Bebopping Around Belfast and Other Antrim Adventures

Geared up for our last road trip of the vacation, we got around relatively early and hopped in our little car for one more spin.  Getting out of Belfast was relatively easy and we soon found ourselves on the “dual carriageway” – a place of comfort for Justin as it meant double lanes and shoulders.  Our 30 minute drive was gray and rainy, with the wind whipping us about in our little car.  Further north we traveled, hoping for a change in weather.  As we came to a stop in the northernmost part of Northern Ireland, our luck still didn’t change.  If anything, I think it became windier.

Our first stop was Dunluce Castle.  We parked and as I exited the car, I was nearly blown over with the wind.  While in the Aran Islands I had purchased a woolen hat with plans of wearing it to and from work for the upcoming winter.  I got to give it a test drive, however, and was thankful I had the foresight to bring it.

We walked onto the park grounds and down to the castle entrance.  As we approached the castle we realized, as with everything we’d visited, you had to pay to get in.  Having already seen several castles on the trip, we opted to forego the entrance fee and focused our enjoyment on the outside of the castle.  It was magnificent.  While much of it remains intact, there were areas where we could see inside the castle anyway, which validated our choice.  The castle towered high above the ocean atop a cliff.  We took a staircase down toward the shore and found a cave that went underneath the castle into the ocean.  It was a beautiful sight, although I questioned its worth when I had to walk back up to the top.  Needless to say, it was a strenuous endeavor that had me planning my immediate return to the gym upon my homecoming.  (It was still worth it, though).

Eager to see the next destination (and briefly escape the cold), we hopped in the car and drove through the town of Bushmills to get to the highly anticipated Giant’s Causeway.  Both Justin and I had been looking forward to it from the moment we began to plan our trip.  It was especially meaningful for Justin as he recalled seeing Giant’s Causeway in a National Geographic magazine as a child and thinking to himself that he would never have the opportunity to see it in person.  I can attest to the feeling that comes over you when the unimaginable dream is right before your eyes.  For me, that was seeing the landscape beneath me as my airplane was landing in Rome.  Tears fell uncontrollably from my eyes as I tried to convince myself I had really made it to Italy.  I was completely awe-stricken and will never forget that feeling or experience.

I don’t think the experience was quite the same for Justin as we walked the long pathway down to Giant’s Causeway, but it was awesome nevertheless.  Disappointingly, there were already a million people there.  It’s such a shame we can’t enjoy these natural wonders more… naturally.  At any rate, we climbed through the maze of people, attempting to find the best location that would offer photos free of tourists, ourselves excluded, of course.  I spotted a place and like a little monkey, hopped from stone to stone until I claimed our “spot”.  We then proceeded to take as many photos as possible, none of them truly depicting the magnitude of wonder this site demands.  Completely geometrical, and in various heights, you can’t help but be fascinated by how it was formed, and why it was only formed in one specific area.

This was another adventure that required a long uphill journey back to the top, but again, it was completely worth it.  One hundred percent.  We grabbed a quick bite to eat at the park cafe, and to give you a glimpse of Irish fare, I had a very traditional baked potato with baked beans over the top of it.  It sounds gross, but it was actually quite tasty, and satiated the need for hot food having spent too much time by the cold windy shores of the Atlantic.

My warm meal didn’t stop us from seeking out things to warm us up, though.  Next on our list was the Bushmills Distillery – the oldest distillery in Ireland that’s still in production at it’s initial location.

Contrary to Teelings Distillery, which we visited in Dublin, this one does all aspects of the whiskey making on site.  We took a tour, and found it to be very informational with regard to whiskey making, both in general and specific to Bushmills.  However, for a distillery with so much history, we didn’t learn much about the company, which was slightly disappointing.

At the end of the tour, we were given a tasting of one of a few whiskeys, or we could choose a Hot Toddy.  While the Hot Toddy sounded delicious (and warm), we opted for the 10 year, and exclusive only to Bushmills guests – the 12 year.  We shared, but we both agreed the 12 year was better. With that being said, we also both agreed that we weren’t interested in drinking any more of it.  It really wasn’t that great, but the experience was fun.

