What one can appreciate about Belfast is that it doesn’t lay claim to any one thing. It has a walkable city centre and all the modern conveniences a tourist could want. Impressive architecture pops up in the least likely of places–the Titanic exhibition near the port (next to the cranes and the storage sites), the huge mall called Victoria Square which is lovely lit up at night and too posh during the day. There is a deep, reverberating sadness about the place because of its violent history, particularly the Troubles. In short, Belfast is not a cookie cutter of a city.
I spent two days in Belfast and while I didn’t love the city I was certainly curious about it. I had heard that the Black Taxi Tour was a must, and so I made sure to go. For two hours my small group and I experienced the rougher parts of town in the safety of the British black cab. Highlights of the tour include Shankhill Road, Falls Road and the Peace Wall. The Shankhill and Falls Roads are Protestant (Loyalist) and Catholic (Unionist) areas, respectively. Large murals and small communities make up these areas, and the Peace Wall separates the opposing sides. Now, I am no expert at all with Northern Ireland’s history, but I do gather from what I’ve read on the subject and from the conversations with Irish people and on the Black Taxi Tour that the Protestant and Catholic conflict is not merely religious. It’s political by nature and though the violence is not what it once was 30 years ago, there are still tensions and riots. Our cabbie and tour guide was excellent and gave a pretty even view of both sides of the conflict.
After the tour, some of us decided to get lunch at the Crown Bar in the city centre. The Crown Bar is Northern Ireland’s most famous pub, and one of my goals was to get inside and eat a delicious meal there. Unfortunately we didn’t anticipate a 40-min wait to sit down at an upstairs table so we left and went to Brennan’s Bar across the street. It worked out perfectly! Not only did we have a huge, cushy table to sit at and interesting conversation about the rules of rugby, but just before we got our food we saw four Scottish men come in wearing kilts. Priceless moment. Brennan’s wasn’t the first pub we went to that weekend; the night before we did a pub crawl with the whole student group on the trip–so around 100 other people. I’ll never forget my conversations with my new friends, the locals and the dancing they convinced us to do!
To make the trip even sweeter, we went to Carrick-A-Reed Rope Bridge, Dunluce Castle and Giants Causeway, all in North County Antrim. Fantastic weather, too. I wasn’t so sure the rope bridge would even be open, since the wind was blowing hard earlier in the morning. After bouncing around on a wobbly bus for over an hour, I was grateful to stretch my legs and walk on the windy trail up to the rope bridge. As far as rope bridges go, this one takes the prize! It’s one thing to see pictures of something but quite another to experience it for yourself…there was no way I was going to miss it. The Irish Sea bashes against the rocks here, and it can unnerve some people who look down and see the action. But I was ready and pleasantly surprised to find that the bridge was quite sturdy and that the view didn’t scare me. I marveled at the bridge’s simplicity, the oddly shaped grass on the side of the cliffs and the threat of the elements. A person standing on that bridge is vulnerable whether they are comfortable standing or not. It’s a thrill, really. Dunluce Castle stood in ruins, and the most interesting thing about it was the number of people who fell down on the slippery grass on the way to snap a picture. Thought for sure I would fall, but I didn’t. Giants Causeway was incredible! I liked the hike–a series of hills, stairs and then the paved road that led to the Causeway itself. Sea foam sprayed up in big clumps in the first few minutes while we stood and watched at the shoreline. The waves rushed in, powerful and white. We got to climb all over the famous hexagonal, basalt rocks and wonder how they got there in the first place.
All in all, it was a special weekend here on my trip abroad. If you decide to go to Belfast and see North County Antrim, you will learn about an important influence in Irish Republic history and explore the rural beauty of part of the United Kingdom.