A few weeks ago, a friend and colleague of mine was lamenting the fact that she was about to leave Europe and hadn't made it to Ireland, the place where her ancestors are from. Perhaps it was the wine we'd been drinking copiously at dinner or my lust for travel, but my response was "why not go together?" And so that's how we found ourselves in Ireland for the first time last weekend. Here's a quick recap of what we saw and did...
Day 1 - Galway to Cork
Our plane got into Dublin from Frankfurt at about half past 11 pm. From there, we rented a small car and drove to Galway for the night where we'd booked beds in a cheap, but well-reviewed hostel. The drive was fairly straight and easy along a major highway that night, though I admit I didn't do the driving.
In the morning we got up and wandered around Galway looking for a breakfast spot. This was really my first impression of Ireland as I hadn't seen much in the dark the night before. Apart from the signs in both Gaelic and English, there wasn't much difference between it and a small town in Germany. Though rather than half-timber houses, the style in Ireland was much more squat and dark. I found the architecture charming, though I was glad to be there during the spring and not the dead of winter.
Around the lovely, green Eyre Square we managed to find the Skeffington Arms Hotel which advertised a breakfast menu. We decided to give it a shot. Once inside, we were surprised by the stunning interior with its full, wrap-around wooden bar that looked like something out of the last century. My Irish breakfast was great, too, with a fried egg, bacon, sausage, pudding, blood sausage, potatoes, mushrooms, a tomato, and toast. I'd never had Irish pudding before and liked how similar it was to Southern scrapple, which I love! The blood pudding, another first for me, had a more challenging texture but was still okay.
With our bellies full, we took a short stroll through old Galway to the harbor. We passed several pubs, shops selling gorgeous Irish wool sweaters, and a Willy-Wonkaesque sweet shop where I bought the tastiest Irish cream fudge. We made it as far as the harbor for a lovely view of the town (and not so lovely view of the trash heap in the harbor) before turning around.
After our stroll, we made it back to the car around noon to make the short drive to our next stop: the Cliffs of Moher. I should note that getting there was stunning. The countryside, green and flush with spring, rolled before us revealing a number of quaint cottages, crumbling castles, and imposing stone mountains. The roads were incredibly narrow, though, and the speed limit was rather high, making for some challenging driving that I'm pleased to say my husband handled well. More than anything, I was surprised by how many seemingly abandoned cottages we passed, juxtaposed with new housing construction in the countryside. It was as if the inhabitants had simply left their old houses to build new ones.
We arrived at the Cliffs of Moher at about 2 pm, parked the car in a small lot, and paid the 6 euro fee to see the cliffs. After a brief stop at the tourist office, we walked out to the cliffs where we were greeted by a grandiose view. The cliffs, which were formed about 320 million years ago, are 700 feet above sea level and extend for about five miles. The sheer drop of the rock face was terrifying, and it took some courage for me to sidle up to the edge, even though I'm not afraid of heights. We stayed to the right of the main cliffs around and past O'Brian's tower. The striation on the cliffs here was fascinating, and I was entranced by the swooping seagulls who'd built their homes into the rock face. The path on that side was narrow, and went past pastures with cows and sheep, ending close to Gallway.
After a couple of hours walking and taking pictures (with a short fall in the mud on my part), we got back in the car for the drive to Cork. We got there about 7 pm, dropped our bags off at our hostel, and headed out for dinner.
I made a list before we left of a few highly rated restaurants on Trip Advisor so that we'd have some options for good meals on our trip. Coqbull was one of them. The restaurant was located down a side street in the center of Cork and offered mostly burgers and fries. I ordered Ploughman's Bull burger with dill pickle, dijon mustard, cheddar cheese and a whiskey chutney. Matt got the special with a chorizo filling. He also got the Mac and Cheese, which was super cheesy and creamy. I had the regular fries with a side of truffle mayo, but I much preferred my friend's sweet potato fries with the truffle mayo. The mayo was very light on the truffle flavoring and so paired perfectly with the sweet fries. We were debating about getting dessert after our filling burgers and craft beers (I recommend the Sabotage IPA), but then my husband settled that decision by ordering the apple pie, donuts, and cookie brownie all for us to share. The cookie brownie was the clear winner: rich and chocolaty with streaks of cookie dough. Yum!
