Over the weekend I travelled to the West of Ireland for a cabaret show. On Friday afternoon I took the tram out to the Red Cow. The Red Cow is on the outskirts of Dublin and marks the point where country people know they have arrived in the Big Smoke. I was being collected there from where we would drive to our ultimate destination – Galway city. The tram journey was surreal – firstly a very polite sixteen year old offered me his seat. I know that my hair is white, but surely I retain some semblance of youthful effervescence, remaining as I am, in my forties. A few stops further a woman boarded with nine children. All were hers it would appear. Some of the older children were carrying cooked chickens in brown paper bags. The chicken grease leaked all over the floor. I offered her a plastic Marks and Spencer bag which she gratefully accepted. When the ticket inspectors boarded the tram, it was discovered that none of the party of ten had a valid ticket. I have no idea what happened, as the next stop was the Red Cow where I disembarked.
We weren’t travelling to Galway that night. We were spending it in the midlands just outside Athlone – a town on the River Shannon that I had heretofore never visited. We had a drink in Sean’s Bar overlooking the river. This is one of the many bars in the land that claims to be the nation’s oldest. I was impressed by the sight of Linda Gray and Larry Hagman (Sue-Ellen and JR Ewing) in a photograph taken of them sometime in the 1980s, standing outside the bar. We each gave our impression of a drunken Sue-Ellen. Our AirBnB was located on the Roscommon side of the town, and was a very lovely old farmer’s cottage. The following morning I opened my curtains to the sight of a grey horse who had wandered into the garden overnight. The cottage owner knew who owned the beast so we bid farewell to our breakfast companion when his owner collected him.
As the years go by, realisation is dawning on me that Spain is one of my favourite countries in the world to visit. From the buzz of Madrid to the barrios of Barcelona; to the beauty of Granada; the seaside of Malaga and the Yumbo Centre of Maspalomas, it is a country of vast variety and culture; incredible food and scenery and with lovely people. And it’s hot. The proviso I would apply to my love of Spain is that I cannot visit between the months of June to September, not being built to tolerate such intense heat. Last weekend for the 6th time in three years I boarded a plane for Espana. My destination was the Spanish Atlantic – the cities of San Sebastian and Bilbao in the Basque Country – a region located in the western Pyrenees, straddling the border between France and Spain on the coast of the Bay of Biscay. Euskal Herria is the Basque name for the area.
It’s an area I have long known about, but never visited. Upon moving to Amsterdam in the year 2000 I was friends with a woman from the area who described a region of enormous beauty. Aer Lingus offers direct flight to the area’s capital Bilbao. The time to visit was finally here.
Ryanair is an airline that receives a lot of deservedly bad press. Its lack of customer service; its ability to charge extra for absolutely everything; its habit of charging more for a flight change than it is to simply abandon your initial flight and instead make a brand new booking; its hard sell at every point of the booking and flying process – I doubt the children’s charities who are meant to benefit from Ryanair lottery tickets receive much funding from the airline Like clockwork Michael O’Leary issues a press release every couple of years to announce that Ryanair are going to start charging to use the toilets on board. Cue lots of press outrage over this publicity stunt, even though everyone knows that free toilets are a legal onboard requirement in the aviation industry.
I have no issue with Ryanair. It is upfront about how horrible it is, almost proud of this fact. You get what you pay for – and woe betide you if you miss something – the airline won’t help. I like the fact that it flies to many destinations that other airlines don’t offer. It can also be very cheap so long as you check the small print. Your €9.99 trip to Amsterdam will actually cost you €140 when you add in the price of the return flight; the price of a carry-on bag and the train transfer from Eindhoven to Amsterdam. With a bit of plotting you can get some deals.
Two weeks ago the carrier had one of its flash 24 hour sales. I had a quick look at saw that a return flight from Dublin to Paphos in Cyprus including a carryon bag would cost €120. This is the longest flight on the Ryanair network. The flight lasts about 5 hours. More horrifically, the outbound leg of the journey was at 5.45am on Friday morning. Needs must.
