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Jun 16, 2016

Joyce & Rebellion – Dublin on Bloomsday

ReadingIt was a day of threatening rain, that didn’t quite bucket down as expected. But the gloomy clouds above did nothing to dampen the city spirit below. Wandering around were all sorts of wonderful characters. Bowler hatted gents, straw boatered chaps, flapper girls, meringue hatted ladies and modern day Molly Blooms. I’ve been mingling with these types around Town all week, but today we joined in the fun!

Bloomsday Festival guide in hand, our first stop was St Andrews on Westland Row. My church. A holy place neither breath taking nor dull, but imposing if only on the inside. Most folk scurry past this impressive building every day on their journey home via Pearse Street Station. St Andrews is not an intimate church, so its size lent itself perfectly to the concert Joyce & Rebellion: A Musical Journey.

St Andrews is one of the many Dublin landmarks immortalised in Joyce’s Ulysses. The programme evoked times gone by with a beautiful mix of song, music, poetry and story. And of course history. St Andrews’ association with the 1916 Rising is celebrated by an exhibition at the church, well worth a visit. Joyce & Rebellion: A Musical Journey reminded us of the heart and courage of local men and women.

Hosted by Elizabeth Watson and Jean Monahan, the pews were filled by plenty of well dressed Joyce enthusiasts. None under 40… Opened with a reading of Thomas Moore’s The Minstrel Boy, by Carmel Heapes, then Moore again, Silent O’Moyle, read by Connie Murray, both accompanied by Carole O’Connor at the ivories. Oro Se Do Bheatha Bhaile was performed by Greenore Community Choir.

JoyceIt really took me back to a time (the 1980s!) with my Granny and Grandad O’Shea. Being in their tiny kitchen singing old songs. The fire blazing, the wireless humming in the background. A big pot of stew brewing on the stove. Tea for the adults, lemonade for us. Grandad with the toasting fork (hot buttered toast…) in one hand and a billowing Woodbine in the other. Granny standing, stirring, chatting.

Down by the Glenside sung by Jean Monahan, followed by George Smith and Simon Heapes’ performance of The Rising of the Moon and The Wearing of the Green. Catherine Byrne read W.B. Yeats September 1913. More memories! School, this time. Too young we were to appreciate anything at all… Of course I remember these poetic rhymes, learned by heart, but how they really speak to me now.

Simon Heapes took to the stage (or altar) once again with Love’s Old Sweet Song. We helped him, nowhere near his tenor, but enjoying it all the same. He was joined by George Smith, belting out A Nation Once Again, with all of us on hand once again. Catherine Byrne brought us more Yeats with The Song of Wandering Aengus. Historical tales of our 1916 heroes knitted together the songs and prose.

George Smith sang Grace, Carmel Heapes read Pearse’s The Mother and Connie Moore sang The Last Rose of Summer. It truly was an escape from the commercial, digital world we live in today. In fact, my iPhone had run out of juice, I didn’t even have to worry about capturing shots. Just being free of technological distraction for a few hours… It’s so relaxing! How art did thrive before Twitter tyranny.

AltarTo My Daughter Betty by Thomas Kettle was told heartfelt by Carmel Heapes, Oft in the Stilly Night performed by Simon Heapes. The final curtain at St Andrews; all three, Simon Heapes, George Smith and Connie Murray with Carole O’Connor on piano, as throughout, in a roof-raising rendition of The Holy City. We were invited up to encore, us fellow Joyceans, and linked arms with Love’s Old Sweet Song.

The concert was free. It was absolutely excellent. Thanks to the St. Andrews Church Choir and St. Andrews Church Heritage Working Group. And, of course, the hugely talented performers. Nobody my age really goes inside a church these days, unless for a wedding, christening, communion or funeral. Not a regular Mass goer, I pop in for solace from the city. And music. And exhibitions. And fun!

Back out into the light of day, dark as it was, we sailed past Kennedy’s, spying the Bloomsday brethren within. We popped in last time, for a wicked performance by the bold Rose Lawless, doing Molly Bloom to only the flawed perfection she can. This time we were in want of tea, not ale, (’twas only midday!) so we tucked ourselves in at cosy café Tri Via, on Lincoln’s Place. A great people watching spot.

Indeed, as we put away delicious homemade muffins, brownies and croissants, did we see a certain Senator, dressed to the nines cane and all, approach Sweny’s next door. David Norris is a familiar face to all Bloomsday patrons and a huge supporter of the Irish arts. Cameras clicked as he swept in and out of another fabled Ullyses stop. Sweny’s Pharmacy is now an olde worlde bookshop and Joyce museum.

Tri ViaIn we went, events sure to unfold. There was a stall outside doing lemonade and madeleines and plenty of vintage fillies and gents milling about. And the scent of lemon soap filled the air. But an impromptu reading from the Dubliners meant we were in luck with perfect timing. A Scottish man, whose name I do not know, gave a swaggering version of a chapter’s events. It was really very, very cool.

