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  • Writer's pictureZanny Merullo Steffgen

Irish breakfasts, meditation, and old friends

After a last cappuccino and spremuta, and a final plate of pasta, I left Italy and headed to Ireland, a country I had never visited before. Originally, I had thought I would explore parts of Asia after my time in Italy, but after deciding to walk the Camino de Santiago in May, it made more sense to stay in Europe. Something in me (possibly my Irish heritage) led me to Ireland in a daydream, and I decided that would be a great place to explore. I was looking for small towns, nice people, and the wilderness where I could walk and train for the Camino de Santiago. I signed up for a buddhist retreat on the southern coast of Ireland, and a hostel in Cork for a few days, and discovered a country now dear to me.

Although I had heard from many people that Dublin was the place to see in Ireland, Cork was the town closest to the buddhist retreat, so I decided to spend some time there. I arrived in the city late at night and went straight to my tiny hostel room above a bar. The next morning I was pleased to find my street lined with small shops and cafes and pubs, and tried a place called Paddy Torino’s for the full Irish breakfast because of the establishment’s hilarious Irish-Italian name. The breakfast consisted of two slices of buttered toast, one rubbery fried egg, a strange sausage, two slabs of hefty bacon, and a somewhat burnt tomato. Perhaps it was a mistake to dive right into the full Irish breakfast so soon after Italy… I wandered around the colorful side streets filled with used bookshops, a delightful variety of restaurants, and a pub with a lit up tree over its awning. I explored the university campus which was absolutely gorgeous, and wound my way through a park back to my lodging.

That first day in the hostel I made it my goal to talk to two different people and try to make friends. I started talking to an American girl from Wisconsin who had studied art in college and was a wedding photographer, then we were joined by an Australian girl who was traveling alone and had fallen down the side of a mountain on a hike only a few weeks before. We talked about our adventures, about traveling alone, and soon planted ourselves at a small table in the kitchen, sampling various foods we had picked up and inviting new people to join in as they came along. There were a few french guys who spoke varying levels of English and a guy from Aruba who was using his Dutch citizenship (I had been surprised to learn that Aruba had been taken over by the Netherlands… something I never would have known if I hadn’t met this guy!) to work and travel in Europe. We all went out for drinks together, then sat around playing games and talking about our countries and customs and our adventures and misadventures. That night we found ourselves in a bar with live music, drinking frothy Guinness and dancing together. I have a set of photobooth photos from that night, each one a blurry collection of corners of faces and hands as we all tried to take shifts in the tiny booth.

The next two days I spent walking through the countryside. The first day I ran into two of my new French friends in the bus station and we ended up in an adorable town Kinsale for a picnic lunch and trek through the ragged hills to the remains of a castle, then down to a sandy beach tucked beneath a mess of grassy banks. The next day I packed a picnic and took a long bus ride to the tiny town of Bantry to walk part of the Sheep’s Head Way. I was advised by locals (whose thick brogue I barely understood) where to go, and the bus driver dropped me off at the beginning of the trail and promised to pick me up there hours later. I walked from a grassy path by a river up a hill and down a dirt road in between two farms. The road led me through more farmland, up and up until suddenly the hills opened up to reveal pastures as far as I could see in one direction, and a spectacular coastline in the other. As I approached the crest of the hill, however, I began to see a thick stream of smoke, and saw a line of fire leading up the bank of the valley, growing closer to the path I was meant to take. Fearing a dangerous wildfire, I headed to the internet to see if wildfire was common in this region (it was) and found the number for fire emergencies. I searched for the owners of houses on the hill to warn and called the emergency number as I sped walked in the direction I’d come from. The woman who answered reassured me that the fire brigades were attending to the flames and instructed me to head as far downhill and away from the fire as possible. Always an adventure!

A few days later, I boarded the local bus to Castletownbere, the nearest town to the buddhist retreat. I had decided to go with the local bus rather than the large national company because I wanted a more authentic experience. I sure got it! The driver was an old man whose dialect of English was so difficult for me to understand that one of the passengers had to translate for me. This passenger was a middle aged woman who had visited her son and his wife in Dublin, and was telling me how exciting it was to see “the big city”. The only other passenger was a young man who was traveling to Castletownbere for a fishing trip, and spent the first twenty minutes of the ride describing the kinds of fish he would find there. When we arrived in the tiny town, the driver dropped me off at MacCarthy’s Pub. Whatever he said translated to “go to MacCarthy’s and ask for a ride to the center. They have a little cab business.” With this instruction and my heavy bags, I walked into the pub and into the midst of live music night. A plump woman behind the bar invited me in, told me to come leave my things behind the bar and then sit and enjoy the music while she called the cab driver from an old fashioned telephone on the wall. I sat and ordered a Guinness and watched the group of middle aged people gathered at tables in the candlelight, strumming guitars, playing the flute, and singing a collection of classic Irish songs. A little pug dog came and sat by my feet, begging for attention, and sitting there surrounded by music and candlelight I felt perfectly content and knew it was a good omen for things to come.

