Today is the first day of August, and I honestly don't know exactly what I've been doing with my time this summer. I have a pretty sharp memory of leaving my contract job on Friday, April 29th, and my boss driving me to the airport right after work... I remember the ridiculous flights I took - first overnight to Brussels, then to Manchester, then finally, Dublin - all in the same 24 hour stretch. I finally met up with my Contiki group at an airport hotel in north Dublin in the late afternoon on Saturday, April 30th and the next 8 days were a whirlwind.
I spent the week traveling around the country starting with a trip from Dublin to Kilkenny, where we did an awesome bike tour of the small medieval city which is so full of character. The tour took us through town, then through a nature trail along a river, ending at the lawns outside Kilkenny Castle. After the bike tour, we had lunch beside the castle, and got back on the bus and drove down to Cork where we stayed overnight.
Cork was where I first found my group of friends who I would end up spending most of the week with. We went out to a bar in the central "downtown" area, and saw an amazing band that remains one of my favourite musical experiences in Ireland (which says a lot).
Next we drove to the west coast, stopping in Galway for two nights. We did a short walking tour after we arrived, and then had a family dinner and night out - this was surprisingly the one and only time I got drunk (and had a horrible hangover the next day).
Some friends would be disappointed to hear that I didn't spend the whole time drunk, but when you spend 5 years wanting to go back to Ireland and soak up the country outside of Dublin, you want to be AWARE and not-hungover most days! Especially on such a short tour where we got to travel to so many gorgeous natural and cultural sites every single day.
Galway was gorgeous and I will definitely devote more time to the city on my next visit. Our whole second day there was spent at Innismore, biking around the gorgeous rural island and eating the best fish and chips of the whole trip! I can still remember the feeling of sitting on the bus early in the morning, as we drove for an hour to the ferry docks and I tried not to get sick on the bus. Little did I know the hour-long ferry ride across to Innismore would be so much worse. The island was beautiful though - one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. My hangover did not prevent me from noticing that. I was also dressed in a big sweater, jeans, boots and a fall jacket. The general wardrobe I brought on this trip ended up being so inappropriate for the weather. I packed so much winter/spring type clothing, and the May weather in Ireland was so unexpectedly warm.
Anyway, the rest of the Contiki trip included a drive from Galway up to Derry-Londonderry in Northern Ireland. The drive across the "border" from the Republic to Northern Ireland was so seamless - I had heard others talk about it before I did it myself, and most people say that if you fall asleep or look down for long enough, you'd completely miss the transition. Nothing LOOKS different right away. However, once you get into a city like Derry or Belfast for example, there is certainly a difference in atmosphere, that has nothing to do with the accent.
Derry is a small northern city, so rich in history it's ridiculous - at least from the perspective of a North American. We had a truly amazing tour guide, who had such a unique non-partisan perspective on the Troubles in northern Ireland, and Derry specifically. He was able to speak to us about what it was like growing up there through the 1970s and 80s, and how different things are now for his children who are growing up in a time of peace. Walking around the city, there was still so much history, in the large stone walls that separated one side from another, to the graffiti that went so far beyond the type I'm used to seeing around Toronto. Those who had marched in protests and had been killed were memorialized on the walls, and this was juxtaposed with political posters for the different parties, for an election that was actually happening the night we were in town. It was an incredible look at the history of a city that is so clearly still influencing the present day politics.
On our way to Belfast, we hit the Giant's Causeway, which is one of the most beautiful natural sites I've ever seen, and can't wait to travel back to someday.
Belfast is another place I need to spend more time in when I return. We arrived in Belfast in the afternoon, and had free time for lunch, followed by a tour. This city is somewhere I can picture myself staying for a long time, because the central part of the city is so relatively cosmopolitan and similar to where I live in Toronto, and where I spent my time when I lived in the UK (mainly London and Brighton). For dinner, some of us girls (by the way - my group of 50 people was literally 95% girls), went out to a pub that was a little bit out of the way, and was filled with local men watching a football game. My friends had the Shepherd's Pie, while I opted for fish and chips, which I regretted after because apparently I missed out on one of the best meals of the whole trip. We went out that night and checked out several great bars, all recommended by our awesome Contiki tour guide, Brooke!
We were back on the bus the next morning, headed back to Dublin for our final day/night there, which included the inevitable tour around the Guinness Storehouse. I actually enjoyed this tour, even though I think most of my group was incredibly exhausted and not that interested at that late point in the trip haha. We had a few hours off after that, where I finally got to explore Dublin a little bit. I've been twice previous to this trip, but was dying to have to chance to explore it on my own, as a fully-formed adult. I've had 5 years of hearing of cool things to do and see, not to mention, the city has changed SO MUCH in 5 years. I've changed a lot too, so I was able to go into this visit with a bit more of a targeted approach than I did when I was a shy, overwhelmed and homesick 18 year-old traveler.
That night we drove out to the Merry Ploughboy's Pub outside Dublin city, and saw an awesome show that also included dinner, dancing and singing. Then we drove back to the city and went out to the bar of course. It was weird a little bit sad saying goodbye to these new friends, from places as far as New York, LA, Texas, and Australia who I probably won't see (aside from Facebook) again.
The next day, most of my group departed for the airport to fly home, or continue on their travels, while I made my way down to the MEC Hostel in north Dublin, and waited for my friends to arrive from London.
As I alluded to earlier in this post, I had the opportunity to spend my first year of university in England, not too far from Brighton on the south coast. I spent a year living in the countryside in East Sussex, while still attending my Canadian university and meeting other Canadian students who, like me had the travel bug BAD, and decided to escape Canada for Europe for the year. Several of these friends had the travel bug so bad in fact, that as soon as they graduated from Queen's, they moved back to the UK. My friend Rachel finished at Queen's a year early, worked for a year, and then left for London the day after graduation. My friend Alex graduated, worked in Toronto over the summer, and then flew the coop, first living in St. Andrew's, Scotland for a year, and then London. Tristen - someone who I wasn't super close with in first year - also moved to London after graduation from Queen's and became good friends with Alex and Rachel. So - when they heard that I was planning on staying in Dublin on my own for 3 days after my Contiki trip ended, they decided to take the short flight over and hang out for the weekend!
I honestly think this was one of the highlights of my entire trip. I loved my Contiki group and friends, but there was something pretty special about sharing my favourite city (which I had really acclimatized to after a week) with some friends so great and old that they felt like family. After the fast-paced touring I'd been doing for over a week, where I was changing hotels and hopping on a bus every single day, I really enjoyed and treasured this weekend. It seemed to relaxed, comfortable, and effortless. We meandered around the city and made stops at pubs, restaurants, parks - but we had all been to Dublin at least once before so there was no need to hit up all the tourist attractions. Tristen had even lived there for three months over a summer after first year, so there was a good level of familiarity. This was a really great weekend.
On Sunday evening, my friends traveled back to London, while I moved to the Generator Hostel (also in north Dublin, but in a totally different part). There's a review of this great hostel in my last post by the way! I spent the entire next morning at Kilmainham Gaol, which was VERY high on my list of things to visit on this trip, especially because it was the centenary of the rebellion in 1916.
I actually spent so long there that the rest of my day that I had liberally scheduled, was squeezed into a few short hours. I took the bus up to Parnell Square, did some shopping which I had been looking forward to, but ended up being a bit disappointing. Then I pretty much booked it back to the hostel and headed to the airport! I said goodbye to Ireland (a country I always find it a bit hard to leave, except that I know I'll be back), and headed off to London for a few days to be reunited with the city I used to spend my weekends in, and the friends who now lived there!
But this post is incredibly long, and I will have to do a short one on London soon!