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bill h's "Adventures in Europe"

Belfast, Giants and Rope Walking

IRELAND | Monday, 22 August 2016 | Views [266]

Driving on my way to Belfast, I started having second thoughts as to whether or not it was a "good idea" -- the previous night, the news reported that shots had been fired between the opposing sides and one person had been killed -- but then it occured to me that I don't look Irish and there's no way either side would think I was the "enemy" -- or so I hoped.  Turns out all the people I met were very friendly and I had a really nice time! 

For me, there wasn't much about Belfast that I had a desire to explore -- seems a huge percentage of people visiting are there to shop or party -- it's a huge university town. My main interest was the Ulster Museum which supposedly had a nice collection of 16th and 17th century paintings -- unfortunately they'd been replaced by a display of modern art by local contemporary artists.  The building is comprised of five stories, each of which spirals down (via ramps) to the floor below it where there is a different theme (art, geology/flora/fauna, Ireland at war, modern Ireland, etc....) most of it geared to appeal to citizens of Ireland.  

The two exhibits that appealed to me the most were the one on the history of the Irish nation and the one on the Free Ireland conflict.  Reinforcing what I learned earlier in my journey, there is no way to understand the people and culture of a country without first understanding its history.  In the US, European history textbooks pretty much ignore Irish history, except for the emigration to the US aspect -- and Ireland has a lot of interesting history.  

Like most European countries, war has been an on-going part of Ireland since before "Ireland" existed -- as well as fighting amongst themselves for centuries, name a European country and they're been at war with it at some point, sometimes multiple points.  Ireland has been occupied, owned or governed by another country for most of its existence and the IRA, Ulster militias, Orangemen, etc.. have been around in some form for centuries.  

The most recent violence (1960's-1990's) is referred to as the "Troubles" (from the choice of the word, you can see how sensitive the Irish are about this) and has it's roots in the 1910's when Ireland tried to secede from the United Kingdom when England was distracted by WWI (many of the martyrs/heroes of the current movement were part of that uprising); that effort, in turn, was based on a revolt in the 1880's which was based upon an uprising in the mid-1800's which was... -- you get the picture.  People in N Ireland, on the surface, seemed happy, going about their daily routines, but it was quite a different feeling when there was suddenly a loud noise or loud voices in the street -- it's been ten years since the last major violence but you could sense the nervousness.  (On the other hand, maybe I'm reading too much into it and it's just terrorism in general.)  Interestingly, whenever I got someone to talk about the "Troubles", their voices dropped to almost a whisper.

The Museum was quite interesting, the gardens outside the museum were beautiful, the food was very good (I was staying in the student quarter and the food I had was more traditional fare in funky student "hangouts" than novelle cuisine) and the people were very friendly.  Last year when I was in Ireland I met and talked with some Americans who described the people in Northern Ireland as not being very friendly, actually being quite rude -- I ran into none of that -- much the opposite -- I went looking for a sweatshirt to replace one that had gotten misplaced and people were very helpful, one young guy actually walked a block with me to a store he thought would carry what I was looking for.

Next stop, a place called Fahan -- but first I needed to take a side trip to the Giant's Causeway on the north coast of Ireland -- not on my radar originally but recommended by two different locals. It's Ireland's only UNESCO World Heritage site and consists of a spectacular rock formation -- a vast expanse of upright, hexagonal columns marching down into the sea.  Formed millions of years ago by a volcanic lava flow, the basalt cooled and as it cooled, pulled apart into six-sided, 12-16" wide colums that look almost like the stepping stones on a patio (but closer together).  The formation stretches about an eight of a mile from the water to a cliff front and well over a mile and a half along the shore (not sure exactly how far as it extended further than I was prepared to hike -- around the face of a cliff in the distance).  The nice part of the site is that you get to walk all over the formation as much as you like -- people were walking down into the sea on the columns as well as scrambling up rubble to the top of some thirty five foot high columns for the view.  Very impressive.  There's a similar outcropping in California on I-395 near Mammoth Lake but it's off limits as a protected area.

Not having completely blown out my knees for the day (to get to the outcropping from the visitor's center you drop down a trail from the cliffs to almost water level -- probably 150-200' of elevation loss in less than half a mile -- that's steep -- of course, it feels much steeper climbing back up) I decided to take a try at the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge.  

Off the northern coast of Ireland, fishing has been a major industry for centuries.  Off Carrick-a-Rede, there's a huge, 80 meter high, cone-shaped rock (technically an island) that area fishermen used to drop their nets off to fish for salmon -- to get to and from the "island" they built a swinging rope bridge stretching down the face of a cliff, across a 100 foot deep chasm to the island.  

The 80-90 foot long bridge has been turned into a tourist attraction for the not-so-faint-of-heart.  Not only is the bridge high in the air with waves crashing on the rocks below, it sways with the wind which can make for an interesting crossing.  You have two ropes to hold onto and a 30" wide flexible wood footpath to walk on -- that means it goes up and down when you walk and side-to-side when the wind blows -- even more fun when you get a strong gust!  They only let seven or eight people on at one time and I got behind a guy who apparently had a fear of heights and freaked-out a bit, he froze and had to be "talked over" by the bridge monitors.  For me, the hardest part was not the bridge (which was really a lot of fun), it was the two-thirds of a mile hike over ridge lines to get to the bridge -- the last hundred yards consisted of stairs with an elevation loss of about two hundred feet -- parts of it felt like you were walking down the rungs of a ladder -- then coming back you had to climb back up it and redo the ridge walk -- that was a killer!  Thoroughly enjoyed it, only wished it had been a longer bridge!

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