Backpacking in Northern Ireland

When people think of Ireland they imagine thatched roofed cottages, potato farmers, leprechauns and banshees. There are also remote villages were everyone knows each other, and a secret is never kept for long. This view of Ireland is a picturesque fantasy, far from the real Ireland of today. The best way to experience Ireland is by taking to the open road and venturing on foot. Whether you’re a first time visitor, or a native of the island on a trip of exploration, then backpacking is for you. Ireland is also known as ‘The Emerald Isle’ because the greenery is the kind of place that will stay with you long after your trip is over. For centuries poets, painters and writers have been attracted to Ireland by the inspirational landscapes and breath-taking mountains, rivers, streams and historical ruins. Be prepared to be captivated by the friendly natives and experience the culture, old and new on a truly magical adventure.

There are two airports in Belfast, ‘The International Airport’ and ‘Aldergrove Airport,’ which are in the outskirts of the city. No matter what airport you fly into, public transportation is excellent. There is a special bus provided that travels between the airports and takes you into the heart of the city. My first impression of Belfast was that it was bigger than I had first expected. The local people were very friendly and eager to help, and give directions both at the airport and in the city. Once you’re in Belfast, it is extremely easy to find your way about, buses are a cheap and inexpensive way of getting around town. A bit of advice – if you do get lost, ask someone directions. Don’t spend hours searching.

Belfast city is situated in Ulster and is probably best known for the place were the Titanic was built. It is situated on the River Lagan; it is here that there are many Victorian buildings with elaborate sculptures over the doors and windows. Stone-carved heads of gods and poets, scientists, kings and queens peer down from the high ledges of banks and old linen warehouses. The population of Belfast is 700,000. Belfast City Hall was built in the 1900s and has an impressive and imposing Edwardian structure, its interior being lavishly decorated with beautiful Italian works of marble. This fine building is worth visiting and tour guides are available. As you come out of the City Hall, the Linen Hall Library is to your left; straight ahead of you is the main shopping area, Donegal Place. Here you will find the Northern Ireland Tourist Center. This office will provide you with all the information you require on traveling in and around Northern Ireland. The southern part of the city is dotted with restaurants, pubs and accommodations, along with a theater and plenty of cinemas. You will also find the beautiful Botanic Gardens, another Belfast attraction. There are beautiful rose gardens, a tropical ravine and a Victorian palm house which was built in 1839. On a sunny day you will find the park full of activity. Lagan Valley Park is a 12-mile stretch of open grasslands and wooded areas. This is a fantastic place for scenic walks, and a chance to get away from the hustle and bustle of the town.

The Ulster Museum has many collections which include contemporary international and Irish art, Irish furniture, glass, silver, ceramics, and costume, as well as a display of life in Ireland over 9,000 years. Perhaps the best known collection is the gold and silver jewelry from the wrecked Spanish Armada treasure ship Girona. This was recovered by divers in 1968. Having a keen interest in the Titanic, I felt so excited coming to Belfast.

Robinson’s Pub is a good place to find a decent pint of Guinness and sample some good traditional food, it’s very easy to find as it is across the street from ‘The Europa Bus Center’. There’s also a lot of nightlife in Belfast, so if you like to go dancing you’ll be spoiled for choice. There are at least three night clubs and plenty of pubs with dance floors, so get on your boogie shoes and your nightclub clothes, and head out for a fun time on the town.

Accommodations for backpackers in Belfast are really good. Belfast International Youth Hostel is within walking distance of the Europa Buscentre. The atmosphere is real friendly and it’s open 24- hours-a-day, all year round. Bedrooms can accommodate up to six people. The rooms are comfortable, black metal bunk beds, all with reading lights. This includes Internet access. One private bedroom costs £17 UK pounds.

Belfast lies under the shadow of Belfast Castle. From its elevated position, there are beautiful views of Belfast Lough. The present form which the castle takes was completed in 1870 and replaced the 12th century Norman original. These later changes are a fine example of Scottish architecture. In 1934, the castle and gardens were donated to the city and, from that date onwards, this proved to be a particularly special setting for weddings and dances. However, during the 1980′s, an extensive refurbishment of the castle was undertaken and it was restored to its former elegance. Visitors have much to see on arrival – the beautiful country park next to the castle, the spectacular gardens, an antique shop and restaurant as well as the castle itself. Belfast Castle was truly worth the visit, the gardens were like a smaller version of the gardens at the Palace of Versailles. In my mind I thought of children’s stories of castles and princess; all I needed was my Prince Charming, unfortunately on this trip I didn’t meet him. But then, I guess a girl’s got to kiss a lot of toads to meet her special frog.

From the main bus station the Europa Buscentre, I left Belfast and continued my journey by bus to Dunluce and visited Dunluce Castle, although it stands in ruins with nothing around it but fields. I felt like I had stepped back in history, closing my eyes I could hear the wind, feel the breeze on my face and almost hear the past whispers of a time long gone.

