30 years ago today on THE BEER BEAT: A ferry ride from France to Ireland, with the help of Super Valstar and Guinness.


Previously: 30 years ago today: Omaha Beach, Pointe du Hoc and a chance meeting with Leon Bourse.

Day 102 … Sunday, July 26
Bayeux → Cherbourg. On board Irish Continental Line 21:00 – 14:00

Day 103 … Monday, July 27
(Arrival in) Rosslare. Mrs. O’Leary’s, walk along the beach

The magic moment possibly occurred at lunch in Versailles while Bob was still traveling with us, or somewhere amid the Ottersbach/Baylor excursion to Pointe du Hoc on Saturday, but I’m thinking it likely came in Cherbourg on Sunday afternoon.

Of course, I’m referring to the time we drank deeply of the Super Valstar, or as it read on the label, “the big blonde.”

To put it mildly, Valstar and Super Valstar (I’m unsure of the difference apart from alcohol content) were budget brands of a style that ratings aggregators of today tend to call “Euro Pale Lager.”

The Valstars were cheaper even than Kanterbräu, or as Barrie called it, Cancerbrau. They came in gigantic liter bottles with reusable plastic caps. Barrie probably wouldn’t agree, but to this day I’m prepared to argue that Cancerbrau Kanterbräu was of better quality by a razor-thin margin.

It didn’t matter. Simply stated, we barely knew at all about Belgian ales, much less French bieres de garde, and even if we had known about them, the fact remained that we were supposed to be living on a budget.

Furthermore, it was a budget under siege, a fact of a bit more concern to me than Barrie. My friend came to Europe prepared to spend more money per day, spread out over fewer total days abroad, than I had.

In budgetary terms, I ran a surplus during my time alone in Eastern Europe and our pre-paid time together on the group tour of the USSR and Poland. Once we hit Munich, the surplus became a daily subsidy. The question was for how long I could maintain the balancing act, because the reality of it for me was the nature of the Visa card in my neck pouch. It was a debit card, not a credit card, and the reserves were finite.

For one afternoon in Cherbourg, waiting for a ship to sail, I swore fealty to my budget and opted for the supermarket beers costing less per ounce than mineral water. The only reason any of it matters is that we’d arrived in Cherbourg on Sunday morning via rail from Bayeux, and there was time to kill.

Quite literally, snacks were in the bag — the remaining ounces of salami from Barrie’s kilo purchase fully three days earlier. It wasn’t rancid yet, and all we needed was bread and a few beers, and we found them in a store by the docks while waiting for the Irish ferry to sail.

When it came time to board, we were near the front of the queue, which meant probable dibs on available cabin space for the overnight journey. Our quest was successful, and we were spared an evening on the carpet.

It’s possible that we had a bite to eat. I’m sure we changed money at some point, having concluded it would be wise to save our remaining French francs for the boat trip back.

I know we were standing outside the door to the bar when it finally was unlocked and the pouring began.

My account from the 1985 chronicles is relevant.

One night, long before (the 1985 trip), in a drunken stupor of semi-religious ecstasy, my cousin Don had uttered an astute prophecy, foretelling of delicious and creamy Guinness pints, as served by impeccable barmen on the wonderful ships carrying budget travelers from France to Ireland.

Actually, we both were in our cups, and it was less of a bold vision than a recapitulation of his own previous travel experience. I was suitably enamored, and incorporated a line item for the inevitable splurge.

At 24, I was a beer neophyte, and Guinness was anything but ubiquitous in Louisville and Southern Indiana. The draft version was almost unheard of locally, and mythical in proportion to its rarity.

Then one of my pals returned home from college touting the bottled variety of Ireland’s national beverage, and seeing as Guinness Extra Stout could be found at better area package stores, it was a start. Even if this firmer recipe lacked the raw mystique of the elusive draft, it was a transformative introduction.

The heavily roasted flavor of Guinness Extra Stout was a bit much at first, so we began by mixing it “half and half” with any and all cheap lagers, from Red, White and Blue on up to Harp (somehow Irish-on-Irish seemed to make more conceptual sense). As time passed, I began weaning myself from the lager “filler,” and learned to drink the nectar straight.

