Monday, 16 July 2018

Easter Ireland - Part 3 - The North

The North Coast of Ireland.
Good morning from Northern Ireland!
The stone bridge in Carnlough.
So I'd crossed over into Northern Ireland, technically a different country even though it's on the same little green island, with the same language and people. Nothing flashy, no big sign saying welcome (I'm guessing people from the South wouldn't want it either), but the road signs and speed limited had changed and so had the money. Leaving Belfast in the morning after our breakfast at the hostel, we set the GPS to the Giant's Causeway up on the north coast. The weather was lovely, blue skies with only a few clouds, if a little chilly, and by mid-morning our tummies started rumbling and we figured it was time for a coffee and snack somewhere quiet on the coast. I've never been up here before, so I didn't know of a place, but anywhere here is beautiful really. Cruising along the coastal road we passed places like Ballygally - small coastal towns with white-washed buildings, inviting little beaches and sheep doting the green hills in the distance. I'm sure that after a while all of this would grow old and the towns start to look all the same, but I love them and their charm. I stopped to see if the local post office would change some Euros and was given directions (very politely) to the next town. I love small town shops - the supermarket that is also the post office, video store and meeting point for the locals. Stopping for a few photos along the way, holding onto my hat in the strong winds, and found the town that would change my money - a lovely town called Carnlough. With a picturesque stone harbour build out onto the bay of the same name, it really is a picture postcard of this part of the country. The harbour, the main feature of this little place, was built by quarry owners to transport their goods down from the hills by train. The small railway actually crosses the road on a bridge and goes directly to the port - all of this still remains today. You can take a 2km walk to see the quarry as well, following the railway lines, but breakfast was more important at this time.
The cute coastal towns of Northern Ireland.
Carnlough habour.
This hills behind Carnlough.
Rugged coastline, wind-swept beaches and sheep.
While in the supermarket, getting breakfast and money changed, we enjoyed walking around and looking at all the things you can't get in Spain. I love the food in Spain, don't get me wrong, but I love change and new things too - that and there are only some things you can get in the UK to be fair. The variety of teas is one thing, along with biscuits and chips, gravy and sauces - the list goes on! Breakfast turned out to be coffee and tea, accompanied by some sausage rolls and pastries. The little rolls were great - how I miss this food sometimes! Although the railway for the quarry still exists, the town is now mainly a fishing town, and you can do both fresh water and sea angle fishing as well as taking a pleasure craft into the bay. After the snack and walk around, more tourists were coming in and started to fill up the place. The harbour is very pretty and there were Instagram poses everywhere and selfies sticks aplenty! Although small, I felt I could stay here even longer that we had already, and the thought even popped into my mind that I could live in a village like this on the coast. It was time to hit the road though, as we had a little more driving before we reached our day's destination - the Giant's Causeway. Following the little winding country roads, the roads that romantacise and really sum up the countryside in Ireland, we drove along the Causeway Coast, past Ballycastle, Ballyintoy and the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. I was told about this tourist attraction, which is close to the Giant's Causeway, but was also told that it is expensive and just a rope bridge in the end. The bridge links the mainland to the tiny island of Carrickarede, spanning 20 metres and is 30 metres above the rocks below. We decided that for £8 we could have a couple of pints of Guinness instead - although many people do do this short walk (just under 500,000 a year!) which, to be honest, would be cool but in my opinion not worth it. My mid-afternoon we'd finally arrived at the Giant's Causeway, something I would be happy to pay the National Trust - to preserve history.
The village of Portballintrae on the causeway coast.
The rugged Causeway Coast of Northern Ireland.
The 6-sided pillars.
The causeway and Finn's 'Chimney.'
Before I go into what the Giant's Causeway actually is, I want to tell you the story of Finn MacCool and the mythology surrounding the area. The story goes that the Irish giant Fionn mac Cumhaill (in Old Gaelic) was challenged to a fight by a Scottish giant all the way across the sea. Finn accepts the challenge from Benandonner and starts building his bridge (The Causeway), but as he gets closer he realises that this other giant is far bigger than himself. Finn races home and tells his wife, Oonagh, who calmly gives him some advice on how to fix this problem. "Dress up as a baby and go and pretend to be alseep in the other room." Finn doesn't think the advice very good, but as he was so scared of this huge giant making his way over, does as he's told. Benandonner reaches Finn's house, comes in to find and kill him, but only finds a baby giant sound asleep. The Scot looks at the baby and thinks to himself, "If this is just a baby, then the parents must be huge!" He quickly runs back over the bridge to Scotland, taking it apart so nobody can follow him. Across the sea, there are identical basalt columns (a part of the same ancient lava flow) at Fingal's Cave on the Scottish isle of Staffa. So although the story is a lovely tale of two fighting giants, the real story is the causeway was formed 50 to 60 million years ago by volcanic activity. The lava erupted in a volcanic fissure eruption and as the lava cooled it contracted, cracking like mud, and leaving 6-sided, interlocking columns. Parking in the area provided, we did a guided tour which was informative and fun and took us from the visitor centre all the way to the causeway itself. On the day there were loads of people - filling nearly every space, snapping away for their Instagram. The site has changed a little since it was found in 1693 - The Causeway first received international attention when Dublin artist Susanna Drury made watercolour paintings of it (which can be seen in the visitor's centre) in 1739. The National Trust took over the site in the 60s, but before then there was a guy who had set up shop and was carving out pieces to sell to the public. The  first visitor centre was built 1986 but burned down in 2000, and the current one was finished in 2011
People walking the Causeway.

