Friday, 29 August 2014

One woman diplomatic tour - Northern Ireland

So, in my last post, we'd left Dublin and were driving up to Belfast, taking the Mourne coastal scenic route. Gosh, it was mighty scenic! Miles of gorgeous wild rocky coastline with big arching bays and wide views of the sea. It's only a few hours' drive, even going by the coast instead of the inland motorway.

We stopped for cherry scones with jam and cream at a stately home and also to wander about a historic look out point on the site of a bloody battle from the 1600s. If the weather had been better there were walking trails to take, but we just looked about a bit then got on with our drive.

I worked on Monday while my husband enjoyed the only sunny day of our trip wandering around Belfast. Word to the wise - if you're visiting try not to go over Sunday and Monday 'cos lots of things are closed. He managed to see the Botanic Gardens and Ormeau Park.

On Tuesday we headed further north up the Causeway Coastal Route to the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge and the Giant's Causeway. Of the two, I prefered the Carrick-a-Rede area as there was spectacular coastal views over cliffs into clear blue water. It was fairly busy with tourists, but we managed to get some photos on the bridge and spend a good while admiring the views. The water was so clear you could see jellyfish the sea from the cliffs about 20 meters above.

The Giant's Causeway is a short drive from Carrick-a-Rede so we pushed on to take that in too. We hadn't had lunch yet, but wanted to try and get to the Bushmills distillery too. I'd learned that you didn't have to pay the National Trust's exhorbitant parking rates for the Causeway, so we parked on the road and walked in for free. There was quite a long walk to get there and clouds of flying ants didn't help our enjoyment of the situation. The place was heaving with people as the National Trust ran regular buses down to the bottom of the bay and back. I sort of expected something a bit bigger, but actually it's just cliffs of hexagonal rocks. It was not really that exciting and by that time I was developing a blister.

We slogged up the hill and drove off to Bushmills Whiskey Distillery only to find that we'd missed the last tour and the only food left in their cafe was cake. Oh well, cake it was and they were actually delicious homemade cakes. The whiskey cheesecake was particularly delicious. We bought some whiskey samplers and made our way back to Belfast. If Bushmills is anything to go by, I prefer Scotch whisky. Bushmills was just a bit bland - it didn't have the complexity of flavours from fruits to honey to smokey peatiness that Scottish single malts can have.

In case you didn't know, Irish whiskey has an 'e' and Scotch whisky doesn't. There you go, don't say I never give you anything. Anyway...

Belfast was a surprisingly grand city - I guess British rule gets you pretty public buildings. It was decidedly odd going through suburbs bedecked with Union Flags and the flags of local groups who were presumably pro-English. There were also murals around our hotel and a local church which looked like it had been bombed. At hotel down the road from ours boasted that it was the most-bombed hotel in Belfast with 40 attacks. Weird.

Though things have calmed down a lot, reading the local paper it seems that arson is still what people resort to when they're upset. There is still tension over things like parades by groups on either side. Personally, I think they should take down all the flags and murals and not have parades so they can focus on trying to make their tiny country a success. But I am an almost completely ignorant outsider.

On our second day in Northern Ireland, we drove up to Belfast Castle (which is more like a stately home built in the 1800s), had a picnic lunch in the very pretty grounds.  The garden had a cat theme with sculptures, mosaics and other cat things dotted about to be found. There were also lovely views over Belfast city and out to sea. There are lots of walking paths but we weren't feeling that energetic so we drove off to see Dunluce castle a bit further around the coast.

Dunluce is a proper old castle, situated on a headland overlooking a couple of bays. There has been quite a bit of modern adaptation but there was plenty of to see and it was easy to imagine what it must have been like as a working fortress. Dunluce has had a active history of warfare over the centuries.

The town around the castle was a bit rubbish, but we eventually found a cafe for a snack then took a leisurely drive back to Dublin to catch our plane.

It was good to have finally visited all of the nations that make up the United Kingdom. Dublin was very touristy and the rural areas around it weren't as pretty as the scenery in Northern Ireland. But Northern Ireland is kind of marred by its troubled history. I'd put them both about halfway up my list of top places to visit. 

