Dubai: The Palm, Burj Al-Arab and the coast

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Before the Burj Khalifa made it’s record breaking debut, the iconic image of Dubai we saw across the rest of the world was the Burj Al-Arab. Completed in 1999, the sail-shaped hotel is 321m high and houses 60 floors. Rumour has it that the lobby is so high, you could fit the Statue of Liberty inside. If you want to go and measure it for yourself, make sure you’ve saved up some dirhams. The hotel is only open to private guests and paying customers at the restaurant and bar, where there is quite a hefty minimum payment. Happily, walking along Jumeirah beach and seeing the outside of the hotel at sunset is completely free.  Whether the architect intended it for perfect photographs or not, the building sits on it’s very own island 300m out from the shore.

Further along the coast is my favourite neighbourhood in Dubai. Jumeira Beach Residence, or JBR for short, is the closest that Dubai comes to having an arty neighbourhood. The Walk at JBR was built in 2008 for  the 20,000 people that live there, and is the first outdoor shopping and dining promenade in the city. The 1.7km walk  is a great mix of restaurants, shops and food stalls right on the beach.

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Not content with stunning sandy beaches, great amenities, luxury hotels and resorts, a choice of watersports and even a beach library, developers in Dubai of course have to go one better. As if it’s not impressive enough to build a 60 storey hotel on it’s own island, they have been extending the waterfront property potential even further.

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As the name suggests, The Palm is an artificial island in the shape of a palm tree. The trunk is 2km long, and there are 16 fronds that are kept in place by an 11km long crescent-shaped breakwater. It took 1 billion cubic metres of dredged sand and stone to build the island, the centrepiece of which is the Atlantis – The Palm Hotel. As well as the standard Dubai transport options of driving and catching a taxi, there is also an elevated monorail between Gateway Towers and the Atlantis. Apparently there were plans to connect the monorail to the metro line, but sadly this hasn’t happened so far. Which has led to the running of one of the most bizarre transport connections I have ever seen, it that it doesn’t really connect anything. As you have to drive to get to Gateway Towers anyway, most people just drive the whole way. Once I’d managed to explain to my confused taxi driver that I specifically wanted to catch the monorail and not just have him take me to the Atlantis, he dropped me at the station after Gateway Towers. I honestly thought the monorail must have been abandoned in between my guidebook being written and me visiting Dubai. I was in the middle of a huge housing estate, and I could see about 3 other people. The monorail station looked like it was closed, and it was only when I walked right up to the automatic doors and they opened that I thought maybe I was in the right place. Inside, one lonely attendant sat in the ticket booth next to shiny new automated machines that apparently don’t work. I think I might have been the only person he served that day, possibly that week. Thankfully, once the monorail arrived, I wasn’t the only person aboard. I think that would have completely freaked me out, but there was a group of tourists I assumed had been dropped off at Gateway Towers. The monorail gives you the best view of The Atlantis. I caught a taxi back from The Palm, and my lovely taxi driver kindly stopped on the highway so I could take a photo of the hotel from the front. However, it was nowhere near as good at the vantage point you get from the elevated monorail. There are also a lot fewer cranes in the way. From the monorail you also get an idea of how The Palm is designed, which is very difficult when you are on the ground simply because the island is so huge. Out of every attraction I visited whilst in Dubai, The Palm was the biggest disappointment. Aside from the monorail journey, which once I got on it was a great experience, I found the island quite boring. I’m sure I would have a different opinion if I was staying at The Atlantis, but as a day visitor you are very restricted as to which areas you’re allowed in. There is a waterpark and aquarium at The Atlantis which are both open to the public, and a small shopping mall that you can wander around for free. Other than that, all you get to see is the back of the hotel and the breakwater. You can hire a bike and cycle along the breakwater, one of the few places in Dubai where you are allowed to cycle, but it’s far from the most interesting coastline in the world.

