Bogside and Belfast

DERRY & BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND: December 21-28, 2013

Steve: As is a common theme of our trip we said goodbye yet again, albeit loaded with excess calories in the form of an assortment of American candies and junk food (I believe Kraft Mac n’ Cheese falls under this classification) gifted to us by Ciara for Christmas. Proof positive of how well she got to know these two during the short time we spent together. Our goodbye to Ciara and her father was also a goodbye to Ireland since our journey north would actually take us to a new country—Northern Ireland—even though we would still be on the island most if not all still refer to as Ireland. As we travelled up the coast, guided along by strikingly green plateaus, mountains and the odd sunny spell, I was struck by the immense beauty (of course), but also by the fact that there was no border—man-made or natural—between the two countries. No guards. No passport controls. However looking out the window you knew you were in a different place that was for sure.

Upon entering Derry (also officially known as Londonderry, and often referred to as “Derry/Londonderry” giving it the nickname ‘Stroke City’) we immediately took notice of graffiti supporting the IRA and calling for an end to U.K. occupation. Suddenly the Troubles and the tensions that we had heard so much about during our visit and, let’s face it, on news reports ever since I was a kid, became very, very real. I should quickly note that while you will see some graffiti—pretty much all of it political in nature—there really isn’t much when compared to many of the large cities we’ve seen on our trip or Anytown, U.S.A. back at home. With its red brick buildings, orderly streets and ubiquitous river running through the middle, Derry is an appealing locale rising to meet the expectations of being named the European City of Culture for 2013.

While our stay in Derry was quick by anyone’s standards—36 hours at best—it may have made the most lasting impression of our Ireland visit thanks to Couchsurfing. After our host, Darren, met us at the train station, with two other Couchsurfers in tow, we returned to his flat for the usual get-to-know-you chat and quickly took to his sardonic yet friendly humor, thick accent and endearing stutter. (Leah: might I mention that not only is this culinary student an extra in several episodes of Game of Thrones, including the "Red Wedding" episode where you can clearly see his face, but he's also a gifted musician with several guitars to his name. A music-starved Steve was more than grateful to pick away at Darren's Les Paul when offered.) We made some dinner and opted to hit the pubs in search of some good traditional Irish music, which we found, along with some of the tartiest and most entertaining people on our trip. Good God the overuse of make-up (imagine a Burnt Sienna Crayola crayon smeared on a ghost-white/translucent complexion) was astounding and it looked like the average age of the pub-goer (not counting the occasional pod of desperately single menopausal women) was about 15 years old. Yikes. We finished up the evening watching a Rory Gallagher cover band which was great, even with the drunk-for- first-time amateur occasionally knocking over the lead singer’s microphone.  

Okay, enough saucy social observations (the craic must be getting to me). The true highlight of our visit came the next day as we embarked on a walking tour of the city led by our CS host. One of the other Couchsurfers (also conveniently named Darren) had inadvertently scheduled a meeting with a local artist responsible for some of the Bogside’s most iconic murals. As we stood waiting in front one of these murals—getting soaked by a blustery drizzle that alternated between sleet and snow—we were met by Tom Kelly, who I would soon find is one of the trio known as the Bogside Artists. Seeing as how the weather was less than stellar for an introduction, Tom ended up taking five total strangers in his car a few blocks over to his brother-in-law’s house where we were welcomed by a small and very surprised family. Warm and dry on the couches of someone we hadn’t known five minutes prior, Tom gave us an honest and personal account of his life and the inspirations behind the murals that depict the political and human struggle felt by both sides of the Troubles. We all sat rapt as he opened up about his personal journey to salvation and while Christian, his message was accessible to even staunch atheists. Although we ended up buying several books and posters it was quite clear that his aim wasn’t to sell anything. Rather his motives were as true and honest as the murals that have given hope to many a passerby and drawn numerous tourists to the city.

