Spring Break: Northern Ireland

6 April 2010 | 2 Comments

My spring break saga continues. … I woke up in my IKEA-esque bed in Pisa, Italy, ready for a whole day of traveling. (I am almost certain that all the furniture in our hostel/apartment was from the famous Swedish furniture store bedecked with blue and yellow.) Jenica and Melissa’s mission to accompany Mary to the airport at 4 AM had been a success. (Mary had had an early flight out of Italy than the rest of us.) We hopped on a bus, but didn’t bother buying tickets. There seemed to be no system for checking if you had paid the fare or not, so we just “reused” our tickets from the day before. We had a while before we had to get to the airport later than morning, so we sat under the portico of a cafe, where I had a cappuccino and an apple tart. When we finally arrived at the airport, check-in and security was easy, but our flight was delayed by a whole hour. I began to get worried that if the flight was delayed any longer, I would miss my train from Glasgow to Stranraer, where I needed to be to hop on the Stena Line ferry to Belfast. It just seemed like everything in Italy was much more laid back and timetables did not matter as much as they do in England.

I’m on a Boat

Approximately 3 hours later we landed at Glasgow Prestwick. Here I departed from my Italy group. Off by myself to get to Belfast, Northern Ireland. It was thrilling to travel alone. Mary had already left us in Italy, as I mentioned, but the other four were heading north into Scotland, while I was heading south to the harbor of Stranraer. For a few minutes, we were on opposite sides of the Prestwick station tracks. They got on their anytime-train to Glagow Central before my Stranraer train came, but eventually mine came, too. I was swept away through the Scottish countryside, a gorgeous country, as the sun was setting and rabbits were scurrying and little lambs were grazing next to their mothers. I enjoyed listening to a bunch of Scottish women and their daughters on the train ride. It hardly sounded like they were speaking English their accents were so thick, but they were making jokes and laughing a lot. Half the time I had no clue what they were laughing at, but couldn’t hold back a grin.

Just before 7 PM, the train pulled up right next to the ferry at Stranraer Harbour. After a painless check-in and security point, I waited in the holding area before boarding the boat, watching an episode of “Dr. Who.” Once I was on the ferry, I found it to be very roomy and comfortable. I had pre-ordered a meal and was delighted to discover that by reserving a meal I had saved a few pounds. And they didn’t skimp either: I had a very large portion of fish and chips with mushy peas! (I was glad to have such a filling meal since I had not eaten much all day, refusing to buy anything from the ridiculously-priced Ryanair menu.)

I bought a map of Belfast from the shop on board. I was going into a large and unfamiliar city late at night, and I was not about to get lost, especially when I was alone. I even got to check my email on board and surf the web. The ferry had free Internet. I didn’t think it was possible to have Internet connections on ships. I’m not sure why I had that erroneous assumption.


Around 10 PM, the ferry slowly glided into the net of lights that was Belfast. Lights made the only distinction between the land and water. After disembarkation, even though I had a newly purchased map, the street configuration looked far to complicated for me to navigate in the dark, and I was not sure exactly how long it would take me to walk to my hostel from the port. So I hired a taxi to take me to 68 Lisburn Road, Paddy’s Palace. After a long day of travel, it was nice to get somewhere quickly. But I was in Belfast, home of C.S. Lewis and the Titanic.

It was a rough night of sleep, however, my first night at Paddy’s Palace. I was in a room with 11 strangers. People kept coming in and out of the dorm room throughout the night, and I was not used to sleeping in a room full of people I did not know. The comforting thought in my mind was that I would find Mary in the morning. Yes, the same Mary who had left Italy before the rest of us. The reason she did so was to meet up with her family (who was coming to visit her) in England first, then they were coming to Belfast. (Just in case you were wondering, it was not a coincidence that we were there at the same time. Back in February or March when I was planning my spring break, I found out that Mary and her family would be staying in Belfast the same dates I wanted to, and I worked it out to stay in the same exact hostel as them. It was planned. Predestined, perhaps, if you are Calvinist.)

Belfast City Hall

Belfast City Hall

Easter Sunday

What do you know? The first person I met when I got out of my 12-person dorm room in the morning was Mary! Yay! That meant that both she and her family and I had all made it to Belfast safe and sound. I met her dad, mom, and sister Sarah, and we all sat down for breakfast together in the common room. Since it was Easter Sunday, we all wanted to find a church to worship in.

