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New and old buildings, including the Albert Clock, on the Belfast waterfront. Photos by Connie Maria Westergaard. Click on photo to enlage.
New and old buildings, including the Albert Clock, on the  Belfast waterfront

Belfast, Northern Ireland: From Blast to Bloom

The bombings and sectarian shootings have stopped in Belfast. The only thing exploding now is the number of visitors. Over the past decade the Northern Irish capital has risen from its violent past like a phoenix from its ashes.

The agressive wall murals are slowly being replaced by more positive ones. And although the world’s most bombed hotel, The Europa, is still standing in Belfast, new luxury hotels have entered the stage as well as flagship stores.

It has been five years since I last visited Belfast. Back then it was already a promising city, climbing the lists of new hot travel destinations. Today, in 2010, it has been transformed almost beyond recognition.

The Northern Irish capital was once a place to steer clear of because of sectarian abductions, kneecappings and shootings between Loyalists and Nationalists as well as occasional bombings. Now say hello to a completely different city - one determined to rise from its bloody past.

Separated from the rest of Ireland as a result of the Anglo-Irish Treaty between Ireland and colonial power Britain in 1920-21, Northern Ireland’s two communities - a minority of Catholics wishing to be reunited with the Republic of Ireland and a majority of Protestants pledging their allegiance to the British Crown - were left to fight their own internal battle.

For a while the armed conflict seemed to cease, but in the late 1960’s tensions grew due to violation of the Catholic community’s civil rights. Many people turned to terrorist movements like the IRA, UDA, UFF and UVF for protection and counter strikes.

Famous Loyalist sniper mural in West Belfast. Click on photo to enlarge.
Famous Loyalist sniper mural in West Belfast

The 1970’s and 1980’s became the bloodiest decades in the history of Northern Ireland. However, since the peace agreement in 1998 there has been a ceasefire.

From terror to tourist attraction

Instead of running away from its violent past, Belfast has turned it to its advantage. After all who does not like a scary story?  The city’s visitors seem to love it.

The second most popular thing to do if you are a tourist in Belfast today is a black cab tour, which takes you around to political wall murals and former crime scenes along the Peace Line – the fences and walls still dividing the two communities today.

My cab driver’s guess is that they will all come down within the next decade, but it takes time to heal the wounds of violence. For now it is a tourist attraction, and an excellent one.

Black cab mural and Peace Line tour of West Belfast. Click on photo to enlarge.
Black cab mural and Peace Line tour of West Belfast

The most popular thing to do if you are a tourist in Belfast is a Titanic tour, another terrific story of death and horror – although nothing to do with the conflict. The world’s largest ship at the time, The RMS Titanic, was built in Belfast and sank on its maiden voyage from England to America in 1912. A thousand people were lost at sea.

What other city would take pride in a ship that sank? None, I think. But in Belfast they wash their hands and say: “Built by the Irish - sunk by the English.”

You can even buy a T-shirt with that in writing. Make sure to visit Belfast for the 100th anniversary of The Titanic in 2012. It will be quite an experience, I have been told.

The irony continues. Belfast is home to the most bombed hotel in the world. Ironically, The Europa Hotel is a very popular place to stay and not cheap at all.

Alternatively you can stop by the hotel for a drink or cup of tea. If you do, make sure you pay the pub across the road a visit too. The Crown Liquor Saloon is one of the oldest pubs in Belfast and a beloved landmark.

I tried getting a room at The Europa myself. But fear not, because hotels are growing out of the dirt as you are reading.

The famous Crown Bar in Belfast. Click on photo to enlarge.
The famous Crown Bar in Belfast

City make-over

Since 1999 twelve new hotels have opened in Belfast, increasing the number of hotel rooms by 60 percent. The most common hotel chains, like Hilton, Holiday Inn, Radisson Blu, Park Inn, Ramada Encore and soon also Marriott are all represented in the Northern Irish capital.

The pubs have always been there, but whereas they used to close early because of bomb threats, pubs as well as new posh cocktail bars and nightclubs stay open till late, making Belfast quite a party hub for the young at heart.

All over the city new building projects are shooting up. The Titanic Signature Project on Queen’s Island across the Lagan River being the most ambitious one. 

The new area by the waterfront called the Titanic Quarter is seeing the construction of the flagship: Titanic Signature Building – Northern Ireland’s largest built visitor attraction ever – which will include the Titanic Experience Exhibition - five linked interpretative galleries telling the story of the Titanic and Belfast’s wider maritime and industrial history. It is set to open in 2012.

Four new hotels including the Premier Inn and a new boutique hotel in the old Harland and Wolff offices are set to open in the near future.

In downtown the brand new shopping mall Victoria Square impresses with a lone line of flagship stores such as Apple, Calvin Klein, Hugo Boss, Levi’s and Tommy Hilfiger.

Belfast city center. Click on photo to enlarge.
Belfast city center

One thing which has not changed since I was in Belfast five years ago, are the locals. Their warmth, wit and hospitality are all the reasons you need to go.

 

For more information about Belfast

Titanic tours:  wwwtitanicwalk.com  or wwwtitanictours-belfast.co.uk

Black cab tours: www.cabtoursni.com or www.belfasttours.com

The Crown Saloon: www.crownbar.com

The Europa Hotel www.hastingshotels.com/europa-belfast

Victoria Square: www.victoriasquare.com

Conventions and Visitor Bureau www.gotobelfast.com

 

How to get to Belfast

Belfast City Airport: www.belfastcityairport.com

Belfast International Airport: www.belfastairport.com

Dublin Airport: www.dublinairport.com

Take a coach from Dublin Airport to Belfast. The drive is approximately two and a half hours. For more information: wwwtranslink.co.uk or wwwaircoach.ie

 

Connie Maria Westergaard

 

Connie Maria Westergaard is a freelance travel writer living in Denmark.

 

 

Read more GoNOMAD stories by Connie Maria Westergaard:

Inis Mór: As Irish As It Gets

Granny Goes to Greenland

Route 66: The Main Street of America

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