As we started up the path to Belfast Castle, scattered lint-ball snowflakes shot by on wind gusts. Two boys on the cusp of adolescence stood by the remnants of a disemboweled snowman. Four mischief-bent eyes followed our progress above rigid grins. We grinned back before we caught sight of reformed snowman entrails clenched in icy red fists. Playground panic tensed my limbs, and through fixed smiles Meabh told us the little bastards meant business.
Seconds later, an ice ball exploded across the pavement like a faulty firework. We squealed and bolted – precisely the reaction they hoped for. They gave chase. Three rough and tumble twenty-somethings running up a hill pursued by elementary school boys. Not only did we make the mistake of acknowledging them in the first place, but we also lost the upper hand of maturity by picking up their misfires and returning them just as poorly. The ground was bare and their snowman ammunition soon spent but not before I sustained a ice-grazed right flank.
As we panted back down to a walk, it occurred to me that twenty or thirty years ago, these boys would have been prime candidates for religi-political youth wings, throwing grenades or nail bombs instead of ice and snow.
After a brief look around the castle grounds (which included a cat-themed garden), we ducked out of increasing snow flurries and made our way to a dimly lit back room with a low ceiling. Our table filled up with scones, whipped butter, jam and tall hearty Irish coffees. Whisky warmed as effectively as the fireplace, and soon I had rosy cheeks and a glowing brain.
Though quite content (Irish coffee by a fireplace in an Irish castle with snow falling outside? Come on.), we decided to hike farther up the mountain toward the big rocks that resemble a prostrate giant (but not a giant prostate) and are said to have inspired Gulliver’s Travels. Snow continued and we got kind of lost and muddy somewhere behind the Belfast Zoo, but it was a good adventure.
(In the interest of not renaming my blog page after Belfast City, here are some semi-condensed points of interest).
*Murals: There are nationalist and unionist murals everywhere, especially on Falls and Shankill Road. Many memorialize people but others show gun-wielders (some masked) and words like “PREPARED FOR PEACE READY FOR WAR” which is perhaps more effective the other way around.
This is a mural of Bobby Sands, the first IRA hunger striker to die.
*Peace Wall: It divides Catholic and Protestant sections of the city and is still locked every night though conflict has been minimal for the last few years (3-5 deaths in 2006 compared to 55 in 1998 and 479 in 1972, according to Wiki) . Graffiti and personal messages cover some sections. Shankill Road runs along the Protestant side of the wall. Though I knew the name from the Decemberists song (Shankill Butchers), I did not know it was referencing true and gruesome history.
(See how peaceful that wall looks in the background?)
*Tours and tourism: We took a really good guided tour of the city on a double-decker starting downtown. We first stopped by the developing Titanic Quarter which will capitalize on the building of the doomed behemoth in Belfast port. A couple of rusty cranes used in Titanic creation still stand. Our very charming Irish tour guide explained to us, in his seeexxxxyyy accent, the Irish may have built it, but there was an Englishman driving. Heh.
As our tour wound through murals, near the peace wall and past a bullet-holed elementary school where a multi-hour gun battle once raged outside with children inside, our guide told us how laughable the idea of a tour through the area would have seemed even five years ago. Even during the big St. Paddy’s weekend, we saw tourists, but nothing like the numbers we would have seen in Dublin.
The thing I appreciated most about this tour was the frankness with respect to recent violent history. As opposed to more antiseptic tourism which avoids or glosses over trouble areas, this city realizes it is inextricably linked with The Troubles and uses the tour to describe the long-term conflict (dating back to 1609); to dispel misconceptions (saying contrary to common understanding, problems are more political than religious); and to compare The Troubles with other contemporary conflicts (Israel v. Palestine). In long, it is a fascinating time to visit Belfast. Tourists are very welcomed, but the atmosphere still holds slight tension and extreme appreciation of a good party.
*The night after St. Paddy’s we were back at The Bot (Botanic) after having tried out the upstairs dance club for the first time. Snow was falling outside, and at closing time a massive snowball fight erupted and took over the street and surrounding sidewalks. Surreal drunk heaven.
*Kelly’s Cellars is old (est. 1720), dim and smoky with dark wood, sturdy tables and pots and kettles hanging from the ceiling. The Guinness was the best I have tasted, and I wanted to spend my entire life there.
*One side traditional Irish bar (Fibber Magee); one half unionist bar (Robinson’s), they face different streets but share a door at the back of both. At some blurry point, we saw some great jiggin’ and reelin’ at Fibber Magee.
*The Crown Liquor Saloon has some complex ancient history, but mostly it is just fucking badass. Gas lamps hang over these booth/nooks called snugs (I think). Carved wood and ceilings, decorated glass and a door to actually shut you off from the rest of the bar. They pour their Guinness with a Shamrock on top even after St. Paddy’s, and they have delicious snack nuts.
And these are just some random other pictures to conclude the Ireland leg.
Da bomb-dest…at one point in constant construction because of non-stop blasting, this hotel looks lovely now.
Ashley and I thought about an economy car rental, but we don’t think we could fit our backpacks into the car with us. It’s so wee!
WHAT?! This is an outrage.
If you made it through all this, congratulations and thank you. Next up, the mystical journey through Basque Country between Spain and France. Wheeeeee…..