Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Side note

You hear a lot about Irish people saying "how's the craic" as the starting point to a conversation about the latest news or gossip or whatnot. This phrase not being one that naturally rolls off the tongue, we gave our NI hosts a laugh by saying "what's the craic" or various other permutations as we tried to perfect our nonchalance. We never actually heard the phrase uttered, though, and were beginning to think that it was some kind of legend, until we were walking down the streets of Donegal, and a teenage girl uttered the phrase as a form of greeting instead of "hi" when she encountered some friends on the sidewalk. I was, frankly, astonished that people would adopt something so much more complicated when a simple one-syllable sound would suffice.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Donegal breaks the Brigadoon curse

After another poor night's sleep (although nothing could compete with the previous one) and another enormous breakfast, we got back in the car for the ride to County Galway. We mostly stuck to the larger roads, since it takes longer to get from place to place than you think it will on this island. This was compounded by the fact that we stopped a lot--to look at crumbling ruins, to step into charmed prehistoric circles of standing stones while sheep watched warily from the next field over, and to visit the town of Donegal, which is much more attractive than its namesake in PA.

Donegal was our lunch destination. We strolled past the obligatory castle, around the market square, which was bustling with the buying and selling of cheap food and merchandise, and then walked right out of town in an effort to get some hunger going. The town was small enough that this wasn't particularly difficult. We saw another graveyard on the grounds of a ruined abbey and stopped in to survey the inhabitants. There was a good range of headstone styles and ages, which made for some interesting looking. Some overlooked the water, a pleasant place for a final repose if there ever was one (although decaying bodies may negatively impact water quality when placed in a location with so little buffer).

The lunch places recommended in the book were all closed, so we selected a big barn of a place nearby that seemed popular with the locals. We got sandwiches in the pub part, opting not to sit in the wee snug for fear of being overlooked by the wait staff. (Turns out that they know to look in there--go figure.) The food was pretty standard, but the scene was lively, with a bustle not unlike the typical American after-church meal.

With our appetites satisfied, we navigated the narrow roads out of town and continued heading southwest. We passed Ballyshannon, Sligo, and the outskirts of Galway. Listening to the radio is one of our pastimes of driving vacations, and Ireland's stations were a mixed bag of dreck and entertainment. Some stations were in Gaelic, and at first I thought we were picking up a signal from the Netherlands, as the guttural sound of some letters tricked me. Given that we were driving in and out of An Ghaeltacht, as the Gaelic-speaking regions of Ireland are called, it should have come as no surprise. (What was surprising was the fact that, in spite of the warnings in guidebooks that one might have problems with signage in this area, everything was in both Gaelic and English so it was fine.) As afternoon wore on, the announcer on a station playing traditional music came on to recite the obituaries. This went on for about 10 minutes and covered several recently-departed individuals. We eventually switched to another station and discovered that they, too, were reading the obits. While passing through Galway around rush hour, we listened to a broadcast were the young DJ had an old man on the phone, clearly trying to get a rise out of him with an eye towards getting him to say something non-P.C. The old guy had that throaty Irish chuckle you hear Lucky the Leprechaun do on sugared cereal commercials. After staring at each other in disbelief that people actually did that here, we couldn't help but laugh ourselves.

We arrived in Kinvara about 6 p.m., parking our car in the small gravel lot by the house and converted barn owned by our host. She came out to greet us and took us into her place to get the keys, where she was knitting a spectacularly colorful array of baby clothes. She asked us if we had heard about her place on NPR, as one of their reporters comes there every summer and did a piece on it. She also said that John Prine summered in town with his family, sometimes jamming at the musical evenings that crop up so frequently around there. She then showed us to the barn where we'd be sleeping. It was thatched, with uneven whitewashed walls a foot or more thick, and filled with books and art. I thought to myself, I'll have no problems sleeping HERE, even though the barn is practically sitting in the road. Although the barn was supposed to be self-catering, she had stocked the fridge with breakfast supplies, earning our eternal gratitude.

After puttering around a bit in our cozy space, we made our way out to explore the Dunguaire castle across the street. This place has tours and medieval-style banquets in the more temperate months, so we just skirted around the outside on a slim, muddy track that gave way to the bay below. After a fashion it was time to decide about dinner, so we walked into the town proper and scoped things out. Let's see, should we go to the one nice restaurant with pricey food that was recommended? Or the self-dubbed "best food and music in town"? Or the other best food in town place, with free music nightly? It was awful difficult to discern between one place and the next there, and all of them seemed pretty quiet at that hour. We ended up at Keogh's, which had some stickers of various travel publications on the door, and sat in the pub area. Another so-so meal passed, as we listened to two very authentic looking old guys chatting at the bar and drinking endless cups of coffee. There was an acoustic guitar case propped up against the bar, a good sign, and a guy who would alternate between checking on it and having a shouted conversation with another person in the restaurant area. Eventually he left with his possessions, and after dawdling as much as we thought humanly possible, we exited as well and took another slow cruise around town, listening carefully for any distant strains of a violin or crooning, but all was still. We entered another bar, this one nearly barren of ornament and seemingly populated exclusively by locals. I got a couple beers at the bar and we had a sit at one of the tables, ignored by the rather boisterous group of varying ages (although women were heavily outnumbered). We sipped our way through the beers, waiting for something to happen, but nothing did so we went back to our place. We researched the next day's activities and called it a night.

(The title of the post references the fact that I fervently believe that stopping in Donegal somehow created the karmic connection that allowed us to find the elusive Maggie's on the Pike in Donegal, PA, last time we drove the PA turnpike. I've wanted to go there for years, and we actually tried one time but failed to find it. I referred to the place as the Brigadoon of Donegal, appearing every so often out of the mists so that mortals can visit it and sup on its vegetarian cuisine, and then disappearing again without a trace. Now the curse is broken. But given the fact that it's a ways off the turnpike and that it was a bit pricey, I doubt we'll be dropping in with any regularity.)

