Belfast was the last stop of our vacation. It was a stop I was really looking forward to, but also dreading because it meant the end of an incredible time. But we had no time to waste. We arrived in Belfast around 1:45pm on Wednesday and had a tour arranged with our concierge by 2:00pm. The first item on the itinerary? A black taxi tour. In a yellow taxi. But whatever.
Black taxi tours are tours of the political murals in the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods of Falls Road and Shankhill Road, respectively. Although the Troubles are over and there has been a truce for over 15 years, it is still a very sensitive subject. I was really interested in this because although Ireland is rich in history, the history of my youth is the Troubles. Tourists are advised not to talk to randoms about the Troubles, but to ask questions of your cab driver on these tours.
It was incredible. We started in the Protestant neighborhood and our cabbie gave us the rundown of the history and described some of the murals. Then he let us go off on our own and take photos. When we were finished, he brought us through the gates that separate the neighborhoods (which are still closed by 10pm each night) and to the Peace Wall. I think this was one of the most powerful things we did in Ireland. Seeing how long and tall the wall is (much larger than the Berlin Wall was) and how many signatures are on it is overwhelming. We each signed the wall and left a message of peace for the residents. The cabbie said the wall will never come down. Neither side wants it down. It is so unfortunate, but at least there is peace, I guess.
Then we went to the Catholic side and visited Bombay Street and the Clonard Martyrs Memorial Garden. This memorial is not only for those killed in the Troubles, but for all Catholics who died over the years fighting for Ireland’s independence from Britain. The cabbie then brought us to the largest monastery in Northern Ireland, which was very beautiful. Again, the cabbie told us about it and let us go inside on our own. I was speculating that the cabbie was Protestant, but then realized that he let us go on our own each time. So the fact that he did not enter the church wasn’t necessarily proof either way.
Finally, he brought us to one of the Catholic murals, the one of Bobby Sands. He said the Catholics’ murals change often, unlike the Protestants’, so this was the main one. But then he brought us to the International Wall and showed us the Catholic murals there. There was one mural that was done by both Catholics and Protestants…they believed that if they could work together on one small thing, they could start working together on other things.
One of the most interesting things I learned here, was that the Catholics are pro-Palestinian and the Protestants are pro-Israeli. I had to ask the cabbie to repeat himself because I thought I had heard wrong. But I guess when you think of it in terms of land, it makes sense. The Catholics in Northern Ireland believe that Ireland belongs to them and the British are squatters and took what was theirs. Which is how the Palestinians feel. Whereas the Protestants in Northern Ireland believe that Britain rightfully owns the land (properly through the treaty), much like Israel believes the land rightfully belongs to them.
The cabbie then dropped us at the Titanic Exhibit. Disclaimer: I have never seen the movie. Ever. And I never will. (That is a story for another day.) But because we were in Ireland in 2012, i.e. the 100th anniversary of the Titanic, I felt it only appropriate that we visit. Plus, the Exhibit was just opened this spring in honor of the anniversary. It was pretty neat. It was a great mix of mediums. There was even a ride in it! But if I have to hear that song one more time…
We caught a different cab back into city centre and ate dinner at Robinson’s, a pub across from our hotel. The Europa. Which is also known as the most bombed hotel in the world (during the Troubles). It was a lovely hotel and I even had a celebrity sighting! As we went up to our room after dinner, we rode in the elevator with Thomas Sangster, the actor who played Sam in Love Actually! He looked exactly the same, just older. I had to try not to stare and Loren did not know what was going on or why I whispered to her, “we have to get on this elevator!” I also resisted the urge to quote the move to him. I was thinking something along the lines of, “you really want to know?” “I really want to know.” “well, the truth is, actually, I’m in love.” But I didn’t want him to call the police on me or something!
We stayed in that night because Loren wasn’t feeling well and I caught up on some internet stuff. Though, again, like my hotel in SF, we stay at a nice hotel and get nickel and dimed. No free wifi. So frustrating.
The next day we got up and drove north to the Antrim Coast. We visited Giant’s Causeway first. So incredibly beautiful. The basalt columns are so interesting. To think that a volcano made them. Ok, so really it was Finn McCool, but whatever. (I told my little brother all about Finn McCool tonight and showed him pictures to go along with his souvenirs…toward the end of the night, he asked our dad, “Is the giant just a myth?”) I also learned that it is the windiest place in Ireland, and man, I don’t doubt it. The wind was unreal. And though it started out overcast, the sun was out before we left.
From there we went to the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge. You have to hike in about 1km, but by this point the sun was out in full force. It was amazing. The water was so blue and green, it almost looked tropical! Ireland really is blue and green. (Well, for us…we had very little rain, so perhaps it’s not as blue and green at other times!) The bridge was so cool. It was windy, but the island on the other side was neat. The ground was so spongy you could actually see the impression your foot was making in the ground. The cliffs, the islands, and the water was so awesome.
We had lunch in Bushmill’s and walked around the little town a bit before heading to the distillery. We were too late for a tour, but got to hit the gift shop. And we took a few photos. Then we headed back into Belfast and had dinner at Robinson’s again. This time upstairs in the bistro. My lasagna came with chips. Seriously, everything comes with chips. Everything.
Then we went to the Crown Bar next door, which is the oldest pub in Belfast. The owner was Catholic and his wife was Protestant. She won out when it came to naming the place (Crown), but he placed the crown logo on the ground at the front door so everyone would have to step on it to enter! It is outfitted with snugs and old-fashioned gun-metal plates for lighting matches and antique bells for letting the staff know when you were ready for another. Unfortunately they are no longer in service!
We didn’t have too much luck with the men in Belfast, but we did meet a New Yorker at the Crown. He came into our snug and asked if he could sit down. He was clearly inebriated and told us that we looked like soap opera stars. Um, thank you? He told us all about his former love, a Swedish girl he met on Farmville (because Loren told him her ancestry was Swedish). He told us that we had excellent teeth and that I looked like I took “no shit from anybody.” I guess he really can read people! Someone came to get him, thankfully, but he still became weirdo #3.
The last stop of the evening was back to the piano bar in our hotel. We sat mulling over the trip and I had to fight back the tears. If I dwelled on the trip or the impending flight home, I think I would’ve lost it. I held it together until my dad’s wife picked me up at the airport. Then I cried.
I will be back, Ireland.