Ireland and the UK
I think Belfast is probably the most interesting city I have come to on this trip, and I am pleased that I included a night here on my loop around Ireland and the uk.
The reason I find it so interesting is because of the change it is currently going through. With the city marred by at least 30 years of fighting and violence, referred to locally as "the troubles", which has both political and religious roots, that was still a frequent occurrence less than 10 years ago, with peace now clearly a priority, the city is undergoing renewal.
There is a lot of development down around the waterfront, and the differences between old and new Belfast are obvious, for example glass fronted buildings on one side of a road, and 12ft thick concrete reinforced walls on the other side of the street to protect buildings from car bombs.
Although the city is relatively small, doing the city tour on the hop-on-hop-off bus is a really good option to gain an appreciation of the city and the commentary is one of the best I have had on the handful of these tours I have done in different cities around the world.
Following the bus tour, I did a walk around west Belfast, which is the central area where a lot of fighting occurred during 'the troubles', and still has many signs of these times, most notably the murals across both the republican and the nationalist quarters and the imposing 'peace fence' that was erected to try and keep the two sides apart, but in my view now only serves as a reminder of their division, especially when some gates between the fences are still locked of an evening, a sign that unity is still a work in progress here in Belfast. Less noticeable, are the bullet marks that mark some of the buildings in these areas. A recent development was some graffiti and also a sign on a hillside referring to Margaret thatchers death, with the republicans not being too fond of her, given she was the PM during a period that was very heated between the two sides, including seeing a member of the british parliament die as a result of a hunger strike during her time as PM.
For my final night of my holiday, I treated myself to a fancy dinner at a restaurant called James Street South, which was excellent, and included some of Ireland's best produce, such as scallops, pork belly, lamb and of course a glass of whiskey (it was an Irish one so note the e). I finished the evening off with a pint or two or maybe it was four of Guinness and listening to traditional music at one of Belfast's oldest pubs, Kelly's cellars. Rather than an organised group, the band seems to be a bit of a ad-hoc affair, where people who haven't met each other before turn up at different times through the night with their instruments such as a version of a bagpipe, a guitar and drum, and join in, including some guy whose contribution is to play 'drums' on a plywood timber box he sits on (complete with sheep shaped cushion), so not sure how traditional that part is. Ultimately, it appears to be a random group of people, who can manage to drink beet whilst playing a variety of instruments, but somehow they all know what tune to play, it all works and is good fun.
This morning I spent my time checking out a new exhibition all about the titanic, that only opened a few weeks ago in a purpose built building which has 4 sides that are an exact replica of the bow of the ship. Rather than a museum, it is called the titanic experience, as it is more of an interactive journey through the making, sinking and then discovery of the wreckage and was really well done.
After grabbing some lunch it was time to grab my bags and head to the airport to make the long journey home. Will post some photos of Edinburgh and Belfast shortly.
Edinburgh has literally blown me away. Yesterday had gale force winds, that made walking in a straight line difficult even without having touched any whisky since arriving in Scotland at that stage.
After a slow start in the morning, I walked around the old town and up towards the castle, but the wind started to bring with it some rain, and at that point rather than exploring the castle I headed indoors for some refuge firstly in a working weaving mill producing tartans, but then onto the Scotland national museum. The museum was really quite cool, and had an excellent display of stuffed animals and other interesting artefacts from all over the world.
Noticing that the sun was now out again, I decided to head back outdoors, planning to walk up to Arthur's Seat, the summit of the nearby Holyrood Park, roughly 250m high (kind of like the Nut in Stanley, only bigger, and not in the ocean).
Walking down to Holyrood was quite pleasant, a bit gusty at times but not too bad. However, once I started the climb, I again nearly got bowled over by the winds. I persisted to a point in the park that contains the ruins of a chapel, but it was here that rain started to blow in on the wind from clouds you could not even see they were still a distance away, and was like needles hitting my face, so I took shelter among the ruins for a few minutes whilst the rain passed, and managed to snap couple of photos looking back to the city. At this point, knowing I was at best a quarter of the way to the summit, I decided it would not be wise to keep going up the hill today, as battling the winds and rain at the top would take any sense of enjoyment out of the view. I thought maybe I will have another crack at it hoping for kinder weather the following day.
On the way back from Holyrood, I stopped in and had a peek at the Scottish parliament building. It's a very new building, with Scotland only sitting as its own parliament fairly recently, and will hold a referendum in 2014 on becoming independent from England. Whilst I won't bore people who aren't interested in politics with the details, I did sit in the chamber for a bit watching a debate, which I found interesting.
Late afternoon, I then headed for the Scotch whisky experience, booking the platinum tour and adding on the taste of Scotland dinner. The tour was excellent learning about how Scotch whisky is made (note in Scotland it is spelt whisky not whiskey like in Ireland and other places) and getting to taste a few samples. They also have the worlds largest collection of scotch whisky, and fortunately for me I was not forced to decide which whisky to buy at their shop as I still have another flight to go to Belfast before I head home where I would not be able to take it through airport security, and I was not planning on putting it in my checked luggage. The tough decision will come at duty free shopping on the way home. The meal was also outstanding, the entree and main were each a tasting plate containing 3 different dishes of Scottish produce, ranging from wild hare terrine, to pork belly, hot smoked salmon, beef and some kind of game bird that I can't remember what it was, that tasted similar to chicken but was not chicken. The desert of a sticky marmalade pudding came with a paired single malt highland whisky that was quite potent. YUM.
This morning the wind had dropped off a bit, but the rain had settled in. I therefore kept with the indoor activities, and went and saw the Dungeons, a mixed historical and theatrical guide to some of Scotland's gory past. It was really well done, and was funny and gross and one girl found it a bit scary, to the point where she left the tour in tears. The worst part for me was the smell in one of the rooms, it is burned into my nostrils and I can't get rid of it. I think they were trying to simulate rotting flesh.
After lunch I opted for the less imposing walk up Calton Hill, which is about half the height of Arthur's Seat. The gap in the rain did not last long, but the views were worth the walk up.
I chilled out for the rest of the afternoon, saving my energy for the ghost tour I had booked for this evening. I decided to be brave on the way to the tour, stopping off and grabbing dinner, including a taste of haggis. To me it just tastes like a bit of a peppery mince, and I'm happy to leave it at that with out knowing what actually goes into it.
The ghost tour was interesting, but failing to see any ghosts I am still not a believer, despite being in the underground vaults of Edinburgh, what is supposedly the most haunted place in Britain.
I am off to Belfast early tomorrow morning for the final leg of my journey, with a night there before I make my journey home over the weekend.