Thursday, June 3, 2010

Galway Girls

In my previous travels throughout Europe this year, I’ve often been disappointed by how much industrialization, tourism, and American culture have diluted the cultures of places I’ve visited. Ireland, however, has not let me down. It’s everything I would have imagined, and more. The Emerald Isle really is emerald, thanks to all the rainfall and agriculture. The people are welcoming and the Guinness is good. Ireland may be my favorite European country that I’ve visited.

My friend Katie and I stayed the first weekend in Galway, on Ireland’s beautiful west coast. It’s the Republic of Ireland’s third largest city, but it feels like a small, lazy town on the sea. Our hostel was right in the middle of Quay Street, a touristy but fun street packed with traditional pubs and locals and tourists alike. Every night we were there we walked out the hostel door and wandered through the sights and sounds of the busy street. We hopped from pub to pub, sipping Guinness and listening to a mix of traditional Irish bands and more “modern” cover bands, all of them good. In a city with live music every night in every pub, I was in heaven.

I will devote a small paragraph to Guinness, because I’ve discovered it’s always a lovely day for a Guinness. I’m normally not a beer fan, but the fact that the foam on the top looks and tastes as good as ice cream, and you have to drink it reall sloww, and that it’s basically a meal, makes me give a thumbs up to the Irish brew. Our first night in one of the pubs we got a long tutorial from a drunken Irish man at his stag party on how to find the best Guinness. Because apparently not every Guinness tastes the same. According to Paul, it’s best at a small pub in the middle of the countryside, which may or may not have something to do with how often they clean the tap. But if the Guinness is good, the pub will be full, and a full pub means good Guinness.

While in Galway, we made the acquaintances of a number of very friendly Irish men, of all ages. I got invited to have a pint with an elderly gentleman in the middle of the street, but politely declined. Compared to the French guys I’ve been used to, Irish men are much friendlier, and much bigger. I couldn’t stop marveling to Katie at how muscular they are, and I still can’t get over it. It’s nice to see some real men for once. (French guys are still beautiful, but it’s nice to see guys who aren’t skinnier than me. I no longer feel like a whale.)

I especially loved the nightlife in Galway, but believe it or not, we did do some fun things during the daytime. Our first day we took a walk down the “Prom,” a long path along the seashore. The weather was grey and drizzly, but since it’s Ireland we figured this was normal, and the haze over Galway Bay just seemed to make it more mystical and “Irish.” We also took some bus tours in the Galway area. The first one we went to the Cliffs of Moher, a natural beauty that was nominated to be one of the world’s next 7 wonders. Along the way, we stopped at a number of picturesque villages, old castles, and scenic outlooks, the whole time guided by a cheeky old Irish man named Desmond. Now Desmond clearly loved the young ladies and made some entertaining comments about the aphrodisiacal (is that even a word?) powers of Galway oysters, and kept us entertained with his stories.

The second day we took another bus tour north of Galway to the Connemara region. Although at first disappointed that our guide wasn’t Desmond again, Mikey Rooney kept us entertained with a short history of Ireland, random tidbits of information about sheep herding and peat farming, and a serenade of a traditional Irish song. He knew a lot of random facts and never ran out of funny things to say, so the daylong bus tour was never dull. On this tour we visited Cong, a village where the 1950s John Wayne film “The Quiet Man” was filmed. We’ve never seen the movie, but apparently a lot of other people have because Mikey talked about it a lot. The Connemara region is countryside of beautiful rolling hills dotted with lots and lots of sheep. I loved the sheep and could hardly stop myself from jumping up and down when the sheep in the road halted the progress of the bus.

Galway was beautiful and fun, but after four nights we were ready to move on to Dublin. We got to Dublin Tuesday morning and took a taxi to a relative’s house, where we were lucky enough to stay for a couple days. After we drove around in circles trying to find her house, we sat on the doorstep for about an hour wondering where Ann was, because although I had called her to let her know we’d arrived, I called the wrong number. Silly me. So eventually, after talking to a nice neighbor who invited us inside for tea and let me use his internet, we contacted Ann and she came home to let us in the house and show us around. Then we hit the town and walked around some touristy places, ate “Bangers and mash” for lunch, which I swear made me drunk, walked to Dublin Castle, and wandered down to Temple Bar, where we watched some street musicians and tourists. We went to another pub for some music last night, and of course another Guinness. Wednesday, after sleeping in, we took the metro to the seaside town of Howth in Dublin Co., where we finally tried an “Irish breakfast” and wandered around the harbor looking out at the Irish Sea. The weather was beautiful and sunny and a perfect way to finish up our stay in Ireland. Now we're in London for another day and a half, and then heading home. Hopefully I won't run out of money before then.

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