Our search for a church turned into a lesson in learning all the streets of central Belfast. We wandered all over looking for somewhere to worship. Of all places, we finally ended up in a Catholic church (yeah, a Catholic church of all places, in mostly-Protestant Northern Ireland), but the service was nearly over. We didn’t go looking for another church, but at least we did a little something for Easter. After all, we were in a very cool city. I’d say that’s a form of worship.

Monument to Queen Victoria and the Belfast Wheel at Belfast City Hall

Monument to Queen Victoria and the Belfast Wheel at Belfast City Hall

Next we found the beautiful Belfast City Hall in Donegall Square. Belfast has it’s own version of the London Eye, the Belfast Wheel, right next to City Hall. The City Hall had just been renovated inside as recently as 2009. Everything inside was elegant and exquisitely decorated. I had tea and a fruit shortcake in the Bobbin Cafe, which was inside the City Hall. On the upper floor there was an exhibition on the RMS Titanic, the unsinkable ship that sunk in the Atlantic, which was built in the H & W (Harland and Wolff) shipyard in Belfast for the White Star Line. The exhibition was full of posters, portraits, and artifacts from people involved with the making and sailing of the fated ship, even a few items salvaged from the wreck. … Outside again, we passed the Crown Liquor Saloon on Great Victoria Street. I really wanted to get a drink there because it was simply too cool of a building–one of the oldest pubs in Belfast, apparently, and a prime example of a Victorian gin palace. But it was closed for Easter. …

While Mary’s family went for lunch at Bishop’s Fish and Chips (I had my own sack lunch), I went to Belfast Central train station to buy my tickets to Drogheda, Ireland, my destination for Tuesday. I didn’t want to buy them last minute. … Incidentally, the Europa Hotel across the street from the Saloon has been bombed many times during the Troubles, and the Royal Mail post office on the upper side of Belfast (I was told) has been bombed over 30 times in it’s existence. I didn’t go to the west side of the city, except once to capture a picture of a Loyalist political mural, which spoke volumes about the city’s past. ..

Crown Liquor Saloon on Great Victoria Street

Crown Liquor Saloon on Great Victoria Street

Loyalist political mural in Belfast - signs of the Troubles

Loyalist political mural in Belfast – signs of the Troubles

Queen’s University of Belfast and the Botanic Gardens was our next stop. The architecture of the university is stunning with its earthy-red brick. I find that visiting big universities in the great cities of the world is usually a very fruitful experience. They are usually the prettiest and best maintained parts of a city. We walked on to the Botanic Gardens, behind the university, and saw the Palm House glass greenhouse, filled with lots of colorful flowers. Flowers always make me happy. I love taking (especially macro) pictures of all the native (and non-native) flowers the places I go. On the grounds of the gardens was the Ulster Museum. We explored inside for a while since it was a free museum. There were a few cool things there, but the Ulster Museum was not particularly unique (except maybe the architecture). I think we spent more time in the kiddie section drawing Easter pictures, like creatures hatching out of eggs (I drew a crocodile breaking threw its shell to be funny) and faces on the templates provided.

Mary’s family went back to the hostel to rest up a bit before dinner, and in the meanwhile, I went in search of a street called Eileen Gardens that I had seen on the map, not too far from our hostel. My mom’s name is Eileen, and she likes gardens and gardening, so I thought it would be fun to go take a picture of the street sign for her, and it was an excuse to explore residential Belfast. … I just have to say now, and it may not mean much to most of my readers, but Belfast, to me, is a strange mix of York, England, where I am living for the semester, and Grand Rapids, Michigan, my home in the States. Belfast had an uncanny mix of the old terraced housing of York and the modern buildings of G.R., and it was about the same size or slightly larger than G.R., by my visual estimate. I loved walking the streets of Belfast. I felt like I could live there contentedly–maybe because it felt so much like two of my favorite cities of the world: York and G.R. … Turns out Eileen Gardens was a delightful little street with a few houses, everything you’d expect of a street with the name Eileen Gardens–very garden-like.

