On Wednesday morning, we departed Galway for the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare. This was one of the sights that I was really looking forward to seeing in person. The Cliffs of Moher stretch for about 5 miles and climb as high as 702 feet over the Atlantic Ocean. They are the Cliffs of Insanity in the movie “The Princess Bride.” They are also known as a spot for puffin viewing, but we didn’t see any puffins while we were there. These are the highest cliffs in Europe and, unlike the cliffs of Dun Aenghus, these cliffs have a safety barrier and watchful rangers to make sure you don’t get too close to the edge. It can still be a little frightening when a particularly strong gust of wind hits you while you are near the edge, even though there is a safety barrier. It was extremely windy while we were there, so I only briefly ventured into the “extreme danger” area. The wind was so strong, I had a difficult time hanging onto my camera! The view from up on the cliffs was absolutely amazing. My pictures don’t do it justice.
We took a shuttle bus from Galway to catch a ferry to the Aran Islands, specifically to the island of Inishmore. It was about an hour ride to the ferry and then other 45 minutes for the ferry crossing. I was worried about the weather because we were going to spend the majority of the day here outdoors, and there had been on-and-off showers for the past few days. We got lucky though, as there was not a single drop of rain. It was still cold and windy, but that was to be expected. Some of our group rented bicycles to get around, but I joined some other people in having a driver take us around the island in a van. He was a local and would tell us about various points of interest as he drove. Inishmore is the largest of the three Aran Islands, but has a population of only 760 people. It is a charmingly rustic place. Some of the houses even have thatched roofs and matching Leprechaun houses!
Our driver dropped us off at the base of Dun Aenghus, a prehistoric Celtic ring fort, which is about 2,000 years old. It is located high on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. This is the main attraction on the island and where we spent the majority of our time. It takes about 20 minutes to hike to the top, where the view is absolutely stunning. The crazy thing is that there aren’t any safety fences by the cliff, especially since there can be extremely strong gusts of wind! We very carefully took some photos near the cliff. I slid up to the edge of the cliff on my stomach so I could see what a 200 foot drop looks like.
We walked back down from Dun Aenghus and found our driver whose was having lunch with the island’s three policemen. He drove us around a bit more, then dropped us off near the ferry terminal. I had a late lunch with another one of the travelers and then looked in some of the shops before getting on the one and only departing ferry at 5 PM. I was worried about missing the ferry, as that would mean being stranded on the island overnight and missing our group’s departure from Galway the next morning. My worries were unnecessary, as we made it to the ferry with plenty of time to spare.
This was our order at the bar in Monroe’s, a pub in Galway where we had dinner. Galway is known for its hookers, a type of fishing boat which has multiple hooks on a single fishing line. There is also a beer, the Galway Hooker Pale Ale, whose color is said to resemble the rusty color of the Hooker Sculpture in Eyre Square. Our tour guide encouraged us to get our lips around a hooker while we were in Galway, and I sure wasn’t going to miss out! I am not much of a beer drinker, but I am glad I tried it.
An Irish language TV show happened to be filming a program featuring Irish musicians on the second floor. One of the producers came downstairs and invited people to be part of the audience. I thought it sounded like a cool experience, so I went upstairs after dinner with some of the others in our group. An older man with the production approached us immediately, and before I knew it, they filmed me explaining to him how to take a selfie with his iPhone! I wonder if that will make it into the final footage, as that part was in English and this was for an Irish language TV station. I didn’t understand any of the introductions or some of the songs that had lyrics, but it was still great hearing authentic Irish musicians perform live. We left before the taping was finished as it was getting late and we were tired of standing by the high intensity lights which were very hot. Often times we would have to do three or more takes of each set, so it got to be tiring after a while.
After our tour of Londonderry, we drove back to the Republic of Ireland to Galway, which is on the west coast. We were dropped off in town and had a few hours to explore on our own. First I headed across the river to the Galway Cathedral, then I walked along the river, down to the Spanish Arch and the Columbus monument. Next I visited the Church of Saint Nicholas, which dates back to medieval times. I then did a bit of shopping in some of the cute, little stores in town before heading back to Eyre Square, our meeting point to go to the hotel. Galway is part of the Gaeltacht, regions of Ireland where Irish is spoken. It was great overhearing some of the locals speaking Irish. Another interesting observation was to see how much the people in this area loved JFK. The park, which contains a JFK monument, in Eyre Square is named after him as well as a nearby pub. There is even a mosaic of him in the cathedral right next to a mosaic of Christ’s resurrection!
