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Countryside, Castles, and Celts (Croatia and Ireland Trip Report Part 2: Ireland)

Belfast

We had originally booked a direct flight from Zagreb to Dublin, using our credits with Croatia Airlines from our 2020 cancelled trip. In fact, our decision to visit Ireland was based, in part, on the fact that there was a direct flight from Zagreb. However, that flight was cancelled a month before the trip, and we had to switch to flights that connected through Frankfurt Airport, instead. There were two choices for this. One gave us only an hour between flights. The other would have landed us in Dublin much, much later, leaving us trying to get to Belfast very late at night, and we had a tour booked the next morning from Belfast. Either that, or we would have had to change several of our bookings for Ireland and waste hours hanging around Frankfurt airport. So, we booked the 1 hour connection and crossed our fingers. We landed in Frankfurt and deplaned on the tarmac, away from the terminal. We were herded onto shuttles that took us to a terminal. From there, we followed the signs to get us to our boarding gate. This led us up and down several flights of stairs or escalators, and then to another shuttle which took us to another terminal. We were running whenever we could. At the next terminal, we encountered more stairs and, finally, a long, long lineup in front of a sign indicating the direction to our gate. We asked a worker about it, hoping that it wasn’t our lineup, but, alas, it was. We were certain we would not make our flight at this point, but we got into line. It moved more quickly than expected, and we found that it led down another set of stairs and into yet another shuttle! The shuttle took us out to the tarmac and to a plane that was parked one plane over from the Croatia airlines plane we had vacated earlier! Three shuttles, two terminals, and numerous stairs and escalators, and we’d ended up right back where we started from! Grrrr. This was not our first hairy Frankfurt Airport experience, but we vow it will be our last. It’s a truly ridiculous airport.

We caught our breath and destressed on the flight to Dublin, and, once we landed, had just over an hour to wait for our bus to Belfast. So, we ate lunch in the mezzanine food court, and then went outside to wait for the bus, which arrived half an hour late and almost full. There was room only for those of us who had reserved tickets online in advance, so we were very glad we had done so. There isn’t a lot of legroom on these buses. We sat behind a couple who had their seats fully reclined. I didn’t want to recline my seat, because I had noticed that the guy behind me was tall and had long legs. However, this meant that my knees were right against the seatback in front of me. The man in that seat was annoyed by this, I guess, because he kept slamming back against his seatback and bashing it into my knees. I finally said loudly, “Excuse me!!” The woman beside him looked back and saw that I had no room, so she switched seats with the man and they both moved their seatbacks up a little. I was more comfortable after that.

(To be continued...)

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The Europa bus centre in Belfast was close to our hotel, The Flint, so we were in our rooms shortly after we got off the bus. The room was nicely decorated and comfortable, with a kitchenette and a sofa, besides the king-sized bed, but it was very noisy! We were on a busy street (Howard Street). We had gorgeous views, but the windows did nothing to block the street noise. Even when they were closed, we often double checked to see if they were open. At least we always travel with earplugs, and the hotel was great in every other respect.

We walked around, looking at the gorgeous City Hall and some of the other architecture and sights in the area. We got a few groceries from Tesco and asked at the front desk for restaurant ideas. The hotel is in the theatre district, and we’d already learned that a couple of places we thought we’d try had no availability, even though it was a weeknight. In heading for one of the suggestions, we passed a place called The Red Panda and thought it looked promising. We were able to get a table and were still in time to qualify for the pre-theatre menu. I had Duck Wraps and Chicken Satay, and DH had Hot and Sour Soup and Kung Pau Chicken. The food was really good and the service super quick, which was nice, because we were hungry!

We headed back to The Flint and showered and went to bed, looking forward to the tour we had booked for the next morning. It had been a trying travel day, but we liked what we’d seen of Belfast so far.

