Right, so…Northern Ireland.
Crossing the border into Northern Ireland, I was regrettably and immediately underwhelmed by Belfast. I get the feeling Belfast is one of those cities that one must live in for a year or so to understand its true potential. As for me, it seems I agree with Oscar Wilde, who is said to have held the opinion that Belfast contains only one aesthetically pleasing building (which is now apparently a Marks and Spencer). It’s a moderately confusing city, with awkward signage and nuances to the roadways that guarantee a few extra circles for any newcomer, but I eventually found my way to the main reason for my visit.
The world’s largest dry-dock, where the Titanic was constructed, is tucked away on a lonely little edge of the marina. It took me a few minutes to find it behind the museums and corporations of the area, and when I did I was surprised to be the only visitor. The Titanic Pumphouse houses a simple restaurant, ticket desk and souvenir shop, and offers tours, as well as a Choose Your Own Adventure option, which is what I opted for. There’s a lot more historical information to be had via the tour, but since I was the only one there…you know, that’s just awkward.
The Thompson Graving Dock is one of the more fascinating and confusing places I’ve experienced. The placards and informational signs around the dock are well-done and, I’m sure, accurate. But it’s difficult to force your inadequate human brain to comprehend the facts presented. It’s as though your mind tries to force everything to be smaller, less significant. Pictures of the Titanic can’t possibly begin to allow your mind the evidence it needs to grasp the reality. The fusing of facts and imagination really only begin to reveal the past while you’re standing there at the origin of it all.
For example, this is a keel block, which supported the actual weight of the Titanic. It’s a little difficult to remember now, but I recall it being a bit taller than I was at 5’1″.
Looks heavy, right? I thought so too, but I would never have guessed that it weighs as much as three compact cars. THREE. But here’s where the perspective gets weird: in the next picture, you’ll see some of the length of the dock itself, and the line of things running down the center of it are all keel blocks.
I’m loath to post more pictures of this place because I’d rather you go there yourself and experience it. It’s a fascinating mental exercise, as well as one of the most badass history lessons you’ll get anywhere. I had lunch in the Pumphouse restaurant, which was far better than I was expecting, and took advantage of their WiFi to call my Mom. I love getting to say stuff like: “Hey Mom, I’m eating chicken soup where the Titanic was built.”
I left Belfast that afternoon and headed NW towards Bushmills (yes, like the whiskey) and made my way to Giant’s Causeway. Giant’s Causeway is a natural phenomenon that has caused “fields” of hexagonal stone columns to rise up from some past volcanic event. I got lucky with a warmer afternoon, although not so lucky with the horde of school children who joined me at the Causeway. There are multiple walking paths of varying degrees of difficulty, and in addition to the wonder of the structures, the folklore stories of Finn McCool really make Giant’s Causeway an excellent tourist stop.
I stayed the night in Bushmills at the Valley View B&B, and Valerie and her family were absolutely lovely. If you ever travel Ireland, I highly recommend staying in B&B’s. It’s definitely a hit-or-miss experience, but it’s worth it for the chance to meet so many wonderful people. I felt welcomed and cared for even though I was only staying one night, and had a wonderful chat with my hostess over tea and shortbread. The next morning I departed after a perfect Irish breakfast cooked by Valerie herself, and was sad to leave that little nook in the country.
Before I departed from Northern Ireland, I had to make one last stop at the single location that had spurred me to visit Éire in the first place: The Dark Hedges.
There is a small stretch of relatively unknown road in Northern Ireland, near Ballymoney, where there are some beech trees. These trees were planted in the 18th century and have grown to create a twisted, fantastical gateway to…well, a golf club. But it is a place that encourages the imagination to not only run wild, but to run amok, kick open hidden doors of consciousness, and perhaps briefly believe that there’s such a thing as magic. It’s said to be haunted by the Grey Lady, a ghost with many possible stories regarding how she got there. She reportedly slithers between the trees, but has never been seen off the paved dirt of Bregagh Road. The Dark Hedges is also said to be a place of literary inspiration for several famous authors and poets. It is a wondrous place, so full of intrigue I can hardly stand it – it is, so far, my favorite place in the entire world.
