‘Grande Partenza’ to cycle into Irish shores

by Stephen Findlater

NORTHERN Ireland will be tickled pink this summer as the cameras and helicopters come to the region for the 2014 Giro d’Italia, professional cycling’s second biggest race after the Tour de France.

The “Grande Partenza” makes its first visit to these shores, tearing around Belfast on Friday, May 9 for the opening team trial before whipping north for stage two along the Causeway coast.
Before transferring back to its Italian home for two-and-a-half weeks, the race will take in a jaunt to Dublin.
For towns like Armagh, it gives them a shop window to show off their wares. Stage three of the Giro rolls out of the town on Sunday, May 11, with over 200 cyclists and their entourages taking in a lap of the Shambles, traversing the city hills past the two cathedrals dedicated to St Patrick before hitting the 187km road south.
With the apple blossoms set to fall at that time of year and several hills with great viewing points, it is set to be one of the iconic images of the early stages of the race. Indeed, those pink blossoms work perfectly with the race’s motif, adopting pink as its winning colour in honour of La Gazette dello Sport, the newspaper that first sponsored the race and their traditional pink pages.
The stage will bring to a close the Giro’s three-day spell in Northern Ireland but the local tourist attractions are making every effort to ensure that a slightly prolonged day out is available for those who make the trip up from the south.
While the earlier stages may present more frequently visited tourist attractions for the Giro follower like the Giant’s Causeway and Stormont, Armagh provides a perfect base for the casual observer, especially with children in tow.
A quick two-mile hop to the west is the Navan Fort, one of Ireland’s most important archaeological sites where the Tandragee man was found and home to Emain Macha of the Red Branch Knights. The site is brought to life in an early Christian dwelling with period actors delighting in taunting the “strangers with their strange ways” that grace their settlement, detailing their survival methods in enlightening fashion.
For the more modern minded, there’s the city’s Planetarium on College Hill. Again, it’s a magic attraction for children with the 360-degree domed theatre, transporting visitors into the cosmos. The Planetarium played host to cosmonaut James Hadfield while the quality of the meteorites on display serve to make it one of the town’s premier attractions.
The two St Patrick’s cathedrals, which can both just about be seen from one another atop their respective hills, offer a quieter outlet away from the potential razzamatazz of the cycling action outside.
If you were to only to visit one, the Church of Ireland is the more lo-fi with a touch more elegance – and a stunning crypt underneath – while the Catholic one is brighter with a greater sense of decadence.
To eat, the 1868 is a good spot to watch the hustle and bustle go by – get there early on Giro day – while Uluru is a true gem for later repasts.
The Australian-themed restaurant is a favourite of Georgina Campbell and has a wealth of awards under its belt in addition to featuring on BBC’s Northern Exposure.
Dean Coppard is the Aussie connection and chef while his wife Sara manages with the intention to provide local produce with an antipodean twist. Kangaroo was introduced to the menu several years ago “as a novelty” but its popularity – currently being served with tagliatelle as a starter or char-grilled with braised cabbage and sweet potato chips for the main – has since made it a staple.
The mint Aero cheesecake tops off a delightful meal in typically laid-back surrounds.
It offers a superb backdrop for a cycling enthusiast hoping for that bit extra once the mass of lycra-clad riders roll out of the province at the end of the long weekend.

Armagh highlights

– Navan Centre and Fort, 81 Killylea Rd, Armagh; http://www.armagh.co.uk/navan-centre-fort

– Dinner at Uluru Bistro, 16-18 Market St, Armagh; http://ulurubistro.com

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