This is part 4 in a series about my three-week trip to Europe in December 2014-January 2015. Read the rest here.
Day 2: December 29, 2014
To the Castle (If We Can Find It)!
“Today we should map everything and take pictures of each route so we have directions without turning on our data,” I say, opening Google on my laptop.
“That’s a great idea!” Grace is sticking bobby pins in her hair. “Where are we going again?”
“Trinity College for the Book of Kells, then Dublin Castle, then St. Patrick’s Cathedral. And didn’t we want to go back to that café from yesterday for breakfast?”
“Yes! And see John again. And find out his real name.”
After sleeping in deliciously till 09:00, we’re feeling probably a mite too optimistic about knocking out Day Two in Dublin. It’s hard not to when our room is a solid block of golden winter sunlight and hot tea water is chattering in my dandy travel carafe.
Our map apps may not work (our phones are perversely oblivious to local Wifi) and real maps may not work (since we can’t translate from 2D to real D), but today we are going to Gwen the system!
“Um…oh no.” Grace has borrowed my laptop to start mapping, but now she’s staring at the Trinity College website in horror. “Gwen! It’s not on display!”
“The Book of Kells! It’s closed because of Christmas and New Year’s.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me!”
“Back on display January 2.”
We look at each other. For a few seconds I try to outsmart the calendar. Impossible. Today is Monday. January 2 is Friday, by which time we will be deep in Germany’s medieval heartland. Rearranging five hotels and two airline tickets for the sake of one ancient (gorgeous) manuscript is out of the question. The Book of Kells—number one on my list of things to see in Dublin—now might as well still be lost in the ditch where the Vikings chucked it.
We’re still looking at each other. It’s pretty uncanny to watch yourself in the midst of your first bummer abroad and realize there truly is nothing you can do. You can either tackle a different adventure or kill yourself with a pointless badditude.
“Oh well,” I say abruptly. “Next time!”
“That’s right.” Grace jumps on board. “Guess this means we’re coming back!”
The feeling that we’ve passed some sort of test is strong and gratifying. We nix Trinity College altogether, snap pictures of directions to Dublin Castle and St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and, coated and scarved, wave goodbye to Joan as we set out confidently in the rough direction of the café we stumbled upon yesterday while thoroughly lost.
The winter morning dazzles. I have never seen more pristine skies, greener ivy, frostier grass, or kinder sunlight. The doors and pub signs and stone walls are as bright as Duplo blocks, but earthy and elegant and cracked with age. We are in danger of getting drunk on Dublin hue.
Dubliners look (and sound) just as pretty. They are a fit, trimly dressed people, presenting the most concentrated collection of natty pea coats and well-fitting jeans I’ve ever seen. The ladies are lovely, the men fashionable but not effeminate. And we love eavesdropping on their accents.
We say hello to the Dude (still crowned with white seagulls and whiter bird poop) on our way across the Liffey where we try to retrace yesterday’s steps, but our café is lost. (Naturally, we are not lost; we know where we are; but the café is definitely hiding.) We feel like being hungry and clueless should cause it to appear like the Room of Requirements, but it doesn’t.
Stomachs growling, we are meandering around the famous Temple Bar district when we discover O’Neills. Red-bricked with bright green trim, the four-story pub pokes the sky with its peaked roof corners. Christmas swag decks the siding. Gifts and holly berries are painted large and jolly on the front window, along with “Nollaig shona duit! Bliadhna mhath ùr!” (Merry Christmas! Happy New Year!) The sign boasts: Breakfast served seven days a week.
Hang the café! We go in.
The smells of sizzling fat and strong black tea greet us. A dim, maze-like restaurant opens up as the young male host (who calls us “love”) leads us around several corners. The walls are a rich, dark wood the color of melted chocolate; the rooms are lit mostly by Christmas lights and sparkling dishes. A stairwell climbs in steep hairpin turns up out of sight.
Our young male host (continuing to call us “love”) seats us at a small round table. He leaves.
A minute later, a young male waiter shows up. “What would you like, loves?”
Besides your accent? We keep the thought tucked between our ears and calmly order breakfast. As soon as he’s out of earshot, we die.
“Literally, I want to pack up their accent and take it home!” I hiss while Grace tries to keep it together. “Why don’t they sell that as a souvenir? And I wish American guys could call us ‘love’ without being creepy. The Brits manage.”
