Belfast shows a titanic turnaround

Until this year, I hadn’t set foot in Ireland since 1978, when I was backpacking and getting around by thumb – that now-unknown phenomenon of hitch-hiking.

And this time, travel wasn’t restricted to the beautiful south of the Emerald Isle.

In those days the troubles of an active IRA, Loyalists  and the Royal Ulster Constabulary meant taking your life in your hands if you wanted to see Belfast.

Between 1969 and 1998 there were at least 10,000 bomb attacks; neighbour shot neighbour and, as one 25-year-old told me, “Mum panicked when Dad took me out in the pram to the shops”.

A trip to Belfast then, was akin to holidaying in Syria today.

Northern Ireland now attracts more than 2.5 million visitors a year, more than half of them heading to Belfast. Disconcertingly, among its main attractions is its “conflict tourism” - walls of murals dedicated to The Troubles.

The barriers that once separated the Republican and Loyalist neighborhoods are now peace walls, the most famous dividing the notorious Falls and Shankill roads in West Belfast.

With murals dedicated to world peace and an open invitation to leave your own message, it has become a fundamental part of Belfast tourism.

West of Belfast, the infamous Maze Prison and H-Block where Bobby Sands went on his hunger strike in 1981 has disappeared but fascinating tours of Belfast’s Crumlin Road Gaol, which closed in 1996, give great insight to Northern Ireland history and its conflicts.

This, however, wasn’t what drew me to Belfast. I was determined to see the birthplace of the Titanic.

With only a week up my sleeve, I set off from Dublin for the 165km journey north. Hire cars are inexpensive but the trip can take a lot longer than a couple of hours as there is much to see enroute, especially if avoiding the main motorway.

The only indication that we had crossed the border from the Republic into Ulster was that the Gaelic version of the place names disappeared from the road signs and all of a sudden, I was driving much too slowly. It took a while to click that speed limits were now in miles per hour and I didn’t have to do 40km/h.

And the currency had changed, although many cafes in the border country accepted euros.

With only a few days to play with, it was decided that we should find one base and stay there, rather than lose time each day packing up and finding new accommodation.

An English friend had tipped me off to Bay Cottage, which proved to be a delightful bed and breakfast on the shores of Loch Neagh, the largest freshwater lake in the British Isles, close to Antrim and only 20km west of Belfast. 

Just past the Belfast Airport, it was easy to find and well-served by local buses, including the Park and Ride which took the pain out of driving into the city and finding a car park.

Elizabeth, the host, had a fire flaming in the grate as we stepped in from the cold, and also offered dinner for a modest additional fee. Like the breakfasts, it was simply marvellous; hearty and delicious and just what is needed for the hard-walking tourist.

She was also able to answer all our questions and enlighten us on historical events and places to see.

It would be a different story in summer, but in March it was still cold, not helped by the fact we had wandered into the face of the weather system dubbed the Beast from the East which brought copious amounts of snow on top of bone-chilling winds.

With the Beast closing in, we made what proved to be a critical decision, and spent our first day visiting the Giant’s Causeway; fortuitous because it would have been impossible later in the week.

From Bay Cottage, it was a pleasant 70km drive to Bushmills to see this magnificent work of nature.  A product of ancient volcanic eruption formed as lava cooled in fissures, the area looks like a giant honeycomb, with line upon line of hexagonal columns, some up to 12m high.

This World Heritage site is a compulsory stop when visiting Northern Ireland. The adjacent visitor centre provides lots of interesting tidbits of information about the area, the legend of Finn McCool and the people who have lived there.

Following the scenic Causeway Coastal Route, we made our way to Carrick-a-Rede, where a swinging bridge 30m above the sea and made of planks strung between wires, crosses a 20m chasm to the island.

Fishermen built the bridge so they could check on their salmon nets and crossed the bridge daily without fear, carrying their catch and needing only one hand to guide them.  Alas, it was too windy to test it, although this was a great excuse for not having to try.

The Atlantic salmon has declined so much that it is now an endangered species, although on Donegall Quay in Belfast, the 10m blue and white ceramic tiled Big Fish or Salmon of Knowledge celebrates, among other things, the return of salmon to the River Lagan.

It was then a pleasant drive along a narrow road between cliffs and broiling ocean, and over the mountains back to Bay Cottage, where a welcome traditional shepherd’s pie was waiting.

The Park and Ride station was about 5km up the road and made life easy, enjoying the sights during the half-hour journey into Belfast. The drivers were helpful and friendly and more than once pointed us in the right direction.

Although I’m not usually excited by City Sightseeing Red Bus hop-on hop-off tours, the Belfast version is exceptional, with a lively commentary and plenty of craic from the guides.

We learnt that after The Troubles, Northern Ireland was looking for a sport to unite the city and settled on ice hockey. As many of the locals had no clue about it, star players were brought in from Canada and the US.

So, what should they call this team? One of the imports innocently suggested the Belfast Bombers. They became the Belfast Giants with a nod to Finn McCool.

We also learnt that when the Titanic went down, the good people of Belfast felt a huge sense of shame as the “unsinkable” ship they had built had become world famous for all the wrong reasons.

“Eventually,” the guide explained, “they got over the shame and now they say, ‘well, she was alright when she left here’.”

There’s even a restaurant called the Thai-Tanic.

With snow in the air, we had no problem committing plenty of time to the indoors warmth of the Titanic Experience and came away thinking it would be impossible to do it in less than four hours regardless of the weather.

Like many attractions in Ireland, there is a healthy discount for the over 60s, so don’t hesitate to ask for it.

There are nine interactive galleries to tell the story, from Boomtown Belfast, shipyard and launch to the sinking, aftermath and the myths and the truths.  At about $18 entry, it is excellent value.

For Game of Thrones fans, the set is near the Titanic museum, which incidentally, is built in the shape of the ship’s bow, the wings of the building being the same height as the original.

Dominating the skyline are the two huge shipyard Harland and Wolff cranes, locally known as Samson and Goliath. They’re a handy landmark. 

A walk down Newtownards Rd in East Belfast not only has mural after mural telling stories of The Troubles – this was very much a working class area –  but also the proud people behind the Titanic, the yardmen who built the ships, 1700 of them,  that “would wear out the ocean”.

A Titanic centenary bronze sculpture titled The Yardmen sits in what was a walkway connecting the shipyards with the cramped terrace houses of the East Belfast workers.

Nearby is C.S. Lewis Square dedicated to the author and starring statues of his characters from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. With a dusting of snow, Aslan made a mighty impression.

There’s also a reminder of another famous Belfast resident “Ronaldo good, Maradona better, George Best” and the musician (I)Van Morrison is also a local hero.

And all this came in just a few days without even trying or studying tourist guides. There is so much to discover just wandering the streets of Belfast, that aimless walking is all it takes to make it a worthy destination.