I am declaring a new rule. I will call it the two-by-two rule: no more than two drinks in a day when traveling, and drinking no more than two days in a row. I disembarked the ferry a little after 6pm on Tuesday, with a 60-dollar B&B booked, and tickets purchased to London the following day. It had been my original plan to hop on a train an hour after exiting the ferry, pulling into London rather late on Tuesday night. Having waited until I was on the ferry going to Wales to buy my ticket, prices skyrocketed over 200%, so I found myself looking for accommodations nearby. I was not too upset by this. After all, I had always loved Dylan Thomas, and found Welsh culture interesting. The region being so geographically close to England proper, and yet still maintaining a distinct local language, lends a certain fascination for the geographically obsessed.
As I write this, in a Holyhead cafe, there is an older Welsh woman behind me ordering something from the young English-sounding waitress. What an accent! It seems more common amongst the older folks in the community, I suppose a result of Anglesey, Wales being increasingly connected to the rest of England by communication technology, mass transit and the like. If one describes the Irish accent as a “brogue,” which makes it sound sort of rough and hearty, I would describe a Welsh accent as a hiss. I would not be surprised if parseltongue, the language of snakes in Harry Potter, were somehow related to Welsh.
I strolled through the ferry terminal and over an elaborate modern bridge to the decidedly less elaborate and less modern town. There was hardly anyone out in the street, despite car being parked on nearly every curb, both residential and commercial. Through the mist I could make out old churches, and even what I later learned were neglected Roman ruins dating back millenia. I passed the occasional pub with a handful of visitors inside, and some open Chinese and Indian restaurants, but I couldn’t tell where everyone else was. Was it a major holiday? Was there a hurricane coming? I walked along the windswept A5154 on my way to “The Beach Hut,” a lovely beach-themed Bed & Breakfast clustered among other beach-themed B&Bs in the northeast of town. Despite it being mid-August, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would consider this cold corner of the world a beach destination. Howard, half of the gay couple who owned The Beach Hut, checked me in and went over some of the sights I should check out before leaving Holyhead. He explained that everything I’d want to see was beyond the Hut to the west, “towards the beach.” I can neither confirm nor deny that there is in fact a beach in Holyhead, but if there is, it is quite well hidden. I walked to the end of Beach Road, and all the way back, and didn’t see a single grain of sand. I did, however, see wetsuit-clad children diving off a pier into what had to be frigid Welsh waters. I settled in with a local beer at Langdon’s, a restaurant/ bar that Howard recommended, and ran into a couplein their fifties or so, who were also staying at the Hut. Happy to be in the warmth, I had two beers whose glasses actually came printed with a warning not to go for a drunk swim. They didn’t have to tell me twice. I had a mushroom appetizer and two beers while listened to a hired accordionist play La Vie en Rose twice, along with a slew of other songs I did not recognize. “If only Will,” my good accordionist/ pianist friend “had been here,” I thought. He’d get a kick out of meeting someone withthe same unusual trade so far off from home. He could have given the guy a note, we could have had dinner with the chap. That would’ve made the day. Regardless, I felt good. Not good enough to go for a swim, but good enough to jog the long stretch to Holyhead’s downtown, which I hoped would be livelier. It was not. I stopped in The Stanley Arms for a pint of… Calling? Or Calming, maybe? It was drink #3 and all I remember is a capital C in older English script. Supposedly a popular spot, Stanley Arms was dead, so on I went to find somewhere with a more chatty clientele.
I turned up near the Hut, and saw an older, reddish-purple-haired woman sipping from a straw in a Coke can at a bar. After trying 2 different doors, I finally found the correct entrance and was greeted by the very friendly bartender, who had the entire pub to herself. She affirmed that the bar was open, so I got another beer. We chatted for a bit, and she told me about how she lived all her life in South Africa, and had only moved to Wales five weeks prior to work in that bar. She told me her whole family still lived in South Africa, and that she wished her kids would move to Wales, where it was a lot safer. She said she understood Afrikaans and Dutch, and a bit of Welsh, which was cool because I have yet to meet many Afrikaaners. South Africa is a place I feel I have very little knowledge of, despite it being a large part of the Anglosphere. Maybe my Anglophone literatures class in the fall will orient me further.
A few guys trickled in over the next hour or so. I grabbed a Bulmer’s cider from the fridge and drank that, bringing my total to 5 drinks. I went to the bathroom twice while I was there, and had to ask where it was both times because my cider-soaked brain had forgotten where it was between pissings. The most interesting character was a barely-intelligible Welsh man, who walked with the trappings of someone who had already had a few too many that night, and many nights before for that matter. He kept talking about something. What was it? The Venice ferries, was it? Yeah that was it, he kept talking about how, when someone died out on those islands, they’d have to put the coffin on a ferry and send it back to the mainland. He must’ve said that two or three times. Pretty grim. When he left for a smoke the rest of the patrons and the bartender started talking about how they weren’t big fans of his, but that they tolerated him. I guess there’s always the odd one out.