Our breakfast is amazing. Grace is busy documenting our cuisine; I’m busy eating. My soda bread toast, crisp yet butter-wet, is too marvelous to ignore, so I don’t. Judging by how much we walked yesterday, I’ll have strolled off any gluten fussiness by day’s end. And there are only so many times in your life you can eat toast in Dublin.
Filled with the upbeat that only breakfast can bring, we pay with euros (kissing your money goodbye is flat-out fun when you get to use euros) and renew our quest for the castle. But the streets have rearranged themselves while we weren’t looking and my pictures of Google maps are baffling even on a full stomach.
We ask strangers for help. Dublin Castle, everyone says, is right around this corner, that corner, and another corner—you can’t miss it. Somehow I know this means we will.
Narrow and fenced in by buildings, the streets twist and turn and break off into frequent alleys. If they follow any sort of pattern, it’s a Trinity knot.
Street names are useless even when they exist. Rather than announce themselves on bright traffic signs the American way, they are faintly inscribed on the buildings, back from the curb. You can identify the tourists in Dublin by the way they squint across the intersections. We are squinting more than anybody.
And it doesn’t help that we keep getting distracted by other castley looking things like St. Andrew’s Church, which we don’t have time to explore.
“Seriously,” I say, marching along. “How can they hide a castle in the middle of a city?”
We’ve backtracked on St. Andrews Street and Dame Street and Trinity Street enough times that we’re giving Dubliners serious déjà vu and they’ll be looking for a glitch in the Matrix any second.
Grace grabs my shoulder. “That’s it!”
I look left. The sun torches through an arched stone gateway, creating black silhouettes of visitors walking beneath. DUBLIN CASTLE: PEDESTRIAN ENTRANCE.
The castle stands at the junction of the Liffey and its underground tributary, the Poddle, on land once settled by Vikings. Originally a military fortress built under the orders of King John of England in 1204, the castle functioned as a prison, treasure, courts of law, and the seat of English administration in Ireland for 700 years.
From here, the Irish crown jewels were infamously stolen in 1907 (and never recovered). Here, too, were three IRA members tortured and killed on the night of Blood Sunday in 1920. (I recommend the Paul Greengrass film Bloody Sunday, by the way—if you’re looking for reasons to be grateful you didn’t live in Northern Ireland during the Troubles.)
And if ever you’re in Dublin, you must see this castle.
We explore from the east, wandering past what used to be the castle’s main stable block and across a wide cobblestone yard where the Chapel Royal dominates in Gothic grandeur. Behind it rises the herculean Norman Tower that was constructed in 1226 as a high-security prison.
“It’s a castle,” Grace and I keep exclaiming aloud. “It’s a real-life castle.”
Enclosed behind the castle walls lies the Dubh Linn Garden—a vast, impeccably manicured circle of grass that bristles thick with frost where the shadows are still long. Dublin got its name from the dark pool (dubh linn) that once lay here. Now slender stone paths crisscross the lawn in a large Celtic design that I don’t spot until we’re above the garden, climbing the rise towards the Norman Tower.
We’re up on the castle itself. There’s no sign saying we can’t climb higher, so we do. I recline on top of the stout stone wall while Grace snaps a picture, chanting on loop: “If you fall, I swear I’ll kill you.”
We cross the Great Courtyard, the original site of King John’s castle. Our eyes are drawn to the green dome of the Bedford Tower, glowing like pale emerald fire. Then we enter the State Apartments which are still the venue for Ireland’s presidential inaugurations and other prestigious State functions. We spend the next hour or so roaming the princely rooms.
Partway through our tour Grace gets sidelined by a short, hirsute Sicilian who hands over his phone (with an unmistakable “please” gesture) and proceeds to pose every which way while she obliges him by snapping pictures. Standing, kneeling, beard-stroking, this guy has it all. He even brandishes a banana. I keep my distance so he can’t hear me snorting, then pass Grace the hand sanitizer when she returns with a grimace.
“His phone was kinda greasy,” she says.
I grin. “He could tell you were the nicer one. I’d have handed that phone right back.”
We spend the rest of our tour going wherever Banana Man is not.
