Travel guide: Derry-Londonderry
- Anna Millar
- 19 February 2013
The Northern Irish city is an ideal spot to visit in its year as UK city of culture 2013
As the rain batters down, Derry’s Peace Bridge shimmers in the early evening light. A few feet away, the Ebrington army barracks have been transformed, the parade ground morphing into a 4000 capacity pop-up venue, the barracks proper set to play host to the Turner Prize this autumn. Behind me, back in the city centre, renovations are underway at the Guildhall; Derry’s famous walls stand proud; and renewed life is slowly coming to the waterfront. In the months to come local heroes will return, communities will be given a voice, and world famous dancers, playwrights, artists and rock bands will descend.
This is a city in transition. Walking back towards the centre I’m told that the Peace Bridge is serving its purpose. Created in 2011 as a symbol of unity and hope, it joins the west bank of the city (largely nationalist) to the waterside where the population is around 50% Catholic, 50% Protestant.
Derry, it seems, has lived a lifetime in contention. From the Troubles to its ongoing arguments about its name – nationalists, broadly speaking, favour Derry, unionists Londonderry – to the contentious issue of it being ‘UK’ City of Culture, this is a city on the periphery, about to step out into the spotlight. Confidence, you feel, is growing to embrace the title, in its own terms.
Beyond the vast history of the walls, there’s an urban grittiness and quiet determination here, Derry’s ubiquitous references to its sectarian past showing where it’s been and where it might end up, should this year have the galvanising effect that many hope.
A post-conflict city, dreams of growth and renewal have only been partially realised here: the notion that any cultural accolade comes with a gold-embossed change-all cheque, a fallacy. Like Liverpool’s stint as European City of Culture, the trick is to take what you’re given and then work with what you have.
As we walk around the walls, Derry’s extraordinary history unfolds, from the sieges of the 17th century to the peace-time present day. A momentary pause follows a description of the feeling of hope felt – and still being nurtured – by the 1998 peace treaty, which ended 30 years of sectarian violence; the more recent Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday and David Cameron’s subsequent apology bringing for some a degree of closure few believed possible.
Further along the walls, we pass The Fountain, the last protestant estate on the city side of the River Foyle. The day before, John Kelly, whose 17-year-old brother Michael was shot dead on Bloody Sunday, had spoken out about those erecting Parachute Regiment flags in the city ahead of the anniversary of the massacre. The flag is gone now: community activists on both sides working hard to keep the peace.
Later in the evening, at new arts space Culturlann, I speak to a young couple who’ve just moved back to the city from a spell in Glasgow: for them it’s about finding a new story for the city. ‘So many people watch the news, and all they see is fighting over flags, and feel nothing’s changed. Hopefully this year will encourage people to come and see there’s another face to us.’
As a visitor, it’s the juxtaposition of old and new that makes the city so fascinating. Saturday morning is spent with Bogside artist Tom Kelly, one of the artists responsible for the 12 iconic murals, known as the People’s Gallery. For Kelly, it’s not about hiding the past to make way for the future. He talks freely and candidly about the boy who blew himself up in his garden, trying to throw a bomb over a wall for the IRA, at the height of the riots; he speaks too about the lack of funding he feels the city and artists like him receive.
Across town at the Void, Derry’s slick contemporary art space, it’s an altogether different picture, as a young team rush around preparing for the opening night of Berlin-based artist Candice Breitz. While supporting local artists is important to them, this year is also about looking forward and putting Derry on the map as a go-to destination for cutting-edge international art.
On the way to the airport the following day, the taxi driver asks what I thought of the place. I tell him the city seems 100 different things to 100 different people. He laughs and nods his head. For him, it’s simple: it’s about his daughter coming home from university. For the first time this year, she will bring her friends back to show them where she grew up. She feels proud, he says, and he’s proud too. ‘It’s funny. For a while there I couldn’t imagine how a wee city like ours would ever manage this year of culture, but I think we just might.’
