Northern Ireland and NW Rebublic of Ireland

Trip Start Jan 23, 2007
Trip End Jul 2007

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

(View the photos; also, check out this site of photographs of Belfast for reference.)

God, where to begin. From April 6-9, 2007, eight of us, in two rental cars, set out from
Limerick to see the coasts of eastern and northwestern Ireland, as well as tour Northern Ireland (NI). The crew were myself, Philip, Holger, Dorien, Dieteke, Jessica, Dyanna, and Sandra. On the first day, we drove from Limerick to Belfast via Dublin. We stopped to see Newgrange, a prehistoric rock structure, the Hill of Slane, where St. Patrick purportedly lit a bonfire against a king's order and fought against druids, the Hill of Tara, an ancient burial place and the past center of power in Ireland during the times before St. Patrick (pre 400), the site of the Battle of the Boyne, and a couple coastal towns in NI.

Late that night (Friday), we arrived at the Belfast International Youth Hostel in Belfast. After eating dinner (half of us bought fast food, while the other half made sandwiches in the car because the kitchen had already closed), several of us wandered around the City Centre. The city was pretty active at night, and we saw lots of Crimestoppers (police in NI) cruising around in their armored jeeps (not the most encouraging sight). We were tired from a long day of driving, so we soon headed to bed.

The next morning, we all wandered around the Queen's Quarter, viewing the beautiful Queen's University and the surrounding botanical gardens. The architecture of the area was quite exquisite as well, and that rather surprised me. I had initial conceptions about Belfast that were not reflected in most of the areas we visited, which were greatly influenced by mainland European and English architectural styles and were very beautiful. It struck me that Belfast was not so much an Irish city as a cosmopolitan European city. Now that's just my opinion based on the architecture and feel of the city, but I think it's a valid speculation. Anyway, I split up from the rest of the group to spend a little more time in the botanical gardens and walking along the river (plus, it's nice to have some alone time when you've been in a large group for too long). I had a pleasant walk, saw some nice scenery, and enjoyed some ice cream at a wonderful closed-roof market in the city before heading back to the hostel to meet up with the rest of the group.

From the hostel, we departed for the north coast, but not without first (accidentally) visiting the political murals of Belfast. A testament to the hardships and troubles which plagued the area for so many years, the murals have thankfully become relics of a not-too-distant past, rather than inspiration for any more violence. After viewing them, and then having lunch at a castle just north of Belfast, we drove on to the Giant's Causeway. This area is on the north coast of NI and is known for the strange, hexagonal-shaped columns of rock which populate a large portion of the area. Formed by ancient volcanic activity, the columns are quite awe-inspiring (and fun to walk on). Since it costs a fee to park your car in the tourist area, only half of us went down to the actual causeway while the other half visited the beach in nearby Bushmills (of course, we switched roles the next day so that the others could visit the causeway as well).

From the causeway, we backtracked to Ballintoy (near Ballycastle) to find our accomodation for the night, the Sheep Island View Hostel. The girls cooked up a delicious meal of pasta, we had a few drinks to commemorate the occasion, then we all settled down to a wonderful night of sleep in the accomodating hostel.

On Sunday, we drove to the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge (a famous bridge used for centuries by fishermen to reach a small rock island and make the best catches of migrating salmon), although Sandra and I opted not to pay the fee and walk over the bridge because of our shared acrophobia (looking back on the pictures and videos that the others brought back, however, I don't think I would have had any problem traversing the bridge). Then we went back to the Giant's Causeway so that the others could check it out, while those of us who saw it on Saturday continued on to a beach in Bushmills.

After we had all gathered together again, we made our way along the coastal route, stopping to see the well-preserved Dunluce Castle. Following that, we finished up our time in NI and crossed over near (London)Derry back into the Republic. We had an enjoyable, bumpy ride on the not-so-well-maintained roads of Donegal and, after a few hours of wrong paths, found the area where we would be staying for the night. Before heading to the hostel, though, we made our way to the amazing cliffs of Slieve League (apparently the tallest [non-sheer] cliffs in Western Europe, and they certainly seem it). We were treated to the most beautiful sunset I've seen to date, and the entire area was just surreal.

Eventually, we made our way back down the mountain to our hostel (Derrylahan Independent Hostel) in Kilcar. We were greeted with hot tea, cookies, and the utmost hospitality, and shown to the separate guest house which we shared with several other travelers. Philip and Holger prepared us a delicious dinner, and we finished the night off with pleasant conversation in front of the peat fireplace.

On our last day, Monday, we left Donegal and proceeded to a tour of the Marble Arch Caves, one of the European Geoparks, which was very enjoyable (although I still hold that the Lewis and Clark Caverns in Montana are more fun :-). That would be the last of the sites we visited on our trip, and then we were on the road back to Limerick. All in all, it was a good trip full of beautiful scenery, neat experiences, and fun times.

P.S. When we passed from NI to Donegal, we found a neat restaurant called Montana's Cafe in Letterkenny, but, unfortunately, it was closed.
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