Grey clouds loomed overhead as we got on the coach to take us up to the city walls for the start of our walking tour. The weather provided a suitably sombre backdrop as we took in the world-famous Bogside Murals while our local guide Roland, a Derry native, detailed their cultural and historical significance. In a city marked and shaped by periods of sectarian strife and economic privation, political agendas abound - the city's official name is still Londonderry for instance - but we were lucky enough to be given a balanced and nuanced telling of the conflict.
It would be easy to say that the commentary we received was far less biased because our half Malaysian-Chinese, half-Irish guide is a practicing Buddhist and somehow beyond the struggles of the city that has always been his home, but that does a disservice to the fact that Roland has obviously made it a point to paint as holistic a picture as possible for all the tourists under his charge. We really couldn't have asked for a better guide on our walk round the city of (London)Derry. Highly eloquent, Roland treated the city's struggles with the gravitas and respect that it deserved, but injected the tour with moments of levity as well, and spoke passionately about his hopes for reconciliation and healing.
The necessity of education in bridging gaps between future generations on either side was a main theme in our walking tour, and Roland did his part in helping us understand the various factors that played into the escalation of tensions, which all affected relations more than any actual religious differences. All our questions were thoroughly answered, and we also received a crash course on discourses of terrorism on both sides.
Beyond gaining an understanding about the conflicts of the 20th century, we also spent some time admiring the city walls we were walking along. Whether you think of it as a necessity or a symbol of oppressive plantation practices, it's still quite spectacular to behold. Built in the 17th century by English and Scottish settlers and with seven different gates around its mile long circumference, it remains the most intact in Europe, and one of very few to have never been breached.
Derry is an old city, having been inhabited almost continuously since the 6th century, and a beautiful one, for all its misfortunes. There weren't that many people out and about on the quiet Wednesday morning we strolled through the city, so we were able to very calmly take in the sights along the way.
The violence nearly levelled the city, but Derry has bounced back, and it's this resilience of the people here that was highlighted as we wended our way through the rebuilt Georgian centre and the craft village. A new development, the craft village was purposely designed to look like something out of the 18th century, but with charmingly colourful shopfronts adding a modern twist.
The last stop on our walking tour was the iconic Derry Guildhall, which had been built in the late 19th century as an administrative centre, and continues to serve that purpose today. Built then rebuilt during times of economic booms as something of a prestige project, it has survived fires and bombings, and today is free for visitors to enter and learn more about the history of the city, whether by perusing the magnificent stained glass windows or walking through their highly interactive special exhibits.
When we were there, the exhibition was on the plantation of Protestant settlers in Derry with the help of the wealthy trades guilds of the City of London, which invited visitors to consider for themselves the pros and cons of the enterprise from various perspectives. It was very well done.
From Derry, we travelled North-East towards the Giant's Causeway, passing along the way the ruins of Dunluce Castle. With all the cliffs we'd seen during the tour, I'd almost expected myself to be completely inured towards the sight of them, but the crumbling stones rising up above the steep drops on either side still managed to be quite breathtaking. Romantic as it seems, the castle's also a warning about the dangers of cliff-side living though, after a part of it collapsed in 1639 and tumbled away into the sea below. Makes you want to live somewhere further inland.
We were armed with audioguides and sent on our way down the path towards the Giant's Causeway when we got there. A shuttle bus runs the fairly steep 1 kilometre route from the entrance of the Visitor's Centre to the stones, but the walk looked interesting, so we took it. It was entirely pleasant all the way down, but the hike back up made we wish we'd taken the shuttle instead, especially when the other tourists who'd stayed to wait for it looked on me pityingly as they zipped past while I huffed and puffed away.
The first look we got of the site was that of the almost aggressively sleek Visitor's Centre, so the ruggedness of the landscape proper was quite a big contrast.
As we ambled down the trail, the audioguide kept us fairly well-entertained, pointing out this bit of rock or that and detailing the mythos behind them. The main character in the legends of the Giant's Causeway is the Giant called Fionn MacCumhaill (or Finn McCool), and most of the stories have to do with his adventures and misadventures. The first highlight was the Camel's Hump rock, which did rather resemble a resting camel.
The most important story though, and the one repeatedly shown on the interactive display at the Visitor's Centre, recounts how the Giant's Causeway came to be. It all starts when, separated by the sea, Finn and Benandonner, a Scottish Giant, posture at each other until a formal challenge to fight is thrown down. On his end, Finn wonders how he'll get across to take down his rival, until he notices the slabs and slabs of rocks conveniently laying around, and tosses them into the sea, creating a pathway. Benandonner gets the same idea (Which is why you can see similar basalt columns on the Scottish island of Staffa today), and constructs his end of the sea bridge much more quickly. As it turns out, Benandonner is a much bigger Giant than Finn, who realizes the folly of the challenge and runs home to his wife, Oonagh.
