A Travellerspoint blog

October 2018

Lasses (&Lads), Leprechauns and Limericks

Visiting Northern Ireland, Scotland and the Republic of Ireland

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The world is a mysterious place. As a child, my fascinations centered on the Bermuda Triangle, Loch Ness, and all things seemingly unsolveable. After a change in group travel plans in early 2018, I resolved to take a trip for myself. Scotland had always been on my radar, and given my love of castles (and leprechauns) I couldn't pass up the chance to visit northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Given my disdain for rain (even though I quite enjoy puddle splashing in Hunter's), I decided to book a trip for May -- statistically the sunniest month for that region.

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I flew through Dublin to arrive in Edinburgh early morning. A Scottish friend of mine who's now living in Amsterdam kindly flew home to reconnect and play tour guide for my first 3 days in her hometown. We headed to Haymarket area by tram (from the airport) where we checked into the Grosvenor Gardens Hotel. It's more of a quaint guesthouse - serving fried kippers for breakfast, and catering to elderly British tourists. It was definitely the perfect accommodation for slowly acclimatizing. It also happens to be located by an excellent restaurant called Noir, which served the most delicious rhubarb berry smoothie imagineable. Speaking of good food, if anyone is looking to try authentic Scottish haggis with a modern twist, I would recommend the Southern Cross Café. Although I ate my way through Edinburgh, it was certainly the historic sites that would probably be of more interest to most folks. You can easily walk through the old town and cross over to the new town, visiting the National Gallery, Edinburgh Castle, Camera Obscura and heading down the Royal Mile to visit Greyfriars Kirkyard (and then the Elephant Café) to add that magical dash of Harry Potter to your sojourn in the city.

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I happen to be a political nerd and my time would not have been complete without a visit to the Scottish Parliament and the Queen's Residence (Holyroodhouse). In fact, on May 15th I sat in the viewing area of the Scottish Parliament as they debated clause 11 - the Brexit EU withdrawal legislation and ultimately voted not to support it as it was written. They felt it ran afoul of Scottish devolution legislation (i.e. when Scottish Parliament reformed in the late 1990s). It was powerful to learn more about their history and also their vision for a Scottish future in the UK. Scotland had previously had its own Parliament since the 13th century but essentially gave that up in the 18th century. The current Scottish system itself is a combination of first past the post with proportional representation. Their members of Parliament are able to pass laws on devolved matters like health, education and so on whereas the UK Parliament passes laws on matters affecting the whole UK. The building itself is fascinating; opened in 2004 after being designed by Eric Miralles. He intended to make it local so the building is inscribed with local sayings like: "say but little and say it well". If only we could all be so Scottish. If only we could also all bake so Scottish. Hungry as I always am, I stopped by Clarinda's Tea Shop where one can learn more about the woman who was supposedly one of Robbie Burns' mistresses. How she had the patience to put up with a man who smashed windows because he was told not to graffiti them I'm not sure...

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Edinburgh has a plethora of sites to visit, and endless learning. I particularly enjoyed visiting the National Gallery, the Museum of Scotland (and the Scottish Galleries) and the Surgeon's Hall Museum. I learned how little I knew about Scotland and its history - from its geology to its inventors. I can proudly say though that I knew that Dolly the cloned sheep was of Scottish blood (... if clones have blood?). Being a fan of biology, the Surgeon's Hall Museum was definitely my favourite place of learning. It was fascinating wandering through the two floors of pathology, and also learning about Burke and Hare - two men who killed people and sold their bodies to surgeons who needed cadavers for dissection practice in the 18th and 19th centuries.

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Edinburgh isn't all academic. In the center of the city, you'll find Arthur's Seat and Calton Hill. Both are excellent opportunities for some light (or steep) daytime hiking. I made the mistake of not wearing shoes with good grip for my climb up Arthur's Seat and managed to take a light tumble. Fortunately, I wasn't hurt and still managed to enjoy all the views from the multiple precipices without having to return to Surgeon's Hall.

