Written by Alexa Fedynsky
With my love of the Titanic I knew I had to go to Belfast. After finding a cheap flight on Google Flights, I knew that had to be the first international destination of my trip. I spent the weeks before reading about what to see—I knew about the Titanic and the Troubles, but needed to do some research about what specifically to see and where. In regular fashion I packed my bags an hour before having to leave to Paris, and rushed to the Angers train station for this surprising city.
A little kid sat behind us on the train, trying to play with us as her mother told her in English and French to stop. I think she understand both languages but also ignored both—funny kid. We arrived in Montparnasse, and I was so happy to see the Paris metro again, one of my favorite places in the world. The rest of the travel time was quite boring—I had gone to a music festival the night before at the theater on the river in Angers, so I just slept for most of the trip.
However I managed to wake up just before landing, where out the window I saw so much green. We landed shortly afterward, and got into the shortest customs line I have ever seen. Like normal, they divided the lines between EU citizens and everyone else, and we were the only non-EU citizens. He asked us quite a few questions about what/why we were doing there, and finally I got my Belfast stamp in my passport!
We found the bus to take us to the city center, which took around 45 minutes. Across from us sat this adorable family with a three year old, who just played around the entire ride. It’s always nice to see cute babies, and this time we could actually understand everything they said. After arriving at the central bus station we quickly found the hostel, put our stuff down and asked the staff where to go to dinner. The hostel is right by the main university, so she recommended Botanic Street, where all the students go. Instead of getting cheap student food, we decided to sit down in this tiny and crowded diner, Maggie Mae’s. All the plates looked delicious, so we knew we made the right choice. I had a pitta (not exactly sure how to pronounce that in a Northern-Irish accent) with garlic sauce and garlic chips (fries), and was quite satisfied, it was so much hearty food, a welcome change from France. Originally I had planned on getting a dessert, but there was absolutely no way, so instead we hopped over to a neighboring pub for a pint and to watch the end of a rugby and football match.
Back in the hostel I went to the back room, which had a pool table and was quite noisy, so I knew it would be a good place to get to know the other guests. I talked with some students from Dublin, who were in Belfast for a scuba diving class since they were Trinity’s scuba team. Everyone then decided to go out, so we went to a sort of billiards bar, where the top floor had some 20 pool tables—more than I have ever seen! My new Irish friend and I won the match we played, and thought it would be best to quit while ahead, so we all went back to get some sleep.
Too excited to sleep, we woke up in the morning for the free breakfast, which included peanut butter—finally! I slopped a healthy amount on my bread. Then it was time to start the day. Unsurprisingly it was cloudy, but thankfully no rain. We picked St. George’s Market as our first stop, but on the way walked past the beautiful city hall. I found the first façade we saw absolutely beautiful, but as we continued walking around the building each angle became more and more extravagant.
On the opposite side was a Titanic memorial garden, with a statue and a dedication written on the base. A woman came up to us and said to go onto the grounds of the City Hall to see the rest of the garden, where the names of all the people from Belfast lost aboard were listed on the wall. My friend and I commented on how familiar it felt to have someone simply approach us on the street, a rarity in France.
Finally we reached St. George’s Market and were immediately engulfed with the scent of baked goods and frying meats. It’s a huge Victorian era covered market, with a food section, jewelry, clothing, paintings, handicrafts, and everything else in between. First we walked all the way around the market, admiring some of the beautiful things on sale. After seeing everything I decided the pair of earrings I had seen at the beginning were worth it, so I went back to get them and now wear them all the time. But then came the hard part—trying to decide what to get to eat. While walking around the man behind the ice cream stand gave me a free sample, which was absolutely delicious. However I was unfortunately not hungry enough for both lunch and a dessert, so I decided to try a non-West Side Market falafel. It was actually pretty good, I was impressed, but not the same thing. Then I tried some hot chocolate made from melted chocolate shavings—even better than a Waddick’s hot chocolate! While enjoying our meal, we stood around a table as a live band played right beside us. Such a fun ambience! We decided it was finally time to leave before spending all our money and eating our weight in food, and headed off to the Titanic Museum.
On the way we walked along the riverfront, where we saw a giant fish sculpture with scenes of Belfast’s history as the scales.
Then a giant yellow crane appeared on the horizon with a huge, blue H&W symbol on it—the shipyard! The crane could be seen from actually most parts of the city, highlighting its importance to Belfast. The Titanic Museum is very modern, a huge grey building on the dock, built on the diagonal.
We headed inside (I ran), bought our tickets, and went upstairs to the first exhibit, about the history of Belfast and shipbuilding (One interesting detail—people are clearly very proud of Belfast and for good reason. The exhibit was quite long and appreciative of Belfast, however there was no mention of the Troubles). We continued wandering—through the history of Harland and Wolff, the designing of the Titanic—until we reached the “building ride.” We got onto a roller coaster type car, which moved us through the exhibit of how the ship was built, complete with dialogue of testimonies of shipbuilders from the era. Unfortunately we had to eventually get off the ride, but then saw examples of the interior of the ship, passenger profiles, and crew responsibilities. Finally came the sinking, rescue, and aftermath, with lots of modern features like screens of passenger lists. I also appreciated that they didn’t have any recovered artifacts from the wreck, instead what was donated to them by families of people from the time period or recovered archival pieces. Next was the exploration section, with a model of the Nautilus’s control room (I’ve been there!) and video of Ballard talking about the discovery and of course the importance of ocean exploration. All in all a very impressive museum.
Next I wanted to see the more recent history of Belfast, so we consulted the map briefly to find the direction of the peace wall. We were clearly headed away from the classic tourist areas—no new buildings, instead old ones with damage from shelling or still entwined with barbed wire. But the farther we got, the more murals we saw painted just on regular buildings. And they weren’t all necessarily dated to the Troubles, some related to Palestine, current British rule, and police brutality. Finally we turned on some more residential streets and saw a huge wall. Easily 20 feet tall, this divided to streets, one nationalist/Catholic the other unionist/Protestant, to try and stop the violence between the two. People have been painting all over it since its beginning, with more politic graffiti, murals, and well-wishes from people for peace. This wall extended quite far down this street, and finally we reached the end to return back to the city center.
The main square has many new buildings, lots of glass and metal in comparison with the brick of the older part of town. You could also see various buildings covered with scaffolding or roped off, about to begin construction. An interesting juxtaposition of brand new and old/damaged. Clearly Belfast is trying to recover from its period of violence, with various monuments and statues placed around the city promoting peace.
That night we headed out again with our new hostel friends, joined with various extras/workers for Game of Thrones, which is filmed right outside of Belfast. Lots of very large, very bearded men. The next morning we had to head back to the airport unfortunately. But I am very glad I finally managed to go to Belfast, especially after all the reading I have done about the Titanic. Definitely a living and evolving city, and I hope to go back again to see how it’s developed.