Dublin: Craic a smile

Dublin has been transforming over the past few years into a sleek, smart, modern city. But, says Olivia Williams, the splendid Georgian architecture, cultural heritage and traditional pubs are still what charm today's visitors

I resolved many years ago not to visit Dublin as a tourist as I feared being drowned in a pool of stag-night Guinness-vomit and smothered by shamrocks. I wanted to feel part of Dublin, to work as an actor and plug into its creative soul.

My ambition was fulfilled not in an Abbey Theatre production of JM Synge's The Playboy of the Western World, but in a Maeve Binchy film, which is like a mosquito plugging straight into a main artery if you are looking to suck the pure blood of Irish experience. Everybody in Dublin not only claims to know Maeve, but seems to have had a couple of drinks with her, during which that Holy Grail of Irish experiences, the "craic", was good.

On that first visit, I saw little evidence of the stag-nighters, but was moved, as every visitor must be, by the dignity of Georgian Dublin and the legendary friendliness of the people. I immediately experienced extremely good craic on the 45-minute drive from the airport to my rented apartment, courtesy of Robbie my taxi driver (recently divorced, suffering but still chirpy about the sale of his house, and learning how a washing machine functions).

This autumn I went back to make a movie documenting the subject on the lips of every Dubliner from taxi driver to talk show host, and which even the weekend tourist will be unable to avoid - How Dublin Has Changed. This is not just the idle whinge of some over-sixties whist club which feels time has left them behind. It is palpable, ubiquitous, omnipresent change.

First of all, and closest to the Irish psyche, is the property boom. Everywhere you go there are cranes and building sites, vast hoardings advertising luxury hi-tech apartments and state-of-the-art office space. The skyline of this relatively low-rise capital is the temporary Meccano of the building site. Tory tax strategists now cite the Irish economy as the example to follow, and what Thatcherite-in-disguise wouldn't envy the freedoms here? Taxes and planning thrown to the wind in the name of progress.

In every café and coffee shop (and the Starbucks effect is perhaps even more pervasive than in London) the most unlikely people are talking about rooftop penthouse extensions with outdoor hot tub, and how the price of their Malahide bungalow is set to soar. Robbie assures me that this obsession with owning at least two houses in Dublin and another in Spain or the Caribbean is rooted in the same ancient Irish relationship with the land, forged by famine, that was dramatised in the Richard Harris film The Field.

The Catholicism that has been so central to our perception of Irishness either in Father Ted sitcoms or grim tales of convent education, doesn't seem to have the same grip on the people it once had. Every day on the way to the set we drove past a large billboard "Christ the Carpenter is looking for Joiners". Not every child is confirmed at school, and the saints no longer dominate children's names - Mary and Patricia have called their daughters Jasmine and Amara. Ireland is absorbing an enormous influx of immigrants from all over the world but very noticeably from Eastern Europe. This has produced some fantastic new accent combos - Northside/Hungarian, Malahide/Russian, Dalkey/Slovakian. And Dubliners are characteristically welcoming. Robbie-the-taxi-driver has found solace since his divorce in the arms of Svetlana, whose Moscow business, dogged by mafia protection rackets, is now thriving in the new Dublin economy.

After benefiting from huge European investment incentives 10 years ago, Dublin is America's first stop in Europe, and the things that piss off Americans are being sorted out with alacrity. A new N road was practically unrolled like a red carpet before the tyres of the Ryder Cup team limos and that road is lined with more Meccano-style construction. A British businessman explained that much of American big business favours Ireland... the place to invest for all those American-Irish looking to do right by their forefathers, he said bitterly.

You can see the wealth where we are filming in surrounding suburbs. Villas and palazzi combining myriad styles are being built with rococo electric gates and armed response warnings the like of which I have not seen outside LA. The smallest plot of land sports a double garage, a pool and a tennis court, even if this means you have to edge cautiously round the pool to get in the front door. The filter-down effect for the weekend visitor to Dublin is good or bad depending on what, in the immortal words of Bono, you're looking for.

Good if your spray tan needs topping up while you're in town (and I was assured by more than one young Dublinette that she wouldn't leave the house without one). You can be thoroughly exfoliated with mineral salts and essential oils before being sprayed a convincing shade of Barbados chestnut at Essentials on Baggot Street.

Bad if you were hoping to escape spray tans and nail bars and cardboard latte cups for a couple of days.

Then my advice would be to wander around St Stephen's Green on a Sunday, avoid the generic high street shops of Grafton Street, and opt for the quietest and most civilised Sunday lunch at the restaurant of Brownes Hotel. Dublin is expensive, but Brownes won't empty your wallet. Three meaty courses for two heavy consumers of mineral water came to €86 (£60). Take in the National Gallery, where the stunning paintings of Paul Henry show you the Ireland you feel you know from your dreams, and those of Caravaggio, Vermeer, Rembrandt and Fra Angelico show you a collection worthy of this European capital, and you have what I'm looking for in a perfect Sunday. Make sure you see Trinity College, linger for as long as they allow you in the library, and the effects of the Dublin boom could just pass you by.

