In the summer of 2019 our family had the chance to spend almost three months in Ireland, Dublin to be specific. Of course, we wanted to see as much as possible of this green island and I will try to tell you the best way I can about every place we visited.
In this travel diary I will tell you about Belfast, a city officially in the United Kingdom, but I, as well as big part of the locals, will consider it in Ireland.
We spent one weekend in North Ireland and from Dublin we traveled by bus. The distance is not long, about 166 km, and we took it for 2.20 hours. I don’t know if the information how to get from Dublin will be useful for you, but here it is.
There are several companies that travel on this route, we used Dublin Coach, bus 400. The price one way it 10 euro, return – 20, children under 12 years pays 2 euro. Here you can buy tickets in advance, which I advice you to do, because people with online tickets get in first and there is a big chance that you will be left out. Here’s the bus, it can’t be easily mistaken.
After two hours ride through mostly green fields and nothing interesting we arrived in Belfast. There was no actual border crossing but the more observant ones will notice that the colour of the road lines changed from white to yellow 🙂
Belfast is the capital of Northern Ireland and became a city by royal charter in 1888. The district of Belfast has an area of 44 square miles. Belfast’s modern history began in 1611 when Baron Arthur Chichester built a new castle there. He did much to encourage the growth of the town, which received a charter of incorporation in 1613. Belfast survived the Irish insurrection of 1641, and by 1685 it had a population of about 2,000, largely engaged in brick, rope, net, and sailcloth making. By the late 1730s the castle had been destroyed, but Belfast was beginning to acquire economic importance, superseding both Lisburn as the chief bridge town and Carrickfergus as a port.
Attempts to establish a cotton industry there were short-lived, but following mechanization of the spinning and weaving of linen, Belfast became one of the greatest linen centers in the world. By the 17th century, the town was a busy port with small shipbuilding interests, which became firmly established after William Ritchie founded a shipyard (1791) and a graving (dry) dock (1796). Since the Industrial Revolution, the chief shipbuilding firm has been Harland and Wolff (builders of the ill-fated Titanic). The city was severely damaged by air raids in 1941 during World War II.
A Roman Catholic civil rights campaign was inaugurated in Ulster in 1968, and from 1969 street riots and increasing violence took place in Belfast. After British troops were called in to police Catholic-Protestant disorders, the riots were marked by an increased use of firearms and bombs by both Catholic and Protestant extremists and by the slaying of civilians, police, and soldiers. Unremitting violence continued into the 1990s, but a tentative cease-fire in 1994 and the Good Friday Agreement (Belfast Agreement) of 1998 brought an end to the fighting.
We all, one way or another, are familiar with the problems the city had till recently, and you can find information everywhere, so I don’t think it’s a good thing to tell you more about this horrible part of Belfast’s history. The city is trying to open a new page and I want to show you interesting and lovely places you can see in the city, “The Troubles” as this period is known will be side by side us through our journey, following us like a shadow, but that’t the way it is…
And so, we arrived in Belfast, in the bus station in the center of the town, right to hotel “Europa”, known as the most bombed hotel in the world after surviving 36 attacks during the Troubles… Now, it is impossible to recognise it’s history.
Right next to to is the Grand Opera House, which opened its doors on 23 December 1895, and has delivered an unrivaled programme of entertainment, playing host to some of the greatest names in theater and music.
We had a planned route and first we saw the building of the Presbyterian Historical Society in Ireland.The Society’s library holds books, archives and artifacts relating to the history of Presbyterianism in Ireland that constitute a valuable resource for academic, local and family history.
One of the most impressive building in Belfast is the City Hall. It first opened its doors in 1906 and today runs regular free public tours.
The classical Renaissance style of the building is a source of pride for the people of Belfast – and it’s not hard to see why. Beautiful stained glass windows adorn the Hall, depicting Celtic myths and legends, such as the Cattle Raid of Cooley, as well as commemorating victims of the Great Famine and those who fought in the First and Second World Wars.
The grounds feature a number of memorials including the Titanic Memorial Garden to the east, where bronze plaques are inscribed with the names of the 1,512 people who perished onboard the ship of dreams.
