Thursday, August 30, 2007

Belfast Black Taxi Tour

I was very interested to visit Belfast, since I have been a Londoner all my life, and was very much exposed to the IRA bombings throughout my childhood and teenage years.

I also studied what was quickly named The Troubles in Northern Ireland at school, as part of History GCSE. What I am trying to tell you is that many of these images that people in Northern Ireland see every day, I saw on the news after school, and looked at in books during the day.

I wanted to take one of the Black Taxi Tours to BOTH sides of the Peace Wall divide (you have to look for a taxi with a yellow sticker on the front, white or green stickered taxis can only stay on one side, thus you only get half the story according to our man in the taxi) and our driver promised to try and get us all through the political history tour in one hour, for £25 (pounds sterling are used in Northern Ireland. In Eire, or Southern Ireland, it's Euros) and as he was an official guide, I thought it was something of a bargain.

We passed the port, where the Titanic was built incidentally, and went straight down the Cromwell Road to Cromwell Prison, where the first political prisoners were held. This row of houses is where, at the height of The Troubles, prison guards would live. Across the road is where the offenders were sentenced. As you can see, it has fallen into disrepair, and has been granted planning permission to be converted into an Hotel. The prison itself will be turned into a museum, it was supposed to be finished in June, but will not be finished 'for a while yet'. He told us that we'd find this Belfast in many respects "Fifteen years behind everyone else" but that since the ceasefire 9 years ago (it doesn't seem that long) they've been building up much of the town again. They've also paid Unionists £5,000 per painting, to change negative gunmen-type images on the murals on the end of terraced houses in favour of more positive yet still Unionist historical figures, like this one of William of Orange.

Belfast is famous for these murals, both Unionist (Protestant) and Republican (Catholic) beyond the wall, especially this one, which I remember from news bulletins when I was young. It's famous because the gun itself follows you around as you pass in front of it. Then there are the Unionist heros. This man, "Top Gun" is known to have been responsible for the murder of at least 20 people. He died of a drug overdose in '93, but the floral tributes and letters look as if they were left only yesterday.

This mural was only painted about 6 months ago apparently. The thing that struck me was that these images are all close together, and are seen every day by locals. It's just part of their life, and they live with the memories of the Troubles on a daily basis.

We drove on, looking up at this tower block on the way. The top two floors of this block were occupied by the British Army for 2 years at the height of The Troubles, because it's the highest vantage point in the city.

These gates are closed at 6pm to provide a barrier between Catholic and Protestant, South and North, every night. There are several gates through the Peace Wall, and only one remains open 24 hours a day. There were actually two barriers that we drove through in order to get over to the Catholic side.

Here are the remnants of the July 11th Orange Order march. There is also a fire here, and I couldn't help but think how sombre a day it must really be, a civil march through Ulster passing by neighbours with whom you have such a troubled past, just because you have the right.

On the Catholic side, of course the murals are somewhat different, and the main collection is on this road. This man was a famous political prisoner who refused to wear an HMS (Her Majesty's Service) prison uniform, on account of his belief that he was not under the rule of the British crown, and so took to his cell, wearing only his blanket, starting the Blanket Protests. Then there's Bobby Sands, the first Catholic to die on hunger strike in prison.

This is the Peace Wall, seen still from the Protestant side. It's been built up higher a number of times, and apparently is being made stronger even now. There are no plans to remove it. If you could see the dark, stained segment in the far of this picture (I realised it's just out of the shot!), that's where the last petrol bomb was thrown, 4 years ago. Here are the original 10 murals, put there in the late 70's which apparently are being removed soon. We were told it's now customary to sign the wall. Here's me, writing all I could think of , "Remember, but now please, move on."

In this bunker, in the wall, 5,000 British Army troops waited, and were needed to curb the violence we were told.

