The Vikings definitely knew a thing or two about travel. They also had pretty good taste when it came to looking for a place to live when they found Dublin. Let’s face it, if you were going to settle somewhere many miles from home you’d want a few of your creature comforts wouldn’t you. And when they sailed into Dublin Bay up the Liffey all those years ago I bet they thought they’d died and gone to heaven. Rich pickings to be had, loads of pillaging opportunities, ample stocks of drink and plenty of fertile maidens.
You might think that today not a lot’s changed, but you’d be wrong. Yes, of course Dublin has its pubs and clubs particularly around Temple Bar, and the Irish will be the first to agree that drinking ‘the black stuff’ and having fun is what life’s all about. But there is a lot more to Dublin’s fair city. There’s real heritage behind this charming city by the bay, from its medieval foundations to the stunning Georgian squares and cobbled streets that intoxicate you in a very different way. James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Beckett, just a few of its famous literary geniuses walked these very streets for inspiration, and many of the pubs and cafes they frequented are still in use today. One of these is an absolute must visit – Bewley’s Café on Grafton Street, a cherished listed Dublin landmark for over 80 years. Mention ‘the black stuff’ to people and they will think Guinness, but most Dubliners who think coffee, think Bewley’s, that other black stuff!
Trinity College, a bastion of education since the 1600’s was the location for the film ‘Educating Rita’ but it’s also the home of The Book of Kells, one of the few remaining illuminated bibles in the world. Transcribed by Celtic monks in 800 ad, It’s a masterpiece of Western calligraphy and represents the pinnacle of hand painted illumination. It’s also widely regarded as Ireland’s finest national treasure.
In fact strolling around this easily walkable city you can’t fail to find something historically significant, no matter what direction you choose and the River Liffey dividing the city neatly down the middle is an excellent way to ensure you keep your sense of direction. You’ll find yourself stumbling across all kinds of hidden gems like The Dawson Lounge on Dawson Street, reputedly the smallest pub in the world, literally about 10 feet wide at the front, and my particular favourite just down the street from there, St Ann’s Church, which today still upholds an age-old custom of free bread for the needy by putting loafs out on the Breadshelf, although I can’t vouch for the freshness. In fact it was on this street in the Round Room that in 1909 the Irish adopted the Declaration of Independence. On the other side of the river is The Custom House, a magnificent building once the nerve centre of all shipping traffic coming into port. A little further down is a grim reminder of Ireland’s worst natural disaster, the potato famine, which wiped out half the population and led to many people fleeing by ship to America and Canada. .Along the quayside you’ll see statues depicting families who waited on that very spot desperate for a place on one of the emigration ships. This area, once run down docks, is now undergoing immense regeneration not dissimilar to London’s Docklands, and is fast becoming a major venue for living, dining and entertaining.
The best way to first orient yourself though is by taking one of the many tours around the city. You can take an open top hop on hop off bus, you can get a bit more adventurous, don a Viking helmet and opt for the Viking Splash Tour, a 1940’s amphibious vehicle that will give you a taste of road and river at the same time. No trip would be complete of course without a visit to the Guinness Storehouse building right next door to the brewery. You can learn just about everything to do with Guinness here, and even pull your own pint at the end of the tour. Many people believe that Guinness does taste different in Ireland and you’ll find out here just why that may well be true!
So what would The Vikings make of Dublin today? I think they would be patting each other on the back thinking that as travel agents go they certainly had the Midas touch!
Pat Liddy Walking Tours of Dublin Ltd
St. James’ Gate, Dublin 8
Viking Splash Tour