DUBLIN, Ireland — I'm not fond of New Year's Eve, always feeling slightly isolated from the delirious revelers throwing confetti and blowing whistles at the stroke of midnight. Perhaps it's because I don't feel particularly happy celebrating the end of another year.
Still, when the chance to spend this past New Year's in Dublin came, I jumped at it. First, because Dublin is a city I love, and second, because the invitation was to the 4th annual NYF Dublin, the city's 3-day festival bridging the gap between the old and new year.
That was how I found myself, on a balmy New Year's Eve, standing in a cluster of dark-clad lantern-bearers as we prepared to make the one-hour walk from St. Stephen's Green through the streets of the Old City to Dublin Castle.
If I had thought the Procession of Lights was to be a spiritual stroll, I quickly revised my thinking. Ahead of me were fire dancers and musicians in their sparkly best; behind me, illuminated floats and giant characters worthy of the Macy's Parade. This was a Dublin more spirited than spiritual; more in sync with native son Bono than adopted son, St. Patrick.
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By the time we arrived at the castle, the street party was in full swing, and 2014 was on its way to being history.
Over the three days of the festival, I would experience activities from a poetry slam at the Workman's Club on the banks of the River Liffey (the Irish have a love of poetry embedded in their DNA) to the launch of Luminosity, cutting edge 3D light displays at Wolf Tone Square, formerly the cemetery for St. Mary's Church.
A city of creativity
Dublin has always been a city of intense creativity, never more so than in its Celtic Tiger days of economic growth from 1995 to 2000, when rising stars in music, fashion, design and culinary arts burst onto the scene. The worldwide recession of recent years may have tamed the Tiger, but the city's creative edge is as sharp as ever. This year has been designated the Year of Irish Design (for more details, go to Irishdesign2015.ie.)
I got a preview of what is to come at the Year of Irish Design Exhibition in the Coach House of Dublin Castle. The unusual exhibit showcased the design process, from start to finish, for ordinary objects such as an artificial knee joint and a currach, a type of wooden fishing boat.
The Temple Bar area is Dublin's creative nucleus. The district, located between the Liffey and Fishamble Street, Dublin's oldest, went from being a medieval treasure to a derelict neighborhood slated for demolition to make way for a railroad station.
Luckily, sanity prevailed, and the area that saw the first performance of Handel's Messiah in 1742 (they perform it every year on the original spot) is once again Dublin's cultural, creative and entertainment heart. Today, however, the musicians most associated with Temple Bar are Bono and The Edge of U2, owners of the terminally hip Clarence Hotel.
With Bono and The Edge as innkeepers, you had to know the cool kids would follow. Today, Temple Bar is the location for a cadre of artsy venues, including the Dublin Institute of Photography, Irish Film Institute, Project Arts Centre, Temple Bar Gallery & Studio and DESIGNyard, as well as a number of world-class drinking establishments such as The Porterhouse, Foggy Dew and The Turk's Head.
Tip: You might want to have your pint of Guinness early and then head for more civilized parts, as the later it gets, the more Temple Bar resembles New Orleans' French Quarter during an LSU vs. Alabama football weekend.
If you want civilized, check out two of the city's lesser known gems: the Little Museum of Dublin and the Chester Beatty Library.
The former is located in a classic Georgian townhouse. Ringing the bell, you expect the door to be opened by a rosy-cheeked maid in a lace cap who will invite you in for tea.
However, it's not the 19th, but the 20th century that is chronicled in "the people's museum." Some 5,000 historic objects, donated by ordinary Dubliners, tell the city's modern story from the 1916 Easter uprising to the visit by President John F. Kennedy to the rise of U2.
The Chester Beatty Library is one of those treasures that you might easily overlook. Don't. Called by Lonely Planet Guidebook "one of Europe's best museums," it is an homage to one man's passion for collecting.
Beatty made his fortune in mining and spent a lifetime amassing treasures that span nearly 5,000 years and represent the best of Western, Islamic and East Asian civilization. Located on the grounds of Dublin Castle, the library museum is home to an impressive array of manuscripts, prints and drawings, rare books and decorative arts.
A culinary cornucopia
Ireland may have been a bit late getting to the culinary party, but now that it's here, it seems in no hurry to leave. One Dublin chef receiving wide acclaim in the past few years is Oliver Dunne, recipient of a Michelin star for Bon Appetit, his restaurant in the coastal village of Malahide.
If I was doling out stars, I'd give him another one for Cleaver East, his Temple Bar establishment, where the mission is to provide great food — like goat cheese panna cotta with beetroot, pickled golden beets and caramelized pecans; fillet of Herefordshire beef with Bearnaise sauce and vine cherry tomatoes, and carrot cake with cream cheese frosting and pistachio ice cream — at very affordable prices (cleavereast.ie).
Lunch at Sophie's, the rooftop restaurant at the new Dean Hotel, also proved a culinary high point. The views competed with a menu featuring Irish crab and pear salad with blood orange dressing as a starter; a 10 oz. rib-eye with creamed spinach and caramelized onions as a main, and apple tart fine with butterscotch ice cream for dessert. It's a bit pricey at 40 euros (approximately $46) for lunch, but the food was definitely worth it (thedean.ie/eat-drink/sophies).
If you want ambiance with your food, book a table at The Church Restaurant, housed in a former 18th century church. With its soaring columns and restored organ on the mezzanine, it has a décor few eateries can match.
Likewise, its history. George Frideric Handel practiced on the organ while composing his Messiah; Arthur Guinness, founder of the brewery, was married here in 1761, and Gulliver's Travels author Jonathan Swift was a congregant. If they were around today, they would no doubt be patrons.
Finally, The Merrion Hotel has its own Michelin-starred restaurant, Patrick Guilbaud, but it also has one of the most unique afternoon teas to be found anywhere. The Art Tea reflects the Merrion's private collection of 19th and 20th century art scattered throughout the hotel.
What the artists have created on canvas, the hotel's pastry chefs have created in miniature to please the taste buds as well as the eye. Have a look at William Scott's still life, Frying Pan, Funnel, Eggs & Lemons, and see it recreated in miniature as a vanilla biscuit with orange curd, or Patrick Hennessy's Roses and Temple, which in pastry form becomes rosewater and orange mousse on a white chocolate feuillentine.
You may be hesitant to ruin these tiny works of art, but go ahead ... indulge. This art is meant to be savored to the last crumb.