There are two seasons in Ireland and they can often occur in a single day. The first is when the sun is shining and that’s when you’ve got to get out and enjoy Ireland’s magnificent outdoors,” our walking tour guide had said. “The second is when it’s raining. That is enjoyable, too. We call it ‘moments for the high stool’, where you park the aforementioned butt on a high stool by the bar, stare deep into the swirling black of your glass and ponder on the genius that is Guinness.”
Land of leprechauns: (clockwise from top left) At the Giant’s Causeway; Irish streets have been given Indian names; a Black Taxi on Falls Road, West Belfast.
So true, I think, as the plane taxis out towards Dublin airport’s runway. The skies were clear when I boarded the plane, but it’s raining now.
My mind wanders back a week to Ken Harper and his taxi in Belfast. Ken was part of a service called the Black Taxi tour, but his taxi was maroon in colour. He batted away my observation with, “Oh well, that’s because of all the Black Taxis that offer this tour, my commentary is the most colourful.”
I was in Belfast on Easter Friday, exactly 10 years after The Troubles ended with the 1998 Easter Agreement. That euphemistic term commonly describes the bitter campaigns of violence between the Irish Republicans, seeking to end the union with Great Britain for a united Ireland, and the Loyalists, who wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom.
West Belfast, which saw the maximum unrest, wears its recent history well. Ken showed me the political murals that line the epicentre, the arterial Falls Road, once the stronghold of the Catholic Republican alignment. Near the parallel, Protestant-dominated Shankill Road stands the Peace Wall, with messages from across the world.
Once an important mode of communicating concerns and issues to a larger public, the murals have morphed gracefully into a tourist attraction. Camera flashes bounce off the walls rich in symbolic imagery with the same meaningful ease with which Belfast wears its recent title of ‘Safest City in the UK’, awarded after a comparison of nationwide crime figures. The city has a lively, bustling look and there’s an optimistic air about it.
Knowing I was from India, Ken showed me a section of Belfast where the British had named streets and roads after campaigns in India. So, there was Bombay Street, Cawnpore (when will the English ever learn to spell right!) Street, Benares Street and Kashmir Road.
We drove past the White Star Line Offices, where the Titanic was conceptualized and designed. Beyond those buildings — the area is now known as the Titanic Quarter — lies the massive dry dock where the ship was painted and kitted out with lifeboats (sadly, not enough), crystal chandeliers, the fine china and monogrammed silverware. The size of the dry dock made it easy to imagine the scale of the ship. But by 2012, imagination will take second place: By then, the Belfast city council hopes to complete a huge interpretation centre that will bring back the steamer to life with vivid audio-visual displays, models and exhibitions.
Etihad Airways hires crew from the world over and Ahlem from Algeria serves me dessert 35,000ft over the Netherlands. I bite into the rich chocolate and cream delight and am taken back to the café at the visitors’ centre of the Connemara National Park in County Galway. I had arrived early, just as portly Mrs Donnellson was sorting out her saucepans and firing up her ovens. “Gud morning luv, have an éclair and I’ll be right with you,” she had said.
And, while I savoured the delicious pastry, she poured herself a cup of tea and started chatting with me at full speed, never mind that she had met me exactly 7 minutes earlier. Her parting advice: “Don’t leave Connemara without seeing the Kylemore Abbey. And drive to Galway city down the R334. But don’t step out of your car.”
The imposing Kylemore Abbey, with its neo-gothic, castle-like stature, is worth a visit just to drink in its exquisite location, between a shimmering lake and a towering hill. The perfect postcard picture can be taken just a few steps from the car park. But it was while roaring down the R334 that I thanked Mrs Donnellson. The country road, which I took from the heart of Connemara to Galway city, remains simply the most dramatic road I have ever driven on. The Lough Inagh, one of Connemara’s most beautiful lakes, runs alongside for a part of the way, adding a different dimension to the tawny-turfed moorlands of the Connemara Bogs. Stepping out for a photograph — at the risk of irking Mrs Donnellson — on that lonely road, with the howling wind accentuating the complete isolation, I could easily give credence to her belief that the region was haunted.