The Palm has been plagued with problems. Construction began in 2001 on what the developers envisioned to be a mixture of luxurious hotels and high-end beachfront villas, high-rise apartment buildings, marinas and malls. As the completion date was pushed back further and further, the number of buildings on the island increased and building quality dropped. Many hotels that were planned have never opened. There has also been a huge environmental impact. The breakwater interfered with the natural tides, and gaps had to be cut into it to prevent smelly, stagnant water and algae growth. There are also reports that the island is sinking by 5mm per year, although this has been denied.

Further north construction is underway on another group of islands in the shape of The World, although construction has also been delayed on this development and it currently just looks like 300 piles of sand.

If you would like to see my videos of The Palm, please visit my Facebook page.

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Burj Khalifa

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Anyone who has followed my blog for a while will know about my theory that every destination hoping to attract tourists will have one landmark labelled as the ‘must see/do’. If there isn’t already a suitable choice attached to their local history, they’ll build something. In Dubai it is the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world.

Modern Dubai prides itself on pushing boundaries and challenging what is considered impossible. It was inevitable they would build the tallest building.

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Burj Khalifa is all about numbers. For the moment you enter the bottom of the tower at the Dubai Mall (the world’s largest shopping centre, of course), you are bombarded with facts and figures about it’s vision, construction and everyday life. At 828m, it is seven times the height of Big Ben. It took only 6 years to build from excavation, officially opening 4th January 2010. Up to 13,000 workers a day were involved in it’s construction.

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If you’re looking for some luxury accommodation during your Dubai visit, there is Armani Hotel on the lower levels of Burj Khalifa. Above the hotel, floors are taken up with luxury apartments and offices.

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The tower has 160 storeys in total. Most daytrippers visit floors 124 and 125, where there are observation decks that provide impressive views over the city. Unfortunately during my visit it was quite foggy, but on a clear day you can see The Palm and Burj Al-Arab. Although I wasn’t so lucky, I could just about make out the new islands development The World on the horizon, which is still under construction. A pre-booked online ticket will cost you 100 AED (approx. £20). If you are travelling on a budget, I suggest you book your ticket in advance of your trip. If, like me, you are not so organised, you could end up spending a lot more. As with everything in Dubai, there is a VIP option. For 500 AED you can buy a SKY ticket (it’s cheaper if you visit in the evening). This gets you an hour in the SKY lounge on floor 148 accompanied by a Guest Ambassador. At 555m, the SKY lounge is the world’s highest observation deck. You also get to jump the queues, which is useful once you drop back down to the much busier 124 and 125 floors, and refreshments both at the bottom while you wait for the lift and once you’re in the SKY lounge. Our Guest Ambassador was a lovely lady from Colombia who provided us with lots of interesting facts and stories about the tower, and happily answered our many questions that she probably gets asked a hundred times a day. In a move that I was quickly learning is typical of Dubai, the design of the building also includes certain features that very few people will ever appreciate. For example, apparently if you look at the building from directly above, it is in the shape of a flower. I can’t imagine how much time and energy must have gone into that one design element, on the rare chance that someone will fly over the top of the tower and notice. There were things I learnt that I never would have thought to question. Like, for example, how they pump water up 160 storeys. Having lived in places where they struggle to get water past the third floor, I realise what an incredible feat of engineering Burj Khalifa is.

If you time your visit right, it’s also worth catching the Dubai Fountain at the base of Burj Khalifa. Set to music, the fountain dazzles spectators at 1pm every day and also at regular intervals in the evening. As the display only lasts 3 minutes, though, I wouldn’t go out of your way to see it.

Bur Dubai and Deira

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For the past few years I have been keen to spend Christmas somewhere hot and sunny. This year I finally got my wish when a friend kindly invited me to stay with her in Dubai.

There are so many different neighbourhoods and experiences in Dubai, I’ve struggled to decide how to break it all down into posts so I can share it with you. In the end, I decided to start where Dubai itself started.

Bur Dubai was the first part of the city to be settled. The contrast between this area and the much more modern downtown area of Dubai is evidence of this. Here, buildings weren’t built to make statements or to appear as pretty patterns from above, they were built for people to live and work in.