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Edinburgh at night is a different beast. There is a booming comedy scene, and the mecca most certainly is the Stand Comedy Club. Surprisingly, the headliner I saw was a Jewish Englishman named Joe Bor whose show was called "Room with a Jew". In addition to comedy, there is an incredible variety of live music. I tried to make it to Rat Pack Piano Bar and the Piano Bar in new town but both were closed. Instead I made it to a jazz bar called The Jazz Bar (creative folks, eh?) where I listened to a 17 piece big band. A night in Edinburgh is not complete without a ghost tour. Edinburgh is full of spirits (both alcoholic and ghostly). I was particularly fascinated by Edinburgh's history as a torture capital given how sweet and stable it is nowadays. Apparently in the 16th and 17th centuries witch trials were rampant and people were tied up and thrown into a lake of sewage - if they floated they were witches who would be ripped apart limb by limb, and if they sunk they weren't witches (but were now dead in a pool of feces). Edinburgh stepped up its game in the 18th century by trying to clean up its image, and it was then burnt down in the 19th century. The eeriest portion of our tour was most certainly the underground portion. We went below ground on South Bridge st. near Infirmary st. where we learned about underground chambers for gambling, bodysnatching storage and murder - and some people felt ghostly breezes rush by them. I was too busy translating the tour for a group of Uruguayans who had accidentally joined the English tour rather than the Spanish one. Evidently the poltergeists weren't polyglots.

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If you're looking for a day trip from Edinburgh, I would recommend looking into lochs. You won't need a key to unloch all the natural beauty available. (No, I did not turn into a dad while in the UK). My friend, her brother and I did one day trip together to Loch Lomond. On the way we got quite lost looking for Finnich Glen aka the Devil's Pulpit. Sadly, I didn't find Scottish signposting to be particularly present so I would certainly recommend mapping your routes rather than spontaneously hoping for roadside literary guidance. When we finally made it to the town of Balloch, we ate at Palombos and the fish was exceptional. We drove around the loch past Duck Bay and Luss, which were both jam packed, and stopped at Firkin Point. I enjoyed the more solitary nature of our walk there, as I was really stoked to have time to catch up with my friend who I hadn't seen in 6 years. I didn't need strangers interrupting our rapid reflections.

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At the end of my time with my friend, I joined a Contiki group. This was my first Contiki trip and I wasn't without hesitation: Would I be too old? Would it be too much partying? My first night with the group I distanced myself from the activity and chose to play tour guide to a sweet Canadian couple who also chose to forego the expensive add-on. I enjoyed showing them all the Harry Potter connections throughout the city and splitting a deep-fried Mars bar with them. Embarrassingly, I spent the first full day on my own too. Obstinately, I decided I was more interested in accomplishing what I wanted in Edinburgh than having to bend to the wills of a group of people I didn't yet know. The highlight of my alone time (apart from the Scottish Parliamentary debate) would have to be a free adults-only walking tour where I learned all about the edgy past of Edinburgh including the cannibalism that supposedly occurred at Hollyroodhouse Palace under Oliver Cromwell. After assorted adventures, I decided to socialize and went for tea and scones at Eteaket with another girl from my tour.

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I chose to do the Contiki Scotland and Ireland tour. Contiki is fairly flexible, so a number of people actually started in England whereas I decided to skip that portion (given that I've been to England on a number of occasions already and had limited time). The early mornings were tough, but I appreciated that there was a lot to pack into a very limited time. There's also a considerable amount of time spent on the bus so it's very important to pick your seatmate wisely. I enjoyed a number of really deep conversations as well as some very silly sing-a-longs. It was always interesting doing some cross-cultural bonding through games like "two truths and a lie" -- I learned about Australian sheep shearing and German economics, for example. I joined the Contiki tour starting in Edinburgh but didn't really begin participating in the activities until we got on the road. Our first stop was St. Andrew's where Prince William met Kate Middleton. The town is very sweet and has a cathedral that was consecrated in 1318, the biggest in the country at the time. If I were a golf fan, I don't think I would have wanted to leave St. Andrew's. Surprise surprise, I am not a golfer so I was thrilled when we continued en route to Loch Ness in search of Nessie. Cruising the loch, I kept my eyes peeled but sadly the only thing I saw in the water was my own reflection. I expected a huge amount of tourism in the region, but instead was met with a few small guest lodges. We stayed at the Loch Ness Lodge Hotel in Drum Na Drochaid, and it was hands-down my favourite accommodation on the trip. From tartan floors to woodworking details, I was enamored. It's only downside was the lack of reliable wi-fi, although that turned into a blessing as it led to far more bonding time with my tripmates.

