Sunday, 22 April 2012

The Sun Never Sets on the British Empire

It may never set but it rarely seems to shine. Another school break means another adventure into the unknown. What better way to celebrate the arrival of spring than to visit a place where all four seasons feel like winter. I know many of you are now interested to hear about our adventures in Newfoundland, so I will set the record straight: our goal this time was Ireland, with a dash of London thrown in for good measure. It occurs to me now there are many places on the planet where the inhabitants complain about their weather. However, there are few places that can claim crappy weather all the time, and most, but not all of these, seem to be somewhere in the British Isles.

The first few days consisted of hitting the high notes in London with some friends who were on their way home to Saskatoon. London is a busy, busy place. There looks to be a good bit of construction going on, no doubt for the Olympics and the Queen’s jubilee. We were able to watch the changing of the guard, along with a few thousand of our closest friends, all of whom seemed to have arrived just before we did (we mostly just imagined what was going on). We also took in a couple of shows, rode the tube with the unwashed masses, had a fabulous Indian meal, and checked our watches against Big Ben. The curious part of London for me, other than the bone-chilling unseasonably cold weather, was the international feel of the place. Closing your eyes and listening to the street chatter, you would be hard pressed to believe you were anywhere near England, let alone the capital. 

Reader's Digest version of London

Changing - but slowly...

Who's your bobby?

Not falling down, as it turns out.
A quick bus ride, which best describes Ryan Air, and we found ourselves on the emerald isle. Dublin seemed quite sedate compared to London although the weather was essentially the same (crappy). One other clue to the change in venue was the local variation on English. It’s fun to listen to the rolling lilt of the Irish, but for me it was only a slight improvement over French: I got about 40% of what was being said. 

We spent some time on the Hop-on-Hop-off tour bus, which provided both educational tidbits and shelter from the weather. Dublin has some history, some of which is actually interesting. I found this a foreign concept having studied Canadian history. Ireland seems to have a disproportionate number of writers. I will suggest the recipe of poor weather, attractive but temperamental women, and easy access to whiskey, creates an ideal writing environment.

We took the tour of Kilmainham gaol, the infamous prison for rebellious Irishmen, as well as women and children (they had inmates a young as 6 years old). In the late 16th century it was considered the latest in thoughtful incarceration. By 1924, when it finally closed, It had been the site of many significant executions throughout Ireland’s somewhat disturbing history.

Scared Straight?
The next day we took the train to a little town up the coast called Dalkey. It reminded Ann of west Vancouver; there was constant drizzle and big houses. Apparently the renowned pop-lit novelist Maeve Binchey and U2 guitarist Edge live there, along with van Morrison, when he’s not out on tour. On our walk through town, we met a friendly cat, and a very friendly old man who was happy to share his comprehensive view of the town with us. I’ll give the Irish full marks for being friendly and chatty. A quick stop at the chemist's for some toothpaste resulted in a lengthy discussion with the proprietor covering many of the finer points of the pharmaceutical and legal industries. I am proud to say I held up my end of the conversation (it was in English, after all). On the way back to Dublin we decided to bend the rules around our return ticket and go a couple of extra stops past where we started, to save a few pennies and perhaps an unnecessarily long walk. As it turns out, the Irish train system is specifically designed to prevent deadbeats like us taking advantage of the system, by requiring your ticket to get you off the railway platform. Our tickets were ... not completely valid, and therefore we were trapped, unless we confessed our sins to security. We huddled to discuss strategy and settled on the old classic ‘dumbass tourist ploy’, then stepped forward to accept our punishment in the form of the inevitable eye roll and lecture. Fortunately, chaos is opportunity, and in this case opportunity presented itself in the guise of an unruly drunk being ‘assisted’ off the platform by four sturdy security guys. Another security guy, distracted by the excitement, was happy to buzz us through without even inquiring as to the nature of our problem. What lessons Perri learned that day I cannot say.