After our tasting, we set out for our Antrim Coastal Road trip.  During my limited time for blogging, Justin was great about researching our future endeavors.  He had made note of a few interesting sites on this coastal road trip.  First up was White Park Bay.  As per usual, I was sleepy after sampling some whiskey.  It was all I could do to keep my eyes open to navigate us over the network of little bitty roads.  The last thing I wanted to do was go see another beach that was too cold to enjoy… but Justin said it was pretty, so I obliged.

We pulled into the little parking lot and after sufficient bundling up, got out of the car.  Upon closing the door behind me, I heard a “mooooo” that sounded like it was right behind me!  I looked around but no cows were to be found!  There were several areas where the bushes and trees were thick and high, so we assumed they must be on the other side, yet when we got to the other side – no cows.  We walked down the pathway that led to the beach.  To our surprise, the beach was much further than we realized, and we both agreed we didn’t feel up to making the trek.  It was truly a beautiful beach and we enjoyed watching the seaside cattle from afar.  As it turns out, this beach is part of a farm and it’s not unusual to see livestock roaming the shore.  We walked back up to the car, and I could still hear a nearby “moo,” but never figured out from where it was coming!  I ultimately decided the wind must be carrying moooo’s from afar since it was blowing so hard.

Justin and I have each had our Number Ones for this trip.  Sometimes they were the same for us, such as the Cliffs of Moher and Giant’s Causeway.  However, there was one location I was set on seeing, with hopes of getting the most fabulous photos.  The Dark Hedges are nothing more than a row of birch trees, yet their canopy creates a mystical, eerie landscape.  We had to take a jaunt off the coastal road to get there, and I waited with bated breath to see this beautiful sight.  We would be arriving early evening, so I was sure there would only be a few people there, but was concerned there may not be enough sunlight for a good photo.  We finally arrived at The Hedges, and I was surprised to find it was actually a resort.

I was under the impression The Dark Hedges was simply a country road you could drive down.  Nonetheless, we parked and walked down the pathway directing us toward the road.  We passed a hotel and restaurant, strolled through a little fairy garden, bypassed the pathway to the golf course and then passed by a large building before turning a corner around a large evergreen tree to walk down to the hedges.

As we turned the corner, the entire road before us was littered with cars on both sides of the road, from one end to the other.  There were also a few tour buses, and people were walking everywhere.  I was completely deflated.  Not only was I missing out on my bucket list photo, but I couldn’t even enjoy its majesty.  I quickly got cranky and would’ve turned around and left if Justin hadn’t told me we could stay as long as I wanted.  I suggested we walk through the crowd of people toward the other end of the row.  As we got closer to the other end the people and cars thinned out, but there was always a bright red car or an old lady in a bright purple jacket preventing me from getting my shot.

Then, in a moment, my opportunity presented itself.  Just as quickly, it was gone.  But I got it.

I was thrilled, and felt like a little brat for being such a baby beforehand.  Despite that, I hate that everything has a price tag on it.  Greed makes it nearly impossible to simply enjoy this beautiful God-given Earth.  It’s disheartening.  We sure tried our best, though.

Having reached the 2 climaxes for the day’s road trip, I wasn’t too excited for the rest of it, but it was still early enough to enjoy some things, so we pushed on.

We wound our way back to the coastal road, which incidentally doesn’t include much coast.  At any rate, we crossed through the harbor town of Balleycastle to Bonamargy Friary.  This stop was not interesting to me.  At all.  Nonetheless, contrary to my solo travels, I acknowledged I needed to compromise when traveling with others, so I sucked it up and put a smile on my face.  (Actually, I was still smiling from my Dark Hedges photo).  When we pulled up to the friary, I was pleasantly surprised.  This ancient building was surrounded by a centuries old cemetery, which in turn, was surrounded by a golf course.  I can’t imagine golfing amongst ancient sites.  Honestly, I can’t imagine golfing in most cases because I’m miserable, but if I could golf, it would be fascinating to do it there.