Photos: https://photos.app.goo.gl/hEDj1dXmcuKk5hf28

Next up! Game of Thrones/Antrim Coast Tour

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At 8:15 on Friday morning, we met our driver, Dean, from Glenara Elite Travel, in front of our hotel for our private, full-day Game of Thrones with Giant’s Causeway tour. As with our GOT tour in Dubrovnik, we weren’t focused exclusively on GOT. It was just a theme to tie together some sights in the area. Dean’s son and daughter-in-law had been extras in the show, though, so we got some stories about that.

We stopped in a small town for coffee and snacks and then headed to the Binevanagh Mountain Walk. Here, there are fantastic, panoramic views from the edge of a high bluff, over Lough Foyle. There is a Neolithic mound here, too. This is the spot where Daenerys flew her dragons for the first time, and Lough Foyle was the “Dothraki Sea.” It was chilly up there, with such intense winds, Dean warned us not to stand too close to the edge. Lough Foyle is actually part of an estuary that leads to the Port of Derry, where immigrants to America boarded ships. It is also where the German u-boat command sailed to Derry in 1945 to surrender. We could also see a "Famine Wall" and learned about how the government had hired people to build these in return for food.

We then drove down to Benone Beach/Downhill Strand, the site of the Burning of the Seven Gods in GOT. It’s a large, sandy beach overlooked by Mussendem Temple on the clifftop at one end. Afterward, we headed up through Castlerock on the Sea Coast Road, and passed through the Lion’s Gate to see Downhill Dumesne and the Mussendem Temple. The lions on the gate look more like dogs. I don’t know if the sculptor had never seen actual lions, or erosion has worn down the lionish parts. The fortress was wonderul, and we had it all to ourselves as we wandered through it and took int the views, including Mussendem Temple and the Bishop’s Monument.
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Our next stop was Dunluce Castle, which was Castle Greyjoy in GOT. I really loved exploring this atmospheric ruin perched on a rocky precipice overlooking the sea.

We then proceeded to the Giant’s Causeway. Here, we bypassed the visitor centre (one had to have an online, advance booking for that, anyway), and took the passageway on the right to where the shuttle bus stops. The shuttle was one pound each way, so we bought round-trip tickets, since Dean had told us the road down was steep, and the best part was at the bottom, anyway. The Giant’s Causeway is amazing—consisting of incredible basalt formations that look for all the world as if a giant was building with pillars and blocks. It started to rain while we were there, making the rocks slippery, so we didn’t climb on the higher formations as some people were doing, and we were glad we already had tickets for the bus back up, so we could hop right on. We stopped for lunch at the Causeway Hotel, and a highlight was the decadent Sticky Toffee Pudding we had for dessert.

After lunch, we stopped at the Potaneevy Lookout, with incredible views of Sheep Island, Carrick-a-rede Bridge, and the coast. (We chose not to do the bridge, because the time it would have taken would have limited our time for other sights. Plus, DH doesn’t like heights.)

We passed, Dunseverick Castle, said to be the oldest castle in Ireland. Saint Patrick visited this castle in the 5th century.Just a couple of mounds of stones are visible now,

Further along the coast we visited Ballintoy Harbour, renowned for its beauty, with its rocks and rugged coastline. This is the spot in GOT where Theon Greyjoy returns to the Iron Islands and meets his sister, Yara. The road down is a very narrow, curved adventure!

We also stopped at the lime Larrybane quarry, where, in GOT, Brienne wins the fight against Ser Lorac. This is a breathtaking spot, outstanding amongst so much beauty along this coastline.

(To be continued...)

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One of the most interesting parts of the tour was talking with Dean on the drive back. He described growing up during the Troubles, and how his generation had to be careful about where they were, with whom they spoke, and what they talked about. He said that he had done things in his youth that he was not proud of, and living that way had an impact on him. He told us his home had been in an area with great conflict and danger, and that his mother kept newspapers soaking in bins around their home in case of tear gas. They would use the paper to plaster on the windows to seal them and make them airtight. He said that his four sisters had a specific cancer associated with tear gas. As we circled back to Belfast, we discussed colonization, economics, language, religious impacts and how we could relate, as Indigenous people.

