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“If I ran the zoo”, I would have explored more than the castles and the pubs of Belfast; I would have based there and driven north along The Causeway Coastal Route to the famed World Heritage Site Giant’s Causeway to see the craggy outcrops plunge into the Atlantic Ocean. I would have poured through parish records housed in the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland to trace my elusive Irish ancestors. Maybe even driven the 92-mile long Saint Patrick’s Trail so I could follow in the patron saint of Ireland’s footsteps. While I was at it, maybe drive the snakes out of the Emerald Isle, even though the beloved saint never actually did that because, according to today’s naturalists, Ireland never had any snakes to begin with.
        
But those were moot points. The reality was that my longtime friend Pam Robinson and I had only two days to catch the sites and flavor of Belfast. Blame the rushed schedule on the dreaded “back to work” thing in the States. When you “run the zoo”, plan at least two weeks to roam the whole Isle and absorb the culture.
       
Pam and I rode the rails from Dublin Connolly Station to Belfast, about a two-and-a-half hour trip through bucolic countryside dotted with hedge-framed pastures and grazing livestock. Thanks to inside information from a fellow passenger, we ignored our single seat tickets and slid into a window-side booth on the right so we’d get the best water view when the train passed between the scenic Craigavon Lakes.
       
Terrace Hill Gardens

When we arrived at Belfast Central Station, the first thing we did after wrestling our luggage off the train (other than make a mental note to pack lighter next time) was to hail a cab and head to our hotel. Our room wasn’t yet ready, so we grabbed a bowl of soup in the cocktail lounge, and as long as we were there, a Cosmopolitan and a vodka tonic, a little anti-freeze to protect us from the cold. The bone-chilling wind blowing off the Belfast Harbour made me wish I’d brought along my long underwear. Seriously.
       
Our next order of business was a three-hour walking tour of the historic Titanic Quarter, something I had been anxiously anticipating. Until recently, not many people knew the Titanic was birthed in Belfast, as were many other massive ships that didn’t sink---including the Titanic’s twin sisters, the RMS Olympic and the RMS Britannic.
       
The 185-acre waterfront site was abuzz with construction and restoration projects in preparation for Titanic Belfast Festival 2012, a multi-month series of events commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the liner’s fateful voyage. The slipyard restorations juxtapose with the gargantuan contemporary glass and metal Titanic Belfast visitor attraction.  Each of the building’s three wings mirrors the Titanic’s hull and size---it’s mindboggling!---and the ship’s iconic stairway is replicated inside. Celebratory events include sold-out galas, the Titanic Light Show, and “Titanic Sounds” a star-studded MTV-hosted outdoor music on the Titanic Slipways.  In September, BBC Northern Ireland will sponsor a major music and cultural festival. Cities in Ireland, England, Canada and the United States are also hosting Titanic tributes and exhibitions.
       
Gayle (“think gail force wind”, her words, not mine), our tour guide and fellow “Titanorak”, gave us a lively and passionate walk-through of the area, weaving facts, stories and “what ifs” as she led us around the property. We wound through the Titanic’s Dock and Pump-House, where the doomed vessel was fitted out, and meandered through the dilapidated H & W Drawing Offices, the once stunning curved-ceiling structure in which Thomas Andrews designed the Titanic. Some say he is still haunting the building.
       
As we trekked along, Gayle stopped to show us historical photographs so we could get a clearer picture of the scenes and people she was describing. We strolled along Queen’s Road, imagining the massive wave of 14,000 workers that poured out of the main shipyard at the end of the workday.  It is said that for the poverty-stricken working stiffs who labored on the liner, the ship’s luxury was so over-the-top that it was “like bringing a wedding cake to a pauper’s funeral.”
       
If you sign up for the luxury tour, you can walk the site with internationally renowned Titanic historian Susie Millar, the great granddaughter of Tommy Millar, one of the Titanic’s assistant engineers.  It’s worth the few extra pounds---even at the horrific dollar-to-pound exchange rate---for a chance to hear Susie’s side of the story because not everything you read or are told in a museum is factual, i.e. don’t for a minute believe the Titanic sank because a few bolts failed. Definitely put the Titanic Quarter tour on your Belfast “bucket list.” If you still haven’t had your fill, check out the TITANICa: The Exhibition and the People’s Story at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum located a few miles outside the city.

Opening Day With ship Titanic

After the tour wrapped, Pam and I headed back to the hotel, a Holiday Inn on Ormeau Avenue, where the Northern Ireland Tourist Board had made reservations for us. It was an unusual choice for travelers on the prowl for all-things-Irish, but it was comp’d, so I wasn’t about to argue. The fact that the hostelry was across from BBC and next door to RTE (the National Irish Radio Network) and within easy walking distance from the city centre, Victoria Square Mall, the Ulster Museum’s eclectic collections and other landmarks was a treat.
       