Still, veteran travelers and the guidebooks agreed: Draft Guinness was best, and it never got any better than in Ireland. Why? Because it was fresh and unpasteurized, with a whole national culture revolving around it, uniting all classes in philosophy and knowledge over pints in classic pubs renowned as universities for poor men.

Perhaps. It also might have been the relative absence of draft Guinness closer to home, where we might have been able to compare, and soon become jaded by proximity.

As for the Irish ferry itself, the 1985 model of 1st Class Eurailpass came with three valuable seaborne options, with free deck passage on routes between Italy and Greece (I did it); Sweden and Finland (still ahead); and France and Ireland.

The Eurailpass was good for passage on the boat, offering nothing more than an overnight nesting place on the exposed upper deck, or in various out-of-the-way nooks inside. Either way, the night would be spent on the floor, and the importance of those pints of Guinness loomed even more critically.

There was a baggage check for storing my increasingly battered gym bag, and the quick dispatch of leftover bread and nibbles from Paris. The maritime Shamrock Bar didn’t open until the ship was a few miles out from the shore, in international waters. When the signal was given, we approached the bar and had the first of several pints …

 … coming into Rosslare Harbor late the following morning, the weather was spectacular. I found something joyous and primeval about easing into harbor on a ship, producing a feeling of landfall that trumps planes routinely landing and rail cars coming to rest by their platforms. I enjoyed it immensely.

Walking from the ship, a scrubby, stubby bluff could be seen rising just behind the terminal buildings. Atop it was a billboard depicting pint glasses of Guinness, all in a line: “Welcome to Ireland.” It felt like patriotism.

In 1987, we awoke to a brilliant tableau of sea and sun, still hours from our destination, and in need of sustenance. The ship offered several dining options, but Barrie had a better idea. As soon as the Duty Free Shop opened, it was revealed that liters of Bailey’s Irish Cream and huge packages of Irish smoked salmon were available. Ruefully, out came the plastic.

Breakfast then was carried to the highest open-air outdoor deck, which afforded sweeping vistas of the blue ocean, green coastline and the gray, huddled sleeping bags of railpass deck passage occupants.

When nearing our destination, I put in the ear buds, turned on my pocket radio, and gave the dial a spin. Coincidentally, the very first song I heard was Bananarama’s “I Heard a Rumor.”

It entered the Irish charts at #30 on July 19. By the 26th, it had climbed to #13, entering the Top Ten during the first week of August. It remained there for a second and final week, subsequently fading into obscurity. I’d always assumed this was a huge hit in Ireland during our visit.

Rather, it was the first song I heard, nothing more. Here it is again. Fairly lightweight, eh?

As we neared the end of the 17-hour ferry marathon, there was an announcement detailing the Irish Republic’s policy on the importation of agricultural items. To summarize, we couldn’t.

Day pack in hand, Barrie promptly rose and disappeared. I imagined he’d gone to relieve himself, and in a way he had.

In his artful version, he’d suddenly realized that obeying Irish law meant disposing of the remaining French salami, and so he gave it a burial at sea with honors, tossing it into the ocean — and “saluting” as the oil slick disappeared over the horizon.

The Guinness billboard was still there on the bluff, but it was the last time I ever saw the docks at Rosslare in their bucolic and sleepy vintage 1950s-era appearance.

When I returned to Ireland in 1989, a concrete and steel, airport-like ferry boarding facility had been constructed. It was a harbinger of things to come, though of course we had no way of knowing this as we accepted Mrs. Philomena O’Leary’s offer and were given a lift to her bed and breakfast a few minutes down the road.

Damned if it isn’t still in business, 30 years later. The view was sweet, and there was time for a walk on the beach. She served us an inexpensive light dinner, too. It was a fine way to gently surrender to Ireland’s inevitable embrace.

Here’s a view of a typical pub in Cork in 1987. Luckily, we were about to find a very atypical Cork pub, the Hibernian.

Next: ON THE AVENUES: Irish history with a musical chaser.