We had a very important place to visit with and a specific hour to be there, but I’ll tell you about in a while, now we had to find a park or a playground for our son.He spent so many time standing still and behaving that he deserved a reward. But this turned out almost impossible. For some reason, in Ireland, public playgrounds are almost not existing. I spent a lot of time browsing Google maps until I found one deep in a residential area not far from us. On the way we saw an interesting sign 🙂 I can only imagine what would make such a sign needed be put there 🙂
The area itself wasn’t very friendly looking and was completely empty, not a single person was to be seen… And as I said, the Troubles were our only companion…
We managed to find the playground after some time and the only proof that there were people living here were a few curtain movements in the nearby houses, apparently their inhabitants were curious who we are and what are we doing there. But we couldn’t see anybody the whole time…
Our next goal was the Saint George’s Market.The Friday market at this very spot has been trading since 1604. In the 1890s the marketplace was given a new iron and glass design, with a handsome brick facade and this was all restored in 1997. St George’s Market comes to life on Fridays when nearly 250 stalls trade at the Variety Market, selling antiques, books, clothes, fruit and vegetables, and with an generous 23 fishmongers.
Saturdays bring the epicurean delights of the City Food and Craft Market, when there’s artisanal coffee, tapas, crêpes, international cheeses and Northern Irish specialities like Cookstown pork and Beef from Armagh, all soundtracked by live music.
From here we slowly approached the bus that was going to take us to our important goal but not before we saw the Big Fish.
“The Big Fish”, also known as “The Salmon of Knowledge,” is a sculpture made from a mosaic of ceramic tiles. You’ll find it along the banks of the River Lagan in Donegall Quay, Belfast.
The giant sculpture is based on a character from the tale “The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn.” The story tells of a fish that eats some hazelnuts that had fallen into the Well of Wisdom. After devouring the nuts, the salmon gained all the knowledge in the world. According to the tale, the first person to eat the fish would then inherit all of its knowledge. This sculpture of the legendary salmon was constructed in 1999 to celebrate the return of fish to the River Lagan. Each of its tiles is decorated with texts or images that relate in some way to an aspect of Belfast’s history. According to local folklore, kissing the fish envokes wisdom. Well, we kissed her 🙂
As you can see from the photos, the weather changed every 10 minutes. At one time it was sunny and nice, the next it was rainy and windy. Nevertheless, we didn’t care at all, we were already used to the famous Irish weather and despite the fact that it was August, we were equipped with raincoats and rubber shoes 🙂
From the Big Fish we took a bus that drove us to the former ship docks, nowadays called the Titanic Quarter. Here you can find the Titanic museum and some more connected with the ship’s industry, but also the place that this trip was all about. But first of all, the ships 🙂
Here’s a ship that’s seen it all. In dry dock next to Titanic Belfast, the SS Nomadic was also built at the Harland and Wolff dockyard, and is the only White Star Line vessel existing today.
Launched in 1911 the ship was a tender, shuttling passengers from the RMS Titanic and RMS Olympic in and out of Cherbourg Harbour, which couldn’t accommodate these massive passenger liners.
In the World Wars the SS Nomadic swept for mines and carried troops, and then spent almost three decades berthed next to the Eiffel Tower as a restaurant ship. The ship returned to Belfast in 2006 and went through a thorough restoration in which the original wooden panelling was refitted.
Now you can see the first and second class lounges, climb up to the bridge, dress up in period attire and find out about the different people, from aristocrats to soldiers and diners, who have trodden these decks. The price is 7 pounds, children under 5 go for free.
Just opposite the SS Nomadic is the Titanic Museum. The old Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast’s docks is where the world’s most famous ocean liner was assembled. This nook of the Belfast Lough had been derelict for decades after the decline of shipbuilding, but is today known as the Titanic Quarter and has been completely regenerated since the 2000s. The icing on the cake is this cutting edge museum, with a bold design that resembles four ship bows.
The museum opened in 2012, and uses multisensory technology to send you back to Belfast in the 1910s when the Titanic and its sister ships Olympic and Britannic were assembled and launched.
