A Travellerspoint blog

Day 6: Walking On Air, Against My Better Judgment!

in which your author starts his day in a rainy irish graveyard and ends it drinking vermouth in madrid

sunny 90 °F

After two consecutive days of DNC-inspired sleeping in, I’m overdue for an early morning according to the actual local time. And this slated to be a big travel day, jumping across the pond to the continent to begin the truly adventurous portion of my trip. Mark has the foresight to drive us to the grave of the immortal Seamus Heaney (Heaney, of course, may have been mortal, but his poems – like this one – will live on as some of the best in an already well stocked lineage of Irish writing.) It’s raining steadily but thankfully Mark has a giant golf umbrella.

Heaney’s epitaph takes my breath away: “Walk on air against your better judgement.” (The ‘e’ in ‘judgment’ strikes me as distinctly European.) A striking slate gray against so much surrounding greenery, with silverish stones filling a shallow pool, Heaney’s grave is set aside from the rest of the church graveyard by its location under a tree which acts like a canopy. It’s a restful and contemplative spot.


I had the good fortune to participate in a performance of Heaney’s poems with The Poets’ Theatre in Cambridge last year, an event that only further convinced me of the power of reading poetry out loud, but one of my favorite performance opportunities I’ve found for myself in Boston. I think of that night, and of Heaney’s legacy of advocating for young writers, spending about five minutes at his grave. It’s an unexpected highlight of the trip up to Northern Ireland; I hadn’t realized this place was so close to where Mark lives. We say our goodbyes and I leave Mark with a can of AERONAUT Dr. Nandu beer. I expect the next I see him will be in America!

I head to the old McCoole homestead in Magherafelt, with the intention of seeing the “bigger” house which I believe was the master house. (When we were here 2.5 years ago we only made it inside the smaller house built for the kids.) When I pull up to the barns from which access to the lands begins, the short man who Mark’s Dad spoke with last time was there on his tractor. As it turns out, this is Hugh, Robin’s brother. Having missed the sun yesterday, it’s of course pretty much pouring rain now, and Hugh offers to drive me out to the spots. He’s a talkative, elfin spirit, and his thick, nearly-unintelligible rural dialect makes him seems transported from hundreds of years ago. Couldn’t be a nicer fellow. As we’re driving, it dawns on me – this is my first time riding in a tractor!

After he opens the gates (there so cows won’t get out, natch) we drive up to the ancient homes, both of which are crumbling and may not last another generation. I’m still about unclear about the provenance of these homes; as Hugh tells me this one was owned by some people called “Rinney.” (I can’t place the McCool connection, though I suspect the house was originally built by a farmer named John McCoole who may have only lived here for a generation or two.) We have to climb into the larger house through the window, and I feel like my photos would fit in on some creepy “abandoned spaces” website. Hugh lays a long board over the dilapidated staircase so I can climb to the second floor, where there are at least two bedrooms. Decay is everywhere: ancient, barren fireplaces, floors and ceilings rotting through. As I climb down, I brush past the banisters, which seem somewhat “modern” or at least “of the 20th century,” probably installed some time in the 1910s or 20s? (Though the house probably hasn’t been used since the 1940s or 50s? Who knows.) I imagine the people who must have lived in this place for so many years. I think of the house at the end of The Blair Witch Project. Thankfully it’s not dark out. Shudder.

We stop on the way back in the smaller house that I visited on the last trip, and Hugh points out the cornerstone dated 1735, signed “JMc” – my initials! This would have been John McCoole, who I assume built both houses? The stone is lying up against the inner wall of what’s now used by the farm owners as storage space for old, rusted tractors. Hugh tells me a story about a man who not too long ago claimed ownership of this stone and just when he was about to show up to remove it from the property, suddenly dropped dead. Don’t mess with the JMc’s, apparently.


We ride the tractor back to the barns – I’m becoming a real expert at climbing in and out of tractors by this point – and Hugh’s (taller) brother Robin is standing by some bales of hay in his thick tweed cap, puffing on a cigarette in the damp air, as at least a dozen newborn black and white kittens scamper in and out of the barns. I thank the brothers for tending to the ancient McCoole lands – regardless of my inability to prove a direct genealogical connection to these “Toberhead McCools,” it’s about the closest I’ve found to an ancestral home.


