Dublin, Ireland (Round Two!)

Back in August 2013, I spent a week in Dublin with my travel buddy, Michael. We poured pints at the Guinness Storehouse, walked on the Liffey Bridge, visited Trinity College, took bus tours to Howth and Wicklow Mountain National Park, saw St. Patrick's Cathedral, and ate a lot of great food. When Kyle and I started planning our backpacking trip, I figured we'd skip Ireland. It felt repetitive to travel there a second time. However, I realized it would be awesome to show Kyle around one of my favorite cities, so I spontaneously added it to our itinerary. That's the great thing about Europe. When you're already there, travel is so affordable!

We spent the entire drive from Galway trying to outrun a storm, but we weren't successful. It rained the entire time, and our windshield wipers were swishing back and forth like mad. We were so relieved when we reached Dublin.

Our first full day was for exploring and sightseeing. After breakfast at our flat, we walked to the Jameson Distillery and bought tickets for a guided tour. Our guide was so knowledgeable and enthusiastic about whiskey, and we really enjoyed learning about the history of the distillery, which is now a museum. At the end of the tour, we sampled and compared Jameson, Jack Daniels, and Johnny Walker Black Label. After that, the bartender gave us each a whiskey ginger ale with lime, which was so refreshing. I highly recommend the Jameson Distillery if you're visiting Dublin! (I also recommend the Guinness Storehouse, but we skipped that one since I had already been.)

Our next stop was Christ Church Cathedral. I didn't get a chance to go inside during my first visit to Dublin, so I was really excited. The interior was absolutely stunning, with high ceilings and stained glass windows. We also went inside St. Patrick's Cathedral, which had very similar and beautiful architecture.

Dublin Castle, Temple Bar, and the Liffey Bridge were next on our list, and we spent the rest of the afternoon walking around Dublin and soaking up the city's warm, cozy vibe.

Dinner was the highlight of our day. We walked to The Brazen Head, Ireland's oldest pub. It was crazy crowded, but we got lucky and snagged a table quickly. The rooms were dim, the ceilings were low, and traditional Irish music crooned around the restaurant. We ordered the Irish lamb stew (and a Guinness, of course), and it was delicious.

The next (and last) two days of our trip were filled with bangers and mash at The Church, a visit to Trinity College Library, a quick visit to the Irish Whiskey Museum (in search of Irish whiskey dark chocolate), drinks at the infamous and rowdy Temple Bar Pub, Nutella crepes at Lemon Jelly, coffee with Baileys, and lots of walking around Dublin's spirited cobblestone streets. 

The highlight of our last day, my 25th birthday, was afternoon tea at The Westbury. Our reservation was for 1pm, and I felt extremely underdressed. The downside of packing super light for a five-week trip? Outfit options are realllllllly limited! I tried to look somewhat put together, but my hair was bigger than Hermoine Granger a la The Sorcerer's Stone. I was dreaming of my hair dryer and straightener by that point. ANYWAYS. Afternoon tea. It was delightful. We sat on plush, velvet couches, and started off with a kettle of sweet, tangy lemon tea. Soon after, our server came out with a three tier platter that held small sandwiches on the bottom, buttermilk scones with clotted cream in the middle, and miniature desserts on the top. Everything looked and tasted amazing. When we finished eating, Kyle ordered a Nutella hot chocolate that literally had Nutella dripping over the edges of the mug. I'm obsessed with Nutella, so you can imagine my glee. I was really grateful that Kyle planned such an awesome birthday for me, especially since it was our last day in Europe.

That night, we stuffed our belongings in our packs for the very last time (and it was a miracle everything fit, considering the souvenirs we accumulated along the way). The next morning, we flew back to Virginia.

Our backpacking trip was an incredible experience. Last summer, I would have never predicted that in the spring, Kyle and I would catch a flight to Paris and explore Europe and the United Kingdom for five weeks. Our trip taught me that anything is possible. Where there's a will, there's a way. Last July, I was fighting for my life. And today, a year later, I'm writing about countries and cities I never thought I'd be able to see. I used to doubt my strength and determination, but ever so slowly, I've learned to silence that little voice in my head and embrace my courage. And if I can do it, anyone can do it. Seriously.

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Ireland's West Coast

On Tuesday morning, we waved goodbye to England while soaring over the sparkling Irish Sea, courtesy of Aer Lingus. We landed in Cork around noon, rented a car (a bright red, two door, automatic Skoda Citigo), and headed to Blarney Castle.

Our rental car was hilarious. We sort of regretted not asking for a different vehicle, but its quirky features were endearing. It didn't have a "park" gear, so whenever we stopped, we had to use the emergency brake. In addition, its engine was laughably lackluster. Kyle would forcefully press his foot on the gas to shoot us up a hill, but nothing would happen...still nothing would happen...and all of a sudden, we'd blast forward. I think I got whiplash a few times. On top of all that, Kyle was learning how to drive on the left side of the road. He adjusted to the different traffic patterns quickly, though. I was impressed! (And grateful, because I probably would've gotten us into an accident.) 

