Tag Archives: belfast

A few favorite places

While importing all of my old blog content from Vox this week (and trying not to go back and edit myself), I had a chance to look back at some of my favorite trips. While I can’t say that I have absolute favorites (partially since I rarely make repeat visits internationally since there are so many places I want to visit), there are a few spots that stand out.

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Day 6: Northern Ireland

Before leaving Belfast, we decided to have a stroll around the (amazingly stinky) river and check out East Belfast, where we saw, wait for it…more murals!

Another peace line:

Guess what this is?  Not a fortress or a prison, it's just a police station, and we saw many in Northern Ireland that looked like this:

Nearly the opposite of West Belfast, the Protestant area of East Belfast was more cheerful than the Catholic section, but again, not at all scary.

The cranes that helped build the Titanic. They are called Samson and Goliath:

If you need more mural photos (and who doesn't?!), I made a handy dandy set of them.

On our way out of the city (actually, it was the opposite direction, but not far from Belfast), we went to the awesome Ulster Transport Museum.  With tons of old cars, trains, motorcycles, and some Titanic stuff, I called it the zoo for boys, but actually I was more excited to go than H!  I took a gazillion photos of everything, which proved less interesting when I looked at them later, but here are some highlights:

The De Lorean, another Belfast product, looks way uglier in person.  Ah, the 80s, they thought it looked really cool:

Cute recreation of a train station newsstand:

Thought this was cool and a bit dangerous:

Funny diorama of the Night Bus, the late night bus that traditionally takes all the drunkies home.  See, the old ladies are all shocked and disapproving, the dude on the left is having smoke and the woman next to him is checking out her ripped stockings:

More neat things:

For the Deadwood fans:

We spent far too long at the museum, but it was a really fun outing and got us wondering why no one is making cool cars anymore.  What happened to the bubble car and other odd but fun designs?  Why do Europeans have so many more cool tiny cars than Americans?  We saw cars there that made the Mini Cooper look like an SUV. 

We planned to drive up the Antrim coast, loosely following the route taken by my esteemed former colleague, and land somewhere for the night in either Portrush or Londonderry.  If I had it all to do again, we would have spent more time enjoying the glens of Antrim and the coast, rather than just trying to get from point A to point B before dark.

Paranoid I might lose this, so posting…

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Yet more Day 5: Belfast

I will finish this part of the recap if it kills me.  Lessee, I was last in West Belfast, yes?  After our self-styled tour, we took a bus down to the university area.  We went to Lisburn Road, the supposed Fifth Avenue of Belfast.  It's cute, rather like Park Slope, but underwhelming.  Maybe we didn't walk far enough.

We did find a really lovely park with amazingly clean public restrooms:

The University area is quite nice, with tons of pubs and beautiful archicture, as well as a botanical garden:

We ended up at a massive pub with a beer garden and a bathroom dispenser with not only condoms and lip gloss, but thongs for purchase as well (I wonder what the market is for that, for women who forgot to wear any or suddenly fancied a change?)!  We sat in the beer garden and started talking to a very nice but very drunk, self-loathing, gay man from Derry/Londonderry.  We hadn't a clue what he was saying half the time, but he was very friendly, if a bit maudlin.  He did advise us as to what cheap off-brand of cigarettes were most palatable, a useful tip when most brands cost $10 US.

On the advice of the drunken Derryman, we headed over to the very promisingly named Sailorstown in search of the Rotterdam Bar, which apparently still has outdoor toilets, live music, and booze.  An honest-to-goodness dive bar, nothing fancy, not for the squeamish.  We could not wait!  I've read that it used to be a holding pen for prisoners enroute to Australia.  If something involves prison, you have my attention.  Sailorstown is pretty bleak and run down, we were there just before dusk, and I wouldn't advise wandering around there after dark, but it's really interesting. Sort of a hard core Red Hook, with old drunks instead of hipsters:

There was an amazing abandoned church down the street which is fortunately being renovated and not being razed for luxury loft condos or some shit:

However, much to our chagrin, the Rotterdam was closed.  An old man standing outside a nearby bar told me the roof had caved in, but I see that it is going to be reopened.  Will have to go back!  With the development all over the city and the authentic character of the neighborhood just aching to be exploited, I'm sure they'll be bitching about IKEA Sailorstown next time.

As much as we wanted to sample one of the seedy bars in the area, it was getting dark and there were no signs of food in Sailorstown, so we hotfooted it back to the Cathedral District, walking under highways and passing empty lots and surly teenagers up to no good.  There's probably a nicer way to walk to the docks, but we didn't find it.  For dinner, we ended up across the street from our hotel, to the awesome Potthouse, which is very clubby and hip, but has an amazing deal for two courses for two people and a bottle of wine for 25 pounds!  Good deal, and good food.  We had the odd experience of watching music videos with entirely different music playing over them while we ate.  We were pretty much the only customers in the restaurant:

It was pouring rain like the end of the world when we left the restaurant, so we went across the street to the Cloth Ear, the public house bar of the Merchant Hotel.  It's a really cool bar, a successful mix of traditional pub and modern bar:

I was thoroughly impressed with the bathrooms, the ladies' has freaky mannequin heads in the stalls and photos on the door which I took a ton of photos of:

The men's room has robots, apparently:

Next up: Mo' murals and peace lines, and the transport museum!  Whee!

