Saturday, December 4, 2010

'Twas In The Town Of Belfast

(And some other places, too.)

Thanksgiving weekend (last weekend for the non-Americans), after a late night Skype date on Wednesday with my entire family including my grandmother and one of my aunts, was the trip to Northern Ireland.

I’m not sure how long it would take to drive directly from Cork to Belfast. For us, going first to Dublin to pick up the IFSA Butler students studying there and in Maynooth, it took a solid six hours, not including the brief stop in Dublin. It’s something I’ve remarked on before in contrasting my experiences living in an urban setting in PA and a rural one in OH, but it never ceases to surprise me how much your surroundings can affect your perception of distance. Six hours is a long drive in America, too, but nowhere near as unbearable as it seems here where I’ve gotten used to getting everywhere within no more than an hour or two. On the other hand, walking thirty or forty minutes to get somewhere is something I’d have to be really in the mood for and have nice weather for back home, whereas here it’s normal. Not having a car really changes the definition of “walking distance.” Of course, a big part of it is that here I am always in compact cities or towns—not everywhere I might consider walking in Bethlehem or in Ohio is necessarily pedestrian-friendly.

But I digress. The most striking thing to me about the drive to Belfast was that I had absolutely no idea when or where we crossed into Northern Ireland. I was expecting it to be fairly obvious. I mean, it is technically another country, and I’m not sure I’ve ever crossed a border without realizing it before.* I wasn’t expecting it to be a big deal (certainly not like crossing borders in Central America… holy crap), but I thought there’d be something.

Oh well. Belfast is a small city. Our tour guide the following morning was going to claim it was no more than a mile square, which I suspect is untrue (I’m not sure what she meant, but there’s no way the whole city is that small; probably not even the downtown area) but it’s probably not as big in area as Cork, anyway. It does have more people than Cork. It does not have more people than the Lehigh Valley. I believe it’s comparable to Winston-Salem. And it’s the second largest city in all of Ireland.

The city centre area, where we stayed, is pretty enough, and currently filled with Christmas decorations. Outside the city centre there are some much rougher-looking neighborhoods. Carolyn and Kristin and I walked as far as the Queen’s University on Saturday afternoon, though, and the university neighborhood seems fairly quiet and attractive. I think I expected the city as a whole to be a lot harder and seedier than it actually is. I think I could have been happy living there. Especially if I didn’t have to live so bloody far away from everything the way I do in Cork.

We also went to the Ulster Museum, which was moderately interesting. It’s a history museum and a natural history museum and an art museum all rolled into one. (We skipped the art floor.) I thought it was pretty nifty to be able to learn about the Troubles and look at stuff from a Spanish shipwreck and see dinosaur fossils all in the same place.

Thursday night the Butler staff had arranged a “Thanksgiving” dinner for us at a
neighboring hotel. The restaurant was really nice, and, like everywhere else in Ireland, already had Christmas decorations up, which made the Thanksgiving confetti scattered on our tables pretty funny.**

Dinner was, as someone else put it, “a good try.” The food was decent, but they focused more on presentation than on quantity, which I guess is typical for a fancy restaurant, but is not the point of Thanksgiving dinner. Also, the two Thanksgiving staples that should have been guaranteed to be present in Ireland—bread and mashed potatoes—were missing, much to our disappointment. BUT, the turkey was free-range, and dessert, which was practically a meal in itself, was fantastic.

Belfast’s City Hall is home to an awesome outdoor holiday market, with stalls selling all kinds of gifts and decorations and tons of awesome international food and sweets you’ve never even thought of before. I drank mulled wine and ate a kangaroo burger! because who knows when I’ll have another chance at that. There must have been half a dozen places to buy crepes, Bailey’s hot chocolate abounded in multiple flavors, and I’ve never seen so much fudge in one place before. And it’s basically on City Hall’s front lawn, and the building is all lit up at night. It’s really lovely and it made the snow fun instead of annoying.

On Friday morning we had our tour of the Antrim coast. Beautiful, and so different from other parts of the coast I’ve been to. Very very rocky. According to our tour guide (although, see my above comment about what she said about Belfast and decide for yourself whether you believe her), it’s someone’s job to drive along part of the coastal road early every morning and make sure there haven’t been any rock falls that need to be cleared away.

Also—you can see Scotland!

Our first destination was the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, which is maybe twenty meters long and suspended over the ocean between two cliffs. Apparently it was first built by fisherman, but whenever that may have been I sincerely doubt it was the same bridge that’s there now. I know this because I was able to cross the bridge that’s there now. Needless to say, I did not look forward to it, and I considered not doing it right up until it was my turn. But it’s far sturdier than anything I’ve ever imagined from the term “rope bridge.”

I still snapped when people*** decided on the way back that jumping up and down on it would be fun.

I’m a little disappointed that it wasn’t quite as dramatic as expected, although for me, something more epic probably would been a no-go.

Next stop: Dunluce Castle, allegedly with one of the most dramatic settings of any castle in Ireland.

Honestly, I was kind of indifferent. I was riding along thinking how absurdly pretentious it seemed to be mildly bored of castles. But bored I thought I was.

Then we saw it.

As our guide put it, even Scottish visitors have to admit it’s pretty impressive.

It’s literally on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea. When I say literally, I mean that back when it was inhabited, the family elected to move elsewhere after the kitchen FELL OFF INTO THE OCEAN. This cliff is actually a very high, steep island; there are some outbuildings on the mainland and one accesses the keep by crossing a short bridge.

It’s amazing. A fairy tale ruin. Like something out of a movie. It actually made me think of the castle by the ocean in The Last Unicorn, although if I remember correctly there was beach in between that castle and the water. Not so much here.

I need to look up more about it, though, because as usual the guide didn’t really “guide” us, and there was only so much information posted. I didn’t really understand the layout.

Of course, part of the problem was that we were given FIFTEEN MINUTES off the bus to explore. Seriously?! If it was a tower house that might be one thing; as castles go, they’re usually pretty small. But this is a sprawling Norman castle on a cliff. You can’t possibly appreciate it in fifteen minutes. I don’t know what this woman was thinking.

Possibly it was that we were losing daylight. I’ve mentioned how early it gets dark here. This was several hours farther north than Cork. The sun was distinctly in the west by 12:30 in the afternoon, and for all intents and purposes we were at the Giant’s Causeway at sunset—at 3:30.

The Giant’s Causeway was pretty neat. It’s bigger than I thought, not in terms of rock size but in terms of how spread out it is. It just goes on and on. And it’s not flat, either; there are all kinds of interesting steps and formations to climb. (I didn’t, much.)

So that was that, I suppose. There was snow on the hills when we set out that morning, and it hailed and/or sleeted more than once while we were out adventuring. It snowed off and on the rest of the weekend, and there was quite a bit in Dublin by the time we took the Trinity and UCD kids back on Sunday. Apparently it’s snowed quite a bit more this week. We didn’t get much here in Cork, and it melted within a few hours. The city salted its sidewalks maniacally for what no one in Ohio or PA would bat an eye at.

* That actually may not be true, because I’ve gone from France to Monaco and back again and it occurs to me that I don’t remember that at all, so it’s quite possible it’s also a totally open border.
** We’re not sure where one acquires Thanksgiving confetti in Europe. We suspect it may have had to be ordered specially for us.
*** read: assholes

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