The Emerald Isle - Part Seven

Even though I felt that we hadn't quite given Dublin it's due the day before, we decided not to give the city another try on our last day, but rather to proceed with a day trip we had planned before we left. En route, we stopped for breakfast with our friends in an attempt to squeeze in one more outing with them before we both left for home. Abel had selected a local branch of Avoca (the same restaurant chain we had dined at on our first day in Ireland, bringing the trip full circle, in a sense) as our venue, since it is apparently one of his favorite restaurants.

We were a bit late getting underway in the morning, and as if that wasn't enough to trigger my anxiety, once we were in the car once more, I discovered that the location Abel had selected wasn't listed under Avoca, or by the address, or by basically any other search term I could conjure up in our GPS. I frantically searched, eventually turning to my Blackberry in desperation, and just as I was about to start crying in frustration, I finally found an alternate name for that particular location, and when we plugged it into our GPS, it finally spit out a route.

Our misadventures en route to Avoca had not ended, however. When we exited the highway, we were reassured that we could see the giant building (which contains a shop where the handweavers who created the chain sell their wares in addition to other gifts, as well as a food hall) just on the opposite side of a traffic roundabout. However, when we followed the GPS' directions, we soon found ourselves back on the highway!

Once we were back on the road, the device promptly notified us that we had arrived, and shut off. I scrambled to reenter the location so we could navigate back from the next exit, at which point the GPS asked us if we wanted to walk, as if we could just abandon our car in the middle of the expressway, hop the fence, and saunter into the restaurant. I managed to get it reprogrammed, and we finally arrived at Avoca, seriously late, but still in time for brunch.

Convening with my friends over breakfast reminded me of all the weekend brunches we shared back at Wohl Center during college, even with all the new faces. The only difference was that the food was significantly better; both Justin and I enjoyed a final full Irish, though this time, the offerings were slightly more upscale -- chive and herb scrambled eggs, bacon, sage pork sausage, a cooked tomato, and exceptionally good brown bread.

Aside from the quality of the food, it was especially nice to have some quality time to catch up with Abel and Sinead without the stress of the wedding looming over them. Humorously, we learned that they had all ordered pizza delivery from Domino's the night before as well. Perhaps my intense pizza craving was the result of some sort of psychic bond with them, or else there was just some sort of pizza zeitgeist moment that night.

Katie and Katherine took their leave the moment they were done eating, and none too soon, really, considering they needed to get to the airport and they hadn't sprung for a GPS for their rental. It was sad to part with our friends, both old and new. Ben and Becky seemed like a nice couple; perhaps we will meet with them again. After all, they only live in Michigan. As for Abel and Sinead, I am infinitely grateful that we were able to be present for their special day, but who knows when fate will conspire for us to see each other again? It's not exactly a happy thought...

Back in our trusty VW Golf, we laid in a route to Newgrange, a neolithic burial site and solar observatory of sorts. It is one of two UNESCO World Heritage sites in Ireland, the other being the Giant's Causeway to the north, and since we couldn't make it there, I at least wanted to visit Newgrange.

Our GPS troubles, it seemed, were not over for the day. As we neared Newgrange, it seemed to be guiding us away from the direction indicated by all the signs posted along the road. Eventually, as we wound through the increasingly rural countryside, we decided it would be smarter to turn back back and follow the posted signs, so we pulled a U-turn and made our way to the visitors' center without further incident. We eventually deduced that the GPS was trying to take us directly to the site itself, however, access to the site can be only be obtained via the bus that leaves from the visitors' center. It was a good thing we'd followed our instincts.

We made it onto the 2:15 tour, and a short ride deposited us at the site. The burial mound itself was very impressive and much larger than I had realized. I was a bit disappointed, however, to learn that much of what one sees to day is the result of a 20th century restoration by Irish archaeologist Michael O'Kelly. Prior to that, the mound consisted mainly of a pile of dirt surrounded by thousands upon thousands of rocks. O'Kelly reassembled the site according to his best educated guess, and the results are what we see today. Though it took longer than 70 years for neolithic man to build Newgrange without the benefit of wheels or metal tools, it only took O'Kelly and his team 13 years to reconstruct it.

The structure consists of a circle of monumental stones called kerbstones, which form a ring around a circular wall made of white quartz and granite stones that were brought from all over Ireland. The wall contains a tall, earthen mound that consists of an estimated 200,000 tons of dirt and stone. On one side, a highly decorated kerbstone covered in carved spirals, wavy lines, and diamonds marks the entrance. Our tour guide offered us a few explanations for the meaning of the carving, but the one I found to be the most compelling was that it depicted a map of the area.

Though Newgrange is the only reconstructed tomb, the only one that can be entered by tourists today, and the only one with a relationship to the movement of the sun, there are two other large mounds in the vicinity called Knowth and Douth. These three mounds could be represented by the three connected spirals. Two smaller spirals could be two smaller burial locations nearby that are still visible today, the wavy lines could be the nearby River Boyne, and the diamonds could represent fields in the surrounding farmland. It made sense to me.

