Clearly this was a sign that my weekend on the Emerald Isle with my roommates was going to be a magical one. And it definitely was.
My roommate Micaela graciously took us on her first return to Ireland since she went when she was five to celebrate her great- grandma’s 98th birthday. Being a second generation Irish American, her grandma’s brothers and their families still live in Donegal, a rural county right near the coast of Northern Ireland.
Too bad when we planned this trip we didn’t know where her family lived. Or that Ryanair only has one Pisa-Dublin flight per week. So when Micaela’s dad, who travels to Ireland often, told us that Donegal was a three-hour bus trip from Dublin, our weekend drastically shortened. Even worse, their was no changing our flight to accommodate it.
We moved on every type of transportation in a matter of 12 hours on Thursday. We walked to Santa Maria Novella, took an hour train to Pisa, hopped a plane to Dublin, rode a bus to Donegal and finally drove to Micaela’s cousin’s home.
All of that almost didn’t happen though. As we were boarding our flight we were stopped for not getting our visas stamped at baggage check. A note: if you fly Ryanair and you don’t have an EU passport you MUST go to check in before you go through security. It’s written very clearly on the ticket that none of us read while waiting two hours in the terminal. Luckily our “stupid Americans” moment was quickly fixed by some annoyed attendants and we boarded the plane… Only to realize that we bought the wrong bus ticket.
Donegal, although it also has a namesake town, is a county, that’s stop is two before we needed to get off, at Letterkenny. Having some time before the next bus, we ran around the airport confirming we could still board the bus with our tickets, even asking a bus driver of another route. After getting confirmation that it would be fine since it was the same route, we got dinner and enjoyed food that wasn’t Italian, which we loved. Feeling satisfied, we boarded our bus… Almost. Of course the driver had a problem with taking our tickets, and had to make all these calls to confirm that we could get on the bus, despite the 1€ difference in price between the Donegal and Letterkenny stops. After some sad girl pleading we were finally allowed to take our seats.
We arrived in Letterkenny at 12:45 and were met by Micaela’s great aunt Sally. She welcomed us all in her cute Irish accent and then led us to her car, which had us in hysterics when we saw the steering wheel on the right side. When we started driving on the left side of the road we were in awe of the strange difference.
Fun fact: the UK and some of its provinces driving on the left side of the road dates back to medieval times. Men on horseback would take the left side of the road so they could quickly draw their swords in case whoever they passed turned out to be an enemy.
We stayed at Micaela’s cousin Loretta’s house, who is Sally’s daughter. Taking winding roads in the pitch black of night, we arrived at her picturesque farmhouse. It was so nice to be in a real home, especially one that looked like it was right out of Home and Garden magazine. With plenty of room for guests, the four of us had two bedrooms, with the most comfortable beds, and our own bathroom, complete with a waterfall shower-head. It was like staying at a spa compared to our tiny Florence apartment.
Friday morning Loretta made sure we had all we needed to make a huge breakfast before she headed to work. In her beautiful kitchen we made eggs, bacon (it was actually ham), Irish tea and warmed croissants before her sister Katrina picked us up for the day’s activities. On maternity leave since having her “wee babe” four months ago, she took us all over the countryside and Letterkenny.
We started with a hike up Mount Errigal, the highest point in Donegal at 751 meters. A hike with no trail, we shifted and jumped through the muddy grass before reaching rocky gravel that had us crawling up to the top at some points. Somehow we managed to finish a hike that usually takes over two hours in just over an hour, enjoying our victory at the peak of the mountain, looking over the coast of the Atlantic Ocean while sipping on tea and coffee and eating candies that Katrina had packed for us.
We made it down the peak quickly, but not without our share of casualties. Taylor, who was actually wearing hiking boots, became a muddy mess as she slipped all over the grass. My boots, regular combat boots, were soaked through with mud from stepping in marshes. But we conquered a huge feat, one that Katrina told every local we came across that day.
