Saturday, May 30, 2015

Dublin's Best Walks

When I first arrived in Dublin there were a number of things I particularly loved about about the city, especially in contrast to Conakry. I have long gotten over the thrill of constant electricity and potable tap water (though I will miss them when they are gone), but the great walking in Dublin continues to delight me. Here are some of my favorites:

Great South Wall - This is my all-time favorite, mostly because it's so close to my house and pairs neatly with a picturesque half-hour bike ride there through Sandymount and the Irishtown Nature Reserve. The Great South Wall was built in the 18th century along the Liffey to help prevent silting from getting in the way of shipping. It's about an hour walk along the seawall from the parking lot out to the lighthouse and back again, with stellar views of the whole of Dublin Bay from Howth to Dalkey and the Dublin Mountains in the background.

Howth Cliff Walk - The best thing about the Howth cliff walk is how it's so easy to feel like you're way out in the country but actually be only a short DART ride away from home. On the far side of the peninsula there's just cliffs and sea, but the nearer side offers a charming lighthouse and some pretty views of Dublin. The full walk is a 3-hour loop all around the almost-island of Howth but there are shorter loops for the less committed. There's plenty of delicious food in Howth village for brunch/dinner/snacks on either end. I love this walk best in late summer/early fall when you can pick juicy blackberries off the bushes as you go.

Grand Canal - This one's also close to me and easy to take as a scenic diversion on the way into town for brunch or shopping. There are pretty flowers and barges and bridges and ducks and swans and a statue of Patrick Kavanagh. The docklands area where it links up with the Liffey has cool modern buildings and some decent restaurants. You can join wherever is convenient for you and walk along as long as you like before turning in and heading for downtown. Or if you're really ambitious you can walk the canal all the way to the Shannon River, but we're talking a 5-day trek here so plan accordingly.

Bray Head - The short but steep hike up to the top of Bray Head can be a bit punishing for the less athletic among us, but the views are worth it. There's a little-used path down on the south side that takes you through some more hills (especially pretty in the spring with the gorse in bloom) and then to some less official trails down to the cliff walk and thence to Greystones to celebrate your acheivement with tea and cake. Those unenthused about elevation can just take the cliffside path from Bray to Greystones (or vice versa), which is nice too and much less strenuous.

Malahide Castle - This one requires some monetary investment to get the most out of the experience, but it's well worth it. Buying a ticket to the castle (interesting in its own right) also gets you in to the lovely gardens and grounds, home to an incredible array of plants from all over the world. There's a magnificent 300-year old cedar, gorgeous flowers everywhere, and even a pair of peacocks to add to the glamour of the scenery. And if you get bored with parkland and gardens you can always wander down to the village and the coast for some pretty seaside views.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Hay Festival

I used my most recent long weekend to fulfill a long-held wish: a trip to the Hay Festival in Wales. Once referred to as "the Woodstock of the mind" by Bill Clinton, the Hay Festival is a 10-day event of lectures, concerts, workshops, book signings, and other events held every year in Hay-on-Wye, a sleepy little town on the Welsh/English border. Known as "the town of books," Hay has dozens of secondhand and antiquarian bookshops, and its population increases 40-fold at festival time as the hordes of bibliophiles descend. This year I was one of them.

It was pretty much Meredith heaven. Some of the big-name events were already sold out by the time I got my tickets, but I still managed to see great speakers on topics as varied as Jane Austen, oscillating chemical reactions, an Indian princess suffragette, medieval Arab folktales, and improv Mary Poppins. And in between there were gourmet organic fair-trade food trucks, a whole town of bookstores full of treasures to peruse, and everywhere people reading and talking about books. It was everything I had hoped it would be and more. And the weather was unusually obliging for Wales, which helped.

The two days I could be there were not nearly enough, not by a long shot. And as much as I'd love to become one of the devotees who goes to the festival every year, it would be a bit of a hike from Addis. But at least I got to go have the experience while I'm more or less in the neighborhood, and now I have a fat stack of exciting new books to read to keep the joy going for another couple of months. I'm so glad I went.

Saturday, May 16, 2015


The big news in Ireland these days is a referendum on gay marriage coming up on Friday. Both sides are campaigning hard: with less than a week to go until the vote there may not be a single streetlight in Dublin without a referendum poster on it, if not two or three or six.

Despite the apparent parity in the photo to the left, on the whole Dublin is Yes territory. Like most urban areas in Europe, Dublin is full of 20- and 30-somethings who are more likely to approve of gay marriage, and they are showing their Yes pride in dozens of ways: with signs on lampposts and in shops and restaurants and homes, with murals, with pins and t-shirts, with rainbow manicures and drag queen brunch. This being Ireland, the Yes campaign is bilingual, so there are plenty of signs out there urging people to Vótáil Tá (which kind of means "vote yes" but not exactly.)

While looking at the streets of Dublin might make you think Yes will take it in a cakewalk, No has stronger support in rural areas and some big heavyweights behind it, such as the Catholic Church. The Irish Government and all the major political parties have officially backed the Yes vote, though party membership seems divided on the issue and I don't see people voting against their conscience just to follow the party line. Recent polls show Yes ahead, but with a decreasing lead. I don't think anyone knows how this is going to go. But close races are more exciting, even for outsiders like myself with no stake in the outcome.

EDIT 5/26: The ayes have it! The people have spoken, and gay marriage is now legal in Ireland. 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Vicarious Tourism: Edinburgh

Last weekend was a bank holiday weekend, so I decided to take a little trip to Scotland. I hadn't been to Edinburgh since I was eight or nine, and didn't remember much about it except that they had a KFC there, which at the time I hadn't seen in years and was really excited about. While I'm in the area, I figured it was time to make some new, slightly more grown-up memories.

The main tourist attraction is Edinburgh Castle, which cost 24 fucking dollars to enter and was, you know, a castle. (Two years in Europe and I'm getting jaded about castles again.) It was a large and historically significant castle at least, and had some shiny crown jewels in it. And the views from the top were nice. More my speed in the historic attractions department was the Real Mary King's Close, a tour of homes and alleyways walled up in the 17th century to serve as the foundation for a city building. It was cool to get a glimpse of what daily life was like for normal people instead of just kings and queens. And then there's the Scotch Whisky Experience: I was dubious when I saw the Haunted Mansion-style ride with cars shaped like whisky barrels, but it turned out to be a really interesting and educational tour, complete with tasting of course. I also enjoyed just walking around town, through the tiny medieval alleyways and broad Georgian avenues.

I also took a day trip south to see Hadrian's Wall. It's not much to look at these days; apparently it used to be up to 16 feet tall in places, but between some sinkage and centuries of being pillaged for building materials only the width of the wall distinguishes it from any other field boundary. But I was there. I saw it. More impressive was Vindolanda, the remains of a Roman fort and the village that grew up next to it. Again, it's not much to look at, basically just wall foundations and paving stones. But among the detritus found at the site were fragments of messages written on thin strips of wood, still legible almost 2000 years later. They cover all kinds of mundane aspects of life at the edge of the Roman Empire: routine military reports, inventories, shopping lists, a care package, a birthday party invitation. Technology may have come a long way in the last two millennia, but people don't seem to have changed much.

On the minus side of the trip, pretty much everything was eyewateringly expensive. I also blame my day tramping around the Northumbrian countryside in the cold and wind and rain for the sore throat that has me stuck at home this weekend self-medicating with hot whiskeys. But on the whole, entirely worth it.