Unexpected Ireland

Ireland is a place that I (Chris) have wanted to visit for a long time. I was raised on Irish folk music, and some of my ancestors came from Ireland long ago. It was a country that I thought might “call” to me, as Scotland calls to a good friend of mine. Melissa and I have been in Ireland for two weeks now, exploring the peninsulas, islands, and small towns of the western coast. What we’ve found has been interesting and, in many ways, unexpected.

View from Slea Head to the town of Dunquin
  • The coastal scenery is undeniably beautiful (as Melissa’s pictures show), but much of the landscape is harsher and more barren than we had anticipated. On many hillsides, no vegetation grows taller than about half a meter. The foothills of the Alps and Rockies are full of conifer trees, but here in the far shorter hills, there is hardly a tree in sight. (Maybe they were all cut down years ago for timber or fuel and not replanted?) Instead, bare gray rock juts out everywhere, so many fields are more stone than grass.
  • In other spots, the landscape is more tropical than you’d expect. Fuschia plants—tender, delicate flowers in the United States—grow into huge hedges in western Ireland. And in some spots, such as Bantry or Glengariff, you can find palm trees, apparently flourishing.
The fuschia plant, which grows into tall hedges, is a symbol of west Cork
  • Everyone talks about how green Ireland is. There is a lot of green, yes, but Ireland doesn’t look any greener than parts of the U.S. Midwest or some of the Alpine countries we’ve visited, with their lush meadows of hay. I wonder why no one raves about the greenness of Switzerland or Slovenia or Kentucky. Ireland seems to have cornered the market on that adjective.
“Ladies View,” a spot near Killarney beloved of Queen Victoria’s ladies in waiting
  • We certainly didn’t expect to get sunburned in Ireland. This is the land of clouds and misty rain and pale people living near bogs. Apparently, though, the sun doesn’t have to be shining with Mediterranean force to cause you grief. We learned that the hard way during a hike on the rocky Sheep’s Head Peninsula in west Cork. The day was cool and cloudy, so we didn’t think about sunscreen. But after five hours of walking without shade, we came back as pink as any vacationing Midwesterner on his first day in the Caribbean. It feels so silly to be walking around Ireland with your face peeling.
Chris on the Sheep’s Head Way trail (not realizing she was getting a sunburn)
  • Probably the biggest surprise of all is how expensive this country is. It’s not just a matter of being here in the high season. People who live here year-round have told us the prices of things, and they’re ridiculous. Now that most European countries use the euro, it’s easy to compare prices—and it’s galling to feel like you’re overpaying for everything. Whereas in most of Italy you can get a plate of pasta for 6 or 7 euros (about $10), it’s hard to find an entree in even an ordinary Irish restaurant for less than twice that. In Dingle (admittedly a very touristy town), we couldn’t find a single restaurant or pub serving dinner entrees for less than 18 euros ($27). Grocery stores are much the same. A package of paper napkins that costs 80 cents in Slovenia is 2.50 here.
Inns and pubs in the town of Dingle
  • And good luck finding a double room in a bed and breakfast for less than 70 euros ($100). Prices for hostels are also commensurately higher than in much of the rest of Europe. And unlike in other countries we’ve visited, there is no cheap street food to help the budget traveler. Even a serving of fish and chips or a take-out Indian or Chinese dish will set you back at least $11 apiece. No wonder we didn’t encounter much (nontourist) life in Irish towns in the evening: No one can afford to eat out.
  • Another unexpected way in which Ireland differs from continental Europe is in its reliance on cars. There’s not a lot of public transit; instead, people drive. And despite the narrow roads, big sedans and American-style SUVs are not uncommon.
  • Towns are oriented toward drivers rather than walkers, with no plazas and few pedestrian-only streets. It’s only now, since indoor smoking was banned, that some restaurants are thinking to set up tables outside in the summer. But still, life appears to be lived mainly indoors here—even on days with good weather—in a way that it isn’t on much of the Continent. For all of those reasons, Ireland doesn’t feel especially European so far, and certainly not very foreign or exotic.
  • Unfortunately, we’ve also had much more trouble finding hosts in Ireland than we’d expected. Our preferred way to travel is to spend maybe one-third or one-half of our nights staying with local hosts, through networks such as CouchSurfing, Servas, or an international gay/lesbian network, LGHEI. That has worked pretty well in most countries (especially Slovenia!), but not in Ireland. Maybe it’s the fact that we’re here during the summer, when people are on vacation, or that Ireland is such a popular destination that hosts are inundated with requests, and visitors are no longer a special thing. Whatever the reason, we’ve only managed to hook up with one host: a lovely Italian chef named Paola who has a pretty cottage near Skibbereen. (Isn’t that town name fun to say?) As for the rest of our visit, we’re becoming intimately acquainted with Irish hostels—both good and bad—plus the occasional splurge when a hostel isn’t available.

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