Saturday, 19 March 2016

Belfast, Northern Ireland

At the beginning of February, I visited Belfast in Northern Ireland with Cory, Nicole and Dan. The entirety of the thanks belongs to Cory and Nicole who organised our accommodation, recommended flights and booked us into the tour.

Dan, Nicole and I arrived in Belfast late on the Friday night, Cory having already arrived earlier that day direct from Dublin.

Our hostel was a little bit out from the centre of town, but it was comfortable; a room of bunk beds to ourselves in the attic and after we received our wristbands, we settled down for the night: we had a big day on the morrow.

The Giants Causeway
Cory had booked us into a tour to see The Giants Causeway and I had readily said 'yes'. To be completely frank, I had no idea what The Giants Causeway was, but it certainly sounded like something I wanted to see. We arrived at the tour site and were shown towards the coach. A young man from the company spoke to me.

I gaped a couple of times. Oh! He mentioned the weather! I opened my mouth to respond, when he said something else.

Quick...translate brain, translate! Turns out, I am really bad at deciphering the thick, Belfast accent and thankfully the young gentleman accepted my laugh, my quiet "Oh yes, I hope it holds out!" without thinking I was being rude.

We hopped on board the almost-full coach, and set off out of the city of Belfast. Our coach driver was also tour leader, and he was a wealth of knowledge, facts and figures that kept us entertained for much of the journey.

"If you can understand what I'm saying," he said, to which I nodded vigorously, "it's because I'm not from Belfast. I'm from Londonderry!" That explains that, then.

Much to my delight, I discovered that the tour was not just visiting The Giants Causeway (whatever that was), but a range of other places along the way. First stop: a Northern Ireland distillery. Whiskey for breakfast, anyone?

There was a quick hop-off-the-bus-photo-opportunity on the way, at Dunluce Castle, which was easily spotted as the House Of Greyjoy from Game of Thrones. It was cold. Very cold outside the bus, so photo taken, and we were back on in the warmth.

The Bushmills Distillery was expecting us, and laid out their triple distilled honey whiskey to try. It worked. I bought a couple of miniature bottles as I had never met a whiskey that didn't make me shudder.

Soon, we approached the visitors centre for The Giants Causeway, and advised to avoid it. As a group we decided to get the shuttle bus to the site to be able to spend a bit more time there. As the shuttle rounded the corner, the scenery before us was beautiful, crashing oceans on a wide expanse of hexagonal rocks.

The Giants Causeway is an incredible vast array of approximately 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, resulting from an ancient volcanic eruption.  As the lava melted, it formed the columns, creating stepping stones out to sea.

What I want to know is, who counted them? It was beautiful, set to the backdrop of the rich green mountains as we battled to stay atop the columns and not be blown off into the ocean (or tumbling down the side when we climbed too high!). I couldn't imagine the area in summer: winter created a sense of underlying danger, a wild, rugged beauty.

We spent as long as we could here, taking photos from every angle before finally remembering to watch the waves crashing against the columns. We jumped on the next shuttle bus, attempted to get some food and returned to the coach.

Our next stop a little way up the road was the Rope Bridge at Carrick-a-Rede, which was built in 1755 by salmon fishermen to avoid taxes.

Unfortunately because the wind was blowing a gale, we were not allowed to cross the rickety bridge, but we were allowed, two at a time, to descend to the beginning of the bridge and take a photo as if we were crossing it. As the lady marshall said, it's not often you get a picture with a completely bare bridge!

The coast was a beautiful sight, with the blue green water, the rugged green cliffs and the ominous grey sky, and we were exceptionally lucky that the weather held out for us.

Soon we were back on the bus and our tour continued up to the very pointiest tip of Northern Ireland and back down towards Belfast again. At one point, we were very close to Scotland and I could see a lighthouse shimmering on the horizon.

To be honest, I dozed a little on the bus at this point, and missed some of the facts and information from our guide. I wasn't the only one, as the movement of the bus had sent many to sleep.