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Dubai Museum is a definite recommendation on my list of things to do in Dubai, and at only 3 AED entry for an adult (about 60p) it’s very affordable. The museum is housed in the Al-Fahidi Fort. Built in 1799, it is thought to be the oldest building in Dubai. Previous to educating and entertaining the many tourists that flock to Dubai every day, it was once the seat of government and residence of Dubai’s rulers. As with most of the more traditional buildings in Dubai, the museum is built around a central courtyard. Here you will find examples of old fishing boats and a traditional palm-leaf house called a barasti. The barasti has a great example of a wind tower, which is basically what local inhabitants used to survive the intense summer heat before air conditioning was invented. Although I visited at the end of December, it was still very warm in the middle of the day, and I was glad to escape the heat by exploring the inside exhibits. The museum is really well thought out, and teaches you all about different aspects of Dubai life right from when the area was first settled up to the recent building boom. It also answers lots of questions you’ll probably have, like how they acquire so much water in the desert.

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Deira, Bur Dubai’s neighbour on the other side of the Creek, also feels like another era after you’ve spent time in the other neighbourhoods. Even the modern metro stations have been designed to fit it with the older architecture.

If you like bartering with traders for spices and traditional clothes, Deira is the place to head to. Wandering through all the souqs and markets, the only thing I have to compare it to are the bazaars in Turkey. I think I must have been asked if I wanted to buy a pashmina by about 20 people in the space of 5 minutes.

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It’s also worth taking a walk along the Creekside in Deira and checking out the dhows (long, flat wooden vessels used in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea) loading and unloading.

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You have a few options of how to cross the Creek between Bur Dubai and Deira. The green metro line runs underneath the water, and ferries run between various points. My favourite mode of transport here however is the abras, tiny boats that take you across almost level with the water. I’ll talk more about all the transport options in a later post.

 

Street Art in Ireland

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Please note, this post is part of a series. Click here to read from the beginning.

Wherever I travel in the world, I always take photos of any street art I see and share it with you all here on my blog. In Ireland I didn’t see much street art at all, even in the cities I visited like Cork and Limerick. However, on our last full day in Ireland and just as I was thinking there was no street art to be found, we arrived in Waterford. There are only a few photos, but I just had to share them with you all before I finished my series on Ireland.

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Back to Rosslare

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Please note, this post is part of a series. Click here to read from the beginning.

For our return trip to Rosslare to catch the ferry back to Wales, we travelled across land and stopped off in Tipperary and Waterford on the way. After learning that my family name is actually originally from Tipperary, I was even more excited to see some of the county. I was glad that I’d been given a heads up, because when we stopped in the town of Tipperary my surname was everywhere. It was on estate agents’ signs and shop fronts all over the place. I know there is only a slim chance I may be distantly related to one of them, but it felt comforting to find another connection with my family history.

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Our other stop on our last full day in Ireland was at Waterford, our main reason for visiting that we have a friend who is from there. She said we couldn’t visit Ireland without stopping by her hometown. Waterford is probably most famous for its tradition of glass manufacturing, which centres around the House of Waterford Crystal, although some designers have broken away and started their own collections. Aside from the glass manufacturing, which was at its heyday in the 18th century, there is a lot more history to be explored in Waterford if you have the time. I found the town to be a great mix of old and new and, although the locals exhibit the same exceptionally high level of welcoming customer service as elsewhere in Ireland, it still very much has the feel of a port town where people just stop off on their way to somewhere else.

Eating Vegan in Ireland

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Please note, this post is part of a series. Click here to read from the beginning.

I only have one word to describe all the vegan food I tried while I was in Ireland – wow! The same as when I travel anywhere, I searched every destination we stopped at on Happy Cow to find out where the best vegan food was to be found.

Here are the restaurants we tried, and I would recommend them all. There are lots more to choose from, and I wish I’d had the time to try them too. Just another reason to return to Ireland I guess.

Quay Co-op, Cork

There is so much to choose from at this great eatery. And make sure you leave room for dessert, including gluten-free options. They also have a HUGE health food store on the ground floor.