Dunluce Castle, in Dunluce County, Antrim, is a picturesque tourist attraction set on the northeastern tip of Ireland. Built by Richard de Burgh, a 13th century Earl of Ulster, the ruins of the castle occupy a position of outstanding scenic beauty. Although the majority of the castle is in ruins, the two large drum towers remain on the eastern side while the terrifyingly steep drops at each side of the 100 ft basalt stack on which it stands, remind one of the castle’s great strategic importance. The Macquillen clan became lords of the area in the late 14th century. Often under siege, in 1584 the castle was captured by Sorley Boy McDonnell. He benefited greatly when the Spanish Armada ship Girona was wrecked off the Giant’s Causeway and the money was used to modernize the castle. Local folklore says that in 1639, the kitchen fell into the sea and that the cooks and kitchen servants were carried away with it. Not long after this, the MacDonnell clan abandoned it.

Staying in Portrush for a day a two gives you a chance to relax and take the time to visit all the sites you wish to see. For this part of the journey I chose to stay at a guesthouse called Abercorn House. It was a nice place with tea and coffee making facilities and a television in room, providing home cooking, but at £25 UK pounds per night, on a backpacker’s budget you couldn’t really afford to stay more than one or two nights. Portrush is one of the most popular seaside resorts in Northern Ireland. The older generation have happy childhood memories of having spent holidays there. It is a world of funfair rides, amusement parks, and indoor swimming attractions. Indeed, Barry’s Amusements of Portrush are famous all over Ireland. Established for over 50 years, Barry’s is the largest amusement park in Ireland with the latest rides for indoor and outdoor entertainment. Kiddieland, which can be found next to Barry’s, offers smaller rides for young children. Waterworld is an indoor holiday paradise with thrilling water flumes, water cannons, sprays and jacuzzi. If you wish to pamper yourself, the health suite includes steam room, sauna and sunbeds for adults.

Portrush brought the inner child in me great excitement, for the whole day I spent there I was a child again. Barry’s Amusements was great fun, the funfair rides brought laughter and joy; I even embarrassed myself by riding a colored horse on the merry-go-round. I paid money to row out into Portrush harbor in a rowing boat. I don’t have any sailor’s genes in me, I was a complete novice and it showed. Plus the fact that I’m not a good swimmer demonstrates the insane things people will do for fun. It was amazing.

However, Portrush’s biggest attraction is certainly its proximity to the magnificent Causeway Coast but in particular the world heritage site, the Giant’s Causeway. The 40,000 six-sided basalt columns are a geological wonder and various rock foundations have found their place in local folklore. A landmark famous throughout the world, the Giant’s Causeway lays at the tip of Northern Ireland on the coast of County Antrim. Some refer to it as the eighth wonder of the world. It is a very unusual and spectacular site not to be missed. Many stories about the Causeway have been passed down through the generations to become a part of local folklore. Legend declares that Fionn Mac Cumhain, the local giant, built it in a fit of rage when he heard that the Scottish giant was ridiculing his fighting abilities. Whether this is fact or fantasy, a visit to the Giant’s Causway is definitely a must, and a site not soon forgotten.

Mussenden Temple and Downhill are historic landmarks in County Londonderry. It is a county that lies between Lough Neagh and the Atlantic northern coast of Ireland. The house was built in 1780 for Fredrick Hervey, who was the Bishop of Derry and Earl of Bristol. It stands on the northern sea coast. It was destroyed by fire in 1851, the house was rebuilt and lived in for a short time after World War II, when the roof was taken off and now stands in ruins, although the shell of this magnificent house still stands. On the cliff edge near the house is an ornamental temple, which was built as a library and modeled on the Temples of Vesta in Italy. It is a place were time seems lost.

Londonderry was known in pagan times as Doire, meaning Derry. It’s the place where Saint Cholmcille founded a monastery, and renamed the town Doire Cholmcille. Between 1608 and 1610 settlers from England and Scotland came to Doire to stabilize English government rule, and the name was changed again to Londonderry. This is a great city, steeped in history and it has an illustrious name for music. One of Ireland’s famous playwrights, Brian Friel lives here. It is not only a city but a port as well. This city was the last walled city to be built in Ireland. It gives it a medieval feeling. Walking around the walls gives you a sense of ancient battles and fighting. Just outside the walls at Bishop’s Gate stands the old gaol (jail), the first records of prisoners held in Derry dates to the year 1590. The first prisoner is reputed to be Scanlan Mor, the son of the king of Ossory of Ireland. All that remains of the gaol is one tower. Another building in this city that is worth a look is the courthouse. It is a classic example of Greek revival architecture surmounted by statues representing justice and peace. It stands on Bishop Street next to Bishop’s Gate. Small Claims Petty Sessions and County Court sittings are held here amidst Derry’s finest architecture within the walled city. A walk through this old part of Derry will leave a lasting impression of what life was like here in days gone by. It is an old city but a beautiful one.

Accommodation in Derry is good value for money. Derry City Independent Hostel is situated near the city centre, there’s a feeling of home there. Free tea and coffee is available at all times. You can watch a movie free of charge. Every morning you get free breakfast, and for £1.50 you can eat barbecues every night. There also free internet access, for those who need to be in constant contact with work. For a 2-bed private room, it costs £13 UK pounds. I really liked staying here, it was very comfortable.

Most of the hostels in Ulster can help you by providing information to tours around Ireland. Backpacking around Northern Ireland was truly an amazing adventure, I carried a little bit of each place with me and my thoughts of my trip are with awe and wonderment. I would recommend this type of holiday to anyone. I feel that travelling is the only true way to experience life.

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