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From Loch Ness we moved quickly to the Highlands - full of mountains, waterfalls and most importantly a stop at Eilean Donan Castle. If I ever get married in a castle, I'd love for it to be this one. It's a spot first inhabited in the 6th century that turned into a castle in the 13th century - idyllic since it's where three lochs meet. This castle is still privately owned by the Macrae family but it's also open to the public (at a cost, of course). We finally came to stay for the night in Oban. If anyone ever passes through this quaint town, it couldn't be complete without a night spent dancing at the Skippinish Ceilidh Scottish Dancing House. Sadly, I can't promise you'll get the complete experience I did - a bagpiper accompanying you and your friends on a quasi-parade through town. I can promise you though that if you're even a wee bit fit, you'll be able to climb up McCaig's Tower and see the postcard view of Oban that I very quickly came to love.

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Glasgow wasn't quite the same love-affair, although I did enjoy the shopping and nightlife. In fact, I'd recommend a few spots near George Square: the Counting House, a converted bank bar; Waxy O'Connors, a huge bar punctuated by a mahogany organ; and Revolution, a slightly more trashy but still fun nightclub. The actual journey to Glasgow was historic - literally. We stopped at Stirling Castle, and the William Wallace Monument. We also saw a landscape dotted with hairy coos; not as historic, but far cuter.

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The tour left Scotland in search of Irish shores on the day of Prince Harry's wedding. We were able to watch the parade of hats from a ferry serving muffins and Barry's cream soup (coincidentally, Barry was also the name of our bus driver). After passing through County Meath, the first city we set up camp in was Dublin. Our hotel was chic but far from town: the Clayton Hotel in Leopardstown. We actually started and ended in Dublin on the Irish portion of the Contiki tour, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Trinity College is a gorgeous campus,Temple Bar is a phenomenal party, and the city itself is a spirited good time. The bar I spent the most time at was the Old Storehouse. My first night ended up being very eventful: I joined a Spanish bachelor party, Irish jigged to Ed Sheeran music, watched a police chase, was given a private tour of Temple Bar by a connoisseur, and also, unfortunately, witnessed a man having a stroke (the paramedics were immediately on the scene and attentive).

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On a lighter note, my time in Kilkenny rolled on by very quickly. Namely, on a bike. We rode by St. Canice's Cathedral, the castle, and plenty of people on tourist trains. One of the highlights of Ireland was the music. From an obsession with Ed Sheeran to classic songs, I enjoyed all the tunes I heard (and sang to, tone deaf as it may have been at times). The best music I heard on the whole trip was on the final evening in Dublin at the Merry Ploughboy. It's one of the oldest public houses in Ireland, founded in 1789, where you're as likely to hear "Wild Rover" as "Come What May". Another highlight, at times, was the food. I particularly enjoyed the White Rabbit's BBQ restaurant in Cork. Regardless of wherever I went, Guinness stew sat well. The best Guinness, by far though, was found at the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin. No trip to Ireland would be complete without a trip to the Guinness Storehouse or the Jameson Distillery. Ireland is probably as famous for its alcohol as it is for its leprechauns.