A springtime trip to France sounded like a good idea. Especially as it had been almost fifteen years since I had visited that beautiful country. We decided to avoid Paris. France is a vast country (by European standards) and has appealing destinations other than its glorious capital. A quick scan of the Ryanair and Aer Lingus destinations from Dublin produced a clear winner- the city of Lyon. When I mentioned this to my sister she recommended a daytrip to Annecy. After a quick online search of that town we decided that a trip to both cities was required. And so our tickets were booked.
For my reading entertainment on the lunchtime flight to Lyon, I was reading ‘Not the girl next door’ a biography of Hollywood legend Joan Crawford. Joan seemed like a suitable guardian angel for air travel. In case of turbulence I could picture her snarling ‘Don’t f*ck with me weather, this ain’t my first time at the rodeo’ (to paraphrase Faye Dunaway in ‘Mommie Dearest’.) Press 2 below for next page
Since the pandemic, life has gotten smaller. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and in many ways it is not. These days, more thought needs to be invested in the planning of outings. Spontaneous nights out to concerts or plays are less frequent, and less certain. If you are single then your circle of friends may have contracted. It has in my case. When the two kilometre lockdown was imposed, followed by the five kilometre restriction then people were excluded from my life, by virtue of physical location. With worry over transmission, that distance seemed to continue after the lockdown lifted. Self-reliance became more essential. Being happy in your own company took on added importance. Being willing to travel abroad alone, comfortable in your own skin, is one of the skills that Covid has bestowed on me. I was accustomed to solo travel before the pandemic but it was the exception rather than the rule. I preferred back then to travel with company. I still do in fact, but in a situation where it’s a choice between yet another canal walk alone in Dublin or a little foreign jaunt alone – I choose the latter.
So it was last weekend I booked a trip to the capital of Croatia, the city of Zagreb. This was my first trip to Croatia and my second trip to a country from the former Yugoslavia, having visited Belgrade in Serbia in 2009. Croatia is now a popular seaside destination on the Mediterranean. Direct flights from Dublin to Dubrovnik; Split and Zadar are increasingly popular. Zagreb is about 150 kilometres inland. It’s a city of almost a million people so a decent yet manageable size. Press 2 below for next page
I’ve already described my efforts during the pandemic to visit both Lithuania and Latvia, and how the public health situation had consistently thwarted my efforts. I finally visited Lithuania last November. Vilnius is a wonderful city. Latvia remained unvisited.
About a week ago I was checking the Ryanair website. The evening before I had watched a Dutch documentary on YouTube called ‘Ryanair: Mayday, Mayday’ from 2013. This film had alleged serious safety failings on the part of Ryanair in its relentless pursuit of lower fares. Ryanair denied everything of course. Michael O’Leary doesn’t convince me – he has the grubby demeanour of a used car salesman with a substance abuse problem. Whether or not he would, he looks like he’d scream at an under-seven’s team if they lost a match. That said I am a sturdy flier – getting into a tube of metal and flying at 35,000 feet above ground for hours on end, is a leap of faith. No point in needless worry. I will always try to find an alternative to Ryanair if possible. This isn’t always possible, so I will continue to hit that ‘Buy ticket’ button. On the Fare Finder section of the website while browsing that evening, I found a return flight for twenty-eight euros. As this trip was only forty-eight hours long, I could pack all my requirements into my stylish man-bag without paying for an additional carry-on. Excitingly the journey was only a few days hence.
My final trip of the year was touch and go, as to whether it would actually happen. I booked the ticket only a few days before departure, when Ireland was shutting down once again. I had planned to see Villagers in concert on Saturday night in Vicar Street. As cases of the omicron variant were exploding, new restrictions were introduced, meaning the show was cancelled. Travel was still permitted however, so I went to the ‘Fare finder’ section of the Ryanair website, and entered my flight budget (under 80eur). The result came back as either Birmingham or Sibiu in Romania. I like the city of Birmingham, but this was not a difficult choice. I would be traveling for the first time to the country of Romania, to a city whose name I had never previously heard.
