Thursday, June 29, 2006

County Down to departure

I still wasn't feeling wonderful this morning, and my B&B hostesses graciously offered to let me stay through this, my final day, but I thought I'd try to get some fresh air along the coastline of Co.Down. We sailed down the A2 (the same coast road as that I'd taken through Antrim on Monday), via Burr's Point (most easterly point of Northern Ireland, and actually of the whole island), and then via car-ferry at Portaferry through to Newcastle in the 'Kingdom of Mourne'.

The mountains of Mourne were a wee bit too misty to appreciate their reputed loveliness, and we descended from them to Newry, where I felt well enough to have a small lunch and an expertly prepared coffee (yay!) from Cafe Krem.

My car ferry to Birkenead (Liverpool) wasn't due to start taking passengers till 8.30pm but I thought that I should check to make sure I knew where that was going to happen. So, back in Belfast I followed the dock signs on the M2 for Norse Merchant ferries. When I got into the dock area, the signs dried up and the only openings were for the Norfolk Line. I drove out of the docklands and looked for a sign that I might have missed. Finding none, I asked the gate-keeper at the docks.

"Norse Merchants don't exist"
"But I booked with them and the highway signs direct you through along through here."
"They don't exist"
"Do you mean they don't exist or they are the same company as Norfolk Line?"
Yes that's what I mean"
"Wouldn't it make sense for the signs to say something? I can't believe I'm the first person to ask!"
"No, and you should take it up with them."

I went back into downtown Belfast for a while to pass the time, before returning to the Norfolk Line gates to queue up. Bondi flaked out in the holding bays until we started boarding around 9pm. For this crossing we were offered the option of leaving the car on the top deck, which would have made for a cooler crossing for car-bound Bondi. On previous long ferry trips (Sydney-Tasmania-Sydney, Swansea-Cork, Port Angeles - Victoria, Vancouver Island) he has always been in the hold.

This overnight crossing included cabin and meals, unlike the Swansea-Cork crossing we did in May where both were optional (and thus omitted from charges). The cabin was OK, but the food left a bit to be desired (I think the "catch of the day" was caught the day that the boat was commissioned) and for those caught in the long queues for everything (boarding, getting cabin keys, getting meals), not great value for money. Even the movie in the tiny screening room was more costly than going to a fully equipped cinema.

While waiting for dinner I read the poster for emergency signals, which seems to have been written by someone in Italy and never checked by anyone in the UK certifying the boat for safety controls: it's mostly quasi-English gibberish.

At the order of abandon ship becomes executive the charges for "abandon ship case".

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Bedridden in Bangor

Last night, I made the mistake of getting Chinese take-away from down near the Bangor marina, and by mid-morning was leashed to the lavatory. I had taken Bondi to nearby Crawfordsburn Country Park for a romp, but had to leave after returning most of my morning breakfast into a copse next to the carpark. Spent the rest of the day in a delirious trek between Bed'n'Bathroom. Obviously the victim of the Celtic god of starch who disliked my choice of rice over taters.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006


[The leaning clocktower of Belfast]

Not a terribly exciting day today. From my Bangor B&B I checked out a nearby second-hand bookstore and was very impressed to find a clutch of cheap Flann O'Brien paperbacks, all Picador editions with Ralph Steadman artwork. I started reading The Poor Mouth almost immediately.

Drove into central Belfast and walked around the Cathedral, commercial and Queen's quarters. The latter refers to Queen's University of Belfast [pix below]. The university library has opened a CS Lewis Reading Room to celebrate its connection (his mother was a graduate) with Belfast-born Lewis.

Like many cities in the Republic, cranes and other manifestations of rapid urban development are widely visible, although at around half or Dublin's population, Belfast still seems to be a larger city than the southern capital.

While I notice an overall improvement in Irish cuisine since my last visit in '97, the fry-and-die mentality still persists. I shudder when I see "Red Thai Curry and Chips" on menus. Side-salad or vegetable offerings seem to be either a ladle full of potato crisps, or a teaspoon of wilted leaves crushed under a slice of cucumber.

Antrim Coast - Giant's Causeway #2

We left Derry mid-morning for our final Irish destination: Belfast. This wasn't far by the direct A6 connection, but I decided to take a leisurely path along the coastline, mostly following the A2.

Passing though Limavady (where the first recorded performance of Danny Boy was noted and passed onto an English musicologist) we stopped in Coleraine, the major market town along the coast from Derry. I guess it's a smaller centre, but it appears to have a larger commercial heart than Derry. A poster by the river said that the first human inhabitants of Ireland lived near here 9000 years ago. This is about the 3rd region I've heard claim it had the first settlement.

We rejoined the coast proper at Portrush, and stuck as close to the water as we could all the way around to Belfast.

Highlights along the way were Dunluce Castle (remnants), a revisit to the Giant's Causeway, Murlough Bay scenic drive around to Cushendun, and then an unbroken gorgeous drive hugging the waterline around to the port of Larne.

We found our way to our B&B at Bangor, a seaside town just past Belfast around 8pm.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Sunday, Bondi Sunday

Drove from Glenties to Londonderry/Derry on Saturday morning under considerably brighter skies than I'd seen in recent days. I stopped before the RoI/NI (unmarked) border to buy petrol using all my remaining Euro currency.

I'd secured a B&B right near the heart of town and managed to park right outside on the street. I dropped off a few things and introduced Bondi to the household & staff.