Oonagh, a sensible Giantess, isn't very surprised by this turn of events, and as Finn panics, devises a plan. She trusses him up like an infant and shoves him into a cot, just as Benandonner bursts into the house. Benandonner may be filled with the urge to fight and kill, but he's been raised properly and treats with Oonagh with respect, listening as she explains the absence of her husband, and gamely meeting her "baby". He falls for the trick, thinks Finn is much bigger than he, and runs all the way home. In his haste and terror, his footsteps are heavy and they cause most of the bridge to collapse, leaving only what you see today.
It's a fun little story. Our walk was so well-timed that as the tinnying prompt for me to move on to the next section on the audio tour sounds, we reached the stones. The guide is hung carefully around my neck as I scale the basalt columns step by step.
The audioguide came with a section that discussed the specific geographical features of the landscape, and I eventually braved that bit as well. Long story short: 50 - 60 million years ago, there was a great deal of volcanic activity in the region. Lava flows that had pooled in a big volcanic plateau cooled and cracked to form the extensive network of shapes we see today. Apparently weathering accounts for the vaguely honeycomb-like nature of the natural structure, and because lava doesn't cool evenly, you don't get each piece being neatly six-sided, but pentagons, heptagons and octagons in the mix as well.
Someone was photographing his Iron Man figurine standing among the stones. I'd one day like to do a similar series with my stuffed Alpaca and call it "An Alpacasso Abroad" for sheer alliterative value.
A huge wave of tourists came and left as I hopped, skipped and jumped across the columns, so I didn't even need to elbow anyone on my way to the top. It was glorious, standing on the highest rock and watching the waves crash below me, and I was utterly happy until my phone decided to give up the ghost.
M very kindly gave me free run of her phone camera, but D was starting to get tetchy since he hadn't eaten much at breakfast, so I had about three minutes to run around taking as many pictures as possible before we went back up to the Visitor's Centre for lunch. Here is the Boot shaped rock, which also looks like a designer recliner.
Didn't make it up to the Organ Pipes, alas.
Managed one final, parting shot before our uphill climb.
The Causeway Coastal Route in Northern Ireland is considered one of the most scenic in the world, and as the sun came up we were able to see more of County Antrim to fuller advantage.
A brief photo stop was made so we could breathe in the North Atlantic sea air all we liked.
From our vantage point we could see the island of Rathlin.
We were also able to look down towards the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, and listen to the screams of those attempting to cross from the mainland to the tiny islet of Carrickarede. The crossing used to be a part of the tour apparently, but they had to take it off after too many people refused to make a second crossing and needed to be ferried back, or got stuck in the middle of the bridge and refused to budge.
We pulled up to Ballygally Castle, where we were to stay for the night, and dark clouds rolled back in as Pat pointed out the Ghost Room in the corner turret at the top of the building. With little else to do before dinner, M and I did a bit of exploring.
The Castle was first built in the 17th century, but has since been refurbished and converted into a stylish and modern hotel. Our rooms were in a completely different wing, so M and I went down to the lobby and crossed it to get to the stairs that would take us up to the Ghost Room.
If you're feeling particularly brave, you can even stay in the same tower as the ghosts - there's even a Dungeon Room, located deep in the basement.
The Ghost Room was a small place, containing nothing but a portrait of the Lady Isobel Shaw. It has a nice view of Ballygally Bay though, much better than our own, which looked to the back of the kitchens. In the light of day, our trip up was a lark, but after dinner my imagination ran away with me and I got quite spooked in the darkness of our room. The Castle ghosts are apparently a friendly lot, but that didn't stop me from staying up half in the night in a combination of mistakenly consumed coffee and abject terror, even as M & D slept soundly. Every little new noise made me jump, and I swear I heard skirts rustling outside my door. At one point a breeze blew in and D stopped snoring so abruptly I ran over to make sure he was still alive.
On the advice from the lovely staff at the hotel, M & I went out to the gardens for a quick look-see. They're spread over two levels and surprisingly big.
There was even a stream running through it, and we followed the trail of the water until it flowed out to the sea.
We crossed the road from the hotel to the Bay, and went along the beach for a while.
There was a puppy out for a walk, though it seemed more interested in worrying the same clump of seaweed than moving. Even after so many days of travelling, the very relaxed itinerary meant we were thankfully not suffering from any sort of travel fatigue, which boded well for the rest of our holiday.