From the hike we went to visit Glenveagh Castle, having a bite for lunch in the tea room before roaming the beautiful grounds that sat right on a bay. Actually built by an American and donated to the state when he passed, the castle was in pristine condition, complete with gardens, a pool and a watch tower. Before we headed back to Loretta’s, Katrina made sure we had a Guinness at a local bar to celebrate our busy day.
Micaela’s family was all too kind to us, not letting us pay for a single thing on our trip. Katrina treated us to dinner at Villa Rosa, a trendy restaurant in Letterkenny. We easily had the best meals we’ve had in Europe, each of us stuffed with steak, fish, potatoes and wine. When Katrina’s daughter Atlanta, who is our age, joined us with her boyfriend Leon, we shut down the restaurant gabbing about the differences between the States and Europe, especially slang terms. We learned that kissing is called “snogging” only in England, so pay no mind to what you learned watching Harry Potter movies when in Ireland, where it’s called “shifting”. And we were warned that “making out” means a whole lot more in Ireland than it does at home.
Saturday morning Loretta drove us to Slieve League, the highest sea cliffs in Europe. I loved whipping around the narrow roads of the countryside in Loretta’s SUV, it made me miss driving my old Ford Escape through all the farmland back home so much. We drove about an hour and a half to the bottom of the cliffs, where we climbed the steps to the top for spectacular views. After a typical tourist photo shoot we chased sheep around the hills attempting to take a picture with them, which was sadly unsuccessful.
We stopped for hot chocolate and cakes at a small shop before driving to the Silver Streak, one of the largest and most beautiful beaches in Donegal. Nestled between two cliffs, it was so weird to be on the quiet beach while we were bundled in jackets and scarves. Somehow we managed to have perfect sunny days while in Ireland, adding to the beautiful view.
We drove back to Donegal town to eat a late lunch at The Blueberry, one of Loretta’s favorite spots. Owned by a man who used to live a block away from Micaela’s grandparents in Queens, Loretta explained that it’s a trend in Ireland to leave to Australia or America for a few years, make a lot of money and then return to Ireland to build giant houses and support their extended families.
That night we went to Atlanta’s friend’s 21st birthday party. Even though the drinking age is 18 in Ireland, Laura, the birthday girl, explained that they celebrate it anyways because they can drink anywhere when they’re 21 (way to go, America). And they sure do celebrate.
We arrived at Laura’s house to find a giant marquee in the backyard, a huge tent with a wooden floor, filled with tables of food and alcohol being flashes with neon lights. Parents mixed with friends as a DJ played current American hits, some old B*Witched and Spice Girls, and Irish folk songs. We saw drunk mums Irish dancing, doing jigs and ceilis while Laura got her traditional 21 kisses from her guests, who were all dressed in short rompers, fake eyelashes and the highest stilettos. It was basically a high school graduation party on steroids.
At 12:30 a party bus arrived to take everyone to Pulse, one of the biggest nightclubs in Ireland, right in Letterkenny. We followed Atlanta through the different rooms, one with a giant dance floor playing hip hop and pop mixes, another with a live band playing folk tunes, a quieter lounge and a smoking room. We ended up dancing with her friends until the club closed at 3:00, so early compared to nightlife in Florence!
We stayed at Atlanta’s apartment in Letterkenny before boarding our bus at 5:30. Yes, we had to catch a bus at 5 in the morning in order to make our 10:20 flight to Pisa. After running through the Dublin airport we made successfully made our plane, although none of us would have been too mad if we would have had to spend a few more days in Ireland waiting for the next flight out.
Some tips for Ireland:
- Most of Ireland is in the EU and therefore uses euros, but parts of Northern Ireland are under English rule and use the pound.
- Crunchies are the best candy in the entire world. A honeycomb covered in chocolate, we stuffed our suitcases with them.
- Irish people are so friendly, so don’t be weired out when a stranger you pass basically asks your for your life story .
- The countryside was beautiful. While I would have loved to see Dublin, I’m so glad we spent our trip in small towns with locals. Everything was so quiet and there was no congestion of tourists. Most places we were the only ones there!
- Bring a jacket and good walking shoes, you’ll need them!