Monday, October 31, 2011

Going Coastal on You!

In our original travel plans, Al and I were going to head to Belfast bright and early so we could have the better part of the day there. We’d arrive by 10:30 and then we could count it as a full day. In our original travel plans, however, we failed to account for the step-aunts wanting to do morning coffee. We finally boarded a bus in Dungannon at 11:45. If you’re keeping track and home, that’s 3.5 hours later than we anticipated. Our day in Belfast turned into an afternoon. And what a wet miserable afternoon it was!

After a wrong turn out of the bus station which almost led to us walking into Falls Rd/Shankill Rd area (which is where a lot of the troubles in Belfast were centred), we found our hostel, ditched our bags and phoned the first Black Taxi cab tour listed in our guide. The voice on the other end of the phone said he’d pick us up in 15 minutes. It was the only thing that went according to schedule that day!

Our guide, Ken Harper, was fabulous. Friendly, knowledgeable and hilarious, he kept us entertained from beginning to end. We got on well with him and our 1 hour tour actually ended up being 1.5 hours as he threw in a quick go around the city centre as well. I wish I had more pictures to share, but the rain was bucketing down on and off throughout our ride meaning a lot of the picture opportunities found Al and I just sitting in the cab because even rolling down the window for a decent shot just wasn’t worth it.

This is the part of the peace line that people sign. Ken offered us a pen; Al and I just laughed.
We could barely see the wall from the car it was raining so hard!

The rain did stop long enough for us to see the hooded gunman mural. The mural has been the centre of a lot of controversy over the years (Really? A hooded man pointing a gun in mural form in an area affected by violence has garnered controversy? No way!), but I was mostly interested in it because the gun apparently follows you as you walk.

Unfortunately when we got back in the car and drove to the other side, the rains had started up again, but I can say that the gun most definitely follows you. It’s very creepy. I know it’s just a painting but dude, it’s a gun and it follows you! There is no way I could walk past that at night!

I have a strange relationship with Belfast; I want to like it, I want to think it’s a great city, I want to believe I should encourage people to go there but I always come away feeling let down. It’s not a friendly city. I know that has a lot to do with its past and that people tend to keep much more to themselves compared to the rest of Ireland (even compared to the rest of the North), but it makes it hard for me to say that Belfast was awesome. It’s definitely worth a visit, I'm just not convinced it's worth a stay.

Still, my cousins who live there seem to love it.

We spent the night hanging out with my aunt and uncle. I chose not to stay with my aunt because she’s never been in great health and she had just had surgery on her cataracts a week before we arrived. I figured she didn’t need the stress of two girls staying with her. Well, I obviously thought wrong because all I got all night was a good old Irish-Catholic guilt trip about not staying with them. “It’s a pity you’re in a hostel when we have all these empty rooms.” “How much money would you have saved by staying with us?” “You come all the way from Canada and you don’t even stay with family.” And the parting shot as we left, “it would have been lovely to have spent more time with you, but I guess we should get you back to the hostel.”

She! Just! Had! Surgery!

Still, she poured the stiffest drink I’ve ever seen. My glass was half rum, half 7-Up! Maybe we should have stayed with her...

The next day was our tour along the Antrim Coast to Bushmills (where we’d jump off the bus and then public transit it to Derry, everyone else got driven back to Belfast). We had booked the tour on a whim the day before. We originally planned to get to Giant’s Causeway on our own but when we saw the tour company across the street from the hostel, we decided to see if it was feasible to only go the one way. Not only was it feasible, but it turned out to be one of the best decisions we made on the entire trip.

The day looked like it was going to be a washout as the rains started up as we departed Belfast. For our first stop in Carrickfergus, only half of us got off the bus to take pictures. By the time we had left Carrickfergus the sun was out. While the occasional shower would continue to show up during the course of the trip, that was the only really bad rain.

Our guide, a quick-witted Scot named Tom, had us all in stitches with his stories about the area. He had married a local girl and it was clear that he had fallen just as much in love with the country and he had with her. Of course, he still pointed out Scotland across the water every chance he got!

Driving the coast road

Stopping for a break in Carnlough

Of course, the upside to the weather was that we got a lot of rainbows.