This is what our local Londonderry tour guide, Ronan, kept reminding us. We had arrived in Londonderry the night before, after leaving the Giant’s Causeway. Our first order of business on Monday was to meet Ronan for a walking tour of Londonderry, also known as Derry depending on which side of the city wall you live. Ronan himself was pretty interesting. He is the product of a Buddhist, Asian mother and a Protestant, Caucasian father and speaks fluent Gaelic and English with the most wonderful Irish accent. He grew up in Londonderry and, as such, told us that he has a bias regarding the divide between the Unionists and Loyalists. However, he is also a history teacher and was able to present Londonderry’s storied past rather neutrally.
He took us up on the city walls for a walk during which he told us the history of points of interest along the way. It was fascinating to get the perspective of someone who has lived there from the time of the Troubles up to today. We then walked around the Catholic Bogside neighborhood to look at the famous political murals and “Free Derry” sign. The sign is currently undergoing maintenance. It was a sobering experience to know we were walking in the very area where Bloody Sunday occurred, but also uplifting at the same time since, although gritty, it is perfectly safe to walk down the street.
Just like in Belfast, you can tell who lives on which side of the wall just by looking at the flags and artwork. However, as both tour guides pointed out, the two sides have more in common than differences as they are both economically depressed. Ronan told us that his kids mention seeing tourists walking around town, but when he was their age, he would see soldiers and IRA members violently clashing with each other. In this way, he said that us tourists are part of the city’s healing process.
After finishing up in Belfast, we immediately drove up to the Antrim Coast to visit the Giant’s Causeway. The Giant’s Causeway is a stretch of coastline in Northern Ireland that is full of hexagonal pillars sticking out of the earth at various lengths. According to geologists, the Giant’s Causeway was formed more than 60 million years ago from volcanic eruptions. The more interesting theory on how it was formed is the local legend that a giant Ulster warrior named Finn MacCool built a stone bridge to go spy on a rival giant in Scotland. Finn was alarmed at the size of his rival, who was much bigger. Finn’s wife dressed him as a baby right before the Scottish giant came over to spy on Finn. The Scottish giant fled back to Scotland, as he was shocked by the baby’s size and became fearful as to the size of the baby’s parent’s. Finn then destroyed the bridge so that the other giant could not return. The benches along the main pathway from the visitor’s center have images depicting parts of this legend. Apparently this is the windiest place in all of Ireland, and after having been there, I can believe it! There were wind gusts hard enough to knock people over! Despite the wind, it was quite enjoyable taking in the quintessentially beautiful Irish landscape.
We spent a couple of hours at Titanic Belfast, “The World’s Largest Titanic Visitor Experience.” I am a bit of a Titanerac, so I had really been looking forward to this! Titanic Belfast is located right on the old Harland and Wolff dry dock where Titanic was built. Two enormous Harland and Wolff cranes, nicknamed Samson and Goliath, are located across the street. The Titanic Belfast is a very modern building, only a couple of years old. The outside corners are meant to look like bows of ships from the golden age of shipbuilding in Belfast. It is also said that the building resembles a star from a bird’s eye view, which represents Titanic’s owner, the White Star Line. Apparently, there is a wedding venue on the top floor with views of the Irish Sea and a replica of Titanic’s grand staircase. This venue is so popular that single girls who do not even currently have boyfriends are already booking it 4 years out!
There are nine galleries that take you from the building of Titanic to its sinking and the aftermath. One of the highlights was seeing the original gates to the Harland and Wolff shipyard. Another cool feature is a gallery that surrounds you on three sides with animated screens that take you through each of Titanic’s decks. I also enjoyed a section on the discovery of the Titanic shipwreck where you stand on a glass-bottom floor and images of the shipwreck glide below you. I only wish we had had more time there. Don’t worry though: I’ll never let go, Jack!
We got an early start on Sunday morning for our drive up to Northern Ireland. We were dropped off for a coffee break near Hotel Europa in Belfast, which has the distinction of being the most bombed hotel in the world. This is where much of the media would stay when they were covering news about the Troubles, so it was a big target for the IRA to attack in order to gain more attention for their cause. We then got back on the bus for a tour of the city with a local guide.
The city tour started in West Belfast which is a sectarian, working-class area that is famous for its political murals. Our guide pointed out Divis Tower and told us about how that was a flashpoint of conflict during the Troubles. IRA members would hijack buses that they would use to block off the street near Divis Tower. They would set the buses on fire, which would draw in the British Army. The IRA would then attack the British Army troops from Divis Tower. This became such a frequent occurrence that the British Army eventually took over the top two floors of Divis Tower. Apparently the apartments in the top two floors were recently given back to the original tenants, and it is now considered a desirable place to live due to its views overlooking the city and Irish Sea.
