I had one of my best friends here in Dublin for a short visit in July and we decided to do an overnight excursion to Belfast – mostly because we are complete geeks and desperately wanted the visit the new Titanic museum.
I have to be honest, Belfast has never been high on my places in Europe to visit. I wasn’t avoiding it, but there have always been other places that I was much more interested in seeing. But it’s less than a three hour train ride from Dublin, and as I mentioned – Titanic Museum!
Belfast, of course, has suffered a tragic recent history. Known as The Troubles, they started in the 1960s and continued until a tenuous peace was reached in 1998. Even today, there is evidence of that infamous period and the decades-old peace can still appear fragile at times. We stayed at the Europa Hotel, which once held the dubious distinction of being the most bombed hotel in the world (I believe the Baghdad Hilton now holds the title). And though we didn’t know it, the weekend we chose to visit fell on The Twelfth, also known as Orangemen’s Day or more optimistically, Orangefest.
As we soon learned, Orangemen’s Day often brings out the animosity between the Unionists and Loyalists that simmer under the surface most of the time. I never felt like we were in any real danger, but there were riots in parts of Belfast (thankfully not the parts we were in) the night we were there. And our “Hop On Hop Off Bus” had to take a detour in order to avoid neighborhoods that had experienced “unrest” the previous evening.
Despite the rioting, we had a nice visit in Belfast. The Titanic Museum was great. We had reserved an entry time and spent a good few hours there. It’s interactive and informative and, in my opinion, lives up to the hype. And, nerd fact – just a hop, skip and jump down from the museum is the soundstage where they film Game of Thrones. There are no tours or any way to get inside – it pretty much just looks like any other waterfront warehouse – but still, knowing that the Iron Throne was within those walls made my little geek heart go pitter-pat.
As I said, we only had one overnight in Belfast and we managed to pick a night known for unrest and violence, so I’m not sure I got a fair and clear picture of the city. Something about it, something I can’t quite put my finger on, seemed off. While I was there, I felt like I wasn’t quite getting “it”.
Belfast is trying hard to improve its image and become a place that tourists will want to visit. Given its recent coverage in the news, this is an uphill battle. But Belfast is trying – that much is evident.
I may not have quite gotten Belfast on this first visit, but I am intrigued – which I guess means I’ll just have to plan another trip back there, preferably on a weekend that isn’t normally ear-marked for rioting.