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Buddies in Belfast

Ever since Will and I knew we were going to be studying abroad in Scotland, we had talked about taking a weekend trip to Ireland.  Originally we thought we would go the the most well known Irish city of Dublin, however once we got to Scotland and began talking to other people about it, we learned that Dublin is somewhat overrated and incredibly expensive.  Our Irish friend here, Alan, told us, perhaps a little biased, that instead we should visit his home town of Belfast, where we could still get a real Irish experience.  Belfast is a city in Northern Ireland and is thus part of the UK, so we figured traveling there would be a little easier.  So last Friday we packed up, and literally sailed off to jolly ‘ol Ireland.

We found a good deal on a train/ferry ticket to Belfast from Glasgow, so after a two hour train ride south from Glasgow to a little coastal town of Stranrear, we boarded our StenaLine ferry and were off to Belfast.

Inside the ferry.  It incredibly nice and comfortable. They had a bunch of shops, eating and gaming areas, as well as free movies to help pass time on the crossing.  Will and I spent most of our time studying anatomy, seeing as how we had a quiz the Monday after we got back.

Stunning view of the sun beginning to set as we made our crossing.

It was about 5:30 when we finally pulled into the port at Belfast, which in the UK this time of the year means that it has already been dark for about forty five min.  We caught a bus into the city center, and wandered around the city for a bit, picking up some sandwich making supplies at a local Tesco for dinner, and finally making it to our hostel.

After settling in and locking up our backpacks, we made our way into the kitchen and enjoyed our homemade sandwiches as we watched the UK version of American Idol on tv with a few other residents of the hostel.  That night was the 5th of November, which is a famous UK holiday known as Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes night that celebrates the failure of Guy Fawke’s attempt to blow up the Parliament building and assassinate King James I in the early 17th century.   Back home in Glasgow, there were to be city wide celebrations with fireworks galore, so since we were still in the UK we were hoping not to miss out on some of the festivities.  However, after talking to a few people, we learned that it is not as popular of a holiday in Northern Ireland, and they sort of lump the celebrations in with Halloween.

So, slightly disappointed, Will and I passed some time looking through a 1981 Guiness Book of World Records we found in the hostel, laughing at some of the most absurd records to have ever been broken or recorded.  Of course lots of these were out of date, but it was a fun way to pass some time before heading out for the evening.  Once we had exhausted our interest in the obscure successes of people, we made our way over to the Crown Bar, one of the oldest and most famous pubs in Belfast, and one we had heard lots of good things about from friends who had visited previously.

Crown Bar (this picture was taken the next day)

The Crown Bar has an incredibly unique and ornate Victorian decor, with intricate wood carvings and cozy booths. Once we got there, we were greeted with a voucher for a free pint of Beck’s beer after answering a few survey questions.  We were lucky enough to snag a booth after a group had left, and not five minutes after we had sat down, a family of locals asked if they could join us.  We of course happily agreed, this type of meeting exactly what we were hoping for.  The family was a couple and their son, and the mother’s father.  The grandfather was originally from Spain, but later moved to Ireland where he met is wife and settled down.  The kid was a senior in high school and ironically hoping to go the University of Glasgow and study medicine.  We talked for about and hour and a half about a whole manner of things from politics and healthcare to swapping stories about world travels.  They were even kind enough as to treat Will and I to a couple pints of Guinness, the true Irishman’s drink.  After giving us some pointers on what to see in Belfast, we all headed over to Fibber McGee’s to listen to some traditional Irish folk music, and Will and I had a song dedicated to us as the visiting Americans.  We had a great night and a wonderfully cultural experience that we will never forget.

The next morning we awoke relatively bright and early and made a plan of attack to see everything Belfast has to offer.  After talking with the manager of the hostel, he recommended we take a bus tour to see as much of the city as we could since we only had a short amount of time in the city.  Before we got our bus tickets, we first decided to go and visit the St. George’s Market, which we learned about the night before.  There we strolled around looking at all of the fresh produce and foods, as well as a variety of handmade goods.   Since it was getting close to lunch and we had only had some leftover bread from the night before for breakfast, we decided to try and sample some authentic Irish food.  We found a little kiosk that was selling cups of Irish beef stew for only 2 pounds; we didn’t need any more convincing than that.  Unlike typical stew that is more brothy, this was more like mashed potatoes with big potato chunks, hunks of beef, cut up and boiled carrots and smothered with a hardy gravy.  It was exactly what we were looking for, warmed us up and hit the spot.

Refueled, we made our way to the bus stop to pick up our tickets for a hop-on, hop-off bus tour of the city.  Tickets were only five pounds for the commentated tour of the city.  Unfortunately, we got there right before they were set to go, so the only seats that were open were on the second level of the double-decker, outside in the cold.  We bravely bundled up an prepared for the cold journey.  Despite the cold and lack of volume of the guides commentary, we still enjoyed the tour immensely and learned lots about Belfast and it’s troubled history.

