Published: July 21st 2012May 7th 2012
Arguably Northern Ireland's most famous natural landmark.
Surprisingly, I was the first to arrive at the gate at Stansted Airport out of everyone. This like, never happens. Especially at 6:45 in the morning! But here I was at the gate, sleepy and bleary-eyed as Davies, Claire, Sag and Sarah came strolling in.
Our flight was bound for Belfast, for a long weekend gallivanting around Northern Ireland - or as the locals call it "Norn Iron".
We were driving this trip and after we touched down at Belfast International Airport, we got a pleasant surprise as we picked up the keys to our rental Volkswagen Passat.
"We've got a Mercedes available if you want to upgrade?" said the man at the counter.
"How much more?" asked Davies.
"£6 a day extra," replied the man.
Hmmm...I don't know - £1.20 each per day extra is a lot of money.
This was a no-brainer if ever there was one.
And so we hit the road in our Mercedes station wagon impressed by all the mod-cons inside. The GPS system was scarily precise and accurate with it's automatic directions and instructions, even if it did not always get it right.
Since we could store our luggage in the car, there
Titanic Museum, Belfast
Spectacular new museum opened just two weeks before our visit.
was no immediate need to go to hostel so we went straight to the Titanic museum, open less than two weeks at the time.
Tucked away in the old industrial quarter of Belfast, the completed Titanic museum is the start of an urban regeneration project aimed at rejuvenating what will be known as the "Titanic Quarter", a project similar to the HafenCity project in the old docks of Hamburg.
Because of the museum's newness, tickets for today were long gone so we were left to take photos of the museum's striking exterior, based on the Titanic itself. The height of the building is the same height as the Titanic's bow from the ground.
Outside the museum, an early-20th-century dressed schoolboy was handing out leaflets advertising a "Titanic tour" which would walk us through the old drawing offices, the gantry and the dry dock. All this ship language confusing to you? The Titanic was designed and built right here in the old ship quarter of Belfast and the locals here are still mighty proud of it. With nothing else doing, we thought we might as well do the tour.
We start the tour in the old drawing offices where the
plans and design of the Titanic were drawn up - a long, cathedral like room with old-school skylights that maximised the amount of natural light entering the room.
We then walk out to the gantry where the Titanic was actually put together before going to the "dry dock" where the ship was worked on before completion. The dry dock is the largest in the world, apparently. Unfortunately due to a leak, the "dry" dock was filled knee-high with water, meaning that we couldn't go down into this massive hole in the ground.
We then- OK, you know what, the tour was a little boring so I won't go on about it.
Dropping the car and our stuff at the hostel, we then had lunch at a cafe just down the road. A massive milkshake and an Irish stew with fries was the order of the day.
It was from the cafe that we were picked up for our black taxi tour.
"The Troubles" in Northern Ireland are well documented and the aim of the black taxi tour is to drive you around both the Protestant and Catholic neighbourhoods while giving you more insight into the things that happened
Don't Look Down!
You can actually, it's not that scary. I reckon your leg could definitely fall through one of the holes on the side though, if you tried hard enough.
during these dark times. In a black taxi (although ours was white).
As the cabbie explains, the whole situation came about because the British took over Ireland and settlers moved across in great number. The British were Protestant and the Irish were Catholic and as part of the Irish independence agreement, the British kept Northern Ireland, an agreement that still exists today. With the government and police force mostly Protestant, the Catholics were persecuted for years and it all spilled over in the 1960s. With paramilitaries on both sides involved, the violence escalated and almost descended into civil war. Those on the British/Protestant side are described as either unionists
while those on the Irish/Catholic side are described as either nationalists
The first place we go to is the neighbourhood of Shankill, a Protestant neighbourhood. Adorning many of the walls here are murals either celebrating Protestant triumphs and heritage, or commemorating prominent loyalist figures and those that died for the Protestant cause. It was interesting how many of the murals were about figures who lived, or events that occurred before the Troubles - most notably, the Protestant King William Of Orange who defeated Catholic King James II
Peace Wall, Belfast
Mural on the wall that separates the Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods where people from all over the world have written messages of peace.
in the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 that ensured continued Protestant ascendancy in Ireland. The area itself is pretty poor and run-down - I suspect a lot of the houses are council-provided and there is a lot more space around too, free of the sort of terrace housing so common in England.
