Leaving Northern Ireland

On our return to the Republic of Ireland, we made one last stop in Northern Island, to the walled city of Derry, where we visited the Museum of Free Derry for a history lesson.

On January 30,1972, inspired by the civil rights marches and peace protests that occurred in the USA, about 15,000 Catholics staged a march to call attention to the discrimination they were experiencing. British soldiers shot indiscriminately into the crowd, killing 14 unarmed protesters. The day after what became known as Bloody Sunday, 2,000 men joined the IRA, which up until that time had not been very active.

Although attempts were made to portray the peaceful marchers as terrorists, a film crew was there, recorded what actually happened, and smuggled the film out (in their underwear!) to the Republic of Ireland where it was broadcast around the world. Despite the visual evidence to the contrary, the false narrative that some march participants were terrorists persisted until 2016, when an inquiry finally revealed the truth. The result was a long overdue apology by Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron. An excellent video in the Museum shows the huge emotional impact that historic apology had on the people of Derry. Sadly, the guilty soldiers still have not been brought to justice.

While on the Black Cab tour in Belfast, our driver showed us the size of rubber bullets that were used for crowd control. These were fired on Bloody Sunday, and contributed to the injuries many protestors suffered. Can you imagine being hit by one of these?

We couldn’t leave Derry without touring its city walls, and learning about its history, most of which I promptly forgot. Of course, the wall had the requisite cannons, strategically interspersed.

Our border crossing into the Republic of Ireland was seamless. No check points, no guards, no showing of passports, just a change of currency, back to the Euro. Ireland has sworn that it will never have a border dividing it again. Boris Johnson declared the Irish Sea will be the border, but many wonder exactly how that will work post Brexit. No one quite knows.

And now for a little perspective: the population of Northern Ireland is a wee bit under 2 million. The population of The Republic of Ireland is almost 5 million. Compare that to the population on NYC, which is over 8 million, and you can understand why much of this glorious island is comprised of rolling green hills and picturesque landscapes, perfect for raising sheep.

Typical view from my bus window.

Which brings me to the next subject: the Irish Diaspora. We all know that millions of Irish left during the potato famine, but I never knew that many lost their homes when they were evicted.

This beautiful castle was built by John Adair, who evicted 244 of his Irish tenants because he thought raising sheep would be more profitable than allowing his tenants to continue farming. By the way, the Irish became tenants on their own land, after Oliver Cromwell conquered them, and seized their property so he could use the land as payment to his soldiers.

Adair was the first of three owners of Glenveagh. The third, Henry McIlhenny, was an Irish American. His grandfather, John McIlhenny settled in Philadelphia, where he became very wealthy from his invention—the coin operated gas meter. Henry was an art aficionado, who donated his family’s extensive collection to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. His generosity extended to Ireland, when he donated the castle and its gardens as a gift to the nation. It is now a national park.

Touring the grounds of Glenveagh with a naturalist, who demonstrated the depth of the bogs, and explained why the people sacrificed in the bogs were so well preserved.

I had originally planned to write a bit about Donegal, but that will have to wait for a future post, because I have run out of time.

From Ireland’s Capitols to its Countryside

We’ve thoroughly enjoyed our time in this island’s two capitols: Dublin and Belfast. But now it’s time for a change of pace, so we hit the road to experience the castles and cliffs of the beautiful Irish countryside.

We departed from Belfast by way of the “leafy suburbs”. As is the case in most countries, the wealthier areas were spared the violence and disruption of “the troubles” discussed in earlier posts. The beautiful homes facing the water were much like those in many of the wealthier neighborhoods in the USA.

At one time, oh so many years ago, I could never have imagined that I’d be taking a bus tour. But let me tell you, at this stage in my life, it’s a great way to travel. No getting lost, no speeding tickets, no fruitless searches for rest rooms. It’s all taken care of. All I have to do is sit back, gaze out the window and chat with my fellow travelers.

Our group

We really lucked out, with a huge, comfortable bus for only 11 of us, and a delightful driver, Michael, who clearly loves his job. The repartee between Joe and Michael keeps all of us entertained and laughing.

Our drive to Ballycastle was broken up with multiple stops. At the first one, Joe, our guide, pointed out that this white rock is composed of the exact same material as the White Cliffs of Dover. About 350 million years ago, this very rock was being formed somewhere south of the equator. I don’t know about you, but I find that little fact fascinating. I’m sure my geologist neighbor, Ed, would agree. He would undoubtedly have been able to identify the dark streaks in the rock as flint, which was highly prized for its sharpness, and its fire making properties.

Our route along the Antrim coast took us past picturesque little fishing villages like this one.

