Belfast, Northern Ireland
It is hard to put the United Kingdom after Belfast. When visiting and enjoying the Irish Guinness or Jameson at a pub and listening to the locals singing and playing Irish music it is hard to correlate the two. The dichotomy of the stiff upper lipped, proper English and the joyful, fun loving and friendly Irish seems worlds apart!
When living in England in 1996-1997 Rich went to Belfast. We decided that I should not go due to the massive unrest and violence we had been experiencing in the UK at the time initiated by the Irish Republican Army. We felt a bus full of American exchange teachers could be a perfect target for them. This was not an overreaction though. Looking back on the history of the IRA and their actions during this time was sobering. A couple of events that occurred were- on 9/23/96 an IRA volunteer was shot dead near London. A cease fire was called soon after but then everything seemed to escalate in January. Belfast itself experienced 5 various attacks in January of 1997. In March, England and it’s transportation systems became the targets. A railway was bombed in Wilmslow, England in March. Then English highways experienced bombings on 4/3 and on 4/16 the M6 motorway was targeted and all main routes leading from England to Scotland were cut. On the same day a bomb exploded in Leeds railway station which closed it. Finally on 4/25, 2 bombs blew up near the M6 motorway in central England, causing an electric pylon to fall across the highway and close that main thoroughfare. So needless to say we decided putting only 1 parent at risk was the best.
Visiting Belfast now it is a transformation from hatred and violence, bullets and armored convoys to the beautifully restored Victorian architecture, a glittering waterfront and exhibitions. These exhibitions help one to understand the history as well as to aid in the recovery from the violence that affected so many of Belfasts’ citizens. There are still some questionable areas so be aware that you are in an urban environment of 300,000 residents. My suggestion is to stick to the main tourist areas and enjoy!
Our favorite exhibition was at the City Hall. First of all the City Hall in and of itself is a worthwhile visit. City Hall was built in 1898 in honor of Belfast being granted city status from Queen Victoria. The city status was due to Belfast’s rapid expansion. It’s successful linen, rope-making and ship building industries were booming. When walking into City Hall the Grand Staircase and the Grand Entrances are breathtaking. Looking more closely though you’ll appreciate the Carrara and other marbles used in the flooring as well as the beautiful stained glass windows. The large copper domed building in it’s Baroque Revival design is magnificent.
The other reason we so enjoyed City Hall was it’s well done exhibition that explains the history of Belfast since it’s inception. The most impressive part of this exhibition was the sensitive way they handled the trauma to this country from the 1960’s-1990’s ending with the Good Friday Agreement which was signed on 4/10/1998. The desire for a peaceful existence seems to have outweighed the desire to be united with the Republic of Ireland. Sadly a lot of concern is now being raised with Brexit and the difficulties this will cause Northern Ireland.
After visiting City Hall there are 3 walking trails listed in the “Visit Belfast” map. One is the Titanic Trail (as I said in Liverpool a history that keeps following us), the City of Merchants Trail and the Lagan Maritime Trail. Depending on your interests they are very easy to follow.
The Titanic trail will take you by many historic buildings that were an integral part of the Titanic’s history. Following how the Titanic was built in Belfast is very interesting. The dock, the shipyard to see how they built huge ships with no steel and the Titanic Quarter including the Pump house which operated the dock are visited on this trail. The centerpiece of this trail is the Titanic Belfast Center which has become the city’s number 1 tourist destination.
The City of Merchants trail starts from City Hall and follows Donegal Place to a variety of sites such as the Royal Ulster Rifles Museum, Albert Clock, Victoria Station and out to the waterfront to see the Belfast shipyards as well. As for the Lagan Maritime Trail this primarily focuses on the water front and it’s activities. Enjoy.
There is a tour available to see the Belfast of the past. Sites of this historical time would be the political wall murals located at the Protestant Shankill Road and the Catholic Falls Road. Due to all the violence there is the Crumlin Road Court House and the Crumlin Jail on the tour. The iron blockade called the Peace Line is also visible which still bisects the Catholic and Protestant communities of West Belfast, a poignant reminder of the city’s and country’s sectarian divisions.
For Museum goers please visit City Hall. As for the other museums there are the Ulster Folk and Transport Museums and the Ulster Museum. For gardeners and outdoor folks there is the Belfast Botanic Gardens spreading over 28 acres. This garden is home to the Palm House which is an impressive cast iron and curved glass structure reminding me of Kew Gardens but built before Kew Gardens opened. Finally the St. Anne’s Cathedral is beautiful. Another beautiful building is the Grand Opera House.
Once you are hungry or thirsty we found great enjoyment exploring the quaint pub scene. Try to end up near Hill, Commercial and/or Donegal where you’ll find The Harp Bar and the Duke of York Bar. For night life the Cathedral Quarter is a bustling area. The little alley ways make for an intimate but vibrant setting for a wee bit of Guinness and Irish music. Around the corner we happened upon the most beautiful hotel which served a lovely Sunday Brunch called The Merchant Hotel. An old bank, it was eye popping to see the bank transformed. Finally if you are a foodie we visited St. George’s Market. A hustling market place where one can taste and purchase hummus, olives, barbecue sauces, pastries-the list is endless. Delightfully fun and delicious.
After our full morning we were off to Northern Ireland’s most famous landmark- the Giant’s Causeway. The causeway’s 40,000 basalt stones which are mostly of geometric shapes and varying heights creates the best adult obstacle course. There are buses taking you to and from but there are extensive trails that can be enjoyed all around the hills surrounding this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Wear good hiking shoes so you can comfortably maneuver the area.
Stops that can be made to or from this geological wonder are Dunluce Castle which sits upon a craggy hillside facing the Atlantic Ocean. Furthermore on the way back to Belfast there is the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. This bridge takes a good hour walk to reach, then at times a wait to cross the 98 foot high rope bridge and then a need to return the same way you came. For adventurers it’s a thrill. For golfers the 2019 Open Championship will be 7 miles north of the Giant’s Causeway at the Royal Portrush Golf Club in County Antrim. If interested in this trip I would leave a full day and find a great Irishman or woman to take you. The myths and legends that they love to tell about the Causeway, castles etc are well worth the extra pounds. The Irish definitely have the gift of the gab!!
Amazingly visiting Belfast 22 years later it has transformed itself from a city lumped with Beirut, Baghdad and Bosnia (the 4 B’s for travelers to avoid) into a thriving, edgy, welcoming city. The artistic talents of the Irish are expressed in their beautiful exhibits, Cathedrals, preservation of their beautiful Baroque and Victorian architecture and new museums. The success of this city in such a short period of time is mind boggling. Hopefully through Brexit this wonderful culture will stand this test as well and be able to continue to thrive. Erin go braugh.