However, if your weekend isn't complete without checking out the latest D&G sunglasses then go to Brown Thomas, Dublin's Harvey Nichols. Alternative, modern Irish designs can be found at Powerscourt, either the Town House or the stunning country estate in Wicklow where there is not only a huge public park with beautiful formal gardens, but shopping heaven headlined by the traditional Avoca label (which is now so up-to-the-minute and fancy I can't open its website with my prehistoric version of Adobe Flash, whatever that is).

If it is food that interests you, and it always does me, stylish eating in low-slung banquettes against mushroom-coloured walls is very much the vogue. You can now eat the very best of many of the world's cuisines, from a highly specific, perfectly prepared balance of Thai flavours served in executive surroundings at Diep le Shaker to the warmly informal Dunne and Crescenzi serving the kind of Italian food that an Italian would celebrate. Simple antipasti made with excellent ingredients and a couple of rustic main courses clearly demonstrate that time rather than pretentious amounts of barrel-aged balsamic vinegar have gone into every dish. Dunne and Crescenzi is a signatory to the Slow Food Movement, which is definitely in the Good column of modern Dublin. The philosophy is exemplified by Sheridans Cheesemongers, celebrating 10 years of selling raw milk cheeses and lovingly produced food that is neither fast nor cheap.

Fallon and Byrne represents the other extreme, a beautiful New York-style food hall on Exchequer Street where you can get your pastrami on rye or soda or fairtrade rice cakes. The wealth and diversity of Dublin food shops mean that Ireland's best culinary ingredients, traditions and recipes are being preserved, albeit at a price.

If you're looking for a perfect excursion along the coast, take the Tube-style Dart to Sandycove, have lunch at Cavistons (only open at lunchtimes Tuesday to Saturday, booking essential) where the freshest fish is matched with great modern Irish cooking in a restaurant the size of your granny's front room. Then saunter along the water's edge to the Martello Tower, made famous in James Joyce's Ulysses, where there are a few charming exhibits along the lines of "a wooden chair quite like the one in which Stephen Dedalus might have sat, were he not a fictional character".

Your quest for the freshest fish should continue north of Dublin to Howth where a row of fish shops and restaurants await the arrival of the fishing boats, which chug into a picturesque stone harbour, pursued by blubbery, doe-eyed seals that bob around in the water, playful, like marine dogs.

Back in slick modern Dublin, we spent * * a day filming in Ron Blacks, which claims to house Dublin's first (but, by now, certainly not only) champagne bar, where the rich young things pick each other up and the not-so-young things gasp over the price of a glass of chardonnay. Above its less formal Brownes-style restaurant is a glowing alabaster bar with 50 types of champagne served at low tables and leather tub chairs - if you insist on reminding yourself you're in Dublin, order a Black Velvet.

Continuing the Joyce theme, reproducing Gabriel Conroy's Christmas-time walk from Phoenix Park along the Liffey is a mixture of highs and lows. The public buildings are in fine fettle, but the traffic is depressing, and taxis after dark are just as impossible to get now as then. Bono makes his presence felt with that eminent rock star's own hotel The Clarence, offering roof-top penthouse with outdoor hot tub overlooking the Liffey (although this no longer impresses the locals as penthouses with hot tubs are two-a-euro). Stop for a cocktail in the Hexagon Bar or stay in Joyce-land at The Brazen Head on Winetavern Street, Dublin's oldest pub, where live traditional music drowns out the traffic.

A welcome change for both tourists and Dubliners is the cleaning up of former no-go areas. There has been much press about the U2 Tower which presides over the redevelopment of the docks, but with some of the most expensive real estate in Europe, no Dublin postal district is out of bounds to gentrification. This is exemplified by the arrival of Gary Rhodes in D7, a postcode in the centre of Dublin which was nothing to brag about 10 years ago, except to say you had traversed it late at night without being mugged. Now D7 is the proud moniker of Rhodes' restaurant on Capel Street, sporting all the ingredients of the modern Dublin eatery - vast modern Irish art on the walls, a welcoming heated exterior terrace for the smokers and an appalling acoustic. Thus my words of praise for the divinely-inspired combo of potted mackerel pâté with gooseberry relish flew unheard into the echoing void, and my companion's disappointment with his pasta was clear only to those who can lip read. Described in the menu as "pasta with asparagus, broad beans and peas" this was exactly what he got, with no excursion from the facts as stated.

A surreal urban highlight was provided by the clean and efficient tram system called the Luas, which stops right by the restaurant. The diners of D7 and travellers on the tram pause alongside each other, both surreally lit, couched in sleek modernism, yet divided by a confit of duck. There is a second's doubt as to the etiquette of this accidental intimacy - does one smile, wave, look away? There follows a momentary uncertainty as to whether it is the tram or the restaurant that is moving as the Luas pulls into the night.

I enjoyed eating there, and liked watching the New Dublin in action, however, if you want to experience the Good things while not eating at the restaurant of a chef born in Kent, go to Cavistons.

