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Bob Moen

Biking from Canterbury to Belfast
Bob Moen's Tour de U.K. 1999
Friday, June 4, 1999 - Dispatch #5

Greetings from Derry
Greetings from Derry, the 2/3s catholic town that resents the British so much that it removed the "London" from its name. Why not? It was the British who put it there in the first place.

Derry is a great place to visit. I was expecting a grey, run-down factory town but instead find a bustling city, full of history and interesting things to do and see. Thankfully, it is uncluttered with tourist kitsch, but I expect that will soon change. A lot of people are betting that the "Troubles" are settled and no longer will the specter of violence keep the tourists away in droves. Derry has a brand new tourist office, which found lodging for me (17-pounds) in one of the dozen, or so B&Bs that have recently gone into business. I've been told that only two years ago only four B&Bs existed whereas now there are upwards to twenty.

The B&B in which I stayed was in a 3-story row house built about a hundred years ago situated in a working-class neighborhood. From my third story window I looked out onto a sea of chimneys and slate roofs, down to the River Foyle and beyond to a lush, green hillside scattered with stately homes. The bathroom window had a more prosaic view of an alleyway and IRA graffiti.

As soon as I checked into my B&B I walked the block to the local bar (they aren't called pubs in much of Ireland) for my usual end-of-my-bike-riding-day pint of Guinness. I found scenes straight out of our favorite Irish stereotypes. The chippie was full of people waiting for their fish-and-chips. At the news stand there was an old man bragging that he'd been on the dole for 44-years. In the bar-I had three to choose from--sat a drunken middle-aged man singing Irish songs and generally babbling away. He went on-and-on or the entire time I was there without anyone telling him to shut-up, as they would in America. In fact, the other patrons were buying him drinks. He always had at least two pints sitting in front of him. I'm still wondering what that was all about.

A fortified wall built in the early 1600s encloses the central part of Derry. It serves as the most significant reminder of the city's interesting history. Derry began as a monastery in 546AD. Soon thereafter the Vikings came to rule the area, then the MacLochlainns, and then the O'Dohertys, then the O'Neills. Finally, in 1566 the English took over, renamed it, and built Londonderry into a city. The walls saw their most action in the late 1600s when the catholic English forces sieged protestant English forces-or visa-versa-for 15-weeks (the longest in British history).

I found that the 1-mile walk on top the city wall to be absolutely fascinating. From ten to twenty feet above the hubbub of city life, I got a unique prospective on the past and present. From the wall I closely observed the people of Derry and overheard their conversations. Since Derry is built on hills I also got vistas of the city itself. I saw down into Bogside to the site of Bloody Sunday of 1972 where British soldiers inexplicably opened fire, killing 13 catholic civilians. I entertained myself by watching a woman throw tennis balls down a grassy hillside for her half-dozen dogs to retrieve. I watched and listened to a rock-and-roll band practice on the third floor of an unoccupied commercial building. While walking the wall after a really fine Italian dinner (I find it surprising that there are so many native Italians here), I heard some whaling saxophone music. Soon I was situated in a corner bar enjoying a wonderful blues band. Over-and-over I am struck of the importance of music in the lives of the Irish people. Last night tattooed, thug-looking 30-year-old brick layers/truck drivers/ditch diggers were rocking to the music, dancing with each other.

Prior to Derry, I spent several days exploring County Donegal. It is a lovely HILLY place, also known as the Irish Highlands:

I found Ballyshannon to be particularly enjoyable. I took the bus there on Sunday from Galway City. I stayed at the best B&B ever. It was a refurbished 1860 mansion situated on its own grounds. My room measured 20' by 20', had three six-foot windows (I got a late start because the morning sunlight pouring through the windows put me in a post-breakfast nap mood) and overlooked the picturesque Ballyshannon bay-all for 20-pounds. Sharon, the proprietor, cooked a great omelette for me. The evening before I had a particularly interesting discussion about Irish and world politics with a 26-year old fellow name Rory at the Thatched Roof Bar.

I spent Monday night in Killybegs, Ireland's most productive fishing port, where curiously, other than an up-scale restaurant; I could not find anyplace that served fish. I ending up having really good fish and chips at the fishermen's local take-out (it's the vinegar that makes them so good).

I also spent nights in Ardara and Letterkenny (the fastest growing town in Europe). I have much more to say and experiences to tell about, but I'm at the Derry library and have to get off the computer soon. YIKES. I just realized that it is raining. Oh well, it isn't too far to the Railway Museum and according to the weather forecast it will only be patchy rain today. I've got rained upon only twice. Each time was at the end of the day when I knew a Guinness and a warm room soon awaited, so I've got no complaints. I'll check in from Belfast in a few days. Cheers.

Dispatch #6

1998 Tour-de-UK Dispatches
Dispatch #1: Day 2 - Truro, Cornwall, England
Dispatch #2: Day 4 - Exeter, Devon, England
Dispatch #3: Day 8 - Cardiff, Wales
Dispatch #4: Day 11 - Galway City, Ireland
Dispatch #5: Day 17 - Belfast, N. Ireland
Dispatch #6: Day 26 - Edinburgh, Scotland

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