Derry to Belfast, Giants Causeway, Carrick-a-Rede
28 Apr 2012
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Day 5: Galway – Enniskillen
We are on the road again with a new bus and a new driver. It is a smaller, 20 seater bus, with a couple of tables, some rear facing seats and a fridge (could have brought that food with us, at least it leaves more room for the beer!).
Today we make our way through the scenic, rugged rural countryside of Connemara with its mountains, streams and peat bogs. Dave tells us that National Geographic has voted this the 8th most beautiful drive in the world, one would hope that a few kiwi drives were higher up that list, not that we are biased or anything!
We stop by what we think is another lake, but it is fact a fjord. We are in the small town of Leenane, and Dave takes us to Gaynor’s bar for Irish coffees. A bit early in the day for that, but there is a bitter wind blowing, so we need to warm up. It didn’t occur to us that an ordinary coffee would have done the trick just as well! Cynthea opted for a Baileys and hot chocolate. There was nice atmosphere in the pub, a fire blazing in the grate, and a couple of hard case old jokers that were difficult to understand. They were so funny, and if any of the girls got near them they grabbed them in a big hug to have their photos taken. It was fun watching the comedy act.
We stop long enough for a group photo, the smiles were well frozen on for that one. We had blue sky when we arrived, but that had long gone behind the dark clouds blown in by that cold wind. Our lunch stop at Westport was just as chilly, we really didn’t need as long as we had here as there was not enough time to see anything by the time we had lunch.
As we near Sligo Dave points out a hill with a mound on top. This is the tomb of Queen Meadhbh (pronounced meave). It is tradition that those people who climb the mountain add rocks to her grave, and so the pile grows. We travel through more beautiful countryside, it could hardly be more different to the lunar like landscape of the Burren. Our next stop is to view the pretty Glencar Waterfall, we have waterfalls just like this at home too. ;-)
We cross the border into Northern Ireland. It suddenly takes a lot longer to get anywhere – we have swapped kilometres for miles. Our stop tonight is at Enniskillen, a pretty town surrounded by lakes and rivers. We are in the province of Ulster, where six of its’ original nine counties make up what is now Northern Ireland, part of the UK.
We are at The Bridge, a YHA hostel, £31 for two beds in a six bed room, and they charge extra for using a debit card. The take our passports as security for the return of room keys, something Tony and many others object to. The option is a £15 per person bond. Tony protests that it is illegal to hold passports as security, however they are adamant.
The room is ok, but the beds are very noisy. Kris has trouble with his bunk, it is metal, and makes a hell of a racket when he climbs up. The ladder is loose and clatters about no matter how hard he tries to be quiet. There is a small kitchen, and small dining room, as well as a lounge, but we are not allowed food or drink in there. We feel a bit like naughty children with some of the rules in this place. One shower and toilet in the room, there is another toilet off the hallway.
We head to the main street for food, most shops are closed, but there are a few pubs. We are cautioned not to stray off the main street if we go to the pub, there are still a few about who cannot let go the troubles of the past. We find an off license and a supermarket, get a few beers and something for tea. Back at the hostel Cynthea opens the bag of frozen vege (fresh vege were very expensive), to find that the packet had been defrosted and refrozen. It was full of ice crystals, and some of the veges had a shrivelled look. So Tony takes it back to the supermarket.
He walks in and the same guy that served him a few minutes earlier was there. Tony asks is he remembers serving him earlier, and he says yes. That is good, because the only receipt that Tony was given was an EFTPOS one, no itemised one. But this guy remembers serving him, so everything will fine, won’t it? Tony shows him the packet and says it is unfit for use, and asks for a replacement please. The bastard point blank refuses, we must be back in the UK. Tony is stunned by the reaction, and asks why. The guy says that people do this all the time, besides Tony cannot prove when it was purchased. Tony tells him that he only has an EFTPOS receipt because that was all he was given, however he just said he remembered serving him. The guy says that if Tony wanted an itemised receipt, he should have asked for one, and as far as the veges are concerned Tony could have bought them days ago… and that was about when Tony lost it.
He asked for the manager – away for the weekend, back Monday if you have a problem. He asked who was in charge then, to be told he was talking to the man in charge. Tony asked why he didn’t have the authority to replace the veges, and the guy says he is only a trainee. That was about when Tony said he needed to be trained in proper customer service before being let loose, well words to that effect, that cannot be repeated here. Normally Tony has a bit of sympathy for people on the wrong end of an angry customer, but this prick had no clue at all how to look after a complaint.
Tony asked him to call the manager on the phone (please), and at first he refused saying that she was probably not in because it was a Friday night. Tony said you better bloody well try, or words to that effect, because there is going to be a hell of mess with frozen vege everywhere very soon if he didn’t. He asked Tony if he was threatening him, and Tony said it was a ******* promise, and glared at him. He caved, the manager answered the phone and immediately gave permission for a replacement. Tony was waiting for the guy to say he had been threatened, but he didn’t say a word about what had just happened (well not then, maybe later though). The veges were replaced and Tony left, still fuming at the lack of basic customer service.
