Belfast, Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland, the last country we would enter on our European adventure. It wasn't a warm welcome. Once again the weather was terrible, causing us to leave sightseeing for another day. The lousy conditions didn't stop us from heading out to the local supermarket to stock up on supplies for the New Year's countdown tonight. Danny was stoked to find VB (trashy Australian beer) and couldn’t resist buying a six-pack.
With our alcohol needs sorted we returned to our spacious accommodation, where I managed to stub my big toe on the bed. The nail bent backwards, turned a weird purple colour and blood oozed out the sides. Note that this was before I had even taken a sip of alcohol, although recovery did involve consuming many intoxicating beverages.
Our hostel was offering NYE entertainment, but it turned out to be a room full of 18-year-olds (or possibly not quite 18-year-olds) and deafening music, which was not what we had in mind. As there were no outdoor city-wide celebrations, we instead located a pub with people closer to our age and music at a volume that allowed for conversation. We chatted to a British couple most of the night and organised to catch up with them in a couple of days.
Midnight turned out to be very low-key. The music stopped abruptly, a pre-recorded countdown blared over the speakers, we all gave a quick ‘Happy New Year’ then it was straight back to the music, like nothing had changed. We lasted another couple of hours before staggering back to the room, where I had to assist Danny to take off his shoes as he was quite inebriated. Despite the drunkenness (or maybe because of it), we remember it as being a great night.
The next few hours were not so great though. At some point before sunrise, Danny got out of bed, leant on the free-standing cupboard and managed to tip the whole thing over, almost crushing me in the process. Luckily I was awake and could scramble out of the way just in time. With adrenaline surging through my veins, there was zero possibility of any further sleep. Danny did not have this problem. In the morning he had no recollection of this event at all. To add to the misery, there was a large group of young guys in the room below us, shouting and singing all night long, as well as knocking on everyone’s doors periodically. I considered retaliating by being unnecessarily loud myself in the morning, but they all rose at the same time we did.
Unsurprisingly, Danny needed a day in bed, so I left him to explore Belfast alone. I think the rest of Belfast was following Danny’s lead, as I hardly saw another soul before lunchtime. Most of the recommended places of interest were ancient buildings (including the grandest supermarket I have ever visited), but the city still had a modern feel about it. The highlight was clearly the striking City Hall in the Centre Square, which also turned out to be beautiful lit up at night. Walking away from the centre I headed down to the port, chiefly to see the dock that the Titanic departed from. It was very underwhelming. The blue skies were fantastic though, creating a perfectly blue river that captured the reflections of the contemporary buildings lining it. After a couple of hours I had ticked off all the main sights within walking distance of the hostel, so I grabbed some lunch for Danny and went back to see how he was progressing. (Awake, but not yet close to getting out of bed.)
Even after eating Danny was not up for sightseeing, so I left him again and drove to Cave Hill. My first stop was Belfast Castle, a striking sandstone building with bright red window frames and views out to the bay. Disappointingly, I couldn’t venture inside, but the manicured gardens around the exterior provided numerous picture-perfect vantage points.
Next, I attempted Cave Hill, with the aim of climbing just high enough for views over the city. To my annoyance, I chose a path that led me around the back of the hill, meaning I was required to trek all the way to the top to see anything photo-worthy. It also meant I was taken through several stretches of slippery, ankle-deep mud, caking my black runners in thick, brown gunk. In the end, it wasn't worth it. The scenery wasn’t as awe-inspiring as I had hoped, as the city was too far away to be seen clearly. Coupled with the gale force winds, I only lasted a few minutes on the summit before starting my descent. Somehow, I made it to the bottom without sliding all the way down. On a positive note, it only started raining when I reached the car, two hours after I had started out.
Danny was still in bed when I returned to the hostel, but I managed to drag him out for dinner. It took an eternity to find a non-fast food restaurant that was open, but in the end we came across a modern bar/restaurant with fantastic meals. Danny’s favourite dish was the ‘Triple C’ – chips, cheese and chilli sauce, a fat-fest that settled his queasy stomach. Funnily enough, he stayed away from the alcohol.
For some reason our alarm didn’t go off the following morning, causing us to scramble to get ready. Usually we wouldn’t care about the time, but today we were picking up our New Year’s Eve friends for a road trip up north. We dashed around in a panic, jumped in the car and raced over to their B&B, arriving only a few minutes late.
An hour later we reached Giant’s Causeway, a series of basalt columns on the northern coast of Northern Ireland (which strangely is further south than the northern coast of the Republic of Ireland). It was a blustery, 10-minute walk down to the rocks, which were all cube- or oblong-shaped and stacked in a way that almost looked purposeful. The entire area wasn't a large as I was expecting, but the unusual formations were phenomenal and not like anything I had seen before.
Once we were back in the city and had dropped off our friends, we headed off on one of the popular Black Taxi tours. The taxi guided us around the political murals decorating the Catholic and Protestant areas of Belfast, plus the peace line between the two regions. Our tour guide was excellent, staying neutral while explaining the conflict, showing us decades-old newspaper clippings and sharing a few personal stories. He also pointed out all the cameras around the city, watching our every move, which was a little unnerving. The only difficulty I had was understanding his accent, which I'm sure was thicker than most, and he spoke so fast that I struggled to keep up. I managed to pick up the main events, and Danny translated for me when he was able to. The murals themselves were fascinating, and it was a valuable (and harrowing) experience to hear the stories behind them.