After leaving our CS compatriots, Darren took us on a rather informative walking tour of the city showing us both sides of the conflict and taking us to both Catholic Republican and Protestant Loyalist pockets and enclaves throughout Derry. We saw some of the murals on the Protestant side, many of which depict Iron Maiden’s Eddie aggressively leading a British attack (Dear I.R.A., the photo in this link in no way endorses the Unionist/Loyalist side of the conflict--I myself am Catholic--rather just the metalness of the mural) , which is in staunch contrast to most of the murals on the Bogside or Republican side of town. Don’t get me wrong, however, since our history lessons included much of the violence and atrocities inflicted by the IRA and other Republican paramilitaries, thus illustrating that no side was completely innocent when it came to the bloodshed inflicted during the Troubles. We walked across the relatively new but iconic Peace Bridge which spans the River Foyle and physically and symbolically unites the Catholic and Protestant divide.

Despite almost daily news reports of bomb threats the city went about its business getting ready for the upcoming Christmas; apparently these scares are quite common and Derry residents don’t even bat an eye. As Darren pointed out the majority of these are only threats and the intended targets aren’t so much people as the economies of the opposition. We did our best to not let anxiety get the best of us and adopted some of the cynical humor that saves the average Northerner from going crazy in the face of constant danger. To show us that this danger is real albeit rare, Darren took us by the local police station which due to an actual bombing several years ago now looks like a fortified Western embassy in some war-torn Middle Eastern or African nation. While seeing and experiencing all of this I couldn’t help but thinking that statistically my gun-saturated homeland is probably a far more dangerous place.

In no time it was Monday morning and we were walking through the cold rain on our way to the train station in time for our departure to Belfast. It was miserably wet and frigid—may I note that I would take the Arctic cold with snow any day over rain—but before we knew it we were ensconced in a warm modern train that took us on a breathtaking coastal route across Northern Ireland. The train ride was worth every penny as often the tracks were so close to the coast that it felt like we were gliding across choppy waves, with the Lough Foyle and the North Atlantic to our left and snow-capped peaks rising above medieval forests to our right. Distances are still skewed as within two hours we essentially crossed the county and arrived to our long-awaited Christmas destination of Belfast.

Can I preface the next bit by saying that Leah and myself are quite spoiled? Yes, we have often slummed it during our better-part-of-two-years adventure—powerless candlelit cabanas in Central America with spiders the size of my face, dirty and noisy hostels in [fill in the blank], ice cold well water bucket showers in Romania, etc., etc.—but for the next ten days we would be in the veritable lap of luxury as we stayed in Hilton hotels thanks to the generosity of Ma and Pa McFail and their timeshare points. As a combination birthday and Christmas gift we were able to rectify last year’s holidays with stays in the festive and appropriately cold cities of Belfast and Edinburgh (more on that later!). In some of the most stressful and uncomfortable moments of our Arctic husky adventure, this was the shining light at the end of the dark tunnel.

Leah: However, staying in Hilton Hotels while on a backpacker budget and trotting around in schluby clothes can be a bit special. When asked by the concierge if we'd need helping making dinner reservations, I had to do my best to choke back a laugh, put on my grown-up face and say, "No, thank you" instead of, "Actually, we'll be making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and eating ravioli from a can in the room tonight." In fact, we were so taken with the fluffy towels, quiet space, lack of obligations, giant bed and extensive in-room coffee/tea service that we didn't care what we ate. We always found great salads, sandwiches, produce and desserts on the clearance shelves at the grocery just because their use-by date was approaching and we lacked for nothing, although I'd surreptitiously smuggle them into the room so I didn't feel quite as classless.

The clothing, however, was another story. I felt so out of place trying to elegantly sashay through the lobby in my scuffed hiking boots and husky-torn jacket that I made a few trips to the shops to pick up a pair of cheap flats, some black slacks and a few new blouses. It was unreal how something as simple as trading my bigfoot boots for a pair of dainty bordeaux-colored ballet flats made me feel feminine again and I delighted in wearing dress shoes for the first time in 18 months. Yes, Steve will justifiably argue that we are the customers and I need to stop caring what other people think, but if we were going to dine cheaply in our room on cup of soup and cherry tomatoes, I wanted to maintain the illusion of class once we hit the elevators. We weren't always successful, but we cracked each other up doing it, especially while doing sink load after sink load of laundry and hanging it to dry in our tub. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall when housekeeping tackled our room each day...