After driving for half an hour through rolling green hills, we reached Blarney Castle. The ruins and surrounding gardens were remarkable. Kyle and I couldn't believe how rich and green everything was.

After grabbing some hot chocolate, we made our way up the steep steps of Blarney Castle in search of the Blarney Stone. It's been a tradition to kiss the Blarney Stone in exchange for the gift of eloquence for ages. I wasn't sure what to expect. I guess I imagined there'd be a stone at the top of the castle, waiting patiently for tourists to pucker up. It wasn't exactly that easy, though! We actually had to hang upside down over a sheer drop to reach the stone. As you can imagine, this act was really dangerous back in the day. Luckily for us, a castle employee helped us down safely. I was still freaking out a little bit, though.

Our next destination was the Cliffs of Moher. It took us 2.5 hours to get there, so we passed the time by listening to an Irish talk show. The radio hosts were playing trivia with callers from around the country, so it was really entertaining. Our drive to the West Coast was lovely. We drove on small, winding roads that twisted and turned around green fields abundant with sheep and cows. We even had to stop a few times to let tractors pass.

When we reached the Cliffs of Moher, it was swarming with tour groups. It was also extremely cold, windy, and overcast. I was so happy to be there, sharing such a neat experience with Kyle, but I had also reached a precarious level of exhaustion. The previous four weeks of plane rides, train rides, car rides, uncomfortable lodging, language barriers, inconsistent food options, and on top of it all, working full-time, totally wiped me out. Hiking up the cliffs against powerful gusts of icy wind certainly didn't help the situation. We tried to take a few pictures, but the wind was so strong that every single photo had my scarf, hood, and hair whipping wildly around my face. We admired the view for a few moments, and after that, we took shelter in the Visitor Centre. 

Next, we headed to Corofin to find our AirBnB for the night. Luckily, it was only half an hour away.

Corofin turned out to be a teeny tiny town in County Clare. We stayed at an adorable bed and breakfast with a lovely couple, Patricia and Mario. They were so kind and accommodating. As soon as we woke up, Patricia prepared a traditional Irish breakfast for us. The spread included fresh fruit, scrambled eggs (that were laid that morning by chickens in their backyard), sausage, toast, white and black pudding, grilled tomatoes, baked beans, tea, orange juice, and coffee. We ate slowly and had a great conversation with Patricia and Mario. They were wonderful hosts.

Shortly afterwards, we packed up the car and headed to Doolin, a small coastal village (also known as the music capital of Ireland). We drove through the town pretty quickly, but we were charmed by the colorful buildings that lined the Atlantic ocean and countless pubs that littered the street. 

Our final destination on the West Coast of Ireland was Galway. I was instantly overcome with love for this thriving, seaside city. The labyrinthine cobblestone streets, colorful shops, spirited pubs, small fishing boats, and beautiful beaches were enchanting. Both the residents and visitors were so diverse and interesting, and it was fun to walk around and soak up the Irish culture.

I had a long list of things I wanted to do and see in Galway (like Kylemore Abbey), but my weariness from the previous day persisted, so we decided to take it easy. We threw our packs on the floor and headed straight for bed at the Galway Bay Hotel. Our room offered a gorgeous view of Galway Bay from our window. We ate a roast at the hotel's restaurant, and after that, we went right to sleep.

The next morning, we embarked on the last leg of our backpacking trip with a four hour drive to Dublin. 

Dublin, Ireland

Our first day in Dublin began with a quick nap in our hotel's WiFi lounge after a long red-eye flight. When Michael and I woke up, we realized we were starving. After browsing a few gift shops and admiring the infamous Spire of Dublin, we stumbled upon a beautiful church-turned-restaurant, The Church Cafe Bar. After splitting an incredible plate of braised ham shank with buttery cabbage and creamy mashed potatoes, we climbed onto the bright red Hop-On-Hop-Off bus. The driver took us leisurely around Dublin, sneaking brief glimpses of popular attractions such as St. Patrick's Cathedral, Trinity College, and The Guinness Storehouse. At that point, we decided to jump off and wander into the revered land of Guinness.

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GUINNESS STOREHOUSE

After purchasing tickets, we joined the small crowd that was preparing for the storehouse's next self-guided tour. Our speaker, a comical Irish native, got everyone pumped up and ready to go. The first level of the tour held phenomenal exhibits of the ingredients that make Guinness so delicious - barley, hops, water and yeast. The next eight levels contained vivid demonstrations of the beer-making process: milling, mashing, separating, boiling, fermentation, maturation, and packing. After browsing each level, we were ready to master the art of pouring the perfect pint.

The crowd split into several different groups, each gathering around a storehouse bartender. After a detailed demonstration, each group member had to pour her own beer in front of the crowd. When our turn came, Michael poured his pint like a pro. I managed to pour mine without clumsily splashing beer everywhere, which was good enough for me. Our reward was the best pint of Guinness we had ever consumed and a fancy paper certificate. 

