The Pretty Cities: Dublin, Ireland
"Sorry, ma'am, it's a full flight. You'll have to wait for the next one." I was standing at boarding gate 3A in Dublin Airport on a Monday morning and I'd just been told the one thing a staff traveller dreads hearing the most.
One of the more "exciting" parts of staff travel is being told that the flight is full - meaning they literally don't have any room for you. In my case, the next flight wasn't until Wednesday morning...leaving me in Ireland for an extra two days.
Truth be told, I think Ash was a little jealous that I got to stay in Ireland longer (he was operating back to Hong Kong, so he had a ticket to ride). I have to say if you're stranded in a city for two days, Dublin isn't half a bad place to be! We only had an hour or two in the city on Sunday night when we returned from our road trip to Northern Ireland, all of which we spent sampling Guinness at a couple of pubs in Temple Bar and tucking into a spud-tastic Irish dinner. Side note: am I the only one who thought Temple Bar was...well, a bar?
Fortunately I had a fellow castaway, staff travel veteran and overall lovely lady - Donna, the captain's wife. She was in the same predicament, only she didn't have to get back to work on Tuesday and I did. I made a snap decision; rather than try and fly into London and try to hop on to the next CX flight to Hong Kong (a fool's game during peak travel season), I'd continue working on Hong Kong time and I'd use my two bonus days to explore Dublin.
Donna and I put our heads together and decided we'd simply jump on the shuttle bus back to the Clayton Hotel Dublin Airport and try our luck asking for a staff rate. Fortunately we found a sympathetic ear in superstar receptionist Joan, who sorted us out not only with an excellent rate but with complimentary upgrades. Score! "I completely understand," she said as she handed over our key cards, "My husband flies for Aer Lingus, same deal. Always a nightmare getting home during summer!" Say what you will about #pilotwifelife, there is no one in the world who can understand the struggle better than a fellow victim.
Since poor Donna had no luggage (it had been whisked away by her husband, who was certain she'd get on the flight) we spent our first bonus day in Ireland in central Dublin and did a spot of shopping followed by lunch. We got off the bus at The Spire, which was impressive as a structure but to be completely honest left me a little flummoxed. It just didn't seem very Irish! Over lunch, we compared notes on what we'd each done over the weekend. "We did just a short drive to Howth," Donna said. She described it as a charming little fishing town, adding that they'd eaten "the best seafood of their lives" at a restaurant by the beach that notably didn't serve any Guinness! Definitely one for the list of places to check out in Ireland when we're next there.
On day two, Donna and I decided to head into the city together again but then to split up and do some solo exploring. I wasn't exactly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed after my 8 nightmare hours of work on Hong Kong time (that's 1.30am - 10.30am Greenwich Mean Time, folks...it was a rough ride) but I wasn't about to miss out on seeing the the Old Library at Trinity College!
We both got off at O'Connell Street and decided on a place and time to rendezvous again. Armed with just my phone and a couple of cards, I felt strangely adrift. I'm so used to being with Ash when we're on holiday that exploring solo felt a little odd, but exhilarating. It didn't take me long to embrace the solitude. Being an only child and used to spending a lot of time by myself when Ash is away on flights, I often function best when I'm alone. As I had to explain to my cousin Nirnai (who is German and was learning English at the time) an "only child" is not a "lonely child"! I had such an awesome experience wandering around the city by myself that when Ash and I talked about it, we actually decided to make a habit of incoporating some solo travel time while we're travelling together, where we can each do our own thing for a few hours.
An interesting side effect of travelling alone was that I took far fewer photos. I was so intent on people-watching and seeing all there was to see I just clean forgot! It was good to unplug for a while though - I kept reminding myself that I'd just spent 8 hours at work and needed to chill.
I had just two things I on the agenda for my last day in Dublin - to see the Book of Kells and the real treasure of Trinity College - the Old Library. I'm a renowned bibliophile and university libraries in Europe are the goods. In hindsight Ash would have probably loved to come along too (every time we go into an old European building he likes to pretend he's at Hogwarts) but going alone was amazing. Entering Trinity College itself was a magical experience...my visits to Europe have sparked my love affair with cobblestoned lanes and alleyways. I had to tell myself every five minutes to keep my feet moving, because I'd just stop and stare at the stunning Georgian architecture. Thinking there'd be queues, I booked an online entry ticket to see the Book of Kells online and breezed past everyone in the regular line. With the pervasiveness of the internet, I'm always perplexed by the number of people who don't bother booking tickets to major tourist attractions online and just join the regular queues...but since it works to my advantage I shouldn't really complain.
The history behind the Book of Kells and its origins are fascinating. It is Ireland's "finest national treasure" and showcases some seriously stunning illuminated miniatures with calligraphic script, all portraying Gospel stories from the New Testament. The viewing area was packed, but seeing these brilliantly-crafted pages up close was worth the crowds. Each small page must have taken weeks to complete - the artwork is incredibly intricate. I've now vowed to watch The Secret of Kells - an animated film that tells the tale of the book's creation - as soon as I can get my hands on it in Hong Kong! I'm kicking myself for not looking for it while in Dublin.
A few flights of stairs up, I entered the anteroom leading into the crown jewel of Trinity College. Remember the scene from Disney's Beauty and the Beast where the Beast gifts Belle his library? If I was Belle, that would have made all my dreams come true at once. Seeing the Old Library for the first time was similarly jaw-dropping - shelves and shelves and shelves of old books with faded gold titles. Of course, this was only part of the Library - it's called The Long Room and it is home to around 200,000 of the collection's oldest books. The walkway down the centre is flanked by imposing-looking marble busts of various men with connections to the college - Homer, Isaac Newton and Jonathan Swift, to name a few.
Since I had a little more time to kill before meeting up with Donna again, I decided to stop by a quaint-looking bookstore I'd seen by the Ha'penny Bridge, the Winding Stair. I was charmed by the bell that tinkled merrily when I opened the door, the low-key classical music, the high ceilings and shelves stacked with books, the rolling ladder and the signature 18th century winding staircase connecting...wait for it...the three floors of books. I spent so long in the ground floor that I lost track of time and didn't have a chance to explore the rest. All part and parcel of the bookstore browsing experience.
Back at the hotel, Donna and I decided we'd grab a glass of wine at the bar. One glass turned into three (wait...is that a bottle?!) as we got to talking about our day in Dublin, travel, life in general, all about her two sons, and the trials and tribulations of being married to pilots. Hailing from Brisbane, her experiences moving to Hong Kong were similar to mine. It was a pleasure getting to know someone as well-travelled and grounded as Donna - as we talked more she told me more and more about her life, spinning a colourful tapestry of all the places she's been to and the people she's met along the way. I'm skeptical about the "everything happens for a reason" philosophy but whatever the reason, I'm glad circumstances gave me the opportunity to make a new friend in Hong Kong, and the chance to check off a couple of experiences on the Dublin bucket list (that surprisingly didn't involve Guinness).