After tea most of us in our room had showers, it was to be an early start in the morning, and then did the laundry. At £4 for a wash and dry it was more reasonable than at past hostels. We washed everything we could while we had the opportunity.
Cynthea and Tony both have horrible coughs, we hope we can shake them soon. The others in the room are a bit sniffly too. It was not a good night sleep for anyone, the beds were shocking.
Day 6: Enniskillen – Belfast
It was not a good night sleep for anyone, the beds were shockingly hard – Tony is sure he has slept on floors more comfortable. He was up a few times in the night, bleeding nose and cramps made for a restless night. He was just pleased that their bunk was wooden and didn’t make as much racket as the metal ones.
We had a couple of others calling to our room to see if we had hot water, and please can they use our shower, but we had no hot water either, so it was a cold wash and shave. At breakfast others said that the hot water was not on after around 10pm, and everyone was bitching about the beds. Our tour guide Dave asked if we wanted to put in a formal complaint to the tour head office, and most of us wrote in. He told us later that there are a lot of complaints, and he wishes they would change hostels.
We left town feeling a bit sour about the place, which is probably not that fair. We arrived too late to see anything much, and an early start meant we didn’t feel like getting out on the town last night.
We travel to the medieval walled city of Derry, or is that Londonderry? We see many signposts with the London bit spray painted over, it is obvious that some locals feel strongly about the name. The local town council now has a catholic majority, and they applied to the court to overturn the Royal Charter from 1613 that prefixed London to the city of Derry. However the judge would not rule on it, saying that it was changed by royal decree, and only the monarch could change it. The town council have written to the Queen, but she is obviously too busy with her 60th jubilee, and they have yet to receive a reply.
We are taken on a walking tour of Derry, it costs £3 each and takes about 90 minutes. It starts to rain as we get off the bus, but luckily it doesn’t last, and we stay fairly dry. Derry is the only remaining completely intact walled city in Ireland. The walls were built from 1613-1619, and remain the most complete in Europe. They are about 1.5 km in circumference and vary in height and width between 4 to 12m, and the walkway around the inner city serves as a good exercise route. Our guide tells us that in summer there are quite some sights to be seen at lunchtime...
We are taken to Ferryquay gate in the city wall, the site of the gate that was locked to keep out James II troops in 1688. This was the beginning of a 105 days long seige that resulted in around 8,000 deaths, from a population of 30,000. There is a common grave in the grounds of St Columb’s cathedral (1633) that is said to hold some 5,000 bodies. However the church will tell you that is not quite correct. The bodies there have been recovered following excavations and restoration work at the cathedral in the mid 1800’s. Remains were re-interred, and soil from excavations formed into a mound, now known as the Siege Heroes Mound.
We see that grave stones are laid flat around the Cathedral. We are not what period these are from, as we didn’t get in for a closer look. Not quite sure of the facts here, but they were either laid flat intentionally to stop them being knocked over when the city was under attack, or they had been knocked over during fighting and relaid.
On top of the wall we see that some are not quite ready to accept the current situation. There is a mural that declares West Bank loyalists are still under siege and there will be no surrender. It is blatantly Protestant as the gutter, like many in the area, is painted in red, white and blue. In the Catholic sectors the gutters are painted orange, white and green.
We continue our walking tour around the city walls, and stop to see the city’s most bombed building during “the troubles”, the Courthouse. Opposite is the Freemason’s Hall, where Mrs. Cecil Francis Alexander, the hymn writer, died here in 1895. Perhaps her most famous hymn is 'There is a Green Hill far away'.
As we continue our tour we are told we are now where the “cat walk” was first used. Ladies in their finery used to promenade along the top of the wall, and the lads in the streets below would call and jeer at the “fat cats” out walking.
From here we see the sad reminders of Bloody Sunday, this year being the 40th anniversary of the incident. In 2010 an inquiry ruled that the army had not come under heavy attack, as they first said, and that there was no provocation for what happened. Locals refer to this incident as murder, for the civil rights demonstration had been peaceful and unarmed. Thirteen were killed on the day, many in their teens, and some of those not even involved in the march.
As we walked through the Bogside area we heard many tales that bring tears to the eyes. Annette McGavigan was 14 years when she was killed in September 1971. She was shot dead by a British soldier while standing on the street in which she lived. The mural is close to the site where she died. Her father visited this mural daily until he died, and was often heard talking to his daughter.
We stop at the Bloody Sunday Memorial, and are shown where the demonstrators were attacked. Tony always thought that the deaths happened over quite a large area, but they were all quite close together.
We end the tour back at Ferryquay gate, our tour the guide says that if anything he said upset or offended anyone, then keep it to yourself and it won’t get him in trouble, haha.
We leave Derry and travel along the coast to Bushmills (yes, the whisky). As we near the town Dave points out a rock some distance from shore. Look closely he tells us, and you will see a church steeple. Tony gets one photo, not actually that good, but when you look closely you can indeed see a church steeple. We are still not sure if he has been at the blarney again, but the extent of coastal erosion is plain to see all around. There are the remains of Dun Luce castle further along the road, perched on the very edge of the cliff, and obviously won’t be there in the near future.
