My name is Jordi Nelis and I am the next ESR that will do his best to make all of you jealous about the beautiful place he “had” to move to in order to join the Foodsmartphone project and participate in developing new exciting systems to allow for facile in-situ detecting of compounds by non-experts. In the project I will focus on smartphone based localised surface plasmon imaging for real time analysis of marine bio-toxins. I know it’s quite a mouthful, but if you break it down to its essence it just means that I will try, with help from my colleagues, to develop a small device that will use light to detect and quantify toxins in shellfish there where it’s most needed i.e. directly at the farm! But I will tell you more about that later. For now let’s concentrate on the journey itself. Like Javier, my journey has taken me to the Emerald Isle. And I must say, it does honour to its name!
Okay, it is moist, cold, and windy, true. But if you muster up some courage and brave the weather you will be astonished about what Ireland has to offer! Already around Belfast, at about a 30 minute drive, one can enjoy beautiful sand beaches speckled with rocks and interrupted by small coves. This offers you the possibility to find your own “private” beach to enjoy a weekend afternoon not far from home. Of course, the fact that it will most likely drizzle at least a bit while you are there makes it even more likely that that beach will stay private for the rest of the day :-). If you drive further out of Belfast the scenery only improves. At about an hour’s drive you come to the northern coastline and Ireland. Here several great landscapes await you. One of those is the Giant’s Causeway, a breath taking construction that was built by the Irish giant Finn who wanted to settle a quarrel with his Scottish opponent, Benadonner, in days of yore. Unfortunately for him he found out that Benadonner was trice his size and so he quickly retreated back to his Island and hid from Benadonner by disguising as a baby. Bonadonner, on his turn, saw the baby when he arrived in Ireland and concluded that Finn had to be enormous (since the baby was already huge) and so he fled, destroying the causeway upon his return. A shame really, that bridge would have been a handy connection between the islands nowadays. But in any case, it is still a wonderful place to go and enjoy a day out in nature. I went here together with Javier and we really enjoyed the Causeway as well as the scenic hike that starts from there and takes you along the steep coast line. One of the best things there is of course the water itself. It is crystal clear, teems with live, and invites for a dip. However, if one decides to actually do just that one will discover that looks can deceive…. Something I found out personally.. Let’s just say that after the dip I had no trouble to find all the energy needed for the returning walk however steep the climb back up was….
The first encounters with Irelands beauty at the “causeway” accompanied by Javier. We really enjoyed the trip!
But my first weeks here in Belfast were not only about visiting amazing places. I also needed to find a place to live for myself and my family, whom would be joining me only a few weeks later. So the first 2 weeks of my stay here mainly consisted of driving around like a madmen trying to find the ideal house that “had it all”. To do this I started off by buying a bike. Yes, you guessed right, I am Dutch… And as the prejudices says: a Dutch is nothing without his bike. To defend myself however, I must say that public transportation is horrible here… Just to give you an example, my bike broke down a few days ago (horror) and so now I am dependent of public transportation to get back home until it is fixed. On the first day of that venture I was waiting for my bus, which was supposed to arrive at 18.10, and waited for it until 18.25. But okay that is not too bad. However, when I wanted to get on when the bus arrived, the driver told me “sorry mate, this bus is full”… I was really surprised since in France (where I lived the past 3 years) or Holland for that matter, one would just simply cram the bus full with people. In France, people will be jammed in the middle of the bus and cling desperately to the handles above them while breathing through the window for air just to make space for all. But not here…here the bus is apparently full if there are no more seats to sit down…Of course safer but not very efficient… So than I patiently waited another 20 minutes for the next bus, praying it would still have seats this time…
No fortunately I had foreseen the problem in the beginning and bought a bike because that first 2 weeks I had a few miles to cover. Lucky indeed because, while looking for the perfect house, I quickly found out that I was not the only one that had embarked upon this quest. In fact most houses I visited were looked at by at least 5 or six other couples. Since most rental agencies use a “first come first served” kind of system, the search quickly turned into some kind of a race. Do I make it to get that application pushed through before them? Shall I wait for that red light or not? Which way is faster? in between the cars or over the pedestrian passage? No, all kidding aside, of course I didn’t break any traffic rules but I am grateful however for the bike because without it I don’t think I would have the house I am currently very happily enjoying with my wife and son: It is only 20 minutes from the faculty (by bike of course :-)), has a great garden, a bath and, finally, a very nice primary school at only 50 yards. In other words the perfect house, I thought.