After the tour guide concluded her main remarks, we were divided into two groups in order to enter the mound. Past the decorated kerbstone, a narrow, low-ceilinged passageway lined in stone led us back and up about 60 feet into the mound, providing a claustrophobic reminder that ancient humans were much smaller than we are today owing to poor nutrition. If it hadn't been for the artificial lights, there would have been complete darkness.

At the end of the passage was a small chamber, constructed in somewhat of a cruciform shape, with each terminal containing a niche with a smoothly carved stone basin. Cremation was the funeral method of choice in those times, and the three basins contained ash, bone fragments, and funerary offerings. The space above them was used for decorative geometric carvings.

The whole chamber was roofed over with a corbelled stone dome, which manages to both support the tremendous weight of the earth above and keep the chamber below completely waterproof through careful angling of the stones and small drainage channels. Considering Newgrange was built some 5200 years ago, 500 years before the time of the pyramids, by a culture with no other surviving buildings, its inhabitants seem to have possessed a fairly sophisticated knowledge of architecture. It's worth noting that the inside of the chamber has not been reconstructed; it has remained in near-perfect condition, save for the graffiti added by 18th and 19th century tourists.

Inside the chamber, the guide had us huddle close together for a light show that would simulate the most important feature of Newgrange. Over the entrance, there is a small aperture called a roof box. On the winter solstice, the sun is at just the right point in the sky that its rays travel through the roof box and into the chamber, illuminating the space within. It is unknown whether the culture who built it were sun worshipers, and if this illumination held some sort of sacred meaning, or if they merely needed information about the movements of the sun and its related seasons because they were farmers. Perhaps it was a combination of the two.

Today there is such a demand to experience the authentic spectacle that the site's administrators hold a lottery every year in which former visitors to Newgrange can enter for a chance to win one of ten spots (and the privilege to invite a friend) to be inside the chamber for the solstice. Even the fake version had a soothing, spiritual quality to it, so I can see why it is so popular.

By the time we left, it was already starting to get dark, so we headed back to Dublin to ensure that we would be back in plenty of time for the 7:30 dinner reservation we'd booked with the front desk staff earlier that morning. We'd told them we wanted to do something special for our last night in Ireland, and I didn't want to be late.

I should have known something was amiss when I had asked the lady for something nice, and she recommended the hotel restaurant. When I declined her initial suggestion, she recommended a dinner show at another hotel, complete with live Irish music and dancing. Though Irish dancing has never appealed to me (not even during the height of Riverdance's popularity back in the 90s, she assured us that it would be very nice and that the food would be excellent, so we took her up on her suggestion.

Back at the hotel, we changed into some nicer clothes (though we would soon discover that there had been no need for that), and started on our way. It had started raining in earnest while we were driving back from Newgrange, so we were glad that we were able to reach the restaurant via the Luas, Dublin's streetcar system, and avoid another long slog on foot into the city.

The restaurant wasn't hard to find, but the moment we walked inside, I knew we hadn't gotten what we'd asked for. I had envisioned an elegant, romantic dinner with memorable food. What we got was a glorified pub, packed wall-to-wall with casually dressed tourists -- not a local in sight save for the waitstaff. The only thing that kept me from turning around and leaving was the fact that we didn't know where to find a nicer place, I didn't want to have to locate one in the downpour outside, and probably wouldn't have been able to get seated without a reservation anyway. I was crestfallen.

Even with a pint of Guiness in hand, you can see the misery in Justin's eyes.
The menu consisted of a three course fixed-proce selection, and when our food arrived not a minute after we'd ordered, I quickly surmised that everything was already made up in the back, catering style. While acceptable, the food was far from memorable, but as for ambiance, there was none. We were crammed into a table between a large group of raucous, drunken Brits from Lancashire, and a group of Scottish grannies celebrating one of their birthdays.

Once the entertainment started, we couldn't even hear ourselves think, much less engage in conversation. The band, while not untalented, was singing from a playlist specifically tailored to tourists, with such selections as "Kiss Me, I'm Irish," a song that they admitted to learning from an American band they saw on Youtube. As soon as they went on break and they started setting up the stage for the dancers, we paid our check and got out of there as fast as we could.

As we stood in the pouring rain, waiting for the Luas, the mood was dour, and hardly what I had hoped for on the last evening of an otherwise outstanding voyage. We had learned our lesson; next time we're on vacation and we want to go somewhere quiet and romantic to serve as a capstone to our experience, not a tourist trap, we're going to tell the concierge that we're celebrating our anniversary.

Once we settled into our room for the evening, we started the packing process and tried to focus on the positive, in spite of our experience at dinner. Our first international vacation had been, by and large, a success. We not only survived, but we managed to get along the vast majority of the time, and we saw some incredible sights. We spent quality time with each other, and with great friends. We celebrated the love of Abel and Sinead as well as our own.

I will always remember and treasure this incredible time in our lives, and will remain grateful that the circumstances of our lives made this journey possible. We are so very, very lucky. I can't wait to see what adventure life has in store for us next...

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