Tuesday, June 14, 2011

When Age is Beauty

Athlone is a very weird place to arrive after 36 hours of no days or nights. We left Christchurch at midnight one night, and 3 flights, 1 bus and 36 hours later we arrived in Athlone. There had been no sunrises, no sunsets, no breakfasts, lunches or dinners. At times, no indication of whether or not it was light or dark outside. Constant snacking and napping and stopping and starting left me feeling like I was in a time warp.

The reason I say Athlone is a weird place to step off the time warp is because it's so old. Having grown up in a country that itself is less than 200 years old, Athlone honestly feels like a movie set. Coming from Dublin 2 hours across to Athlone we passed tiny towns which literally didn't seem real. Athlone is slightly bigger than those - the biggest of the small towns, so to speak - but still, it's a surreal place to arrive in.

I've seen old before, but what I've seen that has been old, has been monumental buildings built in the last two hundred years - state libraries, town halls, memorials - not entire towns that have aged over hundreds of years. Driving through the small towns on our first night it felt like nothing had changed in all that time. I think of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the original movie, where doors open straight onto the path as they do here, and store signs are handmade, as many are here. I half expect women with aprons, their hair in curlers, to chase cats out the doors and men in brown suits to carry their briefcases hurriedly down the road.

Athlone as a town is beautiful, if a little run down. Run down in a way that it is wise and full of character, but run down all the same, showing its age. Gates glow with rust and cling desperately to their hinges. Signs fade with age and walls grow with moss, becoming one with the surroundings. Signs of history and age, so not negatives at all. I've just never seen the effects of age on a town - metaphorical lined skin and stooped posture that I've never seen before in real life.

The thing which most makes Athlone seem this way is the number of shops that are empty, victims of the recession. It's incredibly sad, walking past shops with window dressings still hanging and signs still outside. It's easy, when faced with these indicators of what used to be, to imagine town folk chattering and moving about, breathing more life into this beautiful town. We experience the chatter and movement in every shop we enter, but it seems as though almost every second shop echoes with ghosts of better economical times.

The friends we are staying with live in an amazing 3 story house, above a store front that used to house the local sweets and ice cream shop. Although it closed many years before the recession, I've heard so many stories about it from our friends that it's even easier to imagine the life that flowed through it and even sadder to see it empty.

Today, the sun came out for us, to bathe Athlone in warmth and reflection. We photographed the icons of the town, the castle, churches and river and we joined a trip up the river in a Viking themed boat, a cheery Irishman commentating as we glided through the countryside. The viking boat has been my favourite part of the trip so far - it didn't hurt that the sun was out and we were warm and cosy on the boat!

The countryside and riverbanks were stunning but besides the fact that they were so beautiful, generally speaking countryside is countryside and so I was able to put the town into perspective. It no longer feels so much like a movie set, and now that we've walked around the nearest streets a few times and have our bearings, and our body clocks are starting to sort themselves out, I feel more settled. Our hosts are spoiling us rotten, I feel very much at home and the house itself feels so inviting. Tomorrow we start to explore the surrounding areas and I'm already looking forwarding to returning to our home away from home each day.