Londonderry in midst of an 'encouraging' rebirth

By
|

LONDONDERRY, Northern Ireland -- This picturesque and historical Irish city on the River Foyle -- long divided and isolated by name, religion and politics -- finally is coming into its own as a hospitable place for inhabitants and visitors alike.

Thanks to steadily improving economic conditions and a dramatic drop in sectarian violence since the Good Friday accords of 1998, today's Londonderry -- or Derry, as it's called by Irish nationalists -- bears little resemblance to the war-torn epicenter of Northern Ireland's "Troubles" that it once was.

That's good news for travelers, who now can enjoy worry-free access to Ireland's only completely walled, medieval city center, one of the finest such examples in all of Europe.

Despite media reports of ongoing sectarian tensions in Northern Ireland, I saw nary a stone thrown nor slur hurled on a recent one-day stay.

Tourists, agents and tour operators already have begun to respond; this year, Londonderry posted a 26% gain in international visitors through August, compared with 2002.

"These figures are very encouraging," said Catherine O'Connor, manager at the Derry Visitor and Convention Bureau (DVCB). "Derry attracts a high proportion of ... visitors compared with the rest of Northern Ireland."

Growth from North America stands at a more modest 7%, but the U.S. remains the city's most important source market.

Originally built to keep people apart, Londonderry's walls today serve as a promenade past historic sights - and toward understanding.A tear down the walls

Londonderry's historic walls, which have withstood several sieges since the early 17th century, now serve less as battlements and more as the perfect scenic perch for circumnavigational sightseeing strolls.

The wall-top promenade is open to the public from dawn until dusk, free of charge. Guided tours of the walls also are bookable through the DVCB offices.

On a recent visit, I ambled along about half of the mile-long wall circuit, starting at the Magazine Gate and Tower Museum and ending at the Bishop's Gate near St. Columb's, the first cathedral in Ireland built as a Protestant house of worship.

That stretch of 25-foot-high walkway may be short, but it's a stroll through centuries of Northern Irish history.

Steps from the Magazine Gate -- a newer addition built in 1865 -- I found the fantastic Tower Museum, housed in a refurbished 16th-century tower originally constructed by the powerful O'Donnell clan.

The high-tech museum does a fine job of impartially tracing Londonderry's turbulent and strife-ridden history from its 6th century origins as a site of Celtic worship to the modern, multicultural town of today. It is open year-round, generally from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

One highlight is a poignant film illustrating the turmoil that followed the infamous 1972 "Bloody Sunday" shootings of Catholic civil rights marchers by British soldiers -- a seminal event regarded by many as the official start of the Troubles -- as seen through a local's eyes.

Although I did a quick walk-through, agents should advise their clients to set aside at least an hour-and-a-half to get the most out of a visit; ideally, book them a private guided tour.

Back up on the walls at Castle Gate, I headed southwest, past funky businesses such as Baldie's Barbers -- specialists in crew cuts and close shaves -- and the Nerve Centre multimedia arts complex, pausing in the shadow of the Tower Hotel Derry (see Room Key, below) to gaze west over the Bogside district outside the city walls.

That traditionally Catholic neighborhood -- site of the Bloody Sunday shootings -- is known as "Free Derry" to local inhabitants.

Many walls in Bogside, and in other Londonderry neighborhoods such as Brandywell and Gobnascale, still are covered in colorful murals trumpeting the religious, military and political convictions and victories of both Catholics and Protestants.

Passing the First Derry Presbyterian Church at Butcher Gate, I continued along the stretch of wall known as the Grand Parade to Royal Bastion.

This corner of the city walls features a memorial plinth that replaced a statue and column dedicated to a 17th century Protestant governor that were destroyed by a bomb in 1973.

A bit farther on, the Double Bastion is home to "Roaring Meg," a cannon cast in 1642.

Looming over the Double Bastion is a British army listening post left over from the tense times of the Troubles -- an eerie, fortified reminder that's one of the last such bases in operation.

Security cameras, satellite dishes and barbed wire still bristle from its tower; for my part, I was glad to move on to the Bishop's Gate, where I descended for a stroll back up Bishops Street Within to the Diamond, the city's main square.

First, I stopped to admire St. Columb's. Built just after the Reformation in 1633, the cathedral looks (fittingly, I guess) as much a fortress as a church.

Strolling through the Diamond -- site of a war memorial but otherwise undistinguished -- I headed down Shipquay Street to a real treat: the Craft Village. The village re-creates life in Londonderry from the 16th to 19th centuries, combining shops, studios and homes.

Visitors can browse through crafts shops, watch artisans toiling away in actual workshops or relax with a snack or coffee.

The Craft Village also is home to Bridie's Cottage, a 15th century, thatched cottage where informal teach ceoil, or music house, performances of traditional folk music are held in summer months.

Although my one-day Londonderry adventure ended there, visitors with more time also can take in attractions such as the Genealogy Centre on Butcher Street; the Harbour Museum, which focuses on maritime history; or the Amelia Earhart Centre, commemorating the U.S. aviator's famed 1932 landing here.

For more on Londonderry, contact Tourism Ireland at (800) 669-9967 or at www.tourismireland.com. Or, contact the DVCB direct at (011) 44-287 126-7284 or at www.derryvisitor.com.

To contact reporter Kenneth Kiesnoski, send e-mail to [email protected].

Room key: TOWER HOTEL DERRY
Address:
Butcher St., Londonderry, BT 48 6HL Northern Ireland
Phone: (011) 44-287 137-1000
Fax: (011) 44-287 137-1234
E-mail:[email protected]; [email protected]
Web:www.towerhotelderry.com
General Manager: Ian Hyland
Rack Rates: About $151, single; $187, double, nightly.
Commission: 10%
Opened: April 2002
Rooms/Suites: 90/3
Facilities: Restaurant, bar, fitness center, three meetings rooms, underground garage
Amenities: TV, ISDN lines, tea/coffee tray, hairdryer and trouser press
Review: The only hotel within Derry's famed medieval walls, the 4-star Tower Hotel, just off the Diamond square, offers deluxe modern comforts, steps from this rejuvenated city's top sights and attractions. Sipping cocktails in the Lime Tree Bar or dining at the elegant Bistro Restaurant, guests could be excused for thinking they were in a trendy Dublin or world-class London hostelry, rather than a hotel in once strife-torn, provincial Derry/Londonderry. Service is prompt and friendly, facilities brand spanking new, prices and rates reasonable.

Top operators to Derry
• Brendan Worldwide Vacations: (800) 421-8446; www.brendantours.com
• Celtic International Tours: (800) 833-4373; www.celtictours.com
• CIE Tours International: (800) 243-8687; www.cietours.com
• ETM Travel Group: (800) 992-7700; www.etmtravelgroup.com
• Globus: (800) 221-0090; www.globusjourneys.com
Source: Tourism Ireland

Comments
JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI