Blame it on the French
Well, why not? They’re taking it on the chin for a lot of other things these days—some deserved, some not. But if a pack of French Protestants fleeing persecution in their own country hadn’t landed in Belfast, Ireland might be a happy, unified little Catholic country today. Instead, most people’s impression of Belfast is dominated by “the Troubles” and a few noisy spokespeople blaming each other for everything. What you’ll really discover in this delightful city and this glorious country is that most of its cheerful and welcoming citizenry wishes the two sides would just stop talking and try to simply get along.
If you’re wondering what these citizens have to be so cheery about, start with some of the world’s great pubs. And maybe finish with them, too. At lunchtime or dinnertime, Belfast’s pubs will overflow with people tucking in for a casual ploughman’s meal, a pint, and some noisy socializing. If you find yourself sucked in to the swirl of it all try some of the local dishes like sausages and champ (onion mashed potatoes). If you can’t take your Guinness straight have a “black and tan”. And if you find a local who’ll stand you a round consider yourself accepted.
The Golden Mile between Donegal Square and Queen’s College has plenty of establishments to choose from. North of Donegal Square, in a series of narrow alleys called the Entries you’ll find many of the city’s older pubs—as much museums as anything.
But if it’s real museums you’re after, The Ulster is the one you want. It’s near the University and the Botanic Gardens, which are also worth a visit. Donegal Square itself boasts a number of tourist-worthy stops, starting with City Hall at its center. Marble inside and as much civic pomp as one could hope for outside, Belfast City Hall like so many monuments in this city has survived several IRA bombings. To the west of the square is the Grand Opera House—a monument to Victoriana and another victim of multiple bombings though splendidly restored.
Heading north from Donegal Square, you’ll stumble upon Belfast’s tribute to Pisa—the Albert Memorial Clock tower in Queen’s Square—a leaning tower to rival Italy’s best. When you get to the River Lagan you’ll be able to spot two of Belfast’s more famous landmarks in the distance, Samson and Goliath. They’re the giant cranes that dominate the skyline above the Harland & Wolfe Shipyard. One of the two cranes is over 300 feet high and the pair straddles a 1500-foot dock.
The shipyard has been in operation since 1833 and in its heyday employed 60,000 workers. The Harland & Wolff yard has one of the biggest dry docks in the world and can handle ships up to 200,000 tons. The yard’s most notable client? White Star Lines for whom they built Olympic, Britannic, and Titanic. When Titanic went down, the entire engineering staffs from both Harland & Wolff and White Star were lost.
Out and About
For those in search of some excitement further afield, a drive out to Giant’s Causeway will put you in touch with one of the World Heritage Sites. Sixty million years ago (didn’t everything happen about then?) lava from an undersea fissure crystallized into huge hexagonal columns. According to local legend, Finn McCool, the giant in question, used these as steppingstones to a distant island where lived a female giant he was particularly enamored with. What’s nice about this site is that you can actually clamber around on some of these 40,000 fascinating formations as opposed to just looking at them from a bus.
A bit further along is Derry (or Londonderry if you’re British or a Loyalist), which features one of the best-preserved walled towns in Northern Europe. A walk around the city wall is another interactive adventure for the less sedentary among us. Derry is also where the Troubles began in 1968 and as much of that sad history occurred in Derry as in Belfast.
There’s really no getting away from it. Citizens’ desires to “just get along” notwithstanding, the violence of the last 37 years is a fascinating part of Belfast’s history and its mark is indelible—from the political murals still on display in the working class neighborhoods along Falls and Shankill Roads, to the heavily fortified police barracks, to the armored Range Rovers cruising the streets and the helicopters sweeping the skies. Despite the recent easing of tensions you can’t escape the sense of being in what some consider was recently a formidable police state. But far from putting a damper on your visit it’s this very history that makes Belfast such a unique destination.