Incredible that nature has made something 'stright.'
Bird's eye view.
The Giant's Organ.
I enjoyed the walk and the information around the shoreline. I climbed up on the rocks like everyone else, took pictures of the columns and the sea as well as the columns and my feet - they are strangely symmetrical and slightly sunken in the middle, but all with 6 sides and the same basalt stone. The area is huge - 70  hectares in total - and we decided to walk a little further past the causeway itself. Just past the main attraction, you can find the 'shoe,' a large rock that is Finn's giant shoe. Personally I didn't see the shape that clearly at first, but moving around it kind of does look like a big slipper or sorts. The 'chimney stacks' are way up in the hill and the legend goes that if there is smoke coming from these rocks (clouds or mist in reality), then Finn is home. We chose not to go up that far but we saw the 'Giant's Organ,' towering basalt columns that reach from the group right up over your head and back into the rock again, more than 20m high. From there we continued along the path, heading up and out of the bay but getting a wonderful bird's eye view of the coast. After all this walking around, it was time for a pint of Guinness, so we headed up to the Causeway Hotel. This grand hotel was built in 1836 and has a long history of changing hands, due to debt, but it has always been a part of the Giant's Causeway and the tourist industry here. At one time there was another hotel, running in competition, and each would send their guides out to talk to the tourists, telling them about the local history and the Causeway itself, but after the tour they would always recommend the 'best hotel,' being their own of course, and lead them back to the warmth and promise of a hot meal and drink after walking in the coastal wind and rain. We hit the road again, heading West past Dunluce Castle, which we decided not to stop and go in, just take a few pics from the outside. We did stop for a quick bite at a little bakery, satisfying the need for sausage rolls, before jumping back in the car, driving through Bushmills and onto our next destination.
Sadly not everyone respects heritage sites.
Dunluce Castle.
The weather, so far in this trip, had been amazing! Blue skies for the most part, sunshine here and there, and even when it was cloudy, it didn't rain (for long) and soon passed.  I couldn't have asked for better weather - Ireland is known for it's rain and wet weather, and being April, you shouldn't expect very good weather at all. Keep praying to the Travel Gods that everything stays in your favour and keep going and staying positive too! The planned stop for the night was in a city called Londonderry. I must add that this city has two names, depending on where you stand with the whole NI Republic issue - I don't want to get mixed up in all of this, but I will call it by the Irish name of Derry. Driving into town we stopped at the first B&B we saw to ask about rooms - 1 night in a private room is golden compared to backpacker hostels and bunk beds. Sadly she was full, but being very Irish and polite, recommended and gave us directions to another one just down the road. We found the place, the Iona Hotel, and was immediately happy with the find - they had a pub downstairs (or the hotel was above the pub, not sure which came first!), a roaring fire and a welcoming pint of Guinness at hand. It was getting dark already, so we only headed out for a short walk around to get our bearings for tomorrow, as well as grabbing some pizza for dinner. Tomorrow, the exploration of Derry commences - and I was excited because we arrived just before sunset and it was like the city was teasing a little, knowing I didn't have time to walk around but just giving me a glimpse of what I'd see tomorrow. Let's hope the good weather holds!
The beautiful Causeway Coast.

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