August - September 2019
  • Day9

    Way back

    September 8, 2019 in Ireland ⋅ ⛅ 17 °C

    At the end of the Black Taxi Tour, we are given some time to crab some lunch before we start our drive back to Dublin.
    After a quick stop at a local Starbucks, we hence get back on our bus and head South towards our final destination. The scenery during the trip well reflects what we have seen so far, with endless green meadows, hilly areas and colourful towns.

    After a couple of hours we reach the airport, where we drop Steve & Nate off. A few minutes later reach the city centre and now the time to say goodbye has really come. In this occasion we realise that our guide's name is actually Shaun and not Sean... Better late than never 😅

    As I will start my new job tomorrow, tonight my accommodation is paid by the company, while Ludo will stay at a hostel in the city centre, before flying back home.

    So here we are, back to where we started. I will miss our green bus and red-haired guide. But, hopefully, it's just another "see you later".
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  • Day9

    Belfast, Peace Walls (Black Taxi Tour)

    September 8, 2019 in the United Kingdom ⋅ ☁️ 14 °C

    We are almost at the end of our tour of Belfast and something really unique is awaiting us: the Black Taxi Tour of the conflict zones between the Loyalists and the Republicans. The reason why we have to get a special taxi to do it, is that your buses are not allowed in these areas at all. And I soon understand why...

    We are divided into tiny groups and assigned to a traditional black taxi. I soon realise that the drivers are not simple taxi drivers, but rather guides with first-person experience of the conflicts that have torn Northern Ireland until a couple of decades ago.

    We start driving away from the city centre towards a most peripheral area and we stop in a small parking lot surrounded by buildings covered with gigantic murals. Once we get off, the first taxi driver starts to explain that this is a high-confict-level area characterised by the presence of political murals with heavy subjects. The reason is a black building standing at the end of the street: it used to be a prison and that's where the terrorists belonging to both IRA and UVF were held.
    With the Good Friday Agreement signed on the 10th Apr 1998 the government committed to release all terrorists within 2 years regardless of how many murders they had committed. In exchange, the all terrorist groups were supposed to destroy destroy or hand all their weapons over. But, while prisoners were indeed released, the second part of the agreement was never fully fulfilled.

    The first mural portrays two knights fighting on a horseback. Indeed, over 300 years ago there was a battle between 2 Kings: one protestant and one catholic. And that battle is still on today even though religion doesn't really play a role in this conflict. Protestants identify themselves with the "orange men". What really strikes me is the intrinsic violence of this murals: in front of us the wall of a house has been completed covered with the giant portrait of a red-haired guy in military uniform, sided by two black boards. On one of these two boards there are two face-covered militants pointing guns at the observer. And what is most disturbing is that the guns seem to be following you as you walk past...

    The guide explains that these murals aren't legal, but if the tenants of the house don't like them, they can't do anything: the police won't intervene not to cause any problems with these armed extremist groups. So, basically, you either accept the murals or have to move to a different area.
    During the recent years a new type of murals have started showing up with more peaceful topics like love, friendship, gender equality etc.

    We get back on our respective taxi to continue our journey in this hidden war zone in the heard of Europe. When we stop, I cannot trust my eyes: in front of us stretches an 8-meter-high wall covered with murals. Honestly, if I had seen a picture I would've sworn this was the Berlin Wall. I look around me and I can see that also the others are puzzled: Why is there a wall in Ireland? And is it still in use?

    Our guide s the driver of our taxi (Fred) and explains that this is one of the many "Peace Walls" (there are 27!!!) in Belfast. They were built in 1969 to separate Catholics and Protestants in conflict zones of the city. Each wall has a security gate allowing people to cross the wall during the day. However, these gates are closed in the early evening and are not reopened until the next morning...

