Thursday 10 April 2014

A Drizzly Day in Belfast

Our local guide started on a rather self-deprecating note, telling us "Belfast is an upstart city that only started because of industry. There's nothing very old here." Still, there remained sufficient points of interest to keep us fully occupied for an entire day. The major sightseeing was split into two parts, starting with a coach tour in the morning that brought us quickly past various points of interest. M prefers buses to trains because overground travel usually helps you get your bearings around new places more easily, but given the speed at which we navigated the streets, I wound up more confused about Belfast's layout at the end of the tour than at the start. 

Belfast Murals

We were first taken past the wall of murals, which, unlike Derry, depict a far wider spectrum of political concerns. These also change over time depending on what the artists think ought to be brought to the public eye, with most of the updates occurring over the summer months, for reasons of expediency I suppose. From there we moved on to the Albert Memorial Clock, Belfast's own Tower of Pisa. Belfast was built over the River Farset, from which the city gets its name. If you put your ear to the road near the clock tower, legend has it that you might be able to hear the lost river flowing below. What I want to know is how you can lose a whole river in the first place. It's definitely down there somewhere though. The marshland (Or slobland, if you prefer) on which the city is built necessitates piling under the buildings, and water flows have caused most of the wooden pilings to rot. Because of this, the buildings lean over. The Albert Memorial Clock started to tilt 30 years into its existence, but Albert doesn't look too fussed about the whole business. 

Albert Tower Belfast

We took a rather meandering path round the city before getting on the highway and whizzing past the port, which boasts some of the biggest cranes in Europe. The coach drove us all the way to Stormont Estate, which houses the main government buildings of Northern Ireland. We slowly travelled up the majestic mile from the gate to the seat of the Northern Ireland Assembly, flanked on either side by neatly laid out parklands. The Parliament Buildings are ever so slightly off-white, because of the camouflage mixture (Of bitumen and cow dung) it was covered in during the Second World War, which turned out to be far less removable than originally thought. 

Northern Ireland Assembly Parliament Buildings

It's a pity we weren't brought around the inside of the Parliament Buildings, but we got to see the interiors of another one of Belfast's architectural highlights. Surrounding traffic forced us to essentially careen past the statue of C. S. Lewis and a couple of small high streets, but we had some time to hop off the bus at the last major stop of our coach tour: Queen's University, one of Belfast's most beautiful and distinctive buildings. 
The Queen's University of Belfast

Out front, just beyond the gates, stands winged Victory with a dying soldier held in one arm, a memorial to the First World War. 

To be absolutely accurate, the University is made up of hundreds of buildings, many of which have been deemed historically or aesthetically important in their own right, but given the fact that we had only ten minutes, our quick peek around was limited to The Lanyon Building and the small but well-tended gardens just behind it. 

Built in the 19th century, the Lanyon Building is much younger than it looks. The architect borrowed from Gothic and Tudor architectural styles to create an instantly imposing and arresting feel to the University's centrepiece. The chequered entrance hall was almost Alice in Wonderland-esque, with a Romantic statue of Galileo sitting at the end, pondering the cosmos. 

We were dropped off at Hotel Europa where we would stay for the night, and given time to grab our own lunches. As always, M & D begged me to find something vaguely Asian, which was how we wound up at Zen, which was just a short walk away. The pan-Asian dishes had been modified for a Western palate, but by this point M & D weren't really looking for an authentic experience. Service was excellent and the mocktails were brilliant, but what we enjoyed the most were the fresh Carlingford oysters. The sweet and sour tomato as well as the onion and carrot dressings were a little odd, but the garlic and ginger sauce went amazingly well with the juicy oysters. We wound up ordering plates and plates. Carlingford is apparently a picturesque little town somewhere halfway between Dublin and Belfast, and they hold an annual Oyster Festival. D is already planning to go with BB one summer, since BB's going to start uni later this year and Aberystwyth is conveniently close by (In relative terms).

