Friday, 20 January 2017

A wee guide to Belfast and beyond


Whenever I left Northern Ireland back at the turn of the noughties, as soon as I opened my mouth and people heard my accent, conversation would inevitably turn to one of two things -
The fact that I don't don't look the least bit Irish (my chocolate colouring which could never be mistaken as being a by-product of the elusive Irish sunshine) and the Troubles (the violent conflict that dominated life in Northern Ireland for 30 years and had just ended a few years prior). The outside world's negative perceptions of this wonderful little island I called home came as a bit of a shock but of course, as few people chose to travel to Northern Ireland at the time, IRA bombings were taking place across the water hitting many big cities across England, social media had yet to be invented and the main source of information was the news, it is unsurprising that it was viewed as a dangerous and depressing place.

Fast forward almost 20 years and things couldn't be more different. A whole generation is growing up with little, if any experience of this violent part of the country's history, tourism is on the rise and when Northern Ireland is mentioned, people instead speak warmly of the friendly people, the beautiful scenery or the cheap drink.




It's an incredible story from a remarkably resilient place, a country that is shaking off the shackles of the past and is gradually taking its rightful place as one of Europe's great holiday destinations. 

I hope at this point you are booking your flights, but if I haven't convinced you yet, let me share just a few of the charms of my wonderful hometown -

Visit the birthplace of the most famous ship in history....



The Titanic Museum was recently named the 'World's Leading Tourist Attraction' at the World Travel awards. It absolutely deserves the accolades. Opened a few years back to mark the 100th anniversary of the disaster, the focus is on telling the story of the people who built, worked and sailed on the ill-fated ship. The result - is a perfectly pitched experience - engaging, emotional and informative.




Afterwards if you're looking to treat yourself why not dine like the folks in First Class by booking the Sunday Afternoon Tea in the Titanic Suite at the top of the museum for £24 per person, allowing you to see the impressive replica of the Grand Staircase, which is not open to the general public.


Understand more of the country's chequered history .....

At the risk of oversimplifying it I'm going to try and explain the history of the conflict in a nutshell. Essentially at the heart of 'The Troubles' were two opposing views of national identity - Unionists want Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK and Nationalists want to have a United Ireland. To try and manage the situation and calm the rising tensions, the British Government sent in troops and imposed direct rule. In response the paramilitary organisation, the IRA decided to use violence to resist British presence in Northern Ireland and to further their political goals. At the same time paramilitary organisations on the opposing side decided to resist the IRA and oppose reunification through violence too. During the 70's, 80's and early 90's the violence escalated across the country. Finally after years of cross-party talks in 1998 the Good Friday Agreement was signed - a peace deal concerning how Northern Ireland should be governed etc. - and the Troubles were finally brought to an end.

When I was growing up bomb scares, riots, army tanks, armed soldiers and checkpoints were commonplace and part of everyday life. Then the Good Friday Agreement happened and over the following years the violence started to subside, the Army massively reduced its presence and everyone got used to 'a new normal'. Nowdays Belfast is one of the fastest growing cities in the UK with an incredible atmosphere and renewed energy from 20 years of peace.

Murals and Peace Wall
The murals painted on the sides of buildings across the city provide a fascinating visual representation of the conflict and the political and religious divisions which fueled it.  A Black Taxi Tour is an ideal way to see murals on both sides of the political divide. Make sure to visit and add your message to the Peace Wall (Belfast has a series of walls and barriers built through the Troubles to separate Catholic and Protestant communities in an attempt to protect both sides and avoid tensions simmering over). Your message will join those from visitors from far and wide including Bill Clinton and the Dali Lama.

Alongside the political murals there are newer ones which focus on messages of hope and peace. Murals which signal a country which is connected to the past, but is also keen to look forward.




Crumlin Road Gaol
I haven't actually made it the the Crum yet (but it's definitely top of my list as I've heard great things about it) and as a result didn't want to miss it out in this round-up. So instead of my take on this tourist site, you'll have the make do with the excellent description from the Visit Belfast website - "Crumlin Road Gaol first opened its gates to prisoners in 1846 and for 150 years was a fully operational prison.  During those 150 years the Gaol has housed murderers, suffragettes and loyalist and republican prisoners. It has witnessed births, deaths and marriages and has been the home to executions, escapes, hunger-strikes and riots." Sounds good to me!

See the seat of government....