A bar of brown paper wrapped lemon soap in the bag we made our way up into Temple Bar, my neighbourhood. This culture vulture lark is hard work, so we broke off to the Porterhouse for a bit of footie action. England v Wales. It’s a top spot for pub grub. We polished off Scampi, Piri Piri Chicken Sandwich and Mixed Veggies all with lovely fluffy chips and a pint each. Oyster Stout for me. Very nice!

Meeting House Square was next on the agenda, for Bloomsday Readings with Keelin Shanley. The journalist and broadcaster was joined by various Irish actors, writers and musicians for another gratis gig. I’ve been known to listen from my bedroom, which looks onto Meeting House Square, in the past. I can catch bands at the Olympia from here too! The square was filled with Joyceans, old and young.

Roisin Ingle, of the Irish Times, was on the stage as we approached. There were hearty performances from Colm O’Gorman, Domini Kemp and, you guessed it, Senator David Norris. We segwayed into the National Photographic Archive to mix up our rebels with our rascals once again. The exhibition, Rising, is free entry (can you see a theme here?) and documents the events in and around the day.

Davy ByrnesBlack and white images of the destruction done to Dublin, the bravery of young Irish men and the effect on the everyday lives of locals are just fascinating. It’s hard to believe it was only 100 years ago… A walking tour of the exhibition is available, but we were happy to take it all in ourselves. I’ll be back with Himself, who’s a big history buff. And we do live next door! Mama and Papa certainly enjoyed it, too.

We were done by now. Off they went, Mother and Father, to Grafton Street, and up to Davy Byrne’s for one last nod to James Joyce. Bloomday is fast becoming one of the city’s most celebrated events, with Bloomsday Festival running events throughout the week. It’s great craic and I always find Townie friends out and about. Next year, Madre and me have promised to dress up! Or don a hat at least…

www.bloomsdayfestival.ie

Mar 3, 2016

Gallaher & Co Bistro – Afternoon Tea!

GallaherI bet you didn’t know that Gallaher’s on D’Olier Street does Afternoon Tea? Me neither! Until, that is, a very good pal kindly gave me a birthday present of one. Afternoon Tea for Two including a glass of fizz each. Lovely jubbly! It was, in fact, one of those Deal Rush jobbies. Which, I had read on Trip Advisor, Gallaher’s are very good about. Some places get shirty… You know yourself!

So, we rocked up of a rainy Thursday. Afternoon, of course. Me & Padre. Twas his birthday too, not long after mine. So as a fellow cake fan, he was duly invited. We popped into The Screen cinema next door to say goodbye, as they were shutting up for good on the Sunday (sob). I always used to go there when I lived in Ringsend long ago. All good things must come to an end…

Now Gallaher & Co is very smart place. Located in D’Olier Chambers, it wraps around the corner to neighbouring Hawkins Street. It always looks so inviting, when I’m passing, but the view is even nicer from inside. Panoramic windows allow us to see all of Dublin going by. Sounds cray cray, but I love watching buses, people & life itself just moving. The pulse of Dublin City.

cake 2Now, to the main event. We were brought a generous glass of Domini Prosecco Frizza each. Cheers! And a lovely lad explained how the set-up worked. We were getting cakes, scones & a choice of three sandwiches between us. We went for oak smoked salmon on homemade brown bread, free range egg on sourdough fingers & chicken lemon zucchini wrap. Bring it on, John!

Everything arrived on a traditional three tiered porcelain cake stand. So far, so good. Gallaher’s Afternoon Tea is more than a few pretty amuse bouche. This is proper scran! The sandwiches are cut into four, making twelve to share. Currant scones are big warm fluffy numbers, accompanied by cream & mixed berry compote (Ambassador!). I would have gone the whole fat bastard & had butter too…

Everything was rustic, homemade, both in looks & taste. Nothing fancy pants here! I loved the free range egg, which came with slivers of pickled cucumber & chive mayo. Dad enjoyed the chicken wraps, what with me being some class of a vegetarian (95% & then some…). We both milled the oak smoked salmon. Happy days! And so, most importantly, to the cakes. Size matters at Gallaher’s!

sandwichCarrot cake (cake of the day), madeira cupcakes with cream, lemon tart, mini macaroons & shortbread biscuits. It has to be said, we were struggling at this stage, but soldier on we did… One Afternoon Tea would actually do between two! Here’s my expert cake analysis; Carrot cake was meh. Too dry. Cupcakes were freakin’ delish. Like Mum makes. Macarons, nuff said. Lemon tart was, um, tart.

The shortcakes were squirreled into a napkin and handbagged for Him Indoors later (I ate them). We were done in by now. I must say, it was such a lovely treat. Nice & quiet (I can imagine this place buzzing too), we had a great chinwag in peace, when we weren’t stuffing our chops. Gallaher’s certainly don’t scrimp. It’s not a posh Afternoon Tea but it’s very tasty indeed. And fizz always helps. Yes, Sir!

Before I forget… A nice big pot of tea each too. With two teabags! Gets my vote. I was pleasantly surprised by Gallaher’s. Dinner is next on the agenda. This joint does a nice line in steaks & hearty bistro-fare. The breakfast looks like something the Bloke would make short work of. Gallaher’s do breakfast, lunch, brunch, pre-theatre, prix-fixe & a la carte. They also do BYOB. What’s not to love?

