In 2013 Derry/Londonderry will celebrate its tenure as UK City of Culture, so surely it’s time it became known for more than the political unrest that nearly destroyed it, says Sally Coffey
Back in the 70s and 80s Derry was a city under siege: British tanks roamed the streets, border controls hemmed the people in and the community tore itself apart. It wasn’t a place for tourists and it was hard to imagine how it ever would be again. But the Good Friday Agreement (1998)paved a way for peace and, although no one was naïve enough to think things would change overnight, people began to look forwards and the community started to rebuild itself.
Today Derry is a city reborn, with a thriving music and theatre scene, and as if to reward it for all this hard work, in 2013 it celebrates its tenure as UK City of Culture. It’s a well-deserved accolade that will shine a light on the city for all the right reasons.
Derry is a culturally rich city, from its spectacular walls, to the traditional music piping through them, and its location as a border city gives travellers unique access to the sweeping, sandy beaches of Donegal.
As part of the celebrations, the Turner Prize will be hosted here, only the third time it has ever been held outside the Tate Britain. But music is what this city is really renowned for and two events are sure to bring the streets alive in a memorable way. Held on 21 June – the summer solstice – Music City will bring together musicians of all ages and genres to perform at a day-long festival, providing hundreds of free concerts in streets, squares, offices, and even churches. And hot on its heels, the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann will take place from 11-18 August, when the city will transform into one giant performance space of traditional music and dance.
But even if you don’t visit during the cultural events, there’s still plenty to enjoy, from a walk along the banks of the River Foyle, which flows all the way out to the Atlantic, to a tour of the only complete walled city left in Ireland. Built between 1613 and 1618 to protect settlers, the walls form a 1.5km viewing platform across the original city, where you can see the Donegal mountains peering down and the city’s second cathedral, the Catholic St Eugene’s – the Protestant St Columb’s lies within the city walls and was the first cathedral in the British Isles to be built after the Reformation.
A quick look at fresh messages scrawled on the city walls, or a visit to the famous neatly etched – and constantly evolving – murals will show that its people are still politically minded. But what has changed is that the community has decided to work together to improve things for everyone. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Bogside area around ‘Free Derry Corner’ where you’ll find the murals. Once a no-go area, it’s now a popular visitor spot, complete with its own museum. There’s no coffee shop as yet but it’s only a matter of time.
As it’s a border city, visitors to Derry are advised to bring both Euros and Sterling as although you can use both currencies in most places, exchange rates fluctuate.
A walk through the depths of The Troubles to the revitalised heart of the city
When to go: Year-round but summer if you want to make the most of Donegal’s beaches, although there’s something about the smell of peat fires come autumn that’s worth wrapping up for.
Getting there: Ryanair has direct flights to the City of Derry twice a day from London for as little as £12 each way. The airline also flies from Liverpool, Birmingham and Glasgow. Alternatively, you can fly into Belfast City or Belfast International airports and catch the Airporter bus for £18.50 each way.
Getting around: Most of the city’s sights are within walking distance, although be warned: it is a hilly city. Buses are available but taxis are so affordable that most people use these. If you want to explore neighbouring Donegal or other Northern Ireland sights such as The Giant’s Causeway then you should hire a car (www.derryairportcarhire.net).
Where to stay: The City Hotel is central and smart; doubles from £81, while www.serendipityrooms.co.uk has a range of affordable B&Bs and self-catering properties.
Where to eat: Browns on the Waterside offers fine dining and the North-West’s first champagne lounge. An early-bird menu will cushion the budget blow. Or you could try Café-del-Mondo: maybe just a modest café by day, but an intimate restaurant by night.
Further info: tourist info: www.derryvisitor.com; for updates on City of Culture events www.cityofculture2013.com.
Visit the Museum of Free Derry, just off Rossville Street, to learn more about the civil rights era of the 1960s and the events that led up to the Bloody Sunday shootings of 1972, that saw 13 unarmed protesters killed by British troops – a catalytic event in The Troubles.
After this, view the extensive murals in and around Free Derry Corner where the black on white slogan “You are now entering Free Derry” signalled this was a no-go area for Loyalists and the British Army during the Troubles.
You can also see the memorial to the Bloody Sunday victims on the opposite side of the road before heading up to the top of Fahan Street to begin your walk of the walls. Halfway around, step into St Columb’s Cathedral and you can admire its £4million refurbishment. Afterwards, grab a cup of coffee or lunch at Blooms Café, the only café in the walls.
Come evening, catch a play at the Playhouse Theatre before heading towards the Foyle Embankment for drinks, a nice bite to eat and a bit of craic in Badgers, on the far end of Orchard Street.
Have an early lunch at Irish centre Culturlann and if you’ve ever fancied trying your hand at the fiddle, pipes or tin whistle, check the timetable for the drop-in music classes. From here, it’s a short walk to the new £14 million Peace Bridge, which spans the River Foyle from the city centre to the Waterside. Take a walk across for splendid views of the city from the east bank of the Foyle.
Once back over on the west bank head to the craft village for some shopping and grab dinner at Café-del-Mondo. If you want to listen to some traditional music then head to Peadar O’Donnells or The Dungloe, both on Waterloo Street.
Use today to explore the big, open spaces of Donegal, sitting just beyond the city walls. Only 10km west of Derry is the ancient fort of Grianan of Aileach.
The original site is believed to date back to the Late Bronze Age or the Iron Age but most of what you see today was restored in the late-19th century. Don’t let that detract from the magic of the place though – perched 800ft above sea level, it gives panoramic views across the Inishowen peninsula, and on a clear day you can see the five counties of Ulster.
From here’s it’s 18km to Buncrana where you can join the Swilly Walk. For most people the highlight of this walk is Father Hegarty’s Rock, where the British Army supposedly beheaded a parish priest in 1711 for conducting unlawful Catholic masses. It’s a gorgeous stretch of coastline and about halfway to the rock there’s a wide, open beach, which always seems empty.
Round your day off with a visit to Sandinos on Water Street, Derry’s very own Cuban bar, which also has regular music nights.
The Banks of the Foyle Halloween festival attracts thousands, culminating in a huge parade. If you want to join the craic, be sure to get dressed up or you might look a little out of place.