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Box of Frogs, Bantry

Tell the chef what foods you like, and he’ll whip you up an amazing dish from the delicious components he has in his fridge. They also serve incredible smoothies and great coffee.

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Dish, Tralee

Great tasting vegan alternatives to some comfort food classics are on offer at this great little restaurant in Tralee. Burritos are their speciality, but if you’re looking for a vegan cooked breakfast this is the place to go.

The Grove Veggie Kitchen, Limerick

Tell one of the lovely ladies behind the counter what you dietary requirements are, give them €10 and they will exchange it for a huge plate of satisfying, plant-based deliciousness. They’d unfortunately been victims of a break-in the night before we visited, but that didn’t slow them down at all and we were still greeted with that great Irish welcome.

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Momo, Waterford

Right in the centre of Waterford, eating at Momo is an amazing experience. Lovely food, lovely people and a great atmosphere. The chef even came to our table to ask if my vegan, gluten-free dessert was OK.

 

The Ring of Kerry

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Please note, this post is part of a series. Click here to read from the beginning.

Although driving for 8 days hadn’t seemed like a great prospect for a vacation, I have to admit that driving around Ireland was a really enjoyable experience. For one day, though, I decided to take a day off driving and go on a coach tour of the Ring of Kerry.

Booking an excursion in Ireland reminded me of trying to book an excursion in Iceland. Everyone is so laid back. There were two excursion companies I could choose from, and I decided to go with O’Connor Autotours because I would be able to park my car for free near their head office. I’d been phoning them the day before the excursion, as instructed on their information leaflet. When no-one answered I sent an email, but got no reply. I got up early the next morning anyway, and tried the phone number one more time only for a lady to answer like there was no hurry (an hour before the bus was due to leave).

I think they were amused at someone with an Irish name booking the excursion (this is the only place in the world that I haven’t had to spell it for them) and it was the lady who greeted me at the coach who told me that my family name is actually from Tipperary, not Cork as we had always been led to believe.

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As with the whole of the Wild Atlantic Way, the scenery on the Ring of Kerry is absolutely breathtaking. There are a few photo stops, but the disadvantage of being on a coach is there aren’t many places it can stop. It was nice not driving for the day, but I missed the flexibility of just pulling the car over to the side of the road. There are also stops for, as described in the promotional literature, ‘tea/coffee/guinness’ – only in Ireland!

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Our first proper stop was at The Kerry Bog Village. Peat is a soil that is made up of the partially rotted remains of dead plants which have accumulated on top of each other in waterlogged places for thousands of years. In Ireland, it is used as a source of fuel. The buildings at The Kerry Bog Village show what life was like for various local inhabitants  during the 18th and 19th centuries, when everything revolved around the digging-up and trading of the peat. Just like wooden logs are stored as fuel in other parts of the world, the peat rolls are stacked, albeit in a slightly more floppy style, against houses and places of work.

Next up was the sheep dog demonstration. As a vegan I chose not to partake. Besides, I spent a lot of time at agricultural shows as a child, part of which is always a sheep dog show. There are only so many times you can watch a frustrated border collie try to persuade a flock of sheep to run into a pen. I wonder if there’s ever been a sheep dog who has refused to perform for the show. I know I’d be annoyed if I’d spent an hour rounding up the sheep only for the farmer to release them again ready for the next bus load of tourists. Apparently the sheep herding demonstrations is one of the most popular attractions in Ireland and visitors, excuse the pun, flock back every year to watch it. Everyody who went to watch the demonstration in our group seemed suitably impressed when they returned to the coach, so I’d say it’s worth the 5 euro entry fee if it interests you.

We stopped at the most bizarre restaurant for lunch. It’s a self-service restaurant that also has waiting staff.  As you enter the restaurant, a server greets you and carries your food tray for you as you decide what you want to eat. The same server will then seat you at a table. I get the impression they came up with this strange system years ago, and everybody is too scared to tell them what an actual self-service restaurant looks like. I completely screwed up the system by saying I only wanted a coffee, at which point I was politely told I’d have to carry my own coffee cup and would still have to queue for food. The other diners around me seemed to be so pressurised throughout the whole conveyor belt, I could hear them panic ordering fish and chips and vegetable soup. I’d be surprised if they ever sold the last item listed on the menu, even the fastest reader in the world coudn’t get to it before they were pushed to the checkout.

