On the final leg of our "arduous" journey through Europe, we decided to change up the pace and escape the city-scene, devoting a few days to explore the Northern Ireland countryside instead. The reasons for doing so were two-fold: first, it was my first time driving on the wrong (or left) side of the road and we both thought it best to steer far, far away from civilization if at all possible, and second, while we haven't intertwined Game of Thrones into our lives quite as much as some of our friends (*cough* Renberd *cough*), we were still big fans. Apparently many of the beloved places across Planetos were filmed in Northern Ireland, which resulted in Ann spending an inexcusable amount of time poring over various websites figuring out the most efficient itinerary for speed-seeing its best sights and sites. And so it was, after landing in Dublin, we picked up our little rental car and skedaddled out to the Irish countryside (with a few bops to its side mirrors on the way, ouch!).
Our first stop was the entrance of Vaes Dothrak, or the Mourne Mountains. En route to our Airbnb, we spotted a beautiful forest clearing in the afternoon sun and pulled over for a quick walk and a small addition to our Puffin collection. It was also here that we began to acquaint ourselves with the stench of manure that permeated what seemed to be the entirety of the Emerald Isle and the swarms of gnats that inhabited its forests (after having lost the first battle Ann suddenly remembered that you can just swat them off your face).
Back in the safety of the manicured garden of the Airbnb, we enjoyed afternoon tea and crackers with our delightful (and very talkative) Irish host, while playing an endless game of fetch with her two single-minded and highly cooperative dogs. There was a very specific protocol to be followed: the younger and more energetic hound would always chase down the stick, and in what we could only understand as a show of respect, yield it to the elder. Then she would then circle, stick-in-mouth, three times around the younger dog before finally returning it to us.
The following morning, our hostess introduced us to what would become one of my fondest memories of Ireland: the Ulster Fry, a behemoth of a breakfast considered by many to be the BEST cooked breakfast ever. A single serving, for one person, consists of the following, traditionally fried in lard: eggs, sausage, ham, bacon, tomatoes, mushrooms, potato hash, AND soda bread (yes, fried bread). Our hostess explained to us that this was a hearty meal meant to keep laborers going throughout the rest of the day and no, we don't have to eat all of it as it's now considered quite unhealthy (you don't say!). I heeded her advice by eating some of Ann's portion as well.
We decided to try to walk some of it off by exploring the Mourne Wall along the nearby mountains, or slieves. Built over eighteen years in the early 1900s, The Wall spans 22 miles and averages about 4ft tall and 2-3ft wide, and was constructed, we were told, for the express purpose of preventing the sheep and cattle from sullying the enclosed water reservoir. The ubiquitous presence of walls in Ireland that demarcated every parcel of land was something that surprised us, especially when compared to Iceland where the concept of common land meant wide open spaces and free-roaming sheep. As Ann pranced up Slieve Binnian, I took a breather and sat on a portion of the Wall, where it became apparent to me that "the grass is always greener on the other side" is most definitely true, especially when there are sheep involved.
Continuing on our self-guided GoT tour, we hit up Tollymore, Northern Ireland's first state forest park. It's also the location of the Enchanted Forest, the opening scene of the entire series, and the home of the direwolves. The trees here were truly magnificent both in sheer size and structure, shown below with a Chewie for scale.
The Ulster breakfast had by now finally caught up with us, so we pulled into the parking lot of a random cemetery on the outskirts of Belfast for a quick nap. Much refreshed, we arrived at the golden hour at the Dark Hedges: a stand of intertwining beech trees lining the King's Road that brought Arya back to Winterfell. In actuality, the isolated road is right next to a golf club and completely overrun by tourists. In our brief hour there, we encountered a Lady Stark cosplay, helped snap a couple of group shots for a wedding party, and survived the onslaught of several busloads of Chinese tourists. After much patience and more than a few funny looks from bystanders, we finally got our requisite Puffin shots.
With the sunlight waning, we decided to postpone dinner and rush to get one more sight in: the famed Giant's Causeway (there are enough pictures of the cast visiting here that we felt it justified a trip, even if it's not a filming location). Admiring the 40,000 basalt columns after hours has numerous advantages: it's free to enter, with plentiful (and free) nearby parking, and there are way fewer people. However, Ann would like to helpfully point out that with the visitor's center closed, there are No. Bathrooms. Anywhere. Remotely. Close. Come and listen to the swoosh of waves at your own risk.
It was getting late, and both of our tummies were rumbling. Ann was also beginning to display the telltale signs of 'hangry'. Back in town, we discovered to our dismay that despite its still being bright outside at 9pm, most restaurants had stopped service. Very limited options notwithstanding, I scored a surprise fried fish & chips with curry (we were excited to learn that curry had at some point become a common add-on to everything in the Irish fast-food repertoire) at Mr. Chips in Portrush, checking off another box on my To Eat List. In the end though, the fish and chips, while enormous, were greasy and the curry not exceptionally flavorful, but at that time it was just oh-so-satisfying.
The next day, we woke up early to a foggy morning and visited the seat of House Greyjoy at present-day Dunluce Castle and the nearby Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge. In the lashing winds and driving rains, it was hard to imagine that centuries of salmon fisherman had transported upwards of 300 fish per day across the thin rope bridge after bludgeoning their catch to death with a cudgel they called 'The Priest'.
A brief stop to take in the fog at Ballymore Forest.
On our return drive down south, we stopped in a sleepy Northern Irish town to refuel with what else but coffee and ice cream. It was there that I inadvertently became a source of amusement for a man and his young son while my mind was blown by the discovery of the 'double-scoop ice cream cone' wherein you can have two distinct ice cream flavors side-by-side rather than one atop the other. So taken were they by our (read: my) excitement that they kindly paid for our afternoon refreshments and posed for a picture with the equally bemused shopkeeper, below.
On the last day of our Irish Jaunt, we decided to visit just one more castle: Malahide Castle near the Dublin Airport, where we happened upon a yoga retreat that dominated the entirety of the western lawn and, as a result, spent most of our visit hanging out with a preening peacock (instead).