Pack up your troubles and head for the hills

Derry has risen above its bloody past to become a shortlisted bidder for UK City of Culture in 2013. David Ryan biked its back roads

Cycling around the hills of Derry and Donegal may not be everybody's idea of a break, especially trailing behind fitter-than-a-butcher's-dog teen son.

But there are some robust arguments in favour. If the weather is kind, or even if it isn't, the scenery has a beauty that sucks you in; cooked breakfasts are brilliant; people are friendly. Derry is a fascinating city, shaped by a troubled past.

Seeing Derry now, it's hard to imagine that at the height of the Troubles, 70 per cent of the buildings within the city's 400-year-old walls were bomb damaged. Divisions remain, even if some Apprentice Boys now swap their bowlers for Santa hats as they march the wall above the Bogside each December to commemorate the start of the siege of 1688-89. The flags still fly and the kerbstones and lampposts are still painted in green, white and gold, or red, white and blue – but perhaps the "bright, brand new day" that Phil Coulter sang about is finally dawning.

Last week, Derry shed its difficult image by being shortlisted, with Birmingham, Norwich and Sheffield, for the European City of Culture 2013. The city has become a hub for political tourism. In the Bogside, just a short stroll from the Free Derry Museum, which marks the Bloody Sunday events of 1972, you'll find a centre and gallery celebrating the city's gable murals and shops selling art materials. There are walking tours of former trouble spots and the Bogside Inn trumpets its "Troubles photo gallery" and "traditional music on request".

Inside the famous nine furlongs of wall, built by the London guilds at the behest of James I and completed in 1618, is the Tower Museum, which relates Derry's development from a small monastery founded by St Columba before he moved on to Iona. The church that bears his name was completed in 1633 and is Europe's first purpose-built Protestant cathedral.

The city is also lively at night, with traditional pubs, bars and restaurants plus, in October, the biggest Halloween carnival in Europe, attracting 30,000 visitors. The annual film festival that follows in November is also fast gaining in prestige. Little wonder then that Derry feels it has every chance of beating off rival bids to become the UK's City of Culture in 2013.

But it's the cycling that my son Tim, 17, and I are here for. We were in the care of Cycling Safaris, a firm founded in 1989 by Eamon Ryan, now one of two Green Party ministers in the Republic's coalition government. Our bikes are solid and reliable with 24 gears. Our guide, James Dunne, is also solid and reliable and his gear includes a Ford Transit minibus ... the largest puncture repair kit known to man.

We are to try out a new route, the Inis Eoghan (Inishowen) Cycleway, a 55km (35-mile) westward loop. As we start out from Derry a seal pokes his head up from the River Foyle, as though keen to wish us well, whiskers glistening in the morning sun.

The first 10km take us north to the impressive Foyle Bridge, through Ballyarnett Country Park and the estates at Templemore and Spring Town, names familiar to me from the television news reports of my childhood. People greet you with "hawyoos?". Some older ladies, out dog-walking, are startled by our bell-less approach. I apologise and am told I need to work on my "dingaling" – rampant cackles follow.

We strike out west to Burt in Donegal. Only the change in road signs, kilometres instead of miles, show that you've crossed an international border. Burt, which looks out over Lough Swilly and the Inch Island Wildfowl Sanctuary, is among many rewarding detours. The honking of white-faced, pink-toed or Canada geese ring cheerfully in my ears for days afterwards.

Day two takes us on another 20km stage to Carrigans, inland, and features "steady" climbs. I'll never be King of the Mountains. Even my 24 gears are not enough. Ahead is the rapidly diminishing sight of Tim's derrière, behind growls James's minibus. It carries water, banana power bars, our luggage, and, for a short time, me.

We take another winding detour to An Grianan Aileach, a bronze-age hill fort on which the ruling O'Neill clan built a sturdier castle in the sixth century. As we push our bikes on an increasingly vertical line I must ask why would anyone make this climb just to have a fight. Ah, there's the Transit again. James, a student from Galway, is incredibly helpful along the route, even if he does habitually appear, like the Angel of Death, every time I feel my number may be up. In truth, even strapping rugby-playing Tim is blowing a bit.

And yet, it was worth it all to stand on those battlements and marvel at sweeping views of Lough Swilly, Lough Foyle, and Counties Donegal, Derry and Tyrone with 5,000 years of human history under your feet and a gale whipping around your ears. The final leg is a short hop back to Derry and a warm shower at the Merchant's House B&B, Queen Street, an elegant Georgian-style townhouse where the ceilings are high and ornate, and guests share a large dining table for breakfast.

One more day on the bikes, and it's a big one – a 25-mile circuit to the south and east of the city. The hills are a touch more forgiving and the lush farmland and forestry help the miles glide by. One tip, though: if you need spectacles to appreciate Ulster's rugged landscape fully, be sure to have a dry cloth to hand. I was wearing an unfeasibly large and unfashionable emergency pair that seemed to attract every last drop of precipitation. Anyone can have their glasses fall off their nose while bending to replace a slipped bike chain. To forget they are at your feet and then stand on them, however, well, that's a rare gift indeed.

Compact Facts

How to get there

Cycling Safaris (00 353 1 2600749; cyclingsafaris.com) offers three-night, self-guided tours of the Inis Eoghan (Inishowen) Cycleway from €395 (£337) per person including luggage transfers, cycle hire and accommodation. Flights to Derry with Ryanair (ryanair.com) and Aer Arann (aerarann.com).

Further information

discoverireland.com

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