Ok, so I’m not Irish (sadly), but my great-grandparents on my mother’s side were born in Belfast and emigrated to America when they were adults, around the early 1900s. My grandpa was extremely proud of his Irish roots, so much so that he and his brother made sure to pass on to their kids all the information about our remaining family in Northern Ireland (some who have since moved to Scotland, which I’ll get to in another post!), so visiting Ireland, to me, was pretty special.
I wanted to see as much of the island as possible, but I hate how restrictive bus tours are. So there was only one other option: renting a car. To make the rental as cheap as possible, I’d have to drive a stick. Automatic vehicles are not only rare in the UK, they come at a premium. My brilliant plan to get around the extra cost was to have a friend teach me how to drive a stick right before my trip. It was not pretty. I went ahead with my stupid plan anyway, and rented a manual car to drive 600km (on the wrong side of the road and vehicle, with left hand operated gear shifting and different driving laws). I’ll lift the suspense: yes, car and driver survived! (I may have stalled approximately 40 times in 2 days however, including at multiple roundabouts in the middle of the road, you know…) all of this was witnessed by a new friend who tagged along with me, who definitely prevented me from having a meltdown whenever I felt like I was going to kill us both!
Before my rental car adventure began, I was in Dublin for a few days. I had trouble finding a couchsurfing host in the city, so the first night I stayed well outside the city in a charming cottage/house that was over 100 years old in the Irish countryside with a host who rescued me last-minute from having to pay crazy hostel/hotel prices in central Dublin. My first day in Dublin I visited the Trinity College Library, which might be my new favorite place on earth. I think it’s where books want to go when they die.
I then walked around St. Stephen’s Green, catching Pokémon (the app hadn’t been released on the European app store yet, so I looked crazy). I wandered all over the city and riverfront, visiting the famed “Temple Bar” and neighborhood, which if you love pubs is great… not a huge pub fan myself and I can’t drink Guinness (not gluten free), although I did have a sip of one just for kicks and I must say, it really is better right at the original source!
The following day my rental car adventure began. My new German friend and I visited 4 main attractions: The Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, the Dark Hedges, The Giant’s Causeway, and the city of Belfast.
The “dark hedges” (a long tree-lined street famous for its creepiness) was our first stop– extremely magical, but I feel as though it was the wrong time of year, and the wrong time of day, for them to really shine. Since they are so spooky in certain light, it was far too sunny and happy looking while we were there! And the parking area made me want to cry with my manual car. Parallel parking on a hill with a 3-point turn over a narrow bridge *shudders and cries*.
Next up was Carrick-a-rede, which was quite a hike! I had no idea! I thought it would just be hopping out of the car and crossing a rope bridge! Nope. It was a gorgeous 2km hike along a coastal cliff to the bridge, then the very underwhelming bridge crossing (it boggles my mind how some people find this bridge scary) and then you get to explore the big ‘ol rock the bridge dumps you off on, a hilly little seabird sanctuary that plummets down on all sides to the deceptively turquoise blue waters below, which look almost tropical, but are no doubt frigid. I’m glad we were there in the summer because even on a sunny summer day there is a chill in the strong winds.
We hung out there for a while taking photos and then headed back to the car. The next stop was to get lunch at a place I’d researched weeks in advance in a nearby town. With my gluten allergy, I’ve learned the hard way to find a place before setting off to an unknown town in an unknown country. As fate would have it, the place I planned to eat didn’t open until 5pm, and it was 3:30 or so–we were far too hungry to wait, so we meandered down the street and found a hole-in-the-wall shop that had baked potatoes. A baked potato in Ireland sounded like a splendid idea! It was a fairly good potato and extremely cheap, and the place seemed shocked to be serving tourists. Northern Ireland in general seemed a bit down-trodden. Everywhere I ate was like that, mostly empty, surprised to be serving foreigners even when we weren’t far off the beaten path.
Our last stop of the day before returning to Belfast was The Giant’s Causeway. I don’t remember when I first learned of this place, but I knew the moment I did I needed to see it in person. I couldn’t believe it wasn’t man-made, and I still can’t. The rock formations–the way they all fit together and are flat on top and hexagonal on the sides–makes it look like they were intricately chiseled and placed together by human–or giant!–hands, which is exactly why the place is named after a legend that the whole thing WAS built by giants. There is a beautiful museum here and audio guide meant to explain to you how a volcano formed this geological marvel millions of years ago, but honestly, it makes no sense. Aliens are clearly responsible.
I’m ashamed to admit by the time I returned to Belfast I was too tired to do anything in the city my great-grandparents were born and lived in. I wish I had been able to spend more time there. I did meander down the street at 11:30pm once I’d awoken from a nap at my hostel starving and managed to find a pizza place that was open AND had gluten-free pizza! Thank you, Opera Pizza!
The next day it was back to Dublin, to continue my quest to find Domhnall Gleeson and marry him. I was staying with a couchsurfing host in Swords who very smartly suggested we go to the town of Howth on the coast and eat at the market and hike atop the Howth hills afterwards. It was a brisk and beautiful coastal trail overlooking the sea and the city, covered with wildflowers!
My couchsurfing host also persuaded me to visit Malahide Castle, and do a Riverdance-esque show, which was fabulous but felt ridiculously touristy due to an enormous group of very overwhelmed and excited asian tourists next to us. Sometimes you just gotta do the touristy stuff though!
Malahide Castle offered an excellent tour that included ghost stories and the fascinating history of the Talbot family who continually owned and controlled the estate for more than 800 years, except for a brief period when the home was forcibly taken away from them (bastards!).
Ireland, you were magical and I can’t wait to return!