We then were driven to the "peace wall" - huge walls erected to separate the Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods. There are gates in various places in the wall, but they are shut. People have started writing messages of peace on the walls - and we were duly invited to do so by the cabbie.
We then were driven to the Falls Road in the Catholic part of Belfast. Opposite a mural of Bobby Sands - a Catholic hunger striker who died for the republican cause - the cabbie showed us a whole lot of photographs and newspaper clippings depicting key events which eventually lead to the Belfast "Good Friday" Agreement in 1998, which marked the end of The Troubles. Also among the key events were stories of violence and death - so many bombings and shootings, innocent civilians murdered either by accident or design. It was never
Bobby Sands Mural, Belfast
Provisional IRA volunteer Bobby Sands led a hunger strike while imprisoned for possession of firearms, in protest at prison rights that had been taken away by the government. His death prompted outrage, protests and riots across the world.
about what a particular person did - it was all about which side of the tracks you were born on, whether you were Catholic or Protestant. So many died also, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. People were even murdered in their own homes by intruders from the other side. It all was so tragic. The cabbie showed us photographs of what the streets we were looking at used to look like - some them resembled a war zone. After hearing all of these stories and seeing all of the pictures, it was a little unnerving to see an armoured police van drive by - it was far from the only one we had seen during our time in Belfast.
Driving past and snapping some Catholic murals, we are eventually dropped back at the hostel at the tour's end. It was a good tour - very informative. At least it seemed to be. I managed to follow our cabbie for the first ten minutes, but then my concentration just went, his thick Northern Irish accent sounding more an more like a foreign language the further the tour went on. Nice guy - just couldn't understand him.
Mural in the main Protestant neighbourhood of Belfast dedicated to Jackie Coulter, a loyalist who was part of the Ulster Defence Association, a loyalist paramilitary group. He was allegedly murdered by members of another loyalist paramilitary group, the Ulster Volunteer Force, due to a feud between the two groups - two groups supposedly on the same side.
After a couple of hours kip it was time for some craic.
We walked up Dublin Road and enter a sports pub called Lavery's were we all had our first Guinnesses of the night. It was a pushy, male-dominated sports pub so we didn't hang around. Next up was a place called Filthy McNasty's - with a name like that how could you not go in? The place is separated into three main sections - the grungy rock bar out the front, the lively beer garden (The Secret Garden) outside, and a classy cocktail bar on the other side (Filthy Chic). It turned out to be the best place of the night.
After munching on some fried chicken across the road, we moved on to famous Crown Liquor Saloon. With it's beautifully decorated stained-glass exterior, the place was just as cool on the inside with its private, closable booths. It was here where we played the "One Duck" drinking game - each person say one word of the following phrase as it goes around the table; "One duck went to the pond quack". Once the first round has been completed, the phrase then becomes "Two two ducks ducks went
Locals dancing to traditional Irish music in Fibby McGee's, Belfast.
went to to the the pond pond quack quack". This continues to "Three three three ducks ducks ducks" etc until one person says a word out of order, and has to drink. Good times.
Looking for some proper Irish boogie, we check into Fibby Magee's where there is a live band playing traditional Irish music and locals are Riverdancing (or so it looked at the time) to their heart's content. A punter here has a go at chatting up Claire but is unsuccessful.
To round the night off we step into Roxy's next door to Fibby's, a pretty standard night club playing some more familiar (and strangely unfamiliar) hits.
I wasn't on top form unfortunately, a legacy of a huge night out a couple of nights back and a lack of sleep. I think though, that we could be satisfied with our go at the Belfast nightlife.
We left Belfast the next day for our road trip along the Causeway Coast.
We were kind of winging it and failed to find a castle of any description at Carncastle (which was recommended by our cabbie the previous day) and didn't find a castle at Glenarm either.
That meant that our
Little island famous for the rope bridge that connects it to the mainland.
first stop of note was at the tiny island of Carrick-a-Rede, famous for it's 20-metre rope bridge that dangled 30 metres above the rocks and water below. The bridge was originally built by salmon fishermen but there ain't no salmon left any more and the thing is just a tourist attraction these days.
