Semana Santa, the week leading from Palm Sunday to Easter, is pretty big in Spain. Some cities, like Seville, are especially known for their Holy Week processions, which involve giant scenes from the Passion carried by hundreds of people wearing traditional clothing that resembles that of the Ku Klux Klan in the US. Of course, Semana Santa traditions are much older than the KKK, but it definitely makes most Americans do a double (or triple) take when they first see it. Last year, I went to Zamora, in Castilla y León, for a day to see one of their processions. Although a small town, Zamora has one of the biggest such celebrations in the north of Spain, and it’s an easy day trip from Madrid.
This year, however, I did something completely different for Semana Santa. Since the week (plus the Friday before and the Monday after) functions as spring break for students and teachers in Spain, most auxiliares take advantage of the time off to do some heavy traveling. It was hard to decide where exactly I wanted to go over such a long break, but in the end, I decided to go to Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Scotland… and my aunt decided to fly over and go with me!
I don’t even know where to start to begin describing this trip. It was easily one of my favorite trips I’ve ever taken, and Ireland is warring with Germany for the position of favorite country I’ve visited. I think it’s a tie. I can’t choose. Spain, I believe, is third. The only downside is how expensive everything is… though that’s nothing compared to when I had to use the pound in the UK!
Dublin, Newgrange, and Howth
Dublin was my first and last stop in Ireland, and it ended up being my favorite city in the country. I did a free walking tour here with Sandemans, and I learned a lot about the city this way. Free walking tours are pretty much my favorite way to get to know a city when I first arrive, and this one did not disappoint! Other things I did were seeing the Book of Kells in Trinity College (a must see for anyone interested in books or religion, despite the high price tag!), stumbling across Sweny’s Pharmacy (made famous in James Joyce’s Ulysses), wandering around Grafton Street and downtown Dublin, and a couple of nights in different pubs, enjoying an obligatory Guinness and then switching to Bulmers apple cider (marketed as Magners in the rest of the world). My favorite pub was called The Cobblestone and had live music, and I highly reccommend going if you’re ever in Dublin.
About an hour north of Dublin is Brú na Bóinne, an area that includes several megalithic monuments and passage tombs from the Neolithic period, about 5000 years ago. To compare, that’s 500 years older than the pyramids in Egypt and 1000 years older than Stonehenge! We only had time to visit one of the sites, and we chose Newgrange. It’s a passage tomb, which means that inside the mound is a long passage to the top, central chamber. Three smaller chambers are formed off of that, and in the back one, remains of several human bodies were discovered. The outside of the structure had collapsed by the time it was discovered, but the inside remained just as in tact as it had been when it was built, with a domed ceiling held up entirely by stones. Once inside the doorway, you walk along a very narrow and low passageway (so you have to bend over and walk sideways at points) that slopes slightly uphill to the main chamber, whose ground level is at the same point as the little window box above the door. On the Winter Solstice (and two days before and after), light streams through the little window and into the chamber for 17 minutes at sunrise (8:58-9:15am). It barely reaches the back of the chamber, where the human remains were found. It was really, really cool.
After we went to Newgrange, we spent the afternoon in Howth, a small fishing town just east of Dublin. It’s turned into a pretty touristy spot, but Dublin Bay is gorgeous. I could have easily spent an entire day sitting by the water with a good book, but alas, I didn’t have time for that. I’m sure there’s a lot more to the town that I didn’t see, but the area by the bay is pretty and filled with lots of restaurants to choose from. With more time, it looks like it would have been a great location for a hike!
Cork, Cobh, and Blarney
A perfect place to stay in the south of Ireland is a town called Cork, and from there, it’s easy to travel to both Cobh and Blarney. The highlights of Cork for me were the English Market (which reminded me of the Market of San Miguel in Madrid, except a lot less crowded) and the University College Cork campus (which is absolutely gorgeous in spring!).
