Today's short ride and fair weather got us to Portaferry with enough time left in the day to visit the Exploris Aquarium. Whilst that might sound like some sort of 80s disco rave with cheesy pop and bad cocaine, it's actually home to almost 75% of all marine species found in Northern Ireland, living in careful facsimiles of their natural habitat.
Like everything else in this country, it closes at 5 PM. So we had better get a move on, seeing as we still had to check into our bed and breakfast, get washed, and find something to eat.
A charming feature of the British Isles is the eternal pub*, especially ones with accommodation stacked on top. Growing up and living in the States, Jess didn't have the experience of a good old-fashioned British beer house, since Americans tend to favour sports bars or worse, stereotypical "Irish bars", and ordering "bangers and mash" there amounts to something resembling hot dog bits floating in porridge. So when she came across The Fiddlers Green, she knew this had to be where we stayed for our last night on the road. Named after a Celtic myth of an afterlife where there is perpetual mirth, a fiddle that never stops playing, and dancers who never tire, we saw it as a good omen for our final stop in transit.
We walked through the pub and were immediately hit with the malty, smoky aftertaste of a thousand pints of Guinness, combined with the embers of a fireplace and a good dabble of craic. At 2 in the afternoon, only a couple of hard-bitten locals were sitting at the counter, as a university-aged barman indulged their yarns with forbearance.
On the far side of the bar was a striking-looking carved wooden door that bore noticeable similarities with the one we encountered in Enniskillen. It was a depiction of another scene from Game of Thrones - this time, featuring the flayed man sigil from the House of Bolton. "Two fancy doors on opposite sides of the country? What's the story here?" To the Internets!
Upon further investigation, we found out that there were ten doors in total, one for each episode of the latest series, and almost all of the other eight were in towns we had passed through on our way here. So if we had figured this out sooner, we could have collected the entire set. Bah. Another lap, then?
After confirming our booking, the bartender led us to the cellar, where our bike could sleep for the evening next to barrels of the good stuff. He then took us upstairs through a labyrinth of corridors and hallways until we were in front of Room #2. For £85 per night, the room came with a double bed, an extremely clean private bathroom with toiletries, free WiFi, breakfast, and something we've realised has been included in every room during our trip but only took notice of now:
Portaferry is a tiny village with only 2,500 people as per the last census. It is known for its commercial fishing within Strangford Lough and boasts large populations of king crabs, mussels, prawns, and other shellfish. There's really only one main street which lines the shore and, like Warrenpoint, houses and schools are further inland. It's like one big extended family here. Case in point: we had left our tandem outside the pub for no more than five minutes as we sorted out our reservation, but it was long enough for it to be noticed, and by the end of the day, everyone knew who we were.
After hurriedly scoffing down some of the finest pre-packed sandwiches the local Spar had to offer, we made our way to Exploris, which had just re-opened after renovations. As you first walk in, you learn about the history of Portaferry and how it is held in high esteem among the fishing community, not only due to the abundance of stock in its waters, but also because of the efforts to teach the public about conservation. Fantastic exhibitions abound, with sea creatures living in carefully constructed tanks that mimic their typical conditions in the wild.
And then, there were the seal puppies. Exploris has a seal sanctuary, where orphaned youngsters are taken in and rehabilitated until they are strong enough to go back to the open sea and fend for themselves. It's a pretty intensive process, making sure that the pup gets what it needs at each stage of development, from weaning, to learning how to eat on its own, to catching live fish for itself, all the way to being released.
Two of them were being fed when we arrived at the sanctuary, and we spent the next thirty minutes just watching them in awe. They reminded us so much of our own wee puppy (dog) at home - so playful and smart, with big expressive eyes that made you feel like you could drown in them. It's worth visiting this place just to see the sanctuary. And if you're really careful, you might be able to sneak one back home with you - we're sure they'd make excellent bathtub pets.
There's also otters there if you can't manage to steal a seal puppy.
There were only about two restaurants in town, both of which looked decent, so we plumped for fresh seafood at the Portaferry Hotel whilst discussing the difference between ordering beer in the UK (by name - Carlsberg, Guinness, Becks, Smithwicks, etc) vs. in Germany (by type - Pils, Helles, Hefeweizen, etc). We never really considered that before, but it's rare to go into a bar where we live and request a "Weihenstephaner" or "Augustiner". Every region has its local standard offering, which may or may not be the exact same beer you drank in the last town, but sold under a different label. In the UK, much more marketing effort is put into convincing punters that the three mass-produced lagers the bar has on tap represent distinctive drinking experiences.
Leaving the restaurant, we came across an old man who looked like he was lost. Spotting Neil, he ran over and asked,
"Do you know if there's a shop?"
Jess's immediate reaction was to ask, "What kind of shop?" But before she could respond, Neil casually said, "Yeah, just 'round there."
With a cheery tip of his hat, the old man was on his way. Jess had just learned yet another new cultural aspect of Northern Ireland: towns here are so small that they do sometimes only have the one Jack-of-all-trades store and everyone knows what you're talking about when you ask for it.
Back we went to the Fiddler's Green for the Thursday night pub quiz. Since we're both avid quiz bowlers, it was quite a stroke of luck that we rolled into town on the right night. In fact, as far as we could tell, this is the only thing that happens here all week, so time your visit accordingly.
We clapped in anticipation as Team Battletandem™ was registered into the contest. Every pub quiz has a table of hardened stalwarts, and we were sitting right next to them. Immediately, we identified them as our main rivals in the quest for quiz glory, and we were determined to give them a run for their money. Round after round, we were breathing down their necks, and the old hands' feathers were clearly ruffled by the dogged weirdos from out of town. It was almost neck and neck until the final picture question, where they were able to do much better than us simply because they were a whole lot older. In the end, we were delighted with second place, and we even won some fancy toiletries in a raffle to much applause from everyone else in the pub.
It was such a lovely moment of camaraderie. The clock struck midnight in the garden of beer and trivia, and we bade adieu until tomorrow.
*On a related note, The Guardian recently wrote about the rise and fall of the British pub in this worthwhile long read here.