I loved that the windows of this vacant building were painted to look like they were festooned with flower boxes.

Our final stop before Ballycastle was at the Glenariff Forest Park, which gave us the opportunity to get out of the bus and stroll along the river to our restaurant.

One of the waterfalls in Glenariff Forest

Ballycastle’s Marine Hotel was a bit quirky, but the entire staff was so friendly and accommodating, and the location across from the beach was fantastic.

Because the weather was so wonderful, we couldn’t resist a walk along the beach, before we strolled into town for a delicious and inexpensive dinner at the Anzac Restaurant.

Ballycastle was the perfect jumping off point for the following day’s excursions to Dunluce Castle and The Giants Causeway. Although Dunluce Castle is in ruins, you get a feel for what life was like way back in the 1600’s. The castle was built high on a cliff, surrounded by water, with access only via a drawbridge. Clearly, those were scary times!

Joe quickly figured out that Janet and I are the walkers in this group, so he always made sure to tell us about more challenging hikes. The Giant’s Causeway offers several trails, plus a shuttle bus for those who prefer to ride. We chose the red course, labeled the most difficult, because of the spectacular views Joe promised us. He was right!

Even if you do opt for the easier trail, the scenery is still pretty dramatic, especially if you are intrigued by rocks, volcanic activity and ocean views.

Our last stop in Northern Ireland will be Derry —or Londonderry, if you are aligned with the British, or the Protestants, before heading back into the Republic of Ireland and to our hotel in Donegal.

Belfast: The Troubles and The Titanic

We left the Republic of Ireland, crossing into Northern Ireland two days ago, just in time to get our first experience with legendary Irish weather. Our walking tour was soggy, and although we were undaunted, we were grateful when our Tour Leader took us on a quick detour into the nearby mall. Not only did we get a chance to dry off, we also ascended to the mall’s top floor to take in this magnificent view.

Okay, so maybe THAT day’s view wasn’t all that magnificent, but you have to admit, it is pretty cool to have a glass dome atop a shopping mall.
The next day’s panoramic view was significantly better because we were higher up, and the weather cooperated.

This photo was taken from the Grand Central Hotel’s cocktail lounge. No, we didn’t have a drink there, because I suspect the cost of a cocktail would have been as much as our full dinner at a nearby pub. Joe, our tour leader, took us there for a “ gawk”, and that’s exactly what we did.

Although the city is lovely, and I have many photos to prove that, the real highlight of our time in Belfast was our visit to The Felon’s Club. We spent the morning with three men who, back in the day, were formerly enemies: a loyalist, a British soldier, and an IRA member. They each told us a little about themselves, their backgrounds, their activities during “the troubles”, their time in prison and what their lives are like today. It was a riveting discussion that was particularly relevant now, given the divisiveness we are currently experiencing in our own country. What was encouraging was where they are NOW. All three have been working toward reconciliation and educating others about “the troubles”. All three are committed to the peace process.

I had forgotten the important role George Mitchell and Bill Clinton played during peace negotiations. One key element of the negotiations was a referendum (with no date specified) on whether or not Ireland should be reunited. When asked if the referendum were held today, only the former member of the IRA was able to say for sure how he would vote. The other two wanted to know more about the impact the change would have on their lives. Their focus was on the issues, not on former identities as a member of a particular group. I would have loved to spend more time with them, but our Black Cab Tour was scheduled, so off we went to view the murals painted on Belfast’s walls.

During our tour, the final song from the Broadway musical “Hamilton” kept playing in my head: “Who lives, who dies, who tells our story”.

In the photo below, our cab driver is holding a rubber bullet, to show us how huge they were. He then pointed out the names of civilians, carved into the wall, who died after being hit by rubber bullets. By telling their stories, the black cab drivers and the members of the Felons Club are keeping their memories alive.

The afternoon was spent at the Titanic Museum, an experiential museum, where another sad story was told—not only about those who went down with the ship. We also learned about the workers who built the ship.

It was a rather poignant day, so we were only too glad the sun was shining as we walked back to our hotel.

We are all quite happy that we were leaving Belfast BEFORE King Charles III arrived. Yes, I know it is a historic event, but the crowds and traffic might have made it difficult to see as much as we did.

Three Glorious Days in Dublin

Spending our last night in Dublin at the Castle Vaults Pub was a wise decision indeed. I had my best sleep yet, and am feeling grand this morning.

I’ve either been too busy or too tired to write, so this is a stream of consciousness, unproof-read post, hastily done before we board our coach to Belfast.

