Northern Ireland in December is cold. It rains day in, day out, and a chilly wind turns raindrops into frozen needles that stick into your head. And let’s not forget that at three in the afternoon it is already dark. One would normally run like hell from such a place, but we decided to spend seven days up there.
Before planning our week-long vacation in Northern Ireland, we knew that we would get a very cold welcome, what with the humidity and the crisp air, but we weren’t afraid.
After a turbulent flight we finally land at Dublin airport, where we hire a car and drive to Newry, a small town past the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. We spend day two of our vacation in Belfast, which doesn’t impress us. Maybe because we don’t get to see the Murals dating back to the Troubles, maybe because it pours down, and possibly because we are cold and tired.
When we leave the city, we feel slightly miserable: we have already spent two days in Northern Ireland and we haven’t seen anything to sweep us off out feet yet – maybe booking seven days and seven nights in the middle of nowhere this time of year wasn’t the best choice? Besides, I’m always cold and I take longer than usual to get used to driving on the “wrong side” of the road, even though I’m just sitting in the passenger seat. I keep thinking that that we might skid on the wet tarmac, slide off one of the cliffs and sink into the dark, deep waters.
Luckily, the satnav tells us that we are about to reach our destination: we’ll spend the night in a small country lodge, in the village of Killealy. When I book a hotel, I usually spend hours – sometimes days – to look at the photos online and to read the reviews. In most cases my choices turn out to be ok, but when I go wrong, I go wrong big time. I will never forget the night we spent in Bognor Regis, a seaside town on the English Riviera, in a hotel room that hadn’t been cleaned up for the past twenty years or so.
We park our car in front of the inn, hoping that the small countryside hotel will be at least acceptable. Also because defining Killealy a village would be an overstatement: a handful of whitewashed, one-story houses with slate roofs – exactly like our hotel. There is nothing else around here: no shops, no pubs, and the idea of getting into the car again, drive around and look for somewhere to eat makes me want to cry. It’s pouring down – for a change! – and there’s nothing apart from the hotel and a stormy sea.
The lobby smells like your typical British house: a mix of dust, damp carpet and rain. In fact there’s fitted carpet on the floor, in a dark shade of purple not dissimilar from the color of the polished paint of the wall. A fire is roaring in the fireplace and the mantelpiece is decorated with fir and mistletoe. I wish I could collapse in the armchair, but the lady behind the desk has something else in mind: she shows us to our room on the second floor, up steep stairs and along a carpeted corridor.
What if behind the yellowish door there’s a broom cupboard, with shredded wallpaper and a mouldy bathroom? Well, at least let’s hope that there’s enough hot water to shower. But there’s much more that I expected: the room is smallish and the violet paint of the walls clashed with the mustard-colored fitted carpet, but the bedroom smells like lavender and it’s warm. The furniture isn’t falling apart and the bathroom is clean. Instead of the drain in the floor and a mildewy shower curtain, there’s a proper shower with glass doors. And four fluffy, warm towels.
Before leaving us, the landowner asks us whether we’d like to book a table for dinner at the restaurant downstairs. We say yes without even thinking about it, then we take some time to unpack and shower. As I hang our damp jackets to dry on the radiator, I move aside the flowered curtain to look out of the window. There’s only countryside as far as the eye can see, plus some cottages whose lights seem to sway through the rain in the darkness.
Our table isn’t ready yet when we go downstairs for dinner, so we finally get a chance to sit in the armchairs by the fireplace. Christmas spirit is in full swing, both in the lobby and in the restaurant, where we sit beside another fireplace and listen to Christmas carols.
We order from the Christmas menu: there’s not much choice, but we want to try the turkey with cranberry sauce and the roast with veggies. After the main courses, we order the plum pudding: I taste cinnamon and ginger in it, and remember the traditions connected to its preparation.
Coffee is brought to us along Frank Sinatra’s voice singing Santa Claus is Coming to Town: the perfect ending to an unexpected night.
Maybe it’s all a bit tacky, but it’s so Christmassy!