By Jim Ferri
It was one of the most unusual introductions I’d ever had to a European city.
“It’s the most bombed hotel in all of Europe,” said my taxi driver, pointing to Belfast’s Europa Hotel.
“It was bombed 33 times during ‘the troubles,’” he told me, using the British euphemism for the civil war that plagued Northern Ireland for so many years.
Things are calm now, and as I was whisked around Belfast, my driver Ken continued his chitchat about numerous sights we passed, all the while infusing his commentary with good doses of local lore and gossip.
With his help, and later on my own for an additional day, I found the capital of Northern Ireland to be an unexpectedly fascinating city filled with charm and beauty, vitality and spirit.
The Titanic Belfast
Before I met Ken I had wandered about the city a bit on my own, heading first to St. George’s Market, the city’s historic food market where I was disappointed to find it was open only on Fridays.
I continued walking to Victoria Square, a shopping mall flush with American and European brand names. I couldn’t help admire how well all its soaring glass and steel melded so wonderfully with the old neighborhood into which it had been slipped.
After a quick look, I headed off to the much-heralded Titanic Museum, a massive monument of soaring steel and glass that dominated the neighborhood. Everything about it had a nautical theme, from the quartet of ship bows on the exterior, down to the anchor chains that line the entrance way and guide you into the lobby. Even the ticket windows were large portholes set in rough-sawn pier planking.
The museum itself was mesmerizing, unlike any other non-art museum I’d visited. There’s an introductory section discussing Belfast at the time the ill-fated liner was built, which is a great historic and cultural overview of the city and people. You can read more about the Titanic Museum, plus see a short video of the ship’s launch, at The Titanic: Belfast’s World-class Museum.
Rescued By Ken
It was after I left the Titanic Museum, when I became a bit lost and overwhelmed by the city, that I met Ken.
I had a contact at the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, and she got us together for one of Belfast’s famous “Black Taxi” tours of the city, three-hour guided tours by knowledgeable cabbies. It turned out to be the best way to become acquainted with the city, and I was surprised I hadn’t thought of it myself.
Ken collected me at my hotel, the somewhat funky Malmaison, and since I enjoy minutia, he quickly caught my attention when he told me that the building was originally a seed warehouse. It dated to 1867, he noted, and the five heads on the façade represented the five continents of the world.
We taxied up Victoria Street past the landmark Albert Memorial Clock (“built in 1869, Jim, in memory of Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, who died of typhoid fever”). Ken shared that it was slowly sinking into the ground since it was erected adjacent to an area built over a river.
After a short drive, we made a stop at Belfast Cathedral, a beautiful church that has a 130-foot stainless steel spire protruding through a glass platform above the altar. Incongruous as it may seem, it was an amazing sight inside a beautiful church. Across the street Ken then showed me Writer’s Square, where inscribed in stone at various points were quotations from 27 deceased Northern Ireland authors, a poignant and perfect way to pay tribute to Belfast’s literary past.
A Storefront WWII Memorial
After Ken had found a place to park his taxi, we continued on foot back across to Talbot Street, where Ken had two special places to show me.
On the way, just a minute or so up the street adjacent to the Cathedral, we passed the Northern Ireland War Memorial, actually a little privately funded storefront museum, dedicated to the home front during World War II. Although It was rather basic and very small, it was still interesting, with most of it dedicated to Americans who served in Belfast during the war
The Dark Horse and Duke of York
We continued and turned onto Hill Street where Ken took me into the Dark Horse. It was a sandwich and coffee house that appeared unassuming from the outside, but inside it was like no other. Just about everything in it was an antique, the tables, the decorations, the bar, even the loo (although the plumbing was modern), making it almost like a living antique shop.
Once outside again, he brought me into the alleyway next door that had murals on the walls depicting day life in the city. As we traveled about, we saw many such murals all over the city.
Ken also wanted to show me the Duke of York Tavern around the corner.
The Duke of York is the sister establishment of the Dark Horse. It was destroyed in the early 1970s when the IRA planted a car bomb outside it.
It was rebuilt (a marvelous job) and today it’s once again a popular pub filled with over 100 varieties of different whiskeys as well as plenty of wine and beer.
It’s worth a visit just to see the inside.
The Catholic and Protestant Neighborhoods
He had taken me to the Duke of York since I had told him that I was interested in seeing and learning more about the period of “the troubles” in Northern Ireland. From 1969 to 1994 about 15,500 bombs were set off by the IRA in Northern Ireland (“as the capital, Belfast got its fair share, and it was the luck of the draw who lived and who died since bombs were placed indiscriminately”).
Back in the taxi we continued to the old Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods where political murals still cover many walls. We stopped along the wall that was built by British soldiers to separate the Irish and the British factions, with Union Jacks and Irish flags still flying at opposite ends of the street. Murals are found in different areas around the city and several tour companies, as well as just about any cab driver, can give you a tour of them.
Ken then headed off to the Queen’s Quarter of the city to show me stately Queen’s University, the Botanical Gardens and the Ulster Museum, all located right next to one another on University and Stranmills Roads.
All along the way were plenty of little restaurants and coffeehouses. In the midst of it all was Friars Bush Graveyard, a burial ground possibly dating back to pre-Christian times, a beautiful place to take a walk although it’s only open by appointment and for scheduled tours.
The Crown Liquor Saloon
Heading back down to Great Victoria Street, at the corner of Amelia Street, I asked Ken to stop since I wanted to see the renowned Crown Liquor Saloon.
Inside I found one of the more ornate pubs in Belfast with a centuries-old interior and a good afternoon crowd. According to Ken, the wife of the owner chose the name but her husband, not enthralled with British royalty, had the crown embedded in the tile at the doorway so people would scuff their feet on it when they entered.
The whole area about the Saloon is quite alive and filled with both Belfastians as well as tourists. There are plenty of restaurants in the area and live Irish music at some of the pubs in the evenings. Robinson’s Bar, right next to the Crown Liquor Saloon, offers live music every night of the week.
The Great Room Restaurant at the Merchant Hotel
About five minutes further we stopped at the luxury Merchant Hotel since Ken wanted to show me the hotel’s Great Room Restaurant. The hotel was the former headquarters of Ulster Bank, and the restaurant is located in the main banking hall of the building. The room, a blend of Victorian and Art Deco, is spectacular.
When we returned to the Malmaison Ken had me look down Victoria Street towards the mountains in the distance. I didn’t see it right away but when he mentioned Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, I immediately saw the mountainous shape of the sleeping Gulliver lying down with his face looking up towards the sky.
Although Swift was a Dubliner, Ken told me, he was a Church of Ireland minister, and his church was on the other side of that mountain. According to local legend Swift had been visiting in Belfast when he looked up to the rock formation – locally called Napoleon’s nose since it looks like a silhouette of the French emperor – and got the inspiration for his novel.
When I returned home, I researched the legend and found the place in Belfast where Swift is said to have been standing at the time of his inspiration.
It was, quite appropriately, on Lilliput Street.
If you go:
Northern Ireland Tourist Board
59 North Street
Belfast BT1 1NB
Tel: +44 (0) 28 9023 1221
34-38 Victoria Street
Belfast BT1 3GH
Tel: +44 28 9022 0200
Belfast BT1 2LB
Tel: +44 28 9023 7807
Duke of York Tavern
7-11 Commercial Court
Belfast, BT1 2NB
Tel: +44 28 9024 1062
Crown Liquor Saloon
46 Great Victoria Street
Belfast BT2 7BA
Tel: +44 28 9024 318