We walked around the site and read the provided information.  This friary was built in 1485 and legend has it there’s a treasure.  The only information given is that if a candle is lit at night on the southwest corner of the friary, the treasure is buried where the candle’s light ends.  Many people have attempted to unveil the treasure, but without success.  Unfortunately, we didn’t find it either.  We did find some really cool scenery, though.

I’m a sucker for an old cemetery.  Headstones used to have a lot more information on them: who died, when they died, how old they were, who their relatives were, what their noble characteristics were, when the headstone was erected and by whom, etc.  Some of them were rather busy, but it seemed headstones were either more affordable, or people genuinely wanted to honor their loved ones.  Now you get a last name, and a birth/death date.  Boring.

One of the deceased, and most infamous residents of the friary resides in this cemetery.  She is referred to as ‘The Black Nun.’  She was a 17th century prophet and recluse.  She passed away unexpectedly due to a fall, but had made her burial wishes known in advance.  She insisted she be buried at the friary entrance so all who walked in would walk over her.  Her burial is marked by a celtic cross headstone.

With evening drawing near, we decided to go to one last place, thereby eliminating yet another castle and The Gobbins, another cliff face.

This last drive to Torr Head went on forever.  Every turn took us to a road even more narrow than the last and I began to wonder if we were actually going to reach our destination, or if this was the Deliverance of Northern Ireland.  As we drove closer to Torr Head we climbed altitude, and soon we were driving within a cloud.

On either side of the road were sheep farms, and the sheepies were barely visible grazing in their pastures.  It was such a beautiful sight – what I could see of it, anyway.  Every time I got out of the car to take a picture, I scared the sheep away.  Dogs know when you’re a dog person, but sheep clearly don’t have Sheep Person recognition built into their little sheepie brains.

Finally, we started downhill, out of the fog and to a very small parking lot.  Two other cars had arrived before us.  Though parked, the car kept moving.  The wind was so strong it was blowing the car back and forth.  I took the opportunity to put on my scarf, hat and coat before facing the elements.  Not only was the wind blowing at its worst of the trip, but our path to the top of the view point was nearly straight up.  I was sure I was going to fall off the edge.  Needless to say I was making sure every step was a sure one, and held on to stationary items when able.  The view was beautiful.  To my left, a plethora of bright thirst-quenched green fields.  The waves were blowing up to the shore, and as I looked out into the cloudy horizon, I could see miles of  turbulent ocean.  On a clear day you can see Scotland, just a mere 12 miles away.  On this day, you could see ocean and clouds and no distinct line between the two.

Just behind us, 4 more cars arrived.  Apparently the Torr Head drive is a hot spot in the evening.  Because the views were outward, rather than toward the people, I wasn’t bothered.  In fact, we were all laughing at each others’ inability to walk without being blown over.

While I’d have enjoyed staring at the ocean for a while longer, the weather made it nearly unbearable.  We tackled the steep, rain-glossed peat grass with increased caution, and safely arrived back at the car.

It was a long day, and we were both quite tired.  We arrived back into Belfast around 9:00pm and scored another great parking spot.  With little time to research restaurants, we settled on another restaurant right in St. Anne’s Square where we were staying.  We were surprised to find that many restaurants don’t open until noon, and are closed by 9:00pm, if not sooner.  I thought Kansas City was bad!  It’s mostly suspicion, but I wonder if the struggling economy resulting from The Troubles plays a part.

The Troubles were really set into motion with the occurrence of Bloody Sunday in Londonderry in 1972.  The fight for civil rights resulted in thoughtless murders of innocent civilians – civil terrorism on their own soil.  The effects of The Troubles lingers today.  We saw evidence of this throughout the city; walking through downtrodden areas, storefronts closed with metal doors and no sign of reopening; graffiti throughout the city, mostly indicating Republican or Loyalist affiliation; signs of protest or support; memorials everywhere.

Justin and I had planned to hire a Black Taxi Tour – a tour that specifically addresses the civil unrest that has plagued the city of Belfast.  When we were in Dublin, our decision to go on this tour was encouraged by a bartender whom we’d befriended.  Following our visit in Londonderry, I felt more aware and subsequently more curious.