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Sometimes tourist sites are famous for good reason and Ireland is full of such crowded wonders. Appropriately, during my visit to Blarney it started drizzling. I hadn't realized how narrow and steep the stairs of Blarney Castle would be, and the slipperiness didn't set my mind any more at ease. That being said, we were there first thing in the morning so there was barely a line when we arrived. I had some trouble reaching the stone that would give me the gift of the gab, but on the plus side I'm more than gregarious enough as is. When you lean back to kiss the stone there are two men helping to support you and a number of iron bars preventing you from slipping through the cracks -- in my case, I had trouble trusting the man enough to lean back, but the woman in front of me was a little too trusting and the men actually let her slip through their weathered hands. And men wonder why women have trust issues... Damned if we do, damned if we don't. For those who aren't as interested in tight spaces and slippery cracks, the Blarney grounds are fabulous and have a poison garden (with toxic plants like nightshade), a horse graveyard, palmtree gardens and also the biggest Irish gift shop in the world just down the street. Sadly, they don't sell supersized suitcases to fit all their gorgeous goods.

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Near Blarney, one can easily hop on over to the Cliffs of Moher (just don't hop over them!). The views are stunning, but the visitor center is also impressive for its dedication to a sustainable approach to development. I'm glad I wore rain boots to the cliffs because it's quite the muddy trek. The mud contrasting with the green seemed like the most iconic Irish scenery... until we went to the Aran Islands...

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In fact, the Aran Islands had cliffs that rivaled the Cliffs of Moher. While living the island life, I convinced a number of the other Contiki crew to do a van tour of the westernmost island, Inishmore, with me. If you're feeling adventurous you can also opt for a horse-drawn carriage or bike rental when exploring the islands. Whatever you do, you should make sure to visit the 7 Churches Cemetery, and Dun Aonghasa Fort (built possibly as early as the 2nd century BC from which you can see stunning cliffs). There's an incredible amount of history on the islands, and the locals are doing a good job of living it. In fact, mainland children are often sent to Inishmore to learn Gaelic and better understand a more rural lifestyle -- many islanders still barter and they only got electricity a few decades ago. I was in awe of their patience, as their wi-fi situation is about on par with what I experienced in Loch Ness - about as accessible as the Loch Ness monster.

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An easy mainland base to go exploring Blarney, Cliffs of Moher and the Aran Islands would be Galway - famous for its girls... Its Galway girls! And Ed Sheeran, of course. In fact, Ed Sheeran has made such a name for this city that they throw a festival for him! Unfortunately, the city wasn't my favourite, as I'm no longer a student looking for cheap shots and all-night parties; however, one bar I adored in Galway was O'Connells Bar (where Ed Sheeran filmed part of the Galway Girl music video) as it has a fake alley with a bus, multiple venues and even a pop up barber shop and pizza truck. Galway is a small walkable city and our hotel was located close to Eyre Square, which was convenient as it's essentially the center of town. It's also close to the official Claddagh Jewellers store. I had no choice but to buy a claddagh ring to complement my Aran Island sweater - and hopefully the love, loyalty and friendships in my life. Another source of symbolism on the trip was the Giant's Causeway. Although it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its 40, 000 interlocking basalt columns (resulting from volcanic activity), it captures people's imaginations for its tales about Finn McCool - the giant that carved out the coast. The legend that sprang to mind for me in visiting the Giant's Causeway was the ancient tale of Mario of the land of Nintendo. I had a field day jumping from column to column playing the Super Mario Bros theme song in my head the whole time.

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From Mullaghmore Head beside Classiebawn Castle to Donegal with its 15th century castle I loved every castle I saw. Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Scotland were full of castles for me to adore for their aesthetics and romantic touches but Northern Ireland was also touching for how people are carrying and simultaneously shedding the many years of conflict.