The bridge and island itself is about a fifteen minute walk from the carpark and is rather pleasant, offering spectacular views over the stunning coastline. It turned out to be a beautiful day as well with brilliant blue skies and sunshine adding to the scenery. Once you get to the bridge, there is a massive queue to cross it and we end up waiting about 10 minutes.
Crossing the bridge actually isn't too scary as 30 metres isn't too high although with the bridge wobbling you are a little apprehensive. As for the island itself, there isn't really too much see apart from different angles of the same stunning scenery - that is unless, you are Stephen Sangster.
There is another even tinier island on the other side of Carrick-a-Rede that is just about connected to the main island. I follow Sag to try and get onto
Spot The Sag
Sag goes for a wander on rocks adjacent to Carrick-a-Rede.
the island but looking at the height going down into the sea I calculate the risk/benefit ratio is to small to attempt a crossing. Not Sag, as he clambers over the rocks and gives Sarah a few heart-in-mouth moments. He even planks on the cliff edge. It ends well though, and gives us something to laugh about.
After waiting annoyingly again for about 20 minutes to walk back over the bridge, we head back to the car and head back on our merry way.
We are feeling a bit peckish so we decide to stop in the town of Ballycastle for a Sunday roast. We stop at a pub but the grub isn't too flash I'm afraid. I could have used the beef I ordered to make belt or a wallet, and it is a bit of an indictment on the food if the swede mash was the highlight of the meal. I skipped dessert although Sag's mint Aero cheesecake was actually quite amazing.
The next stop is the most anticipated sight of the day - the Giant's Causeway.
As we walk down the hill and it peers into view, we're all thinking, "is that it?"
The fact that the Giant's Causeway was all naturally created is amazing.
it looks decidedly disappointing, although the same cannot be said once you see the thing up close. Quite how it formed I'll never fully understand but the result is quite spectacular - thousands of hexagonal columns of varying heights all interlocked together. It almost looks like a humongous ancient organ of some sort.
The non-scientific explanation for the rocks is that the Irish warrior Finn McCool built the causeway to get to Scotland in order fight his Scottish counterpart Benandonner. Legend then has it that Finn then fell asleep before getting to Scotland causing Benandonner to come over the causeway to find him. To protect Finn, his wife chucked a blanket over him and told Benandonner that Finn was their baby. Seeing the "baby's" bulk Benandonner then ran back to Scotland in fear of how big the baby's "father" would be, tearing up the causeway in case Finn was to come after him.
For such an iconic sight, I found it really difficult to find the right angle to take that one 'postcard' photograph. Tourists kept getting in the way too. Hopefully I've managed it.
We chilled out and mucked around on the stones for awhile before hitting the road
The Path To Scotland
Or so the legend says.
The last sight of the day is just a short drive away from the Giant's Causeway - Dunluce Castle.
Now this is proper castle against an awesome backdrop. Built on the top of an outcropping, the castle is connected to the mainland by a bridge. There is a cave directly underneath the castle that is connected to the sea and I assume that this would be where the castle's boats may been moored.
It is about 6pm and the castle has closed so after taking some photos from afar, Davies, Sag and I try to climb up the outcropping and into the castle. A group of male students see our attempts, and they follow us.
Our first attempt fails as it would involve scaling across the castle wall with a 30 metre fall awaiting you should you let go. Our second attempt involves climbing up a steep hill to the base of the castle and then climbing up and over the castle wall. This wan't quite as dangerous as you had the slope of the hill below you rather than a straight 30m drop, but you would still be rolling down the hill at a fair rate of
How about that for a castle backdrop.
notch if you fell. While Davies and I pass, the danger doesn't deter Sag, and he makes it over the wall! Cue applause from the students who look like they have a new hero.
As Davies and I walk back up towards the carpark we then notice that some of the students were running across the bridge into the castle! We then find out getting in only involves ducking under a metal railing and scaling a small wall that got you beyond the ticket gate and into the compound - easy.
As we climb over and walk onto the bridge, the students are suddenly running back.
"Some police have seen us from the cliffs!" they shout.
We jog back towards the wall and a few of them jump back over including Davies as I await my turn. I don't see any cops anywhere though, so me and a couple of the students walk back over the bridge and into the castle.