He also recommended that we watch the tv show “Derry Girls,” which we started doing after we returned home. It’s a good show, and having visited the area and spoken with people who lived through that time makes it even more relatable for us. (I’d also recommend the book, “Milkman,” for anyone interested in what life was like for a young person in the North of Ireland during that time.)

Dean dropped us off at our hotel, and we said our farewells, feeling like we had made a new friend.

We had take-out and leftovers for dinner before showering and going to sleep.

Photos: https://photos.app.goo.gl/D9KSXzmK1TDwPRXj9

Next: a day exploring Belfast.

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Saturday

We didn’t have too many specific plans for our last day in Belfast, except for a murals tour with “Black Taxi Tours Belfast” (I do NOT recommend this company. More on that later.)

Our room overlooked a beautiful old church, and someone had mentioned that it was now a shopping mall. We noticed a line up of women waiting to enter the building that morning, so we decided to check it out. However, when we went inside, we discovered that it was actually The Presbyterian Assembly Conference Centre and Historical Society, and, because a conference was happening (thus the line up), no tours were allowed that day. (Note: There is, apparently, a mall in the basement of the building, but we didn’t see the entrance to it. Anyway, for us, it wasn’t about shopping, but about seeing the inside of the building.)

We thought we might like to see the Crumlin Road Gaol and had tried to book it online that morning, but had been unable to do so. So, we decided to walk in that direction to see if we could get in, and look at other stuff on the way.

We did come across Belfast’s St. Patrick’s Church, which was lovely, and it was interesting to note the bullet and shrapnel marks in the brass door of its presbytery.

We headed up towards the gaol, passing a cemetery that looked interesting, but the gates were closed. At the gaol, we discovered that we couldn’t get in without an advance booking, so we were out of luck there, too.

We headed to the Belfast Cathedral, and once we were inside, we were told that admissions were just closed, because a wedding was about to take place. We did get a peek at the lovely interior, though.

We decided to go to the the Crown Liquor Saloon for lunch. We had passed it the day before and had heard a lot of people recommending it to tourists. The main floor was full or had “reserved” signs on the booths, so we went upstairs to the dining room. We waited about 10 minutes to be seated, and then we waited for someone to take our orders. And waited. And waited. A line up for tables started to grow, and nobody was seating them. We decided to leave, because we had our murals tour booked for 2 pm and didn’t want to be late. We tried the Flame near our hotel, but were told we couldn’t get in without a reservation. Further down Howard Street, we saw that the Rusty Saddle had empty tables outside, so we ordered from the bar and sat outdoors.

We went back to the Flint and got ready for our taxi tour. We headed outside a few minutes early, and there was one of the iconic black taxis, waiting. We got into the taxi, and the driver asked what name we were booked under. I gave my name. He then said he was waiting for someone named…and here, he gave a nonsensical name with the same initials as mine. (BF) I mean, it was ridiculous—something like Bobidy Foogidah. He then asked if we had prepaid. I said we hadn’t, and he said this wasn’t our taxi, and ours should be along shortly. So, we got out and waited. After a few minutes, that taxi left. We waited about 20 minutes, and no other taxi arrived. I emailed the company to say we were going to our room. As a courtesy, I also decided to inform the front desk that we were waiting for a taxi tour that hadn’t arrived yet, and, in case someone showed up, we would be in our room. The desk clerk offered to call the company for us, and the company told her they had no record of the booking, even though I had a confirmation. It was all very strange and frustrating. We don’t know why, but we are convinced that the taxi had been our taxi, and the driver had, for some reason, decided he didn’t want to take us. This idea was bolstered when the desk clerk told us there was nobody else with the initials BF staying in the hotel. She said she could try to book another mural tour for us and would call our room if she could. Shortly afterward, she phoned to say we had one booked for 3:30pm. At 3:15, she called to say the driver had arrived. (To be continued...)

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Thanks to the great staff at The Flint, our tour was saved.