    We drive for a couple of minutes until we reach another wall, covered with political murals made by political prisoners: Palestine and South Africa are definitely the most popular themes. And it´s not hard to guess why...
    Before we head back to our taxis, Fred reveals that he grew up on the catholic side of this wall, which makes this whole thing feel very real and... disturbing. I rarely felt this urge of running as far as possible from a place...
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  • Day9

    Belfast, Titanic Museum

    September 8, 2019 in the United Kingdom ⋅ ☁️ 14 °C

    The first day of our tour has started! 😰

    After a traditional English breakfast, we get on the bus to start exploring Belfast. Our first stop is at the Titanic Museum, the world's biggest exhibition dedicated to the Titanic. The museum building slightly reminds me of a huge ship bow. We, the guide explains that it represents indeed the bow of the Titanic... real size! Outside the building, some copper poles show the dimensions this sadly famous ship had.

    We have two hours to visit the museum at our own speed and it turns out not to be too much time at all! The exhibition is indeed not only beautifully made but also enormous: it is organised in different floors and covers the whole story of the Titanic from the first designs, to its construction, to the maiden journey and, finally, tragic ending. The museum also includes a ride on a roller-coaster-like trail that brings the visitors down into the heart of the ship. And it's here that I realise that the traumatic roller-coaster experience from Disneyland is still very much present in Ludo's mind... 😱😂😂😂

    In the museum we can see the reconstruction of the first, second and third-class cabins (the first being extremely luxurious) as well as of the impressive on-board toilet facilities. Towards the end of the exhibition a big screen shows the video recorded by a submarine camera used by scientists to explore the Titanic wreckage. Truly impressive!
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  • Day8

    Belfast by night

    September 7, 2019 in the United Kingdom ⋅ ⛅ 11 °C

    It's already dusk by the time we start walking back towards our hotel. While crossing the town hall square, we notice a memorial dedicated to the hundreds of victims of the Titanic disaster. On the other side of the road, pubs and restaurants start getting crowded.

    It's now that I see one of the funniest and - at the same time - weirdest things ever: a beer bike. If you don't know what a beer bike is... well, I didn't know either until today. Basically, it's a bike vehicles consisting of a big bar table with people sitting all around it on stools with... pedals! So, basically the guests drink and pedal at the same time, while a "driver" steers a wheel to direct the "drinking bike in the right direction". Interesting... 🍺🍺🍺+🚲 =😂😂😂

    Before dropping us off at the hotel earlier in the afternoon, Sean and the rest of the group decided to meet for dinner at a pub close to our accommodation. When we join them it's already 8.30pm, so we only find Sean, Steven and the two Kiwis there... as usual, it's always the 6 of us. Nathan is unfortunately feeling sick so he will not join. We end up having a lovely evening: great (and conveniently priced) food as well as nice chats.
    I will definitely miss these people... 😥
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  • Day8

    Belfast, Town Centre

    September 7, 2019 in the United Kingdom ⋅ ⛅ 14 °C

    The drive to Belfast is shorter than expected and by 3.30pm we are in the capital of this detached State of the UK. As we were the last ones to book the tour, the hotel where the rest of the group is staying was already full by the time we joined, so we will have to stay in a different one.

    After a short rest, we start exploring the town. Our hotel turns out to be very close to the botanic garden, which funnily contains weird statues made with rubbish (I guess as a way to raise public awareness of the environmental issues)... 🙄 Just a few metres away stands the Queen's University of Belfast, a beautiful complex of Victorian-style red-brick buildings in the green.

    After walking through the campus, we proceed towards the town centre, about 20 minutes away. I was expecting a medium-sized town similar to Derry, but I couldn't be more wrong: modern glass-buildings alternate to historical and monumental constructions, separated by multi-lane trafficked streets with pink double-decker buses. If I didn't know we were in Ireland, I would have guessed this was a London District. 😳

    The most prominent element in the area is a majestic neoclassical white-marble building topped by a dome. It definitely looks like a cathedral, but Google Maps reveals that it's actually the town hall!
    We get to see the real cathedral a few minutes later (after a warm-up stop at Starbucks). The building is quite classical, but it has a sort of huge needle popping out of the roof!!! What's that???!!! 🙄
    Our best guesses are:
    1) a lightning rod
    2) a giant bird spike
    3) a symbol for man's tension towards God
    4) none of the above

