I just hope café culture is as important to Derry as the arts, music and theatre when it takes on the UK’s City of Culture mantle in January.
We chose a lovely family-run coffee shop right by the city walls; and enjoyed a fabulous tea and pie in a tea room in the Craft Village.
We could also have gone to the café in the world’s oldest department store, had a cuppa in a fascinating arts centre for the people; or sipped a cappuccino by the river. But we’re supposed to limit ourselves to two venues per town, so choices had to be made.
The fact that every road sign as you approach the city has been doctored so that you only see ‘Derry’ and not the full, official name of ‘Londonderry’ shows how some tensions still remain, but this is nothing compared to what the place has gone through in the past.
As John, the excellent guide from the City Walking Tour said, today you walk past the Bloody Sunday memorial, through the Bogside to the Catholic Cathedral. But it’s a route few tourists would have chosen when ugly tenements were stacked on the hill just below the city walls, and army guns and searchlights were looking down on the area day and night.
The city walls are amazingly well-preserved – better even than York.
And sitting snugly up against the walls near Butcher Gate is the Java Coffee Shop, where we had our first pit stop for a cuppa. This place has to get our vote for coffee in Derry, and it’s clearly a view shared by lots of locals as it was doing a roaring trade on the cold, damp morning we were there.
Lovely home-baked scones and fantastic home-made jam just confirmed this in its number one slot for coffee in Northern Ireland’s second city.
Java is also just a stone’s throw (though maybe that isn’t the best analogy to make given Derry’s troubled past…) away from the big 17th century Cathedral of St Columb.
The Cathedral’s proximity to those city walls meant that it played its own starring role in the famous Siege of Derry in 1689. Defenders of the city used the decorated turrets to the cathedral tower to balance their muskets and hide from enemy return fire.
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt as I’ve travelled round over 70 of the UK’s cathedrals now, it’s how much they were used for all sorts of purposes during mediaeval wartimes; whereas by World War Two, they were just sitting targets for bombing campaigns…
Tea, as so often on this tour, proved harder to find than coffee.
I just can’t understand why so many cafés settle for tea bags from the big corporate brands – it’s not as if they taste good; I guess they’re just cheap and convenient. But they are not what Fancy a Cuppa? is looking for, unless there’s no other option.
But Bewley’s of Ireland feels a bit more local, and they were so friendly and welcoming in the Boston Tea Party tea room that I couldn’t resist including them.
Now, this is not to be confused with the tea room chain of the same name in England. Elaine’s little tea room in Derry’s Craft Village is definitely a one-off. She opened it 24 years ago and seems to know not only all her customers’ names, but what they usually want as well. I’m sure if I went back next week, she’d remember not only my name, but which bit of lemon meringue pie I tried-and the fact that I chose to eat it with whipped cream…
Yes, this is a wonderful little place. And with the number of American tourists who come back here retracing ancestors who either came from here or were based here in the War, it’s hardly surprising that the Boston Tea Party got a plug in the Lonely Planet guides.
I really warmed to Derry.
There are some very evocative, moving spots, like the Bloody Sunday memorial, and the plaque marking the embarkation point for ships going to America in the 1840s when they queued up to escape the dreadful potato famine.
But it’s also looking forward as much as back. The monuments to reconciliation and reaching across the divide really do reflect where Derry wants to be in 2013.
Oh, and the fact that it won the UK’s City of Culture nomination for next year can only take that to a new stage.
I hope thousands of Brits, and Americans, and Europeans, and Chinese etc etc visit the place next year, not only for the coffee, tea and scones, but also for a similar history lesson to the one I had this week.
And we need to keep John busy too on that rather good Walking Tour of the town…