Dzogchen Beara, located a fifteen minute drive of winding country roads from MacCarthy’s Pub, was just about as peaceful a place as you could imagine. The hostel, where I was staying, was a little wooden cabin-like structure with a big sitting room and kitchen, then rooms with wooden floors and wooden bunk beds with thick blankets. The whole place smelled like pine and cats. The view of the craggy coastline was breathtaking, and outside the hostel was a little garden with a bench and a chair for meditating or quiet reflection. Every morning at nine there was a meditation in a simple room with a wall of windows that looked out on the water and made you feel like you were teetering on the edge of one of the cliffs, suspended above the sea and surrounded by greenery. After the morning meditation, I often found myself in the center’s cafe for a breakfast of a croissant or scone, jam, cream, and a large coffee. There was no wifi to be found in the place, but in my seat by the window in the cafe I managed to get enough phone service to write my family. I would sit there for hours and read or write in my journal. In my time at Dzogchen Beara I managed to finish two books- something I hadn’t done in months. I read the Baghavad Gita and the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (written by Sogyal Rimpoche who had founded this center and one in France). At 1, lunch was served in the meditation room. The lunches were a buffet of different delicious vegetarian options- usually a rice or couscous dish, potatoes, a stew, some roasted vegetables, and a salad. After lunch I often headed out for a walk. The center was connected to a donkey sanctuary, so I explored that at first. It was literally a path where donkeys grazed, and if you took it far enough you could climb down the cliffs to little pools of water. One day I walked all the way back to Castletownbere for groceries and hitchhiked back, another day I walked five and a half miles to the seaside town of Allihies (a small collection of colorful summer houses, one pub, and one hotel), had a piece of chocolate cake in the town’s only cafe (also part of a coal mining museum), and walked all the way back to Dzogchen. I tried to meditate twice a day, and spent my other hours reading, writing, walking, and cooking. It’s amazing how much time you have when you give up a few minutes here and there scrolling through your phone! The hostel volunteers were wonderful people, including a sweet little old man named Pat who said “yeah I would be meditatin’, yeah” in a thick Irish accent and sang in a chillingly beautiful voice one night when we sat around sharing songs and stories. Another volunteer was a 21 year old German girl who had taken a few years off of school to au pair in Ireland and work (and now volunteer), and who on my last day, decided to secretly buy some contraband wine and have a wine and pasta night. Another volunteer cooked delicious pasta carbonara and we passed around a mug of cheap white wine. A few other guests came and went in my time in the hostel, and we often found ourselves curled up on the sitting room couches after dinner talking with no screens to interrupt our interactions. As for my spiritual growth, I had some successful moments in meditation and some frustrating ones, as is typical of the practice. On my walks I had a chance to contemplate these moments as well as things I’d read, and a series of conversations with a young South African girl who had a similar spirit to mine helped me see how far I’ve come spiritually and how far there is to go.

Although I’d enjoyed my time of reflection and peace, it was nice to return to the hostel in Cork for a night. I spent time with a guy who had been my hostel roommate before- an Italian who was working in a restaurant in Cork and living in the hostel full time- and we talked about spirituality, as our views lined up almost exactly. He cooked pasta for lunch and we talked and joked around with a goofy Spanish guy also living full time at the hostel. The three of us had a couple beers and listened to the live music in the hostel bar before heading to bed.

From Ireland I flew to London, where I stayed with a good friend from high school and explored the city. It was a wonderful gift to reflect on our time at Exeter now a year after leaving, and to talk about travel and the present and future and laugh at shared memories. I so admire my friend for going to college abroad, and saw how happy she was and how it had allowed her more freedom than she would have had at home. I also went out with a friend I’d met in the hostel in Berlin who lived in London and we danced with a pair of the queen’s Buckingham Palace guards in a bar in the city until early in the morning. (Yes, they actually were queen’s guards- I saw photos and their IDs). From there I headed to Manchester to see a friend from my Naples experience. I spent a wonderful night out with her and her friends who were all great people. One of those friends happened to work in a tattoo parlor, so the next day I got my fourth tattoo done- an airplane to commemorate my travels!

After a day in Paris eating baguettes with Brie, chocolate croissants, and even trying escargots for the first time, here I am in the charming town of St. Jean Pied de Port, prepared to start my pilgrimage to Santiago tomorrow. My initial nerves and worries about being prepared have faded away into new friendships with two women staying in my hostel, and tomorrow I will wake up at 5:30 and set out with them through the rain and over the mountains to Roncesvalles, Spain. The next month will be a challenging experience, and not just physically. All my belongings are now in my small backpack, and I will be staying in hostels with dozens of other pilgrims. After ten days, I will be joined by my best friend Izzy and we will continue on to Santiago together, then perhaps explore Portugal before flying home at the end of June. This experience is truly a dream come true, and I am so grateful for these months of travel that have taught me so much about myself and the world. I will be dedicating each day of walking to a specific person, so please let me know if there is anyone in need of good energy and prayer. See you on the other side!

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