Still, I had a lesson to learn: at this particular Holiday Inn, there are no rooms with two double or queen beds, just twins, unfortunately pushed together. This was a concept I didn’t grasp. Is it possible Europeans don’t understand just how large (myself not included, thank goodness) Americans are? So a word to the wise is- check the bed situation in advance. Another tip: many European hotels don’t provide washcloths, so if you love that luxury, bring your own like Pam did. One more thing to know, Wi-Fi cost £3.50/hour here, so be prepared! Still, the hotel staff was friendly, and the service excellent!
    
Belfast’s bustling city centre belies its recent violent past, when seething sectarian tension between the Catholics and the Protestants erupted into gunfire, bombings and assassinations. During “The Troubles” of the early ‘70s, the centre was a traffic-free security zone; every citizen had to pass through an armed checkpoint. Suffice it to say, it put a damper on tourism. Everything else, too.
       
Today, Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods in West Belfast are divided by ninety-nine Peace Walls, 40-foot high brick, steel and/or concrete walls erected four decades ago to ease sectarian tensions. Though the city is safe and the two religions intermingle on a daily basis, most of the walls’ steel gates are still locked shut from 5pm to 8am.
       
The most amazing thing about Peace Walls---other than they even exist---are the famous political murals that decorate them. Each one tells a pictorial story; our guide, Dee Morgan, provided the oral history. For American tourists like us, the most startling discovery was murals depicting the leaders of the United States Civil Rights movement, a tribute from one oppressed group to another.  If you take The Black Cab Tour, you’ll be able to write your own message on the peace walls and become a part of Belfast history.

Peace Wall

We wrapped the first night with dinner at McHughs Bar & Restaurant, a small pub housed in the oldest building in Belfast, which dates back to 1711. By the time we’d walked from the hotel to the eatery, I was shivering so badly that I ordered two Irish coffees as appetizers, because handwarmers weren’t on the menu.  Pam ordered the “slow-cooked beef & ale pie filled with mushrooms and onions topped with a rough puff pastry served with champ (baby boiled potatoes served with herb butter). As for me, after two Irish coffees, I wasn’t in any condition to decipher the menu. That’s how I wound up with a cheeseburger served with Cajun tomato relish.

McHughs

The following night, we squeezed into the historic Crown Bar, a Belfast landmark now owned by the National Trust. I say “squeezed” because at 3pm on Friday, the ornate Victorian saloon was so crowded with ale-drinking merrymakers, we couldn’t find an empty barstool. Also occupied were the ten famed “snugs”, private booths complete with original gun metal plates for striking matches  and an antique bell system for alerting your server that your drink needs refreshing. If only we’d had drinks to refresh. For dinner, we grabbed fish & chips from one of the local stands. You know, like the locals do.

The Crown Bar

The next day, we got a glimpse of Belfast Castle and Victoria Square Shopping Center, a luxury mall that houses a few boutiques and way too many American chains, including the only Apple store in Northern Ireland. We skipped the mall, and instead dropped by the Merchant Hotel for its traditional afternoon tea. That is to say, we watched tastefully attired matrons nibbling on scones, finger sandwiches and pastries accompanied by live piano music and tea on a silver tea stand. Next time we’ll dress for the occasion; blue jeans just didn’t cut it, so we trekked on, bypassing a tour of Belfast City Hall because of the time crunch and instead, checked out St. George’s Market, one of Belfast’s oldest attractions.  We were lucky---the fresh produce and crafts market is only open on weekends, and it was Saturday.

Belfast Castle

Then we ducked into the Duke of York Bar, a traditional pub off Donegal Street. This time Pam and I managed to grab a small booth with a copper-topped table. Belfast is Jameson Whiskey country, but instead of drinking it straight, I once again mixed mine with Irish Coffee. Can you blame me? After all, shots of Jameson don’t come topped with a blob of whipped cream!  Unfortunately, I packed all that whipped cream around my waistline and brought it home with me.

Duike of York

The next morning, Pam and I caught the train back to Dublin feeling a little savvier this time around. We learned from our previous rail excursion that it doesn’t matter if you’re at the front of the line; when the train is called and the gates flung open, you’ll be trampled by the very same travelers who just a few moments before seemed so polite. I even got even shoved by an old lady with a walker. So we were once again among the last to board the very last car, and my luggage and I rode on opposite ends of the car and I didn’t have a lake view.

But when all is said and done, all I have is warm memories of Belfast. I also have 200+ photos, five extra pounds (of weight, not money), and an irrepressible desire to return to this unique and historic city, but this time with long underwear.

FYI: Nashville, Tennessee is Belfast’s Sister City!  For more on Belfast, check out
www.discoverireland.com and www.titanicbelfast.com

www.Dishmag.com / Issue 156 - September 2018
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