This could be Newfoundland if there were fewer buildings.

Nova Scotia maybe?

Although I’m not a big fan of Guinness beer, we felt culturally obligated to take a tour of the Guinness brewery. Here is a company that has turned what many people consider to be liquid love, or perhaps an unholy union of barley and hops, into a global brand. The gift shop was hard to resist. 
"I'm just having a wee taste."
Later in the day, through a reckless disregard for our map, we found ourselves in a slightly shady part of town looking for the train station to get back to our hotel. A local chap recognized our plight and went out of his way to get us where we were going. I’ve never heard stories of leprechauns doing good deeds, and I can’t say for sure if he was one, but he sure looked and sounded the part. Further observations confirmed that any Irish male shorter than me constituted a potential leprechaun. I apologize to the entire nation.

The next day meant a real train ride through the Irish countryside to Belfast. I’ll admit the change from Dublin was subtle. Other than switching euros to pounds, things were ‘kinda the same’. Belfast seems a bit cleaner than Dublin, but the people have more of the same Irish friendly and chatty attitude. If you ask someone from Belfast about the difference and they’ll tell you Dublin has lost it’s Irish character where Belfast has not, although they will spend at least twenty minutes doing so. I guess its all relative as Dublin was definitely more cosmopolitan than Belfast (but much less so than London). 

And then we focused on the whole point of the expedition north: the new Titanic Museum. 

If you listen carefully, you can almost hear Celine.
My extensive experience with museums has taught me one thing: if it takes me more than 45 minutes to go through the whole museum, there’s something wrong with it. In this case, we were at least a couple of hours from tip to tail, and, with the benefit of a few Kilkennys under my belt, I will admit the place was better than most. I tend to resist most pop culture tripe, and the 100th anniversary of a cruise ship sinking certainly qualifies as tripe, in my view. However, in spite of the Hollywood spin on this story, there is something strangely compelling about the whole business. Come to Belfast and see for yourself.

An aside on food:

I don’t understand how the entire Irish population has not expired from scurvy. Fruits and vegetables are rare sights on the menu. Deep fried foods in their many variations, along with creative uses of the glorious potato, dominate the culinary landscape. The food is generally good and filling, but I found myself craving fresh produce. And this from someone who generally passes on salad of any kind.

Maybe vegetables are good for you.
Our last day was a guided bus tour from Belfast to the Giant’s Causeway. We expected it to be meteorological nightmare as the northern tip of Ireland is competitive with Scotland in terms of wind, rain, and cold. The weather up to that point in the holiday had been consistently rainy and cool, so we had accepted our fate. Being provisioned for an arctic adventure, the weather refused to cooperate, and we were bathed in sunshine and light breezes all day. C’est la vie.

The trip itself was pleasant enough in spite of the managed feel of the excursion (e.g. “We’re only stopping here for 15 minutes people. Please take your pics and get back on the bus as soon as possible.”). An overhyped rope bridge, and a brief stop to look at a medieval castle (from about a mile away) brought us eventually to the Giant’s Causeway. 

Only 100 feet to the water. 
Not much of a beach vacation.
Is that a castle way over there?

We were told the Giant’s Causeway is the number 3 natural tourist destination in the world, after the Grand Canyon and Niagara falls. If that is true, I expect it is a distant, distant third, and I worry about whoever finished in 4th, 5th, 6th etc.. I found it a bit disappointing until I got up close, as the columnar basalts are pretty cool.  Ann was giddy. However, I simply can’t believe there are that many tourists with the same interest in structural geology.

A volcano did all this? Yippee!
Finally a quiet moment.
Train, cab, plane, plane, car and we’re home for supper the next day (after a quick detour to San Sebastian for a couple of cases of good Riojas).

Irish Holiday ratings:
Food 5
Beer 8
People 9 (almost 10)
Sites 6
Overall 7

author's note - don't let the pictures fool you, most of the days were chilly and rainy.