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Day 5: West Belfast: Murals! Murals! Murals!

As I mentioned before, everyone says you *have* to take a Black Taxi tour of West Belfast and the murals.  But H, averse to any thing that even hints at tour, was determined we could do it ourselves without a guide.  After some breakfast in the beautiful Great Room at the hotel, we went out to figure out what bus to take. The Belfast bus system is fantastic, all lines begin and end around City Hall, have easy to follow routes, and an all-day pass costs about $5.  Before getting on the bus, we did go inside to see the exhibit at City Hall, but missed out on a tour as they were in session.  Saw the Christmas tree light switch that Bill Clinton pulled when he visited Belfast (they, like me, are big fans of The Bill) and the building is lovely:

Armed only with the vague idea that we should get to the Falls Road area to see murals, we got a bus to Falls Road and just got off when we saw a mural.  Easy-peasy.  For ease of posting and reading, I made a set of all the murals photos: West & East Belfast murals

Falls Road is the Catholic section of West Belfast that has seen a lot of violence, but it's nothing like I expected.  Safe, working-class, sorta like Queens, even a bit boring.  We wandered into a cemetery, which was sad to see many who were killed very young in the worst years of the Troubles.  Some of the graves were like MENSA test questions: "Here lies our mother, Mary Rose, in loving memory by Jack and Shannon. Also her son, John Joe.  Also our uncle, Patrick Riley.  And my wife, Sheila. And our grandfather, John Joe."  Whaaa?

Most of the murals are pretty peaceful, mourning the lost or supporting other causes:

Pub on Fells Road (which had snugs!):

Had to explain the humor of this to H:

Without trying, we somehow stumbled onto the ironically-named peace line dividing the Catholic from the Protestant neighborhood.  They still close these things at night!

Despite the ever-present development all over Belfast, the Shankill Road Protestant/Loyalist area is far more depressing than Falls.  And more interesting:

The murals are a lot grimmer and more hostile, as well:

At one point, we wandered by a large lot, filled with broken furniture and wood:

As we stood looking at it and taking pictures, a Scottish minister approached us (he was wearing a collar and said "Have ye any English?", that's how I knew he was a Scottish minister) and told us about the wood.  Apparently, each July 12th, there is a large bonfire to commemorate the Battle of Boyne, victory by William of Orange over the Catholics.  It happened in 1690, yo!  The Scot said the piles would get much higher, and if you look it up on Flickr (belfast bonfire or july 12 bonfire), you will see that they did.  He told us about some of his parishioners, who had their homes damaged by the fire's smoke and heat, and how the peace line next to his (Presbyterian) church shut every night.  He told us about the "thugs" were celebrated as heroes by extremists, though he takes no side in the conflict.  Then the Scot told us all about his favorite Belfast guy, C.S. Lewis.  I learned more about the Troubles and C.S. Lewis standing on a street corner in Belfast than I ever could (or wanted to, in the case of C.S. Lewis) on a Black Taxi tour.  We might have been standing there all day but (thank God, no pun intended) the Scot had a meeting to get to, but invited us to come to service the next Sunday and he'd take us to lunch.  It was a Tuesday and we were leaving the next day, but it was a nice invitation.  I looked him up when we got back to send him a note, it turns out his name is Jack Lamb!  My maiden name is Lamb!  Small world!  Don't think I'm related to any Scot ministers, but neat!

We wandered a bit more of the neighborhood, which wasn't scary at all, but I wouldn't recommend to most tourists to wander there by yourself.  We're just hardcore like that, I guess.  Cool to see a mural being painted:

I think it was going to be something to do with Oliver Cromwell. Or maybe Vikings.  Or pirates!  Okay, maybe not pirates. 

Grimmest community center ever:

On that cheery note, I say good day sirs!

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Day 4 (still?!): Belfast

But back to Belfast.  It's a weird town, at first glance. The downtown area can be a ghost town after business hours, which is true in a lot of cities, but Belfast is small. There are still a lot of run-down buildings and streets, but overall its a very pretty city.  H was quite delighted with the run-down-ness, as nothing fills him so much with delight as decrepit buildings (Montevideo, Uruguay wins the prize for decrepitness, hands down).

But it's also very pretty, City Hall is particularly nice:

What's really amazing is how much construction is going on in Belfast.  I imagine that in a few years, it will look totally different.  You see this sort of thing everywhere:

We wandered the Cathedral District a bit and saw the eponymous cathedrals.  Here's a nice detail from St. Anne's, which looks ye olde, but is actually only about 100 years old.

