Belfast, a town steeped in history and culture, lies on the banks of the Lagan River. Cave Hill, the great basaltic mountain overlooking the city, resembles the profile of a sleeping giant. Some say it inspired Jonathon Swift when he was writing ‘Gulliver’s Travels’.
Belfast is a place that saw much prosperity during the industrial revolution; its linen was world famous and of course, its shipyards. It also enjoyed much funding from Queen Victoria herself, who oversaw the construction of many magnificent buildings during her reign (check out Albert’s Clock, a tall clock tower built in memory of her beloved husband, Prince Albert). In 1888, she recognised Belfast as a city and so the construction of Belfast City Hall occurred. This Baroque Revival Style building is a sight to behold, with its impressive dome and Portland stone walls. Free tours are available throughout the day and afterwards, you can hit the many shops nearby.
Tired? Stop for lunch at Avoca Café on Arthur Street, five minutes from the city hall. Here you can sample freshly baked breads and cakes, or for something more substantial, their quiches and salads.
Queen’s University on the south side is worth a gander, simply because of its beauty. The red bricked gothic building with its stain glass windows is modelled on Oxford University in England. Seamus Heaney, the Nobel Prize winning poet, lectured there and Mary McAleese, Ireland’s 8th president, was one of its many famous alumni.
The Titanic Quarter, down by the dock lands, is Belfast’s epicentre, attracting millions of visitors each year. Dominating the skyline are two Harland and Wolfe cranes, towering over the city. The Titanic centre itself is an impressive structure, built to emulate the bow of the great ship. Inside, the tour takes you on a journey through its construction, the ill-fated journey and the history of some of the souls who lost their lives. Look out the window and you can see the original steel bars erected to hold the ship in place; they stand together in a row, exactly the same length as the doomed ship. Across the water, you can see the studios where Game of Thrones is filmed.
Stormont, the building where the National Assembly of Northern Ireland meets, is at the summit of a hill on the outskirts of the city. A long driveway leads up to its main entrance; manicured lawns surround it. The sheer grandeur of the building and its majestic position make it a worthwhile stop. Not to mind its history and significance in Northern Ireland’s history.
History, you ask? You mean terrorism and bombing?
Not exactly. It goes far deeper than that. Back to the plantation of Ulster and its legacy. In the 17th century, King James I of England oversaw the ‘planting’ of English people on Irish soil, so as to colonise Ireland. The native Irish lost their land and English language, customs and culture took over. It created huge conflict and a stark religious divide; the Protestants and the Catholics clashed from the beginning and this continued for hundreds of years. Belfast still bears the scars of this troubled time; just take a black taxi tour of the Falls Road, the Catholic area of the city. Then, visit the Shankhill Road, the Protestant section, which lies adjacent. Write your name on the Peace Wall, a giant barrier dividing the two communities, erected to prevent the sectarian violence from spilling over. It is reminiscent of The Berlin Wall except that this wall is still functional. See the cultural differences that still exist today: on one road the tricolour flies in the wind; on the other, the Union Jack is displayed proudly. Your tour guide will show you the ‘hidden borders’ that were respected in the past. They are a chilling reminder of the fear and brutality that gripped this city for so long.
Well, on to reconciliation; thankfully, there has been much of that since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Guns were abandoned and a peaceful compromise was reached. Check out the inspiring ‘Beacon of Hope’ sculpture on the banks of the river, affectionately known as ‘Nuala with the Hula’ or ‘Belle with the Ball’. The woman depicted is reaching forward with her arms, grasping the future and embracing peace.
The best place to stay is undoubtedly ‘The Europa’ hotel in the city centre (once dubbed the most bombed hotel in Europe)Don’t let that put you off! It was a target during the Troubles but that’s all history now. It has fantastic staff and comfortable rooms; its location is perfect as it’s within walking distance of the city centre. It has large glass windows that look out on Great Victoria Street and across the road is the legendary pub ‘The Crown Liquor Saloon’. You must not leave Belfast without having a Bushmills (if you like whiskey) in this 19th century charmer, complete with mahogany carved booths and gas lighting.
Belfast, a city steeped in history and culture, is a must for any visitor. The grip of sectarian violence has been gently eroded away and a peaceful reconciliatory ambience dominates today. The future is bright for this vibrant town; be part of this transformation.