Our driver/guide was excellent, and the tour was thought-provoking and informative. We are old enough to remember “The Troubles” being in the news, but we aren’t old enough that we really understood what was happening at the time. The guide went over the history of Ireland, the building of the wall, the British Army coming in, the IRA/SF and the Ulster/Orange Men, the atrocities of the troubles, and the June 12 bonfires. We saw the “Peace Wall,” the gates, and the major murals in both the Catholic and the Protestant neighborhoods. We learned that the “Peace Wall” is even higher now than it was before the Good Friday Agreement. We learned about how golf balls, painted in Union Jack colours, are thrown over the wall onto the Catholic homes on the other side, which is why they have protective fencing on the wall side (the golf balls used to be grenades and molotov cocktails). We learned how all the gates but one are still closed at sunset, and how all the gates are closed around the anniversary of The Battle of the Boyne. The stories of the hunger strikes in the prisons and the elections of IRA MPs were inspiring. Our guide recommended two books: Trinity, by Leon Uris, and The Silent People by Walter MacKen. I asked if he had read “Milkman.” He hadn’t yet, but had heard it was good and wanted to read it.

Later, we asked the desk clerk which company she had booked for us, because we didn’t know. It was Paddy Campbell Tours, and I highly, highly recommend this company. http://belfastblackcabtours.co.uk and not the other, copycat Belfast Tours DOT Com (writing it this way, because I don’t want to link to them), which left us in the lurch. (Note: the company did contact me and offer us a tour for the next day, but this did us no good, because we were leaving for Dublin the next morning. Also note that the amount this company had quoted us was a little more than what Paddy Cambpell Tours charged us, so there’s that, too.) It had been a frustrating day, but the tour was so good, it more than made up for it. It was a real highlight of our trip.

We ate food from the grocery store in our room that evening, and packed our stuff.

Photos: https://photos.app.goo.gl/gLGDRTRgMyud1Ury9

Next up: Dublin!

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Monday

We walked to the Molly Malone statue to meet our guide and driver, Fergul and Seamus, from Irish Day Tours at 7:50. The bus was parked nearby, and we were soon on our way to the Hill of Tara. We walked along the remains of an ancient banquet hall and saw the Mound of the Hostages and the phallic Stone of Destiny, as well as the statue of St. Patrick near the church, and the standing stones and high crosses in the churchyard.

We drove through the narrow, winding, tree and flower lined country roads to Trim Castle. This is a beautiful 12 century Anglo-Norman castle set against a green hill and the River Boyne. It’s well-preserved and very picturesque.

After this, we drove to Loughcrew, where we climbed the 200m hill to the top. The views were incredible. At the top are the Loughcrew Tombs—ancient cairns and passage tombs (over 5000 years old), some with petroglyphs. We walked among these and sat in the “hag’s seat” for photos.

After this, we went to the town of Oldcastle for lunch. DH and I went to “Tiffany’s Cafe” where we had delicious sandwiches (a BLT and a Club) with chips. It was such a cute place. I was served my Coke in a Smurf cup. LOL

After lunch, we visited Fore Abbey, a 7th-century Benadictine monastery. It is set a boggy area, surrounded by fields with cattle, many of which had young calves. There are seven “miracles” that are associated with this abbey, and people still tie items to a tree there, based on its miraculous reputation. The remains of the abbey are stunning, and we also visited St. Feichen’s church and its atmospheric graveyard across the road.

Since we had all been so conscientious about getting back to the bus on time, and because I’d expressed an interest in high crosses, Fergul asked if we wanted to add Kells to the tour, and of course we did. We stopped at the round tower beside the church where the Book of Kells was discovered. We then walked down to the tourist centre, which has a copy of the book. It also has a large high cross in front of it. We had some free time after that. Some people went to a pub, but DH and I went and paid our respects to the denizens of St. John’s cemetery, across from the tourist centre. Some have been there since medieval times.

Fergul played music by Christy Moore on the way back, and he sang (very well) along.

When we got back to Dublin, we were tired but very happy with our day. We ordered pizza from the hotel and ate it in our room.

