118km (73 miles) NW of Belfast, 63km (39 miles) SW of Portrush, 113km (70 miles) NW of Armagh, 98km (61 miles) NE of Enniskillen, 232km (144 miles) NW of Dublin, 354km (220 miles) NE of Shannon
Standing on a hill on the banks of the Foyle estuary, strategically close to the open sea, Derry was long a favorite Irish target for invaders: In 1566, Queen Elizabeth I sent English troops to take the town, and Derry was nearly destroyed in 1608 by Sir Cahir O'Doherty. Always, the city resisted ferociously. In 1609, King James I decided to settle the problem once and for all by giving much of Derry to Protestant English and Scottish families, casting out the native Catholics. At the same time, London workers' guilds sent over hundreds of builders to reconstruct the ruined medieval town (and, not coincidentally, add even more Protestant residents, thus changing the religious mix once and for all). Subsequently the town changed its name from "Derry" to "Londonderry" -- a move that has kept the city's true identity a source of controversy ever since. Londonderry remains the official name of the city in Ulster, but it's called Derry a few miles away in the Republic of Ireland and by most residents. Over the years, those not wanting to step on toes have come to write the town's name as "Derry/Londonderry," and to say it as "Derry-stroke-Londonderry." That led a local radio DJ to coin the nickname "Stroke City," a bit of a double-entendre (get it wrong and someone will have a stroke).
The city's greatest beauty -- aside from its setting amid rolling green hills -- is its noble 17th-century walls, about 1.6km (1 mile) in circumference and more than 5m (16 ft.) thick. You can climb the steps to the top of the walls and walk all the way around the town center. Although they were the focus of attacks and repeated sieges, the walls remain solid and unbroken to this day. Derry is a pretty, vibrant hill town -- a pleasure to walk and easy to traverse. Historians believe the town's design was modeled on the French Renaissance community Vitry-Le-Francois, which is similarly designed like a Roman military camp -- with two main streets forming a central cross and ending in four city gates. The architecture within the walls is largely medieval, while the rest of the city's architecture is Georgian, with big, brick-fronted town houses and imposing public buildings.
Within Ireland, though, Derry is not known for its architecture, but for the fact that, in the 1960s and 1970s, the North's civil rights movement was born here, and baptized in blood on the streets. The "Bloody Sunday" massacre in 1972, in which British troops opened fire on a peaceful civil rights march, killing 14, shocked the world and led to years of violent unrest. In the Bogside, as the neighborhood at the bottom of the hill west of the walled section is known, the famed mural reading "You Are Now Entering Free Derry" remains as a symbol of those times.
Happily, much of that sectarian strife seems to be behind Derry now, and it is emerging as a promising center of culture and commerce. Symbolic of the changes in Derry is the Hands Across the Divide sculpture that you pass as you cross the Craigavon Bridge into town. Erected 20 years after Bloody Sunday, it is a bronze sculpture of two men reaching out toward one another.
For travelers, Derry is strategically located at the edge of the picturesque Inishowen Peninsula, while the Giant's Causeway and the North Antrim Coast, the Northwest Passage and the Sperrins, and Glenveagh National Park in Donegal are all within an hour's drive. This makes the town an ideal base of operations from which to explore one of Ireland's most unspoiled regions.
New World, Old Argument . . .
To see evidence of how far back this titular dispute goes, one has to look no further than a United States road atlas. Near Manchester, New Hampshire, is a small old town called Derry. In the early 19th century there was a dispute over its name, so a group of residents set up a new town just to the south called -- you guessed it -- Londonderry. Whether anybody thought of Stroke City back then is unclear. The fact that even its name is controversial is excellent symbolism of the city's tenuous position, all but straddling the border between Ulster and the Republic of Ireland. Drive into the suburbs and suddenly the currency changes to the euro -- but that's the only way you can tell that you are in a different country.