Surprises in Ireland: Driving and drinking and sunshine

IMG_4801Driving on the left side of the road? Yep — knew all about that. And I had been warned to look out for flocks of sheep on country roads.

What I didn’t expect was that freeways were easy and country roads scared the bejesus out of me. The two-lane roads are narrow, with stone walls instead of shoulders. Some bridges narrow to single-car width, and others just seem to. Go slow — and remember that pedestrians and bicycles and sheep and cows have the right of way. We didn’t see any sheep on the road, but did meet plenty of pedestrians and bicycles.

I never quite adjusted to seeing traffic coming at me on the “wrong” side of the road. I knew that the oncoming vehicle on the right and my car on the left were all where we belonged, but the liminal pathways engraved in my brain by decades of right-side-of-the-road driving triggered an adrenaline rush every single time.

Another surprise: sunshine! We were prepared for rainy days, but the sun shone every day of our stay. Not all day, to be sure, but at least a good part of each long day. I was also surprised by the length of the days: sunrise lit up green hills before six in the morning, with a rose and violet sunset coming after ten at night.

Irish food was dissed by all our friends. They rolled their eyes at the thought, calling it bland, boring, and uninspired. One friend said he had heard the Guinness was better in Ireland than here, so that was something to look for. I asked another friend about coffee, and she assured me that we could get coffee, but it might well be instant.

Wrong! The more traditional food was plain but good — beef and Guinness stew, flaky fish and chips, fried tomatoes and mushrooms bursting with fresh flavor, hearty scones, Irish bacon, Irish butter and brown bread. But that was only the beginning.

Locally sourced food and inspired cuisine was everywhere. Restaurants posted the list of farms where they got goat cheese or bacon or beef. Some grew herbs and lettuce and vegetables in their own gardens and poly tunnels.

We ate lunch one day at the Stonecutters Kitchen, a seven-table restaurant recommended by a local shopkeeper for “wholesome” food. I ate a lovely baked goat cheese salad, served on toasted brown bread, topped by a mild chutney. Greens and apples and pears completed the plate, with a house-made pear and vinegar dressing They bake their own bread, as well as tempting cakes and pastries.

At the Doolin Folk Festival, a huge shallow pan of jambalaya simmered over an open fire. Other offerings included Irish-style hot dogs (Irish sausages in a bun), and burgers. Fusion, imaginative blending of styles and genres, marked food as well as music. That contributed to the feeling of the festival — not something put on for tourists, but a local celebration that we were welcomed to enjoy along with the family.

In Dublin, international food abounded: Mongolian barbecue, Vietnamese pho, Chinese, Italian, Greek, French, Indian, Spanish tapas, and on and on.

Pubs were another surprise. I thought they’d be just for beer and bar food, but no — in Ireland, pubs have food, and often a full breakfast, lunch and dinner. We stopped at a pub in Lisdoonvarna for tea and scones on a Saturday morning.

And the coffee? In a tourist hotel, complimentary cappuccino in a fancier-than-Keurig machine in the lobby was a very nice touch. More surprising: cappuccino was on tap along with the Guinness at every pub.

One final note: Yes, the Guinness does taste better in Ireland!

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