We caught the bus up to Belfast from Dublin, a two hour easy trip and were delivered to the Europa Bus terminal.

I find it curious that whilst Dublin, as capital of Ireland, is part of the EU, uses the euro, and incoming (non EU) passengers from the UK need to pass through passport control.  There is however no corresponding passport control when you leave the Republic of Ireland, and enter Northern Ireland, which is not in the EU and uses the pound sterling.  We had our passports at the ready, but were not required to produce them at any time.

We were lucky enough to be offered a pick up from the bus stop by our Airbnb host, David, which was wonderful, as we find that the logistics of getting from bus stop/train station/airport to our digs is often the tiring and problematic, or expensive, part of moving day.    The bus pulled into Europa bus station (not really a bus station, just a road).  As the rain was coming down we retreated to Starbucks over the road, where we bought a bevvy (at last, the pounds I had were usable again) and were duly collected by our host.

We settled in at our digs, which were about a 20 minute drive from central Belfast, high above the hill overlooking the city.  David was then going back into town, so offered to take us back in and gave us some recommendations to see.  First and foremost, the Crown was the pub to see and visit.  It was later the lunching spot chosen by Prince Harry and Meghan so it was good to see they consulted Yelp and picked a winner.  The pub dates back to 1826, and has an interior that needs to be seen to be believed, it is segmented into “snugs” little booths that you can shut the door on.    Within 10 minutes of entering, we found ourselves taken under the wing of a local and spent the next hour or so celebrating his birthday and the fact his friend had just bought a house.

Belfast is a town that loves its street art, and there is plenty on display, from the political to the humorous, nothing is taken too seriously, except the stuff that is.    It is quite a small city, and is able to be explored on foot, which we did, whilst we watched Steve’s torn calf muscle roughly double in size.    Did not see much in the way of dining options, other than restaurants and pubs, the only alternative being mcdonaldsy-type places.  We missed the cheap and cheerful hole in the wall Indian/Chinese places, but these could be found in the outer suburbs.     Even Yelp had difficulties in locating cheap eats.  We have a working theory on why this is but we will save it for later.

The following day was spent in Belfast visiting the city hall and its museum,  the iconic pubs, the Duke of York, the Harp, and the Dark Horse, where one of the Game of Thrones doors, resides.  The doors were all carved from the wood of the fallen trees from the “Dark Hedges” and are scattered at various sites throughout Northern Ireland.  I have not as yet watched Game of Thrones, however it is an industry in its own right, bringing jobs/income to many locations we’ve visited throughout Europe.

Belfast is a city which has some beautiful architecture and some real horrors from the golden years of architecture (60s/70s).   These aberrations are often plonked in the middle of two beautiful examples.  I had it explained to me that the original buildings were often bombed by the various factions, and in fact the Europa Hotel where the bus dropped us off was damaged 33 times and takes the crown for the most bombed hotel in Europe.  The builders engaged in repairs did not even need to consult the plans by the end, they were so familiar with the structures.

The next day we were to collect a hire car from the airport, and we decided that Steve would go as there seemed no reason for both of us to pay the 7.5 pounds to go to the airport.  Steve rounded the corner to the Europa to find it was blocked off by a cordon and crowd.  Police were stationed everywhere.  He asked one what was going on, but couldn’t decipher the response.  He was to find out later that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were visiting the Crown pub, having taken our excellent advice on Yelp.    Steve was three back in the crowd, but that did not stop him performing his best “don’t argue” with the surrounding crush, and thrust that hand forward into poor Harry’s midriff.  They had a chat about our trip whilst Harry attempted to retrieve ownership of his hand.Meghan hung back and to her great regret missed the golden opportunity to be congratulated by this Australian, as he had a date with the express airport bus.

The next joke was the Express -Direct – Airport – Bus.  The bus performed several laps of Belfast central, hoping perhaps to catch a glimpse of the royal couple, or simply to make everyone on it very late, we don’t know.  Once it hit the freeway component, things went along swimmingly, until the left hand turn into Belfast airport.  The bus driver instead turned right, to the great consternation of everyone on board.  He then collected some passengers from a park-and-ride, dropped three groups of spotty teenagers off at random stops along the way, stopped for cigarettes and collected his dry cleaning before arriving at the airport some 65 minutes longer than the trip is supposed to take.    Steve observed upon alighting “well that was a world record”….for those of you who are interested,  Bus 300, which should read “almost express to the airport“.

Whilst this was going on, I went to look at a few sights on my own, and arranged to meet Steve at the Titanic museum after he had collected the car.  I walked across the Lagan to the Titanic quarter, and noted that a mobile barber shop truck was parked there.  Part of its signage was that it was available to hire for private functions, including weddings.  This made me wonder….what do you think of your friends if you hire a mobile men’s hairdresser to be there at your wedding…how crap do you think they will look in the photos, if you need a hairdresser on site for them?    Anyway, I digress.

On approach to the Titanic museum, noticed a lot of hi-viz vests , and once I got closer, barricades.  Yep, Harry and Meghan again.   I stood next to a reporter for the Belfast newspaper, who was wildly making plans…”if they come over here, I want you to ask them xxx and then stick around so I can ask you xxx”, all to no avail as they got straight into the second black van parked outside.  There’s a lesson, don’t ever stand by the first van like I did, such a rookie.    We got a wave, but that’s all.

Steve could not get near the museum to pick me up and my phone battery was dead as usual.  We managed to meet up and hit the pub, by then we both needed a drink.

We took off the following day for “THE NORTH”.  All the motorway signs simply say “The North”.  So that’s where we headed.  David, our host, had advised us to take a look at the Game of Thrones filming site, the “dark hedges”, which is an avenue of Birch trees planted as an approach to Gracehill estate.    A surprise new character is being introduced to the series, and I managed to sneak some footage, which I will post separately.

DSC00909 (2)

From there off to the Giant’s Causeway.    We stopped in at Dunseverick Harbour, where a bloke was doing something which required Steve to help him.    He was one of the many locals who told us that “you don’t need to pay to see the  Giant’s Causeway…, just park along the roadway and walk in, it’s a public pathway, only pay if you want to visit the visitors’ centre “.  So that’s exactly what we did – found a depot of some sort up the road and parked there, asking the guy on duty if it was ok.   He said “you’re not supposed to but, as you’re Australians, its fine”…turns out he had spent about 15 years living in Skye.  So, off we went, the pictures speak for themselves, more spectacular coastline, which Ireland has in buckets.   We followed this up by a visit to Bushmills Distillery to sample the doings, then a drive along the coast back to Belfast, taking in the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge (from the vantage point).     We had some dinner and took in some live music, which we struggled to hear through the foghorn Americans sitting nearby.  Shook my head as they enthusiastically applauded each number, having yelled over the music at each other from start to finish… see the facebook post for some video.

Our last morning was spent taking a tour of the notable political points around town (separate post to follow), followed by a visit to the Titanic Museum – good museum – wish I’d had more time there, but was determined to see it.    We were unaware of the daylight savings time change, but luckily were in enough time (read, very early) for our flight regardless.  Who would have thought ?

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Is it too late to have a gap year in your late 50s? To take back some time from our day to day working life to travel - unplanned, unescorted, unfettered? To take that leap? It was a defining year - liberating, challenging, humbling, scary. It was many things, but it wasn't a holiday.

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