I don't really know what I was expecting. I think, growing up in Canada in the 80s and 90s, I heard a lot about N. Ireland and Ireland and all the problems. I don't really know how much of it was media overkill (probably not as much as I hope) and, being an ocean away, how much of it really made sense to me. I tended not to pay much attention to the news when I was younger. 9/11 changed a lot of things regarding that.
Whatever it was I expected (or didn't), what I got was an absolutely stunning country with the nicest, more helpful people I have ever met (they beat Scotland, I'm afraid) and a brilliant, if short, holiday.
It's a wonder, at least to someone from North America, that's it's a 45 minute flight from the airport near Leicester to the airport within Belfast. The seatbelt sign doesn't go off. You get up to altitude over the Isle of Man and then promptly start going down again. It's sort of brilliant. Unfortunately, I didn't have clear weather on either flight over the Irish Sea and couldn't see much of anything below.
I was adamant that I was going to be on Giants Causeway for my birthday. I mean adamant. And guess what? I was! I took a great tour (for only £16) up the Coastal Route from Belfast around to the north short of the island. It's a stunning drive through little fishing villages, Ulster University campus (has to be one of the most beautiful campuses I've seen outside of Cambridge or Oxford), passed a few castles to the Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge. People make a big thing about this rope bridge, because it is about 60 feet above very sharp rocks and since it's always windy in Ireland, it's always swaying. In honesty, the walk down the 75 uneven and jagged stone steps was more terrifying. Thankfully they weren't wet! The place is managed by the National Trust, which means it isn't free to get into (you can walk to the bridge, 1.5 miles for free, but the bridge is £5 to cross). Our driver (Davy from Scotland) made a point to say that, if you get over the bridge you better be willing to come back the same way, because it's the only exit from the craggy island you end up on! [They don't send helicopters for love or money, apparently. One girl got stuck on the bridge last year and it took an hour to coax her off.] The views, once on the island, looking west and south along the Irish coast, over to Rathlin Island (which apparently is inhabited, and has a hotel on it, who knew?) and the Scottish islands in the distance. I took SO MANY PICTURES!
Next it was on to the Giants Causeway, the masterpiece of the tour. Again, it's owned by the National Trust, but until the end of June when they complete the butt ugly visitor's centre, it's free to get down to the stones (then it will be £8.50). It's more than a mile walk downhill...or you can take the bus for £1. I took the bus. It was very windy and the sea was quite rough, so most of the stones were wet, which made for interesting climbing. Still, I don't think anyone fell while I was there and I was very careful not to turn an ankle and ruin the rest of the trip! I took a LOT MORE PHOTOS and bemoaned the fact that there is a lot more to see. You can climb up the cliffs to the 'Organ' and then up to the top for a bird's eye view of the Causeway, but there wasn't enough time (I spent 45 minutes on the stones as it was). It started to rain just as I got in line for the bus, and there was a nice little almost-hail storm in 50km/h winds. The sun came out just as the bus showed up! Then it was a quick stop at the gift shop for a few postcards and then off to Bushmills Distillary nearby. I love Bushmills, and after the rain, I really needed a wee tipple to warm up! From there, the tour took the interior route back to Belfast, which apparently is a common commute for a lot of people, as it's only about an hour from the north shore. Wouldn't that be lovely every day? We stopped at the cliff-side Dunluce Castle on the way, with stunning dark clouds in the background. The castle is an interesting one, originally built in the 13th Century, it changed ownership a few times and was rebuilt a few times. And then, one very stormy night, the kitchen fell 70ft down into the sea and took the staff with it. The owners moved out and its been a ruin ever since! We got back to Belfast around 7, so a 9 hour tour for £16! That night I spent a few hours reading in the common room by the coal burning fireplace and the staff sung me Happy Birthday. A great 29th!
Wednesday it was sunny again (shocking), if cold, so I took a two hour open-top bus tour of Belfast and the surrounding neighbourhoods, which focused on the murals. There is some very amazing artwork to be seen, and there's no way you can see it all on foot! The same company that took me to the Causeway did the morning tour and they are very knowledgeable and funny to listen to. The tour guide this time was an Irish girl, but the bus driver was Davy again! Pictures will be up this weekend, and I'll post the link on this post when they are.
After lunch and a bit of shopping I took the free City Hall tour. Definitely worth it (takes about 45 min) and gets you into ALL THE ROOMS. They take you into the actual meeting hall and let you sit in the BIG CHAIR. It helps that the N. Irish government only meets once a month. I assume they don't let you in during those times. The inside is mostly decorated with bright paint colours, bronze chandeliers, and marble from Italy and Greece. Definitely worth it, and hey, free! Then I ran down to Queens University to see Ulster Museum. It sucked. It is the perfect example of how NOT to redo a museum. The only rooms I saw anyone in (by which I mean, anyone actually doing or looking at anything, rather than just passing through) were the two children's activity rooms. The rest of the actual museum? Nadda. I went to the Botanical Gardens afterwards to see the Palm House, which is a oval greenhouse in the Victorian glass style. Much smaller than Kew, but a lovely little respite from the busy city! I walked a bit around the campus, which has really beautiful architecture (lucky bastards) and then went to search out dinner.
Thursday I gathered my things and, since it was finally raining, took a taxi to Titanic Belfast, across the river. This is the new museum, which cost £100 million and opened a month an a half ago for the anniversary. I've visited a lot of museums. I've seen good ones and bad ones and a fair few okay ones. This one? The best I have ever seen.
No joke. I want to live in it. Or at least work in it.
There will be pictures, but I am not going to rehash a description of it. You just need to go visit it yourself and see. Let me put it this way, no other museum has ever made me laugh AND CRY during a visit simply by reading the text panels. The staff are amazing and clearly proud of what they have. And it was certainly busy! It's 6 weeks after opening and still booked out in advance! I will have to go back in a few years when it's a little less busy so that I can spend more time inside. My only issue was that, the way it's designed, you follow a set path through a series of rooms and floors, so you can't go back and the busy flow of traffic keeps you moving forward, so you can't stopped to read everything and I WANTED TO! That never happens! I hate text panels! The interactives were impressively well done, and with a bit of observation, they not only meshed well with the wall information, but weren't distracting at all! The museum is definitely not for children, but that's okay. There's dozens of children's museums around the world. It's about time they made one for the pleasure of adults! I think it's probably a good place for high school students on tours, because they are old enough to really understand the issues presented and what happened. Under 12s though? Probably more of a distraction to their parents then anything. Leave them at home. Parents deserve a few hours of peace in a museum more than anyone.
After the museum I had a great lunch at Victoria Square, after taking the lift up to the dome for a 300* view of the city (the lift takes up the other 60*). Even in the rain, Belfast looked nice. I really fell in love with the city. If I ever need another university, I know of two I'd very much like to attend!