Gallaher & Co Bistro & Coffee House, D’Olier Chambers, D’Olier Street, Dublin 2 / Tel – 01 6770499 / info@gallahersbistro.com

 

Apr 6, 2014

Rat Neck – Chainsaw Punk!

Rat Neck. Who the hell are they? A post-Punk apocalypse some might say. Four blokes in a Dublin band, others would venture. All I do know is that they’re fast & furious. Rat Neck formed in 2010 & have been steadily taking over the world since their first release on Breaking Tunes “In The Way”. Youtube their rather strange videos, featuring cartoon crazies Barry & Tommo, sketched by drummer Ollie.

So, back to the music. I caught them recently at a private gig, to launch their EP, at The Natural Cut on Wicklow Street. Fuck-off loud guitars, free whiskey & a nice little crowd. What’s not to love? Rat Neck’s set was tight. I saw them again, a couple of weeks later at Fibber Magees. Yup, that old rock spot that I haven’t been in since the Millennium. Ah, the days… And they royally rocked that joint too.

Rat Neck channel a chainsaw energy that just forces you to head bang. Rude not to with my hair. Lead singer Vinny leads the way with his oily undercut swinging to the speeding rhythm of his guitar. Flanked by ice cool bassist Pa & old skool rock guitarist Peter, he lets loose in not quite a Henry Rollins way, but close. Filthy language, of course! Rat Neck’s sound is heavy but the songs are well catchy.

The motley crew at Fibbers tapped a toe, or stomped a bovver boot, to “S.O.M.C” & “No Way Back”. My fave tune “Rohypnol” went down a storm. Rat Neck are a great live band. While making big waves online, I won’t be surprised to see them popping up at venues all over Dublin this summer. If you like Killing Joke, Black Flag or Faith No More, you’ll dig these guys. Old skool noise & then some more.

ratneck.bandcamp.com / www.ratneck.com / www.fibbermagees.ie

Feb 21, 2014

Jasmine Bar – Unknown Pleasure

Brooks Hotel on Drury Street looks terribly unassuming from the outside. You’ve probably walked past it a million times. But step inside & you’ll find the Jasmine Bar, an oasis of calm in the city. It’s been a secret haunt of mine for years. Lunch, afternoon tea, a cheeky Tom Collins. We’ve done family dinner in Francesca’s Restaurant on many occasions too. Brooks is a hidden gem, in the middle of town.

Not being a seen-to-be-seen kind of place, the Jasmine Bar offers the sort of peace & quiet to sit back & relax. With Ma & Pa just back from their hols, it was the perfect spot to settle in & hear all about it. We ordered off the lunch menu. Caesar salad for me & Greek salad for Herself. A turkey & stuffing sandwich with a cup of tomato soup for Dad. And we shared some wonderfully robust potato wedges.

The measured service at Brooks is luxe, not lax. Staff are highly trained, lending a Continental feel of being looked after. We could use more of it in Dublin. Everything was laid gently on our table, with a smile. The food is simple, but something to write home about. Award winning chef, Patrick McLarnon, is the main man at Francesca’s. His use of local artisan ingredients extends to the Jasmine Bar.

My Caesar was fresh & crunchy with lovely dark Romaine leaves. Ma’s Greek was just as well put together. We’re salad experts, y’know. We liked these mucho! Dad’s sambo went down a treat & his soup was nice & tangy. The menu has a good choice of sandwiches – tomato, mozzarella & basil, McConnells Organic smoked Irish salmon – & the hearty Brooks burger or a beef & Guinness stew.

If you want to linger on after lunch, then you’re in the right place. The Jasmine Bar is one of the best whiskey bars in the country, offering a Whiskey Tasting Experience for groups. Any wonder Madre loves this joint… The cocktail menu offers indulgent tipples too. If you’re looking for a bit of fun though, check out Brooks Private Cinema Club. Really rather cool. Great films & better food than any Cineplex.

Jasmine Bar, Brooks Hotel, Drury Street, Dublin 2 / www.brookshotel.ie

Nov 5, 2013

Lumiere – Sweet Sound of Home

Sunday evening is the new Saturday night! Well, for me and the Bloke anyway. All I had to do was turn up and be fed. Himself had cooked up a Mexican bonanza of Quorn chilli, refried beans, rice and tacos. Bung on guacamole, cheese, jalapenos, Greek yogurt (great alternative to sour cream), salsa and salad and you’ve got a belly full of yum. Dessert was Lumiere at the Workmans Club. And how sweet it was.

Lumiere are Pauline Scanlon and Eilish Kennedy, two trad singers from Dingle, Co. Kerry. Together, their voices form a beautiful union, earthy and ethereal at the same time. What I love about the Workmans Club, is that it’s the perfect venue for plain good entertainment. A stage, some higgledy piggledy chairs and a few simple lights. They have mirror balls on the ceiling, but Lumiere need no fuss.

