Monday, September 7, 2015

Day 1 of the 12-day Giant Irish Adventure

Monday morning and the rain has gone. Our "Vagatron" awaits outside the hotel at 8 am for the first day of an amazing adventure. Hand your luggage off to Dee, our knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and energetic guide. She will lock it in the little trailer until we get to tonight's stop. We pick up others in our group at City Centre, and then we are on our way to Northern Ireland.
But not too fast...first there's a stop for a wee walk to an historical site. It's on a golf course...who'd have guessed?
During the drive, Dee explained we were going to see the Proleek Dolmen, which is a Stone-Age tomb that dates back to 3000-2000 BC. There are actually two tombs. We come to this smaller one first. Dee (our guide) and Marissa wait for everyone to get there. The cremains would have been placed under the stone at the far end.
The Capstone on this larger Dolmen weighs about 40 tons. This megalithic (large stone) tomb is an example of a Portal Tomb, so called because the two large upright stones that support the highest end of the capstone form a portal or doorway into the burial chamber. The tomb may have originally had a mound of small stones surrounding it or even covering it.
These tombs were built by farming communities in the Neolithic period around 3000 BC. Cremated remains were buried and often accompanied by flint and stone implements, bone beads and pieces of pottery. Dee told us of a more modern legend that if you toss a pebble on the capstone and it stays, you will be married within the year. I didn't try that, but others did.
View from the Vagatron on the road to Belfast.
Our first stop in Belfast is at the newly opened Titanic Experience. The Titanic was built in this harbor and launched from here on its ill fated journey in 1911.
I'd been to a similar Titanic exhibit in the US, so didn't tour this one. But Tina and I walked around and read the interpretive signs.
In dry dock here is the Titanic's smaller sister ship, the Nomadic. It is the last surviving vessel of the White Star Line in the world.
We had lunch at a unique waterfront restaurant.
There are no prices or even suggested prices on the menu pay what you want on an honor system. They have homemade soups, bread, and other baked goods.

Tina and I had vegetable soup and brown bread.
After lunch it was time for our Black Cab tour of Belfast. This tour gives a close hand experience of the city's political districts and its turbulent past.
Tina and Marissa inside the cab, facing toward the back.
Belfast and Northern Ireland have been at peace for 10 years now, but the reminders of the troubles can be seen in the neighborhoods. Our two taxi drivers present an unbiased view from both sides of the "peace wall." Our tour starts on Shankill road where the story is told in murals on the houses in this Protestant district. Our taxi driver grew up here and shared personal stories.
This is not a neighborhood you would have visited without an escort just a few years ago.
Our guide explained that the troubles were not about religion...Protestant vs. Catholic, but instead more about politics...those that wanted to remain under England's jurisdiction, and those who favored Independence. William III was King of England, Scotland, and ireland from 1689 until his death. Many Protestants heralded him as a champion of their faith. This mural commemorates his final victory at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. 
Chancel housing district.
Many of the murals are memorials to leaders lost during The Troubles.
Many murals have been painted over previous murals that depicted violence and aggression in favor of more peaceful sentiments.

A row of damaged or deteriorating houses that have been torn down to build new housing.

Explanation of the "Gold Rush" mural.

Residents here fly the British flag.
Next we visit what is now referred to as the "Wall of Peace." Longer than the Berlin Wall was, it separates Protestant and catholic neighborhoods.
These gates are still closed and locked at night in spite of the long-standing peace. No one wants to tear down the wall because they feel it helps ensure the peace. Notice how the wall has been built higher in sections over time. This was to prevent explosives from being hurled over the wall into Catholic neighborhoods.
On this side, the walls are covered with graffiti, memorials, and messages of hope.

Visitors to the wall still leave messages of peace.
Our guide describes the history and evolution of the wall.
Ann decides to leave a message on the wall.
Next we went to the other side of the wall in the Catholic district.
They too have memorials to those lost in the conflicts.
The other taxi driver, a Catholic, tells the story from their side.

Houses next to the wall have "shields" to deflect tossed missiles.
These are the people who favor a United Independent Ireland. It was an interesting and educational tour.
Leaving Belfast, we go through several roundabouts. Most of them are landscaped and have sculptures displayed. Not sure of the significance of this one.
Our route follows the scenic coastline of Northern Ireland.

And through some small towns.
A little construction delay.

This is a glimpse of Glenarm Castle, built by the 1st Earl of Antrim in 1636. We didn't stop to tour here, but we have other fine castles in our future.
A view across the bay of the town of Larne where we will spend our first night on the tour. Notice the limestone cliffs above the town? Little did we know what Dee had in store for us there.
Dee said the man on the tractor is heading to the beach to collect seaweed. Seaweed harvesting is an important industry in Ireland and has many marketing uses. Beauty products is one.
We stayed at the picturesque Hotel Londonderry.
As soon as we were settled with our luggage in our rooms, Dee took us on a hike across that overpass to a beautiful view above the town.
View of the marina from the overpass.
An old kiln.
View of the hills behind the hotel.
The trail we are on follows the track of a former railway line leading to an old limestone quarry. We pass remains of some of the cottages of quarry workers as we climb the hill.
Someone asked me if we had to pass a physical to take this tour. I think this hike was the test Dee gave us before we started on the "real" hikes. 
It certainly turned out to be a beautiful day for it. Tom and Monica coming up the incline.
There are other trails that lead from here, but we didn't have time to take them before dinner.
A few sheep graze up here.

More remains from the quarry days.
Dee talks to the farmer.
And we continue this way to a viewpoint.
Tina found her own special view.
But Dee knew is an amazing view and well worth the climb. We have eleven in our group.
My feet wanted to keep on walking, but we had reservations for dinner. And it was only the first day...there would be many more wonderfully agonizing hikes ahead.
Inside the hotel.
Our view was out the back over rooftops and the hills beyond.
Where these cute European Starlings entertained me.
They are quite colorful.
And that was the end of a wonderful first day. I slept well that night.

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