Saturday, November 26, 2016

Northern Ireland

Trip Date: November 2016

After a great few days exploring London we boarded a plane and headed to Belfast, Northern Ireland. There were quite a few things we wanted to see in Northern Ireland, so we rented a car for ease of travel. We spent a couple of days in Belfast before hitting the road and heading for the northern coast. 

Northern Ireland's Flag
Northern Ireland is one of the four countries that make-up the United Kingdom (the others being England, Scotland, and Wales). The capital and largest city is Belfast, while the population of the whole country is just over 1.8 million people. The flag you see above is the official flag of Northern Ireland, but there has been a lot of civil unrest (commonly called The Troubles) within the country since the late 1960's and there's a strong division amongst the population. The unionists/loyalists, who are mostly Protestants, consider themselves British and want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, whereas the nationalists/republicans, who are predominantly Catholic and consider themselves Irish, want to separate from the United Kingdom and create a united Ireland. The unionists fly the flag you see above, while the nationalists will fly the Irish tri-colour to show support for their beliefs. The Troubles officially ended with the Belfast "Good Friday" Agreement in 1998, but there has been sporadic violence since then.

Northern Ireland (dark green) as part of the United Kingdom (light green)
We weren't nervous to be in Belfast, but we had read that tensions still run pretty high in certain places so being smart and aware (like you should while traveling anywhere) were important during our time in the country. I am happy to report, however, that we did not experience any negatives our entire time in Northern Ireland and it was a spectacularly beautiful place that I would have liked to have spent more time in. As previously mentioned we started our trip through Northern Ireland in Belfast. Our hotel was quite central so we were able to walk to most of the sites including City Hall, which was completed in 1906.

Belfast City Hall
The Big Fish is a large sculpture of a salmon that is adorned in ceramic tiles, which are covered in news stories relating to the history of Belfast
Close to the Big Fish is the Albert Memorial Clock; Belfast's version of the Leaning Tower in Pisa! Built in marshy land atop wooden piles the Albert Clock had a substantial lean until recent renovations corrected the issue. It remains in Queen's Square as it has since being built in 1869 as a memorial to Queen Victoria's late Prince Consort, Prince Albert. Today the clock is one of Belfast's best known landmarks.

Albert Memorial Clock
St. Anne's Cathedral, also known as Belfast Cathedral, was completed in 1904 and is the focal point of the Cathedral Quarter in the city.

St. Anne's Cathedral in Belfast
While walking down Donegall Place the clouds parted revealing a crescent moon high above a glowing City Hall
During our second day in Belfast we ventured a little farther afield, which required our rental car. I wanted to see the Peace Walls that were erected across the city in 1969. The intent of the walls was to separate Catholics from Protestants with the hope of reducing the violence that plagued the city. The walls range in length from a few hundred metres to over 5km (3 mi) and some even have gates that are open during daylight hours but are still closed at night. Viewing the walls was a sobering experience and I couldn't help but wonder why the walls remain even after the signing of the Good Friday agreement in the late '90's.

This section of the Peace Wall is covered in graffiti
Belfast Castle is located on the slopes of Cavehill and overlooks the city. It was originally built as a private residence in the 1800's, but today is a popular venue for conferences and weddings.

Belfast Castle
Christine on the back steps of the castle
RMS Titanic was built in the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast between 1909 and 1911. Today, on the exact spot she was originally constructed, there is a large monument and museum dedicated to the ill-fated ship that sank after striking an iceberg on her maiden voyage in 1912. Titanic Belfast opened in 2012 and is dedicated to the city's maritime history, especially the Titanic and her sister ships RMS Olympic and HMHS Brittanic.

I actually had three great grandparents who purchased tickets for Titanic's maiden voyage, but luckily all three somehow missed the boat! I guess sometimes it's okay to be late!!

Titanic Belfast sits in the Titanic Quarter of the city
This is the slipway where Titanic was constructed. The blue line indicates the outline of the massive ship.
After thoroughly exploring the city, and enjoying more than one of Belfast's historic pubs, we were up early to hit the road. We had a long day of driving and site-seeing ahead of us. Our first stop of the day was the Dark Hedges. This eerily beautiful row of 200-year-old Beech Trees was made famous by HBO's hit series Game of Thrones. Today the Dark Hedges are one of Northern Ireland's most photographed natural phenomenons, which is saying something when the country is also home to the Giant's Causeway. We were more than surprised when we arrived at the Dark Hedges only to discover that we had the entire place completely to ourselves. We spent a fair bit of time walking the roadway and photographing the trees without ever seeing another sole! Isn't off-season travel the best?

The Dark Hedges
Next up was one of Northern Ireland's most popular tourist destinations; the Giant's Causeway. According to legend the Irish giant Finn MacCool was challenged to a fight by the Scottish giant Benandonner. In order for the two to meet to do battle MacCool built the Giant's Causeway across the North Channel. It has also been said that the 40,000 interlocking basalt columns are the result of an ancient volcanic eruption. Whichever version of events you believe, the Giant's Causeway is filled with mystery and awe and is more than worth a visit! The Giant's Causeway was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986 and a National Nature Reserve in 1987. I had wanted to see the Causeway for a long time so I'm really glad we made the trip to the Causeway Coast. Even though it was raining throughout the day we still managed to enjoy ourselves exploring the unique geology of the entire area.

Christine standing beside the Organ formation
The Giant's Causeway
The Causeway stretches all the way into the sea
The rain made all the rocks very slippery
Chimney Stacks in the distance
This unique rock, known as the Giant's Boot, is said to have belonged to Finn MacCool
Our final stop in Northern Ireland was Dunluce Castle. This now-ruined medieval castle is perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean. The castle was built about 1,500 years ago and now stands as a relic of the past. Due to the rain and extremely cold wind blowing in off of the water I had the entire place to myself (Christine was too cold from the Giant's Causeway to explore the castle with me).

The ruins of Dunluce Castle
Exploring the castle while trying to stay warm
The Gatehouse controlled entrance to the inner-workings of the castle
View of the castle from the East Tower
Dunluce Castle perched on the edge of steep cliffs
We really enjoyed our time in Northern Ireland, but we had to keep moving. Our next stop was Kilronan Castle, an ancient castle that had been transformed into a luxury hotel. We drove across the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland in the dark and the only indication we had entered a new country was the change in speed limit signs from Imperial to Metric. We were both excited to see what new adventures awaited us as we entered Ireland for the first time!

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