We found ourselves back at the starting point and alighted from the bus, straight into a brawl between two men frantically punching each other in the face. I found this mildly ironic, as not an hour previously our guide had told us, "Belfast is the 2nd safest city for tourists in the world!" Maybe he was right - these were locals belting each other.

The guide had recommended a couple of good Irish pubs and I unfortunately was put in charge of finding one, which naturally meant we walked in entirely the wrong direction. Salvaged by the rest of the group, we finally found one of the recommended pubs which boasted being Belfast's oldest pub. We did a couple of laps but alas, no spare seats.

The other recommended pub, Whites Pub wasn't too far so we decided to give it a try. It too, was apparently Belfast's oldest pub, but this time we were able to get a seat quite easily.

We naturally ordered Guinness's and, you will be proud of me, by the end of the night I'd managed 3 and a half. This guinness was delicious. At the time, I had only had 2 guinness in my life and they had both been in Ireland, so I determined that I would try one in London later to see how it compares. I have since done so, in an Irish pub, no less, and it is true: the guinness in Ireland tastes supremely better.

While we ate dinner (for me, an incredible steak) we were entertained by a couple of live bands, one of which took Nicole's particular fancy. We were also accosted by some ladies on a hen's night, one in which was particular boisterous and took a shining to our table. It was finally time to flee, and so we made our way back to our hostel to pack and get ready for our final day in Belfast.

"The say we may get into New York by Tuesday night!"
We had two things we wanted to accomplish today: visiting the Titanic museum and seeing the Belfast Peace Wall. We started with the Titanic museum, which was a reasonable walk from our hostel.

Since visiting the museum, I have re-watched the classic film Titanic, which, while Rose and Jack are fictional characters for plot purposes, the details of the movie are very true to the actual series of events. It made me feel extremely sad and hate stupid people.

The museum took us through the making of the Titanic, the unsinkable ship which created a huge industry boom in Ireland but was also extremely taxing on the men working the ship. This then led to how the Titanic came to sink, and why there were so few survivors.

We all know the story. 2200 people on board, only enough lifeboats to carry roughly half of these people. Then, when the boat did sink, the lifeboats were only half filled before being deployed, meaning in the end, approximately 700 people of 2200 were saved.

The final message got to me the most. Before SOS was the distress signal, it was the morse code for Come Quickly. Distress (CDQ).

The final message from the Titanic:

From the Titanic museum, we made our way to the Peace Walls via a lunch stop as it was going to be quite a hike. I ordered for the table 4 Irish Coffees as that was what we had agreed, and was promptly humiliated by the waiter and the table as he returned saying, "Can tell you're not from around here as no one orders an Irish coffee!"

Oh well. It was still delicious. Very strong, but!

Peace Walls
Cory had visited the wall the day he arrived and we followed his lead. However, when we approached the entrance he had used, it was blocked off. A large, metal gate blocked the traffic across the road; a constant reminder of times past. Googling this, it turns out that yes, the main gates are closed still to this day on a Sunday, but there were other entrances and so we wandered that way.

The Peace Walls were first erected in 1969 and divide the Catholic and the Protestant neighbourhoods of Belfast. They were created very, very high and span over 5km, to try to curb the violence between the two factions.

Now, the wall remains, and has a completely different feel to the Berlin Wall, another divider that I have visited. The Berlin Wall, as we all know, was torn down in 1989, whereas the Peace Walls remain upright to this day, even if movement can be made between the two sides now. It was eerie, and the mood was completed by the distance sound of a Mr Whippy icecream van, with the faint tones of Greensleeves the background music to our visit. Few cars came past, no other foot travellers.

Like the Berlin Wall, it was covered in interesting graffiti and artwork, and after studying it for some time we realised we had to return to the station so we could catch a bus back to the airport.

Right about here, it began raining on us, and a bunch of kids threw stones at us. It was a sombre end to the visit, but I am so very glad I have no seen Northern Ireland, the British part and I do very much recommend this little city.

Til next time,