Being on the tour meant that we stopped at Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, something we wouldn’t have done on public transit. The 1.5km walk out to the bridge afforded us lovely views out to Rathlin Island.

That's Rathlin Island on the horizon.

Our first view of the bridge.

Once we got to the bridge, I had to pep Al up a bit. She’s not big on heights and what all these pictures fail to show is how incredibly windy it was that day.

Half-way across just before a huge gust of wind.

Al did cross and I can’t begin to explain how happy I was that she did. Even with all my ‘can do’ bravado about the bridge I had a moment of panic halfway across when a huge gust of wind started the bridge swaying. The words ‘I hate you’ may have escaped Al’s lips after we reached the other side.

That's the fishing hut which was the reason the bridge
was first put up between the island and the mainland.

After we walked to the far side of the tiny island and snapped a few pictures, we crossed back. I half expected Al to kiss the ground once we were back across but she managed to refrain herself... probably only until I wasn’t looking.

That v-shaped gap is where the bridge is.

We've crossed the bridge, Al's still smiling and she hasn't killed me.
If our friendship can survive this, it can survive anything!

The next big stop on our trip was Giant’s Causeway. When asked if the Giant's Causeway was worth seeing, Samuel Johnson one quipped, "worth seeing, yes; but not worth going to see." As Tom kindly pointed out, Johnson also travelled three days to see the Causeway so his opinion is to be taken with a grain of salt.
I'm willing to be that Johnson didn't have views of rainbows on his walk to the Causeway.

We opted to walk down to the Causeway and save ourselves the £1 and the views were worth the saved money. (Although we totally paid the £1 to take the bus back up from the Causeway.)

The Ulster Way follows much of this part of the coast.
I can't help but think what a spectacular hike it would be!

Science would have us believe that the Causeway was the result of volcanic activity and the subsequent cooling of the resulting molten basalt millions of years ago. As the basalt cooled unevenly, geometric shapes formed where the cooled areas pushed against each other. This is all a very fascinating explanation but as Tom so kindly pointed out, do you see any volcanoes in the area? No.

Legend has it that Fionn mac Cumhaill (pronounced Finn MacCool), a giant who once roamed the Irish countryside, had a beef with a giant in Scotland. After tossing insults and threats back and forth, Fionn decided enough was enough and it was time to settle the argument. He built the Causeway so the other giant, who couldn’t swim, could cross the water and the two could duke it out. Except when he got his first glimpse of the other giant, the other giant ended up being much bigger than Finn had anticipated and Finn realised he was going to lose the fight.

Fionn ran home to his wife and told her of the problem. Unbeknown to Fionn, she devised a plan. After giving Fionn a potion so he’d fall asleep, she swaddled him up like a baby. She invited the other giant in, explaining that Fionn was off working but should be home soon. When the other giant saw the baby, he figured ‘if that’s the baby, how big is his father?’ and he ran back to Scotland, smashing the Causeway as he went so that Fionn couldn’t follow him.

Doesn’t that sound a lot more plausible than volcanoes in Ireland? ;)

We finished up the day with a quick trip to Bushmills and Dunluce Castle before Tom stopped traffic to flag down our bus to Coleraine. There’s nothing really special about it except that Tom went above and beyond to get us on that bus and because we had to run, we didn’t really get a chance to thank him. Also, he's a huge Game of Thrones fan and when he found out that I was as well, he pointed out all the filming locations that we passed. All in all, he was a great tour guide and if you’re in that neck of the woods and looking for an Antrim Coast tour, I would whole-heartedly, without any hesitation, recommend getting on a tour with Tom who works for Ben Allen Tours. Seriously, the man was incredible. (Ben was a gas as well and I wish we could have chatted longer. He was cracking Al and I up.)

From Coleraine, we hopped the train to Derry. For the most part, we tried to avoid the train as it was usually very expensive unless you book well in advance but the trip from Coleraine to Derry was supposed to be spectacular as it followed the coast of Lough Foyle. It did not disappoint.

Came out of a tunnel to this view. That's Co. Donegal across the Lough.

We pulled into Derry just as the sun was setting. After a bit to eat, a quick pint, and a bit of traditional music, we called it a day and headed off to bed.