We missed The Damien O’Kane Trio, due to our pie eating contest, but there would be more from them later. Pauline and Eilish shared the stage with musician Gerry O’Beirne on the acoustic. I hadn’t seen Lumiere live before, and I must admit I was instantly uplifted by their singing. The whole room was captivated. There’s something about the Gaeilge that, as an Irish person, touches your very soul.

Pauline and Eilish, like two strings on the same instrument gave a rousing rendition of “Oro se de Bheatha Abhaile”. And what haunting ballads from their new album “My Dearest Dear”. Joking and quipping all the while, Lumiere connected with their audience on many levels. It was like we were all down in the snug of a wee pub in Dingle. Such fun! Gerry O’Beirne, a pure character himself, sang too.

If every gig Lumiere do is like this, then I can see why they are so loved. “Who Knows Where The Time Goes” was another stunning number (Sinead O’Connor sings on the album) and “Samhradh” was a fave of mine. The girls were joined on stage by The Dermot O’Kane Trio. A jangle of guitars and a ukelele were married with their twin voices, with plenty of banter in between. A real down home vibe.

Chatting to Pauline and Eilish afterwards, they told me next stop was Kerry. That night. Touring the country is hard work, but the glamour is in their exquisite sound. Pauline added that the joy is in seeing the audience reaction. Lumiere are looking forward to a happy Christmas with their upcoming US tour. Me and the Bloke then hit the Garage Bar for a spot of moonstomping. Variety is the spice of life!

www.lumieremusic.net / The Workmans Club, 10 Wellington Quay, Dublin 2

Oct 17, 2013

Very Extremely Memphis – Rock’n’Roll Roots

Having another of our Sunday-like Mondays, me and the Bloke rocked along to the Grand Social that night for Very Extremely Memphis. Free gig, we parked ourselves upstairs in the Loft and ordered a pair of Guinness. The set up was a Q&A with film director Paul Duane and MC Pat McCabe about Duane’s latest release, Very Extremely Dangerous. A documentary on the life of the mad, bad Jerry McGill.

Opening tomorrow at the IFI, Duane’s film charts McGill’s musical beginnings in 1960s Memphis, through his odyssey of crime and jail to his present day ex-con lifestyle. No less wild than his younger days, he brings Duane on the road to recording a follow up to his 1959 single, Lovestruck. Off the rails, McGill isn’t a regular dude. Gruesome too, it deals with his terminal cancer. McGill passed away since.

It’s clear that music and it’s history are Duane’s passion. He spoke animatedly through a number of clips from hazy Memphis days. Really cool, rare stuff. Pure rock’n’roll. Alex Chilton and Jim Dickinson were two memorable features, anti-establishment figures with real rebel blood in their veins. It really gave Himself a thrill. A little slice of New Orleans in Dublin! Duane and McCabe were equally enthralled.

Time for a bit of music. First up were The Problem Blob (ex-Female Hercules), with singer and guitarist Conzo giving it socks. I loved the punky ‘tude of these guys. Using their instruments as weapons of intent. The Slick Hicks were a different kettle of fish. A polished rockabilly outfit, these cats sailed through a blinding set. We shuffled happily to the double bass rhythm. Then home to bed. Rock’n’roll.

Very Extremely Dangerous – Irish Film Institute, 6 Eustace Street, Temple Bar, Dublin / www.ifi.ie

Oct 10, 2013

Mexico To Rome – Mojitos and Burritos

When the Bloke suggested dinner last Sunday, I put word out to my Facebook peeps. Where to go? With Himself living in Temple Bar, we have the world at our feet and I wanted to try somewhere I hadn’t been before. Mexico To Rome piqued my interest. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a restaurant that serves Mexican and Italian food. And Asian. And Irish. There’s something for everybody in the audience!

Genius for a couple, or a party, in different food moods. Both of us were channelling Mexican, as it happens. Off we went down the cobbles, to East Essex Street. Temple Bar was alive with a brilliant band busking outside the door. I love this town! We settled in with a beer and a mojito (quite a good one for a fiver) and shared toasted tortilla chips with salsa and guacamole. Enough to whet our appetite…

I munched on a veggie burrito while the Bloke tucked into a beef taco. Mine was a soft tortilla with crunchy edges (how do they do that?) packed with mixed veg and re-fried beans in a spicy tomato sauce. Covered in sour cream and salsa, with Mexican rice on the side. It was seriously yumsters! Himself enjoyed the chilli beef but would have liked more heat. Jalapeno peppers would add extra kick.

Mexico To Rome is homely, a nice place to chillax of an evening. We found the service just the right side of easygoing, which helped us to wind down. With such a reasonable and unpretentious menu, this is the sort of place you can pop into off the cuff. Just what you want in Temple Bar. For dessert it was whiskey and rum at The Globe, where we bopped along to top rockabilly boys The Pavement Kings.

Mexico To Rome, 23 East Essex Street, Dublin 2 / www.mexicotorome.com

Sep 29, 2013

From Barcelona With Love – Top Ten Things!

