Belfast Bits and Pieces

Belfast is certainly a different city to the place I visited in 2003. Admittedly the amazing weather and longer time I’ve had to see it have played apart, but it can’t be denied that there is a much more cosmopolitan vibe to the place now.

On our last day of driving around we kept things low key and stuck to Belfast, seeing Danny’s new house and a few tourist attractions, starting with a ‘Melbourne breakfast’. Obviously it was avocado with fancy bits on sourdough but also a smidge of vegemite too. Very nice!

Ulster Museum was on my to-do list after I’d seen it online and it was a great place to get a feel for Northern Ireland’s history, from prehistoric times to the current day.

They used to have dragons!

On the very top floor of the museum is a display dedicated to Ireland’s current #1 tourism drawcard – you guessed it – Game of Thrones.

An enormous tapestry (currently 84 metres and growing) tells the story in the style of the Bayeux Tapestry. Having seen all but the most recent season, it was interesting walking along and picking out the plot points.

The signs warning people not to touch the cloth were also in keeping with the theme.

The Museum also has a partially-unwrapped mummy. Danny said it gave him nightmares as a child. I can’t think why.

The Belfast Botanical Gardens are worth a visit if you like that sort of thing, and if you’re there on a cold day I’d definitely recommend a stroll through the heated Ravine building, which contained tropical plants from around the world.

There’s also a Victorian glasshouse with some very interesting specimens.

We took a stroll around the gardens of the big building (um… parliament? Danny, help!) in the very first photo and also drove up to Belfast Castle. It was built in the Scottish Baronial Style in 1862 by the Marquis of Donegal.

A little bit Hogwarts?

It is always nice to see historical buildings being in regular use and this castle is now a function hall and restaurant. The gardens contain sculptures, topiaries and mosaics of cats. We walked around and found a few after having a drink and a sit in the sun.

A post about the sights of Belfast would be incomplete without some photos of the murals that can still be found in various places around the city. Since my knowledge of NI history is far from complete I won’t comment on the political situation except to say that many of the more violent murals we saw years ago have been replaced but there are still a few giant paintings of men in balaclavas with machine guns in hand.

In the city centre there is plenty of (what I think of as) Melbourne-style street art. Beautiful and quirky images that go well with the new bars and restaurants.

The last bar we had a drink in was The Sunflower. Years ago people had been shot in this bar, hence the gate at the door. Now it’s a gay friendly meeting place with ukulele jam nights.

How things change!

I was sorry to leave Belfast but felt certain I’d be back.

Thanks so much to Danny and Peter for their outstanding hospitality and I look forward to repaying you in Australia!

Next stop: Carlisle and finishing off The Cumbria Way. But just before I go, a last Ulster Fry…

Clonakilty

My computer is having a heart attack, so the long and detailed post I’ve written on Dublin will have to wait, along with the long and detailed post about our weekend in London with Rowan and Kerry. Instead, here’s our adventures in Clonakilty and a few photos.

Look at that weather!

Our plans for Ireland had been pretty loose. I’d wanted to see what Mum wanted to do before putting too much work into research and so we left Dublin with a idea of seeing some gardens and the Waterford Crystal factory on the south coast.

We left Dublin Thursday morning, stopping only to fill up with petrol and let a pigeon poo on Luke’s head (tee hee!). I wish I had photos but you’ll just have to imagine his look of dismay.

The drive south was pretty dull – the view from motorways is rarely good and I wished we’d had time for some shunpiking (my new favourite word – it means avoiding major roads) as our drive through Wales had already proven that back roads get the best views.

We found the Waterford factory pretty easily and had lunch in their sparkly-chandeliered cafe. Probably the best chandeliers in any cafe in Ireland, unsurprisingly. The showroom, where you wait for the tour, was like an art gallery of glass. Lots of pretty things but I couldn’t help thinking that, much like sea shells, when you take these things out of their natural environment (in this case a dazzling black and white room) they just look tacky and accumulate dust.

The tour was pretty good – definitely worth doing if you’re in that part of the world. They take you through the actual factory and you get to peer at the workmen close up, like gorillas at the zoo.

Mum, looking like she’s accepting an award.

We saw the moulding, glass blowing, cutting and etching and some incredible examples of what can be done with glass. We got to hold some huuuuuge trophies and one guy even got to smash a large imperfect bowl – the glass all goes back into the melting pot. One of the other guides ran up and said ‘not that one!’ just as it smashed, which was quite funny. Even the guides seemed to find it funny and they probably heard it 20 times a day. Although causing people to look momentarily terrified would be the highlight of my day too, if I had the power. Which I do because I’m a teacher. Hrm.

Me, actually accepting an award. For writing this blog, obviously. No idea how they found out, but I’m not one to turn down several kilos of lead crystal. Thanks Waterford!

Anyhoo, we then headed along the coast. We’d though to go to Blarney but the day was getting on and we wanted to get out of the car so we headed to our accommodation in Clonakilty, a cute-as-a-postcard seaside town. I’d booked a night at An Sugan guesthouse, which had a bar and seafood restaurant. The rooms were unexpectedly delightful and so was the hobbit-esque bartender who had the most theatrical way of talking I’ve ever come across. He was extremely entertaining to watch and listen to. In fact we liked the place so much we decided to stay two nights.