Note about the links to businesses in this post: Neither of the businesses I've linked to knew that I would be writing about them and/or linking to them. I've linked to them because I was really happy with the service they provided to a nobody. Please note that I don't even recommend the safari company I went with in Tanzania because it's owned by a friend and I don't feel comfortable sending people to him when I know that my fabulous experience was based on already having a pre-established friendship with the guide, so when I recommend these businesses, I really, really mean it.

Friday, October 28, 2011

From Dublin Culture to Culchie Culture

Obviously, the morning after a pub crawl requires one thing and one thing only: coffee. Copious, copious amounts of coffee. And who can resist when it comes in an awesome to-go cup?

And I want these cups in Victoria.

Due to most Irish museums being closed on Mondays, our Tuesday ended up being very, very heavy on the education-front so we started with a wander through Trinity College. What better way to get our learning on than wandering through the hallowed halls of higher learning... hungover?

Perhaps I should have checked out Careers Week while we were there.

Trinity is actually part of the Pub Crawl given that so many of the writers attended school there, but it was nice to come back during the day and actually see it. Like many European universities, it's located right in the heart of Dublin and is open to just wander through the campus.

We did not bother with the Book of Kells at my suggestion. I had done the Book once before and just found it a waste of money when you consider you only get about 10 seconds to view one page of the book. The displays leading up to the Book are interesting but for the low, low price of free you can visit the Cheaster Beatty Library with books just as old and the National Museum of Ireland: Archeology and History* which has even older artifacts and bog men! That's right, BOG MEN! Four of them!

After we finished our coffees, we hit up both the Chester Beatty and NMI:A&H. Sadly, you can't take pictures inside either of them but they were both awesome. Both could easily be an entire day on their own if you're geeky enough (I totally am. Al, not so much) but two hours at either one should be more than enough time to get your fill.

A school group was leaving as we arrived at the NMI:A&H... Best. Timing. EVER!

We had an early night on Tuesday due to an early morning on Wednesday. Wednesday was when our adventure really began with a trip to the rip-roaring craziness which is Monaghan! Monaghan, of course, is where my culchie family comes from. (Culchie was originally a derogatory term for people from the country--ie. not Dublin--but there's been a bit of a reclaim on for the word. I'm doing my part to show those Jackeens that words can't hurt us!) There's not much family left there now but I always make sure I stop in to say hello to the town which I always remember fondly. Thank goodness Armagh isn't that far away so it's not usually a problem.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this is exactly how I remember Monaghan's main street.

Every trip to Monaghan involves a visit to the cemetery where granny and granddad are buried.

This is followed by a trip to the Cathedral.

Many a Sunday of my childhood was spent here

After I dragged Al on a whole 15 minute tour of downtown Monaghan (you think I exaggerate but I really don't. We walked the whole length of Monaghan in less than 30 minutes and that included stopping for photos), we said good bye to my uncle (and his inability to hear us) and jumped on a bus to Armagh.

Ten minutes outside of Armagh the skies opened and thundered down. Even though it stopped as quickly as it started, we kind of lost our appetite for actually seeing Armagh and instead just checked out a pub until the appointed pick up time. Hey, look at that! I sat in a pub just like I did the last time I was in Armagh!

My usual Armagh contact was out of town so stayed with the step-side of my family in Blackwater Town. I challenge you to pull out an atlas and find it on a map. No cheating and using goggle maps! To be honest, we didn't even stay in Blackwater Town. We kept driving, crossed into Co. Tyrone and spent the night in the middle of nowhere.

Apparently the middle of nowhere has an intersection!

The rains held off long enough for Al I to go for a walk around the neighbourhood farms and meet the local cows.

Shortly after I made friends with this horse, the rains returned and we had to make a beeline back home. Still, who can complain about a little rain when you're staying in a location other tourists would pay top dollar for? 

Question: Ever stayed somewhere so small and/or remote on your holidays that it's not in the guidebook? What brought you to that location?

*There are four NMI locations with different themes. They're all free and they're all worth checking out. The National Gallery and the National Library are also worth checking out but when you have limited time, you have to pick and choose :(

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Crafting Up Some Sci-Fi

I'm interrupting my Ireland posts for a brief moment to talk about awesome friends, family and crafts.