On the other side is a road on which our guide told us at least 83 people died. These 83 are remembered in the Clonard Memorial Gardens (the pamphlet on which, our guide helped to write. I'd been fearful of asking his political views, but I think he must be Catholic separatist, in order to have taken the time to write about this. His tour was, however, very thorough and without bias.) at the end of the street that backs onto the wall. Several of these tributes are heartbreaking, including one

"Sean O'Riordan was born in Oranmore Street on March 23rd 1972. At the age of 13 Sean was shot dead by the British Army in Cawnpore Street. He was subsequently buried in the Republican plot in Milltown."
It is amazing how people in this street still live. They have cages on the back of their houses, just to make sure no petrol bombs or explosives land, literally in their back gardens.

In the Republican neighbourhoods, post boxes are green, not red. This is to symbolize that they don't want to be associated with the UK, or Royal, postal service.

On this house the black flag is still being flown, to commemorate the day the last individual died on hunger strike in prison.

I'm not going to lie, it wasn't an easy day, but I'm glad I saw these places, and on the positive side the situation has improved to the point that there is a ceasefire which people genuinely believe will last. Eric was affected too, but in ways I cannot really comprehend. Canada has it's own issues with Britain, with separatist and loyalist camps, but as he said "It just hasn't got this bad."

And our driver did take us to a nice pub for our lunch, to mull over what we'd seen. He tried to charge us £40, for going 15 minutes over the agreed hour, but we harmoniously came to a £35 arrangement, and parted ways.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

How to sum up the rest of my vacation in one go

This will be difficult, because we did so much! We had two lovely weeks in Montreal, seeing part of the annual fireworks contest (we saw Germany's entry, aparently the UK went on to win it!) with Eric's friends was a memorable evening, as was swimming one afternoon by this waterfall (Eric's secret spot), going to a fairly grown-up waterslide park and doing the most scary of rides, visiting this drive-through safari park with Eric's mum, where you could feed deer with carrots and also see wolves and FINALLY black Bears! Yes! Then there was a day in Ottowa (the Parliament Hill and Houses of Parliament tour is FREE and awesome. I haven't blogged enough about this I know!) another tandem ride, this time from St. Jovite to the resort and ski-centre Tremblant, (with all that cycling, I was quick to allow myself a maple-syrupy treat, rolled on snow by Yours Truly!) plus several outdoor meals with family....and after all this, I brought Eric back with me to my motherland.

And so, here I go, trying to cram a fortnights' worth of tourism into one post, but time is swiftly marching on, and I must write something before I rewsume my travels onboard the cruise ship, so this is it:

I took Eric to Hampton Court Palace, the palace Henry VIII built (or redesigned) for Anne Boleyn, only to have her beheaded, and an historic attraction very close to my neighbourhood in London. We did an audio tour of the Kitchens, the wine segment of which I particularly loved. And we went through the maze, which is pretty hardcore as mazes go, especially since they've now added sound effects to scare kids since I used to run around it as a child. Eric's particular favourite is an Ogreish voice, saying "If I catch you, I'm gonna EAT you!" near the start. As you can see, we made it to the centre, and back out again (much easier since they've even added maps and a Quick Exit since my younger days!)

Next, I took Eric on a day roadtrip to Stonehenge, a Neolithic stone circle, the oldest and most mystical of it's kind. It's 5000 years old, and there's now a good audio guide here too. You really should try to get here soon though, plans are being finalised to house Stonehenge under a stadium-style cover, which will spoil the atmosphere of it in my opinion. The wonder of Stonehenge is why Neolithic man took the the trouble to move these stones, weighing each more than 7 elephants, over 270 miles on foot (using nothing but strength and wooden logs as rollers) from Wales to this site. And, as you can see, during each month, the sun sets between a different two of the central stones, in rotation. Was this an ancient callendar? Or a temple to the Sun? It's just awesome.

We stopped by Salisbury too, to see the beautiful but twisted Cathedral spire (built on a marsh, ill- advised, but as the story goes it had to be built where the King's arrow fell, central to the new city), and because it's where my Mum went to college. I'm sure she LOVES the fact I'm telling you all that her college has now been turned into a museum!