With our bellies full, we headed back up Oliver Plunkett Street towards our hostel and stopped in at The Oliver Plunkett bar for some excellent Irish music from a four-person band upstairs. The atmosphere was calm, with most people enjoying the music while having a beer, and a few people even got up to dance. It was a nice way to spend our first real night in Ireland.
Day 2 - Cork and Around
The next morning we got up around 8 am and stopped at the nearby Spar for a quick breakfast on the go. I wouldn't mention it, except that Matt got a massive breakfast sandwich with all the components of a full Irish, including eggs, potatoes, sausage, bacon, blood pudding, and ketchup (for the tomato). It was impressive!
Next up on the trip was a short drive to the Blarney Castle. I was a bit surprised that the castle was in such a state of ruin, but it was still worth the entrance fee to imagine the former splendor and kiss the stone, which required some acrobatics. Afterwards we walked around the grounds and made visits to the poison garden and fern garden.
From there we headed to the Jameson Distillery, which was one of my favorite stops on the trip. We learned all about the triple distillation process for the blend and got to see the old store house, kettles, and cooperage used in the process. Our guide was also extremely charismatic and seemed genuinely happy to show us around. At the end of the tour we had a tasting of Jameson along with a single distilled (Jack Daniels) and double distilled (Johnny Walker Black) whiskey for comparison. Though I'm not a huge fan of whiskey, I really appreciated the smoothness of Jameson. It was especially tasty in my free Jameson, ginger, and lime cocktail that they offered me at the end of the tour.
At this point we needed a snack before dinner, so we stopped in a nearby grocery store to load up. Matt was thrilled to find Cadbury Creme Eggs (which we can't get in. Germany), while our friend went in the other direction with some salty Walker's salt and vinegar chips. I also discovered a snack called Mr. Kipling Battenberg cakes, which were like long petit fours covered in marzipan -- one of my favorites!
After a short drive back to Cork , we stopped for a few craft beers at the Bru Bar, including a delicious Cotton Ball Indian Summer beer from Cork and a Franciscan Well IPA. As a side note, I really liked both the location and convenience of the bar in our hostel. The rooms were also clean and the employees were friendly.
We then had a decent, but pretty average meal at Restaurant 14A and beers again at the Oliver Plunckett. On this night, a Friday, we spent a bit more time with the modern, local band on the ground floor before heading up to the second floor for Irish music. The bar was more crowded that night, and we had some unexpected entertainment courtesy of a stag party dressed up as the T-Birds and a Pink Lady (the groom, of course). I just hope he wasn't getting married the next morning based on how much they were drinking.
Day 3 - Cork to Dublin
We got up around 8 am again the next morning and ate a quick breakfast at the nearby Francesca's Café. It had been recommended to us by the local florist, and I was really impressed by my lovely chicken sandwich with couscous salad, cucumbers, tomatoes, and lettuce. I would definitely recommend a visit if you're ever in Cork.
That morning we left Cork and drove to Cobh. My friend was making a family visit, so we spent the time exploring the coastal town, which turned out to be picturesque. Though the exhibition on the Titanic is probably the main tourist attraction (Cobh was the last embarkation point for passengers before the liner set off into the Atlantic), I much preferred the grandiose cathedral on the hill overlooking the village.
Our plan had been to drive to Dublin from Cobh, but when we saw the sign for Kilkenny Castle we decided to make a brief stop. The castle was just closing for visitors, but we were able to have a lovely cup of tea with scones and shortbread in the old castle kitchen before stretching our legs on the castle grounds.
We got into Dublin around 7 pm, and dropped our stuff off at our hostel before heading out to Temple Bar. There we found another of my restaurant picks, The Boxty House, where we had a kind of Irish potato pancake. Matt had the vegetable chili with cheddar, but I much preferred my corned beef with cabbage and garlic-parsley sauce. The boxty wasn't overly-potatoey, and it reminded me mostly of a kind of Irish crêpe.