Inside the shimmering exterior, you’ll find nine galleries spread across six floors mirroring the height of Titanic, as well as interactive exhibitions, an underwater cinema and gantry rides. This is the whole story, from dream to tragedy. Allow at least three hours to take in a mix of moving images, special effects and reconstructions – and do book tickets in advance. The price is 21 pounds, children under 5 go for free.
And you can buy this at the souvenirs store:
But as I said, our main goal was something else. I suppose you all have heard about the TV series “Game of Thrones” which was a total hit since the moment it aired and became our family favourite. Several times we visited different destinations connected with the show or shot there. And apparently, we are not the only one, since a few years ago a special exhibition was made with original costumes, armory and other items used in the shooting process. This exhibition traveled the world but we never managed to see it. Until now! Now it was not only close to us but also on the very same place that the last season of the show was shot and even the set was still standing on this very docks! I don’t know if you can imagine how thrilled and excited I was but there are no words to describe it…
So, we came to the Titanic Museum only because here we could take our pre-bought tickets online. There is no point to give you any details since the exhibition is no longer there and nobody knows what will be it’s next destination but If you are interested you can check it’s site now and then. I will try not to bore you with photos but the experience was amazing!
If you are interested you can check out this album with many more photos 🙂 And here is a part of the set, I was so emotional when I saw it…
After this exciting meeting it was time to go to the place where we would spend the night. It was far from the city center but it was reachable with just one bus, specifically chosen for the next morning, but I’ll tell you about about this misfortune events in the next diary. Here it is, I recommend it, it is a small detached house with its own entry and was very clean and tidy.
We checked in and went straight back because we had to buy some groceries for the next day and for some reason the stores in Ireland close by 7.30 PM.
This was the weirdest thing I had to get used to in Dublin, almost every store close at that time and the cafes at 4.30 PM… There were a few bigger stores working till 9 PM but the shopping malls shut down at 7.30 PM except at Thursdays and weekends…
So we combined a visit to the supermarket with a visit to an attraction, which was the store itself 🙂
With its impressive archways and bright blue-green ceiling, this building doesn’t look like the kind of place you’d typically visit when shopping for deodorant or frozen peas.
William J. Barre designed the building as a branch of the Provincial Bank of Ireland in the second half of the 19th century. He included elaborate details and frescos that were scrapped after he overspent the budget and died, leaving architecture firm Turner and Williamson to complete the job.
The result is a gorgeous building that’s missing some of its intended glamour, such as an exquisite seven-bay facade that lacks the elaborate sculpture that was intended for the pediment. But these missing details don’t make the building any less impressive.
From here we took a stroll through the town and saw a lot of art.
There are a few stained windows in the city, again an advertisement for Game of Thrones. You can see a lot of artifacts and destinations in North Ireland advertised with Game of Thrones as the show made a huge impact for country’s tourism in the ten years it was aired.
There were also many street art projects:
In Belfast as in many others towns in the United Kingdom there is a monument of Prince Albert, Queen’s Victoria husband. Here it is the Albert Memorial Clock – at just under 35 metres this neo-Gothic Victorian monument is a handy wayfinder on Queens Square, by the left bank of the River Lagan. That square lies on land reclaimed from the river, and the clock tower was built in the late-1860s in memory of Queen Victoria’s consort and husband Prince Albert.
The clock is just upriver from the docks and would have been a useful vantage point to see the Titanic’s launch in 1911, but is sadly closed to visitors today.
The marshy ground underfoot has left the tower with a 1.3-metre lean, which was even worse until a preservation project in the early 2000s.
We started to look for a place to have a dinner and on Victoria Square saw this beauty – the Jaffe Fountain. Otto Jaffe, Belfast’s first and so far only Jewish Lord Mayor and he erected the Jaffe Memorial fountain in 1874 to commemorate his father, who had funded the building of Belfast’s first synagogue at Great Victoria Street.
Right next to it is a pub, I recommend it – The Kitchen Bar. There you can have a traditional meal, a lot of beer and, of course, you listen to live music. I ate the standard fish and chips but my husband chose a beef stew, that he highly praised.
