Tuesday, June 27
Today was a travel day, which was fortunately uneventful and unexciting. We flew back with the other 11 passengers on the afternoon flight from Islay to Glasgow before boarding a slightly larger flight to Dublin. A long travel day with lots of waiting in lines for two very short flights. After checking into our hotel in Dublin that evening, we walked around the corner to a restaurant where Fjord had some traditional Irish stew for dinner while I had mushroom soup and goat cheese salad. Both goat cheese and mushrooms are apparently very popular in Ireland, and they also happen to be two of my favorite foods. Lucky me! Then it was off to bed to get ready for our early morning…
Wednesday, June 28
Today was also a long travel day, but much more fun than yesterday. We woke up very early to catch our 6:45 train headed toward Cork, though we got off at the city of Limerick. We were traveling with Railtours Ireland on a group tour to the West Coast and back in a day. We boarded a bus in Limerick and after a quick driving tour through the city, we were off through the countryside to our first destination: Bunratty Castle. This castle was built during the Middle Ages and passed from clan to clan as they feuded over the ownership for the first few hundred years of its existence, being rebuilt multiple times after it was damaged in each battle. After a tour of the castle, which didn’t take long because medieval castles are quite small, we explored the surrounding village, which has been maintained to look as it did in the 1800s. We shared a pot of tea and a freshly made scone with jam and cream in the bakery before heading back to the bus.
From there we drove to Doolin where we had lunch at a traditional Irish pub. They make one vegetarian option each day, and today’s was a veggie-filled egg bake with french fries. Fjord had fish and chips, a classic dish since we were right on the coast.
After that it was a short drive over to the Cliffs of Moher, the main destination. Here we had an hour and a half to hike up along the cliffs and explore the visitor’s center. We lucked out with sunny weather and had a fairly warm hike up the steps and along the edge. It was a bit scary watching how close people got to these very sharp cliffs, and we were careful to stay on the path and just enjoy the views from there. The visitor’s center had a good explanation of plate tectonics and how the motion led to mountains that formed the British Isles, and then how erosion has shaped them since then. Interesting stuff!
Our next drive took us through The Burren, an Irish National Park. It is a beautiful rocky landscape – Burren comes from the Gaelic word for rocky – that has flat vistas for miles, or kilometers, I suppose. The flat rocks break off from erosion by wind and water along the coast exposing fields full of the perfect stones for skipping rocks on a river. These are a bit larger than normal skipping stones though, and despite their weathered look they aren’t very brittle.
After an hour of driving through this beautiful landscape between the hills and the coast, we descended into the city of Galway. We had an hour and a half before our train ride back to Dublin, so we wandered around the streets. We were more or less downtown, but there didn’t appear to be any obvious shops or tourist attractions we could find, so we headed into a small pub around the corner from the train station. They served beer and liquor, but no cocktails. I asked if the bartender if he could do a gin and tonic, and most of the bars in Ireland seemed to keep little bottles of tonic water on hand. He said sure and presented me with a giant wine glass filled with local Irish Gunpowder gin, tonic water, and fresh fruit – blueberries, strawberries, and a slice of grapefruit! It now beats Beefeater for the best gin and tonic I’ve had! (Is it fair to rank them if I’ve only had two?) I know we usually put lime in them at home, but I think I’m going to try to spread this berry/fruit cocktail around the US!
Next we grabbed sandwiches from the deli in the grocery store next door – the lady making them was VERY confused by my vegetariansim – and hopped on the train for our ~3 hour ride back to Dublin. It was a very pretty ride back across the country, and it was neat that it was still light for almost all of the journey! We got back around 10:30pm and enjoyed a nice walk back along the river with the green Irish lights illuminating each bridge.
Thursday, June 29
We slept in after our long day yesterday, but eventually we awoke for the last full day in this awesome journey. We grabbed our raincoats and walked across the street to a nice breakfast restaurant where I could get one more scone with jam, cream, and a pot of tea. From there we walked back down the river to the Guinness Brewery. It is an enormous complex and we started seeing their signs and slogans a couple blocks away.
