wall was broken down in 2016 on Crumlin Road. The Northern Ireland Executive Committee has promised that by 2023, all the Peace Walls will be broken down (with permisson)! Alongside the Peace Lines, many murals and other street art can be seen around Northern Ireland as a result of the political nature of the city.

In the evening, we walked around Cathedral Quarter to find a place for dinner. A few places were already pre-booked, which again we didn’t expect for Belfast as it never looked busy, but they had a table for two in The Strip Joint where I tried the Hannon 35 day Himalayan salt beef steak. We stayed in Cathedral Quarter in the evening especially as I was pleasantly surprised how beautiful this area looked. We walked across the alleys and popped into Dirty Onion for the live music.

Saturday started with us walking around Dublin’s town centre. We went past the infamous Europa hotel, which is supposedly the most bombed hotel in Europe, on our way to breakfast at the Harlem Café (sorry, but the decor here put me at constant unease) and then strolled around the City Hall. Then in the late morning we visited Stormont Estate to see the Parliament buildings. 

We headed to Giant’s Causeway in the afternoon and had a little lunch at the National Trust café before enduring the harsh winds and rain on our walk to the rocks. Around 50-60 Ma, the region experienced intense volcanism. Basaltic magma intruded through the older chalk beds which formed part of the Thulean plateau, Europe's most "extensive" lava field. As the lava cooled, they contracted horizontally forming the polygonal pillars that makes the Giant's Causeway famous. The large igneous province that was broken up during the opening of the North Atlantic ocean making Giant's Causeway one of the few remants of the Thulean Plateau. I’ve seen many volcanic columns around the world but the best part of Giant’s Causeway is that you can climb the columns and see the actual polygonal features up close. 

A quick drive from Giant's Causeway is the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge that is famous for its small 20 m rope bridge that connects the mainland to Carrickarede. The bridge was first built in 1755 to help Irish fishers to catch Atlantic Salmon. Since then, it has be altered and reconstructed several times to make it safer. Salmon fishing has stopped in the region because of the dwindling population of the fish and now the bridge is solely a tourist site. Sadly, there were high winds on the day we visited and so the bridge was off limits to cross. As a compromise, we didn't have to pay an entrance fee, so we still committed ourselves to seeing the little rope bridge and the stunning geology that continued on from Giant's Causeway.  

I was feeling a little down on Sunday so I ended up having a lie in while James tried to find breakfast. I didn’t leave the hotel until after midday but we knew it was the only day we had left to visit the Chester Beatty Library on the grounds of Dublin Castle. While Lonely Planet likes to boast that this is one of the best museums in Europe, one cannot help but feel wary that this is just a white man's obsession with the orient during the late British Empire.

The rest of the late afternoon was spent exploring St. Patrick's Cathedral. We had dinner at the "mexican" restaurant 777, where every item of the food menu was unsurprisingly priced at £7.77. From the outside, the restaurant looks closed, we even walked away to find another restaurant because it looked shut down but we saw people coming out. We were lucky not to have missed out because everything on this menu was great (James recommends the Bisrec Tostados)!

After breakfast at Lemon Crepe on Monday, we meandered through St. Stephen's Green. You cannot have a city break without a tour of one of its brew houses or distilleries. Never a huge alcohol fan, we chose to go to the Guinness Storehouse on Monday as it seemed the more bearable one out of whiskey and beer. Even if I didn't consider the expensive price of the ticket, I would say that I felt a little disappointed, I expected to see a part of the actual factory but all you see is a replica of a few of the machines in a tour very detached from the actual brewhouse and very basic information about Guinness itself. There's an exhibition on the history of Guinness's advertising but even that feels limited. I would say a tour of the whiskey distillery would probably be more worthwhile. 

James insisted we visited Smithfield Square, the Hipster neighbourhood of Dublin, but the Cruinniu na Casca event had taken over the Smithfield Stage so we were pretty much getting a different vibe from what we expected. I wish we explored all the street food (we found a Stormzy mural just hidden behind them!) that was around but we decided to give ourselves a challenge at Meat Wagon. The late after noon was spent walking through the city centre, past the General Post Office (the headquarters of the rebel leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising) and Grafton Street. Of course we thought the best way to tie up our Ireland trip was a drink at the Stag's Head and an Irish Stew at Hairy Lemon

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