I knew Ireland was green, but I was not expecting it to be, well, green! Coming from Washington State, aka The Evergreen State, and living just North of Seattle, The Emerald City (named after the city Dorothy went to in The Wizard of Oz), I thought I knew what green was. While Washington State greenery tends to goes up with tall trees and amazing mountain ranges, Ireland green stays pretty low to the ground with rolling hills and lots of tree-free pasture land.
My introduction to Ireland and 20 months of travel began with a week in Dublin. The city was lovely, the people spoke a strange sort of English, so it was like I was understanding a foreign language, and I knew what
most of the food was, but it was still exciting and different. And the beer. Oh, the beer. The beer spoke a language I longed to understand.
I stayed with CouchSurfing hosts my whole time in Dublin and they gave a wonderful perspective of multi-cultural Ireland. My first host was from South Africa, my second from Germany and my third was Italian. I learned that sometimes foreigners know the city better than locals. After hearing everything they had to say about touristic Dublin, I had to think long & hard about what touristic things to see in my hometown of 80,000 people.
On a daytrip with two American CouchSurfers to Howth, we enjoyed strolling the Irish Sea coast and parttaking in clam chowder. Now, I’ve had a lot of clam chowder in my time. It’s usually made with clams my grandparents or visiting family have dug themselves, then cooked in a milk broth with potatoes, corn, onions and other stuff to make heavenly soup. This was not what we got in Howth. We got a clear broth, some tiny vegetables and clams… still in the shell. Oh, and no spoon! How do you eat this, you may ask. Well, if you want to obviously be a tourist, you go back and ask for a spoon, then wait for a few minutes while they hunt for one in the back room. Or (recommended) you eye how the locals are eating it, which teaches you to drink some broth straight from the bowl (we had ours in take-away cups so it was easier), take out a clam shell, suck out the meat, then put the empty shell in the lid of the cup, then smile dreamily as your broth-soaked clam saunters over your tongue, slides down your throat and settles into you satisfied stomach. Delicious. It wasn’t at all what I’d had at home, but if it was exactly the same, why bother travel?
After an adventurous bus trip to Kilkenny for the night, I took a bus to Cashel with an hour long stopover in Cahir. I had no idea what to do with myself for an hour until I got there. Directly across the street and over the river from the bus stop was Cahir castle. Empty of tourists, free with my Heritage Card and with front desk workers willing to watch my bag, I joyfully explored the jungle-gym that is Cahir castle. Seriously, if you want to visit a castle, go to one in you guidebook. If you want to play in a castle, go to Cahir. I had never heard of it (there are so many castles in Ireland it would be impossible to see them all, but this is the most memorable I visited. I don’t think anything was roped off or forbidden. If you could get to it, you could go there. Everything was free to explore: the walls, the dungeon (until the metal bars since it had flooded) even the random staircases that no longer led to anything but a long drop down. A castle lover’s playground for sure. If you ever go to Cashel, try to stopover in Cahir. Just wear shoes with good traction and you won’t regret it.
Sadly seeing the best castle in all of Ireland shrink out of view, I continued on to Cashel and stayed at my first hostel just outside of town at the base of the Rock of Cashel, a hilltop fortress. There, I met some other travellers who invited me to cook dinner with them. It was great to make new friends outside of CouchSurfing. The hostel had an amazing view of the Rock of Cashel and paired with a fantastic meal and new friends who went with me after dark to explore some ancient ruins in a random cow pasture, it was a great night.
Fortunately, the weather was very nice the following morning, so I visited the fortress and then caught a bus on to Cork. In Cork, I was introduced to Wheetabix by my first Irish hosts. In a houseful of students, cheap foods rule and Wheetabix is in everyone’s breakfast bowls. A block of flaky wheat covered with milk and maybe some fruit or berries turned out to be a great way (for the belly, not necessarily for the taste buds) to wake up in the morning. My hosts also expanded my Irish-stout world from soley Guinness to Beamish and Murphy’s as well. I have to say I prefer the two latter and my budget does too. Plus, how many tourists are buying (or even know of) Beamish and Murphy’s? Most go for Guinness, which, I know, you must have in Ireland, but stretching your tap hunting to include the less-well-known but just as good stouts can really bring you closer to the ‘local’ crowd than Guinness. Trust me, they notice what you’re drinking.
Onward and upward (well, North-ward) to Killarney National Forest where I shared a hostel room with a wonderful German girl who had rented a car and graciously invited me to join her (I assumed the park was within walking distance from the hostel… well, it was… if you want to walk 1 hour). She was a godsend. She was great company, up for anything and knew her way around a bit since she had been there a few days. We had a great picnic with Muckross Lake in front of us, circled with horse drawn carriages carting tourists to the nearby waterfall and Muckross House behind us. I was very lucky to meet her for her company and for her wheels!
I then plowed on up North along the Atlantic coast to Dingle, where my next CouchSurfing host treated me to seaweed shovelling (she uses it for composting), wild herb foraging (for salads) and exploring the quirks of Dingle, including the wild dolphins that live in the harbor. This was just one more surprise Ireland had for me. I would have never guessed that dolphins lived as far North as Dingle (further North than Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), but they do. The tour boats were out (of course) and the dolphins were going crazy, doing flips and jumps. It was a lot of fun to see and from my walking trail along the cliffs, I was able to see it all without paying an arm and a leg for the tour!
In my next post I’ll continue on to Doolin (the city of traditional Irish music), to the Aran Island of Inishmore for biking and hunting for a knit hat and then north with my new Italian amici to Westport to climb 2,507ft-tall (764m) Croagh Patrick!