County Armagh is actually inside Northern Ireland, part of the UK. I watched the map and got my camera out as we neared the border, hoping to catch a sign at the border - but there wasn't one! There was a sign for a money-changer off an exit (Republic uses Euro, North uses pounds) and a sign noting that all speed limit signs would now be posted in miles instead of kilometers. I guess it makes sense, but that didn't really occur to me at the time.
We left the motorway at Newry and saw our first sign that we were in Northern Ireland - a painted portrait of the queen on a lamppost, amidst tons of UK flags and ads for loyalist political parties. (Sometimes also called unionist, which sounds odd to me. When I think of "union" I think more along how Germany reunited, and I think of Ireland uniting into a single country- not part of it staying in the UK - but they are thinking union as in union with the UK.) When we got to Armagh, the loyalist stuff was mixed in with republican flags (the flag of Ireland), ads for Sinn Féin candidates, and even a couple of IRA signs.
We checked in at the very lovely Fairylands B&B - we couldn't resist the name - where perhaps the friendliest woman in the world ever recommended a few options around town for dinner. We picked the easiest one to find - the bar at Armagh City Hotel! They have a fancier restaurant menu and a bar menu, which we ordered from.
After much confusion with the waitress, who we thought had a hearing problem and who certainly thought we had a speaking problem, we ordered. Okay, I ordered something called Chicken Maryland - have you ever heard of this? I didn't really read the menu that closely. I just saw chicken, pineapple, and banana and thought those all sounded like awesome things, so I got it with champ (mashed potatoes with scallions) on the side instead of chips. It turns out Chicken Maryland is a chicken breast which has been breaded and fried, accompanied by a quarter of a banana which has also been breaded and fried, and a pineapple ring which has also been breaded and fried, and a piece of bacon (not the streaky kind) which has mercifully NOT been breaded and fried. What. On. Earth. After a few jokes about what Maryland would think of this insanity, I discovered that it actually is associated with Maryland, but just not in this exact form. By the way, it was pretty delicious, but I woke up the next morning feeling like hell. Which was again cured by Irish breakfast. This may be a cure for just about anything.
After an excellent breakfast and a little chat with the proprietress, we checked out and wandered into the center of Armagh to have a look around before heading out. Since it was Sunday morning, everything was pretty dead, but we had a nice walk up and down the hill to St. Patrick's Cathedral (there are two cathedrals named after him - the Anglican one is on a hill in the center). I hadn't really been expecting a lot out of Armagh town but found it very pretty and I'm glad we stayed there and had a chance to look around. We then headed north to Loughgall. When I was booking the trip, I read that the Loughgall area is full of apple orchards and they bloom in early May, making for some nice scenery. Indeed, the local apple blossom festival had just been held the previous day. However, Ireland has had some weird weather this year - it was sunny and rainless for weeks before we arrived, and the apple trees were three weeks ahead of schedule! So they had already lost most of their blossoms.
|Armagh Mai 11|
Despite the lack of flowers we were still impressed by all the neat rows of trees in the orchards, so we pulled over into a lane somewhere east of Loughgall for a closer look. As I was taking a picture of the nearest tree (see the photos!), the owner and his daughter happened to be walking by along the highway and they stopped to talk to us! He told us all about how the strange weather had sped up the trees, showed us the very beginnings of the apples forming on the branches (nothing but a little swelling under where the flowers had been), that his son is looking into getting into the American market with their apple products, etc. Then he told us we could drive up right into another of his orchards across the road onto the hill where we would have a great view of the area, and then how to get to the nearby Castleraw ruin from there. Then he shook our hands and went on his way. Armagh may be the friendliest place on earth.
We did drive up into the orchard. We couldn't really see the mountains because although the day was clear for Ireland, it wasn't clear enough. Then we found the castle ruin. There wasn't anything special about the ruin itself, but the experience was still special because we wouldn't have known it was there but for running into that guy, and it was completely quiet and isolated at the time. And muddy. Very, very muddy. The weather had changed to rainy overnight.
After Castleraw, we figured we'd best get moving to Belfast, where we had a friend to meet and an appointment to make!