We continued down the street and saw some of the political murals. This section contained political murals regarding issues around the world. It was interesting to see the Northern Irish adopting causes of other countries around the world. We drove down Catholic Falls Road and then onto the Protest Shankill Road. There is a prominent physical division between the two neighborhoods – the Peace Wall. I was expecting to see the Peace Wall, as I had read about it in a guidebook, but what I wasn’t expecting was to see a no-man’s land with prominent signs of urban decay separating the two neighborhoods in the area near the Peace Wall. Add this to the fact that it was a Sunday when all of the shops and restaurants were closed and everyone was in church, and there was somewhat of an eerie vibe. It was quite noticeable that, despite the peace, differences remain on both sides of the wall. One side flies the Union Jack, while the other side flies the flag of the Republic of Ireland. The murals on one side feature Unionist themes, while the murals on the other side put the spotlight on IRA heroes like hunger striker Bobby Sands. We had the opportunity to sign the Peace Wall. Our guide told us that a section of the Peace Wall has been there longer than the Berlin Wall was in place. Hopefully this wall will come down as well one day.
Our tour continued on through Central Belfast and then over to the Titanic Quarter. We saw the outside of the building for Titanic Studios which is apparently where the indoor scenes from Game of Thrones are filmed. Finally, we were dropped off at one of the sights I had been looking forward to most – Titanic Belfast!
I arrived in Dublin on Saturday afternoon and took a taxi to the hotel. After a brief rest in my room, I headed for a walk along O’Connell Street, one of the main streets in Dublin and only one block from the hotel. I looked at the monuments and did a bit of shopping, but I had less than two hours before the kickoff meeting for my travel group so I didn’t go to any of the major attractions. I picked up some information in the tourist information office so that I can figure out what I want to do in Dublin when we return at the end of the tour.
After checking in with the tour manager, there was a short mingling session in the hotel bar before dinner. We went for a walk to the Temple Bar area after dinner. Our tour guide pointed out the noteworthy buildings and monuments along the way and gave us brief history lessons about each of these. Most people stayed out at one of the pubs in Temple Bar, a trendy area full of pubs, restaurants, and cafés, but I headed back to the hotel with a couple of Australians as I was extremely jet lagged and wanted to get some sleep.
For our last day in Oman, we booked an outdoor excursion so that we could see what was outside the city of Muscat. We were driven a couple of hours to a place called Wadi Shab, which was sort of like an oasis at the bottom of a canyon. We walked around for a while and took some photos of the rugged terrain. Next we made a brief stop at Wadi Tiwi. Normally people go swimming here on the tour, but neither Laura or I were interested in doing that. On the way to Wadi Tiwi, we drove through what is probably the smallest and least developed village I have ever seen. There were lots of wild goats running around, and some of the streets were so narrow that a single car could barely pass through! Our tour guide told us, half jokingly, that there are more goats than people in this village. You couldn’t help but to imagine what it would be like to grow up here, good or bad.
Next we went to a beach on the Gulf of Oman, which was beautiful and completely deserted. Our tour guide told us that sometimes sea turtles come ashore here to lay eggs. We didn’t see any turtles there, but he told us that he would take us to another spot on the coast where you can sometimes see sea turtles. Despite our best viewing efforts, no turtles were to be seen. However, we did have an up-close encounter with a couple of the wild goats!
After that, our tour guide drove us to a park along the coast that contains the Bimmah sinkhole. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I was told we were going to see a sinkhole, but it is enormous! It’s about 30 meters deep and has a pool of emerald green water at the bottom of its limestone walls. There is a staircase that leads down to the bottom, but we didn’t really have time to explore because we were just there for a 30 minute lunch break. Our tour guide had brought box lunches for us, but we were terrified to eat them due to our fears of getting food poisoning. We had a couple of the items but threw the rest away. Thankfully our tour guide was waiting for us in the parking area so we didn’t offend him by throwing away so much food. It was funny because our lunch boxes contained apples from Washington State! It really is a small world.
Our tour guide dropped us off at the hotel and we took a nap before having dinner and heading out to the Muscat City festival. It was a type of heritage festival with vendors and food stands. We saw a music/lights/fireworks production that was of surprisingly high quality. We took a taxi back to the hotel to prepare for our long journey home very early the next morning. Our flight was at 4:55 AM, so we ended up just staying awake all night packing.