The day starts soft, and I dodge the showers getting everything out to the car. My belongings seem to have expanded far beyond a single backpack: a shopping bag full of Irish teabags and birthday presents, a holdall with my footwear. The worry of shrinking back to one piece of luggage is a few days away yet, so I kiss my brother and sister-in-law and drive away – auspiciously, in the wrong direction.
Back on track with the satnav, I follow turf trucks, tractors and crazy tradesmen through the country roads of west Kildare towards the heart of the Bog of Allen. Bungalows gleam in the sunshine; gardens and hedgerows are ablaze with colours as the late summer brings out red fuchsia, orange montbretia, purple redshank and mauve hydrangea.
I drive along, close to Kildare’s border with Offaly, passing brown barns and raised bogs and nature reserves and hayfields and canals.
I stop at Rathangan as the Angelus rings out. The Spencer Bridge at Lock 23 dates from 1784; sadly the lock here is no longer in use because of a nearby culvert collapse, but it’s beautiful nonetheless. I sit and take in the silence for a few minutes before driving on.
Past a busy Monasterevin, I hit the M7 and return to the twenty-first century. I speed past towns and villages whose names used to be milestones on my regular journeys between Dublin and Cork back in the late eighties: Urlingford, where I always stopped at Kavanagh’s petrol station for the best scones in the midlands; Twomileborris and Horse and Jockey; Mitchelstown, where the creamery was, and Fermoy where you knew you were firmly back in Cork.
At Watergrasshill I get a fit of the nostalgics and come off the motorway early to find the cottage in Glanmire where I lived happily for two years. Up a winding country road in Eastcliff, here it is: Woodbrook, with the steepest driveway in the world, sitting alongside DJ Rockin’ Gerry’s house on the cliffs above the Glashaboy River.
Heading into Cork I get stuck in the wrong lane and end up circumnavigating the famous Bells of Shandon before escaping the city. Motorway soon turns into main road, then into country road as I turn left at Crookstown. I stop to top up my water bottle and find myself at a road sign pointing me to the “Ambush Site”. I’m in Béal na Bláth, where Irish patriot Michael Collins was shot dead in an ambush on 22 August 1922. I detour up a boreen and pay my respects at a high Celtic cross on the spot where he fell. A fitting thing to do on the centenary of the 1916 rebellion.
Over the Cousane Gap, the scenery gets more and more spectacular. I catch a glimpse of water and a blue “Wild Atlantic Way” signpost, and I know I am almost there. I check into my B&B and stroll downtown to the centre of Bantry town. The weekly market is just finished and Wolfe Tone Square is awash with Hiace vans, packing cases and half-deconstructed awnings.
Down past the railway cottages at the pier, a Lottery-funded footpath provides spectacular views across Bantry Bay to Whiddy Island. The tide is almost out and the smell of the seaweed brings me back to childhoods in Galway. There’s heat in the evening sun, and I stop to peel off a few layers before turning back.
Later, in O’Connor’s restaurant, I feast on seafood chowder and a huge lump of monkfish, all local produce. The place doesn’t seem that busy but as I finish up round nine in the evening, quite a few people start steaming in. I’m tempted to find a friendly bar with some live music but the long drive has finished me off.
Even though it’s close to ten at night it’s still broad daylight as I tuck myself up in my little single bed with a glass of red and a handful of Oatfield Emeralds to watch the best of the Late Late Show.
Down the banks of the Yarra, past the Polly Woodside, a whole new neighbourhood is emerging. Forget the windy, desolate landscapes of Docklands: this north-facing area is full of sunshine and sheltered from the chillier southerly winds. Unless you are headed to the Convention and Exhibition Centre, shopping at South Wharf DFO or staying for the weekend at the Hilton, you’ve probably not had reason to head down here, but it’s worth the wander.
Even our means of entering the restaurant should have hinted that the evening was going to be less of a fine dining experience, and more of a lengthy piece of performance art.
We follow a wooden pathway down a darkened corridor towards a half-scale projected image – a video, or perhaps a live feed? – of the Fat Duck Melbourne’s kitchen. Once we reach the image, the video finishes abruptly with a wooden door slamming, and we are plunged into darkness.
Rudimentary is the latest representation of Footscray’s stealthy gentrification-round-the-edges. Four forty-foot containers on a previously derelict block of land at the back of the shopping strip, with seating indoors and outdoors, and plenty of space for bikes, kids and growing their own veg. What’s not to like?
This place used to be a video store. Nestled between Indian eateries and grocery stores, brothers Sal and Juan Rodriguez dared to buck the WeFo trend and open a Latin American restaurant in this drab-looking premises. And what a treat we’ve been given.
Our first visit was on a steaming hot Sunday afternoon in late November, when the restaurant was not long open. The decor was a little haphazard but homely enough. Electric fans tried in vain to help with air circulation. We were virtually the only people in the place. Sal came and welcomed us, bringing sangria and fruit punch to cool us down, with a sampler size of “Latin pho” as he called it: a casserole of vegetables and offal which tasted far better than it looked.
The stereo was pumping out some good salsa music, so after ordering we got up to practise our newly-learned salsa moves. Sal immediately turned up the music, announcing that they were “chefs by day and salseros by night”. He and brother Juan, the chef, run this place – although their mum was also on the premises and looked pretty much in charge to me.
I got the sense that I was going to like this place, despite its basic look.
We focused on meat. The twice cooked pork belly came on a bed of fresh salad and a generous dollop of guacamole. The secret, we are told, is that they marinate the meat for at least twenty-four hours in rum. Right. All I know is that it was some of the best pork belly I’ve eaten, and a huge portion too.
The carne asada was served with a flourish on a steel skewer. Lighted cured in brine, it was delicious, although I would have liked it to be a little more “asada”. The salad was beautifully fresh.
Sal came and chatted to us, giving us salsa tips alongside the history of the family. Originally from El Salvador, the Rodriguez family migrated to Australia in the eighties and have always lived in the western suburbs. They wanted to bring to West Footscray a taste of home, some real Latin American cooking, live music and a sense of community.
Three months later we finally make it back to Nuevo Latino. It’s another steamy Sunday but we get down there just as the kitchen in closing and the band is packing up. The place is pretty busy this time and the decor has changed, with whitewashed walls, Latin American flags and the leftover balloons and flowers from yesterday’s Valentine’s banquet giving the place a festive feel. There’s nothing for it but to order a margarita.
We are greeted like old friends, Juan waving madly from the kitchen. Are they mixing us up with somebody else, I wonder? Nope. Sal calls to the DJ to change the music to something more danceable, and calls to us to move the furniture if there isn’t enough room for us to salsa.
I couldn’t help but order the pork belly again. It was too delicious last time. Orlando went with a steak special. This time the meat was beautifully cooked, seared on the outside and perfectly pink on the inside.
We watched the waiter bust a few serious salsa moves with a friend and decided there was no way we’d be dancing this time.
Later Sal came and chatted, telling us all the news. They’d been a late invitee to that weekend’s Footscray Latin Dance festival, but they have been doing their own thing every weekend anyway, showcasing the cruising of different countries with guest chefs, and live music every Sunday. This weekend it was Colombian. Orlando chatted to the guest chef whilst Juan emerged from the kitchen to dance with me.