Cobh is a little town on Cork Harbor, formerly known as Queenstown. It’s best known for being the last port of call for the Titanic before her disastrous maiden voyage back in 1912, and the White Star Line office has been transformed into an exhibit on the ship (which I didn’t visit). There’s a small monument to the Titanic, as well as a large one to the Lusitania and other small ones for other boating disasters that all happened in the area. It was a cute town, but pretty much good for half a day.
The highlight of this part of the trip, however, was Blarney Castle. It was one of the places in Ireland I’ve been dreaming of for years, and seeing it in person was all I had hoped for and more. The grounds around the castle are absolutely gorgeous, and I’d bet they’d be even more so once it warms up just a little bit more. The castle itself is partially in ruins and is one of the more dangerous buildings I’ve gotten to walk around.
At the very top, though, in the northern wall of the castle, sits the legendary Blarney Stone. Legend has it that a kiss to this stone will give you the gift of gab, and there was no way I was missing out on this! Now, you have to know that you don´t just walk up and kiss the Blarney Stone. No, you have to lie down on your back on the battlement of the castle and reach out over your head to grab two support bars. Then, using those bars, you have to pull your torso off and away from the floor, lowering yourself backward to be able to kiss this stone that’s about a foot and a half below you while you’re hanging upside down. There are a couple of bars going across in case you fall, but otherwise, you can see all the way down to the ground 90 feet below you.
It was a windy day (I’d say extremely so, but that leaves no adverb appropriate for the rest of Ireland), and I was wearing a big scarf. I took off my glasses and handed them and my purse to my aunt, as instructed by all the signs. I got into position, and once I was there, a worker showed me exactly which stone to kiss. I took one look as my scarf started to fall over my face and sat up again. I believe my exact words were, “That’s not happening!” Between the wind, the height, not being able to see properly without my glasses, and my scarf trying to escape down to the ground, I was disoriented and scared.
After I failed, my aunt–who had originally said she wasn’t going to do it–changed her mind and went for it! She inspired me to give it another go, but we were halfway down the spiral staircases of the castle before I told her that I wanted to return. I thought she was going to kill me, but she dutifully climbed up again, and on the second try, sans scarf, I did it! Only time will tell if the legend holds true for me, but if we’re judging based on how verbose this blog post is, I’d say there’s definitely a bit of truth to the story.
Western Ireland: Galway and the Cliffs of Moher
I didn’t have a lot of time in Galway compared to the other cities in Ireland, so I might be biased, but it was my least favorite place that I visited. The half day or so I had there was plenty. I mostly saw a lot of shops, with a couple of cool statues. It’s probably because I didn’t know what to expect, but the Spanish Arch that I saw listed on my tourist map was a pretty big disappointment. It would be a good headquarters for some day trips, such as to the Aran Islands and the Cliffs of Moher, but the town itself was not very exciting.
The Cliffs of Moher, on the other hand, were one of my favorite sights in Ireland. Of course, things couldn’t go smoothly for us, and after driving through the beautiful countryside in County Clare, we arrived at the Cliffs only to see a big orange sign warning us that weather conditions were too dangerous to continue. Along with all of the other tourists that day, though, we ignored it. We had to battle 60+ mile per hour winds, and that’s not gusts. That’s all the time. But hey, we got in for free!
It would have been nice to be able to explore a bit more of the area, but because of the wind trying to literally knock our feet out from under us, we stuck to the areas that had the most shelter. And by shelter, I mean a thin stone wall that we clung to as if our lives depended on it… because they did. The cliffs were absolutely stunning, though, and I could have stayed there a lot longer than we did just to watch the waves crashing into their base. They rise about 700 feet above sea level, and it’s just a straight drop all the way to the bottom. It was easily one of the most breathtaking places I’ve ever been.
Northern Ireland: Belfast and the Giant’s Causeway
Northern Ireland was similar to Ireland in appearance while at the same time being very different culturally. I don’t know how much of it was in my head, as someone who’s experienced British culture and was expecting a different, but I’d say the Northern Ireland definitely felt more like Great Britain than it did Ireland (though of course, it’s something separate from both of those). It felt more prim and proper, though it did have some of the laid back vibe I got in the Republic of Ireland as well.