I got back to the hostel and learned to play Funny Rummy with Sarah and Mary. If you know me, I am not much of a card game person, but this is the second card game I had learned this spring break, just a few days before in Italy I had learned Hearts. … We went out for a later dinner, around 10 PM, because Mary’s parents wanted to find a pub that was playing authentic Irish music. Unfortunately, since many pubs were closed or didn’t have their regularly scheduled musicians because of the Easter weekend, we ended up at a Chinese restaurant! (I feel like that became a theme, somewhat–ending up at places we didn’t expect.) But it was fun and delicious. … I slept pretty soundly my second night in the 12-person dorm room. It must have been the combination of walking all around Belfast and that I took ibuprofen–which always knocks me out–and I actually had met a few people in the room before going to bed. The next day I would get a free tour to Giant’s Causeway and Londonderry (among other places) courtesy of my hostel, so I had that to look forward to!

Me standing in front of Queen's University of Belfast

Me standing in front of Queen’s University of Belfast

Sarah and Mary B. in the Belfast Botanic Gardens

Sarah and Mary B. in the Belfast Botanic Gardens

The glass Palm House in the Belfast Botanic Gardens

The glass Palm House in the Belfast Botanic Gardens

Inside the glass Palm House in the Belfast Botanic Gardens

Inside the glass Palm House in the Belfast Botanic Gardens


The free tour to Giant’s Causeway and Londonderry was set to leave at 9:30 AM. After a breakfast of toast and jam in the hostel, I went to the local Spar to get a few things for my lunch. Just when people were organizing to get on the tour bus, the tour manager told me that they had overbooked the tour, and I might not be able to come on! I was almost devastated and confused! I wanted to go to Giant’s Causeway so badly. It’s one of the top reasons I came to Northern Ireland in the first place. You can’t do this to me, I thought. I didn’t want to go on a different tour either, because I wanted to be on the same one as Mary’s family. That was the plan all along. But I got lucky! (Oh, lucky Ireland!) The tour guide let me get on the bus on the condition that if some people did not show up at the next two pick-up points, I would not be kicked off. It was nerve-wracking waited, and maybe not so good of me to pray that no one else would come on the bus, but I made it through. It turned out that there were just enough seats that they could let me continue on for the tour. Phew!

Our tour was organized by PaddyWagon, and our tour guide was very funny, telling a lot of corny Irish jokes. I must say he had the strangest selection of music for us to listen to in the gaps between his narratives. He used his iPod to play music on the bus, and it ranged from Lady GaGa to traditional Irish céilidh music. I was not particularly fond of having Lady GaGa stuck in my head while I was in Ireland. (Go away, GaGa!) … As we were passing out of the port of Belfast, our guide pointed out the large “crayons” with the letters H and W painted on them. At least that’s what it sounded like he was saying. “Crayons.” It took many of us on the tour a few moments to figure out he was saying “cranes”–and he was pointed out the Harland and Wolff cranes that built the Titanic. Hilarious.

Carrick-a-Rede: you can't see the rope bridge from this angle, but can see Rathlin Island, and Scotland in the distance

Carrick-a-Rede: you can’t see the rope bridge from this angle, but can see Rathlin Island, and Scotland in the distance

Our first stop was the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. It cost 5 pounds to cross the bridge, so I didn’t do it, but it was still a nifty place to visit. The narrow rope bridge was constructed by fisherman who wanted to get closer to the water to lay their nets where higher densities of salmon (I believe) swam. From Carrick-a-Rede we had cool views of Rathlin Island and Scotland, across the sea, approximately 12 miles away at the nearest point. … Are you beginning to see a theme in my spring break? A lot of it was spent on coastlines if you haven’t already noticed. The Northern Irish coast was spectacular and different, yet again, than Cinque Terre, Italy, the way it sloped–almost like a tilted landslide–into the water with its soft curves and clumpy grasses.

Giant’s Causeway

Giant’s Causeway was our next stop and by far my favorite thing I had seen on my spring break up to that point. It was also one of the windiest places on earth I’ve ever experienced. My tiny camera nearly blew out my hands three or four times when I climbed up onto this amazing tribute to millions of years of geology–columnar basalt that one could climb like stairs, a paved road that sunk into the sea, a polygonal playground.

Columnar basalt of Giant's Causeway

Columnar basalt of Giant’s Causeway

Algae growing on the polygonal rocks of Giant's Causeway

Algae growing on the polygonal rocks of Giant’s Causeway

Me braving the strong wind gusts at Giant's Causeway - do I look like Finn MacCool or no?

Me braving the strong wind gusts at Giant’s Causeway – do I look like Finn MacCool or no?

