Saturday, June 28, 2008

Ireland Day One -- Newgrange and Belfast

After a long, long flight, and with very little sleep, we arrived in Dublin tired, but excited to be starting our vacation.

It took us a couple of hours to clear customs and get the rental car, but we were thankful at least that all our bags arrived with us. Unlike previous trips, if our bags didn't show this time, Aer Lingus would have to chase us around the island trying to deliver them to us.

From the airport, we proceeded directly north, towards Newgrange. But it was breakfast time, so we stopped in Swords to see if we could find something to eat. As the Irish are not noted for being early risers, the only place we could find open was McDonalds. (It was nine o'clock.)

After a hearty breakfast, and some much needed coffee, we arrived at Brú na Bóinne, which includes both the Knowth and Newgrange megalithic sites (along with Dowth, which we didn't tour).

As you can tell from the photos, the weather was cool, rainy, and windy--just what you'd expect from an Irish summer. We were exhausted, but determined to push through on our first day in GMT.

Getting out of the car and walking the sites at Brú na Bóinne helped us to adjust to the time zone. While on the tours, we learned some amazing facts about Newgrange and Knowth, sites that are over 5,000 years old.

Newgrange, of course, is aligned with the winter solstice, and the inner chamber glows with deep honey and amber hues at the rising of the sun on the year's shortest day. The tour guides have many interpretations for why this is significant, but they remind us that this is just speculation, and the true reasons will never be known. Aliens? Sun worshipers? Two things are known: One, the site took approximately fifty years to build, which means that it probably spanned at least two generations of builders. Two, the area must have enjoyed relatively peace and harmony for the builders to focus their attention on the site so completely. Many of the stones had to be transported from mountains over 70 km away, using only crude rafts and log rollers. So, what is the reason for all of this determination and engineering? Who knows. Perhaps they did it just because they could.

During our first day, we began to get accustomed to the Irish dialect. The most noticeable difference is the way they say the "th" sound. In most cases, they simply pronounce it as a "t". So, we heard, "Tanks a million" and "Tick as tieves". But one of our first encounters with the dialect came early in our Knowth tour. Our guide, a young man named Brian Whelan who looked like a cousin of Desi (and probably was), informed us that the Knowth site was still under work.

"They have just excavated a turd."

The boys and I could not help our sophomoric snickers.

We whispered, "A turd! A turd! They've excavated a turd! Must be human settlements! There's a turd!" (Yes, we're so mature!) This little gem provided us amusement for the remainder of the trip, much to Becky's chagrin.

Every year, the Parks Office holds a lottery for people to be present at Newgrange during the solstice. They allow 100 people every year to see the sun as it breaks through the darkened chamber inside the mound. Last year, 28,000 people applied. We put Kathleen's name in for the lottery, because, as Becky put it, "She'd love it, and she'd come over to see it! She'd definitely come over if she won!" So, it's pretty long odds (1:280), but much better than playing the Lotto back home.

The most amazing fact (to me) about Newgrange was that the stone roof of the interior burial chamber--the chamber which lights up on the winter solstice--is so perfectly built that has been absolutely waterproof for 5,000 years. That may not be saying much in arid climates, but in Ireland, where it rained eight times on our first day--that is amazing!

The surrounding Boyne River valley is gorgeous: verdant hills of checkered farmland, grazing sheep, cows and horses. The landscape has remained virtually unchanged for hundreds of years. You could just imagine yourself taken back in time...

After a few hours at the Brú na Bóinne sites, we headed due north for Belfast. It took a couple hours of driving before I started to become comfortable driving on the left-side of the road. However, the intersections, and especially right turns, are really dangerous. Becky and I had to chant, "Stay left! Stay left!" as reminders not to die. Strangely though, the round-a-bouts (which are ubiquitous here) are much easier to navigate.

After a while, the steady vibration of the car put the two rear passengers (Eddie and Luke) into deep trances. Becky and I were also fighting hard against the 30+ hours of being awake, but we had to press on for Belfast.

As we drove, I was surprised that we never saw any indication of passing from Ireland into Northern Ireland apart from a discrete change in road names from M-1 to A-1. I had expected to see a border crossing and passport checkpoint, but we didn't even see a "Welcome to Northern Ireland" sign. This island has come pretty far in the past decade or so.

Despite my lethargy, we arrived safely at Belfast. Our hotel for the evening was the Jurys Inn, a centrally located downtown hotel on Grosvenor Street.

The large Presbyterian church across the street reminded me that it was here, in Belfast, in the year 1848, that John Harris married Margaret Monroe. For reasons lost to time, John and Margaret would soon leave Belfast, move to America, and establish themselves as the very great grandparents of our Harris clan.

Once we settled into our room at the Jurys Inn, we set out on foot for dinner. Belfast was alive with activity, and Saturday evening must be "Ladies Night" in Belfast. Cab after cab unloaded young twenty-something women, dressed audaciously as 1920's flappers and cowgirls, giggling and bouncing their way down the street. Hulloooo, Belfast! I could get used to living here! The city obviously played host to countless bachelorette parties, and even our own hotel rocked with female revelry until the wee hours.

After passing five blocks, and our fourth carload of featherboa-clad hussies, we arrived at an elegant but family-friendly restaurant recommended by the hotel, Sperranza. Dinner was delicious. Eddie had an enormous 15" pizza with pepperoni and olives--which he ate completely! Luke and Becky could only finish half their pizzas, with Luke having the pepperoni and buffalo mozzarella, and Becky having a roasted Italian veggie pizza. For myself, I had the seafood linguine in marinara sauce, and it was excellent!

After our delicious dinner, we threw the boys in the tub, scrubbed them from head to foot, and everybody went to bed.

It was exhausting, but it was also a great first day!

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