The Belvedere Hotel is perfectly located, close to a HOHO stop, and within walking distance of all the sights, but away from the madness of Temple Bar. Although it has great WiFi, I was glad that I had purchased the Aíralo eSim, because I used it frequently while walking around Dublin. My sense of direction is legendary, and I soon discovered my travel buddy, Janet’s, is equally bad. Fortunately, Aíralo has been working great and it has helped us to avoid wrong turns more than once.

About the HOHO: in an earlier post, I talked about the three different Dublin options, and my research pointed me in the direction of Do Dublin, the green bus. It was the perfect choice for us. We spent our jet lagged arrival day hopping on, and didn’t hop off till the end of the route. It gave us exactly what we needed, a very helpful overview of Dublin’s most important sights, and it was over just when we were ready for lunch. The Parnell Pub was recommended by the driver who picked me up at the airport, and he didn’t steer us wrong. The soup of the day was wonderful and the bread was out of this world, but the chicken wings could have been skipped. Best of all, the price was right—only 11 Euros.

Our HOHO ticket included two freebies. We used the ticket to The Little Museum on our jet lag day. It is located in a Georgian House, near St. Stephen’s Green, and is packed with memorabilia, including a room devoted to the band U2.

I’m not a fan, so instead, here’s the model of Admiral Nelson’s column, which was blown up in the ‘60s.

It was replaced by the Spire, affectionately dubbed by the locals “the stiffy by the Liffey” or “the stiletto in the ghetto”. I didn’t find the Spire visually pleasing, so haven’t included a photo. The nick names, however, should give you a really good idea of what the Spire looks like!

We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the Trinity area, until it was time for the early bird special at a restaurant recommended by my blogging buddy, over at Aging Gracefully My Ass. Thank you, AGMA.

This was NOT false advertising. The food WAS great, the service friendly, and their Early Bird Special offered excellent options. Luckily, we went with the 2 course option because their portions were so generous, we were unable to finish them. In fact, weliked this restaurant so much, we actually toyed with returning, but Dublin offers far too many attractive alternatives.

The other freebie that came with the Do Dublin HOHO was the “Paddy Liddy Walking Tour”. Here in Ireland, though, it is called the PAT Liddy Walking Tour. And yes, there really IS a Pat Liddy, who is now in his 80’s. We saved that for our second day in Dublin and we were SO glad we did. Jim, our tour guide was AMAZING! He knew so much about the history of Dublin, and walked us around to spots we never would have found on our own.

Here’s Jim, standing in front of a Clery’s department Store, which will be reopening in October. He’s explaining that, back in the day, the favorite Friday night meeting spot for his contemporaries, was under the Clery clock at at 7 PM. (The clock is that black thing on the building, right behind his head). If, by 7:30, your date hadn’t shown up, that meant you were being stood up. Sometimes, though,when you looked around, there were members of the opposite gender who shared a similar fate, which presented an opportunity to make a new friend and possibly experience a Hollywood ending.

As you walk through Dublin, be sure to look down occasionally. You’ll see plaques like this one, which shows Viking artifacts that were taken from the ground below. When I did 23 and me, and discovered that I had Viking ancestry, I had assumed that it was from a “rape, pillage and plunder” Viking excursion into Ireland. Maybe not. Apparently, the Vikings had a trading settlement in Dublin.

I couldn’t get a good shot of the Music Hall where Handel’s Messiah debuted. Every year, since 1772, it is played on April 13 at 1 PM to commemorate its first concert. During COVID, on that date and time, one of the area residents placed her speakers in her open window to keep up the tradition. Can’t you just hear the hallelujah chorus blasting through the neighborhood? That must have lifted the spirits of her neighbors at a time when spirits definitely needed to be lifted.

During our tour, Jim walked us through the Temple Bar area. Prior to coming to Dublin, I had mistakenly thought there was ONE bar, called Temple. Nope, it is the name of the land, formerly owned by a guy named Temple, and the “Bar” part was shortened from the “Barricades”, which were built along the Liffey River.

I was horrified to see that the hotel I had booked for my return trip to Dublin was in “ party central”, right next to a Hard Rock Cafe. After listening to Jim’s description of what the area was like on most weekends, I decided to look elsewhere, so at the end of the tour, I asked Jim for hotel recommendations. Well,that question turned into a delightful 2 hour lunch with our wonderful, fascinating guide at his favorite pub. At the end, we followed his recommendation to visit the National Portrait Gallery, before heading back to the hotel for the official start of our OAT trip.

There are 11 of us on the tour: 3 couples and 5 singles. We had an opportunity to converse over our welcome dinner, and I feel very lucky to have joined such an interesting and congenial group. I’m looking forward to getting to know them better over the next two weeks.

