One of my bucket list items for a long time now has been to get a passport and put it to good use. I do like exploring quite a lot, but until recently I’ve never explored beyond my own country’s borders. Over the Christmas holiday, I did apply for a passport and immediately upon its arrival book passage overseas.
Trip number one was to Ireland. Why Ireland? Glad you asked.
- It’s just foreign enough to know that I’m somewhere else. The driving rules are quite different (wrong side of the car, wrong side of the road, roundabouts everywhere, different lines and signs, etc).
- It’s just familiar enough to be comfortable. The foods are mostly familiar, but with opportunities to try new things. Everyone speaks English, but a different dialect of it. I can relax and enjoy my holiday without sorting through language barriers or other massive cultural disparities.
- It’s relatively close. Europe just isn’t close to the US. But it’s close enough to get there is a pretty reasonable amount of flying time. And it’s closer to us than most of Europe.
- It’s very safe. This just isn’t a country known for violent street crime or victimization of tourists. The people live, for the most part, in relative comfort, and by and large aren’t tempted by the kinds of criminal opportunities that might make travel to more impoverished areas a bigger risk.
- It’s very old. Many of the homes I drove past were probably older than my whole country. There are man-made structures here that pre-date Christianity itself.
I could keep going, easily. Ireland has so much going for it. And I think I chose well; I really had a fantastic time there.
People told me straight off, like on the shuttle bus at the airport, “stick to the coastline and don’t muck about in the middle”. I’d heard that from Americans back home, too. But I think they’re wrong. For me, I enjoyed the middle of Ireland at least as much as the coastal communities. That’s where I met regular people who weren’t jaded by endless streams of tourist buses, and had great conversations.
I’d made a decision to get off of the major motorway as soon as I could. Ireland has a road system with four major categories, as I understand it:
- L Roads are locally run, tend to be more narrow and rustic. Speed limits are low, and they aren’t heavily traveled. If you’re looking for bucolic scenery that’s not often seen by tourists, you may find it here.
- R Roads are regionally run. They are still a bit narrow and precarious for the most part, by American standards, but they move a little faster while still offering great scenery.
- N Roads are nationally run roads and offer a good, safe way to get from town to town at a decent pace, while still offering some opportunities to see things or make stops along the way.
- M Roads, or “motorways”, are the closest thing Ireland has to super highways. The speed limits are still low compared to what I was used to at home, and none of the M roads were really all that “big”. But if you need to cover big distances in short time, this is the way to do it. The M roads didn’t offer as much in the way of scenery or opportunities for spontaneous adventuring, so we tried not to make much use of them.
You know how BMW drivers are the primary jerks on American roads, driving aggressively like they are always in such a hurry and your presence on their road is an annoyance? I saw many BMW’s in Ireland but didn’t get that vibe from most BMW drivers there. It was the Audi drivers that were total twats there. And for those who couldn’t afford Audis, the Volkswagen drivers were junior level road hooligans. Most other people were really quite courteous.
On the L and R roads, there were rarely any areas for pull-offs. Hedges and walls were established literally right up against the side of the road without a buffer in most cases, so it took a bit of nerve to get used to that. The downside to this as a traveler was that I didn’t have a chance to pull off to photograph so many wonderful sights.
The Ireland of old that I think many Americans and plastic paddies desire doesn’t really exist outside of the tourist industry. To come here expecting your stereotypes to play out is really not going to be fair. Other than people saying “wee” a lot, I got to know a place and a people that was outside of preconceived notions.
I’ll not pad this out to thousands of words in length or offer a deep dive into the experience, though I easily could (and have the photos to back it up). But I’ll say this: I’ve learned what I like in travel, and it’s not something I’ll ever get out of a guided tour. The nexus of people and place fuels my curiosity. And I’m only getting started.
One thing I learned was that traveling with a camera bag is not something I enjoy. My otherwise amazing Fujifilm X-T2 and assortment of lenses might get less use on future trips, if it comes at all. The Ricoh GR, the wee beastie of a camera that fits in the front pocket of my jeans, is likely to get a lot more use on future adventures.
And where shall I go next? Leave suggestions in the comments below.