The plane began its descent into Belfast and the last few sips of wine warmed my insides, which were knotted with excitement.
I’d never been here before. And I was remembering the feeling you get when you land into completely uncharted territory for he very first time. There was nothing like it. While England and Amsterdam had been all I’d hoped for and more, this segment of my trip was about discovery. And I was ready for it.
It was late in the evening when we arrived. The Belfast airport is small, so we were quickly and easily able to sort ourselves out and arrange our bus transport into town (once we figured out that Northern Ireland was pounds, and does not accept euros…). After a 40 minute bus ride and maybe a 10 minute walk from the station, we turned up at our the hostel we had booked for the night. (We had little to no plans for our time in Ireland and did virtually everything on the fly.) Considering our research had been minimal at best, we were pleasantly surprised by this place. It was spacious and cozy and impressively clean. We immediately felt at home. Even before settling into our rooms we were given a tour of the place and introduced to everyone hanging around drinking small cups of something resembling red wine, but with cubes of ice knocking about inside. (Which turned out to be a drink called Buckfast which is not exactly the classiest beverage of all time but being a mixture of cheap wine and caffeine, certainly did the trick when you were looking for a good buzz.) A big South African rugby player called Leo stood in the kitchen stirring a large pot and insisted on dishing us up some of his homemade Thai curry after our long journey. And oh my goodness was it ever good! Another guy called Rich who worked at the hostel told us to go freshen up an join them for a night on the town. So, we did as we were told. Way to make us feel at home!! That night they took us to a bar nearby called Lavery’s which had two rooms, one that was more like a pub and another further back that was playing dance music. After all the raving in Amsterdam, all we wanted was to sit in a cute little Irish pub drink Guinness, learn Gaelic and chat, so we tended to stay in the first room. We spent the evening drinking and chatting with three Irish boys and an Aussie girl – Rich, Neil, Pete and Rachel. At 1am (just a hour or two since we’d gotten there), they did last call and we finished up and went home. We inquired as to why they were closing so early and were told this time was tightened up after one night someone who’d had a bit too much drink fell (or jumped was it?) into the river in town.
And so began what I like to call our weekend of “chasing the drink” around Belfast. We never could seem to get out very early (magnetically pulled to the beautiful hostel garden area out back where we would pre drink and listen to music and play pool all evening) and as bars would stop serving we’d scamper onto the next one to try and squeeze in a few more pints, and so on. So nights in Belfast were mostly just wonderful because of the brilliant people we’d met to spend them with.
We set out a loose plan of what we’d like to see and do in Northern Ireland for a few days as we had realized we were in no rush to leave this little gem of a hostel (seriously, best I’ve ever stayed in, of anywhere I’ve been).
We decided to visit the Titanic exhibit the first day, then the Black Taxi Tour the next and finally take a trip to the causeway and some castles on Sunday, before bussing on to Derry. Great plan, eh? Guess what we accomplished…
Titanic tour: More like waking late and loitering about at our cozy hostel for a little too long, wandering through town (Neil came along and pointed out some important sights and attractions along the way, like The Big Fish for instance) and then turning up to realize all tours for the day were finished. So, we stopped at the bar/cafe inside for a quick drink and to hibernate from the rain that had just set in. Soon after, we noticed a solo guitarist on a little stage set up and began singing acoustic covers of some of my favorite songs, so we moved a bit closer to hear better and I suppose must not have noticed as the restaurant patrons trickled out and dressed up couples trickled in. All of a sudden I noticed a bar set up to my left, so I approached and was given a glass of red wine and a glass of honey flavored Bushmills Whiskey as well… for free? So naturally, I took it. And enjoyed the crap out of it. (This is where my love affair with whiskey officially began.) And then next up, a waiter approached us with a tray full of fancy meats for us to snack on. At this point we’d put together that there must have been some type of event going on, so Kaley got up to go investigate. She came back only moments later saying it was a wedding reception! We were crashing a wedding reception! By accident! And I was wearing jeans with rips in them… haha. How did they not know!? Anyway, so that’s how that went. So much for The Titanic!!
Black Taxi Tour: This day started off with Guinness for breakfast, so we just about bailed on the tour all together, but being that we had failed at our attempt to sightsee so badly the day previous, we forced ourselves to push through the midday buzz and go do this. The driver made the first stop a liquor store and we each picked up a can of Guinness for the road (road pops in taxis are legal here?). We drove through the very Protestant communities, where the side walks were painted red and blue, graphic murals covered the walls of buildings and children biked and ran through the streets making rude gestures in our direction. The driver had us get out and walk to a couple of murals, and I have to admit, the whole thing just really upset me. I was on edge with the kids biking about near us and hearing about the war heros that were painted up on the walls and how many people they had killed. It shook me up to realize how recent this was. The wives of one of the war heros of the Protestants still lived in the house we were standing near. We could see the bulletproof windows of her upstairs. It was so relevant and it seemed even more real having Neil with us, who’s lived through some of this in his lifetime (he’s 26). I found myself trying not to cry for most of the tour. To think how much of this I didn’t know, or didn’t really understand. Anyway, the tour lightened slightly once we visited the Peace Wall where we signed our names amongst the likes of Justin Beiber and Rihanna. I’m so happy to see the progress that has been made in Northern Ireland, and that conditions have improved for them, but as our tour guide and Neil have informed me, it’s still something you have to be very aware of. I have to admit this painted a different light on the way I felt on my remaining evening in Belfast. Not quite as safe, that’s for sure. I HIGHLY recommend going to do this tour should you visit Belfast. It was not exactly something I would describe as fun, but certainly important.
The Causeway: The last day, we woke up at a relatively decent hour and packed up our things to check out. We were meant to bus to a town called Ballymena where Kaley’s friend was supposed to pick us up and take us touring out on the Causeway for the day, before dropping us at another bus station and sending us off to Derry. But, we didn’t hear from him that morning. (He had texted the day before to mention he would be “going out on the piss” that night so… thinking that may have had something to do with it.) So, we decided maybe we’d rent a car and drive ourselves! Keep it for a couple days even and drive it down to Galway on Monday. I didn’t have my lisence anymore because I had lost it on the train in England along with my credit card, so we’d have to suck it up and pay the under 25 fee and Kaley would drive. And to top it off, manual transmissions were significantly cheaper, so the plan was for me to use my limited knowledge of driving a stick to teach Kaley how to do it, on the left side of the road, no less. We were sure we could tackle this, so we took a taxi to an airport where we had booked a car. When we got to the counter, he requested Kaley’s license and credit card. Fine. No problem… except all of a sudden we couldn’t find her license. We tore apart all of our bags, to no avail. Her license had become yet another casualty on this Euro Adventure. Sigh. Looked like we were not gonna make it to the Causeway….
We were fairly disappointed, but in situations like this, pouting is not going to get you anywhere. So we got a coffee (with Bailey’s, since no one was now driving), booked a bus to Derry and got back on the positivity train! Or bus, I suppose.
For those of you interested in learning a little more about The Troubles in Northern Ireland, here are some videos and links the tour guide recommended.