By the time we’ve explored the old jail cells and the gift shop (where I buy a pewter shot glass, keeping my tradition of picking up a shot glass in every major city I visit), the sun has arced into the afternoon and we’re ready for St. Patrick’s Cathedral. But we can’t find it. Maps are useless, we’re tired of asking strangers, and I am in dire need of tea, so we give up and try (again) to find the coffee shop from yesterday. Can’t find that, either. We try to find the Dude again so we can go home. Can’t find him, either.
We are curbside at a stoplight, thronged by babbling tourists waiting to cross the street, when Grace tightens beside me. “What is going on?”
I stop trying to figure out where we are and snap my attention to the competitive crowd. Five feet away from us, a blonde woman is crying loudly. Two men are yelling at each other in a rapid language I can’t place, gesturing theatrically as they stalk the curb, bumping into people. Everyone else is either staring or busily ignoring, embarrassed. My heart picks up. The sign says WALK. The timer is beeping. Half the crowd moves onto the crosswalk, jostling with a second crowd coming from the other side. I stay rooted to the spot.
“Gwen, let’s go.”
I keep looking at the crying woman. She needs help. Something is wrong. The men yell louder. I want to pull the woman away in case there’s a fight.
“Gwen, I think it’s a scam. Let’s go.”
Following Grace into the teeming intersection, I keep my head on a swivel to look back at the blonde woman and also to watch where I’m going. Everyone is taller than I am. Heads and shoulders get in the way. The crying and the yelling dwindle as we reach the other side of the street and keep going. Grace sets a brisk pace.
“What was that?” I ask.
“I think it was a scam. Pickpockets do that—create distractions and then take your stuff.”
I am surprised. I of course researched the dangers of pickpocketing before leaving the states. Even though the worst cities—Barcelona, Prague, Rome—are not on our itinerary, my guard has still been up, my purse zipped, my hand firm on the strap. But I’d braced myself for the dangers of thronged train cars and subway stations—not of a caterwauling con at a crosswalk.
Wandering down an unknown street, we duck desperately into the Cross Café. We receive tea in stunningly gilt to-go cups which make getting lost worth it. Sipping our hot drinks, we face the street maze again and at length stumble upon the Garden of Remembrance, where a sunken cruciform pool lies for all those who died for Irish freedom. The blue-green water in the cross looks textured like sea glass in the late afternoon light.
We stand at the foot of the cross and breathe the cold air. “I had no idea this was here,” I say. “We wouldn’t have found it if we hadn’t gotten lost.”
Day’s End on Ireland’s Rim
We finally retrieve our hotel—approaching from the opposite direction in which we’d set out before breakfast. Joan laughs at us when we tell her how long it took us to get home, but still seems to think it’s a good idea for us to try something else.
“You should go to Howth,” she says. “If you want to see something outside of Dublin, go to Howth. It’s a very popular harbor and it’s quite easy—you just take the tram.”
Tram? I’ve taken public transportation three times in my life: twice in Chicago (both times serendipitous; I had nothing to with finding either taxi) and once yesterday on the bus from the airport. I am suspicious of this tram.
“The station is right at the end of the street,” Joan goes on reassuringly. “Just take a left. Connolly Station. Look for a bridge with iron railing. You’ll see train tracks. That’s Connolly Station.”
After recuperating in our room a bit, we decide that an Irish harbor is just the thing to see at the end of our last day in Dublin. “The sun sets in an hour,” I say as we bundle up again. “The tram takes 30 minutes, so we’ll get there in time for sunset and then we can come back for dinner at that pub with the live music and it’ll be perfect!” (Yesterday we discovered the Brazen Head, Ireland’s oldest pub, and we know we’ll be cheating ourselves if we don’t catch at least one night of live Celtic music.)
We power walk down the street. And power walk. And power walk. As the sinking sun burns a hole in the sky and our scarves flap behind us like pennants, we’re so busy enthusing over our flawed yet perfect day that we don’t care we’ve been walking for 30 minutes. We have faith in Connolly Station.
At last the landmarks appear. “Here’s a bridge with iron railing!” “And here’s the train tracks!” “Just like Joan said!”
Connolly Station at last.
“Which train do we take to Howth?” we ask the cheerful-cheeked man behind the counter inside.
“You can’t get to Howth from here.”
He is smiling. We are not.
“We can’t get to Howth from here?” I parrot stupidly.
“This is Heuston.”
“But you don’t have a train that goes to Howth?”
“Na, you need Connolly. This is Heuston.”
My heart is in my toes. “Okay. We just walked two miles,” I stammer.