We spent the evening bar hopping around Temple Bar and had a grand time! The bars were packed on Saturday night, but we still managed to squeeze in and enjoy some live music and Guinness at the various places we visited. We didn't find much traditional music that night, and I was a little surprised to hear the bands play a lot of the same covers as at the Wasen in Stuttgart. Still, I had a fantastic time staying out late until the lights went up and we were shooed out at closing time (2:30/3:00 am for most places). People were pretty drunk and there were more than a few glasses broken, but I only felt unsafe once when a particularly big guy tried to get a bit too close to us at the end of the night. A few swats was all it took to push him away, though. We made it back safely and in time for just a few hours of sleep before dawn.
Day 4 - Dublin
Despite our late night, we were up early at 7 am for as close to a full day in Dublin as we could manage before our flight. We ate a quick, but satisfying breakfast of coffee, toast, and cereal at the hostel before heading off to Trinity College. Trinity College is the oldest college in Ireland with a founding date of 1592. This explains the stunning cobblestone walkways and stone architecture on campus.
My primary focus on our short visit was the college library, which has the largest collection of books in Ireland, including the Book of Kells written in the 9th century by Columban monks. The book contains the four gospels in Latin, though the real attraction is the way the words are written using colorful pictures drawn onto the calfskin pages. While I found the 10 euro entrance fee a bit much, the book was unlike any other text I'd seen before, and I found the exhibition in the entrance about the production of the text and story behind the letters very interesting. Along with the book, the entrance fee also takes you up through the second floor of the library where you can see the old, barrel-vaulted library hall with its marble busts of famous authors. It was the kind of wood-panelled, floor-to-cieling library that I dreamed of one day owning when I was a child.
After our visit to the library, we left the college and walked down the famous Grafton Street. Though the shops were closed on Sunday, it was interesting to see the different styles of architecture and window displays. When we got to the end of the street, we then cut across Dublin to the Guinness Experience in the old Guiness storehouse. We were lucky to have bought tickets ahead of time, because we were able to completely bypass the lines and get our tickets at the automated machines.
The experience started with a stroll through the ingredients room where we learned all about the barley, hops, water, and yeast used to make the well-known dark stout. We also learned a bit about Arthur Guinness and his 1759 start, plus how the barrels for Guinness were made in the cooperage. Though the site is not the only Guinness brewery in the world, it's the original brewery and still brews some 3 million pints daily. At the end of our tour, we went into the tasting room where we were able to smell the different aromas in a glass of Guinness and learned how to properly taste it. Our final stop was at the top of the building in the Gravity Bar where we said "Sláinte!" as we down our free pints.
At this point we had to do a little rushing to make it to The Bull & Castle for our Sunday roast. We'd seen the restaurant open the day before and thought the menu looked good. It was on the way back to our hostel, so it made for a convenience stop before we got our bags. It sure did turn out to be a good choice! The roast of beef I had was juicy and tender, and was served with a lovely red wine sauce. As sides, I got some crispy roasted/fried potatoes, a giant, flaky Yorkshire pudding, and a bit of cabbage. The meal was so good and large that I couldn't waste it, and so got Matt to help me finish my plate.
It's a good thing the meal was worth it, because we just narrowly made our flight at the airport after begging the nice man at the check-in desk to let us run to the gate in exchange for our boarding passes. I've never cut it so close, and though I probably won't do that again, I think it's rather appropriate that I did it for food.
Overall, I really loved Ireland! The countryside is stunning in the spring sunshine (I make no guarantees during rainy weather) and everyone we encountered there was so nice and welcoming. Though the roads were narrow, getting around with a car was super easy. And though I'm a die-hard fan of public transportation, renting a car was probably one of the best decisions we made as it was cheap for four people and meant we got to visit places on a time frame that might not have otherwise been possible. I was also satisfied with our hostels, and though I don't see myself sleeping in another 10-person dorm like we did in Dublin, choosing hostels over hotels saved us a lot of money and was never inconvenient. More than anything, I feel like we barely scratched the surface of Dublin and I already plan to go back some day.
And so on that note, have you been to Ireland? What recommendations do you have for other readers or for my next trip? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.