The castle has some stunning views across the coastline - million dollar views. Alongside some of the ruined, old medieval walls, are some newer post-medieval ones complete with windowpanes that could easily be found in Scottish and Irish cities
View From Dunluce Castle
I would say that the Northern Irish coastline is about as stunning as I've seen, and comparable with the Cinque Terre in Italy.
today. Otherwise it is a typical castle with rooks and towers and I wave to the others on the other side from one of them.
Not wanting to hold everyone up for too much longer, I leave the castle, jump back over the wall, and we are on our way again.
Our final destination for the day was Derry, or Londonderry if you're a loyalist.
As we approach the hostel we are staying at, there is a huge wall that runs along the length of the road with CCTV cameras positioned on the wall every few metres or so. The wall is topped with barbed wire. Given that the road is called Asylum Road, which our hostel is on, it is a little bit disconcerting.
"Our hostel isn't in there is it?" I say jokingly. The situation reminds me of hostels I stayed at in Belgrade
that had similarly daunting entrances. We're not sure what it is, but it looks like a prison, a police HQ or as the street name suggests, an loony bin.
Our hostel is anything but any of those things however...its a palace - Paddy's Palace to be precise. The lounge area is
The Bars Of Derry
It as quite busy for a Sunday night, but then again no-one was working the next day.
actually semi-palatial and is nice and cosy. Our dorm however, in a building just down the road, is anything but, and is old, cold and drafty.
Not looking for a big night, we decide to take the car out to pick up some pizza and wine and to have a cruise through Derry.
There was a jazz festival on that weekend and there were loads of people out on a Bank Holiday Sunday which meant that no-one was working the next day. There was a lot of flesh on show too, a lot of which was really not nice to look at. For a minute I thought we were back in Newcastle
One thing I haven't mentioned was how cold it was. The whole time we have been in Northern Ireland so far, I doubt the temperature has ever got much higher than 10 degrees - it has been about 6 or 7 most of the time. I am flying directly to Southern Spain after this, so I didn't want to bring a coat with me - but even two light jackets on at the same time wasn't really enough.
Looking at the various states of undress among the
Bogside Mural, Derry
This mural is dedicated to a 14yr old girl was killed in crossfire during The Troubles in Derry.
locals though, you could see that they all possessed a typically Irish resistance to the cold.
Back at the hostel, it was a pleasant night of pizza, wine, good conversation, and banter with the hostel workers. We even found out that the hostel was haunted by a ghost! It won't be waking us up tonight though, as we were knackered from our day on the road - definitely a good day, it has to be said.
In complete contrast to the previous day, when we woke up in Derry it was pissing down. We had planned to do the hostel walking tour but that was now definitely not going to happen.
We chilled in the hostel lounge for about an hour wondering what to do before finally phoning a cab tour similar to the one we did in Belfast.
Derry is perhaps best known for being the location of the most infamous incident of The Troubles - "Bloody Sunday".
Tensions had reached boiling point in the city after the continued discrimination against Catholics by the authorities.
On Sunday 30th January 1972, a non-violent protest march was planned to depart from the poor Catholic community of Bogside, to
City Walls & St Columb's Cathedral
Our taxi driver thought this was the most beautiful building in Derry.
the Guildhall in the city centre. On the day itself, thirteen people were shot dead by the British Army who were brought in to control the march. The British Army at the time insisted that they were being fired upon and were firing back in defence, although none of the victims were armed. The incident sparked anger among all the Irish and republican paramilitaries then waged an armed campaign against the British for the next twenty years, escalating the violence.
The tour was more about the general history of the city and our taxi driver started with Derry's early and medieval history as monastic settlement before coming under British rule. We were then driven to though the Protestant neighbourhoods where notably, the curbs and lampposts are all painted red, white and blue after the Union Jack, and there are multiple murals painted just like in the Shankill district of Belfast, although the ones here were not as large, colourful or artistic. We also drive past a gated community with tall metal fences, that houses 200 loyalists.