“You did indeed.” He pulls out a map. “This is Heuston. You have to go to Connolly.” He points to Connolly Station right around the corner from our hotel, then drags his finger across the map to Heuston to show how far we’ve strayed. “Take the red line back to Connolly Street, then take the tram to Howth Dart Station. There’s a tram leaving in 15 minutes. You’ll find it right outside.”
My mind has turned to impermeable mush. “We have to take a tram back?”
“You didn’t hear a word I said, did ye?” He’s still smiling, but the expression in his eyes has changed to say: Tell me you aren’t traveling anywhere else, because you’re a royal mess. “Take the red line back to Connolly…”
And so we find ourselves back outside in the windy sunset, waiting for the tram. At this point, trying to deduce how we missed Connolly Station is more confusing than trying to find it in the first place, like straining to make sense of something that never happened within a dream you don’t remember. We have no idea what went wrong. No way to say, “Next time, we’ll do this instead.” I feel cheated by the iron railings and the train tracks that led us astray—as if Dublin was allowed only one of each!
The tram rolls us back to Connolly Station where, double-checking with every person we meet, we get on the train that says HOWTH DART. Even then, I’m not sure I trust it. Sitting on opposite bench seats, we watch through the wide window as the last of Dublin City trails off and the countryside slides by, a muted green in the dying daylight. I have given up hope to see the harbor at sunset. The story has changed; this is the way it must be.
We arrive at Howth, a lovely little sea village on the peninsula of Howth Head which forms the northern boundary of Dublin Bay, right at twilight. Stepping off the train, I know we’re at the harbor because of the smell first. Salt and sea things are on the damp, cold wind—sharp but not unpleasant. And not like the Florida harbors I’m used to. There’s a northernness to the smell.
Both of us have needed the restroom since partway through our marathon to the wrong station, but we quickly walk down the western pier lined with dapper fishing vessels rocking tranquilly on the tide. We clamber down and sit on the rocks at the water’s edge to take pictures and listen to the sea slurping gently in the rocky crannies. Icy, humid air seeps through every layer of clothing not vacuum-sealed to our skin. The air is blue with sea and dim with evening. The island of Ireland’s Eye is just a cold swim away. Howth Lighthouse rises white beyond the waves.
“This is my favorite spot,” Grace says.
We decide to skip the Brazen Head back in Dublin. With empty stomachs and tight bladders, we return up the pier where the glowing windows of old brick shops and restaurants dot the gathering darkness. Merry supper sounds reach us on the sidewalk. We choose the Brass Monkey based on its odd name. The loud, crowded restaurant is a low-lit, low-ceilinged cave of merlot-red walls, red light covers, and red chairs, filled with the smell of prawns and warm soda bread. We are seated at the gleaming wood bar where we watch the bustling bartenders and feast on a savory chowder that won a country-wide cook-off, undoubtedly because it contains nearly every swimming thing in the sea. A fudgy brownie makes the perfect top-off.
We get lost again after taking the train back to Dublin, but our sense of humor is greater than our sense of direction, so we are laughing when we finally stumble back into our room. We missed the Book of Kells, we never made it to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, we didn’t see the sunset at Howth, it’s now too late to catch live music in an Irish pub, and we still have no idea where Connolly Station really is—the station we just arrived at and the station we’ll need tomorrow morning to get to the airport. But we wouldn’t change a thing. Not a thing.
Later, as Grace sleeps and I stare at my glowing laptop in the dark, editing pictures and cataloging the day’s events, I find my fingers stopping while my thoughts veer repeatedly to Germany. Our flight isn’t until 14:00 tomorrow afternoon, but my mind has already closed the door on Ireland.
I am nervous. If two days in an English-speaking city wrecked this much havoc on our ability to execute a simple plan, I should probably be worried about navigating Berlin, but it isn’t that.
I’m nervous about what I will find. This time tomorrow I will be back in the land of my birth. I cannot imagine that it will actually be real, that my boots will stand on real German soil, that I will hear the language spoken, that on the southern Bavarian border I will at last find, in another week, the Alps. The country has been a mere story for so many years that the thought that I can finally approach and drop into a life-size city is simply too big to fit in my imagination. My comprehension slips from edge to edge like a lid trying to latch onto a container too wide.
I finish recapping our day on Facebook, shut my computer, and go to sleep, too filled with thoughts of Germany to dream.