Of course that had to be confirmed by my family who I picked up a week ago from the port in Wexford…. It was a long drive from Belfast but definately worth it! So happy to see my family back after being in Belfast alone for a month! However when we approached Belfast you can imagine the anxiety I felt when I showed the house to them… Will they like it? I held my breath when I showed them… and…. my crazy cycling days and hours and hours on the internet bore fruit because they loved it! So once all this was arranged, my family installed and broadband Internet in the house up and running, we started to profit from the last days of the summer together by visiting the sites in our new country. A plan we undertook with much zeal. In our free time we first went to visit carrick a rede, a beautiful little Island close to the Causeway, connected to the mainland by a rope bridge. The bridge sways gently in the wind and allows you to pass over the hundred feet deep fall that lies between the rocky island and the mainland. A beautiful traverse, but maybe not ideal for the acrophobic… However, once you pass the bridge a wonderful site awaits you. Birds nesting, crazy coast line and unreachable cave-beach paradise sites can all be seen from up there. This was all very interesting to see but the nicest part of this adventure is that, once taken, you will have to cross that bridge again! Another nice site here, that doesn’t include nerve breaking traverses, is the rocky coast line itself. If you wonder a bit of the beaten track in this area you can soon spot some secluded places featuring rocky hideouts, caves and, if you are lucky, you can even spot a few bats in the crevices. Unfortunately, the bat turned out not to be very photogenic….we did however take some nice shots of his home…
Our trip to Carrick a Rede. The Bat’s house is shown on the down left picture. And no the picture of the cave was not taken on our holiday to Greece last summer 🙂
But nature was not the only thing we enjoyed up here on our new island. We also wanted to take a cultural, and yes even a culinary tour. So for this we visited the following sites: The Ulster museum, The Titanic museum and St George’s market. Let’s begin with the Ulster museum, as already mentioned by Javier, the place is amazing! We spend at least 2.30 hours there and still didn’t manage to see all. They have some beautiful expositions ranging from dinosaur skeletons and asteroids to modern art and ancient tapestry, a must see for all who visit Belfast! Also the Titanic museum is an interesting trip. The architecture of the building is very impressive. Moreover, the way that the exposition is presented is very intriguing. Another way to enjoy a museum entirely, there is even a cable ride and a cinema inside which allows you to immerse in the Titanic experience in a very original way.
Okay now that nature and culture are covered, that leaves the culinary experience…..Well… I must say that, coming from France, having lived for years in Greece and being married to an Italian, the culinary experience here was really quite a shock… Just to picture my first experience: I went to a snack-bar and ordered the “Mexican chips with sour cream and jalapenjos …” This turned out to be a disaster… The chips bathed in a weird ketchupy sauce… Actually, it seems that when you order anything with sauce here they don’t serve the chips with some sauce next to it to dip your crunchy chips into….. no…… instead they make a sort of soup out of different sauces mixed with ketchup (don’t ask me why but ketchups seems to always be in there also if you didn’t order it) and then stir your chips into this so it all becomes a kind of gooey, sticky chip-soup….with whichever side that you ordered next to or even on top of it…Of course that was a lesson well learned and I now I simply state that I don’t want any sauce where ever I go. That helps.
Apart from the sauce horror there is however also a positive side to the Irish/English kitchen. The Steaks for example are wonderful, really good quality meat! Also the supermarkets all offer many different vegetarian burgers and sausages, which are products still hard to come by in France. Some of the seafood is quite good as well. Especially the oysters and smoked fish. Wonderful! Then the chowder, a kind of thick fish soup, is a great option for lunch. The mussels however are not much… I strongly recommend Dutch mussels, much better quality then the stuff you get over here. Luckily the beer is quite good so one can always wash them down with that 🙂 .Especially a nice Guinness draft, drunk at a bar while enjoying some life music, is a great experience.
So having covered dinner, lunch and drinks I think that leaves only one course left to discuss: Breakfast…. and I must say, that is really the best part of the kitchen here. Nothing beats a good Belfast Fry on potato bread! (Yes they actually make bread from potato’s here). The best place to try this is probably at the Belfast Bap in St George’s Market. The owner of this stand stacks his bacon high! Only to top it off with some sausages, an egg and some “black pudding” upon request. I can tell you, one of those and you are good for the day (see picture).
Me enjoying “the goods” Belfast has to offer…
Okay, I think that pretty much sums up the experiences of my first weeks on the Emerald Isle. Overall it was quite an intense time with many beautiful sites to see. After these trips I firmly believe that Ireland is a beautiful place that has a lot to offer and I can’t wait to discover more of its secrets. In my next blog I hope to come with more news regarding this and present the technical site of my project here at queens in more detail as well. Until then I am looking forward to reading more about the life of my colleague ESRs on the blog and, hopefully, meet you all again soon?
Hasta la pasta,