I got there early on a perfectly sunny, crisp day and was able to revel in its graceful oddity for about a half hour before several other sight-seers appeared. Its mystery was shattered once it crossed over from “thin place” to “tourist kerfuffle.” You can experience my angst and woe in the video below. I apologize for the extremely poor quality which doesn’t really allow for a proper view of what I was trying to describe.
And so ended the most magical hour of my life, and I proceeded to poke my way through the Irish countryside in search of a highway. Upon finding one, Seamus and I began our longest-ever stretch to County Galway, a mere 6 hours away! County Antrim to Derry to Donegal to Sligo to Mayo to Galway, and the whole day was sunny and bright. I stopped for gas and picked up a Twix bar after a friend recommended that I try one. The moment I took my first bite, I swore to never taste a Twix bar again unless it was from Europe. I don’t know why (although I suspect a lack of preservative chemicals), but it’s fresher – the cookie was softer, the chocolate was sweeter, and damnit if the caramel wasn’t smoother. Twix bars, who knew?
I meandered my way through the Irish countryside and was surprised that I never once tired of the rolling hills or the color green. It really is a breathtaking country on all sides. I snapped this photo with my iPhone while zooming down the road:
Despite the challenging driving conditions and the unfamiliar roads, it really was one of the most relaxing road trips I’ve ever taken. I was completely content for 5 hours in the car. No radio, no cell phone – just the road, the highway signs, and the glorious scenery. I sang to myself for probably an hour, stopped to pet some cows, stuffed my face full of Jaffa Cakes, and generally did whatever I damn well pleased for the entire day. It was lovely. But then I arrived in Galway. *music transitions to minor key*
Every story has to have a conflict, right? Some low point, or valley of despair? Sorry, Galway, but you were it. It began with the traffic:
I finally reached my B&B in Spiddal, and it appeared as though no one was there. I rang the door bell, knocked, walked around to the back of the house, looked in the window for a “closed” sign, but there seemed to be no sign of life anywhere. After about 20 minutes, I decided I would go try to find dinner and come back later…only to have someone swing open the door and ask, “well, why didn’t you ring the bell?!” I reminded myself that it takes all sorts to make the world turn, and introduced myself. The hostess was very kind and showed me to my room, and gave me these instructions to get to town:
“You’ll go out, just out, right here, and 1 kilometer down the road, to the right, find the sign with the squiggles on it, and then go right, and the road looks like a road, but it’s not really a road, and then there’s the water. Oh, and the water is lovely right now, didja plan to come this late in the season? It’s a good time, a good time. But right, so you go down to the water, and there’s a thing like a road, but not a road. Not the one you were just on, but another sort-of-road, and you’ll go by the beach, and there’s some bridges, and then you can eat! Got it? I can draw you a map if you need it, but you seem smart enough, and it’s just down the road, there, to the right, to the sign with the squiggles…”
I lied and said I definitely had gotten it, and started off by turning right out the the drive way. I eventually found the squiggles:
I eventually found the beach, too, and took my time strolling towards town:
After an incredible dinner of seafood chowder and Guinness, I decided to take the route through town to get back to the B&B, where I met my new bestest buddy:
Upon arriving back at the B&B, I fell ungracefully into the Most Uncomfortable Bed Ever, and fell asleep…for about 30 minutes. I awoke to the sound of children screaming. I thought the building was on fire or someone was being murdered, surely. I got up and ran to the door, and just as my hand wrapped around the door knob, I heard counting. Counting? Who the $*#% is counting?!
“I found you!”
“You’re not the one finding, you’re the hiding one. Let me finish!”
And so, at 10:30pm, the little English brats in the hallway began their game. They continued to scream at each other from opposite corners and floors of the house, sprint down the hallways, fight, cry, etc. for the next 3 hours.
“Where are you?!”
“UP THE STAIRS!”
Someone was about to take an unexpected and painful trip DOWN the apples and pears when their father finally stepped up to handle the situation, which he did in the most British way possible.
“Ok, guys, time for beddies.”
Another hour of them crying and calling for him and wanting water and “I DON’T WANT TO SLEEP YET,” and finally he either took a brick to them or they fell asleep. 4 hours later, I woke up for breakfast and departed.
Stay tuned for Part 3, in which I almost die, and then later crash a wedding.