Each week, we spotlight a dream vacation recommended by some of the industry's top travel writers. This week's pick is Derry, Northern Ireland.
Halloween in the Northern Irish city of Derry is "a Renaissance Faire crossed with a nightmare — in the best possible sense, of course," said Patricia Harris and David Lyon at The Boston Globe. Long known as the City of Bones for the skeleton on its coat of arms, Derry started celebrating Halloween in a major way in 1986. "Like a swelling mob beneath Frankenstein's castle," the festival, which runs Oct. 28–31, has grown and grown, and it's now one of Europe's largest Halloween parties. We joined some 75,000 revelers in Derry last year and found that the city's celebration has a distinctly Celtic flavor. The ancient Gaelic festival of Samhain, after all, was traditionally held at the end of October, midway between the fall equinox and winter solstice, "a period when the boundaries between light and dark (and the living and the dead) grew thin."
Derry's historic heart — the only remaining fully walled city in Ireland — "looks the part for Halloween." The ring of massive stone walls and the Gothic Revival Guild-hall just outside them could be a set from a 1960s Hammer horror flick. Locals throw themselves into the fun: We saw families walking about in ghoulish makeup that would have made Night of the Living Dead director George Romero proud. At the Haunted Harvest Market in front of the Guildhall, face painters gave wannabe zombies sunken eyes and gruesome wounds, while stilt-walking street puppets "stalked and bobbed through the crowds with a satisfying menace." As night fell, revelers swarmed to the ramparts and filled the cobblestone streets. Acrobats, actors, and mimes staged impromptu shows. The flames from bonfires lit up the night.
On Halloween itself, we joined the throngs gathered along the River Foyle to watch the carnival's big parade on the Strand Road. A Ghostbusters hearse added a touch of modern pop culture to the procession of druids and war gods inspired by Irish folklore. Next came stilt-walking Grim Reapers, hundreds of step-dancing banshees, and a full band of zombie bagpipers. When the parade ended, fireworks lit up the sky, and — this being Ireland — a misty rain began to fall. "Everyone's spook-tac-u-lar makeup was running down their faces in rivulets, but no one seemed to mind."