It was great to see Belfast, if only for a day. This largest city and capital of Northern Ireland is a couple of hours bus ride from Dublin and worth the time, if only to see that “the Troubles” are really over and the folks in Northern Ireland and the Republic really do like each other. Furthermore, the Euro used in the Republic goes a lot further than the British pound used in Northern Ireland these days, so it seems you see an awful lot of traffic going south with Northern Ireland license plates.
Still it’s a very pretty city, partially because of the time, money, energy and love Queen Victoria poured into it, and partially, unfortunately, because outside of London it was the heaviest bombed city in the British Isles during the German’s Blitz in World War II. New construction is modern and efficient, statues, monuments and places named for England’s longest reigning queen are evident everywhere.
To put things in perspective, it was the 1921 agreement that separated Belfast in County Antrim and five other counties from the 26 counties that make up the Republic. And it was “The Trouble’s from the 1960s through the ‘90s that tore these friendly, generally happy people apart. It was great to see that at least on the surface, and in the trades, the Troubles are over.
The ride from Dublin to Belfast is both along a thruway and smaller roads, passing through farmland and hills with sheep everywhere….and plenty of lambs at this time of year! The main road between the two capitals passes through a valley formed by the Divis and Black Mountains, and Cavehill. Cavehill includes one mountain range that looks like a sleeping giant…at least it did enough to convince Jonathan Swift to write Gulliver’s Travels.
Always an industrial city, Belfast is best known for the Harland & Wolff shipyards, the largest and most productive shipyard of all time. That’s where the Titanic was built and launched, and on the site where the ship building took place, there’s a massive museum to the Titanic, as well as two giant cranes stretched up against the skyline and named Samson and Goliath; these are the cranes which helped the finished ship along the way to the river on its way to the ocean and a career at sea. The Titantic Museum is six stories tall, resembles the ship and includes paintings on the walls at the lowest level showing where the engines were and what they did. Though we didn’t tour the museum…it would have taken several hours, it was great to see from where the ship was launched….we visited a far better and more understandable museum and waterfront a day or so later when we went to Cobh, the last port of call for the Titanic and other transatlantic lines before heading across the pond. But that’s a story for another day. The entire waterfront areas by the shipyard is known as the Titanic Quarter, huge renovations and tributes that have made the Quarter the largest tourism attraction in Belfast. In addition to the Titanic, the Olympic and the Canberra were also launched from this area; however, because of the disaster, the emphasis is clearly on the Titanic.
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A group of us enjoyed a rather elegant lunch in Belfast at the Café Vaudeville, a wonderful place that up until a few years ago was a bank; the high ceilings and huge skylight from bank days remain, but look so much better now with the formal dining tables, magnificent chandeliers and terrific food.
There’s also a City Hall in the heart of town with large, lush lawns in front that cry out to residents and visitors alike to lie down and soak up sunshine; inside there are numerous mementos to the impact both world wars had on Belfast, together with incredible stained glass windows showing historic scenes.
By the end of the day, we were happy to be back to Dublin, happy to pick up a few souvenirs, mingle with the crowds listening to the impromptu concerts and entertainment on every corner, and take a horse and carriage ride back to the Temple Bar Hotel.