Monday, July 07, 2008

NI, day 2

Time and a decent breakfast make up for most, if not all, injustices perpetrated in the night, so after some grumbling and in-room tea, we descended the stairs for the morning's repast. The cheery husband served as waiter, and seemed befuddled when we came down, as he had apparently not been informed by the missus that we'd be dining at that hour. The buffet consisted of the usual B&B stuff (cereal, OJ, yogurt (including rhubarb!), caffeinated beverages), and then the guy brought out the Ulster fry: fried soda bread, fried eggs, bacon, really good sausage, fried tomato, and fried potato bread. Every bit of it delicious, and not a bit of it going to waste in spite of its immense proportions. Wikipedia informs me that it is traditionally all fried in lard. Loverly.

With that under our belts we hit the road back to Portstewart, having already told our hosts the day before what we would like to see. We all crammed into their Continental style van that they rented in France (with the steering wheel on the wrong wrong side) and made our way to the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, a tourist attraction that connects some scenic cliffs with a tiny island. It was mighty windy on the narrow trail leading to the bridge, which was protected from the cliff's edge by a thick, thorny hedge of vigorously blooming whin (gorse). Once we started out it began to rain lightly. H. managed to make it across the scarily-jouncy bridge in spite of her fear of heights. The views were beautiful and the sea a lovely deep greeny-blue, but it was not an ideal day for hanging out. We lingered on the island a bit and then made our way back to the car, once again damp.

Our next stop was the Bushmill's distillery for the whiskey tour, paying a dear price for the privilege. We waited about a half hour for the tour to start, discovering in the meantime that the bathrooms had won an annual prize for nicest facilities in NI (although our hosts told us that nearly everyone has won it). We then had to trudge through the rain again to get to a connecting building. It was not all that interesting of a tour, primarily because there wasn't much to see aside from the giant copper distilling vessels and oak maturing barrels. And the bottling facility wasn't operating because it was a weekend, so we got shown a video instead. But our tour guide was nice and endlessly patient while answering all the questions she had answered a million times before, such as the fact that the water they use comes directly out of the stream outside the complex, but the triple-distillation process removes all the impurities and then the high-proof liquor is diluted to the proper strength with tap water. She informed us that Bushmill's had created a new whiskey for the distillery's 400th anniversary that was made with crystallized malts, giving it a distinctly different flavor than the others in their line. Once the tour was over we received one sample each of the whiskey of our choosing, although the new whiskey wasn't among the choices. The tour guide came around and chatted us up and I asked her about it, and she said she could give us a wee dram due to our specialness. I wasn't crazy about my first sample, but this one was very pleasant. I resolved to ask strangers more questions from then on, thinking that at least some of the time it would result in interesting things happening. That lasted about a week before I annoyed myself out of it.

When we concluded the tour after a look around the gift shop, the sun was peeking out and we ate lunch vagabond-style in the back of the van. We were well-provisioned with cheeses, crackers, strawberries, watermelon, and other delights. I had some special ANZAC biscuits that I had made at home and was carrying around in the unlikely event that I needed a snack, so I shared those as well. It was a nice light meal after such a heavy breakfast. Our next stop on the grand tour was to the Giant's Causeway, an unusual geologic formation made up of hexagonally-shaped stone columns rising out of the water. At £5 per car, it was a relative bargain when compared with Bushmill's. It is a UNESCO world heritage site, and in contrast to the reverential air of most such places, people were scrambling all over the rocks and having a good ol' time. Young couples were testing their bravery by getting their pictures taken while the water sprayed up behind them after hitting the rocks. Once we got our fill, we took the long way back past an organ pipe rock formation and up the hillside, gamely crawling under the "trail closed" barrier and scrambling over the not-at-all dangerous miniature landslide blocking the path, to enjoy the scenic views from on high.

Later we stopped off in the town of Bushmills for a pint while we waited for the dinner hour to arrive. We learned that the room we were in, which had space for about 8 people, was too big to be considered a "snug". We learned that we were pronouncing "Smithwick's" properly. We learned that C. was well on his way to becoming Irishified, with all his talk of "sweets" (candy) and "football pitches" (soccer fields) and "chips" (fries) and "crisps" (chips).

After a reasonable amount of time, we headed over to Portrush, Portstewart's tourist-trappy next-door neighbor. The arcades and rides gave it an Ocean City vibe, but this was March, when all the OC stuff would still be shuttered. In Ireland, though, the first day of spring is on February 1, so they were well into the season by the time we showed up. In spite of the hokiness, they did have some decent dining options there, and on this day everyone and their mother was trying to get into the Harbour Bistro, just like us. We put our names in the queue and then went to wait upstairs in their ample lounge. An hour later they called our names and we went down.

The system was similar to the one we encountered in London, where you peruse the menu at the table and then order up front. I got a nice piece of salmon with caramelized fennel and cep (porcini) foam. Jack got an amazing dish of mac & cheese with a side of garlic fries. Everything was well worth the wait, and if you forgot to convert the currency it even seemed to be reasonably priced.

Knowing we'd have a drive ahead of us the next day and given the previous night's lack of quality sleep, we headed back to the B&B after taking in Portstewart's nightlife of people eating ice cream in their cars, taxis waiting outside of the nightclub, and teens who wanted to be hooligans but weren't brave enough to act out in front of the cops cruising slowly down the strip. (All the police stations in NI look like prisons--high chain-link fences topped with barbed wire.) We were sad to have to leave after such a short visit, but it was time to head south.