Thanksgiving was upon us as we settled in to our final region of travel: Northern Ireland. The northern tip of the Emerald Isle is everything Irish but claimed by the United Kingdom with a slightly confusing history. We began our time in Derry after a long bus ride from Galway.
Abby and I were down to our final eight days of travel in our six month journey. We had four days in both Derry and Belfast. From Belfast, we would catch a flight to London where we would spend a few days with our friend, Tom, before heading back home to the States. I had a slight interest in The Troubles, the turmoil and guerrilla type warfare that was scattered across Ireland and the UK from the 1960s until 1998, but more precisely in the North where the UK still held control (again, the Irish and UK heavily influencing each other’s history).
We began our first full day in Derry by celebrating Thanksgiving at a nice restaurant in the city center called Brown’s in Town. After lunch, we took a walk around the complete circle of walls around downtown. The old city is still completely surrounded by its charter-era walls which were built in the early 1600s by the English as they began to fortify their new colony in Northern Ireland. Derry, or “doire,” is old Irish for “oak” or “oak grove.” The city can trace a settlement in the area back hundreds of years. Chased by rain the whole walk, we found a string of bars on Waterloo Street and began a bender, beginning at Peadar O’Donnell’s. Hearing some loud music and beginning to notice a crowd, Abby and I followed our ears to the Guildhall where a “beginning of Christmas” celebration was being held. The square had two stages set up that catered to the small children and teens alike. The celebration ended with all the city Christmas lights being turned on for the season.
On Friday after breakfast, Abby and I took up a local’s advice and took a stroll (for free!) through the Guildhall. This beautiful historic town hall was targeted many, many, many times by bombs and assaults during The Troubles from the 60’s until the 90’s and still holds the mangled statue of Queen Victoria that survived a major bombing 1972. The Troubles began in the 1960s and was the longest home-ground campaign by the British Army in history, not “officially” ending until 1998. The complex history of The Troubles is well worth a read, and there is just too much to talk about than rant on and on about it. So educate yourself a bit and Google it yourself, I’m sure you’ll find it interesting. Anyways, after walking through the Guildhall and still fascinated by this troublesome conflict, we walked down to the neighborhood most famous for The Troubles called The Bogside. This area near the center of town is where the Bloody Sunday killings happened and many others lost their lives fighting for equality. Walking the streets and observing the many murals by the Bogside Artists was certainly overwhelming. That night we walked across the Peace Bridge to the “riverside” to check out the Walled City Brewery that is now housed in the former British barracks which they occupied during The Troubles. The brewery was fantastic, serving some amazing appetizers like hummus, pork Thai bites, fresh fish and more. Having some good drinks, great food and even better company while overlooking Derry with it’s Christmas lights twinkling bright was a perfect end to our Friday.
Our last full day in Derry was a cold one, but we still managed to take the awesome two hour walking tour that follows the old walls all around the city. And, at only a couple bucks per person with a free coffee or tea at the end, it is totally worth it! The guide explained the ancient history, talking about St. Columb’s monastery and the British settlement and charter of original Derry. Moving on, he talked about the importance of Derry in WWII, serving as a major naval and shipping base while also witnessing over 60 German U-Boats surrender in the Foyle River right near the city center. Circling around the opposite walls we came by The Bogside, where he explained in further detail the details of Bloody Sunday and the 30 year war between the Irish and English. Following a cup of coffee after the chilly tour, we did some last souvenir shopping and met a new friend at a small market. We hit a couple pubs for Saturday night before heading home to catch some sleep before our last bus ride of our trip.
We left Derry on a scenic route through the hills and mountains of Northern Ireland on our way to Belfast. We even got our first glimpse of snow on the highest hills and peaks! Our main goal of visiting Belfast was to see the Giant’s Causeway in the extreme north of the Irish coast, but like most places we visit, we would enjoy the unknown just as much as the top sights. We met up with our new AirB&B hosts in a British neighborhood (the curbs that line the streets of former British neighborhoods are still painted with red, white and blue stripes). Our hosts were American expats so we chatted with them quite often while staying there. They informed us that the Christmas Market was just beginning, and we made our first of several stops there that night to check out what it had. Unfortunately for us, the gates were closed. However, we could see the stalls full of crafts, world foods, beer and more with the city hall shining bright behind them all. We made a mental note of our favorite stalls and foods to try the following days.
Our first full day in the city we set out immediately to check out the Christmas Market. From the market we walked the shopping areas and made our way towards the river and bay where the Titanic was constructed and the industrial buildings moved the economy of old Belfast. Being another cool and rainy day, we began bar-hopping on our way back to our place. We stopped by the Cathedral Quarter to view the unique church, had a drink at the famous Duke of York Pub and finished at the historic pub, The Crown Liquor Saloon. The ornate decor and jaw dropping details of the architecture and building itself were built in 1885. We were glad we popped in to see such a neat place, and of course, share a pint.
Tuesday came and it was time for our Giant’s Causeway/Antrim Coast day tour. We set out at 9:30 a.m. and made our first stop at the Carrick-a-reder rope bridge. The bridge was used by salmon fishers to cross a narrow strip of water leading out to the wide open North Atlantic Ocean. Sadly for us, the weather was too windy so we could not cross the bridge. However, the pictures and views were certainly worth the stop. From the bridge we made a quick pit-stop at the Dunluce Castle (one of many places in Northern Ireland used for the filming of Game of Thrones). From the castle we made a 90 minute stop at Bushmill’s Whiskey Distillery. I had a delicious whiskey tasting while Abby had a glass of wine and we certainly enjoyed one of the oldest distilleries in the world. Feeling quite warm, we finally arrived at the Giant’s Causeway. This gorgeous rock formation on the coast was formed by volcanic eruptions millions of years ago. But what makes them so interesting is the uniformity in their hexagonal shapes. They pipe up like chimneys, all at different levels, and the basalt glistening in the sunlight is so mesmerizing. They were one of the most beautiful natural landscapes we had witnessed our whole six months in Europe. From the Giant’s Causeway we made a quick photo stop at The Burren, a South Dakota “Badlands-eque” type landscape that meets the sea not far from the Causeway. With only a couple hours of sunlight left, we began our Antrim Coast route back to Belfast. The ride back was long, but was broken up by a stop at Carrickfergus Castle. Arriving back in town after supper, we were dropped off near the Christmas Market and had dinner there before going to our favorite pub in Belfast, White’s Tavern (est. 1630).
Our last day in Belfast arrived. We went to the (free!) Ulster Museum located near Queen Victoria University. After feeling newly cultured, we grabbed some coffee at the Arts Center before getting some supper. We spent the day relaxing around the city, stopping in several bars before heading back at a decent hour to pack our bags and prepare for our flight to London the following day.
We woke up, bags packed, and quite anxious. We weren’t scheduled to fly out of Belfast for London until 5:30 pm. Being your last day of real travel, what would you do? We, of course, went to Kelly’s Cellar (recommended by a couple we met) and sat down for our last pints of Guinness and Irish stew while we waited for our shuttle bus to the airport.
The traveling was over. We had three and a half short days in England to visit our friend, pack up our bags, and prepare for the 9+ hour flight home to the USA. Six long months and more than 12 countries later, it was all over. There has never been a feeling more perfectly described as bittersweet than this.