The “Fasten Seat Belts” sign comes on as the A330 is being severely buffeted by turbulence over the Black Sea. The Airbus is designed to handle turbulence 20 times more severe and my concern is limited to keeping an eye on my glass of Bailey’s Irish Cream on ice so as to prevent it from sliding off the table. But 420 years ago, the turbulent seas around the northern coast of Ireland spelt doom for Don Alonso Martinez de Leyva. The Spanish Armada, of which he was one of the commanders, had been routed by Sir Walter Raleigh’s fleet in the English Channel and it was now trying to escape around the head of Ireland.
According to a weather-beaten local, the last sight de Leyva would have contemplated was the Giant’s Causeway. Just 1km to the north-east of this spectacular rock formation — a Unesco World Heritage site — is a little bay called the Port na Spaniagh or “Bay of the Spaniards”. It was at this spot in October 1588 that de Levya’s galleon, the Girona, was ripped open after she was tossed on to the rocks by the turbulent North Atlantic.
I was trying to photograph the Giant’s Causeway, but there were so many tourists that I couldn’t get a clear shot. The local suggested I walk up the path to the site of the wreck. From there, it is clear why the ancients believed this geological formation to be the handiwork of giants.
Seven hours after lifting off from Dublin, I touched down in Abu Dhabi. While killing time at the duty-free shops, I spotted a bottle of Bushmills. I had visited the distillery in Ireland but, since I was driving, the tasting sessions had been out of bounds. But now, a golden dram sits besides the keyboard. Every sip brings on memories of an island with vibrant cities, a rugged landscape tempered by the Atlantic, fantastic driving roads and a warm and friendly people who simply love to talk.
How to get there:
Theoretically, you need an Irish visa for the Republic of Ireland and a UK visa for Northern Ireland. Having said that, there are no borders or checkpoints between the two. Apply online at ‘www.irelandinindia.com/visa.htm’. Visas cost Rs4,000. For a UK visa, apply at the British high commission; visas cost Rs5,500.
A good way to get to Dublin from Mumbai and Delhi (round-trip economy fares from Rs29,000), Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram (round-trip economy fares from Rs36,000), is on Etihad Airways. They fly straight from Abu Dhabi to Dublin, eliminating the need for any UK transit visas. The wait in Abu Dhabi is 2 hours at the max and you don’t need a visa. Good deals available on ‘www.etihadairways.com’.
Where to stay:
While driving around, bed-and-breakfasts are good options. Comprehensive listings are available on ‘www.discoverireland.com’. In Belfast, the Merchant Hotel (‘www.themerchanthotel.com’) is a good option. Full rates are £220 (around Rs18,500) for a deluxe room. The Harcourt Hotel (‘www.harcourthotel.ie’) is located at one of Dublin’s most fashionable addresses and includes the erstwhile residence of George Bernard Shaw. Rooms cost around €165 (around Rs11,000).
What to do:
Ireland is perfect for a self-drive holiday. The roads are well marked and the traffic is very easy-going and chilled out. To plan your trip, visit ‘www.discoverireland.com’
For the Giant’s Causeway and other places around visit ‘www.northantrim.com/causeway.htm’.
Read more about the Black Taxi Tours at ‘www.harperstaxitours.co.nr’ and look for the best deals on everything from meals to wheels on ‘www.gotobelfast.com’
If travelling with children, visit the Dublin zoo and the W5 Interactive Discovery Centre (‘www.w5online.co.uk’) in Belfast.
Where to eat:
Many pubs (especially in little towns) feature live music and a very jovial atmosphere. Pub meals are the best deals. Pubs and restaurants allow children as well. The Fullerton Arms is a superbly atmospheric pub near the Giant’s Causeway.
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