Giant’s Causeway is the eighth natural wonder of the world, and what a wonder it is. The weather has cleared to a glorious day, we are pleased the rain stayed away. There is a long walk from the visitor centre to the causeway, but they do offer a bus ride for £1. Tony and Cynthea both walk down, Tony’s ankle is playing up again, but it eventually comes right. We spend ages climbing over these rocks, some 40,000 basalt columns (who had the job of counting them all?). It is hard to describe this place, it looks like someone has taken thousands of regular shaped columns and placed them side by side, some are up to 12m high. We are told they were formed some 60 million years ago, but we still don’t understand how the cooling and shrinking of molten lava led to these shapes being formed. The rocks are different colours, something that we didn’t get explained. And there are many different formations to be seen that don’t require too much imagination. The most impressive is The Organ, around 12m high, and there are “armchairs everywhere. We feel privileged to be allowed on this world heritage site, and one cannot help but wonder what damage we are all doing. There must be hundreds of thousands of people every year wearing away this amazing site.
Cynthea decides to take the bus back, but Tony walks as his ankle has been ok. Walking up the steep hill aggravates it again, but he carries on slowly. Steps will also cause his ankle to play up, but walking on the flat is generally ok. Back at the visitor centre there is time to sit in the sun and enjoy an icecream while we wait for the bus.
The next stop is not for the faint hearted, the 20m long Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge sways over the precarious drop to the rocks some 30m below. In it’s early days this bridge consisted of just two ropes, one for the feet, and one to hang on to for dear life. Fishermen built it so they could check their nets over on the island. Then it was replaced by a footbridge made of rope and wire, and now todays’ structure has the luxury of wooden planks. It is closed when windy, and is quite bouncy, especially if some fool jumps up and down on it. Once again we have a very long walk up and down some steep hills to get there, and no bus this time. We only have about an hour here, and it feels a bit rushed. There is a queue to get across, one way traffic of course. One or two opt out, and decide against attempting the crossing.
We climb down a steep set of steps, and stand at the end of the bridge, trying not to look down. Cynthea gets across with no problem, although she has warned Tony to stay off until she is across, and no funny stuff, like jumping up and down. Tony finds the bridge a bit wobbly, but nowhere near as bad as he expected it to be, and the crossing was no problem… just don’t look down!
We don’t spend long on the island, time is limited and it will take a while to get back. We get back to the bus with few minutes to spare, and head off to our last night of the tour, we spend tonight in Belfast.
We arrive around 7pm and check in at the YHA close to the main street. We are told to avoid a couple of the pubs in the street because of the strong unionist community frequenting there, but the main street is ok. We are not far from the “Peace Wall”, so called because it divides the communities and keeps the peace.
The hostel wants to keep our passports again tonight, Tony and Cynthea hand over their drivers licenses instead. £31 for tonight, and a tiny room to ourselves as the rooms here sleep four. The rooms are all small, and quite filthy. Marks are on the walls, the duvets are dirty, and the hand basin in the room is filthy. We know the sheets are clean only because we have to make the beds ourselves. Our sheets are in sealed in plastic bags, but there are marks on the clean sheets as well.
The lifts don’t all work, someone tries to return to the ground floor, but the button won’t work, nor will the first floor button, and the lift stays put. Many of the toilets and showers off the hallway are not operating, and those that are need a damn good clean. One of the girls said she dropped her soap when she got in, and it was covered in hair when she picked it up.
There is a well stocked kitchen, but we decide not to cook tonight and head out to get something to eat. There are not that many people in the street to start with, but by the time we head back to the hostel it is picking up. The kitchen and dining room closed at 10pm, a bit on the early side. Tony is after a coffee, but the machine in the lobby is broken, so he heads out to get one from KFC on the corner. It looks closed, all the seating areas have been shut by roller doors, and he can only see cleaners in the restaurant. He wanders along the road and pays £1 for an instant, luke warm coffee at a takeaway place. The streets are really busy, and you get the feeling that something is likely to kick off any time soon.
Back at the hostel the front door is locked, and Tony has to show a pass to get in. The lights are out in the lobby, and the guy ones on the tour are quietly playing cards in the half light. The reception desk tells us this is not a party hostel and if we want that we are to go somewhere else! Friendly bastards, and it is not as though they were making any noise. With the dining room closed there was only a TV lounge and quiet room to go to. YHA is being a bit hard things here, we know they have a wide range of guests, and make a point of being a quite place to be, but they are going about it in a very unfriendly way. Tony asks the others why they are not out on the town, and they said they didn’t feel to comfortable out there in the street, so it wasn’t just us that felt that way.
Internet is available, but being YHA they charge for it at £1 an hour, a reasonable price compared to others that charge. They fail to mention that you get 15 minutes free every 24 hours though. Cynthea asks why they don’t offer it for free like other hostels, and gets a lecture for her trouble that basically runs down any other hostel that is not YHA. They tell her that YHA is too big and has to pay full business rates. We are not getting a nice vibe from this place at all.
Tomorrow we have a black cab tour of the divided city.