Me and the Bloke went on our holliers to Barcelona. And I’m happy to report that we had a grand ol’ time! There was eating. There was drinking. And there was some touristy stuff too. As well as shopping, swimming, dancing, singing, reading & laughing. We stayed in the Blokes’s mate’s gaff (thanks Carlos) in Barceloneta, a salty part of the city with the port on one side and the beach on the other. Nice!

Day One, we left Dublin at silly o’clock for the red eye to Barcelona. On arrival we were sufficiently dazed and confused to order a taxi. We sunk into the welcoming leather and silently watched the suburbs whizz by. Once in Barceloneta, we rendezvoused with our man at the local tapas bar and got the keys to our new abode. The area is all tall, skinny houses and our apartment was at the top of a tall, skinny stairs.

After our first go on the “stairs of doom”, all seventy of them deep and dark, (we never got used to them) it was siesta time. Bliss. We woke up to dinner at Jai Ca, the buzzy place around the corner. Traditional tapas served by hip staff. We munched tortilla (omlette), tomato rubbed bread, grilled sardines, ham croquettes, Greek salad and mixed olives. All washed down with Estrella beer, fresh from the taps. Off to a good start…

A walk along the beach revealed Barceloneta to be a place of many different faces. Originally a fishing district, housing port workers, it retains it’s old skool charm while also presenting an ultra modern beach and promenade. Beside the tavernas, bodegas and tapas bars are sophisticated seafood restaurants. Joggers, skateboarders, bike riders and dog walkers share the slick waterfront with locals and tourists.

Frank Gehry’s giant fish, made of stone, steel and glass shimmered in the early evening sunshine. We stopped by Ice Box for some artisan ice cream, what else (everybody knows there’s no calories in posh food). Made with real banana and vanilla, away we licked… The local supermarket was next for supplies of bottled water, juicy nectarines and, of course, beer. Then a shower, cuddles and dreamy, snoozy time.

Okay, so I’m not gonna do a blow by blow account (ooh er, Missus), as we were there for ten days. But rather a “good things to do in Barcelona” or – here’s one we made earlier. I found Barcelona to be such a diverse city, with something for everybody. Whether you’re rich, poor, a bit alternative or just an ordinary Joe. I’ve never seen so many shops in my life. Or cafes. Or bars. And more art than you can shake a stick at. So, here’s the Top Ten things we got up to…

1.) Gaudi. You really can’t do Barcelona without Gaudi. The legendary Catalan architect embodies the spirit of Barcelona in his fantastical designs and his buildings are among the top tourist attractions in the world. Colourful and unique, Gaudi’s work broke the mould. I remember seeing his masterpiece, the towering basilica La Sagrada Familia, on a family holiday when I was 18. And I never forgot that awe.

La Sagrada Familia. It was a super hot day and of course the queue was around the block. We didn’t go inside, but there was no need as the Gaudi designed church is a sight to behold from the ground. Construction of this magnificent architectural beast began in 1882 and continues today. Gaudi was ambitious in combining Gothic and Art Nouveau forms, with improbable spires that reach for the skies.

Park Guell. Another Gaudi gem. Built for Count Eusebi Guell, the park was inspired by the English garden city movement. However it is anything but quaint. Built over a steep hillside, Park Guell undulates wildly like a sort of Alice in Wonderland playground. Exquisite tile mosaics shimmer above the columns and over serpentine seating in the court. The fountain “El Drac” is its most famous feature. There was live music too!

Casa Batllo. La Pedrera. Palau Guell. Casa Batllo and La Pedrera (Casa Mila) are both situated on the grand Passeig de Gracia, home of some truly magnificent architecture. Palau Guell is tucked in off La Rambla, you can’t miss its quirky chimney pots on the skyline. All feature Gaudi’s whimsical touch, including twisted balconies and curved roofs. His interiors are just as magical, Willy Wonka crazy.

2.) La Rambla. We hit Barcelona’s main thoroughfare several times during our stay. The energy of this area is infectious with street performers, live theatre, market stalls, newspaper stands and flower shops all jostling for the attention of tourists and locals. The main drag stretches from the Monument a Colom (Christopher Columbus) on Port Vell up to Place de Catalunya in the city centre. La Rambla is a metaphor for life.

Apart from the tiled pedestrian walkway, featuring a Joan Miro mosaic, La Rambla is a busy boulevard lined with many shops. It opens into the Barri Gotic on one side and La Raval on the other. We found La Boqueria, Barcelona’s famous food market, half way up. I found Escriba (I’ve a nose for cake), a beautiful pasteleria with an original art deco shop front. Le Gran Teatre Liceu is the grande dame of La Rambla, but there’s plenty of impressive architecture to admire as you, um, ramble.

3.) Tapas. If you like eating, go to Barcelona. There’s endless cuisine on offer, but it’s traditional Catalan fare that tastes best. We got lucky in Barceloneta, being fish fans. Our local joint, Jai Ca, fed us a few times and we brought a pal from Dublin along for a feast. Fresh calamari, pork bomba, fried cauliflower, grilled green pepper, tuna filled pimento. Everything on the menu is homemade and totes delish.

