Belfast and The Giant's Causeway

Trip Start Jun 25, 2012
Trip End Aug 25, 2012

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Flag of United Kingdom  , Northern Ireland,
Thursday, August 9, 2012

Tuesday August 7

We were up early to pack and then we said our farewells to Antonio, handed over the keys, and caught a taxi to Gatwick. We got the same taxi driver who'd picked us up on the first day as he was delightful. Checking in with Flybe was very straightforward and we caught our 2.00pm plane on time to Belfast, arriving at 3.30. We then hired a car and drove to the Wellington Park Hotel, a fairly short drive from the George Best city airport.
After settling into our family room, we headed off for a walk and to hunt down a restaurant. The hotel was in the Queens University area and it was beautiful to wander past it and the Botanic Gardens to the restaurant strip nearby, where we had a delicious meal at a Nepalese restaurant – hardly an Irish meal, but we really felt like a good curry!
Walking home the kids burned off excess energy by doing parkour – a kind of running and jumping or bouncing off obstacles… Suits Tom to a T!
We watched the Olympics in bed and planned our tour of Ireland.

Wednesday August 8

After a late start, we got going and drove all the way up to the Giant’s Causeway on the north-eastern corner of Ireland. This is a spectacular area with incredible geological formations. On the way we stopped at Carrick-a-Rede, a rope bridge over which you can walk to a little island. After we parked and were walking up to the ticket office, Tom parkoured into a patch of nettles, with disastrous results! We are not used to nettles in Australia, and Tom was in agony with little blisters all over his bare legs, but locals reassured him the pain would only last half an hour, which indeed it did, but it was an uncomfortable half hour for all. Icecreams soothed the situation further as we walked to the bridge.
The rope bridge crosses the 50 foot chasm, which in fact is the mouth of an ancient volcano which erupted over 60 million years ago, and swings 100 feet above the swirling sea, so it’s quite fun to cross.   The little island with its steep sides had no guardrails so Michael spent a lot of time screaming at the kids to stay back from the edge. Michael suffers greatly from vertigo and the kids are cheerfully confident with heights, so it’s not a good combination! I did emphasise to Tom that this was not an appropriate venue for parkour!
After walking back from Carrick-a-Rede, we drove 15 minutes onwards to the Giants Causeway where we stopped at a pub for a drink and snack and then headed into the Visitor’s Centre. This really is most impressive, being built into the hill so that you hardly notice it amongst the glory of the scenery. We had a lovely time walking along the causeway with our headphone guides telling us all about the Irish folklore associated with the area, as well as the actual scientific explanation of the formation. Slowly cooling lava caused these geometrical basalt columns, but the kids preferred the story of the giant Finn McCool throwing rocks into the sea at his opponent to build a causeway.
We finished our loop, walking past the organ pipe formation, and then up 163 steps to the top of the cliff to walk back to the Visitor’s Centre – all very good for us! Then it was a one and a half hour drive back to Belfast. We tried to find a restaurant in the city centre, but not a lot were open, and the pubs don’t let children in at night, but eventually we found a nice Chinese restaurant and had a delicious meal there. Then it was back to the hotel and off to bed.
Thursday August 9

I had booked a tour with Paddy’s Black Cab Tours of Belfast for 10.30, so after a quick breakfast we headed out with Paddy himself (he has a number of other drivers, so we were lucky to get him, although I understand they’re all good). Paddy was fascinating and prides himself on an unbiased tour of the main sites of Belfast and their links to 'the Troubles’. Indeed at the end, we couldn’t tell whether he was Catholic or Protestant, so he did a good job there.
Paddy took us past the Europa Hotel, the most bombed hotel in Europe, and explained how in the old days they had a huge barrier out the front you’d have to walk through to be checked for explosives. We stopped for a while at Belfast City Hall, a beautiful old building, built in 1896-1906 to reflect Belfast being granted city status by Queen Victoria in 1888. Then it was onto a square next to the Albert Memorial Clock, with fountains that burst out of the pavement at odd moments – the kids had fun running through them and getting soaked. 
Next we went to the Harland and Wolfe shipyard where the Titanic was built. They have just opened a huge Titanic Centre there, which apparently has been very popular, especially as this is the centenary of the ship being built. We didn’t bother going into it though, and had quick look at the dry dock and pumping house, before getting back into the cab.
Now it was time for a tour into the infamous Shankill Rd and Fall Rd political murals. These were deeply disturbing, especially the Shankill ones in the Protestant area, which celebrated such people as Stevie ‘Topgun’ McKeag, who simply walked into Catholic areas and randomly killed people, including Philomena Hanna, a 26 year old girl working in a chemist. We saw the memorial to her and many other Catholics who died in The Troubles later on in the Catholic section. 
What was most noticeable was the huge ‘Peace wall’ built to keep the Nationalists and Loyalists away from each other, with gates that were locked each night. This enormous wall is covered in graffiti, and we added our names to it, just as Bill Clinton and various dignitaries had in years gone by. The Catholic houses at the back of it had wire grills over their back patios to protect them from broken bottles being chucked over the wall by Protestant Loyalists.
Paddy explained that although The Troubles are over, there is still tension in these working class areas of Belfast, and if a Protestant went into a Catholic pub or vice versa they’d find themselves beaten up out the back. They would soon find out, as your address labels you as one or the other. For this reason, separate taxi cabs companies would service Catholics and Protestants. Paddy said the only way he survived 28 years of cabbing in Belfast was to agree with whatever th passenger said! Unfortunately, as housing and schooling is still separate for Catholics and Protestants, these deep divisions will take time to diminish, but he hopes that his children’s generation will see the end of it. Paddy also showed us some rubber bullets, used by the British forces to fire on protesters. I had no idea they were so huge and it’s easy to see how they could kill someone if fired at bank point range, as indeed they were during The Troubles.
Finally we looked at some of the peace murals on the Fall Rd, which now address issues of injustice throughout the world. The latest one, looking at the mistreatment of the Romany people, had just been unveiled while we were there, and we saw the artist who has done most of the murals being interviewed by the media.
By this stage it was after 2.00 and we still hadn’t checked out or made a booking for where we’d stay this night, let alone the rest, so Paddy dropped us near the Tourist Office, where we worked out where to go and they managed to find a hotel available for us at Donegal. As this is the 2 weeks all of Ireland goes on holiday, accommodation is slightly trickier to find! We headed back to the hotel, packed, checked out, and had a nice meal at an Irish pub next door, before driving off across the country towards Donegal.
The 3 hour drive was very beautiful, and we stopped briefly at Enniskillen where a fair in the high street was just finishing up, and then on past the beautiful lake Lough Erne, and through the border at Pettigoe, where suddenly all the speed signs changed from miles to kilometres and the town name signs were in Irish as well as English.
We stayed at the Mill Park Hotel, which was delightful, and had a nice meal there and watched the Olympics and Usain Bolt win the 200m before heading off to bed.
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