‘Are you sure it’s safe?’ I asked my tour guide, Billy, as he encouraged me to get out of the car on the Falls Road and take some photos of the murals on display. ‘Of COURSE it’s safe,’ he roared. ‘Go and take your pictures, and I’ll meet you round the corner.’
It was a fair point, well made. The Belfast I thought I knew from the news definitely isn’t the one I visited at the weekend. The murals are there, the ‘peace lines’ still exist – but Billy assured me, they’re there to help people feel secure at night. ‘The barricades in people’s minds are the real issue,’ he said poetically.
He also showed me the murals along the Shankhill Road and pointed out various chip shops with clever names which sum up the Northern Irish sense of humour. (‘Assault and Battered’ is the one that sticks out; there was also a Thai restaurant called Thaitanic.)
The tour was part of my weekend stay in Belfast and Northern Ireland. I arrived on Friday night in the pouring rain and was whisked off to the fabulous boutique hotel The Fitzwilliam, where I stayed in a suite bigger than the bottom half of my house. I absolutely loved the decor (lime and black, SO chic, have resolved to copy), the retro telephones and the panoramic views of the city. It was like an apartment. That I could quite happily have lived in.
On Saturday morning, after an Irish breakfast (minus the White and Black Pudding – I’m just not that brave) Billy, who had an astonishing knowledge of the local area and history, picked me up for my tour, which included the sights of Belfast – including the University and the City Hall, which is very impressive and wouldn’t look out of place in Vienna.
We also stopped at the wonderful indoor market, where there was everything on sale from pumpkins to fish…
…and a pub, where we saw more murals and old wall plaques…
Before getting on the coastal road for the two hour trip to the Giant’s Causeway. Along the way we stopped in the wonderful village of Glenarm, at the Barbican Gate of the Castle, and enjoyed the tranquility of the river.
As we drove along the stunning coastline Billy kept me entertained/enthralled/horrified with stories, myths and legends.
before continuing our way to the Giant’s Causeway, where we took the little yellow bus down to the Causeway (we could have walked, but we were running out of time). Although it was covered in tourists (the best time to visit is early morning and the end of the day), I managed to take a few photos sans people. The popular saying is that the Giant’s Causeway ‘is worth seeing, but not worth the journey to get there.’ I disagree, particularly if you go along the coastal road and stop off at places along the way as we did.
The final stop on our tour was at Dunluce Castle, which dates back to 1500 and has a spectacular position on the Antrim coast, with incredible views. It’s absolutely breathtaking, and as Billy said, incredibly romantic, although I’m sure kids would absolutely love it too.
That night I went out to dinner with friends – Belfast is really cosmopolitan (and yes I had quite a few Cosmopolitans), with loads of really cool restaurants, bars and clubs.
And the following day I was up early to visit the Titanic Museum. I was the first person there (as I had the plane to catch) which meant I had the museum to myself. It’s probably one of the best-thought out museums I’ve ever visited in my life. It starts off with by putting the time in context, so you understand the importance of shipbuilding to Belfast, and what life was like then. Then you take a dark ride through the shipbuilding process, before arriving at the exhibits designed to recreate life on the Titanic. There’s a really clever film experience which takes you through all of the floors of the ship as they must have looked, as well as bedrooms and real experiences.
Finally, you arrive at the part where the iceberg hits; you can read the distress signals and listen to accounts of survivors, as well as reading about those who didn’t survive. I was in tears by the time I got to the final exhibit – the very clever Discovery Theatre, which shows constant footage of the wreck and debris on the bottom of the ocean. It’s absolutely fascinating.
If you’re looking for a weekend break with a difference, I can’t recommend Belfast and Northern Ireland highly enough. It wasn’t just that it was beautiful and dynamic and intriguing, or that there was so much to see and do, or that the people were so friendly and welcoming. But that Belfast and Northern Ireland exceeded all my expectations. I would go back tomorrow.