Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A gigantic, titanic weekend in Northern Ireland

Ever since I first checked out a book on Ireland during my mom's impromtu homeschooling geography lesson where we went to the library and I picked out a book on the country I wanted to study first, I was hooked. I remember looking at pictures of the rolling green hills and thinking "ooooooohhhh pretty!" 10 years later, when I actually got to visit the rolling green hills of Ireland, my reaction was pretty much the same. There might have been a little jaw-dropping too.

This wasn't the sole cause of my excitement however. When I was about 10, there were two main sources of my nerd-ness: Pompeii, and the Titanic. I could spew off endless amounts of information about either of the two, and even had a miniature 3-D puzzle of the Titanic that took me weeks to put together. It was my prized possession for a couple of years.
I was lucky enough to visit Pompeii a few years ago, and it was incredible. So then for this trip, when I realized that I would be in the birth town of the Titanic, I flipped out a little. (Ask my parents.)

The yellow flower is known as Paddy's Poison down in Australia. It's easy to see why, because even in its native Ireland it's everywhere. 

Northern Ireland captured my heart. Plain and simple. The people were so welcome and friendly, and when I spent around $80 on taxis trying to catch my flight home, I had such great 5am conversations with my taxi drivers that I almost didn't mind. But that's a whole 'nother story. 

I had flown into Dublin Wednesday night because it was cheapest, and Thursday morning I had to take a 7am train to Belfast to go on a tour. This is when the ATM card eating incident happened and I was left with no cash, no debit card, no breakfast, an unpaid tour and hostel, and a long day ahead of me. Thanks Dublin, you rock. 

Luckily my tour guide was fantastic and took my inability to pay right in stride. (She even bought me a coffee later in the tour.) Susie Millar is the great granddaughter of Thomas Millar, first an apprentice at Harland & Wolf and then a deck engineer on board the Titanic. Thomas Millar took the job on the Titanic so he could go to America and find a better life for himself and his 2 young boys. Just before he left, he gave 2 pennies to each of his sons and told them not to spend them until they were all together again. When the Titanic sank, Thomas was killed. His youngest son kept his father's wish, and 100 years later the family still has those pennies.  
Susie gave an incredible tour of the history of the Titanic, intermixed with the history of Belfast and her family story. I was lucky enough to be the only person on the tour that day, and so it was very informal, laid back and relaxed.

The drawing room offices, 
where all the magic happened.                                                             Harland & Wolf logo 
 The drawing room in its heyday.                                                 The drawing room today.
                                 Chairman Lord Pirrie's office.           Creepy and possibly haunted.
These are the 2 pennies from Susie's great grandfather. 
When Belfast was bombed during WWII, most of the buildings were destroyed. 
This one street however, somehow survived. Now it looks like a movie set, set down in the
 middle of bustling Belfast. This houses were called '2 up 2 down', and they were tiny, and 
huge families of 9 or 10 lived in 1 of these. 
 A memorial to the Belfast shipyard workers.
Thomas Andrews's house. He was the top designer of the Titanic.
 Today his house is the main office for the Northern Irish Football Association, 
but its still has the same decor that it did from the 1900's. 
The 1,500 names of the people who died. 
 Titanic Belfast: the largest Titanic exhibit in the world!
The gray lines on the ground mark
out the shape of the ship.                                                                      Same spot [Source]

The next day I went on a day tour to the Giant's Causeway. I was a little nervous when I was picked up outside my hostel in a large, old yellow clunker bus. It had seat belts that you wore like harnesses, no heating, and signs on the door saying 'please don't talk to the driver while vehicle is in motion.' It was shaping up to be a very long day.
Luckily, that was just for hostel pick ups, and we were transfered to a real tour bus with normal seat belts. Thank god.
The tour took the Antrim coastal road, a scenic drive that follows the eastern coast of Northern Ireland. It was BEAUTIFUL.

We saw Carrickfergus castle:
stopped in a small seaside fishing village:
walked across a rope bridge surrounded by stunning cliffs and turquouise water:

stopped at one of the oldest distillery's in the world and drove by a medieval castle:
and ended the day at a 60 million year old rock formation, Giants Causeway:

If you're interested, check out the history of Giant's Causeway here. Scientists say that the stones were created during a volcanic eruption, but the Irish like to think that a giant built it. Or, as my tour guide stated, "volcanos don't exist so it was obviously Fin MacCool who built it." 

I made friends with a fellow solo traveler at the Causeway, thankfully, because otherwise the high velocity winds whipping my hair in my face and knocking me off balance on the rocks would have just been obnoxious, instead of cause for some laughter. Somehow the Irish weather made me numb and shivering from the wind, while still managing to sweat from the sun overhead. 

Belfast and the surrounding areas where absolutely gorgeous, and it quickly nestled its way into my heart as a city I'll have to return to. (Just add that on to the ever growing list....) Stay tuned for day 3 of my trip, when I went to a nearby coastal town to meet some distant relatives! They were very Irish and very wonderful, and showed me around 200 years of family history in their little town.

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