Photos: https://photos.app.goo.gl/6hZ3i7m912fkpDug7

Next up: Rock of Cashel, Blarney Castle, and Cahir Castle!

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Tuesday

We met our guide at the Molly Malone statue again, but at 6:50 am this time, for our trip to the Rock of Cashel, Blarney Castle, and Cahir Castle. There was a larger group on this tour, probably because Blarney Castle is so famous.

We stopped after about an hour and a half for a break at a roadside cafe and shop. DH and I were glad for the stop, since, as you know, it’s a long way to Tipperary. ;) We’d had time for only a quick bite before leaving our hotel room, so we had second breakfast and got snacks for later. After about another half an hour of driving, we were at the Rock of Cashel. This is an extraordinary ruin, very imposing on its hill of limestone, and was my favourite of all the ruins we saw in Ireland. We went to the churchyard first to look at all the crosses, while most of the group went inside the ruin. There are many incredible Celtic crosses here, including an enormous one that broke when it was struck by lightning (only the base remains). The views from here are gorgeous, with the land undulating down from the hilltop and sheep grazing in the meadows. Inside, there are several rooms and some old carved tombs.

After visiting the Rock of Cashel, we went to Blarney Castle, which is a very pretty castle with a tower beside it. I wasn’t planning on kissing the Blarney Stone, because I didn’t want to waste time waiting in a long lineup. However, DH and I walked straight to the Castle and realized that there was hardly any line once we passed the “30 minute wait” sign with no line in sight. We climbed straight up and waited less than 10 minutes at the top. So, I kissed the stone, but DH passed, because he doesn’t like heights. Right after I was finished, it started to rain, so our timing was impeccable. We checked out various rooms in the castle on our way back down, and by the time we were done, the rain had stopped. We walked through the Poison Garden and then had lunch in the yard of the Stable Yard Cafe. The crows were begging for food, and one ate right out of my hand. After that, we explored the Rock Close, which had a lot of fun, magical elements in it, such as a fairy glen with a wee house, wishing stairs, a witch turned to stone, a druid’s circle, and more. It hadn’t been near the top of our wish list, but we really enjoyed our visit to Blarney.

We had to wait a while once we were back at the bus, because a family and another solo traveller had trouble finding the bus. The driver expressed annoyance about this, but I thought that was unfair, because he had dropped us off at the entrance and then told us where he would probably park afterward, but it wasn’t that easy to find, especially since we hadn’t come that way initially.

Anyway, we were finally on our way to our last stop of the tour, Cahir Castle. This is a well-preserved castle on an island. There are a couple of cannonballs imbedded in its walls, and it has a number of murder holes, which are easy to see because so much of the walls and gates are intact. It has a roof, so it has intact rooms, too, and some of them are furnished. We had plenty of time to explore the castle, in spite of our guide’s worries that we wouldn’t, because of the stragglers.

On our way back to Dublin, our guide taught us the Molly Malone song.

We were hungry when we got off the bus, so we stopped for supper at the Millstone on the way back to the hotel. It has a fun, Old World decor, and the food we had—stew—was delicious.

It was an altogether satisfying and fun day.

Photos: https://photos.app.goo.gl/us5e6q4syf3wWF7s8

Next up: last, but not least—A Day in Dublin

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I missed posting about our arrival and first afternoon in Dublin, so I'm adding that here:

Sunday

We took the bus from Belfast to Dublin, arriving around 3:40 pm. We walked to our hotel using GPS, which took us through Temple Bar. That was the only time we were in Temple Bar, and that was enough for us.