We booked the Black Taxi Tour for our last day in Belfast, but first, we had to return our Nissan Micra to Avis.  Having avoided any major structural damage to the car, Justin and I felt the score was: Justin & Kiya – 1, Ireland Roads – 0.  The rental car company would make the final decision, though.  You remember that completely obliterated hubcap from Dingle?  Well, it suffered further injury during the remainder of the trip and was hanging on by a mere thread at the time we returned it.  While we’d paid extra for complete coverage, it’s no secret that rental car companies and the like will milk you for every dollar when they can.  We very apprehensively returned the car and awaited the inevitable.  The guy went out and checked the car, and then came back in and said we were good to go.  The woman at the front desk was very friendly and we’d already been joking about the unfortunate hubcap.  When the guy came in and overheard our conversation, his response was, “Ahh, it happens all the time!”

We were relieved and started on our 20 minute walk back to the Cathedral Quarter where we were staying, and where we would be picked up on our Black Taxi Tour.

Most of the city is very modernized, which is always a little disappointing for me when I go to an old city.  We continued to follow our Google Maps and suddenly met a group of people coming the opposite direction.  Behind them was a police officer sending people away, stating there was an alarm and the area needed to be evacuated.  Knowing we were in a city marked with political unrest, I was immediately concerned for our safety and quickly joined the rest of the crowd.  I believe it was actually a fire alarm, but a little scary nonetheless.

We walked through a pedestrian street with graffiti everywhere.  We began to note more stores that were no longer in business.  I was eager to start the tour and learn about this civil rights movement of which, until recently, I’d been completely unaware.

At 11:00am our Black Taxi showed up and a gruff looking guide with a thick accent was in the driver’s seat to show us around.  His teeth were stained from years of cigarette smoking and he had a big belly of which his t-shirt barely covered.  Despite the moderate amount of rain we were receiving that day, and the temperature in the low 50s, he was content without a jacket.  We hopped in his taxi and he began to chat with us.  His accent was such that I could barely understand him.   We drove about 10 minutes to get to the first location and then he abruptly pulled onto the sidewalk to park out of traffic.  We got out of the taxi and stood in the drizzle while he explained each of the murals before us, in great detail.  These murals represent the Republicans – or the Catholics.

Once a year someone is commissioned to paint these murals.  Ideally, they can paint whatever they want, but there is some persuasion from key individuals.

Our next stop was just next to the Peace Wall.  The Peace Wall was built to keep peace between the Republicans and Loyalists, primarily by preventing them from encountering each another.  At the top of the wall is a contraption that was devised to keep hand grenades away from homes.  There are a few entrances from one side to the other and these gates promptly close as scheduled every night.  Once the police close them, you can’t pass through until the next morning when they reopen.  There is a route that you can take as an alternative, but it adds about an hour to the travel time.

With each stop, our guide would give us opportunities to take pictures and chatted with us very matter of factly about The Troubles.  He presented it with an almost comical approach – as if it’s too unbelievable to have actually happened.  But in fact, it did, and he experienced it first hand.  Weaved throughout the tour were stories of his experiences as a young boy growing up amongst the violence; times he feared for his life; times he was unaware what his family members were actually doing.  Based on the few personal experiences he shared, I’m relatively certain he left out some stories.

As we got back on the road, we headed to Shankill Road on the Loyalist (or Protestant) side.  The new territory was clearly discernible by British flags everywhere.

We stopped at a few memorials and with each one I became more melancholy at the number of people who lost their lives as a result of this dispute.  For a brief moment I actually approved of the remarks people cowardly leave on their Facebook timelines to avoid actual confrontation and discussion regarding differences in opinion.  While I truly do hate it, it’s a better alternative to the senseless murders that took place, and likely continue to take place in Northern Ireland.

Some people fought for their rights because they were truly passionate about them.  Some people fought for ulterior motives.  One of the pioneers of the Republicans’ fight for rights was IRA volunteer, Bobby Sands.  He lead multiple hunger strikes to support his cause, and died of starvation while striking in prison.

