I don’t know what your stereotypes for Dublin are, but mine were friendly people, quaint architecture, boisterous pubs, and rain. Ireland’s capital delivered on all fronts.
What I didn’t expect was fantastic food. I should have been prepared: before leaving Cairo I asked a half-Irish, half Egyptian friend what to do on the Emerald Isle.
“Eat soda bread, he replied.
“What should I do, though?
“Eat salmon. And eat shortbread.
I decided to rely on Lonely Planet. It turns out, however, that he was right about the soda bread and salmon, and the prolificacy of delicious food all over the city.
Our first rainy night, I’ll admit we ordered room service. After staying in thoroughly Irish hotels in central and western Ireland, we had opted for the more cosmopolitan Radisson Blu near St. Patrick’s Cathedral. And yet there it was on the menu, smoked salmon and crème fraiche served with soda bread. Delicious.
We ventured forth with umbrellas to perform our inaugoratory pub stop at The Stag’s Head, one of the patriarchs in Dublin’s family of venerable old drinking establishments. Note on Irish drinking culture: although Guinness is everywhere, cider may actually be more popular, namely Bulmers, known as Magners outside Ireland. Seemingly innocuous, watch out, this stuff is potent. Sipping cider while my boyfriend had a Guinness, we watched the locals milling under a literal stag’s head.
Wandering through the drizzle, we arrived at the famous Grafton Street, first performance venue for Damien Rice and numerous other musicians. That night’s buskers were less inspiring, and the sparkling avenue of designer shops seemed out of character for Dublin’s homey charm.
Still, with a tinkling Celtic tune following us back to the hotel, Dublin was off to a properly Irish start.
The next morning we tested a recommendation of Odessa for brunch, nearly across the street from the Stag’s Head. Sorry mom, but I have never eaten better french toast. The accompanying mimosa and bites of the boyfriend’s fajitas will remain in my memory as one of the more delicious meals I’ve ever had. Stay upstairs, as downstairs is too dark for a morning meal, and enjoy the large windows and pleasant wait staff, most of whom, like many service people in Dublin, are Eastern European.
Trinity College drew us as an obvious first stop. Alma mater of many of Ireland’s famed writers, be sure to bring a notebook as you may feel inspired to scribble a bit of Yeats-inspired poetry at the architecture, or a Beckett-worthy line of sarcasm at the herding tourists.
Signs will direct you to one of the main attractions, the 9th century illuminated manuscript, the Book of Kells. The informative museum acknowledges the debt of Irish monasticism to Coptic Christians from Egypt, which the Irish encountered on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, as well as through Coptic monks’ northerly journeys. Don’t miss the old library, where soaring arches and floor-to-ceiling windows and shelves evoke a shrine to the written word.
Christ Church Cathedral and St. Patrick’s were architecturally not worth more than a quick look around. Reaching them took us along the River Liffey, which flows due east through the little city of one million, lending space and air to the sometimes warren-like streets. The nearby neighborhood of Temple Bar perpetually teems with teenagers and tourists; their jovial optimism made the sporadic fits of rain and wind just another aspect of the atmosphere.
Still, after walking to Stephen’s Greene, park of Joyce-ian fame, we were chilled and stopped at the grand Shelbourne Hotel for hot chocolate with whiskey and Guinness. Luxuriating by a roaring fire under chandeliers dripping crystal, we watched as ladies dressed to kill paraded up and down the length of the Lord Mayor’s Lounge.
Hurrying to Duke’s Pub for the start of our literary pub-crawl, we stopped by Sheridan’s cheese shop to buy pungent Irish Milleen. Then a dinner of pub grub at O’Neil’s, another Dublin patriarch. The “grub was a huge serving of Guinness-stewed beef with cabbage, potatoes and carrots. By sharing one serving, we barely finished it. Cheers erupted around us as the Irish Rugby team pummeled the Fijians during the Dubai Seven series.
The literary pub-crawl began with two actors delivering a scene from Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot. I don’t want to give away the whole route or repertoire, but the pubs alone are worth it, and the performances give a taste of Dublin through the eyes of those who knew it best.
We somehow had energy and stomach left for one more pint among the crowds at McDaid’s before staggering hotel-wards.
Sunday morning dawned with church bells, though we waited till nearly noon before braving the chilly walk to the Guinness factory. We ate Leo Burdock’s beloved fish and chips along the way: a greasy, salty, filling breakfast of champions.
When we toasted pints of Guinness in the Gravity Bar at the top of the Guinness Factory, I was glad to have had a substantial breakfast. Dublin’s pride in its many writers is even visible up here: we lingered despite the crowd, reading the quotes that indicate famous landmarks referenced in Joyce, etched onto the 360 degree glass walls.
Having whiled away most of the day learning about Dublin’s most famous brew, we caught a cab back to Stephen’s Green to meander through the chilly sunset.
Back at the Shelbourne hotel for more spiked hot chocolate, we met Donncha O Callaghan, one of the Irish national rugby team players we had cheered the night before. Friendly and talkative like every other Irishman we’d met, he hoped we were enjoying our stay. We laughed. Perhaps we were enjoying it too much; we would both need to de-tox when we got home.
Next, a requisite visit to Mulligan’s pub to test its claim of pouring the city’s best pint of Guinness, (they’re not lying). One of the staunchest workingman’s drinking holes, Mulligan’s still fills to bursting during football matches. After Ireland’s heartbreaking defeat to France on Nov. 19, when a handball by Thierry Henri stole Ireland’s World Cup slot, the mood was low. But another friendly bloke, this time a Scotsman, provided a dinner recommendation.
The Mermaid Café will be remembered as another of the most delicious meals I can remember eating. After an appetizer of cockles (referenced in the ballad of Molly Malone, Ireland’s unofficial anthem), I had duck confit and butternut squash while he had venison with creamed bacon. Have to admit, he made the better choice. We split a gooey chocolate soufflé served with a tiny vanilla milkshake for desert.
I cajoled him to pause in the streets of Temple Bar to search for Irish music. The confusingly named Temple Bar offered contemporary hits, but in The Quays bar we joined a crowd singing a traditional song at the top of their lungs as a fiddler and flutist carried the melody.
One final Guinness and we collapsed in our hotel, plump as Leprechauns.
Early flights returned him to New York and me to Cairo. We hope to return, perhaps in a warmer month. And after fasting . it’s been three weeks, and I think I’m still digesting.