Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Belfast, Northern Ireland

Posted on 8/29/03

Now these guys know how to build a city hall!

I waited until the last second before I departed for Belfast, Northern Ireland to send an email to my mom telling her my next destination. I didn’t want her to worry too long. The fact is that Belfast has been quiet for over a year and a half now and my feelings were that the chances of something terrible happening to me while I was there were about as good as me getting run-over by an out of control blimp. Nevertheless, she was a mother and despite all evidence to the contrary, I’m sure she had visions of me being the victim of a drive-by fire-bombing as soon a I walked out of the bus station.

The banner on the front says "Unshakable."  The Belfasters are doing their best to get people back into the church.

My welcome to Belfast was warm and fast, starting three hours before I stepped foot in the city. Nicki, my neighbor on the bus from Glasgow, was a young Belfast native and she happily provided me with a wealth of knowledge about Belfast during our journey to her home-city, including must-see sites, a top three list of delicious and affordable restaurants and even a shockingly accurate, hand drawn map with all pertinent sites clearly marked.

As if this wasn’t enough, when we got off the ferry, she offered me a ride to my hostel that included a brief, but comprehensive tour of the city center by her dad! This bizarre, but wonderful turn of events started my stay in what was easily the most friendly and welcoming city of my tour.

The Belfast tourism bureau had obviously been working very hard to buck the reputation of violence and car bombs that Northern Ireland has suffered from for decades. The moment I arrived at the Belfast International Youth Hostel, I was graciously inundated with information, maps and a thoroughly detailed pocket guidebook by the reception guy who’s greatest joy in life seemed to come from being nice to tourists. With my free tour and these resources at my disposal, I marched out of the front door of the hostel full of confidence and excitement for Belfast and I was not disappointed.

Belfast was a beautiful and fascinating city. The bad vibes from its angry history did not show up on the faces of its residents or the city itself beyond the armored police vans that patrol the city. There was no palpable tension and if you happened to arrive with any concern about your safety, your interaction with the first half dozen residents would result in all apprehension quickly dissolving away.

The Grand Opera HouseQueens University

With my preview of Belfast still fresh in my mind, I made good time on my first evening. Using both my personalized and professionally produced maps, I swung through the compact city center snapping photos with the assistance of a brilliant, early-evening sunshine. Belfast is a dream for a walking tourist with tender, ailing feet. Its centralized layout leaves the vast majority of its notable sights all within an easy 20 minutes walk of each other.

In an effort to improve the character of the city, Belfast was obviously very preoccupied with the general appearance of the streets. Sweepers, liter collectors and garbage trucks constantly swarmed the city. And in a colossal departure from the rest of the free-wheeling U.K., drinking booze in public was strictly forbidden. There were innumerable signs posted all over the city threatening fines of up to 500 pounds ($724) for violating this law.

I snaked my way up and down Great Victoria Street, Belfast’s main drag, taking photos at nearly every corner before hunger overwhelmed me. Using Nicki’s map, I descended into Café Milano. I love Italian food, so there was little suspense as to whether or not I would find something suitable on the menu, but this place knocked my little ankle socks off. Their huge selection of main courses made me emit repeated, audible gasps as I read over one dish after another that I would have knocked down my own grandmother to sample. Totally exasperated with mouth watering choices, I eventually settled on the crab-filled ravioli in a tomato cream sauce. Oh your God, was it ever good! I pounded down two glasses of wine with my meal and then splurged on the tiramisu for dessert.

I was on cloud nine. I could have left Belfast right then and there and written a raving essay on how fantastic it was - almost all of the notes I had been taking in my Timeport had multiple exclamation points after them - but I was only getting started.

I stumbled back down Great Victoria Street to have a cider night-cap at the Crown Liquor Saloon, Northern Ireland’s best-known pub. The Crown had an ornate, wood carved interior that looked like it was plucked right out of the 1700s. The Crown’s distinctive booths were its main attraction. With high walls and doors, each booth was its own comfy, private little world, with a silent signaling system to summon more cider when you had the urge. When I arrived, the Crown was packed and noisy with football (sorry, make that soccer) fans enrapt with the action being displayed on the one, small TV propped above the door and getting deeply emotionally involved in each and every move the players made. Although I was quite obviously not a local, all of the patrons, including the soccer super-fans, were very friendly and courteous.

Between Nicki, the hostel guy, various strangers on the street and the people in the Crown, I was seriously starting to wonder if the Belfast tourism bureau had hired and dispatched dozens of plain clothes operatives to blanket the city and offer friendly help and good company to anyone holding a map or even standing on a street corner looking puzzled for more than 15 seconds.