Zen Belfast

Our walking tour started after lunch, and we all had to arm ourselves with umbrellas for it. From Hotel Europa, we went just next door to the Grand Opera House (Where Pavarotti made his debut as a last minute stand-in) and then down to Belfast City Hall at Donegall Square, smack in the heart of town. Belfast was upgraded from a Town to a City only in 1888 as a result of its rising prosperity and status as a major industrial powerhouse, and a new City Hall was built to reflect the fact that it was coming up in the world. 

To the side stands the Titanic Memorial Gardens, which were officially opened in 2012, on the centenary of the sinking. On fifteen bronze plaques is the most comprehensive list of those who lost their lives when the Titanic sank, including that of the crew and musicians on board. Even with so many visitors moving in and out, it's a space that inspires a surprising amount of quiet and contemplation. 

A later part of the walking tour had us all ducking into an alleyway, in part to get out of the rain, and in part to let us have a glimpse of life in Belfast. Quite a number of pubs and betting stores are hidden away in alleys all over the city, all the better for people to commit all their sins at once with their neighbours none the wiser. 

We were really battling the elements towards the end of the walking tour (I was afraid the wind was going to blow me and my umbrella away), so it was with much gratefulness that I hopped back on the coach so Eugene could drive us over to Titanic Belfast. The world's largest Titanic Visitor Centre is located just by where the Titanic itself was constructed and launched, and is quite a stunning piece of modern architecture. 

Every single one of our guides harped on the superiority of A Night to Remember (1958) over James Cameron's Titanic (1997), for being more historically accurate, as well as much less sappy. It's a view that's apparently shared by most of Belfast's inhabitants. Still, they know what the rest of the world is more familiar with, and if you go to the gift store you can buy your own replica Heart of the Ocean necklace. (Just don't toss it into the ocean at the end, because that would just be littering) 

The Titanic Experience takes you up and down the building, and you travel from Boomtown Belfast, which takes you through the historical background of Belfast's industrial golden age, to the fitting out of the Titanic in all its glory, all the way to the end, where the wreckage is explored. It's a highly interactive display, and at one point you can even go on a ride to explore a reconstruction of the shipyard where the Titanic's hull was put together. The sinking is also showcased sensitively, and each of the lives lost is a quiet, individual tragedy. 

That night, the group had our farewell dinner in Hotel Europa, and after the lovely meal (The nougatty meringue I had for dessert was so very good) a bunch of us decided to head over to The Crown Liquor Saloon just across the street for more booze its historical value. Now owned by the National Trust, it's managed by the Nicholson's Pubs chain, but back in the day it was one of the finest gin palaces in Ireland, and perhaps the world. 

As the story goes, Patrick Flanagan, who inherited the bar from his father, wanted to name it something other than The Crown, but his royalist wife insisted on the name. The nationalist Patrick however, managed to get his way in the end somewhat, by placing a mosaic crown right at the entrance. You can stomp all over the crown if you'd like, or side-step it entirely, depending on where your loyalties lie. 

What makes The Crown so unique is how lavishly decorated the interiors are. Patrick Flanagan managed to persuade a good number of artisans who were in Belfast working on churches during the construction boom, to moonlight and use their skills to decorate his Saloon. If it weren't for the lingering smell of beer and the rowdiness of the patrons, you might even mistake it for a rather opulent chapel. There are a row of snugs by one side of the pub with wonderfully intricate wooden carvings that even resemble confessionals, put in for those who preferred their tipple without a side of judgement.

Because the pub is so centrally located and an objectively lovely place to have a pint in, the place is packed in the evenings. It took ages and ages before our orders were taken, but somehow before that happened, we managed to find seats for all seven of us in a small alcove to the side of the bar that no one else seemed to have noticed. Within it was a little bit of The Crown's design features, from brocade walls to etched glass, and when we finally got our drinks it was so nice to admire all the work done in between sips. 

The three of us had fun in Ireland, and the good company we had on our tour really added to the experience. We flew off to Amsterdam on our own the next morning for more Easter holiday adventures, and to fulfill D's lifelong dream of seeing the tulips at Keukenhof. 

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