Recent political messiness aside, since the Good Friday Agreement Northern Ireland has been governed by the Northern Ireland Assembly (a power-sharing government representing both unionists and nationalists), based in the Stormont Parliament buildings. The Stormont Estate is a 20 minute bus ride from the city centre but is worth the trip. Set at the end of a long drive, in the midst of parkland, the Parliament building itself is a striking sight. Free tours are available on weekdays at 10am and 3pm, but even if you don't get a chance to see inside, there are plenty of pretty woodland walks to enjoy and it provides the perfect vantage point to enjoy views right across the city.


Get a selfie next to some of Belfast's iconic sights....

Albert Clock

Built in the 1800's to commemorate Queen Victoria's hubbie (Prince Albert), this was Belfast's version of the Leaning Tower of Pisa as over time it had developed a bit of a tilt. Recent renovation work has fixed that, making it stand distinctly straighter, removing all the fun of trying to mimic the tilt yourself after one too many drinks. 



The Big Fish

As you wander down to the river you can't fail to notice a giant ceramic fish. A random addition you might think but look closer, as the fish's scales are made up of individual ceramic tiles, each with an image or story which together create an incredible tapestry of Belfast from Tudor times to the modern day. It's an unconventional symbol of a city that has been on quite a journey.




Beacon of Hope

If you're visiting the Big Fish you can't fail to miss the 15 metre Beacon of Hope Sculpture towering over the waterfront. It's got a variety of nicknames including 'Nuala with the Hula' and 'The Thing with the Ring'. However as with many of the sculptures here, there is a serious message behind it - it was designed as a beacon of peace, reconciliation and progress.




Visit the Ulster Museum..

Located in the stunning Botanic Gardens (perfect for a picnic on a nice day) this is a treasure trove of art and artifacts from Ireland's history. You can see everything from an Egyptian mummy, to dinosaur bones, to stories from the Troubles and treasures recovered from a Spanish Armada ship wrecked off the coast of Northern Ireland and the best thing is that it is completely free.


Drink and be merry.........

From Belfast's most well-known drinking spot (the Crown Saloon), to the Duke of York (a traditional pub filled with Northern Irish memorabilia and with a extensive whiskey selection) and Kelly's Cellars (a great place to listen to some traditional Irish music and nurse a pint of Guinness), this is a city packed full of wonderful places to enjoy a drink or three. 


Get out of town.....
If you have time I seriously recommend a day trip to the Antrim coast. Catch it on a sunny day and you'll be awestruck by the natural beauty. Coach trips are available from Belfast or you can hire a car and explore at your own leisure.


Carrick a Rede

Carrick a Rede rope bridge is a must-see, mainly for the coastal walk as the sight of the clear blue sea against the green grass and grey-brown cliffs, is pretty stunning. At the end pluck up your courage and cross the little rope bridge which spans the chasm between the mainland and tiny island of Carrick a Rede.








Giant's Causeway 

The Giant's Causeway is probably one of the most famous sites in Northern Ireland - people from all over the world come to visit it and its been named a UNESCO World Heritage site. You can't fail to feel inspired by Mother Nature's work as you clamber over the basalt columns and look out at the stunning coastline whilst the sea smashes against the rocks.





The scientific explanation is that these stone pillars were formed by volcanic activity millions of years ago. But as this is Ireland, there is always a much more interesting story - one legend is that the formation is the result of an ongoing disagreement between two giants - Irish giant, Finn McCool and Scottish Giant, Benandonner. Finn decided to head over to Scotland to teach Benandonner a lesson. Unfortunately when he got there he realised Benandonner was huge compared to him and hotfooted it back home. When Benandonner came knocking on Finn's door, Finn's clever wife came up with a ingenious plan - disguising him as a baby! The Scottish Giant took one look at Finn and decided if the baby was that big, his dad must be massive so he hightailed it back to Scotland tearing up the Irish coastline in his rush to get away.

So there you have it - Belfast and beyond - a place of otherworldly beauty, of incredible history and great craic - and a place that however far I go and wherever I end up, I will always consider home.


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4 comments

  1. We try to visit friends in Belfast at least once a year, and it has such a place in my heart as a result!

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    1. Hi Emma. Thanks for the comment. Great to hear you've fallen under it's spell too!

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  2. Great post ! I always wanted to go to Ireland but your post made me want to go even more !!! xx

    http://allornothing-blog.blogspot.co.uk/2017/04/drops-of-youth-by-body-shop-review.html#more

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    Replies
    1. Time to book that ticket I think. Try and catch it during the elusive Irish summer if you can!

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