Aside from the bizarre lunch experience, I have to say the Ring of Kerry excursion was well worth it and a welcome break from doing all the driving myself. Our driver/guide was very entertaining and informative. He also proved my theory that visitors from overseas generally understand the Irish accent and dialect better that us Brits do. There were parts of his guiding speech that I completely missed, but my fellow passengers from far flung parts of the globe were laughing along with him.

 

Useful info

Ring of Kerry Excursion with O’Connor Autotours €25 to pay on coach, €21 via Paypal

Entry to The Kerry Bog Village €5

Sheep Dog Demonstration €5

Camping in Ireland

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Please note, this post is part of a series. Click here to read from the beginning.

First of all, I would like to apologise for this post not being as good as it could be. I spent about an hour writing a post about my experience of camping in Ireland, only for WordPress to delete it!

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When we disembarked the ferry at Rosslare, we casually drove towards the south coast, expecting there to be lots of camp sites to choose from along the way. We learnt the hard way that, although there are many campsites along the west coast of Ireland, there isn’t so much choice further south. After a few hours driving, and stopping as a coffee shop where a kind barista did his best to give us some encouraging words, I spotted a teeny, tiny sign for a campsite in the village of Leap. It was already gone 9pm, so I turned the car off the main road and followed the signs to The Meadow, Glandore. I  felt a bit rude turning up so late, but the owner didn’t bat an eyelid. The campsite was lovely, with good facilities and just a short walk from the village. Although very quiet, Glandore is a beautiful setting to sit with a drink in the evening.

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Purely by chance, we also happened to be camped about a mile from the Drombeg Stone Circle, which my friend had really, really wanted to visit.

We decided to camp in 2 different sites on our trip, and use them as bases to explore the area. Equally as lovely was our second campsite, Woodlands Park at Tralee. Virtually in the town centre, it’s really convenient for exploring both Tralee and the surrounding area. The campsite also has great facilities including Wi-Fi, a TV room and even a fully fitted campers kitchen and BBQ area (apologies to all my fellow campers who were trying to eat their dinner when I lit our BBQ and smoked you out).

Ireland seems to be a perfect mix of what you  would consider traditionally Irish and modern European. For example, you still have to pay cash in a lot of places as they don’t accept card, but that cash is euros. The campsites, though, feel very European. At least the ones I experienced did. They were all very clean, well thought-out with great facilities. I find it annoying in Wales that, unless you stay on a very basic site (ie a field with a toilet if you’re lucky), you are charged based on the size of your tent. Even though, whether I take my 2-man or 4-man tent, I’m still given the same size pitch. Rules, which there are a long list of, are often very strict on UK campsites. I’m sometimes not allowed in at all because I ‘look young and could make noise’. I was once questioned by a campsite owner when I was travelling on my own with my young godson, I wondered how much trouble they expected me to make with a 5 year old. In Ireland, all they asked was how many of us there were and if we wanted electric hook-up.

As we had to catch the ferry at 8am the next morning, on our last night in Ireland we decided to stay at a hotel in Rosslare.

Useful Info

Off-peak camping for 2 adults @ The Meadow, Glandore: €22 per night + €1 for shower

Off-peak camping for 2 adults @ Woodlands Park, Tralee €24 per night (showers included)

The Wild Atlantic Way

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Please note, this post is part of a series. Click here to read from the beginning.

After having trepidation about driving so many miles and for so many hours on what was supposed to be my week off, by far my most favourite part of the trip to Ireland was driving along the coast. For most of it we hopped on and off The Wild Atlantic Way, a 2,500 km driving route that passes through 9 counties and 3 provinces.

We only covered a tiny part of this outstandingly beautiful stretch of coastline, taking in places like Mizen Head, Bantry, Dingle Peninsula and the Ring of Kerry. I will talk more about the Ring of Kerry in a later post, but for now I wanted to share some photos with you that I took along the way and let the spectacular scenery do the talking for itself.