We were then driven to the Bogside, the Catholic part of town and the location of more murals, which were more like the
Protestant Neighbourhood, Derry
Note how the curb is painted red, white and blue after the colours of the Union Jack.
ones in Belfast. This part of Derry was proclaimed as "Free Derry" between 1969 and 1972, as the area was barricaded off from the police by community activists protesting against the discrimination of Catholics. We were also taken to a couple of memorial sites including the official one commemorating the thirteen victims of Bloody Sunday.
Unlike the taxi tour of Belfast, we could actually understand our guide this time and we can say with complete certainty that the tour was informative although he did not go into as much detail as the cabbie in Belfast did.
The tour also came with a free cup of tea at a local cafe after the tour which was a godsend, as it was still cold, wet and windy.
After a cup of tea and some cake (the banoffie pie was oh so sweet) we were determined to walk the city walls. The only problem was, it was still pissing down.
Not to worry, there was a Poundland just across the road from the cafe and we all got matching blue ponchos. As if to laugh in our faces, the rain pretty much ceased as soon as we put the ponchos on.
Peace Bridge & Guildhall, Derry
Looking towards the Guildhall in the city centre from the Peace Bridge.
around the walls was pretty cool although they have nothing on the city walls in Dubrovnik
. The city centre itself is nice and compact and is quite pretty in places. We eventually make it around to the Guildhall and cross the Peace Bridge, which looks a bit like the Millennium Bridge in Newcastle. On the other side of the bridge is Ebrington Square which looks as though it is being regenerated.
We end our stay in Derry at a cosy pub where we enjoy our lunch with a final pint of Guinness, out of the cold, wet weather outside. It was hard to believe that in 24 hours time, Davies and I would be eating tapas with a glass of sangria outside in the hot Spanish sunshine!
Where we took the scenic route from Belfast to Derry, we took the direct route back. We had managed to see and do quite a lot in our three days in Northern Ireland so staying awake on the journey to Belfast was difficult. A couple of hours later, we were literally back where we started at Belfast International Airport, dropping off Sag, Sarah and Claire. It was a fun trip, as it
City Hall, Belfast
Fenced off to the public and closed. Given the militant republican faction that has existed in Northern Ireland perhaps its not surprising.
always is with this lot.
Davies and I weren't quite finished yet however.
Checking back into the same hostel we checked out of the day before, we ventured into town for one last sortie - and I must say that we saw a whole different side to Belfast that we hadn't seen before.
City Hall is imposing and grandiose, the most impressive building we had seen in Northern Ireland. The bank buildings surrounding City Hall are similarly resplendent. The gentrified waterfont is nice with the quaint brick canals contrasting with the flash law buildings, including the Royal Courts of Justice. Walking past the Albert Memorial Clock Tower we get to the Castle Court Shopping Centre and its landmark dome which was unfortunately closed. The pedestrian-only shopping area has been recently redeveloped and is rather pleasant.
While what we saw wasn't spectacular, I think Sag, Sarah and Claire probably got an incomplete and therefore a more negative impression of Belfast considering that the parts of town they saw were the old industrial quarter, the poor neighbourhoods of the Shankill and Falls Roads, and the unremarkable area around the Crown Liquor Saloon and down Dublin Road, where we went out.
Castle Court Shopping Centre
With its impressive dome that looks over Belfast,.
found in general that Northern Ireland didn't feel very...well, Irish. The people living there might hate me for saying this, but it really just felt like an extension of Northern England. In particular, I found the cities felt like any other city in England. It may have been the fact that we were still paying for everything in Pounds Sterling or it may have been the fact that all the restaurant and cafe chains here are the same as the ones in England, but there was nothing in Belfast or Derry that made the places feel too exotic. By the way, the fact that chain businesses are making cities in the UK all feel the same - monochrome, uniform and boring - is quite sad.
So I didn't find the Northern Irish cities overly impressive and my fascination with them stems from the events that happened in them, much in the same way I found Berlin
Aesthetically, the highlight of Northern Ireland was most definitely the Causeway Coast - I just wasn't expecting the scenery to be so beautiful, although it must be said that the weather certainly helped its cause.
Anyway, a place that
The colour of the water is stunning.
will definitely have good weather, will definitely not feel like England and will most definitely feel exotic, is the place that Davies and I are heading to next; Spain.
Fare ye weel!
There are more photos below