From there it was a leisurely 5-10 minute walk to old city walls that enclose the central part of town. Within the walls I first succumbed to a second-hand bookstore, and then to coffee at Cafe Nervosa. Unfortunately the latter was a dismal brew, not living up to its namesake's reputation, and I dumped it half a block away after a couple of sips. Fortunately, at the other end of the spectrum was Café Calm, where we were able to sit outside for lunch for both days of our stay. Even with the very long, potentially warm days at these climes, there are very little outdoor eating opportunities in Ireland, unless you are perhaps in a pub's beer garden.

This morning we strolled past the Josef Locke statue and across the River Foyle via the Craigavon Bridge, (which is nothing remarkable, but it is supposedly the only double-decker bridge in Europe ) around to St. Columb's Park. I noticed that the city doesn't take much advantage of the river running through it: on the western side, there is an arterial road running beside it, and the backside of any number of car-parks facing it. On the other side, it's mostly railway line, and the backside of other buildings.

I didn't get out and about much here, partly due to needing a break from days with lots of driving, but also because my hayfever had usually overwhelmed my three-pronged Zirtek/Beconase/Otrivin defences by mid-afternoon.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Inishowen - Glendowan - Portnoo & Rossbeg

My last full day in the Republic of Ireland. Weather looked to have improved a tad at breakfast time, so I decided to tackle the Inishowen peninsula. That's the little wedge of Donegal directly above Londonderry/Derry.

It's 40 minutes to Letterkenny, where I stumble across a Tesco that will allow me to economically replenish my car's tupperware store of nut-and-seed trail mix. Then, within minutes we're heading up the R238 via Buncrana. I stopped briefly there, but completely forgot about the National Knitting Centre, which I would have liked to have seen since I used to knit a sweater each year for about a decade. It wasn't signposted so I didn't get a reminder - perhaps it had unravelled like the flown Earls' Heritage Centre.

I turned off the road to go to Dunree Head, where there is a military museum in a fort. The museum itself wasn't terribly interesting, but I heard there was a cafe with a view, and it would make a nice midmorning stop. When I got to the isolated hilltop fort, I found that there was a ridiculous gate requiring that you pay for parking (I'm not sure the revenue would even pay the gatekeeper's wage). I did't want to effectively pay double for a couple of coffee, so I turned around and headed down a side road with a general northerly bearing.

That turned out to be a good decision, as the road was pleasant and took me up through the Gap of Mamore, where you get panoramic views over the northwest of the peninsula. There were three of the ubiquitous Catholic grottos at the viewpoint. Each of the figures were strewn with cheap costume jewellery, and the grottos were littered with dirty old toys, asthma inhalers, cigarette lighters and other offerings from the €2 shop's bargain bin.

After that I followed the road down and around the cute little villages of Clonmany and Malin to Malin Head, which is the most northerly point in Ireland. I think I've now done the most northerly, southerly (Crookhaven or Mizen) and westerly (Dingle/Dunquin) points, more by chance than design. It was still pretty cold so we didn't linger, and drove back down along the eastern side of Inishowen via Moville and Muff. I don't know if it's accident or embarrassment but the latter village appears to have no sign on its border, and nor do any of the businesses acknowledge that they're in Muff. And no, there isn't a dive shop.

I skirted through edges of Derry (so technically I'd re-entered the UK for about 20 minutes) until the road put me back in the direction of Letterkenny where I managed to skive some free wifi time to check email: an unusual amount of spam, Chris's scan of a postcard from my innkeeping hosts in Lisdoonvarna, and no follow-up from Google.

After an hour of standing/sitting in the street to take advantage of the hotspot, I thought I'd take a chance of access in the cafe around the corner. This was out of range, so I chatted for a long time with a guy babysitting his young sons. The dad was interested in my tablet and took a moment to explain to his son about wireless networking. He looked back to me and said that he expected his children to be very computer literate as a matter of course. The conversation churned quickly through various subjects like the Irish/Welsh historical relationship with Chile, Croatians in Australia and the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.

As I left the cafe, two boys accosted me in the street:
Boy 1 : Is that a huskie?
Me: No he's a Malamute, from Alaska.
Boy 1 to Boy 2: SEE! I TOLD YOU HE WAS A MALIBU!!!
- almost as entertaining as the time I was walking Bondi and his brother Dougal through a park in Newtown, Sydney. A feral-looking goth guy pointed out "the huskies" to his smaller but even more feral-looking girlfriend. She smacked him hard over the back of the head "they're malamutes you dick!".

Back in the present, the weather was improving, and I thought I'd take a different road back to Glenties. That also proved a wise choice - it was a mostly long flat road through a wide valley, much like some I'd chanced on in mid Wales prior to traversing the Elan Valley.

There was very little traffic, so the only sounds were wind and running water, and thus when I found a spot where I could pull off the road a little, Bondi and I took a stroll through the peat and tufty grass down to a stream, and then back across the road and up towards a mountain ridge. It wasn't a terribly steep climb, but the combination of grassy balls nearly floating above damp-to-squelchy peat, made it slow going. As we reached the ridge "top" it appeared that it was only an outcrop before a higher ridge, and beyond that it seemed to go into an indefinite plateau of undulating squelchifloral greenery. A couple of sheep appeared out of nowhere to challenge our presence. I wasn't ready for a Deliverance moment, even if it was with just a pair of defiant animals, so we trotted back down the mountain to the car

Out of the valley, I crossed over to a little peninsula west of Glenties, with the hamlets of Portnoo & Rossbeg. They had advertised a three day seafood festival, beginning today. Like the last festival I'd visited on its first day (at Baltimore, four weeks ago) there was absolutely no evidence of any such event. The only festivity appeared to be a young guy enjoying the very late afternoon (7.30pm) sunshine on his jetski off Portnoo's pier.