Susmita Saha :
Just ahead of me, a line of bikes flies down a public road. Straddling the fierce 1200 cc motorcycles are leather-clad bikers, all with their visors down. The road racers are revving up on an epic track that sidles along the turbulent Atlantic coast and loops past cliff faces and glens. Often labelled a death cult, for its frequent tragic outcomes, motorbike racing is still wildly popular on this idyllic coastline.
I am on Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coastal Route that stretches for 120 miles, connecting Belfast with Derry-Londonderry. Zigzagging through County Antrim, the Coastal Route has effervescently green hamlets, lighthouses, castles and other tourist spoils. This is Liam Neeson country, my licensed Blue Badge driver and tour guide tells me, and jokes that I am free to imagine him as Neeson's facsimile, minus the actor's drop-dead looks.
Tracing the water's edge, we drive along a wind-whipped terrain to land up in Carrickfergus Castle, a Norman Irish castle, on the northern shore of the sea inlet, Belfast Lough. Owing to its proximity to the sea, the castle has been stamped with Scottish, Irish, English and French invasions. An unexpected historical find for mainstream tourists, this medieval structure, which once functioned as a strategic garrison, was built in 1177 and boasts of a small bailey or castle courtyard, a high polygonal curtain wall and other structures that take hours to appreciate.
As I explore the military legacy of some of Europe’s strongest imperialist forces, I am hurled back into history. Carrickfergus Castle was also the first stepping stone in Ireland for King William III, widely known as William of Orange, monarch of England, Ireland and Scotland. He chalked his name on the list of the fort’s powerful occupants in 1690. A statue of William of Orange, in full military regalia, is now stationed atop a rock right outside the castle.
Very soon, we wind our way to Glenarm Village, the first of nine glens moored along the Antrim Coast Road. Arguably the oldest chartered town in Ulster, the village has retained its historic street pattern and boasts of The Glenarm Conservation Area with over 50 listed buildings. The village’s most famous house, of course, is the Glenarm Castle, a Jacobean style mansion that’s home to Viscount and Viscountess Dunluce and their family.
To witness the walled garden inside Glenarm Castle is to be swept up in the currents of Northern Ireland’s history. It was a time when lush gardens existed as magical spaces inside expansive estates, thriving from the early 1800s until the beginning of the 20th century. From a spiral-shaped mound inside Glenarm Castle’s walled garden, I take in the view.
In front of me, the grounds stretch out like a series of interlinking rooms. On one side are herb, fruit and flower gardens with giant tulips, and beyond the tulips are blooming cherry trees.
If one is lolling about in this corner of Europe, it is difficult to forget that a majority of the filming locations of HBO's wildly popular Game of Thrones, lies here.
A few hours later, I arrive at the Carrick-a- Rede Rope Bridge, a tiny speck fusing the mainland with Carrickarede island across a 30m-deep gorge. The story goes that local fisherfolk used to erect a rudimentary rope bridge with the aim of crossing over to the island to inspect their salmon nets. Things have changed since then. The dangerously frail walkway of yore has been replaced by a double hand-railed rope bridge, operated by the National Trust these days.
County Antrim definitely helps imagine worlds you have never seen. One of its major highlights is the Cushendun Caves, which took shape over a piffling period of 400 million years, when extreme weather conditions and coastal erosion joined hands. These caves - pebbles embedded in old red sandstone rock - have also been the site of a crucial Game of Thrones sequence.
Northern Ireland offers everything from conflict sites and postcard-worthy villages to pubs and museums. But the one thing that will stretch your mind and make you believe in every single travel cliché is the Giant’s Causeway, which spreads across six km of the northern coast of Northern Ireland. The country’s flagship offering to the tourism world, Giant's Causeway is actually row upon row of hexagonal basalt columns brought to life by a geological accident. Estimated to be over 60 million years old, these stone pillars took shape when molten lava rapidly solidified upon sudden contact with water.
But, as with most geographical wonders, the folk tales surrounding them are way more colourful than cold, hard facts. Giant’s Causeway, too, has the magic fable of a giant, Finn McCool, as its narrative backbone. When Finn picked up a fight with the Scottish giant Benandonner who lived across the sea, he hurled pieces of the Antrim coast into the water. The hexagonal walkway thus created, offered Finn the perfect excuse to cross over to Scotland and invite Benandonner for a slugfest. Upon reaching his Scottish opponent’s hideout, Finn realised how grossly he had underestimated Benandonner's size and retraced his steps immediately.
The Scot followed him back to Antrim, but not before Finn’s wife disguised him as a baby. Once Benandonner took a look at the giant child, he beat a hasty retreat, thinking about the invincibility of the father.
Stories like these elevate even the most routine travel experiences in Northern Ireland. It is as easy to be seduced here by the stunning prehistoric landscapes as it is to get lost in ancient castles where time slows down to a delicious crawl.