One of our favourite meals was at local bodega, L’Ectricitat, which looks totally un-posh from the outside. But the food… Squid and octopus, raw white fish, crab and eggs, pickled anchovies, two different red wines. None of which we actually ordered, but were brought randomly, by the mad man in charge who urged us on in babbling Catalan. Brilliant. Everyone sat in rows on benches, eating and chatting by candlelight.

We decided to get all dressed up and dine on the port front one night (well, it was our anniversary) at Toc de Mar. Paella was on the agenda and this bad boy came big and bold with king prawns, mussels and squid. I made a good stab at it while the Bloke struggled. Some seriously yummy Rioja helped our cause though. Restaurant prices in Barcelona are very decent and you’ll get good food and wine, as well as top drawer service.

One thing I couldn’t help noticing was the amount of cake shops. And ice cream. And chocolate. Catalans like their sweets. Baluard, a gorgeous bakery conveniently situated next door, was a fave of mine. Fresh pastries with all kinds of fruit, baked cheesecake and cute things with custard. Try churros con chocolat, basically dipping skinny doughnuts into thick hot choc. What’s not to love?

Now, if I can talk a little more about food. Tapa Fina, where tiny open sandwiches with every combination of topping sat on the counter like foodie jewels. Vioko, where chocolates came in gold, silver and sparkling pink. La Rosa Negra, where we gorged Mexican food (homemade guacamole, Sweet Lord) and mojitos. El Nou Ramonet for gazpacho, charcoal grilled sardines, Rioja potatoes.

4.) Barri Gotic. The true centre of Barcelona, this sprawling labyrinthine area dates from medieval times. Mostly pedestrian, Barri Gotic is wonderful to just mill around and let things find you. Shops, bars, cafes and plenty of history. We explored Barcelona Cathedral (Santa Eulalia), Basilica of La Merce, Church of Santa Maria del Pi, Casa de la Cuitat (City Hall). Holy stuff is a big theme in Barcelona, obviously.

Punctuated by squares – Placa Sant Jaume and Place Reial being two of the liveliest – Barri Gotic has many hidden gems in its back streets. Off the main drag, Portal de l’Angel, which is home to big brands and national department store El Corte Ingles, are tonnes of little boutiques. Some cool, some kitsch, some trad. There’s something for everybody. Me and the Bloke actually enjoyed shopping together.

I liked the vintage stores, the shoe shop Kokua which displayed it’s many coloured flats like delicate cakes, the stationery shops (geek) and the jewellery shops. Himself liked the knife shops. We both liked the souvenir shops that sold figurines of famous folk pooing. Y’know, pants down crouching over a mini turd. The Pope, Queen Elizabeth, Obama, Madonna, Angela Merkel. Even Bono! Didn’t buy one…

After dark, Barri Gotic comes alive with myriad bars and cafes. Tucked away in its alleys are some very cool drinking dens. We frequented Manchester Bar, where the vibe was – you guessed it – Manchester music. Who knew The Smiths sounded so good, when off your face on cocktails. I hadn’t been drunk in a long time, the Bloke got quite a kick out of it. But those mojitos were too damn tasty… There are loads of tapas bars in Barri Gotic, so you can fill up before getting tipsy!

5.) El Born / La Ribera. A really cool part of the city, this is where to go to find the edgier shops, cafes and bars. Along with the upper part of La Raval, we found it easy to just wander and find things we liked. Santa Caterina Market stands out with it’s rainbow coloured roof. Santa Maria del Mar Church, along with the Picasso Museum, are hives of tourist activity. We took one at the queues and stayed outside!

But what a beautiful area. Unlike the Eixample, east and west, there are no fine avenues or designer shops. Passeig del Born cuts through a jumble of tiny streets and lanes, with alternative boutiques, vintage stores, little cafes and trendy bars all making for a hopping atmosphere. I totally got the Barcelona vibe here. It’s an outdoor city, where balconies hang over the hustle and bustle of daily Catalan life.

We visited the old El Born Market, which has just opened as a cultural centre, and viewed excavations of the original city from a gallery. There was also exhibitions showing how Catalan life was back in the day. The Bloke, being fascinated by all things revolutionary, got a thrill out of taking part in National Day of Catalonia. The streets were packed. We checked out nearby Museum of Catalan History too.

6.) Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya. The building alone is worth seeing. Housed in the Palau Nacional, high up on Montjuic, MNAC is heralded by an impressive sweep of steps, a waterfall, fountains and pillars. Spectacular when lit up at night. It had a been a long hot day for us, and the cool confines of this gallery were welcome. Sweating out the excesses of Manchester Bar, the night before, I demolished a fresh lemon granita, before our next culture injection.

MNAC is split into four sections – Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque and Modern. There are some amazing Romanesque religious art works, a lot found in rural churches and of such antiquity. This important collection of Catalan heritage is unique to MNAC. The Gothic collection is surprisingly colourful and by contrast the Baroque quite dark. Finally, with Himself losing the will, we hit the Modern art section.