We started our final day in Dublin with a brief tour of the city. It wasn’t as in depth as the Pat Liddy walking tour, and because there was only a slight overlap, I was glad we were able to do both. As you can see from the photo of the Oscar Wilde statue atop this blog, we were blessed with fantastic weather.

Our next stop was a tour of the fascinating, multi media EPIC Museum.

This beautiful sculpture shows the evolution of transportation from the early ships to modern aircraft
Recognize any Irish Americans in this collage?

There is so much more to say about this fascinating city, but I’ll end this post by saying I’m so very glad I’ll be returning to Dublin in 2 weeks!

Ouarzazate

I know you are probably wondering how in the world to pronounce the name of this Moroccan city. Well, wonder no more. “Ou” sounds like our “W”, so when you come to Morocco and want to stay near the movie set for Game of Thrones, book a riad in “ WAR-za-zat”.

We spent two nights in Ouarzazate, staying at the beautiful Dar Kalifa. During the 1900’s our riad was the court house of Pasha Glaoui. This very powerful Bedouin chieftain was France’s ally against Sultan Mohammed V, and was instrumental in getting the Sultan exiled to Madagascar in 1953.

Unfortunately for France and the Pasha, the Sultan was beloved by many Moroccans. His removal resulted in unrest and uprisings in Morocco. As a result, de Gaulle reinstated Mohammed V (who changed his title from sultan to king) in 1956; simultaneously Morocco gained its independence. Pasha Glaoui had clearly made the wrong choice. So what became of this traitor? He traveled to Paris, knelt at the feet of in submission to Mohammed V, who forgave him. Their actions reunited the warring factions and made it easier for Mohammed V to regain his throne. Glaoui died of cancer in 1956, Mohammed V died in 1961.

I have to admit, it was pretty thrilling to think about all the history that must have taken place within the walls of our riad. It isn’t easy to find—you walk along some narrow passages to get there, but it is worth the walk to discover this spectacular dwelling.

Be forewarned: there are MANY steps in Dar Kalifa, and they all seem to be a different size.

Can you guess why Ouarzazate’s nickname is WallyWood? The dramatic scenery and the perfect lighting from sun filled days have made it a favorite spot for film makers.

Many of the locals work as “extras” in movies like Gladiator. Our local guide, Mohammed has been in several movies. Here’s his picture, so you can look for him in Season 4 of Game of Thrones.

Mohammed with his visual resume

Mohammed never had the opportunity to attend school. He spent his childhood ferrying tourists across the river on his donkey. Although he was never taught to read and write, he became fluent in English, French, Spanish and a few other languages, by listening to tourists he transported. I find that amazing—what an impressive and intelligent man!

Mohammed’s children: 2 girls, aged 13 and 6 and 1 boy aged 10, all attend school, and are teaching their dad to read. Mohammed told us he thought his family was complete, but his “coronavirus baby” arrived 8 months ago!

Most tourists visiting the area want to spend time in Ait Benhaddou, stopping at one of the two studios in town. Before Covid, Mohammed told us during high season Ait Benhaddou received more than 1,000 tourists per day.

Instead, we visited Asfalou Village, for what OAT calls “A Day in the Life”. There, we spent the morning with an extended family, visit their home, learning how the women make bread and the men make bricks.

For the afternoon, we visited the Women’s Association, a beneficiary of the Grand Circle Foundation. The Association’s objectives are to build women’s self confidence and to empower them. The women learn to bake cookies, which are sold to hotels and to tourists. We sampled some during our visit and they were so delicious, we all bought more.

While there, we all decorated our bodies with henna—even the men.

But the highlight, for me at least, was playing dress up. Unfortunately, my first choice for spouse was feeling under the weather that day, so I had to go with a substitute for this Berber wedding.

For you movie buffs, I’ll end with a list of some of the movies and TV shows filmed in this area.

  • Lawrence of Arabia (1962) Sodom and Gomorrah (1962) The Man Who Wished To Be King (1975)
  • The Message (1976)
  • Jesus of Nazareth (1977) Bandits, Bandits (1981)
  • The Diamond of the Nile (1985)
  • Killing is not playing (1987) The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
  • Tea in the Sahara (1990) Kundun (1997)
  • The Mummy (1999)
  • Gladiator (2000)
  • Alexander (2004)
  • Kingdom of Heaven (2005) Babel (2006)
  • Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010)
  • Game of Thrones (season 3, 2013)
  • Game of Thrones (season 4)

For the curious—the photo at the top of this post shows the artist doing paintings using a sort of “invisible ink”. He heats the paper over the flame to make the colors appear. This “invisible ink” , used for secret messages sent during French occupation, has been repurposed!