In the next few lines I will tell you about other interesting sites you can visit in Belfast if you have more time than us. We surely would but the next day was planned with something else…
Established as a private park 1828, it would be almost 70 years before the Botanic Gardens were fully opened to everyday people. The thing you have to see is the Palm House, built at the turn of the 1840s and one of the first curvilinear glasshouses anywhere in the world. The building was put together by the Irish iron founder Richard Turner, who would go on to build the iconic glasshouses at Kew at London and Glasnevin in Dublin.
The Northern Ireland Assembly sits at this Grade A-listed parliament building nicknamed the “House on the Hill” in the leafy Stormont Estate. The ceremonious Neoclassical complex is fronted by a statue of the Irish Unionist politician Lord Carson, standing on an axis with the portico and approached by the kilometre-long Prince of Wales Avenue.
There are six pillars in the portico, each representing one of Northern Ireland’s counties, while the building is 365 feet wide, each for day of the year. The estate is surprisingly open: You can go inside to be wowed by Sir Arnold Thornely’s architecture, attend debates and committee hearings, and join a free guided tour.
A Grade A-listed building owned by the National Trust, the Crown Liquor Saloon is an exuberant Victorian gin palace going back to the 1880s. This unmissable stop on the Golden Mile is famed for its highly ornate decoration produced by the same Italian craftsmen who worked on the city’s churches.
There are intricate wood carvings on the ceiling and on the ten booths (for reserved Victorian drinkers). Fitting for a port city, the style is a clash of cultures, and has hints of Hindu temples in its textured columns and multi-coloured plasterwork along the bar.
At the southern boundary of the Cave Hill Country Park is a Scottish Baronial-style stately home, built in the 19th century by George Chichester, 3rd Marquess of Donegall. The name of the building comes from the Norman Belfast Castle, originally at the very heart of the city.
After that stronghold was burned down at the start of the 18th century, its owners, the Chichesters, moved to this location in the suburbs. The Scottish Baronial style is a mix of Renaissance and Gothic, and the house is endowed with corner turrets, stepped gables and false machicolations.
From the grounds you can take in far-ranging vistas of Belfast, and inside is a visitor centre, antiques shop and restaurant.
In places Belfast is a city still divided along Loyalist and Protestant, and Republican and Catholic lines.
They might seem like relics from a different era, but the Peace Lines have increased in number since the Good Friday Agreement brought an end to the Troubles in 1998. The first walls were put up in the late-60s and as of 2018 there are almost 60 Peace Lines, adding up to a total 34 kilometres.
Something as sensitive as these barriers needs an in-depth guided tour, which you can do in a black cab with someone who has lived through Belfast’s violent flare-ups.
This slice of history may not be around much longer as the Northern Ireland Executive is committed to removing the barriers over the next decade.
Off the M1 on the road to Lisburn in the south, Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon Park is over 50 hectares of natural and landscaped parkland.
In undulating county you can ramble through meadows, forest, along riverbanks and into a variety of gardens.
The Japanese Garden, Camellia Trials and Walled Gardens are a joy, while the formal Rose Garden has 40,000 roses and hosts the ever-popular Rose Week every July.
In the park grounds is Wilmont House, built at the start of the 1760s by the Stewarts. This Scottish landed family introduced large-scale carrot farming to Northern Ireland.
On the northwest limit of Belfast’s Botanic Gardens, the Ulster Museum has a bit of everything, from a masterpiece by Jacob Jordaens to dinosaur skeletons and an Egyptian mummy.
People with an eye for decorative items can peruse a wealth of glassware, ceramics, textiles, costumes, jewellery and metalwork.
From the distant past there are polished Neolithic axes, pieces of jewellery and the mummy of Takabuti, a noblewoman from Thebes during the Twenty-fifth Dynasty of Egypt.
Some other cool things to see are a slice from a meteorite, jewellery from a Spanish Armada wreck and the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Mairead Corrigan.
This is the end of this travel diary of Belfast and I want to mention that since you set foot in the town you can fell that the UK hold the power here longer than in Ireland. The building are way more opulent and stately that the ones in Dublin. In the stores it was cheaper, no matter that you had to pay in pounds…
Overall, I liked the city no matter that it wasn’t something grand or amazing. I think it’s a lovely start for a trip to the countryside, which as in Ireland, is a lot prettier than the towns.
Stay tuned and don’t stop travelling ( when we have this chance again)!