Interesting buoy things outside:

Stopped for a pint and some dinner at McHugh's, the oldest building in Belfast and a good pub near the water.  Then wandered down to the famous Crown Saloon, the only National Trust pub.  It's under massive renovations, but still really cool:

The big highlight at the Crown (although you see them in a lot of Irish pubs) is the snugs, little booths where you can shut the door and drink in private.  The photos above are taken from within a snug. Some details:

And because we really didn't have enough pubtime on our first night in Belfast, we stopped off at one more, White's Tavern, which has a great fireplace (necessary even in June)  and also claims to be one of Belfast's oldest taverns.  It's in one of the cool Entries, little alleys with pubs and shops hidden within.  I failed to take a picture, but you can search flickr with Belfast Entry to find lots of cool photos.  But here's White's:

Coming next: a trip to West Belfast, it'll be mural-riffic!

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Day 4: Onward and upward to Belfast

I can almost still hear my in laws imploring me in English and Russian (which I don't speak), to NOT DRIVE IN DUBLIN.  We had no plans to, but since we were driving north to Belfast first and rentals are cheaper in the republic, we ended up renting a car through Dan Dooley in Dublin city center.  FYI, you will get screwed with insurance no matter how you slice it: our Mastercard would cover it, with a 2000 euro deposit, or you can get basic insurance from DD that you pay the first 1000 euro for.  You can do even more insurance that you only pay the first 120 euro for any damage, but that will run another 12 euro or so per day, so it really depends on how much damage you plan to make. ;)  I don't drive at all (I did just get my learner's permit, so lookout!), so poor H was going to have to figure out how to drive on the left side with a manual transmission.  It was still not a bad deal, at 215 euro for 10 days, still miles cheaper than the shitbox we rented in Uruguay last year for a few days.

Before setting off to get our Irish shitbox car, we tried to get out into the city to see at least one more Dublin sight.  We chose Dublin Castle, which is not terribly impressive in it of itself (at least from the outside, we didn't have time to do a tour inside), but the the Chester Beatty Library is pretty cool, if you are the sort of person who gets excited by seeing an original manuscript of Dante's Divine Comedy (which I am).  While seeing the exhibit on Leonardo's notebooks on water and its properties was fairly cool, I only care so much about the flow of streams and the optimum design for a waterwheel.  Even cooler was a lot of the manuscripts by lesser known people on science and technology.  I took an awesome class Italian Renaissance history and literature my last semester in school and did a small presentation on Marsilio Ficino, who, in addition to writing insane-sounding medical tracts about drinking the breast milk of a young (but willing, at least) woman to stay young, apparently was the first to use the semi-colon, as I learned at the library. Some pix of Dublin Castle:

Our desire to look at ye olde books sated, we went to pick up the rental car.  Other than a wrong-turn going through North Dublin, it was fairly smooth sailing getting out of the city, but we had enough taste of the traffic to be glad we were leaving.  I was really excited to listen to Irish radio, which I had heard was excellent, and we caught a very long call-in program about an Irish woman who wrote a tell-all memoir about her abusive father and childhood that was apparently a "pack of lies" according to her siblings. The scandal is over a documentary made about the family and her book and how she failed to show up for a lie detector test four times.  It was really interesting but a little tedious, especially as she wasn't on the program to tell her side to the lie detector saga.  We also heard a great show of all complaints, mostly about things like drunken rowdy teenagers on the Galway-Dublin train and drunken rowdy teenagers at a concert at Malahide Castle.  Gripping stuff.

The drive was fairly easy once we were out of the city, other than some close brushes with the left-side rearview mirror.  I guess when you are used to being on the left side of the car, you misjudge how much room you have on the left side when you switch sides.  Thus, we clipped the poor mirror several times accidentally.  This a theme you will hear often.  We were also pretty surprised at how little fanfare there was when we crossed the border into Northern Ireland.  Other than suddenly much improved roads and lack of Gaelic signs, you'd have no idea.  I realize they took down the checkpoints that used to be on the border, but it's kind of disappointing to cross a border and get no passport stamp.

Got to Belfast after a few hours, but realized I had no idea where our hotel (The Merchant Hotel) was, though I had printed out the confirmation and even brought them their Hot List certificate, nothing had the address.  So after a long time of driving around lost, we found the tourist office where I loaded up on maps and even a fancy brochure on the hotel.  The Merchant is very central, in the Cathedral District, which is vaguely like Soho, if you squint.  It's a few blocks of cobblestoned streets and, of course, cathedrals, with a smattering of restaurants and bars.  We checked into the hotel, which is very homey and welcoming, and I asked about Black Taxi tours, as there seem to be a million to choose from.  The receptionist suggested, *without irony*, that we take the Bentley.  H and I found it hysterical for days the idea of touring the previously troubled areas of West Belfast in a fucking Bentley.  Our room was lovely, a Loft Suite with an awesome bathroom and nice sitting room:

A few issues with the room: while it was quite romantic, we could have used some more lights.  It was impossible to see anything even in the day with the grey Belfast weather and lack of lamps in the room.  If they are trying to gear the room towards a couple, why no minibar?  I liked the fact that if your rate included breakfast, you could get it in your room for the same price as in the restaurant, but sometimes you don't feel like trompsing down to the hotel bar for a nightcap.  Unlike the Shelbourne, however, there was a lot of places to put your stuff, closets and drawers galore.

Will continue later, gotta go home…

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