In the days prior to departure I checked the news to make sure that new travel restrictions had not been imposed. I had a bad case of the nerves – fear that while abroad, Ireland might place Romania on a red list of countries. I was still going though. Some precautions would need to be taken. I carried a month’s supply of insulin in case I got stranded. My work laptop was neatly packed in the event I was still abroad on Tuesday when I was due back at work. I had plotted my exit from Romania to Budapest via bus, in case any flight bans were introduced. Excessive planning on my part, perhaps, but everything seemed so flimsy, I thought it wiser to be prepared.
Sibiu is a town of approximately 170,000 people in the centre of Romania. Located in Transylvania it is known as ‘The City with Eyes’ for the design of the houses with eye-shaped windows in the rooves. It was originally a Saxon city, and until World War 2 it was a city where the ethnic German population of Romania lived.
I was staying in a little ground floor apartment in a courtyard off a street, that was metres away from the Piața Mare (Grand Square) where the annual Christmas market was being held. The two bloodhounds roaming this courtyard were very friendly but had a disconcerting habit of jumping on you to express their happiness to see you. I arrived too late on my first night to go out, so ordered a pizza and watched Dolly Parton videos on MTV Romania – the woman is a star the world over.
After my Christmas trip to Limerick, on the 28th of December I bid farewell to my family to catch my train back to Dublin. As is quite common this was not a direct train. I took the 15.55 from Limerick Colbert Station to Limerick Junction, from where at about 16.30 I would board my connection – the 15.25 from Cork’s Kent Station. Then onwards to Dublin Heuston. Upon arrival at the Junction (which I may have previously referred to as the groin of Ireland thanks to its singular lack of loveliness, and unending air of bleakness and despair – not forgetting the eternal rain of course) I saw the Cork train sitting at Platform 2. In just over ninety minutes I believed I would be back in the Big Smoke.
I boarded the Cork train in carriage E. Thankfully it didn’t seem too crowded. I had my book in my stylish manbag (‘The corrections’ by Jonathan Franzen). This trip would be brief, I thought to myself.
Originally my intention had been to visit Latvia and Lithuania in March 2020. I would fly into Riga, spend a few days there; followed by a bus tour to Vilnius which would stop at historic castles and parks en route. My journey would end in Vilnius for a few more days, before my flight home from the Lithuanian capital. Something happened however, meaning the trip was cancelled – the global pandemic. I postponed the holiday until October 2020, as obviously everything would be back to normal by then. Unfortunately that wasn’t possible. I subsequently switched my flights to March 2021. Pandemic said no. Finally I moved the dates to November. The Latvian leg of the trip was cancelled unfortunately, because of a fresh lockdown in that country. Vilnius remained open however. Being both vaxxed and recovered, I decided to take my chances. My trip to Vilnius might be brief but it had been a long time coming. It was time to hit the runway.
After checking in to my grim (but incredibly cheap) apartment I found my way randomly to Bernelių užeiga Vilniuje – a traditional restaurant in the city centre. The food was potato based and tasty. The lounge singer switched between Lithuanian folk music and easy-listening in English. ‘You’ by 10 Sharp was a highlight. I decided against the ballroom dancing when it began. I am not Billy Idol. There’d be no dancing with myself this holiday.
The decision to travel to Norway was made in the early summer. It’s a country I had never visited, and knew very little about (Sue Townsend’s famed anti-hero Adrian Mole had once done a school project on the Norwegian leather industry so I was reasonably well versed on that facet of the country. I was also aware of legendary Norwegian pop and A-Ha). My friend R had previously visited, loved it and so we decided that to celebrate the possibility that life might be going back to normal, we booked a trip.
Our early October travel dates were deliberate. The days were still long and the bitter cold that Scandinavian winters are known for hadn’t arrived yet. The SAS flights cost only 120euro for a return trip.
Oslo airport was as clean and neat as you’d expect. What was not so expected was the chaos in the off-license at the duty-free. Norway is one of the world’s most expensive countries when it comes to booze, so the natives purchase as much as they can in the duty free upon arrival back in the homeland. We weren’t there for the duty free. We made our way to the station and the half hour trek to Oslo central station.
We were staying in different hotels both within a three minute stroll to the station – which became our meeting point.