Sunday, 24 August 2014

One-woman diplomatic tour - Dublin

Gosh, this summer has just been MAD with barely a night or weekend off to blog or just do things like a load of washing.

One of things I've been busy doing is visiting Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland for work. I've been to Wales a fair bit as it's just over the bridge from Bristol but I'd never been to Ireland before so I took my husband and took a bit of a holiday too.

We flew into Dublin on Friday night when it proceeded to pour with rain all weekend - simply pounding down at times! Still, we had some good times inside scarfing down some good food. One of our best finds was an amazing bakery/cafe which gave us farls for breakfast.

What is a farl? We didn't know either, but it turns out they're like scones or American biscuits made with potato as well as flour. They were delicious warm with melted cheese, grilled mushrooms, black pudding and white pudding. In case you don't know, black and white puddings are like sausages - they're made with blood, but if you can get over that, they're tasty.

 We took a wee tour of Dublin castle (although most of it is more like a palace from the 1700s). Dublin Castle was the seat of British rule in Ireland and is now used for state visits and swearing in the President. The tour guide showed us some of the original stonework from the 13th Century and gave us some insights into the troubled history of Ireland and its journey to independence.

 This picture shows the only remaining old tower with two different styles of newer building attached to it.

Chandelier from Dublin Castel
 Inside the 'castle' looked like plush 17th Century state rooms, which is basically what it is. This beautiful chandelier has shamrocks, roses and thistles to represent Ireland, England and Scotland (Wales wasn't considered important enough to get a daffodil on there).

Dublin museum isn't fabulous (I think Copenhagen has spoiled us for Viking artifacts) but it does have a great collection of Celtic gold including lots of huge torques.  We weren't allow to take any pictures of the gold, but trust me, it was huge and old and fragile and amazing. I was interested to discover how much of an influence waves of Viking invaders/ settlers were in Ireland. And it was inside i.e. out of the rain, so that's something.

An awesome bit of Dublin was the Anglican cathedral. We went to the service on Sunday which had beautiful music produced by (what I found out later) was only four singers. Normally at churches like that there is a choir of at least 15 or 20 but these four were very skilled and made a beautiful sound.

The preacher had a massive grey beard and looked like he'd be really conservative, but he delivered a storming sermon condemning war and promoting peace, especially regarding Israel and Palestine at the moment. I felt like standing up and cheering at the end!

Also, in the basement afterwards, we saw some costumes from one of my favourite TV series - The Tudors and some other interesting bits of history from the cathedral including a realistically modelled dove made of silver for storing oil and a mummified cat who got stuck chasing a (now mummified) rat.

On Sunday afternoon we drove up to Belfast, taking the scenic coastal route. I'll tell you all about Northern Ireland in my next post...

Have you been to Ireland? What was your favourite bit?

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Autumn treats

"The crickets sang in the grasses. They sang the song of summer’s ending, a sad, monotonous song. “Summer is over and gone,” they sang. “Over and gone, over and gone. Summer is dying, dying.”

The crickets felt it was their duty to warn everybody that summertime cannot last forever. Even on the most beautiful days in the whole year — the days when summer is changing into fall the crickets spread the rumor of sadness and change." Charlotte's Web, E. B. White

This is a beautiful piece of writing from a lovely book, but actually, I tend to find Autumn the most invigorating time of the year. Summer this year has been very hot and very, very busy. I've found the heat making me lethargic.

Now they're baling up the hay, the blackberries are ripening, the nights are drawing in and I'm starting to need a cardigan or trench coat. I'm starting to feel a bit of a spring in my step!

I think it's well known that autumn is the most exciting season for fashion, but other treats of the season include moving back to red wine and being able to snuggle up at home in slippers and a comfy hoodie.

Tonight I made a crumble of blackberries picked from wild bushes and proper English Bramley cooking apples. My lovely husband popped out and got Madagascar vanilla cream from ASDA (a supermarket). Yummo!

Can you tell I've fallen off the diet wagon? I did go for a walk at lunchtime, so that's something.

Anyway, what's your favourite treat of the Autumn season? Later on I'll be enthusing about ankle boots and wool coats but right now, picking blackberries is enough for me.