With our tour completed, our guide gave us an opportunity to ask questions.  He drives a taxi for a living and works for 5 different taxi companies.  The Black Taxi Tours is just an opportunity for him to make extra money, and he adequately fills the role of tour guide.  Unfortunately, some guides discuss their loyalties in the tour, and therefore give a biased account of The Troubles.  Our guide was very objective, which I appreciated.  He left us with one final thought: “When you think of the Troubles, just think of murder and mayhem.  Nobody really knows what happened.”  It’s a stark statement.

Naturally, as a taxi driver, he asked where he could take us next.  We had acquired quite an appetite but with no restaurant in mind, asked for a recommendation.  He suggested the Crown Liquor Saloon.  This pub has an interesting story.  It was originally owned by a married couple, the wife of whom was Loyalist, and the husband a Republican.  How they managed to end up married in the first place is a mystery, but they had a difference of opinion on the name of their pub.  The wife, loyal to the Queen, wanted to name it The Crown.  The husband would only oblige his wife if she agreed to allow a mosaic of a crown at the entrance so that people would have to walk on it to come inside.  They came to an agreement and The Crown was born.

We stepped inside and instantly felt like we’d been transported back in time to 1873.  To my left was a beautiful bar that ran the length of the room.  To my right were several snuggies –  individualized booths with doors for privacy.  There was a call button in each snuggie.  Though it likely wasn’t functional anymore, I noted such a button would be handy in modern day restaurants.  The ceiling was constructed with ornately carved wood, and the floor in elaborate tiling – both owed to Italian craftsmanship.  The windows were a colorful  stained glass and appeared to honor the Queen as well.

Lunch was delicious.  Justin went for the very American cheeseburger, whereas I chose the Chicken, Chorizo & Cider Pie.  The pastry around the pie was so flaky and delicious.  This was probably my favorite meal for the entire trip.  After lunch we decided to go back to the apartment and spend the rest of the day relaxing.  It was especially rainy, and without a car we didn’t really want to do too much exploring.  Our path home went through the city center so we checked out City Hall.  The building was beautiful both inside and out.  There was a small, yet interesting City Hall museum that we sauntered through before continuing toward Cathedral Quarter.

As St. Anne’s Cathedral was right outside our apartment window, we decided to make a quick pitstop before calling it a day.  We topped the beautiful exterior staircase and were greeted by signage indicating that unless you’re going to the cathedral to pray, you have to pay an entrance fee.  There was a gentleman standing at the entrance to ensure you either paid or prayed.  I quickly prayed for people to be less greedy and promptly left.

We returned to the apartment and spent our afternoon watching TV (hello, Big Bang Theory), blogging, and there was probably a nap or two in there.

As evening came, Justin went on a little stroll down the street to a whiskey store called The Friend at Hand.

The owner is a lover of all that is whiskey… how it’s made, how whiskeys are differentiated from one another, so on and so forth.  Interestingly, he doesn’t drink alcohol.  He’s just passionate about whiskey!  He and Justin shared some enjoyable conversation and he gave Justin a tour of his store, pointing out various whiskeys.  He has a very expensive private whiskey collection on display encased in a cabinet with a small plaque stating: NEVER NEVER NEVER FOR SALE.

Justin returned to the apartment with a bottle of whiskey to take home of which he’d never seen or heard before.  He also brought four baby bottles of whiskey, each with a label referencing an Irish county we’d traveled through and had a particularly great experience.  The whiskey in each bottle was the same, but before leaving the island, he wanted us to drink from each of the counties.  Obliging his sentimental gesture, I agreed.  I had to choke all four sips down, but I did it!  Thank goodness he didn’t purchase every county.  The bottles were much more pretty to look at than to drink from.

Yeah, that was Justin’s idea, too.  Is he cute, or what?

After our romantic whiskey consumption, we got packed up and hit the sack for our morning flight to……….  be continued. 😉

2018-09-04T11:46:04-05:00By |Journal, Northern Ireland|0 Comments

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