Like Galway, Belfast didn’t charm me, though I also didn’t spend much time there. The Writer’s Square was interesting, with various quotes scattered throughout, as well as a monument to the Irish men and women who fought alongside the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. I spent most of my time at the Titanic Belfast museum, though, because this is the city where the ship was built. I learned a lot in the museum, starting with how it was built, then going into what the ship actually looked like, followed by survivor and recovery stories, and ending with information about the final resting place and what remains today. It was eerie, but if you have any interest in the Titanic, it was well worth the visit.
In addition to Belfast, we spent an afternoon at the Giant’s Causeway, along the northern coast. Legend has it that an Scottish giant challenged an Irish giant to a fight, and the Irish giant built a causeway between the two countries. He disguised himself as a baby, and when the Scottish giant arrived, he fled in fear of how large an adult giant must be, and he destroyed the causeway behind him, leaving the thousands of hexagonal stone columns we can see today. In reality, the causeway was created by volcanic activity millions and millions of years ago. I really enjoyed what I saw, but again, it would have been more fun to wander around with less wind and rain. I was afraid to wander too far out on the slippery stones, but it was also nice because the weather kept a lot of tourists away!
Edinburgh, Edinburgh, Edinburgh! What can I say about Edinburgh? In just two short days, it became one of my favorite cities in the world. Everything looks incredibly old, but it’s actually the bustling capital city of Scotland! There’s a lot to see and do, but I stuck with some of the cheaper–and free!–activities. The main sight I passed over was the castle, partly because of the price tag and partly because of the long, long line to get in. I saw it from outside, though, and it was really cool that it’s right in the center of town!
As a pretty big Harry Potter nerd, it was obviously mandatory for me to go on a free Harry Potter walking tour of the city. The tour was definitely aimed at a younger audience than most walking tours, and it was obvious why with the dozen or so children under the age of 8 in our group. The tour guide was dressed up in a robe and round glasses, and he had wands to hand out to the children for the duration of the tour. (Okay, some adults, too. Yes, I grabbed one. Hush! I’m a child at heart!) There wasn’t a lot of new information on the tour for me, but I did see a lot of places I wouldn’t have known to check out on my own.
Aside from this tour, I also had breakfast on Saturday and dinner on Easter Sunday in The Elephant House, a café right in the center of Edinburgh where J.K. Rowling spent some time writing some of the books. It was really fun to just sit in there and enjoy the atmosphere, even if the ratio was probably something like 80% or more tourists and 20% locals. I was able to write a little while I waited for my food, but the most fun part was the bathrooms. … Did I just say the bathrooms? Yes. Yes, I did. The bathroom stalls are absolutely covered in Harry Potter graffiti, and it’s actually really cool! Walls, doors, ceilings… even the hand dryers were drawn and written on. I loved it!
Other than letting my inner nerd out for some fresh air, I did a lot of wandering in Edinburgh. If I didn’t know better, I’d think -burgh meant City of Hills, because both Pittsburgh and Edinburgh definitely live up to the name! While Edinburgh is pretty hilly to walk around in general, there are two major hills that can be visited: Calton Hill and Arthur’s Seat. Calton Hill was fun and had a lot of monuments, but if you only have time to visit one, I cannot recommend Arthur’s Seat enough. It’s actually an extinct volcano, and rises about 800 feet above sea level. I spent four hours there on Easter, though half of that was spent sitting at the top, writing and enjoying the view. You can see Edinburgh Castle, Calton Hill, and the sea depending on which direction you look, and the views were spectacular.
It was a very bittersweet day when it was finally time for me to fly back home to Madrid. I had an incredible time on this trip, saw some truly amazing places, and fell in love with an entire country, but it’s always nice to be able to relax at home, with your own bed and your own shower. There is so much more I’d love to see in Ireland and the UK, and one week was simply not enough… but it was a good start. It just means that I have plenty of reason to find a way back!