On my other side was a skinny older man with long gray hair and a beard. He quietly gave me little history lessons on European history between my lessons on Venetian funeral logistics. On his other side, by the bathroom that I struggled to find, sat a younger man in a paint-stained T-shirt, who was later replaced by a man in his 40s who enjoyed hearing about my travels and loved to say “cheers” whenever I told him a story. Truly a classic assemblage of Welsh bar-folk, and an experience I am glad I had. However, five drinks was well over my limit, especially on a near-empty stomach. I bought a £2 juice to get some fluids in my body, and waved goodbye to my new friends. They wished me safe travels and the bartender had a look of tenderness, or else concern, in her eye as I stepped out to enter the B&B just two doors down.
I struggled to sleep, as I always do with too much alcohol in me. It took me around two hours to fall asleep, and I also awoke two hours before my alarm. What was supposed to be a nice treat, to have a private room where I could catch up on sleep without worrying about my stuff getting stolen, ended up being a half-sleeping half-waking fight for rest as the world spun around me. The next morning, I showered to calm my headache. I felt a little nauseous, and forced myself to vomit after about an hour of debating it. I felt a bit better after emptying my stomach into the toilet, and walked downstairs to breakfast where the same couple I had seen twice before was eating breakfast. Howard had told me the day before that Anglesey was the most popular beach destination in England. I had met less than a dozen tourists, so I found that hard to believe but, to be fair, when I think of beaches I don’t really think of England. Or even New England for that matter. Maybe that’s why they call where I’m from New England: rocks, terrible beaches, and frigid weather. I promptly poured my Welsh Breakfast of local sausage, egg, beans, ham, and toast, into my toilet. I suppose it is a good thing I held off on the grilled tomato; the acidity probably would have made the process a touch more difficult.
As I wait for my train, with just a cappuccino in my stomach, I am starting to feel better. I enjoyed Wales. It was almost entertainingly unentertaining. I found myself enjoying the sheer absurdity of this cold and rainy beach town without a beach, and mingling with the locals who spoke Welsh and English, or else a more-or-less intelligible parseltongue patois. Wales was a land of contradictions, as I see it. It is England but not English, quaint but also gritty. The homeless sit drinking in alleys, but cheerfully say ‘Hi’ as you walk by, sipping from flasks, cans and bottles. They sit, sleep, and drink outside, despite houses being vacant on every block, such vacant real estate already unusual for ‘Britain’s biggest beachtown.’ The food is good and local, and yet there are token international restaurants that have stay in business somehow. My Welsh stopover was an interesting one. Even now, at noon, the fog has yet to burn off, but everyone seems rather cheery. People are walking about, smoking outside, and the cafe I am in actually has the front door wide open, to my short-sleeved chagrin. Anyway, on to the next city. Let’s hope London’s a bit warmer.
Intent on saving as much as possible, I caught a local bus for 3.30€ from Dublin airport to O’Connell Street. From the bus I passed a statue of James Joyce, and a very large, very thin cone pole called “The Spire.” I have a few hours before I can check in to my hostel, so I wander around, going to the supposed “Oldest Pub in Ireland.” While the bacon and cabbage I ordered at ‘The Brazen Head’ was delicious, the pub loses a point for not being the oldest pub. Perhaps man should have never been given the gift of Google. I would have been perfectly content beleiving I had gotten a Guinness and some traditional Irish food at the oldest such place in Ireland. ‘The Brazen Head’ is, undeniably, the oldest pub in Dublin, dating back to 1198, so it certainly deserves a point for that. I did learn, however, that Guinness is not my thing. I could not even finish the pint they gave me. In this way it was decided that I would not take the Guinness Storehouse tour, so I saved a few bucks and more than a few calories.
I spent the bulk of the afternoon seeing the Ha’penny bridge, Dublin Castle, and the miscellaneous author statues and plaques that have been installed all over the city. After a nap,I went out for a dinner of Irish Stew and a glass of Bulmer’s cider, which I very much like. Maybe it is my sweet tooth, or just my Nutmeg state predilection for apples, but cider is a great way of drinking without feeling like you’re drinking heavily. In all, I was impressed with Ireland’s food scene. I tend to suffer from what I call a “traveler’s stomach.” I love adventurous food, but it seems like adventurous food in an adventurous locale is tempting fate. At home, I can eat anything or drink as much as I want, but if I do any of that outside the confines of my own country I tend to unload the exotic contents of my stomach into an unfortunate toilet bowl. To deal with this, I generally need ‘rest’ meals—usually something very bland, boring, and (yuck) American—so my stomach can setlle a bit. Ireland is the perfect place for this, and so I presume this is why it gets some flack. Irish food is delicious, it is well made, and it will make you happy. Every meal is like your grandmother’s famous pot roast, both for better and for worse.
It seems that Ireland also has a sweet tooth. Of all the donuts I have seen, the most artful have been in Dublin. One place was advertising a mango-filled donut, and late at night donut shops light up to attract pickled Dubliners. I regret not partaking in the donut delights of the city, but, believe me when I say that the sheer beauty of some of these donut displays is stunning and satisfying in and of itself.