And then the 2 hour 45 minute car trip back to Dublin to drop off the rental and catch my flight to Madrid. I make a couple stops, most prominently in the small town of Antrim, where I resolve to spend the remainder of my British pounds which will be of no use to me once I cross the border back into Ireland. A liquor store has a half bottle of Laphroaig 10 Year single malt for 19.99, which would be an easy way to kill the 20 pound note in my pocket, so I give it a go. (I learned a neat trick from Backbar: using Laphroaig in a small spray bottle to finish cocktails with a touch of smoky peat!) I also pick up an extremely useful solid royal blue tie – for 20 pence, the equivalent of about 28 cents! – in a second-hand shop, and a card game appropriately called “The Game of Daniel” for my brother.

Driving to the airport – thinking about my bags which are getting heavier by the day – it dawns on me I’ve just picked up A BOTTLE OF LIQUID with which I AM JUST ABOUT TO BRING ON A PLANE. GAHHH. Ugh. Time to get creative, experienced traveler.

I do a bit of research and the internet tells me that many drug stores (specifically, Dunnes, a sort of magical half-department store, half-grocery store) sells small 100ml bottles intended for bringing liquids on planes. A helpful young employee helps me find these and says “I like your accent,” to which I respond, “I like yours too!” Although I suppose in this situation, I’m the one with the accent.

I walk back to my rental car which I had left in a neighborhood close to the shopping center, crack open the Laphroaig, transfer it to the plastic bottles, and repack my bags. Genius! Funny how solving one simple travel dilemma makes you feel like Rick Steves all of a sudden.
After filling the diesel (gas is very expensive here), dropping off the car goes uneventfully. I really enjoyed my experience renting from Sixt, by the way – and will have to write them a positive review, especially since many of their Dublin airport location reviews weren’t all that great. If such a thing is possible, I’ve left simultaneously plenty of… and barely enough time. Mostly due to the unexpected rebottling adventure. I walk briskly t the gate, which (of course) feels about ¾ of a mile from the security gates. After a bit of delay, we’re off to Madrid.


The temperature is at least 15 (maybe more) degrees hotter here than in Ireland. I immediately have to adjust to the assumption that I don’t speak the local language – at least not well – and that I’m seen as a foreigner, an outsider, and perhaps even worse… an American tourist, what with my camera bag slung around my neck and my baseball hat. (I’ve spotted a few other Red Sox hats on this trip – more than Yankees, might I add. Well done, Europe.)

The Metro proves more confusing (and expensive – a trip from the airport is around $7) than I had hoped, as I almost despair upon seeing a line I was depending upon is closed. With my heavy bags, I’m at a crossroads. After a minute or two of intense mouth frowning I realize the other line goes to the same place, and I’m set. Not reading the local language fluently creates some unnecessary drama!


After a walk from the station – felt like 30 with my bags but was probably more like 12 – I arrive at my Airbnb. My host is Isabel, a young, cosmopolitan academic who recently completed a PhD on the modern European novel (her bookshelves attest to this knowledge), focused on a French writer unfamiliar to me. She offers a beer (a German dunkelweiss?!) and I relax after a somewhat long travel day. After settling in, I venture out to check out the town, heading toward the heart of the Malasaña neighborhood, about a 15 minute walk.

After bucolic Northern Ireland, Madrid feels electric. Hundreds of young folks standing and chatting, populating the streets, lolling about in windows of cafés. (Unlike the US, most people seem to smoke here, but thankfully seem careful to only do it in windows.) I pass by a few places and settle on a smallish stand-up bar laid out horizontally with vibrant, clacking conversations in Spanish. I start chatting un poquito de Espanol with a couple standing next to me, both from Argentina: Leo, who lives in Madrid, and his friend Dani, just arrived today from Buenos Aires. We converse for about 30 minutes and though (very) halting Spanish, I manage to order a plate of manchego cheese and a local drink called yayou (gin, sweet vermouth, and Coca-Cola, served with lemon slices).


Although it’s after 2am at this point, the neighborhood show no signs of slowing down, though the bar does start turning off the lights around 2:30am. After saying farewell to these nice folks (I tried unsuccessfully to meet up with Leo over the next few days, but perhaps he’ll visit the US) I keep wandering. There’s a big square with seemingly hundreds of people outside enjoying the night. I have a refreshing, well-made mojito at a small, welcoming café called Vacaciones and do a bit of writing in a journal I purchased in Florence years ago.


This place starts to close around 3am and I make my way back to Isabel’s place, where I stay up until 5am (ugh) and watch the DNC, featuring some very riveting speeches and one slightly pedestrian-if-still-inspiring speech by our-next-Madam-President-if-I-have-anything-to-do-about-it, Hillary Rodham Clinton.


So far Madrid is living up to its reputation as a fun, vibrant center of European late-night culture! Viva!

Posted by coolmcjazz 07:54 Archived in Spain Tagged madrid

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