Sometimes cities can really surprise you.
When you’re traveling it’s so important not to have high expectations. Actually, it’s never good to expect too much; it can only lead to disappointment. And disappointed is how I felt about Dublin recently and about Stockholm earlier this year. Copenhagen, on the other hand, completely blew me away, mainly because I didn’t know what the city was going to be like, I didn’t expect anything at all, and I arrived with an open mind and without prejudice. Same thing happened in Belfast a few weeks ago.
As you will know we were looking around for jobs in Ireland – which was not successful at all – and to take a break from all the stress that comes with that, we decided to go to Belfast, Northern Ireland, for a weekend. That was pretty much decided on a whim, and we arrived without any idea about what we could do or see. I did know about the rather unpleasant history of the city and I knew that the Titanic was built there, but that was about it.
It turned out to be my favorite city on the Irish island.
After arriving a little past noon on Friday we threw our bags into our hostel room (great hostel by the way!) and headed back out to explore.
One of the “highlights” of a trip to Northern Ireland’s capital is a Black Taxi Tour. It’s basically a tour of West Belfast in a cab, with a cab driver as a guide. It’s certainly interesting, but it’s also pretty expensive. We used our own feet to get around that part of town and learned a bit about its troubled history on the way. It’s not a pretty place, that’s for sure, but that’s not the point there. The reason to go there is to see a – literally – former war zone with your own eyes. Two decades ago it would have been impossible to wander around West Belfast like we did.
The two main roads are Shankill Road and Falls Road, respectively in the Protestant (loyalist) and Catholic (republican) districts. You can still feel that these places have seen a lot of bad things and violence in the recent past. Things have improved a lot, but even now the two rivaling neighborhoods remain separated by a wall, the so-called Peace Line, with spiked gates that can be closed when things heat up again.
If you go to West Belfast, you’re probably there to see the infamous murals, meant to provoke, make political points, glorify terrorist groups or remember historical events or figures. Some of them are strikingly beautiful, others are just frightening. It’s super-interesting though and there’s a clear difference between the murals in the Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods. They did want different things for their country after all…
You don’t leave with a positive feeling and that’s why, in search of laughter and joy, we hit the pubs. We ended up drinking pints in a bar called Filthy McNastys. It’s a pretty nice bar, but how hilarious is that name? They closed at 1am, which was a bit disappointing at the moment, but actually definitely a good thing as we had plans for the next day…
On Saturday we went to the other side of the city: the harbor and Titanic Quarter.
These are the docklands where once were the world-famous shipyards of Belfast. In the first decades of the previous century Belfast was the world’s epicentre of shipbuilding. The biggest achievement was the launch of RMS Titanic in 1912. At the time it was the largest man-made object ever to have taken to the seas, as the BBC so nicely put it. We all know what happened next.
Of course the area doesn’t look anything like it did one hundred years ago, especially now that the city started a £1 billion regeneration project. It already looks incredibly modern, almost futuristic, and it’s surprisingly beautiful. Nice to walk around as well.
The things that remain have been restored and are spread out along Queen’s Road. It’s a very nice walk along the river Lagan, through former shipyards, past ultra-modern buildings and towards the Thompson Pump House and Graving Dock. This is the actual dock where the Titanic was built. It’s massively impressive and humbling to stand in the very place where the world’s most famous ship ever was fitted out. It’s huge.
That was a full-day activity and, after walking back through Belfast’s great city center, we spent the rest of the evening quietly in the hostel watching Modern Family, incidentally one of my new favorite comedy shows ever.
Sunday was going to be an action-packed and fun-filled day as well. We were going to the stunning Antrim Coast and the Giant’s Causeway!
But that’s a story for later…
There’s lots more to do in Belfast and around. Here are some useful links: