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. 

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