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On a humorous note, my friend and I didn’t realise we had been following the Wild Atlantic Way until we had already covered part of it. My friend said to me ‘What are all those signs with the hearts I keep seeing everywhere?’ and I answered ‘What hearts? All I keep seeing is the signs with the waves on’. It turns out we were both mistaking the WAW symbol for other shapes.

If I am ever lucky enough to return to Ireland, and I intend to one day, my trip will be planned around driving the coast taking in all the little bits I missed on the South West coast this time and travelling further north to discover more.

Finding my ancestry at a kebab shop in Cork

Please note, this post is part of a series. Click here to read from the beginning.

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My main motivation for travelling to Republic of Ireland is that is where my grandfather grew up. My grandfather died when I was 10 years old and, although I spent a lot of time with him, he rarely spoke about his childhood or his family. There were rumours and snatches of information that had been passed from other family members to my grandma and my dad, but I didn’t really know that much about him. A few years ago, my dad decided to research our family tree to find out more. Considering I am a product of my family, it was no surprise to discover that they moved around a lot, and therefore it’s difficult to find useful information. We do know, though, that my great-grandfather was a cabinet maker. Although raised in Ireland for some of his life before they moved to England, my grandfather was actually born in Scotland because that is where his dad happened to be working at the time. One document my dad did manage to uncover was the marriage certificate of my great-grandparents, which detailed their addresses in Cork. With the information that my dad had already gathered, I was fairly confident I could find at least one of the properties where my family had lived. My great-grandmother appears to have lived just outside the city before she was married, although I was unable to find the exact address on a google search. I think I know which area she lived in, but I suspect it has been redeveloped, and therefore decided not to pursue that one. My great-grandfather’s house, however, is on Coburg Street, virtually in the city centre. Even with my ability to get lost anywhere, it was easy to find.

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I should probably let you all know at this point that the house my great-grandfather lived in is now a kebab shop run by immigrants, which by the way, my dad found hilarious when I told him. I wasn’t expecting to find anything other than a building, if I was lucky, and I know I’m unlikely to have family still in Cork. I was just happy to stand in front of the house where one of my ancestors lived. Coming from a family that has moved around so much, and had various scandals and tragedies that have resulted in records and documents being lost, it was just nice to have a concrete connection to my great-grandfather. I doubt he would have ever thought about his great-granddaughter travelling from Wales one day just to see his house. I really liked the neighbourhood, too, and if for some reason you do find yourself on Coburg Street there’s a cool little coffee shop on the corner that weirdly reminded me of being in Alaska.

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It was great to visit the city of Cork too. I hadn’t really thought about what cities in Ireland might be like. I would expect Dublin to be big, but I wasn’t sure what to expect with the smaller cities. Cork, like Limerick where we would visit later in the week, both seemed nice. They have everything you would expect of a city centre, with a nice atmosphere and a slightly more laid back feeling than other cities I have visited. Most of the tourist attractions seem to be churches, which doesn’t really interest me, but it was nice to spend time in both cities. Whilst we were in Cork, I also learnt that there is a district called Blackpool. I was born in Blackpool, England. Although I would like to think there is some unconscious connection between the two thanks to my family, I imagine that the residents of Cork also just had a muddy swamp they wanted to drain to build houses on.

Coburg Street is as far back as my dad has been able to trace that part of his family. However, purely by chance I may have discovered some more information whilst I was in Ireland. Towards the end of my trip, I went on a bus excursion around the Ring of Kerry. One advantage for me being in Ireland is that, as I have an Irish surname, it’s the first place I have travelled that I don’t have to spell it for people. The lady who took my ticket immediately noticed my Irish name and also that I am clearly not Irish. She asked where my family are from, and I told her Cork. She then asked if I was sure, because apparently my surname comes from Tipperary. I passed the knowledge on to my dad, who so far had found no Tipperary connection in his research. Who knows, though? One day I might be stood in front of a kebab shop in Tipperary thinking ‘this is where my great-great-grandfather lived’.