The following morning, I enjoyed the compimentary breakfast of toast, cereal, and juice at Abigails Hostel in Aston Quay, where both bed and breakfast ran me just over $22. I walked a few blocks north to the James Joyce Centre, where a student can gain entry for just 4€. Though small, the interactive exhibit highlighting the parallels between Joyce’s Ulysses and Homer’s Odyssey was impressive, and made me consider better ways of preparing and presenting my arguments in English projects. The Centre also had a presentation about the library in Joyce’s time, where the author wrote many of his works.
With another hour or two left before my ferry, I decided to grab some lunch and see just one more museum. I went to “Hanley’s Cornish Pasties,” which offers very savory meat pies, fresh out of the oven. After lunch, I ended up at the Chester Beatty Library, which houses a collection of old religious texts, including the oldest bible fragments aside from the Dead Sea Scrolls. Admission is free, so I quickly skimmed through ancient religious exhibits, wishing I had gotten up just a little earlier so that I could have more time. Their collections include texts from Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist faiths from all over the world, and offer a fascinating glimpse into history of not just religion but language and publishing. On my way out I caught good pictures of Dublin Castle and City Hall, the sun having just emerged for a moment at the former. I walked for a few more miles on to the Dublin Port neighborhood and boarded the ferry at Stena Line’s terminal.
The ferry itself is rather impressive. With free wifi, a restaurant, and two floors of lounging space, I was impresed with the level of comfort. They even had a free movie in the movie theater (A Wrinkle in Time, I surfed the net instead), and even a puppet show! The most fun part for me was watching the undulating blue Irish Sea move beneath my porthole window while I killed time.
There is no ice or snow on the ground in Iceland in mid-August, but it is cold enough that I am kicking myself for leaving my sweatshirt at home. All day it feels like 4:30 pm, the sun low on the horizon behind a heavy haze of clouds. I land late in the morning exhausted from a sleepless yet short Nordic night on Wow Airlines. Wow! Only $30 extra for a day layover in Reykjavik? You’d be correct, but backpackers take note: 30 bucks is likely the cheapest hostel you will find in all of Iceland, and meals are rarely cheaper. A ‘meal’ of french fries and a beer at Reykjavik Chips—an Icelandic institution that exclusively sells fries and beer—ran me 2050 kr or 19 USD. Iceland is one big Yankee Stadium. Beware.
My hostel, dubbed “Hostel B47,” is close to the small Reykjavik downtown. Weather is overcast with intermittent sprinkles. On a hill overlooking the town, Iceland’s second tallest building Hallgrímskirkja, a Lutheran church, looms over Reykjavik. Strewn about the town are adorable (a word I try not to use but find necessary in this circumstance) fish shacks and restaurants. I stop by a pond, the Parliament building, and concert hall Harpa, which is an impressive and ultra-modern building overlooking the water. There is a Viking vibe to the place, similar to Norway’s Oslo. One of Reykjavik’s most popular photo-ops is a statue of a Viking longship (“The Sun Voyager”) placed near the concert hall on the water.
Before going on my somnambulant tour of Reykjavik, I stopped in the hostel to charge my phone. There I met a Canadian, also in her last year of college, whom I relished chatting with about backpacking in Southeast Asia. She had fell off a motorcycle in Laos and had to fly home to fend off infection with her undeniably superior Canadian healthcare system. She told me about how she struggled in India and Sri Lanka as a woman, but that I would probably be fine, which is good news as I intend to go to both of those places in a few months. I also met a Luxembourgish- Colombian guy who seemed very eager to relay what he ate for dinner the night before: a $100 horse steak with sauteed mushrooms, onions, and berries on top, paired with red wine. I realized I actually enjoyed the ‘party hostel’ thing: young people swapping travel tips and stories. It is one of the rare instances where I meet people my age where we seem to have something meaningful to talk about. As I was leaving, a man introduced himself to us as a Master’s degree student in Norse studies. For his studies he explained he intended to learn classical Icelandic in order to translate texts like the Sagas, which are stories from the 9th to 11th centuries still housed in a museum in Reykjavik.
I finished my tour around town with a large bowl of traditional Icelandic lobster soup at Sægreifinn, a small blue shack on the water. I turned in at around 4:30, the level of light not having changed a bit since I landed. Thankfully, the hostel had good blinds that allowed me to sleep despite the regular comings-and-goings of the other guests. I awoke at 2 am, surprised at the darkness outside, and caught a Reykjavik Excursions bus (about $35) to the airport. I probably could (and should) have slept another hour, but I had no idea how regularly the buses ran at 2 am. They appear to run roughly every 15 minutes, so I easily made it from my hostel to the airport in about an hour. Customs and security check was a breeze as well, so travellers need not worry too much about budgeting more than 2 hours of airport time. In all, I highly recommend Iceland as a layover destination. While expensive, it is perfect for a day trip, but I would avoid sleeping over if at all possible. While the hostels are not terribly expensive, only $10 or so more than in Paris, for instance, minimal transport from the airport will run about $30 each way, so not sleeping in Iceland is a fair way to save some money. Food can be expensive too, so I am glad I had a couple classic Icelandic meals, but would not have spent any more time (or money) in and around Reykjavik if given the opportunity.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.