A few months ago, THR and her boy went to Seattle for a weekend. While there, they attended the BSG exhibit at the EMP. More importantly, she bought me two BSG posters (and a Firefly sticker which I still haven't decided how to display) because she's an awesome friend.

I instantly knew where I wanted to put them in my apartment; the wall in my hallway is decorated with postcard copies of modern art in cheap frames. It's one of those displays that I put up because empty walls bug me but I've wanted to change it for a while.

My stepdad made up square backings because I didn't want to actually frame them and as of yesterday, my hallway now looks like this:

Now the only sci-fi show missing from my walls is Doctor Who. Yeah, I'll get on that soon!

A big thank you to THR for the posters, thank you to my stepdad for making the backings, and a big thank you to me for hanging them BSG for being awesome.

As for those cheap, ugly, gold frames? You might be seeing them in a future craft project.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Gaols and Guinness

This post should be starting with a picture of me in my Irish rugby jersey giving the thumbs up in front of the TV showing Ireland 26 – Italy 6. Upon reviewing the picture, however, I realised my uncle doesn’t just wear glasses because he’s a hipster... the moment passed and all I have now is the memories of getting up at 7:45am to make breakfast and tea, sitting down with my aunt and uncle, holding my breath a few times, and watching Ireland beat Italy. It was a great way to start the Sunday. As the ad said: this is rugby country.

Within a week, however, Ireland’s rugby dreams would be over. Damn you, Wales!

The rest of the day passed in a bit of a blur. I cleaned my room, I wrote some more in my journal, and then I headed into town to meet Al. [Insert WOO-HOO! Here]

I’ve often told my friends that they’re welcome to join me when I go to Ireland (although the invite has been known to come after a few beers). I know that the experience I offer as a travel companion in Ireland is vastly different than that which they would get going on their own. Plus, it gets lonely having all these Ireland stories to tell and the only people who get them are still back in Ireland. Al finally took me up on the offer.

After a brief nap and a lovely BBQ dinner, Al and I headed out for our first drink together in Ireland. We wandered to the quiet pub not far from my uncle’s and sat down to wrap our heads around the fact that we were actually in Ireland together. No more tentative talk, no more travel suggestions, no more sight-seeing ideas, this was it!

And after only one pint, we called it a night. Hey! She was still jet-lagged and we had an early start the next day. Give us some credit! We had to pace ourselves for two weeks!

We started the next day by jumping on a hop-on-hop-off tour of Dublin. Truth was that it was easier to take one of those things than trying to figure out where to catch the bus to Kilmainham Gaol and the Guinness Storehouse. Of course, the tour bus only goes in one direction which meant a lot of wasted time after we did it the first time.

Bright-eyed and bushy tailed... thank you two cups of tea and a cup of coffee.

The Guinness Storehouse was actually the first stop but given the subject matter of Kilmainham Gaol (here’s a hint: it’s a former jail), we felt that showing up with a beer in us probably wasn’t the smartest idea. Besides, who doesn’t like a little jail talk first thing in the morning? ;)

Looking down the old wing

Kilmainham was a sobering and sombre experience. Originally opened in 1796, the jail suffered from overcrowded almost immediately. During the famine, entire families were sent there for not paying rent or for stealing to eat. Children were also sent alone to Kilmainham; the youngest inmate without parents was a five year old boy. Our guide, a lovely girl with a true Dub accent, told us some people viewed it as a better option than being on the street during that time because you were guaranteed one meal a day. Still, I find it hard to believe that one meal a day would be much comfort to a scared five year old.

There were often up to five people in one room. I'm guessing the idea of 'personal space'
was quickly tossed. Hmm, perhaps a bit of Feng Shui would help open the space up.

In the mid 1800’s, the ‘Victorian Wing’ was added to the jail to help alleviate the overcrowding. It was built on the ‘central eye’ system which was a new concept for the time. The idea was that you could police more inmates with fewer guards by making an open space in the centre. They also glassed in part of the roof as doctors were beginning to understand that there was a correlation between lack of sunlight and sickness.

