This week, Helen Moat gives herself and her bike a rest and heads for Northern Ireland where she is spoilt for choice as for ways of getting around
The view of Belfast from the west is a familiar sight to me: The Belfast Hills on one side, clouds scudding across the hillsides, the sky overhead a mixture of threatening black and baby blue; then the city in front of me with the bright yellow Harland and Wolff cranes towering over the buildings. I pass the cemetery on the edge of the city, where scenes of men in balaclavas raising their rifles to the sky at the funerals of terrorists are still emblazoned in my head; then the two high-rise nursing accommodation blocks, where the Royal nurses sometimes had to fling themselves on the floor at the height of the troubles. My sister, also a nurse, had a flat there during the troubles.
Driving along the West Link, the duel carriageway that carves through the heart of the city, the road is flanked by the ‘Peace Line’, a 25ft high wall in places, separating warring Loyalist and Republican communities. This is a city still divided by sectarian divisions, a tribalism that’s very much alive in parts of Belfast, despite the Peace Process.
You can take a black taxi to these communities in and around the Falls Road (the Republican areas) and the Shankall Road (the Loyalist areas) and hear a personal history of the Troubles – it won’t be objective, but it’ll be heart-felt. And you will have a clearer picture of what it was like to live in some of the most tense and dangerous areas of Belfast in the 70s, 80s and early 90s.
The people of Belfast are full of contradictions: they are passionate, fierce, loyal, resourceful, sharp, intelligent, vengeful, quick to anger and slow to forgive and forget (some of them are still remembering 1690 and beyond!). At the same time, they are among the kindest and friendliest people on the planet. When you’re in Belfast, it’s easy to forget that you are in Northern Ireland’s capital city and not in a village. The locals also have a wonderful, wicked sense of humour.
On the right I pass the canary yellow city hospital. Prince Charles looked at it on a visit to the city, and claimed it was one of the ugliest buildings in Europe. Now it’s affectionately known as ‘Camilla’.
I park up behind the Europa Hotel, where the world’s journalists holed up during the Troubles, despite the fact that the Europa was one of the most bombed buildings at that time. From now on in, I’m on foot, and I guarantee this is by far and the best way to see the city, for Belfast’s centre is small and compact.
Just two years ago, I’d met a friend in Belfast. She led me from the city centre down to the riverside. It took five minutes. I was astonished: in all the years I’d been to Belfast, I’d no idea that the River Lagan and Belfast Lough were so close to the centre. No one went there. It was a grim, industrial wasteland.
Now the riverside and docklands have been redeveloped like many other cities in Europe. I start my walk at the Queen Elizabeth Bridge. Close by, the Ring of Thanksgiving by Andy Scott, a 50ft high metal frame of a woman holding up a ring to the sky, is a symbol of hope and peace. Typical of the famous Belfast humour, the locals have come up with a wittier range of names for the sculpture such as ‘Nuala with the Hula’, ‘The Doll with the Ball’, and ‘The Thing with the Ring’.
With the river on my left, I head upstream, past The Belfast Barge, a floating maritime museum and café. You can stop here for refreshments, or head on to the Belfast Waterfront (an auditorium and concert hall), also a good watering hole, with its prime riverside location and glass-fronted galleries. At the end of the Riverside Walk, you can cut across to the University Quarter, home to Queen's University, the Ulster Museum and the Botanic Gardens.
Here you have a choice: you can walk back up to the city centre along University Road and Great Victoria Street, lined with little boutiques and eateries. I choose to stick with the river. I retrace my steps and cross the river at Albert Bridge and make my way towards the Titanic Quarter and the docks.