After sitting at a nearby table and finishing our drinks, we made our way up to the Gravity Bar. Dublin's skyline was unassuming yet beautiful. The entire city sprawled before us and the sky stretched for miles. We wandered around the hustle and bustle and snapped a few photos before heading back to the bus.

WICKLOW MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK

The next day, we took a tour bus to Wicklow Mountain National Park. Finding our bus was a huge debacle. There were several buses lining O'Connell Street, but each driver we approached had no idea which group we were looking for. After a few frantic moments, we found our group! After we departed, we found out our bus contained fourteen nationalities, and Michael and I were the only Americans on board. It was cool hearing such a large variety of different languages. 

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The drive to Glendalough was breathtaking. The mountains were a rich, mossy green. They honestly didn't look real. We stopped by the infamous bridge from P.S. I Love You, as well as several scenic overlooks that offered incredible views of the hills and valleys below. Our bus driver, Richard, was hilarious. He told the best jokes, used abbreviations for everything (pictures were "piccies", and souvenirs were "souvies"), and played traditional Irish music as we rolled through the mountains. He also informed us that there really are more sheep in Ireland than humans. We twisted through winding passages, peered off the edge of towering cliffs, and passed several beautiful streams surrounded by blossoming flowers.

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After two and a half hours, Wicklow Mountain National Park came into view. We hopped off the bus and began a short hike to the lower and upper lakes. The weather was gorgeous, and the trails were packed with visitors. It actually got so warm during our hike that I had to remove my jacket. When we reached the upper lake, we sat on the pebble shore and gazed into the distance. It was so quiet and peaceful. 

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Our day trip ended with a quick stop for lunch in Avoca. We scarfed down a delicious tuna melt topped with sweet chili, and free shots of Jameson were distributed around the restaurant. We sat with a new friend, Avi, and exchanged our stories. He was visiting from Jerusalem with the intention of studying conflict analysis in Belfast. Talking to him was fascinating. I admired the fact that he was traveling alone. That's something I've always wanted to do. Soon after, Richard summoned us back to the bus. The warm sunshine and soft Irish music put me right to sleep, and when I woke up, we were almost back in Dublin.

THE LIFFEY BRIDGE

The rest of our trip was filled with an afternoon bus tour to Howth and Malahide Castle, several strolls around Dublin, a visit to Trinity College and St. Patrick's Cathedral, a guitar serenade of U2's "With Or Without You" in Temple Bar, Irish dancing at midnight, and plenty of shopping.

One of my favorite experiences was visiting the Liffey Bridge (also known as the Ha'Penney Bridge). Michael and I walked over and around the bridge many times, reminiscing about the fact that months before, we were only able to see it in photographs. It was an odd but glorious sensation, standing somewhere I had dreamed of visiting for years. Ireland was always at the top of my long list of countries to visit, and it was my first destination abroad. To me, the Liffey Bridge symbolized that dreams really can come true. It was the landmark I repeatedly saw in pictures during those years of yearning, when traveling across the Atlantic felt like such a difficult feat to accomplish. Standing on the bridge at last, admiring Dublin's architecture, felt amazing. For the very first time, Europe had materialized in front of me as a tangible, reachable place.

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PLACES TO EAT

O'Sheas: This cute little bar quickly morphed into our go-to place to grab a drink after a long day of exploring. Our first visit involved a pot of steaming lamb stew. The lamb was tender and juicy, and the broth was filled with savory vegetables. The following nights were spent listening to live music and watching an impressive display of traditional Irish dancing. The spirit of O'Sheas was lively and fun, and we returned multiple times.

J. W. Sweetman: After reading J.K. Rowling's The Cuckoo's Calling, I was dying to try a plate of bangers and mash. I got my wish on our last day in Dublin. The rich, mustardy sausage perfectly complimented its creamy bed of mashed potatoes. Doused in gravy, the plate was an instant hit.

Pacino's: Skimming the menu at Pacino's had Michael and I salivating before our food even came out. Loaded with mozzarella, buffalo mozzarella, Italian pepperoni, caramelized red onion, goat cheese, basil petso, and tomato sauce, the Michelangelo pizza had an incredible flavor. It was super cheesy and had a very thin, crispy crust. One of our favorite moments occurred when we asked our waiter for a side of Ranch. He laughed, called us out for being American, and brought us mayonnaise instead. Europeans don't do Ranch, apparently.

O'Neils: After an enthusiastic recommendation from a friend, we stopped by O'Neils for lunch after visiting Dublin Castle. Our fish and chips were phenomenal. The fish was perfectly fried, undoubtedly fresh, and tasted wonderful dipped in tartar sauce.

The Church: The braised ham shank from The Church was our first meal in Ireland and served as the perfect introduction to traditional Irish food. The tender meat practically fell from the bone, and the buttery cabbage and creamy mashed potatoes were drool-worthy.