A perfect city for walking and biking, Derry boasts a deep history and has much to offer visitors, writes Kevin Rynn
I’d never heard my name in a song before. So when the Undertones, from Derry, warbled a little ditty called My Perfect Cousin that contained the line “I’ve got a cousin called Kevin who’s sure to go to Heaven”, I wanted to find out more about this energetic band and their home city.
Of course, that was many years ago and Northern Ireland has been through a lot since then.
Northern Ireland is the smallest of the UK’s four countries, and Derry is its second-biggest city and is home to around 250,000 people. Yes, it has had a turbulent past. The longest siege in
British military history happened here in 1689 when around 25,000 Protestants dug in against the Catholic English king James II. The city had a prominent role during the Troubles, and many believe they started here. But as in other British cities, the spirit of the people and some forward-thinking business and municipal leaders have made this city worth a visit. In fact, Lonely Planet put it fourth in a list of “Top Ten Cities Worth Visiting in 2013”.
As if nestling amid the backdrop of the Donegal mountains and its proximity to glorious beaches were not enough, Derry doffs a cap to its bellicose past with its perfectly preserved 17th-century walls, splendid architecture and a creative vibe that meshes well alongside its abundance of history. With a plethora of restaurants and cafes, the craic is never too far away. Don’t forget a walk or a bike ride across the Peace Bridge, either.
My favourite place If you’re a museum fan, there’s one you cannot miss. The Museum of Free Derry can be found on the site of the Sunday Bloody Sunday massacre, a most ignoble chapter in UK history. In 1972, British soldiers shot dead 14 innocent civil rights protesters in the Bogside area, and the whole issue has been a thorn in the side of the British political establishment ever since. A priest who led victims to safety waved a handkerchief, and the blood-stained item is on display here along with the torn jacket of one of the injured on that tragic day. The museum opened in 2007 with the aim of telling the story of the battle for civil rights, and over internment without trial for many of the city’s residents. Its storyboards do not stint on the sectarian discrimination, authoritarianism and social injustice that has plagued its people over many years.
Highlights Derry is eminently walkable, and there are guided walks available to help you appreciate the mile-long city walls that make it one of the finest walled cities in Europe. The walls were built between 1613-1619 to defend against settlers from England and Scotland. You can see the Roaring Meg cannon standing prominently in the western corner or head to a stretch that was a popular place to stroll for the city’s well-heeled in the Victorian era. The Bogside wall murals (which depict sectarian confrontation from 1969 onwards) can also be seen from here. Following the walk will, at some point, bring you to St Columb’s Cathedral. It’s a venerable Gothic wonder that pierces Derry’s skyline. Inside, you will find displays of ornaments from the siege and a fine collection of silver communion plates. Continue walking and you’ll come across the Centre for Contemporary Art, which is an emporium replete with works that really do challenge the mind and (thankfully) eschew meaningless displays of lights turning off and on or unmade beds etc. A good place to start any walk in the city is at Guildhall Square, which is the city’s “focal point”. The neo-Gothic, red sandstone Guildhall was built in 1890 and accommodates the city council while playing host to important events.
Lowlights Always refer to the city as “Derry” and not its traditional British name of “Londonderry” and you shouldn’t run the risk of encountering any hostility.
Souvenirs The Craft Village, a collection of small shops around a central square is a good bet for crystal, Gaelic jewellery and artefacts.
Getting there Most major airlines offer flights from Muscat to London’s Heathrow Airport, from where you can catch a connecting flight to Derry, which takes about one hour and 20 minutes.
Where to stay There are hotel and B&Bs to suit every taste and budget. Check out the options available on Booking.com, Hotels.com or Trivago.
Top five things to do:
1. Get informed on Derry’s history at The Museum of Free Derry
2. Stroll around the city’s walls and sit on one of the cannons
3. Get a window on the underwater world available at the Riverwatch Aquarium
4. Visit Tower Museum, which encapsulates the city’s history
5. Get some fresh air at Ness Country Park, and see the majestic waterfall