We perked up though, with Picasso, Joan Miro, Ramon Casas and Antoni Tapies. A very well curated collection. He loved the photography gallery, which featured some very cool black and white Civil War shots. I loved the furniture collection, which included zany Gaudi pieces, stunning Art Deco glass work, amazing silk velvet chaise and ornate mahogany cabinets. Far more glamorous than our Ikea world.

7.) Fundacio Joan Miro. One of my fave artists since my art school days, Miro’s colourful creations are at times childlike, at times complex. Set on the rolling idyll of Montjuic, the white building, and example of Rationalist architecture, is a perfect backdrop to Joan Miro’s work. It’s freshness made up a little for the lack of air conditioning on a hot day, but we persevered. We began with the Joan Miro printmaking gallery and sculpture on the outdoor terrace.

This is the world’s most complete collection of Miro, but also houses work by other artists, both contemporaries of and tributes to the master. For me, Miro truly represents the spirit of Barcelona. A sort of carefree joie de vivre. His ceramics, sculptures and paintings have a distinct Catalan flavour. Fundacio Joan Miro really got my art brain ticking. It also has a brilliant art book shop and chic open air cafe.

8.) La Boqueria. And now for some more food. When in Barcelona… The city’s largest food market, La Boqueria is a treat for all the senses. Centred around a fresh fish market, this food emporium fans out to encompass all manner of edibles. Purveyors of fruit, veg, meat, nuts, cheese, sweets, cakes, bread and spices are punctuated by busy tapas bars and fast snack vendors. Let your mouth do all the work!

We munched salmon bomba and calamari, cooked at a fish stall. Vegetable tortilla (omlette) and courgette pastries. Marshmallow in every flavour you can think of (I picked ten). Fruit juices, laid out ready to drink. So refreshing, we slurped on strawberry and banana and pineapple and coconut. Bring your goodies out back to the Eden-like gardens of Hospital de Sant Pau. It really is another world.

9.) Parc de la Cuitadella. Sitting on the edge of the Old Town and right above Barceloneta, the city’s main park is an oasis that houses Barcelona Zoo and the Parliament of Catalonia. It’s foremost features are the Cascada, a spectacular waterfall of the most clear blue water, and the lake, in which young lovers can boat away a romantic afternoon. Me and the Bloke simply sat on a bench, eating juicy apples, and soaked up the sunshine. Barcelona is a city of small pleasures…

The park is designed in a series of winding paths, that almost seem like a natural trail. It was alive with dogs and kids having fun, as well as happy tourists milling about. We saw a group of French lads having great larks on their motorised mini-scooters. A nice breather from the city centre. We made our way from here up to the imposing Arc de Triomf, which was linked to the park by a wide tree-lined pedestrian boulevard.

10.) Barceloneta / Port Vell. Two different areas of the city really, but linked by their ties to the sea. Barceloneta, where we were based, speaks of earthy Catalonia. Not a salubrious neighbourhood, it was constructed in the 18th century to house those displaced by the building of the Cuitadella. So it started off as a ghetto, developed into a thriving fishing community and is now a chi chi beachside haven.

The beach itself is clean and welcoming, with turquoise Mediterranean waters. Barcelona, despite its costal location, was not open to the sea until this area was revamped, along with the appearance of the Port Olimpic marina for the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games. Now it’s an urban beach with plenty of cafes, bars and nightclubs adding to the cosmopolitan mix. We enjoyed a dip in the cool, calm ocean. Heaven.

Port Vell is the face of wealthy Barcelona, with glistening yachts lined up for miles and massive cruise liners sitting in the bay. But it too was a run down area before the urban renewal of twenty years ago, when I first saw it. The old Customs building leads on to the Rambla del Mar bridge which links the city to Maremagnum, a thoroughly modern mall featuring posh shops, restaurants, an IMAX and the world’s largest Aquarium.

Barceloneta, on the other hand, offers old world charm in the folds of its narrow streets. The port side is brash with seafood restaurants and international cuisine. If you walk further down the cable car to Montjuic is a fun way to see the city. However, we were lucky enough to discover the true Barceloneta. Don’t stay here if you’re shy, the neighbours can see right in the window! It’s a lively place indeed…

We mooched around Barceloneta Market, which was just behind our gaff, and scoffed tapas in El Bar Del Paco. Eggs, patatas, Manchego cheese, olives and tomato rubbed bread. Next door was New Orleans Cafe, which does every kind of tea you can get. Normal tea was what the Bloke wanted. I got chocolat, natch. We sat at the counter, a great spot for people watching.

On our final night, we took a moonlit stroll through our little neighbourhood. Taking a fancy to something spicy, we found Mar Brava. An unassuming Indian place, it was the best Ruby we’d had in a while. Hot Madras with juicy prawns and creamy raita, all washed down with San Miguel. On telly, Barca were giving Ajax a lesson in football at Camp Nou. We’d seen the Dutch team leaving training the previous night. Footie is a way of life here and FCB make it look so easy!

What can I say, Himself fell in love with Barcelona. Me too. The lifestyle is super chilled. Although a busy city, and full of tourists, the Catalan capital keeps a cool, calm rhythm. It’s not exclusive in the way London or Paris can be. Barcelona plays by its own rules. You can have a good time here, whatever your budget. And we loved being by the water, when tired of the heat. Dare I say, it’s totally different to Spain. That’s its USP. We learned so much about Catalan culture and would love to explore more. Barcelona is one stylish city.