Belfast is situated at the end of a long bay and at the mouth of the River Lagan, so it is an ideal location for shipbuilding, and was made famous for this immense industry.  The Titanic was actually built here in 1911.

Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, is home to the Stormont Estate, which houses Northern Ireland’s Parliament.

Belfast and the River Lagan.

Belfast Peace Wall

This wall was built in response to “The Troubles” a conflict which raged throughout Northern Ireland from 1969 to 2001 between two opposing paramilitary parties, the Republicans or Nationalists and the Loyalists of Unionists, Catholics and Protestants respectively.  This conflict was based upon the whole idea of Northern Ireland as a part of the United Kingdom.  The Nationalists wanted one, unified Ireland, but the Unionists wished to remain a part of the UK.  These desires, along with deep-seeded religious hatred, spurned numerous acts of violence throughout Northern Ireland.  Belfast was the epicenter of this violence, and on one day, “Bloody Friday” the Nationalists detonated 22 bombs in the city, killing 9 people.  All in all, the entire conflict took the lives of over 1,500 people.  The Peace Wall above was built to segregate the smaller Catholic neighborhood from the rest of the Protestant city, in hopes to quell the violence.  The wall instead had the opposite effect, becoming a symbol of oppression, and prompted even more acts of terror.  The conflict is considered to have ended, however tensions between these two populations are still high, and The Troubles have left a lasting impact on the city and it’s people.

After our tour, Will and I headed to a small local coffee shop to warm up after our frigid journey.  It was still only about 3 o’clock, so we decided to wander around the city on foot a bit, and went to take a look at the Ulster Museum since admission was free.

Queen’s University

Humongous Irish Wolf Hound at the Ulster Museum.  This dog was at least 4 feet tall.

Extinct Irish Elk- had the largest antlers of any known deer species.

Botanical Gardens outside the museum.  They were preparing for some sort of Indian/Irish hybrid folk music concert.

Interesting combo if I do say so myself…

Belfast Opera House

City Hall at dusk

City Hall by night.

Since it was our last night in Belfast, we decided to find a good local pub to get some food.  We went to the Kitchen Bar, enjoyed fish and chips with a Guiness as we watched the Ireland vs South Africa rugby game on tv.  Unfortunately Ireland lost by 3 points, right at the end of the game, but it was still an exciting match.  After dinner, we headed back to the hostel for a warm shower and a nap, after a long, cold, and wet day of sightseeing.

We woke refreshed and ready for another night out.  Tonight, we headed over to Robinson’s Bar and enjoyed some locally brewed ale, Smithwick’s, which we loved, but later learned was scorned by most Irishmen because it didn’t hold a candle to the true Irish beer, Guinness.  At Robinson’s, Will and I were simply standing by ourselves chatting, when a young, local couple came up to us and struck up conversation.  As it turns out, like guy, Finley, had been to the US a few times and absolutely loved it and loved Americans, and when he overheard our accents, he told his girlfriend that he had to come over and talk to us.  The rest of our night passed much the same way as the last, chatting with Finley and his girlfriend Sarah about a whole manner of things, again being treated to a couple pints, despite our willingness to pay for our own.  After a couple hours at Robinson’s we accompanied Finley and Sarah to a different bar and met some of their friends, being shown off like a couple of celebrities.  It was another wonderful night with great, friendly company.

The next morning was relatively uneventful because we had to catch our bus back to the ferry at 10:45.  We awoke with just enough time to pack up and head back over to St. George’s Market for a couple of breakfast sandwiches since everywhere else in the city was closed since it was a Sunday.  We made our bus, hopped on the ferry and started our journey back to Scotland.

Ferry Port in Belfast

Coast of Scotland

Scottish countryside from the train.

The trip back was long an peaceful, and I spent most of the time looking out the window at the countryside pass by reflecting on the events of the weekend.  I can remember before coming to Scotland to beware that lots of people may express and anti-American sentiment.  However, my experience thus far in all of my travels has been the complete opposite.  People seem to be fascinated by us, and are more than willing to strike up a conversation.  Sure they may have different political views or opinions about American policy, but all they want is an inside look into a country that dominates the media and pop culture, and it has been a definite pleasure to be able to provide that to them because I get just as much out of it in return.

As we pulled into Glasgow Central station, it was odd to me how normal it felt to be walking around the streets of Glasgow.  I have come to know them well, and it really felt like I was returning home.  I am now on the back end of my time here in Scotland and I can’t believe time has passed so quickly, and I’m sure it will only continue to speed up until I set foot on the plane back to the states.  Although I still have a few more trips scheduled before I leave, I hope to soak up as much of the Scottish culture as I can while I still have the chance.

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