Sunday, October 19, 2014

Belfast And Northern Ireland

Belfast is one of those places that's always been a bit mysterious for me. I didn't really know what to expect when Diana and I arrived at the central bus station after our ride up from Dublin. Would it be just another town? Would there be bombed-out buildings? Would it be like London or like Dublin? I had no idea but I was looking forward to seeing it all firsthand and to learn more about "The Troubles".

A friend of mine from Dublin recommended that we take a Black-Cab Tour where you get driven around Belfast while the driver gives you a political history lesson as well as lots of social commentary.

Our extremely-knowledgeable driver took us to various neighborhoods, both Catholic and Protestant, and showed us a bunch of political murals that are painted on houses, businesses, and walls all around the city. Some of the murals are still highly-charged, like the one above, showing one side or the other but many now feature unification/peace themes.

He did a great job patiently explaining The Troubles, the fighting between the loyalists and independents, and the Protestant versus Catholic factions. What was, or even still is at times, a civil-war-type fight between neighbor and neighbor seems to be fading according to our driver. But, he said, some of the large gates between parts of the city still get closed each night...just in case...

There were a bunch of things that I found interesting (and unexpected) during our visit. It seems that many Belfast folks, regardless of which side they come from, want to move on. Our driver must have said ten times how "that was the past" and that they didn't want to dwell on it. Even though he gives tours to out-of-town folks, even our driver and others we talked to were still somewhat amazed that so many people want to come to Belfast. Oh, and one other thing, the locals may or may not like each other, but they still like tourists!

Diana and I in front of one section of the "Peace Wall":

We again used airbnb to find accommodations and were super lucky to get to stay with a local family complete with mom, dad, two kids, and a dog. When we arrived at the house our first afternoon, the family had just found out their rabbit, who they thought was male, recently had babies and had just brought them into the house for the first time. Mom made a pot of tea and we hung out for the next two hours drinking tea, eating biscuits, and talking about all sorts of topics, including traveling, The Troubles, the family's experience living in Northern Ireland, and, of course, bunnies! What a great experience!

On day two of our visit, we walked the length of the city staring out in the city's central market where, we were told, people, regardless of background, worked and interacted. Yes, the people in Belfast are still acutely aware of divisions but they also seem motivated to continue moving towards the future. From the market, we walked up to the university area and stopped at the city's botanical gardens before heading back towards the center of town.

Belfast seems to be developing a tourist infrastructure with things like the Black-Cab tours and their newly built Titanic Experience center, which is the silver, angular building in the photo below:

Yes, the story without end got its start in the Belfast shipyards where the Titanic was built. We didn't take the almost-thirty-dollar-per-person (!!!) tour but we did hang out in the visitors' center, got some afternoon tea, and checked out the gift shop.

The building's design is based on four, full-sized Titanic bows with the museum in the center. The ship was built out behind where the building is now. The dry dock has been filled in but there are lines where the ship was positioned as it was built. They've even shown where the lifeboats were...

Diana couldn't resist having a Kate Winslet moment:

Diana and I wanted to go up to Giant's Causeway and maybe stop on the way at the nearby Bushmills distillery. (You know I can't resist a factory visit!) I wasn't dying to drive on the wrong other side so we signed for a tour I happened to find that went to those exact places.

The first stop was a quick 30-minute side trip to the Bushmills' whiskey factory in the town of Bushmills.

There wasn't enough time to do the full tour but we did get to wander around a bit and even got a free tasting.

The next stop was two hours at the Giant's Causeway, which is waaaay up on the northern coast of Ireland. The bus drops you off at the parking lot up top and you need to either take the shuttle bus or walk down the hill. We chose to walk and, when we came around the bend, we could see what seemed like a thousand brightly-colored spiders moving around on a large rock formation that stretched out into the sea.

The (not-so) Giant's Causeway is an unusual formation made up of millions (?) of hexagon-shaped rocks. The story goes that a giant named Finn McCool, who used to live up in these parts, built a bridge so he could walk (without getting his feet wet) to Scotland to fight another giant. The story is actually even more complex than that if you can believe it. Whatever, the rocks were cool and the place and accompanying legend had a sort-of Lord-Of-The-Rings feel to them.

Giant's Causeway yoga in effect:

On the way back down to Belfast, we stopped at the original Irish tax dodge, the Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge. Fishermen (or maybe some tax lawyers?) built this rope bridge from the mainland out to an island because fish brought ashore on the mainland were taxed but fish carried from an island were not. The views down to the water and to the surrounding cliffs from this loophole were quite spectacular.

But, the highlight of our visit to Northern Ireland wasn't the cool history lessons, staying with an awesome family, eating great Irish food, walking on McCool's causeway, or even learning about Irish tax law, nope, it was passing by this Irish giant-panda farm:

I'm sorry for that one but I couldn't resist. Anyway, I have a much better understanding of the history of Belfast and we both really enjoyed our visit. Another great, extremely-lucky-to-have, experience!