Totally going to work on my tan

If this wing looks familiar that’s because it was used in the filming of In the Name of the Father, Michael Collins, The Tudors, and The Italian Job*.^ The jail remained in use until 1924 when it was shut down at the end of the Civil War by the Irish government. It fell into ruin and was condemned when a group of volunteers recognized the historical significance of the buildings and started cleaning them up. It was officially opened as a museum in 1971.

The white walls really spruce the place up. Maybe they should try that in the old wing!

For most people, Kilmainham is associated with the Easter Uprising of 1916. It was at this jail that the leaders were held after they surrendered, and it was in the courtyard that they were executed. The uprising itself was a failure with very little support amongst the population of Dublin but when word got out about the executions (especially that of James Connelly), public opinion changed. The British halted the executions but it was too late.

The cross marks the spot where the executions took place.

Obviously, the only way to follow up such a serious topic was by drinking and what better place to get our drink on in Dublin than the Guinness Storehouse?

For the record, I want this for Christmas. I think it would look fabulous in my living room.

Might have to get the floor reinforced... or move into a ground floor apartment.

I’m going to rant for a second: it costs €15 to get into the Guinness Storehouse and the tour is self-guided. SELF-GUIDED! You are paying for them to let you in the door and nothing else. Sure, you get a complimentary Guinness at the end but at €15 and no guide that needs to be paid, you should get two complimentary Guinness! [/rant]

Still, the tour is fun and informative (and once the crowd thins out, enjoyable).

This is where I tell you that I took this picture because my dad’s dad’s dad (got that? My great-granddad) was a cooper. (And our fathers' fathers' fathers!) Big up to the coopers of the world! W00t! W00t! (All five of you that are left.)

When we finally climbed all seven levels of the Storehouse, we found ourselves in the Gravity Bar where the free complimentary Guinness awaits.

And by ‘awaits’, I mean that you wait for it to be ready because Guinness really does taste better when it’s poured properly (and no, they do not pour it properly in North America. It's not just about the waiting. I pointed that out in a pub once and the bartender yelled at me because they’re too busy to do it how I suggested).

Damn, that tastes good!

As we were attending the Literary Pub Crawl that night, we finished our drinks and then wandered around Dublin until it was time to meet up at the Duke Pub. I have to say that for Allison's first full day in Ireland, the sunset didn't disappoint.

Of course, Al only cared about getting to food before the pub crawl.``

Sunset sunshmet! Put down the camera. It's food time!

The Literary Pub Crawl starts at the Duke Pub (on the corner of Duke St. and Duke Lane; for a country so renown for its literary creativity...) and if you have a free evening in Dublin, you should definitely go. Two actors take you through the history of some of Ireland's better known writers, performing scenes from plays, reciting poetry, and cracking jokes.

The fun begins here!
It also ends down the road so you don't have to drunkenly figure out which way is home.

After you leave the Duke, all this takes place on the streets near the pubs you stop at. I went in thinking this would happen at each pub. In all honestly, the pubs are just an excuse to make you walk around instead of sitting in the Duke all night. The only downside is that they only give you about 20 minutes to down your drink. Unless you're a champion chugger, I suggest sticking with half pints!

Some of the pubs also contain the answer to the trivia questions they ask throughout the night.
If they ask what year Arthur Guinness died, a picture in this pub has the answer.

The pubs are not just chosen for their location but also for their literary or historical connection. Before turning you lose for your beverage, they give you the reason for picking that pub. Remember this picture?

See? Half pints. We know how to make sure we can finish the crawl.

It was taken in The Old Stand which was once known as the Monico (no, I did not misspell it). Due to its proximity to his office, it was a favourite drinking haunt of Michael Collins. Literature, history, and drinks? Best. Night. EVER!

*The original film with Michael Caine which you should totally watch to learn exactly why we use the term ‘cliff hanger’ when an ending leaves us in suspense.

^It was also used in Primeval but I have an sneaking suspicion I'd be the only person who'd get that reference.

``This is in here because I specifically promised Al that I wouldn't talk any smack about her on my blog. Let's see if she's playing attention! (PS. NO TIPPING HER OFF, THR.)