When we finally made our way to the entrance, we stepped into the bottom of the largest pint glass in the world! This round, clear building is 7 stories high. The tour starts on the ground floor where we walked through the giftshop on the way to the museum entrance. The first floor of the museum goes over the four ingredients in Guinness: barley, water, hops, and yeast. It is a neat, interactive exhibit. A ramp took us up, under a waterfall, to the second story in this giant glass building where learned how casks were made by hand. Did you know the barrel is just a particular size of a cask? There are many other sizes as well, but barrel is the most common so most people just call casks barrels now. We also learned about the fermentation process, how the beer is aged, and how it is carbonated with combination of CO2 and nitrogen to produce extra small, soft bubbles.
The third floor was a tasting academy where we learned to identify and detect each of the four flavors in a healthy gulp of Guinness (it’s not meant to be sipped, apparently). The academy starts with walking into an all white room to stimulate your non-visual senses. There are four basins each with a different element providing the scent of one of the four flavors, the two most distinct being the bitter hops and the rich, dark chocolate. Each basic flavor had some sort of fog machine or dried ice system to waft the scent up to you. The instructor stood in front of a bar at the far side and asked us about the true color of Guinness – ruby red, when held up to the light! From there she ushered us into a dark, theater-styled room with curtains and mini-pedestals where we could rest our tasting glasses and she walked us through how to properly drink (gulp, not sip!) the beer and wash it through your palate to get all four flavors. This was definitely the most complicated tasting I’ve been to! I can’t say that it made me like beer any better, but I did get a better appreciation for the subtleties in the drink.
The fourth floor was dedicated to Guinness’ long history of elaborate advertisements. There were life-sized figurines of some of their classic poster and commercial characters, as well as shelves of some of the props and other trinkets they’ve used over the years to see their beer. Slogans were plastered on the walls, and the apparently famous whistling oyster from the World Fair was on display. They had photo booths where you could paste your face onto one of their classic adds, and the room ended with a theater-style display showing their most famous commercials, including the surfing one that won an award.
The fifth floor brought us to the pouring workshop, where we would learn to pour the perfect pint of Guinness. After waiting in a short line, we were ushered in a group of 12 to one of the taps in the center of the room. Our instructor guided us in how to use the tap, inspect the glass, angle it for the right amount of foam, and top it off for the full pint. Fjord nudged me forward when she was done talking, and I led the group in trying it for ourselves! I pulled down on the tap and allowed the glass to fill up to the harp on the side, holding it at an angle. Then I set my pint on the counter to settle, giving others the chance to pour. Once everyone had a settling pint – it really is beautiful to watch the nitrogen bubbles sink down the sides – I held my glass upright under the tap again and pushed back on it (lower pressure than pulling) to top it off. The others followed suit and we were sent away with our perfect pints and a certificate of completion for our lesson in pint pouring.
This lesson concluded our experience with the museum, and we carefully took our drinks upstairs to the bar at the top of this giant pint glass. As you would imagine, it is a large, round room made entirely of glass walls, perfect for viewing Dublin! As we walked around the room we could see famous landmarks all over the city, described in white lettering right on the windows that faced them. It was neat to see the sights but a bit crowded, so after a quick walk around we headed back down to floor six where we got some lunch at the cafe to munch on as we sipped – sorry, gulped – our pints. Despite the fascinating experience, beer is still not my favorite. I think Guinness somehow knew I didn’t finish my pint, because as we were exiting I set off the alarm! They still let me leave though, and we headed back to the hotel to pack and rest up before our last night in Europe.
When we were all packed we headed out for an evening on the rainy streets of Dublin. We found a vegetarian restaurant and got a good meal before walking to Temple Bar, the nightlife district to find a pub. We stepped off the street into a large pub, following the sounds of live music. As we sipped our gin and tonics (sadly, only lime in this one) we were treated to the traditional sounds of a duo playing guitar and the Uilleann, the traditional Irish bagpipes that you pump with your arm instead of blowing into for air. Halfway through the set he put down the bagpipes and switched to a tin whistle, which he played like no flute I’ve seen before! They did a mixture of Irish folks songs, which were quite fun – everyone in the bar was singing along! – and more modern classics like Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and U2. It was the perfect way to end our time in Ireland.
The next day we hopped on a small plane from Dublin to Amsterdam before a much larger plane (787) took us back to San Francisco. It was a really incredible journey that Fjord and I will never forget. We feel so blessed to have been able to take a trip like this at this point in our lives. All of the planning and excitement over the last year has paid off. But all that said, we are now very grateful to be home with our kitty!