Our hotel was Staycity Apartments, Dublin Castle. Our room was very small, but we had a bit of a kitchen. It was warm, as the room didn’t have air conditioning, but there was a fan. We could open the window also, but it was a bit noisy with the window open. The room had a cute, modern decor, done in colours of dark grey and yellow. We unpacked and then walked back to a restaurant we had passed, Chez Max. Dinner was not being served yet, so we walked around a bit and picked up some groceries. Then we went back to Chez Max and sat on the patio. We both ordered Crab Crème Brûlée and Boeuf Bourguinon. The food was good, but they turned on the patio heaters, which were turned far too high, and it became unbearable to sit there. We were sweating, and my face was red and literally felt like it was burning. We were not the only ones who were uncomfortable. The people next to us were complaining, as well, and we all requested that the heaters be turned down. Things didn’t improve, and finally we were told that there were only two settings: off or on. We would have preferred off to that hell, so we asked for the bill and left. We looked around the exterior and the courtyard of the castle and at the lovely castle gardens before returning to our hotel. We had an early meeting time for our tour to the Boyne Valley, etc. the next morning.

https://photos.app.goo.gl/TH7tBGTstsYYwhNr5

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Wednesday

If you’ve read this far, we have come to the last day of the trip. This report ended up being much longer than I’d originally thought, but it makes me realize how much we did and saw.

For our last day, I’d booked tickets well in advance for Kilmainham Gaol. We walked here, taking the time to have a better look at some of the sights we’d passed previously on a tour bus, such as the old St. James Church (now a distillery) with a glass steeple.

The Kilmainham Gaol tour was excellent, made even better by a personable guide who looked like a younger Sean Connery! Many Irish revolutionaries, including the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising, were imprisoned and executed at Kilmainham Gaol. The architecture of the “new” wing of the jail is gorgeous, but even more interesting is the prisoner graffiti above some of the cells, and the replica of the painting by Mrs. Joseph (Grace) Plunkett on the wall of her cell.

We took a taxi back to see St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where we had an entrance time booked. We had time for a lunch break, so we went into Two Pups Coffee, where I had croquettes and a chai, and DH had a breakfast bap. Afterward, we crossed to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and had to wait, because a school choir was rehearsing inside. While we were waiting, we had the typical Irish weather experience of hot sun, and then wind and rain, and then sun again, all within a short time. We were talking off our jackets, putting them back on, taking them off, etc. Once we were permitted inside, it was great, because we were the first group in. It’s an interesting and beautiful cathedral. I was taken with how old some of the hanging flags were. They were literally crumbling with age.

After viewing the cathedral, we walked to Trinity College Library, where we had a time booked to see the Book of Kells. This was interesting, and it added to some of the old print materials we’ve had the privilege to view, such as the Magna Carta at Salisbury Cathedral and some Gutenberg Bibles at the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz. However, it was the Long Room that filled us with awe. I want to live in there! We have a gorgeous library in Calgary that has received many accolades for its architecture, and it is, indeed, wonderful. But the Long Room, with its two levels of bookshelves, its barrel ceiling, and the busts of famous writers is truly magical.

After this, we walked back to Christ Church Cathedral, which is not far from St. Patrick’s. We could have planned that better, to save our feet, but we didn’t. At least Christ Church was fairly close to our hotel. Christ Church is interesting, because it is the oldest, continuously used building in Dublin. Also, it contains Strongbow’s tomb and a beautiful arched, covered bridge connecting the cathedral to Synod Hall, across the street. There are also some unusual artifacts in the cathedral, such as the carved monkey head on a pillar, the heart of the patron saint of Dublin, and the mummified cat and rat in a display case in the crypt.

After this, we were ready to rest, so we walked back to our hotel and packed for our trip home the next day. We had that feeling that we could hardly remember what being home was like, but we knew from experience that, after being home a day or two, our trip would seem a world and a lifetime away. Such is travel.

Thanks for reading.

Photos: https://photos.app.goo.gl/jjD2XEZWsuF6AtmdA

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Wonderful report! Ireland is my favorite European country, so glad you enjoyed it! I really need to get to Northern Ireland!

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We weren't originally planning to go to the North of Ireland, but changed our minds, and I'm glad we did.

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Thanks for this report. You did a lot! I really liked Belfast and the Giant's Causeway. Glad you had a good trip.

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Thanks. When I write it all down like this, I realize how much we did.