Photography by Glenn Brown

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Aug 28, 2013

The Marble City – Kilkenny Steam Train

Choo Choo! I was up and at ’em early on Sunday morning for my steam train adventure. Me, Dad and the Bloke were off to Kilkenny for the day. The Marble City trip was organised by the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland. Dad, being a train buff, had booked us seats on the beautifully restored locomotive. We met up at Connolly Station and joined an excited crowd. Big kids and little kids!

The No. 461 was a beauty. Inside and out. Restored to her former glory in a coat of CIE green with black and red trimmings, she was very impressive. Run on coal and man power, No.461 took us a return journey of seven hours in total. Fair play to the lads! The Railway Preservation Society has been restoring steam locomotives and rolling stock since 1964 and is instrumental in Ireland’s rail heritage.

We settled into our carriage, all wood panelling, metal luggage racks, plush check upholstery and granite effect tables. Trundling up through North County Dublin, we snaked around Croke Park and were soon out onto the open track, chugging away. Our view was something else. The rolling green of Kildare, Carlow and Kilkenny. Horses, cows and sheep at pasture. A welcome break from city life.

After a pit stop in Athy to take on water, we rocked into Kilkenny Station. We hadn’t far to go, just down the hill to Billy Byrne’s, an old skool pub and guesthouse. My men didn’t need encouragement and ordered two full Irish breakfasts. I went for the veggie version. Lashings of tea all round, naturellement. Billy Byrne’s serves breakfast all day, as well as a lunch menu. I was told about the Bula Bus out back, so out I went.

Very funky and with a great ever-changing menu to boot, the Bula Bus cranks up in the evenings and puts on a good party, including movie nights and hangover Sundays. Gotta get me in there! We finished our meal with lovely homemade apple tart and cream and a nice stroll through Kilkenny. There was hen party chicks everywhere. It might explain Kilkenny’s glut of quirky girl shops? Not to mention bars! Last time I was here was for a girlfriend’s send off, actually…

Back on board for the return leg, we soon found ourselves parked at the bar in the buffet car. Great craic altogether with trad musicians on the go and a gang of old boys bantering on high. The Guinness was the best I’ve tasted in years. No kidding! Supping, laughing and watching the world whizz by, resting my pint on the window rail in between. Bliss. Train journeys were something to savour in days gone by.

The No.461 had been all over the country in her time and it was a joy to experience such a train in action. Watching the thick black smoke billowing. The sound of the steam chimney whistling. Men with sooty faces shovelling away. Magic. Tired but happy we were transported back to Dublin. Into the Brew Dock for a settler. The Railway Preservation Society runs regular jaunts all over Ireland. Book one!

www.steamtrainsireland.com /Billy Byrne’s, 39 John Street Lower, Kilkenny / www.billybyrnes.com

Aug 27, 2013

The Brew Dock – Frothy Beverages

Now, I wouldn’t normally be one for hitting the pub by lunchtime. But the Brew Dock is no ordinary pub. Right on the corner of Amiens Street opposite Busaras, it’s the best gastropub in the area. Did I mention lunch? The Brew Dock has a delicious menu, the sort of hearty food that compliments a frothy beverage. Their daily lunch special is top value at 8 euro for a hot sandwich, soup and chunky chips.

The Bloke tucked into just that. Saturday’s offering was a bacon & egg bap teamed with tomato and sweet potato soup. I helped him with the chips… I enjoyed a quesadilla filled with beans, cheese and jalapeno peppers all mushed up. With tomato salsa and sour cream lashed on top. And a bit of salad. My kinda food. Yum! All washed down with a cool iced coffee made with love, chocolate and ice cream.

I know what you’re thinking. What about the beer? Indeed. The Brew Dock is from the same stable as Against the Grain and The Black Sheep and has more sisters in Galway. Craft beer is the name of the game. The many taps include several sups from the Galway Bay Brewery, Trouble Brewing, Punk IPA and Galway Hooker. Guest beers do the rounds at the bar and there’s a Willy Wonka choice of bottles.

We settled in with pints of Galway Bay Brewery Buried at Sea Chocolate Milk Stout and Trouble Brewing Dark Arts Porter. Both satisfying jars. You won’t find any of your common or garden commercial beers at the Brew Dock, but once you’ve tasted what they’ve got… It’s like switching from white bread to lovely homemade brown. We moved onto bottles of Bristol Beer Factory Milk Stout next.

Our man Alan is the go-to-guy at the Brew Dock. A craft expert, Alan talked us through the ales, tipping tasters into us as he explained heritage, ingredients and brewing techniques. It’s tough work, this beer lark! If you’re not one for the cask, this place has plenty more to offer. There’s a damn fine whiskey collection behind the bar, including some real rare ‘uns. As rare as we were upon home time…

The Brew Dock, 1 Amiens Street, Dublin 1 / www.facebook.com/thebrewdock

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