Brit’s away today so I thought that for a change I’d visit Derry in Northern Ireland in his absence.
The news out of Belfast wasn’t good, only 24 hours before they’d been burning flags on the streets. The Dabbler always aims to seek out the quirky and offbeat, and here I was going on holiday to somewhere fairly odd, even by my standards. As I flew into Northern Ireland on my speedy 24hr visit I must admit I had some preconceptions, mostly formed from memories of grim brown footage of grim events on the evening news back in the early 80’s. My two en route stops in snowy Birmingham and Liverpool had prepared me for the worst. But from the moment I landed I knew that Derry wasn’t going to be how I imagined it at all.
A quick taxi ride from the shiny airport with one of those brilliant Irish taxi drivers in a clapped out Peugeot who regale you with local minutiae as if you’d have a clue who they’re talking about, and first thing you know I’m in town grabbing some lunch at Legenderry Warehouse No.1. Angus beef and horseradish sandwich on sourdough bread and a latte. Turns out there’s good places to eat in Derry.
Inside Warehouse No.1 – set up in advance of Derry being crowned the UK’s first City of Culture 2013. Apparently Derry is supposed to be the “World’s fourth best city to visit in 2013” according to Lonely Planet. Not sure what the three above it are, but I’m guessing none of them are also in Britain.
Derry town is built on steep hills that slope down to the river, and it’s full of pleasant streets and a nice mix of bars and shops. I can imagine it being rather lovely on a summer’s evening. The rather less appealing estates with the threatening murals that you used to see on the news are further out of town. In fact I didn’t see any of that stuff at all. Before I arrived in Derry I had read lots of guides online stating that a good thing to do is a tour of the city, taking in the famous sites from ‘the troubles’, but as far as my trip was concerned I decided spontaneously that all that stuff is in the past, and I was there to see what the new Derry, city of culture, had to offer. Certainly all of the young people I met gave the impression that they are part of a young, forward looking Northern Ireland and spend little time worrying about the divisions of old.
The most obvious sign of the reconciliation of the divided city is the new Peace Bridge, connecting the Protestant and Catholic areas on either side of the River Foyle. On the other side there’s a fort which is being turned into a sort of minimalist piazza area for the City of Culture 2013 and which will no doubt be heaving with Americans and dreadlocked buskers this summer when the festival shenanigans really kick into life. There’s already a real buzz to the town, and every person I met mentioned the upcoming summer of events. I think there’s something fun on every weekend for most of the year. Hopefully lots of people go as it’s so cheap to fly there (normally £40 or so with Ryanair). The Giants Causeway is only a short drive away to the coast, you could probably get a taxi.
This is the Custom House restaurant where I had dinner, it’s right on the river front in the centre of town and almost directly opposite the Peace Bridge. Architecturally the city is a mish mash but still pleasing to the eye (in the centre at least) with the old fortified town walls and various solid buildings interspersed with shiny new malls and offices that reveal the high levels of inward investment that must have been made since the peace talks began.
After my meal I ventured out to see what mischief I could find. A few drinks in various bars later I had the good fortune to run into a charming bunch of local lads and lasses who took me under their wing and whisked me off to Cafe Roc – the newest nightclub in town and scene of my drunken downfall. There are plenty of boisterous live music venues in Derry as well, the two best being Sandinos and Peader O’ Donnells for those who prefer their irish music live. I don’t remember much of my evening, but I do recall being told that Derry is nicknamed the Maiden City by virtue of the fact that its walls were never breached during the Siege of Derry in the late 17th century, and also, so the lads assured me, due to the fact that Derry is known for its very pretty girls. As for men folk, they’ve managed to produce Fergal Sharkey.
Basecamp for my stay was the Premier Inn, Derry, which seems to be the perfect base from which to explore the town and the surrounding area. A short five minute taxi ride or 20 minute walk from the town centre, the hotel is newly built, very clean and actually pretty swish for a bloke who’s normally used to staying in swirly carpetted B&B’s. It was already nearly morning when I staggered back to my room, so the checkout time of 12pm saved my hungover life on the Sunday. There was an all you can eat breakfast buffet but I could only manage a cup of tea and a whimper. With all the cultural events, the great scenery and flights costing so little, Derry would make a fantastically different place for anyone to visit this summer. If you’ve never been you should pop over for a weekend and give it a go, it’s great to see a city as it moves from shadow into light.