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Enduring legend of derry

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Enduring legend of derry

As it sped towards Derry-Londonderry that lies almost 70 miles towards the north of the Emerald Isle, the poetic name for Ireland, the landscape outside was wet, gray and cold. But charming, nevertheless.

It was threatening to rain any moment. "Not the most friendly of weathers, eh?" smiled the cab driver, Tim O'Brian, as I settled into the seat of his limousine at the Belfast airport. As it sped towards Derry-Londonderry that lies almost 70 miles towards the north of the Emerald Isle, the poetic name for Ireland, the landscape outside was wet, gray and cold. But charming, nevertheless.

WHAT'S IN A NAME

"You like driving?" asked Tim and as I nod, adds that driving a car is the perfect way to experience Northern Ireland's magical beauty, "since you can then move at your own pace". But I prefer being driven since that gives me more time to savour the stunning vistas that the countryside offers.

Though often tempted to ask Tim to pull over to let me breathe in the clean Irish air, I remind myself that it is too cold and wet outside, so ask him the next most obvious question: 'Is it Derry or Londonderry?'

"Well, it's both," he answers, "but we prefer to call it just Derry. It was the British who wanted to assert their association with this city and hence added 'London' to it," he explains.

Sure enough, once known by its old Irish name, Daire, that means an 'oak grove', the city, with time, got a more anglicised moniker of 'Derry'. But in 1613, after the city was granted a Royal Charter by King James I, it was prefixed with 'London' to reflect the funding of its construction by the London guilds. While both are correct, the nationalists there generally favour using the name Derry while the unionists prefer Londonderry.

A SLICE OF HISTORY

Derry (let's just stick to this name since it's short and sweet) has much to offer through the year, but fall-time is when the blushing colours of Nature are at their alluring best. A quick check-in and meal later, I step out for a round of the neighbourhood, and yes, to enjoy a bracing walk on the elegantly designed Derry Peace Bridge over the River Foyle.

Opened in 2011, this 'S' shaped structure was built as a symbol of peace and bridge the gnawing gap between the Protestants who live on the east bank of the Foyle and the Catholics dwelling mostly on the west bank. "This 'Bendy Bridge' looks like a huge steel snake from above," says a friendly fellow walker to whom it's obvious that I am a first-time visitor to Derry.

But, of course, the raison de etre of this little town is the 17th-century wall that unveils a splendid slice of history. One must add here that Derry enjoys the status of being the only completely walled city in Ireland and among the best preserved in Europe. Built during 1613- 1618, the wall was an effective defence for the early seventeenth-century settlers from England and Scotland in Derry.

And as our effervescent guide tells us, even despite a 105-day siege in 1689, the walled city remained impregnable. "And that's where Derry gets the title of Maiden City from!"

Listen carefully as you walk along its 1.5 km long promenade- like cobbled pathway and you just might hear the wall whispering forgotten tales of bloody wars and intrepid men. Boasting a width of 12 to 35 feet in size, it has seven entry points - Bishop's Gate, Ferryquay Gate, Butcher Gate, Shipquay Gate, Magazine Gate, Castle Gate and New Gate - together with imposing bastions, watchtowers, battlements and yes, 24 restored cannons, now a silent testimony to a conflict-ridden past.

As the high walls of Derry also straddle a hill, fascinating views of the city are on offer - and among the most arresting of these are handpainted murals some distance away. Done by artists, brothers Tom and William Kelly along with Kevin Hasson, from 1994 to 2008, these murals are a tribute to the Bloody Sunday of 1972.

Look out for Death of Innocence depicting Annette McGavigan, a young 14-year-old girl who was shot in the head as she just happened to be walking down the street. Later, we walk down Rossville Street in the Bogside of Derry where, on January 30, 1972, 13 civilians were killed by British Army paratroopers in the Bloody Sunday disturbances.

Close to the wall that reads 'You Are Now Entering Free Derry' - a selfiepoint for almost every visitor - is the award-winning Museum of Free Derry, established by the Free Sunday Trust to tell the story of the civil rights movement and the creation of Free Derry in the 1960s and -70s. "It is somewhat like your Jalianwala Bagh massacre where unarmed demonstrators lost their lives," says a volunteer at the museum whose father was among those shot dead on the Bloody Sunday.

Through state-of-the-art audiovisual displays, the museum displays a compelling insight into the city's role in the worldwide civil rights movement.

BOUNTY ON OFFER

The Derry experience is not complete without a dekko at the 'Museum of the Moon' at the town's famous Guildhall. And sure enough, the fascinating, three-dimensional globe by UK artist, Luke Jerram, features a giant, seven-metre diameter, an illuminated scale model of the Earth's only permanent satellite.

As you sit in the darkened hall staring at the hanging installation made with NASA imagery of the lunar surface, listening to the haunting soundtrack created by BAFTA and Ivor Novello award-winning composer Dan Jones, the experience could well be termed ethereal. An almost realistic 'encounter' with Chanda Mama on Planet Earth! Derry is where Halloween originated from.

"That Guy Fawkes association in the US came much later," they say. And add that according to an ancient belief, it was on the Celtic festival of Samhain - that marked the end of harvest or the end of summer and the beginning of the harsh winter - that ghosts of the dead come back and mingle with 'Earthlings'.

In costumes ranging from blood-stained monsters to vampires, werewolves, sword-wielding pirates and even Batsman and Catswoman, both children and grown-ups join in the revelry that includes not just the awakening of the Walls but also the Halloween Carnival parade and a spectacular fireworks display. All for a 'date with the devil.'

(By Purnima Sharma)