I waited until the last second before departing 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 truth is that Belfast’s relative safety and tourism industry had jumped dramatically after the formulation of a new peace plan in 1998, 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 was sure that she would have visions of me being the victim of a drive-by fire-bombing as soon as I walked out of the bus station.
My welcome to Belfast was warm and fast, starting three hours before even I stepped foot in the city. Nicki, a young Belfast native and my neighbor on the bus from Glasgow, happily provided me with a wealth of Belfast knowledge 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 and her father offered me a ride to my hostel that included a brief, but comprehensive tour of the city center! This bizarre, but wonderful turn of events started my stay in what was easily the most friendly and welcoming city of my tour of Western Europe.
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 instant I stepped foot in the Belfast International Youth Hostel, I was graciously inundated with brochures, maps and a thoroughly detailed pocket guidebook by the reception guy whose 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.
Belfast is a beautiful and fascinating city. The bad vibes from its angry history do not show up on the faces of its residents or the city itself beyond the armored police vans that patrol the city. There is no palpable tension and if you happen to arrive with any concern about your safety, your interaction with the first half dozen disarmingly friendly locals will result in all apprehension quickly dissolving away.
In an effort to improve the character of the city, Belfast is obviously very preoccupied with the general appearance of the streets. Sweepers, litter collectors and garbage trucks constantly swarm the city. And in a colossal departure from the rest of the free-wheeling U.K., drinking booze in public is strictly forbidden. There are innumerable signs posted all over the city threatening fines of up to £500 ($724) for violating this law.
With my chauffeured 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 an impetuous walking tourist. Its centralized layout leaves the vast majority of its notable sights all within an easy 20 minute walk of each other. I snaked my way up and down Great Victoria Street, Belfast’s main drag, stopping to gawk at the repeatedly bombed, but fully restored Grand Opera House, the commanding City Hall and finally taking the relatively long hike up University Road to shoot several pathetically inadequate pictures of stately Queen’s University before hunger overwhelmed me.
Using Nicki’s meticulous map, I deftly cut through a residential neighborhood to Lisburn Road and 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. I enriched the meal with two glasses of wine 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 piece on how fantastic it was – almost all of the notes I had been taking had multiple exclamation points after them – but I was just 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, built in 1885, has a beautifully preserved Victorian stained glass and ornate wood carved interior that will drop your jaw to your sternum. The Crown’s distinctive booths are its main attraction. With high walls and doors, each booth is its own comfy, private little world, with a silent signaling system to summon more cider when you have 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 markedly inebriated soccer super-fans, were very friendly and courteous.
Between Nicki, the hostel guy, the people in the Crown and various strangers on the street, 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. 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 is fairly small, consisting of two main streets; Falls Road (Catholic) and Shankill Road (Protestant). The two streets fork out from the city center and run roughly parallel to each other out into the western suburbs. The menacing three mile long “Peace Wall” runs down the center of the dubious area, separating the neighborhoods like the former East and West Berlin.
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 busy, 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 scribbling lengthy notes. Undoubtedly, I was about the millionth tourist whose curiosity had led them up the street.
Eventually I arrived at Northumberland Street, the lone remaining perpendicular street that intersects and connects 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 is 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 acts as a security check point during times of heightened tension between the neighborhoods. There are two huge, solid steel gates that are used as a pass-through lock. To get through, you pass through one gate and after it closes behind you the other gate opens. 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.
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 to head back into the city. The only slightly unnerving sight along the way was the one intersection where four tank-like police 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 is apparent by the number of young children that run around the neighborhoods, carefree and totally unsupervised. It was a simultaneous relief and letdown, but heartening in that I could honestly report that even a stroll through Belfast’s dodgiest neighborhood was as worry-free as a tour of West Fargo.
I decided to change gears dramatically and head for the huge, beautiful Botanical Gardens on the southern edge of the city center. Having just emerged from an ostensibly demilitarized zone, the serene and oddly fanciful surroundings at the park caused me to have a mild, but abrupt brain scrambling. If not for the small groups of children cutting through on their way home from school, it would have been almost totally deserted. The Gardens are also home to the fantastic Ulster Museum which boasts a dizzying array of exhibits on Irish art, wildlife, dinosaurs, industrial and steam machines which can be toured free of charge. I had intended to take in the Museum, but my ailing feet in concert with vivid fantasies of another meal at Café Milano forced me to cut my walking day short and get into character for another lazily pleasurable evening.
My stay in Belfast was about as pleasant and rewarding as I could have ever imagined. The well circulated rumors of the city being an unattractive, industrialized mess and its lasting repute for indiscriminate violence were completely squashed by the genuinely lovely, well groomed city scene and beguiling incidents such as dangerous looking guys politely and respectfully holding doors open for me. Get up there for a visit before someone in Dublin starts sending up 15 day-tripper buses per day.