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Derry/Londonderry in Northern Ireland is iconic for its peace flame and murals but also its divided name. Our guide, Ronan, told us in no uncertain terms that the polite question to ask is never about people's beliefs but rather their pronunciation of the town's name - that tells you everything you need to know. It's still a very divided town even though it's the second largest in the country. Its walls are symbolic of the divisions - built in the 1600s it has been besieged by many forces and it remains the only intact walled city on the Irish isles. We heard about ancient battles (and famines and plantations) but also more recent conflict like the most explosive day during the troubles, Bloody Friday in 1972 when at least 20 bombs exploded within about an hour and a half in Belfast. We also heard about the Europa Hotel in Belfast which lived through more than 33 explosions between 1970 and 1994 (not exactly my ideal accommodation). The war itself went from about 1968 to 1998 when peace was brokered between the sides through the Good Friday Agreement. Our guide was unbelievably tactful in dealing with such sensitive subjects, particularly since he had lived through the violence. As he said, in those days Belfast was considered like Baghdad in more recent years. Thousands of people were killed throughout the decades and tens of thousands were injured. Before moving on to Belfast, I'm glad we had time to walk in the steps of someone as wise as Ronan. His approach to peace is exposure: through open minds people come to desire a shared future rather than their own starring role in a movie.

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Speaking of movies, our time in Belfast was mainly spent at the Titanic Experience. It's an incredible museum honouring those who died on the Titanic, but also acknowledging the role it has come to play in pop culture through the James Cameron film. It's an incredibly interactive museum: from its holograms and amusement park rides, to its trivia games. I was able to gain a better understanding of the Belfast context with its booming shipyard business to the current day oceanic explorations that Belfast leads. I felt torn at times wandering through the museum as it capitalizes on the kitsch, possibly at the expense of those for whom it could be a memorial site. The city itself had a number of memorials to victims of the Titanic that felt more respectful, including a garden with the following inscription on a statue: "Their devotion to duty and heroic conduct, through which the lives of many of those on board were saved, have left a record of calm fortitude and self sacrifice which will ever remain an inspiring example to succeeding generations. Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends."

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Through the solemn discussions about conflict and drownings, we still found time to enjoy the contemporary society. Belfast is a beautiful city, and I really enjoyed my time there with some of the American girls I had befriended. We had a fabulous dinner at The Kitchen Bar, a resto-pub dating back to 1859, later went to Filthy McNasties (which was filthy and nasty - hence our quick departure), and finally some jazz swing entertainment at The Belfast Empire Club. As a side note, I would never have gone to Filthy McNasties if it weren't conveniently located right beside our hotel (Hotel Etap) but the loud music and trashy scene weren't fun at all and in fact made it nearly impossible to sleep as the sound carried into my hotel room. So, not only did I not like the bar, but I really disliked the hotel with its tiny rooms and horrible soundproofing because of that very bar. To prove that I'm not a total curmudgeon, I'll just briefly mention that one of the many hotels I really liked was the Maldron Hotel Newlands Cross Dublin - spacious, clean, and modern!

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The Maldron was the last hotel I stayed at on the trip, and it was where I woke up elated when I learned that the Republic of Ireland had voted overwhelmingly to overturn a ban on abortion. Previously, abortion wasn't even legal in cases of incest, rape or fatal fetal abnormalities. It was a historic day for the nation, but it was also the culmination of a wave of change in the culture as witnessed by the many yes/no signs we saw through our travels and the plethora of petitioners on every corner. It's a very nuanced issue, particularly in a country with such religious leanings.

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For anyone curious about Contiki, I'll make some general closing statements. First thing's first, there are many different types of tours one can do, and I'm sure that much of the experience depends on your approach but also how motivated you are to connect with the people around you and make the most of it all - from early morning wake-ups to late night partying. It's also crucial that you do you. If you know you need a night in there's no shame resting in order to feel revitalized tomorrow. It's also crucial to bring sufficient vitamin C and zinc. The "Contiki Cough" is not a joke. After returning home I lost my voice... but gained loads of incredible memories.

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Posted by madrugada 18:38 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged castles rain glasgow scotland edinburgh united_kingdom cruises dublin lochs contiki celtic greenery harry_potter bagpipes blarney temple_bar loch_ness northern_ireland aran_islands republic_of_ireland ed_sheeran tartan wild_rover Comments (0)

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