Derry Fact file
The Waterfront has welcomed some steady investment in recent years. The Custom House (Queen’s Quay) is the go-to joint for those looking to get their glad rags on of an evening. For lunch, the roof-top restaurant in Austins, Ireland’s oldest department store, does handsome portions of home-cooked Irish scran and offers great views of the city.
Derry’s watering holes tend to fall into two categories: the live music bar and the plusher style bar. Brown’s (Bonds Hill) is a good shout for those looking for a classy night out. For great craic and the possibility of hearing some top local music, Sandino’s Cafe Bar (Water Street) and Peadar O’Donnell’s can’t be beaten.
For those looking to be right at the heart of the action, the Tower Hotel and City Hotel are reliable, modern favourites; those looking to go a little further out can opt for Everglades or Beech Hill Country House Hotel, the latter of which is famous for hosting ex-US president Bill Clinton, as well as having some beautiful historic walks around its grounds. There’s also Derry City Independent Hostel, a cosy and central option for visitors on a budget.
For a small city, Derry is incredibly good at telling its story. The Museum of Free Derry (Glenfada Park) chronicles the civil rights movement and the creation of Free Derry in the 1960s and 1970s. The award-winning Tower Museum (Union Hall Place) too is well worth giving a morning over to with its interactive display and audio-visual presentations showing Ireland’s history.
Beyond the city of Derry there’s stunning scenery to be found, the top pick of which is undoubtedly the Giant’s Causeway in Antrim, complete with towering mountains and sheltered glens for walking. Lovers of rugged coastal landscapes can opt for the sands at Culdaff or Buncrana nearby, or head to Ireland’s most northerly point, Malin Head. See Translink NI Railways for train times and routes or Translink Ulsterbus for buses.
Flights to Derry go direct from Glasgow Prestwick; alternatively, fly to Belfast from Edinburgh and take the two-hour shuttle bus between the cities.
Derry 2013 Events Calander
We pick some highlights from the UK City Of Culture programme, from Primal Scream and the Royal Ballet to comics and graffiti art
(until 8 Mar)
The Berlin-based South African artist’s smart show, Him + Her, uses film footage of Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep to create a video installation examining the relationship between the individual and community.
(8–9 Mar 2013)
Oppression and survival take centre stage in Hofesh Shechter’s much anticipated dance piece, complete with rock riffs and cinematic staging.
The LSO (pictured above) perform some of John Williams’ best-loved works for film, with music from Jurassic Park, Jaws, Schindler’s List, War of the Worlds and more.
Brit alt rockers Primal Scream play live before Belfast-born Holmes joins the party.
World renowned ballet dancers Yuhui Choe, Melissa Hamilton, Ryoichi Hirano and Dawid Trzensimiech appear in selected highlights from the Company’s repertory, conducted by Derry-born Paul Murphy.
Music acts from around the globe rock up for this free weekend of live music. Olly Murs is one of the few acts announced so far but don’t let that put you off.
(30 May–1 Jun)
All things comic are celebrated here with 2D, the Northern Ireland Comics Festival, an annual shindig putting the spotlight on comic book culture.
Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, this large-scale public event on both sides of, and on, the River Foyle uses music, dance and theatre to celebrate the city’s founding father.
Derry’s acclaimed musical father returns to the Town He Loves So Well to sing with the Ulster Orchestra.
Electronic music festival featuring local, national and international DJs and live acts; the line-ups still tbc but previous performers at the fest include Carl Craig, David Holmes and Annie Mac.
Citywide event with leading street/graffiti artists from the USA, Germany, Ireland and Britain collaborating towards a 250ft-long themed cityscape.
(23 Oct–5 Jan)
This year finds the Turner held for the first time outside England, and only the second time it’s been shown outside the Tate following its appearance at BALTIC in 2011.
A 600-strong cast perform music, song, dance and theatre as they reflect on their history, with special guests, Top Secret Drum Corps.
Artichoke light up the city for four days, as part of a collaboration between artists, lighting designers and community groups.
Classical piece commissioned by Derry City Council to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Siege of Derry in 1689.
Elsewhere on the web