A couple of drunken nights passed in various local pubs, as well as one dinner party with one of my best friends, Maggie and her man James. This is my friend Eleanor's Birthday celebration in London. We also went to see my football team play the first home match of the season. I'm a Chelsea girl through and through, as is Eric by association, so it was good that on this occasion at the Bridge we beat Birmingham 3-2. Result!

Eric is a Monty Python fan, and across the road from the house where I grew up is where the famous Fish-slapping dance was filmed, on the River Thames. Not content with just showing him this, I took him to see Spamalot in the West End with my folks!

In order that he get to see some of coastal Britain, ie. the good old British seaside, I took Eric on two short breaks, firstly to Cornwall, at the very south-west 'foot' of England. I love Cornwall. It has (usually) a better climate than the rest of the UK, clean beaches, clotted cream (thick, beautiful and served with everything sweet, including scones and jam to make a Cornish cream tea) and pasties! The best of these meat, swede, potato, onion and pastry beauties is arguably to be found in Marazion, at a bakery called Philps. Also in Marazion is the causeway to St. Michael's Mount and imposing castle. This is James (see below!)

We stayed in St. Ives, at the Chy-An Albany (that's Cornish there, it's a language that realistically died out in the late 1700s, but is still fondly referred to in hotel names and such!) and Eric was quick to learn that English roads are much smaller than those in Canada and the States, having changed little since Horse-and-cart tracks in terms of size.

We met up with James, my sister's man, alas my sister is in Shanghai and so could not be there, and we did the aforementioned pasty-eating, and drank beers in several old pubs, including the Sloop Inn at St. Ives, The Old Success in Sennen, and The Meadery in Newlyn. All are to be strongly recommended.

We went to Tintagel and the famous old castle ruins, said to be where King Arthur and his Knights (of round table fame) met. It also has some great doors, and View-from-a-window shots!

Also we stood on the southernmost point of England, not actually Land's End, (although that's ok) The Lizard is further south, and the coastal walk is really pretty.

We camped one night near Sennen (I LOVE our blue tent/car/chair/matress/sleeping bag theme, a girl CAN be a stylish camper, you now), and went to the Minnack Theatre, a beautiful outdoor theatre, clinging to the side of a cliff, and saw The Tempest from the resale, £3 cheap seats! Just phone up, get your name on the list and show up at 7.15, chances are you'll get in and if not, grab a glass of wine and just sit and enjoy the view of the surrounding bay and beaches for a while!

Possibly best of all was surfing. I'd never surfed prior to this trip, so went down to Sennen cove and booked myself in for the Beginner class at the surfing school there, £25 for two and a half hours with wetsuit and board provided. Eric and James took the Improver course, Eric had one lesson in Hawaii, and James is just bolshy!

I stood up! It's an exhilarating feeling, and an excellent workout. Pasties are required before AND after for sustainance!

I'm missing stuff out, but anyway, after four days, I not only decided I AM going to save up, buy a VW campervan and become a surfer-chick in my post-dancing years, but drove Eric to Weymouth in Dorset, where we met up with my parents, and my aunt, uncle and two awesome cousins, Adam (the elder) and Alex (the younger) on a day here in Portland, where incidentally they make the best Dorset Crab sandwiches ever.

Here's my Dad, who got soaked by a random tidal wave on The Cobb in Lyme Regis, made famous through severl books, including The French Lietenant's Woman (and Meryll Streep in the movie!).

We ate at The Crab and Oyster Shack near Chesil Beach (a 3 mile-long pebble beach) and this truly attractive photo shows my man, gamely hammering into a huge Dorset crab for my enjoyment (I can't believe I posted a picture of me eating!) and that's about it, I guess. What a holiday, what a life. I love it, I'm grateful for it, and I hope if you've read this far, that you enjoyed it too.