I head past the Odyssey with its multi-screen cinema, restaurants and the interactive science museum, W5, good fun for the young and young at heart. In the distance, I can see Titanic Belfast, an iconic aluminium-clad building, rising out of the dock wastelands like an ice-clad ship from the sea. Here in Belfast, the Titanic has been, in a sense, resurrected a century later: with the building of the Titanic Visitor Centre. Back in 1912, the city launched the mighty Titanic, designed and built in Belfast’s docks. At this time, the city was buzzing with success. Then the Titanic sank and the shipyards closed down. It was the prologue to ‘The Troubles’. By the 70s, Belfast had become a dark, strife-torn city. Fast-forward 40 years and Belfast is reclaiming its place in the world. No longer ashamed of its past (and happy to take ownership of its infamous ship again), Titanic Belfast is the largest Titanic attraction in the world and hugely popular.
Recently, I found out, my mother’s uncle Isaac had worked in the Drawing Office, producing many design drawings for the Titanic. He passed some of the drawings onto his family, but sadly they are no longer in the family’s possession: a family inheritance lost.
Apart from Titanic Belfast visitor centre, it’s worth visiting the Drawing Offices, the Pump House and the Dry Dock. Climb down the 44 feet to the bottom of the dry dock and you’ll begin to get a sense of the sheer scale of the Titanic. Inside Titanic Belfast, you can walk through the history of Belfast. As your silhouette mingles with the Victorian figures that hurry across huge projected images of Victorian Belfast, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve stepped back through history and are walking with ghosts.
I retrace my steps back through the marina and over the footbridge that takes me out by the Big Fish, another piece of street art in a city full of street installations. I make my way past Custom House and the Albert Memorial Clock, Belfast’s very own Leaning Tower of Pisa. Once again, that clock brings out the infamous Belfast humour with the locals jokingly referring to the clock tower as ‘having the time and the inclination.’
If you head through the pedestrianised area to Victoria Square shopping centre, it’s worth heading up to the glassed dome with its viewing platform. From there you’ll have 360 degree views of the hills, the city, the Lough and the sea beyond.
Come out at Donegal place, the main shopping thoroughfare and walk past the 50 foot high copper sculptures representing the masts of eight famous ships built in Belfast, including the Titanic. Ahead in Donegal Square is the City Hall, a striking baroque building. You can take one of the regular free tours of the building.
I always feel very emotional when I visit Belfast. It is the only city in the world that makes me feel this way. My home city, I often visited Belfast throughout the Troubles. Back then, I experienced the gloomy streets, the sealed off city centre, the constant body searches and the shop evacuations when there was a bomb scare. There was always tension in the air. Now this city is vibrant and full of vitality. National Geographic voted Belfast one of the 10 must-see destinations of 2012 with good reason. Head for the city and see for yourself why it’s now one of Europe’s most exciting and fascinating cities.
Walk the city
Grab a free map from the information centre and create your own route. You don’t really need a guide as there are information boards across the city
Belfast i-tours: Download a guide to your mobile, available from Belfast Welcome Centre
Follow the Titanic Trail along the River Lagan. It’s well sign-posted with explanation boards along the way.
Follow the sign-posted Merchant Trail. Belfast was a thriving, successful shipping and merchant city at the height of its powers when the Titanic was built.
Join a guided walking tour. Choose your interest. There are Ghost Walks, Political Tours, Titanic Tours and walks uncovering ‘Hidden Belfast’.
Other ways of getting around
Hire a bike or join a guided bike tour from the University or the Titanic Quarter
A guided tour of the Titanic Quarter by a more unusual method of transport
Tour Belfast Harbour and the Titanic area
Buy a metro ticket or take one of the guided open-top buses
Take a taxi tour of the Troubles
Helen Moat spent her childhood squished between siblings in her Dad's Morris Minor, travelling the length and breadth of Ireland: all for a soggy, sandy sandwich and a quick runaround on a damp beach before returning home on the same day. Strangely, it didn't put her off travelling – quite the reverse.
This year she plans to cycle from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul even though she's not that keen on cycling and hasn't a clue how to fix a puncture. And we'll be following her every step of the way. For more information, visit her website.