    It's actually not the only hard-to-interpret thing we see today: in a very central square just beyond the town hall there is a statue (?) consisting of intertwined metal rings. Maybe it's just a prank of some artist with a weird sense of humour... or maybe it's actually a masterpiece of art. Just in case, we take a picture of it... 🤔
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  • Day8

    Whitepark Bay

    September 7, 2019 in the United Kingdom ⋅ ⛅ 13 °C

    In our way to Belfast we enjoy some beautiful views of the coastline: beyond the green hills dotted with sheep and cattle, we catch sight of beautiful promontories, cliffs and - quite surprisingly - also golden beaches.
    This region has been really blessed by nature and by looking at this kind of scenery (and sunny weather) it seems impossible to be just a few kilometres away from Scotland...
    We definitely have to came back!
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  • Day8

    Giant's Causeway, Hexagons

    September 7, 2019 in the United Kingdom ⋅ ⛅ 12 °C

    After leaving the hilltop, we follow a path all the way down to the the shore, where the famous hexagons are finally to be seen.

    Some of them create a sort of pave-way, while others pile up in impressive 10-meter high basaltic columns. And, all around us, the waves of the stormy ocean break against the rocks.

    Amazing place indeed, if it were not for the hundreds of tourists climbing on the hexagons...
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  • Day8

    Giant's Causeway, Cliffs

    September 7, 2019 in the United Kingdom ⋅ ⛅ 12 °C

    It takes another half-hour drive to reach our next destination: the Giant's Causeway. It's one of the major attractions of Northern Ireland as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And it's not hard to understand why...

    This mystic place located on the northernmost coastline of Ireland consists in 40.000 interlocking basalt columns characterised by an iconic hexagonal shape. Apparently, this formation is the result of a volcanic explosion dating back to 60 million years ago. But, of course, there is also a less scientific explanation...

    According to the legend, a Scottish giant created the hexagons by smashing rocks on his way back from Ireland to Scotland. 😂

    Similarly to the Cliffs of Moher, the access point to the site is a visitor centre with an educational corner, a cafeteria and a souvenir shop. From here we take a trail that brings us up on the cliffs, from where we enjoy a great view of the area. In order to best appreciate the famous hexagons we however have to take a different path leading us all the way to the feet of the cliffs, where the "magical" columns stand.
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  • Day8

    Dunluce Castle

    September 7, 2019 in the United Kingdom ⋅ ⛅ 12 °C

    Today we have an early start as a long drive awaits us. After having a first taste of Northern Ireland, today we will get to explore this contended region and will overnight in the capital: Belfast.

    After leaving Letterkenny, we drive for about one and a half hours along the coastline until we reach an interesting lookout point: on a cliff in front of us stands a ruined castle perched on black sea rocks that fall steeply into the ocean.

    Sean explains that it's the Dunluce Castle, an ancient fortress dating back to the 1200s. We have a couple of minutes to take some pictures before getting back on the bus. Next stop: the Giant's Causeway. 🤩
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  • Day7

    Grianan of Aileach

    September 6, 2019 in Ireland ⋅ ⛅ 13 °C

    It takes just a few-minute drive from Derry to cross the border and be back to the Republic of Ireland, but - as Sean remarks - there are no such signs as "Welcome to the Republic of Ireland".

    On our way back to Letterkenny we have one more stop: Grianan of Aileach. It's an ancient fort built on the top of a hill with an amazing view of the whole area. And when I say "amazing", I really mean it... 🤩
    And the weather is once again clement: the moment we get off the bus, it gifts us with a totally unexpected sun spell☀

    After this magical panoramic stop, we get back on the bus and drive to our hotel in Letterkenny. Tonight we will have a quiet night: gym, supermarket and picnic dinner in our hotel room. Tomorrow we will have a long day, ending in the capital of Northern Ireland: Belfast!
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