We arose at Willowbank House to an immediate Dire Rabbit sighting, which I understand is a portent of doom in Ireland.
That rabbit was huge, easily the size of a beagle, say. I fear for Irish carrotry and their horrible fate. We had another excellent Cooked Irish Breakfast in the dining room of Willowbank House. I should note that the accents of the residents of Enniskillen were a gentle deepening of the Irish lilt just touching on a Scottish brogue - nothing like the impenetrable Belfast accent we were soon to be puzzled by. I ended that sentence with a preposition; deal with it.
We drove into Belfast and had a day filled with pictures!
Arriving in Belfast we had to wander around Grosvenor Road to find where to drop off the car. We were almost too late, which would have been an expensive mistake. I was none too sorry to bid farewell to my Irish Driving Experience, and I take a solemn oath to not do it again.
We stayed at quite a nice hotel in Belfast, the Park Inn, which had a White Star Lines / Titanic themed restaurant. The room was ultra-modern, one of the most sleek places I've ever stayed, to be rivaled on this trip only by our room in Glasgow at a Sofitel. It was maybe a bit pricier than we'd planned, but a gift from pyr8queen's grandmother had made our trip budget considerably easier, and after non-stop hostel and B&B's, we thought a modern hotel in a major city was a welcome change. Or I did, anyway, and convinced her of it.
At any rate, we were just around the corner from the world-famous Crown Liquor Saloon, which is not a corner store in Venice selling Thunderbird and Natty Light - but rather a "gin palace" and prime example of the Victorian public house. It's full of dark wood burnished by years of care and colored glass.
The interior consists of "snugs", wooden booths that are completely private, with stained glass separators and wooden booth doors. It was quite busy, and we had to wait a little while to be seated, but it was well worth it. Particularly since it was raining quite steadily out, the first time it had done so since our arrival.
I had a pork terrine and Herself had salmon en croute both of which were really excellent. I had a pint of bitters and some Belfast ale, pulled from their ancient taps. The bitters were a sort of English style, not very carbonated and poured mostly warm. I confess it was not particularly to my taste, but certainly a fine exemplar of the style.
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I loved the finials on the posts of the snugs, which were carved wooden mythical beasts. I spent quite a bit of time just trying to get a good picture of the griffin on the top of our booth's posts.
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After lunch we wandered around Belfast, stopping in at the very large "visitor's center' which was basically a giant gift shop with a rack of brochures up front. Which is fine! Because I got the pen with which I wrote most of all this stuff down, and a really swell rugby shirt that I continue to wear, as well as more tchotchkes for friends and relatives. We also found a store specializing in Irish linen, where we got some great linens for our future house (which we are now closing on!) and at last uncovered the solution to the mystery of the strange cat-like beast we saw in Cong! There was a little statue made of "bog wood" - which is to say wood that has nearly petrified in a peat bog, of the mythical "Lucky Black Bog Cat." Attached was a placard explaining that a large black cat had been sometimes sighted but never captured, and was believed to bring health, good luck and good fortune. We were very excited to find out that the creature we saw was a genuine cryptid, and I really regret we didn't get a picture! Even now, extensive google searching has little to say about the bog cat, other than jokes and souvenirs.
Afterwards, pyr8queen really wanted to see the Giant's Ring, a ring enclosure with a henge located very near Belfast. So we caught a cab from a line of them in the downtown square, where we met up with Martin, a very colorful cabbie with a ton of stories to tell. He chatted amiably with us as we went out to the Giant's Ring. As we walked out and took a few pictures, I spotted a magpie on the henge.
I particularly like magpies because I took a bottle of D'Arenberg "Laughing Magpie" shiraz on our second date. Herself knows why that's funny, but I won't embarrass her with the story. Unless asked. As we were wandering around the henge, Martin asked us if we were interested in a tour of Belfast in general. I had it in mind to inspect some of the famous murals of Belfast that commemorate various factions in "the Troubles" but I was somewhat afraid to ask, not wanting to raise a sore subject. Martin allowed that he actually used to give tours full-time, and if we kept the meter running he'd take us around. His ballpark estimate of the cost of such a jaunt was about as much as any guided tour, and was private for the two of us, so why not?
We talked with Martin as we drove back into town. He admitted he'd lived through the Troubles, and as with any young man at the time, couldn't help but get sucked into the divisive politics of the time. We started with a tour of Milltown Cemetery where a notorious attack occurred, a reprisal by the during a memorial service held for IRA members by a man named Michael Stone. It was a flashpoint in the Troubles, and Martin's story evolved from explaining what had lead to it, what it was like to walk the streets and worry about being yanked into a "Black Cab", hooded and killed - to eventually explaining just where he was during the attack. His story gradually got more personal and more emotional, and he admitted to having been in the IRA, as were the vast majority of young Catholic Irishmen at the time.
I have no dog in this fight. I'm an American, and although I have Irish ancestry on both sides of my family, a protracted violent struggle between neighbors has never made sense to me. And as we toured the neighborhoods themselves, and saw the dagger-fight range at which this conflict unfolded, it was more and more horrific. Martin gladly embraced the era of peace which ended the worst of the troubles.
Leaving the cemetery, he took us on a tour of the murals that both sides had put up. Again I say, I have no dog in this fight, and take no sides. But I will say this; look at the following images and observe that the IRA murals are memorials to civic leaders, while the Protestant murals are generally militant in nature, and praising the armed action of volunteers. It is an interesting contrast, and one that runs counter to the media's portrayal of the factions.
We also stopped and signed the "Peace Wall" which was erected to separate neighborhoods, thus keeping the peace. There's a clear line at about 12 feet where the wall was extended, according to our guide, it's because although partisans couldn't cross the walls, they were still low enough to throw firebombs over, and so they had to be raised to prevent attacks.
I can't imagine what it's like to worry that the neighbors behind my house might throw a molotov cocktail in my back yard. This tour ended up being one of the most memorable parts of our trip, and I'm glad we picked by chance the cab with such a knowledgeable guide. Who knows, maybe every cabbie in Belfast tells the same story as a bit of showmanship? But I don't think so, Martin seemed to serious and passionate about the subject.
After the tour, it was getting late and we were hungry. We went back to the hotel and dropped off the linens we'd bought, and went on a walk around the neighborhood. This was the day that Pirates of the Caribbean "On Stranger Tides" came out, and given that we'd had an Epic Pirate Wedding, we were pretty excited to see it. So we found a theater a few blocks over, and bought our tickets. The lobby had been tricked out in pirate style, and the ushers were all wearing piratey garb. We had time for dinner before hand, so we wandered into a place called 'Nando's. I didn't realize it was a chain, but even so it was very good, Portuguese style "peri peri" chicken. It's a great idea for a restaurant too - one is seated like a normal sit-down establishment, but orders at the counter and food is served at the table by a waiter. There's a bar at the counter too, so we had cider and flaming hot chicken that was really delicious.
In the back of my head, I think Nando's would be a big success in the U.S. When we first got back there were no franchises here, but now I see they have opened some in Washington and Maryland. I'd put one on the Promenade in Santa Monica, or at The Grove and rake in the cash.
We enjoyed the movie very much, and after two days jam-packed with walking, driving and touring, went back to our hotel for our last night in Northern Ireland.