Steve: Due to the fact that the Belfast Hilton was closed for Christmas Eve, Christmas and Boxing Day for the first time in 13 years (due to economy and city bomb threats), we actually split our time between downtown Belfast and the nearby resort community of Templepatrick. The city location was perfectly situated a stones’ throw away from the Central Station, with commanding views over the River Lagan, Victoria Square and the Titanic shipyards. We spent one afternoon at the latter by visiting the Titanic Belfast, an interactive museum housed in an architectural gem that is dedicated to the city and what is arguably its most famous creation. On a particularly rainy afternoon we took in a viewing of the second installment of The Hobbit to really bring our trip around full circle (we saw the first part while still in Argentina) prior to enjoying complimentary cocktails and canap├ęs from the Executive Lounge at the top of the Hilton. I told you we were spoiled…

While the weather took a break from the usual showers we hightailed it north for a visit to the iconic Giant’s Causeway, a dramatic natural phenomena caused by a combination of millions of years of volcanic activity and erosion from crashing waves. Or was it created by the fabled giant Finn McCool (mark my words I’m naming a dog this someday) who built it as a bridge to Scotland to fight his rival Benandonner? Our good-natured and entertaining Scottish tour guide, Tom, left it up for us to decide and I think the second story is quite convincing. En route to the Causeway we took The Torr Road, a little used coastal route—we took a small minibus in lieu of a bus, again due to the small number of tourists—that afforded amazing views of the northern Irish coastline and the Scottish coast only 12 miles away at the closest point. Once there we had an hour to climb and explore the hexagonal basalt columns that looked like they were placed by some alien civilization…or mythical giant as it were. The Giant’s Causeway stuck with us since we found out about it from our Joan, our Irish Kiwi Workaway host, and after all the build-up it did not disappoint.

Leah: An unexpected highlight for me was the fact that because many of the typical stops were closed for the holidays (Bushmills Whiskey Distillery and the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge among others), Tom was able to fill in the gaps with some stops that weren't normally on the tour. Cue Game of Thrones--skip down a few paragraphs if not a fan. Tom has several craftsmen friends who work for the show, so he's visited them on set, has pictures of him sitting in the Iron Throne and was able to give us teasers for new season. He'd also pull out his laptop, play the scene from an episode and then proceed to show us exactly where it was shot. One such example was the old stone quarry which is used as the setting for some of the scenes filmed at The Wall (we were only able to see it through the fence), and Ballintoy Harbor, which featured as Pyke Harbor when Theon Greyjoy returns home for the first time in years.

The grand finale occurred when Tom drove us to a local road (known as the Dark Hedges) resplendent with arched and intertwined beech trees forming a natural tunnel and beckoned us out to take pictures in the rapidly fading light. Filmed here was the scene of Arya's exit from King's Landing down the King's Road after Joffrey had decreed that all the former king's bastards should be killed. Although the scene lasted seconds, Tom explained that all the farmers were paid handsomely for the weeks' long disruption to their pastureland and that crews erected brand new sheep fencing upon departure since the original had to be torn down. Never thought we'd score some behind the scenes Thrones action on this tour, but it was the icing on the cake of a perfect day. No, the nerdery will never stop calling.

Steve: Christmas this year took a 180° turn from last year. Instead of being in tropically hot and humid northern Argentina (don’t get me wrong, Iguazu Falls was absolutely spectacular and worth the headache) where it just didn’t feel like Christmas, we awoke this year to the gentle pitter patter of rain and views over rural Ireland. After a scrumptious (and complimentary) breakfast surrounded by Christmas trees, decorations and lights, we opened some presents (these two nerds bought each other books and we also had an unexpected surprise package from the ‘rents) and then took a few laps in the Templepatrick Hilton’s indoor pool interspersed with delightful self-torture sessions in the sauna. Before we know it we will be back in the States and returning in some fashion to the ‘real world’ but for now and forever in our memories we were in a little slice of heaven. Ah, the joys of travel.

CLICK HERE FOR PICTURES OF DERRY AND BELFAST.

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