My friends and I are conflict travelers: if the destination has at one point been a conflict hot spot, we are much more likely to spend a disproportional amount of time visiting, lingering around, casually questioning locals about the realities of daily lives. So when we decided on Ireland for a spring break destination, Belfast was the obvious choice over Dublin.
We took RyanAir from London to Belfast for less than $60 roundtrip. If you hop on a RyanAir deal quick enough, you can often find flights for $1 or less (taxes not included). We landed at George Best City Airport, ideally located just 10 minutes from the city center. The chatty cab driver, with an almost incomprehensible accent, welcomed us to Belfast.
To save money and to get to know local people, we decided to couch surf (http://www.couchsurfing.org/). For those of you who don’t know about couch surfing, think of it as the modern day hitch hiking. It’s a community of couches- you offer your couch up for free to anyone who’s traveling through your area and wants to surf; and in return, when you travel to a new destination, you can contact fellow couch surfers and request a couch to sleep on.
The Belfastian couch surfers were all more than helpful and we had many people couch offers. We took a cab to Ryan’s Pub to meet our couch surfing host and enjoyed our first Guinness in Ireland. Our host, Graham, was playing rugby and would meet us at Ryan’s after the game finished; however, an hour after finishing time, we received a text saying that his friend was injured and needed to go to the hospital. Needless to say, trying-to-be-a-good-friend Graham would be a little late to collect us. Luckily, we had written down a few numbers of other couch surfers in Belfast in case of a situation exactly like this; so we started dialing numbers.
Samuel, a carbon copy of Steve Buscemi, responded back with “his friend is in the hospital? Welcome to Belfast! You can stay with me!” We met Samuel at a pub, of course, because where else would you meet a Belfastian, and bounced around to a couple places with him before returning to his home to sleep.
The next morning we woke up early, determined to have a super efficient Belfast experience. Out the door and through the streets, we walked around Belfast city center in about 20 minutes and saw most of the main sights. Our first real stop was the Welcome Center, where the information desk attendant advised us to go to Dublin. When we insisted that we’re excited about Belfast and came specifically here instead of Dublin, he sighed and reluctantly told us about the sights of the city.
Living in London, I didn’t expect Irish food to be substantially different, but I had forgotten about the stews. Stews and potatoes, to counteract the famine, have now become THE food. We had the perfect first lunch at The Crown near the Opera House. The Crown is one of the oldest pubs in Belfast. Linen is a historically thriving industry in Belfast and unique in that is is mainly employed with women. So after a hard day’s work, women would frequent the pub for a pint. But the men, not wanting to see women drinking, decided to build enclosed booths with doors where women could drink in private. We had our first Irish lunch in one of those booths; oppressive history but adorably quaint.
We happened to be visiting during the Titanic festival. Harland and Wolff, the shipyard that built Titanic, was one of the largest shipyards in the world during its peak. Titanic was one of three ships built together: Titanic, Olympic, and Britanic. The Titanic Festival provided several perks like free documentary screenings and theater tickets. We took advantage of the free tour of the Titanic shipyard and drawing room. The shipyard, sprinkled with broken glass and metal scraps, looked desolate and almost abandoned. Unused cranes dotted the landscape, reminiscent of their former prominence in the city of Belfast. The Titanic was built and first embarked off of Belfast’s coasts before picking up passengers elsewhere. The drawing room, where the designers drew plans for the ship, posted old photographs of Belfast during Titanic’s time with bustling streets and palpable excitement.
Our fabulous guide, a Titanic researcher, ended the tour with “What happened on the Titanic was a tragedy. The Titanic was not.” Belfast worked hard to emphasize that the iceberg, the crew’s neglect, and the lack of life boats was not Titanic’s fault. Titanic itself was a magnificent vessel, and Belfast is very proud.
We had about an hour to kill before our next tour, the tour we were most excited about: The Bombs and Bullets Tour of the political murals. During the interim time, we decided to ride the Belfast Wheel, a traveling ferris wheel that closes mid-April and will be moving to a different city. The view was fantastic and really emphasized the red brick-ness of Belfast’s cityscape. We all kept repeating “Belfast looks like Boston,” and given Boston’s immigration history (and the fact that there are more Irish people living in Boston than in Ireland), it’s fairly unsurprising.
The final tourist activity of the day was the Bombs and Bullets Tour, absolutely one of the best tours I’ve ever taken. There are several private tour companies that give this tour. They all run about 25-30 pounds and can be booked on the same day. The Welcome Center provides the list of several companies and will help you call and book a time. Our tour guide, a red head named Patty, showed up in a bright red taxi cab and told us he’s willing to take us wherever we want to go for the next hour and a half.
He was fantastic. He recited, in great detail, the history of Northern Ireland and its legendary Troubles. The murals were created by community artists; some have been there for years and some are repainted or changed completely fairly often. The murals depict everything from the reign of King William to the myth of the Red Hand of Ulster to Che Guevara to International Children’s Day. They’re colorful and live on the walls of houses and flats, restaurants and bars.
One long street showcases murals from conflicts elsewhere in the world: Israel/Palestine, Cuba, US Civil Rights Movement, homage to Frederick Douglas. It’s a powerful revolutionary ambiance that provides a feeling of universal connectedness, like one country’s struggles are everyone’s struggles.
As Patty was driving us back to the start, we asked him where St. Anne’s Cathedral is. He answered “You want to go to St. Anne’s? Oh yea, I’ll take ya.” Without another word he swirled the car around and drove to the cathedral. St. Anne’s is the most prominent cathedral in Belfast and boasts the largest Celtic cross in all of Ireland. The Celtic cross is a combination of the Christian cross and the Pagan circle representing the sun god. This one was really really big- like, difficult-to-fit-in-the-picture-frame big.
That night we switched couch surfing hosts to the original, Graham, and shuffled back to his place near the university to put our stuff down and go out for a drink. The next morning we awoke early to try to beat the rain to the coast. Graham graciously offered to drive us to the north coast, the classic stunning landscapes people think of when they visualize Ireland. We pile into Graham’s car, making a pit stop at the Belfast Parliament to gawk at its impressive location high on a hill. Graham described the Belfast Parliament and the UK House of Lords as “whimsical,” precious but having no real power.
We took off for the coast, excitement bubbling over waiting to fulfill our Irish vision…when, Graham says calmly “so the car’s not working anymore, what do you guys think about that?” as the car screeches to a slow but sure halt. Graham pulls over, checks around the outside of the car and then calls the AA car help. So that day we weren’t able to see the coast, but we were lucky enough to have perfectly blue skies and experience the other Irish classic: a small village enveloped by lush green hills. We hiked the small hike to Ballynahinch to eat lunch, wait for Graham’s dad to arrive, and find a bus back to Belfast. While in the tiny little town, we saw children with the reddest cheeks, heard accents we could never understand, and saw a parade in preparation for the 12th of July festivities…on the 5th of April. When you’re a small town, you gotta prepare for your one parade all year round.
All in all, Belfast was manageable, slightly melancholic, humble, and should not be skipped over on your rush to Dublin.
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