Belfast and its surroundings give a glimpse of a beautiful land steeped in history and legends but at once modern too, finds Ranjita Biswas
There is a ‘Titanic’ connection to Belfast, capital of Northern Ireland. Its Harland & Wolffe’s Shipyard – the single largest shipyard in the UK, was where the infamous White Star Liner was built. The Titanic sank on 14 April 1912, on its maiden journey to America. The James Cameron directed film immediately comes to mind as you visit Belfast’s shipyard.
Though a part of the Irish island, Northern Ireland is actually a UK territory. That means if you have a visa to visit Ireland, a European Union member, you still need a UK visa to visit there.
Past and present
Belfast hogged the headline during the 70s-90s as the age-old internecine conflict between the Catholics and Protestants, Ireland and Britain, saw killings, bomb blasts, kidnappings, etc. on a regular basis. In fact, when we checked into the Europa Hotel in the heart of Belfast, we were helpfully informed that this property was once labelled as the ‘most-bombed hotel’ in Europe. It was damaged 33 times between 1972 and 1994! A peace accord to end the violence was signed in 1998.
Today the hotel and nearby Opera House seem to have put behind those strife-ridden days. The vast hotel lobby crackles with a cheerful fireplace to keep at bay the winter chill. On the opposite footpath, Irish pubs, equally famous for their authenticity, welcome you with a cheerful atmosphere.
However, in west Belfast you still come across a large ‘Peace Wall’ that segregates the Catholic and Protestant localities to allay trouble. The graffiti on the walls is a reminder of the long history of the enmity between the two religious groups.
Cheerful city life
On a more cheerful note, a visit to the St. Georges Market, a weekend affair, continuing from the 19th century introduced us to Belfast’s local colour. Housed under a vast hall, stalls selling smoked meat and fish, cheese and varieties of cakes, puddings and breads jostled for attention with outlets displaying local jewellery and handicrafts. It was apparent that this market is a popular meeting place for the locals who sit around sipping tea, tasting food and generally catching up with each other. The cheerful atmosphere set the mood for discovering Belfast.
The City Hall area is a happening place bustling with shopping arcades, pubs and restaurants. It is easy to locate with the Wheel of Belfast, operating since 2007, beckoning from afar and brightly lighted up in the evening. The Grand Opera House, opened in 1895, is a beautiful example of the 19th century Belfast architecture is eulogized as “the best surviving example in the United Kingdom of the oriental style applied to theatre architecture.”
While visiting Belfast, a day should ideally be left to drive down the beautiful Antrim coast dotted with picturesque villages and towns and visit Giant’s Causeway, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Blessed with best
Giant’s Causeway is folklore country. Scotland is only a few nautical miles from this coast. A legend says that a giant from across there tried to come over and fight a local giant, a hero, but seeing the causeway turned back. Basically, the amphitheatre-like place is a nature’s wonder. Formed by volcanic eruptions 60 million years ago, the cooled 40,000 polygonal basalt columns have created curious forms – sometimes called the wishing chair, camel, harp or organ. At the visitors’ centre, documentaries on the Causeway give an idea about the formations and even the legends. There are also wonderful little shops selling local handicrafts, jams and chutneys, and curios. Buses commute at regular intervals to reach the visitors to the seaside where the formations rise like some fantastic designs created by a magician’s hands. You can walk and explore at leisure this awe-inspiring site if you have time enough.
Another interesting place to make a stopover along the coast is Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. It is a suspension bridge which was built by fishermen for centuries for salmon fishing. On the other side of the island is the rocky Carrick Island. Today, it is more a tourist attraction as salmon catch has depleted. Maintained by the National Trust, it gives a stunning view of the sea and beyond, where the coastline of Scotland is visible on a clear day.
Hungry now, we trooped into the famous Bushmills, the world’s oldest whiskey distillery (1608) which has an equally famous restaurant called Bushmills Inn. As we happened to be there on a Sunday, we had a taste of the famous Carvery menu, a specialty when ‘carved’ meat is the flavour of the day; various kinds of roasted meat, including venison, are carved according to your choice and served with generous helpings of vegetables and sauces. Fish or ‘vegetarian only’ lunch is also available on order but obviously the reputation of the place on a Sunday rests on its great ‘roast’ menu. A good idea is to wrap up the visit by dropping at the adjacent shop to buy some of the Bushmills specialities, including Whiskey marmalade!
A tour around the distillery itself is a great way of discovering how whiskey is brewed. By the way, an Irishman will tell you that Scotch is actually the gift of Ireland to the world of tipplers, and not Scotland as is popularly believed. Well, the debate goes on and who knows who is correct?
Castle of dreams
The journey was soon to end but the icing on the cake was still waiting: a visit to the Dunluce Castle (strong fort) precariously perched on the Atlantic Ocean. The 16th century castle is in ruins today but it’s still very imposing. On a rolling hill amidst a carpet of grass, the outlines of a huge grey castle came up like a sentinel while the white foams of the ocean broke against the rocks down below; beyond was endless expanse of the blue sea. Sentinel it was, this early Irish fort, which was once built by Christians and Vikings. Later, its strategic position was immediately made use of by Normans, Scots and English invaders at different periods.
A deep chasm separates the castle from the mainland and so it can be accessed only by a narrow bridge. Inside, the castle is surprisingly big. Indeed, it must have been a town by itself at one time. The kitchen, over the sea, apparently gave in to the sea below once taking along all the staff, and the lady of the house refused to stay on in the castle after such a disaster.
Musing about giants and castles we headed back home. The twinkling lights of Belfast reminded us that we were back in modern times leaving behind another time.
How to get there: Major European cities and UK have direct flights. Also ferry services available from Liverpool.
Where to stay: From luxury to mid-range to economy hotels are aplenty.
What to do: Explore the city centre, museums and drive down the coastline to discover castle and breweries.
What to eat: Local fare, meat and sea fish, cakes and pastries etc.
What to buy: Local knick-knacks, special food products.