Saturday, 24 December 2011

A Pre-Christmas Blog

It twas the day before Christmas, and all the through the house;
Both the kids they were stirring and winding up the spouse...and the other spouse.

Only one day to go now and the boys are ridiculously over-excited and trying to throw the rulebook out the window. The naughty corner has been a very crowded corner indeed.

The weather outside is an unseasonably mild 8c and I made the most of it by taking Ciaran on a walk earlier.

We walked through a sodden and muddy Flitwick Wood to take in some nature and escape the Christmas telly repeats and sit-on-your-arse-all-day festive culture. It also served the purpose of helping me to energise my mildly-hungover head which was still suffering from a 10-pint pounding at our works do over 36 hours earlier!

Ciaran's little nose was Rudolph-red in no time, and I made him run after me to keep his warmth up.

Our Christmas presents are all wrapped and neatly concealed under a large white blanket in our bedroom. This may well be the last year we get away with such basic deceit as Ben is ever more the wiser and will be more so in 12 months time. It will have to be a nocturnal venture to the loft next year.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to introducing Ciaran to the 'Twas the Night Before Christmas' for his bedtime story tonight and next on my list is helping the kids get their letters off to Santa.

Merry Christmas to you all and best wishes for the New Year!

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Sunday, 11 December 2011

Christmas 2011 - Northern Ireland

Day 3 - Dublin

Wake up call at 6am followed by egg and toast for breakfast.

Mum dropped Dad and I off at Central Station at around 7.15am ahead of the 8am departure to Dublin.

Upon boarding, Dad and I settled quickly into planning our Dublin schedule while the train passed south of Lough Neagh through Portadown and Craigavon before snaking south to the border over the Boyne, through Drogheda and easing smoothly into Connolly Street station, Dublin for a prompt 10am arrival.

The weather was exactly as forecast - cloudless, blue, sunny sky and crisp December air.

We walked along our planned route down Talbot Street and onto O'Connell Street (The GPO pictured, right) to locate the tourist information centre. First on our list was a visit to the Dublin Writers Museum on Parnell Square (Parnell monument below), with all sorts of artefacts and literary information on the Irish greats, including Joyce, Yeats, Wilde, Beckett and of course Heaney. I was particularly taken by Behan's personal life story.

Then, we were off to Ireland's most visited tourist spot - the Guinness Storehouse.

Hopping off our blue and yellow-livered bus, we struggled to find the visitor entrance, before finding it hidden away on the backstreets. Full of interesting facts about the brewing process and history of the legendary stout, I was most impressed by the architecture of the place.

Visitors step off the escalator from the reception into a huge, open glass atrium were you stand in awe at the bottom of the world's largest pint glass rising up through the centre of the 7-storey building with elevators leading to and from the Gravity Bar at the top - where a complimentary pint of Guinness awaited.

Guinness in hand, we were treated to 360° panoramas of Dublin - I could have stayed there all afternoon, but we had to move on to get some lunch.

Lunch was provided in the Winding Stair restaurant on the banks of the Liffey overlooking the Ha'Penny bridge, before heading off on some more sightsetting trips to Trinity College, the Aviva Stadium and last but not least - the pub!

McDaids pub it was, the time was now around 5.30pm and Dad and I came in from a cold but brightly-lit Grafton Street into a dimly-lit old-fashioned McDaids pub and settled down for a couple of winter-warming pints of Guinness before catching the train home.

It had been a day to remember.

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Friday, 9 December 2011

Christmas 2011 - Northern Ireland

Day 2 - Dads birthday

Woke up at around 8.30am this morning. Weather cold but dry.

Dad cooked up a birthday breakfast for us both (Mum was working) with bacon, eggs and toast and after a session on the guitars we were out the door at about 11ish to catch the bus into Belfast.

On the agenda was a meet-up with Dad's mate Tom Melville, who was over from the USA.

We jumped off the bus on Adelaide Street and running behind schedule, we sped through the packed streets to make up time. Passing through the Christmas continental Market (pictured above), with a scent of roasted chestnuts hanging heavy in the crisp December air, we spotted Tom, shook hands and headed off in the direction of the Ivory restaurant for some lunch.

Perched at the top of the new Victoria Street shopping mall, the Ivory was modern and chic - and surprisingly empty on a working day lunchtime slot.

The views from the top were breathtaking, and I opted for the local ale battered haddock with mushy peas, tartare sauce and chips. What began with a coffee and chat quickly turned into a 3-pint job (pictured, right) and we had a good chinwag about soccer, the States and family.

Dad and I caught the bus home around 4pm, meeting up with Mum in Saintfield to head back out (again) to Nicks Warehouse restaurant in the Cathedral quarter of Belfast to celebrate Dad's birthday.

More liquid refreshments were in order but it was the food that stole the show - wonderful starters with warmed pitta bread and a trio of exquisitely zingy olive, garlic and humus dips followed by the most exquisitely tender steak, garlic-roasted chips, rocket and peppercorn sauce.

The history of the restaurant was fascinating too.

Neglected until 1989 as a red-bricked eye-sore and pigeon loft, crafty Nick spotted a business opportunity, capitalised on its good location and transformed it from derelict relic to delightful restaurant, preserving many of the old interior structures and large windows with dim-lighting - perfect for an elegant dining experience or special occasion.

After dining at Nicks, we headed home. Hit the sack about midnight.

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Christmas 2011 - Northern Ireland

I kept a diary of my trip to Belfast to see Mum and Dad. Here's my notes.

Day 1 - Arrival

The flight from Luton was easy and on time.

I caught the Translink 300 shuttle bus from Belfast international airport, arriving at a frigid Great Victoria street station about 40 minutes later.

It was around 5pm now and Belfast was looking brill. They'd done a great job with Royal Avenue, with new street furniture, street art, extended shop frontages and trees decorated to the nines in Christmas glitterati, all lined up majestically before a golden-lit City Hall.

A sense of pride tingled inside as my home city turned on the style, with the Waterfront and Odyssey Arena areas looking just as impressive.

Dad was looking lost as I met him in the station and we headed swiftly for Morrisons pub to grab a winter-warming pint, me foolishly walking gloveless to the watering hole. It was freezing.

Morrisons turned up few surprises.

The dimensions hadn't changed a bit since I'd last been there. Sure, the seating layout was different and they'd got rid of the Crown-esque booths (note to Belfast City Council - can you regulate your pubs properly please! Stop landlords removing the pub booths that give our traditional pubs their character), but you could now pull your own pint at your table! (pictured, right)

I was surprised to see so many continental European beers on tap. Only Harp, Guinness and Smithwicks were on offer - no Bass, Belfast Ale, Caffreys or other such like tipples to greet Irish economic migrants like myself.

After a swift dinner at home, we went to the Errigle Inn for the pub quiz. Under the name 'Saintwick', we lasted only five rounds as it didn't start till 10.30pm and we were knackered.

Headed home. Sang Dad happy birthday at around 12.10am (it was now 6 December) and hit the sack.

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