The real story of how all this columnar basalt formed has something to do with volcanoes (which unbeknownst to me at the time, would become a bigger theme in my spring break–more on that later), but the legend of Finn MacCool (Irish: Fionn mac Cumhaill) is a much, well, cooler explanation of how these wonders of geometry and geology got there. There are many versions of the legend, but most involve a rivalry between the Irish giant Finn and a Scottish giant on the other side of the sea. (Remember how I said Scotland is very close to Ireland near this point?) The rivalry involves a female giant, so you can imagine the jealousy. The Scottish giant builds a roadway across the sea–hence Giant’s Causeway–to get to Ireland to fight MacCool and steal his woman, but when MacCool cleverly acts as his lover’s baby, the Scottish giant gets scared. If her baby is that big, how much bigger is Finn MacCool? So the Scottish giant runs back to Ireland on the causeway, tearing it apart as he goes–that’s why only this section remains on the Irish coast today… Cool stuff, huh?



Stroke City

I could have spent much more time at Giant’s Causeway, but our tour was moving on. We passed by Dunluce Castle on the way to our last stop, Londonderry. I titled this section “Stroke City” so that I could take the opportunity to tell you why Londonderry is often called Stroke City. No, it’s not because people there are at a higher risk of stroke. It has to do with the Troubles. The Troubles, in short, is what the Irish people call the long conflict between mostly-Catholic Republic of Ireland and the mostly-Protestant Northern Ireland, the fight between Irish nationalists and loyalists or unionists (those who want to remain a part of the United Kingdom). I can’t confirm this, but Londonderry has seen much or most of the conflict of the Troubles: hunger strikes, political murals, bombings, shootings, IRA attacks, threats of violence. You name it. …

About the name: on the one hand, Irish nationalists and/or Catholics like to call the city Derry. They don’t want any association whatsoever with the capital city of the U.K., London. They loathe all things Royal. On the other hand, Unionists and/or Protestants like to call the city Londonderry. They don’t mind being associated with the United Kingdom. Therefore, those who want to appear neutral will call it Stroke City because often the name was written Londonderry/Derry or Londonderry-Derry to avoid angering one side or the other, and the dash or slash in the middle is called a “stroke.” Stroke City. …

Another name they often call it to avoid offending one side or the other is the Walled City because that describes it exactly. Londonderry has one of the most intact and best kept walls of any European city. The walls were built in the 1600s, mainly because the Ulster Plantations that were at the beginning of this whole unionist-versus-nationalist conflict, and the people needed to protect their city from attack. There were/are too many wars in Ireland to count. In fact, just 3 weeks prior to my visit in Londonderry, according to my tour guide, there had been a bomb threat on the Craigavon Bridge across the River Foyle in Londonderry. It’s an important double-decker bridge that facilitates traffic inflow and outflow to and from the city center.

It’s still hard for me to believe, but maybe because I feel like such an outsider to this conflict, that even 12 years after the 1998 peace accord that was made–the Belfast Agreement or Good Friday Agreement–that such violence and nonsense still goes on. Healing takes a long, long, long time. It’s such a shame that such a wonderful country with beautiful cities like Belfast and Londonderry and gorgeous landscapes like Giant’s Causeway–could be so scarred by war and conflict. …

We went the fast way back to Belfast over the Sperrin Mountains. Snow still remained in some of the crevices of the hills. Apparently the week before a big snow storm had hit and people could not even pass over the mountains. Now most of that snow was melted, so we could get through. … To celebrate our last night in Belfast, we went to Lavery’s Bar, where I had an Ulster Fry (like a full English breakfast) for dinner, including black pudding, which is congealed fried-up blood. In all honesty, I really like black pudding. It tasted somewhere between a brownie and grits from a pan. I washed it all down with a pint of Guinness, the dark and bitter beer of Ireland that I just had to try while I was on that island. So good. Such a good way to end my time in Belfast before I went off on my own again. I’d miss hanging out with Mary’s family. It felt a bit like I was with my own family for 2 days, but I was also excited to go sout into the Republic the next day–which will be the topic of my next spring break recap post.

At Lavery's Bar in Belfast with the girls; I have a pint of Guinness - what else would I be drinking in (Northern) Ireland?

At Lavery’s Bar in Belfast with the girls; I have a pint of Guinness – what else would I be drinking in (Northern) Ireland?

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  1. […] more beautiful the further north we went. This was only my second journey into Scotland (the first had been from Glasgow to Stranraer on my way to Northern Ireland), but each time it seemed like we had excellent views and […]

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