So what are you looking for when you come to Dublin?

Live music? There's plenty of it. I went to Whelan's on Wexford Street and was moved by the unselfconscious integrity of the band and the focus of the audience - having been a sorry addict of The X Factor for too long and believing that this kind of live music had all but perished under the evil reign of Simon Cowell.

JJ Smyths is, I am assured, the place to go for blues and jazz. While I was in town, the Harlem Gospel Choir, renowned backing singers on the famous U2 hit that frames this article, played "Vicar Street". In the audience was a Franciscan monk in full sackcloth and hessian rope, stepping out, clapping loud and assuring me, as advised by the preacher, that the Jesus in him loved the Jesus in me. Jesus the Carpenter had clearly found a joiner.

Theatre? A thriving theatre festival was in full swing, while we were filming in October, showing that the economic boom has not diverted the Irish energy away from the performing arts. I hope for your sake that you get to see Annie Ryan's fantastic production Dublin by Lamplight sometime - a devised play that triumphs in being at the same time satirical, traditional, modern and moving. It uses Commedia dell'arte techniques (a phrase that would normally send me staggering to the fire exit) but somehow makes you feel you're watching stand-up.

So whatever kind of weekend you're in the market for - cultural, high-end luxury, girls' shopping or stag-style, you'll still be mingling with Dubliners talking and drinking and smoking late into the night regardless of new European guidelines and smoking bans. At one extreme the Irish have assimilated that American understanding of service that the British will always sneer at, and somewhere along the continuum that takes you to the back streets of Temple Bar, you will find what you're looking for.

Olivia Williams was filming 'Flesh and Blood' directed by Aisling Walsh to be released in the new year

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Dublin is served by a number of airlines, including Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) and Aer Lingus (0845 084 4444; www.aerlingus.com) from a wide range of UK airports; BA (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) from Gatwick; BMI (0870 60 70 555; www.flybmi.co.uk) from Heathrow; City Jet (00 353 1 8700 100; www.cityjet.com) from London City; Aer Arann (0800 587 23 24; www.aerarann.ie) from Cardiff, the Isle of Man and Inverness; and FlyBe (0871 700 0123; www.flybe.com) from Exeter, Norwich and Southampton.

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Climate Care (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org). The environmental cost of a return flight from London to Dublin, in economy class, is 95p. The money is used to fund sustainable energy and reforestation projects.

A number of ferries sail to Dublin, including Irish Ferries (08705 17 17 17; www.irishferries.com) and Stena Line (08705 70 70 70; www.stenaline.co.uk) from Holyhead and P&O Irish Sea Ferries (0870 24 24 777; www.poirishsea.com) from Liverpool.

GETTING AROUND

Dart (Dublin Area Rapid Transport): 00 353 1 703 3504; www.dart.ie

Luas trams: www.luas.ie

STAYING THERE

The Clarence Hotel, 6-8 Wellington Quay (00 353 1 407 0800; www.theclarence.ie). Doubles start at €199 (£142), room only.

EATING & DRINKING THERE

Brownes Restaurant, Brownes Hotel, 22 St Stephens Green (00 353 1 638 3939; www.brownesdublin.com).

Diep Le Shaker Noodle Bar, Ranelagh Village (00 353 1 497 6550; www.diep.net).

Dunne and Crescenzi, 14-16 South Frederick Street (00 353 1 677 3815; www.dunneandcrescenzi.com).

Cavistons, 59 Glastule Road, Sandycove (00 353 1 280 9120; www.cavistons.com).

Ron Blacks Bar & Restaurant, 37 Dawson Street (00 353 1 672 8231; www.ronblacks.ie).

Rhodes D7, The Capel Building, Mary's Abbey (00 353 1 804 4444; www.rhodesd7.com).

JJ Smyths, 12 Aungier Street (00 353 1 475 2565; www.jjsmyths.com).

VISITING THERE

National Gallery of Ireland, Merrion Square West & Clare Street (00 353 1 661 5133; www.nationalgallery.ie). Open Monday-Saturday 9.30am-5.30pm, until 8.30pm Thursday and from noon on Sunday; admission free.

Trinity College Dublin, College Green (00 353 1 896 1000; www.tcd.ie).

Martello (James Joyce) Tower, The Fortyfoot, Sandycove (00 353 1 280 9265). Open Monday-Saturday 10am-5pm (closed for an hour at 1pm), Sunday 2-6pm; admission €6.50 (£4.60).

Dublin Theatre Festival (00 353 1 677 8439; www.dublintheatrefestival.com). Dates for 2007 have not yet been announced.

SHOPPING THERE

Brown Thomas, 88-95 Grafton Street (00 353 1 605 6666; www.brownthomas.com).

Sheridans Cheesemongers, 11 South Anne Street (00 353 1 679 3143; www.sheridanscheesemongers.com).

Fallon and Byrne Food Hall, 11-17 Exchequer Street (00 353 1 472 1010; www.fallonandbyrne.com).

MORE INFORMATION

Dublin Tourism: 00 353 1 605 7700; www.visitdublin.com

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