Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Visiting Ireland: The North

After three glorious days in Ireland, we set out to see some real countryside. Keep in mind that at that point, all I'd seen of Ireland was the airport and the city, so I was really excited to see the rolling green hills, ruins, rock walls and the yellow wildflowers called furze. We set out for Belfast (about a 2-hour drive from Dublin) in our fancy rented Audi, but make a detour to see , a prehistoric passage tomb in County Meath.

Newgrange was constructed entirely of piled rocks, covered with grass, so it appears as a mound jutting out of the earth. It was built around 3200 BC, with rocks dragged miles and miles (they say kilometers) to get it just right. It predates the pyramids if that tells you anything.

The society that built it was deeply spiritual and archaeologists were surprised to find in the 1960s that if you stood inside the tomb (no pictures allowed, unfortunately) on the winter solstice, sun would flow through a transom on the outside to completely illuminate the interior tomb, for just the one day a year. Our tour guide recreated it with a flashlight, and it was pretty darn cool.

It was a cool thing to see, but was so windy and cold! The cafeteria was also my first encounter with questionable menu options. They offered "paninis" that looked like haphazard hoagies on sub rolls and "french bread pizzas" that were also on hoagie rolls and topped with what looked like small wheels of brie. Everyone got cottage pies and Guinness stew except me, because I have a weird aversion to meat pies, so I got something called a sausage roll, which was gross.

We set on the road to Belfast, which is in Northern Ireland, which is technically in the United Kingdom. Their currency are in pounds, and they've struggled historically with their identity as a British nation that's clearly Irish. If you aren't too familiar with the politics in Northern Ireland, I suggest you brush up real fast here.

We stayed in the swanky Europa Hotel, which was known during The Troubles, as "the most bombed hotel in the world." It was bombed 28 times, but miraculously survived and is lovely. I should know, because somehow I got either food poisoning or a horrible stomach bug and ended up spending hours on the floor of the bathroom, grateful it was good and clean.

Friends, let me just give these two bits of advice: 1) Airborne is no joke. Take it and save yourself. 2) If you still are afraid of getting sick, pack your favorite meds with you. I didn't think to pack Nyquil, but I learned the hard way that the Irish have no equivalent drug with the same power, and I wish I'd just stashed a bottle in case.

I was so afraid my sick day would cause us to miss our scheduled tour of the new Titanic Belfast museum, but luckily, we were able to reschedule. The museum is really beautiful, and covers the ship, from inception to construction to launch to sinking. It's really well done, and will be such a boon for the city. For a former Titanic nerd like me, it was really cool to look out onto the slipway where the ship was built.

The building is right beside the old offices for Harland & Wolff, the shipbuilding firm that built Titanic for the White Star Line. Their cranes, nicknamed Samson and Goliath, are landmarks in the city even though they've transitioned to offshore wind power manufacturing.

After we finished at the museum, we set out to visit the Bushmills Distillery, located on the same Bushmills village property where it first opened in 1608. It's still an impressively small operation, and every bottle comes from that factory.

I'm no whiskey drinker, but they talked me into my free sample. It was smooth, but boy did I wince after every sip!

We settled into our lovely B&B, Valley View B&B, and went for dinner in the neighboring seaside village of Port Ballintrae, where I saw one of the greatest sunsets of my life.

Seriously. I'm in love with rocky beaches. I wanted to bring every rock home.
The next morning was my favorite of all the sightseeing we did. We went to see the Giant's Causeway, an incredible basalt formation on the northern coast. It was like nothing I'd ever seen — hexagonal rocks jutting out of the ocean, easy to climb like stairs. Very cool.

Legend has it that the causeway was formed when giant Finn McCool needed to cross to Scotland.

After Giant's Causeway, we traveled to Derry, which contains a 400-year-old walled city within a city. It was the site where the Troubles really began, and still bore plenty of evidence, which was fascinating to see. When I travel, I like to get a sense of what a place is really about, and it was good to see something other than the normal touristy side of Ireland. This side of the wall overlooks Bogside, where the Catholics fought the British bitterly.

This mural shows a 14-year-old girl who was killed in the crossfire in the 70s. There are many famous murals in Bogside.

Derry wasn't all dreary history, though. It was a chic and hip little city, very much rebuilding itself. I think the same could be said of most of Northern Ireland, which was haunting and romantic, with some of the most incredible landscapes I've ever seen.

Tomorrow: The West!

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