The next morning we enjoyed the best breakfast I’ve had since Bangkok (why have I not thought to put smoked salmon in scrambled eggs before?) and then headed to Garinish Island, which is accessible only by boat. No one mentioned that we’d see dozens of seals sunning themselves on rocks on the way out – so adorable! We rushed to the sides of the boat to take photos. Speaking of photos, we’ve been extremely lucky with the weather here and we had some brilliant blue skies and sunshine on this day.

I look like I’m freezing but I wasn’t. Much.

Garinish Island enjoys a warm, almost mediterranean micro-climate due to the gulf stream and so they grow plants there that would not survive in the rest of Ireland. The gardens are about one hundred years old and they are lovely but slightly overgrown. The views from the island are gorgeous but I think the boat ride was my favourite part.

About as cute as something can get when it’s shaped like a slug.

Next we stopped at Bantry House, a grand building in which we saw rooms preserved as they had been a long time ago. We weren’t allowed to take photos inside but some of the rooms were quite incredible… and in some cases incredibly garish. Follow this link to see what I mean. Check out the painting frames at the back of the room.

We drove back to Clonakilty and had a drink in An Sugan but decided we couldn’t stand the music being played and walked up the street to look for somewhere more lively. Luke had read about another pub in town that looked interesting so we headed there. De Barra is actually a very well-known pub as it not only has quite outstanding decor (walls covered in music memorabilia and a hall full of masks from around the world) but links to, of all people, Jimi Hendrix, as one of his guitarists was from Clonakilty.

Mum got chatting to a guy at the bar and got some tips on places to visit the next day and then we headed back for dinner at An Sugan. I tell you, Ireland has been good for my tastebuds but not my thighs. The food has been fantastic everywhere. The last couple of days we’ve been good – eating two meals a day instead of three to make up for the enormous breakfasts we’ve been having. Hopefully it’s helping!

Our guesthouse.

We’ve traveled back to Dublin today. We’d originally thought to travel around the south and circle back through the middle of the country but there’s not been enough time. We did stop in Cashel on the recommendation of The Man In The Pub. There’s a castle/religious ruin there in the midst of being rebuilt. It’s a lovely site with great views and we arrived in time for the tour. We stuck with the tour until Mum started to lose feeling in her fingers due to the cold. As long as you’re in the sun and out of the wind it’s beautiful here but the castle was just too exposed. Even the people who lived there centuries ago often moved into town after a while.

Back in Dublin we checked into our accommodation (same place as last time) and walked down the road to the Guiness Storehouse, a temple devoted to beer.

Old on the outside but almost distressingly modern within, most of the building is a multiple level display about every facet of beer manufacture you can imagine. Models of the ships that transported Guiness, old footage of the barrels being made, even a 3 metre high wooden sculpture of a pint of Guiness that had symbology carved into and screens behind it playing a short film on how the sculpture was created. You could pour your own pint, which Luke did. I used to work in a pub in Birmingham so I didn’t feel the need. You got a free pint with your ticket but Mum and I gave ours away. The bar at the top of the 7 floor building had a great view of Dublin but then we were done and headed to a much quieter pub for a couple of drinks and some dinner.

The pub we ended up at is the oldest in Ireland – built in 1198. dates like that confuse my antipodean brain. How can any functioning building be that old? And serve such good food? We had Guiness and steak stew in a giant yorkshire pudding.

Well played, Ireland. Well played.

Tomorrow it’s an epic journey back to Cambridge, which wasn’t terribly well planned since it’s also Mum’s 69th birthday. We’ll find something nice to do during the week… maybe back for some more chicken and camembert pie at the Golden Ball!

Quick update: Wales and Dublin.

The internet is rubbish here so no photos and just a quick update for now.

We picked up Mum from Heathrow two days ago, and being the trooper that she is, she had a quick shower at the hotel (and curse you, Heathrow Hilton for charging so much for the internet) and then we hit the road.

I’d read up on pretty drives through Wales and so we took the M4 towards Cardiff then turned off and drove up the A470 most of the length of Wales. The scenery was nice to begin with – rolling green hill, then the Brecon Beacons then the OMG-amazing Snowdonia National Park. As I commented to Luke, it was like driving through a car commerical.

After 8 hours or so we arrived, exhausted, in Holyhead and checked into the Boathouse Hotel, which was full of Australians who were also catching the ferry.

We left the lights on overnight in the van so we needed a jump start in the morning. The good thing about being a super-early person is that there’s time to start the car, drive around to charge it up, get to the supermarket for some bits and pieces and then get to the ferry terminal in plenty of time.

The ferry crossing was pleasant and the sun was out all day, despite predictions of rain. Speaking of weather, the drive through Wales was more Melbourne than Melbourne – I think we went through maybe 10 showers and 10 bursts of bright sunlight during the day. It was quite odd.

We drove from the terminal to our apartment and became very frustrated with Dublin’s one way streets. Luke was driving and he doesn’t really like driving in the city at the best of times and got quite cranky by the end of it. Still, we found our place and we’d been upgraded to a two bedroom apartment, which was nice.

We went to a pub around the corner for a couple of drinks and a snack mid afternoon. Turns out it was a Czech pub and they were watching ice hockey, which we’d already learned was huge in central Europe. Lots of shouting and cheering and a great atmosphere.

Our apartment has decent cooking facilities so I cooked a pasta dinner and mum had a quiet night but Luke and I took a ghost bus tour. I’ll go into that more later.

I’ll also post about seeing Rowan and Kerry in London as soon as I can – must add photos to that post:).

Today we’re sightseeing in Dublin then off to Waterford tomorrow.