The next morning I rose early. There were many things to do and very little time to do them. Despite the possibly of bogarting my upbeat view of the city, I felt that I needed to explore the notorious warring Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods on the western edge of town. Nicki and her father had filled me in on the whole scene while we drove to my hostel. The area was fairly small, consisting of two main streets; Falls Road (Catholic) and Shankill Road (Protestant). The two streets forked out from the city center and ran roughly parallel to each other out into the western suburbs. The menacing three mile long “Peace Wall” ran directly through the center of the unruly area, separating the neighborhoods like the former East and West Berlins.

I wandered up Shankill Road first. I’m not sure what I was expecting to see, but it was pretty much like walking up any street in the U.K., other than the hundreds of Union Jack flags (the Protestant’s sign of allegiance to England) decorating the entire length of the street. Businesses were open and young kids were running around and little old ladies were inching their tiny carts home from the market. No one looked remotely sinister and everyone seemed indifferent to me walking slowly, taking pictures and tapping out notes on my Timeport. Undoubtedly, I was about the millionth tourist whose curiosity had lead them up the street. Eventually I arrived at Northumberland Street, the lone remaining perpendicular street that intersected and connected Shankill Road and Falls Road as well as being the only break in the Peace Wall. I headed in the direction of Falls Road and was a little stunned at how the surroundings changed as soon as I left Shankill Road. The street was totally bare with 15 foot high walls enclosing it on both sides, lined on the top with steel spikes and barbed wire. The break in the Wall acted as a security check point during times of heightened tension between the neighborhoods. There were two huge, solid steel gates that were used as a pass-through lock. To get through, you passed through one gate, it would close behind you, then the other gate would open. The gates are unmanned and propped open these days, but everything is in fresh working order and ready to be clamped shut if things should ever flare up again.


The "Peace Gate"Political messages were everywhere.

Apart from the intimidating gates, the Peace Wall is huge and bare, except where political murals have been painted alongside advertisements. I reached Falls Road and turned down it, heading back into the city. The only slightly unnerving sight along the way was the one street corner where four police riot vans were parked on the sidewalk. One on one corner and three on the opposite corner. None of the police had the pills to stand around outside of their vehicles. They all stayed locked in their vans apart from the one guy that jumped out the back of one van, scurried over to the neighboring van and jumped into its back door, quickly slamming it shut. I took several pictures and headed back into the city center without experiencing anything out of the ordinary.

When all is quiet, these two neighborhoods appear to go about their business with less vigilance than the average inner-city street in the U.S., which was apparent by the number of young children that ran around the neighborhoods, carefree and totally unsupervised.

With my poor feet giving out, I was forced to cut my day short. I skipped to the end of my list of tour stops by stopping in the huge, beautiful Botanical Gardens park on the southern edge of the city center. Having just emerged from an ostensibly demilitarized zone, entering this park seemed oddly fanciful and out-of-place. It was quiet and if not for the small groups of children cutting through it on their way home from school, it would have been almost totally deserted.

One peculiar detail that I couldn’t help but notice in Belfast (and to a certain extent in Glasgow) were the miniature women. I have never seen such a concentration of adult women who were too short to ride the Teacup ride at Six Flags. I briefly wondered if perhaps there really were horny Leprechauns running around the northern U.K. impregnating women, but eventually I figured out all these women were probably victims of stunted growth after taking up smoking at age eight.

After taking care of some travel business and treating myself to a cider break at the Crown, I got off my feet and knuckled down to get things documented and coherent, with only a short break to limp back to Café Milano for another succulent dinner. I was departing for Dublin the following morning for yet another scant two day tour before flying to Malaga on Sunday at the crack of dawn for six days of much needed rest and relaxation in the resort town of Torremolinos and I wanted to be mostly if not completely finished with all writing duties before I put on my thong.

Once again, I was bummed out over having to leave an enjoyable city before I was ready. I was heartened to be nearing the end of my 18 days of frenzied touring, doing a new city every two days, but the frustration of accumulating an ever growing list of cities that I was going to have to return to when I had more time was filling me with regret. I was second guessing the wisdom of setting that ridiculous travel itinerary for myself and what fun I might have had if I had just cut out one city or one country from my tour and doubled back to make it up later this fall. But, what was done was done and there was no use in crying over spilled cider (though depending on where you spilled it, sometimes you could slurp some of it back up). I had learned that while two days is more than enough time for cities like Brussels, it wasn’t nearly enough for cities like Belfast. I vowed to return to the practice of taking my sweet time in each city and rejecting warp speed schedules when I returned to the road after my week in Torremolinos.

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