A day in… Belfast

By | Category: Travel destinations

Tesco's, Royal Avenue

If I am asked what I remember most about the city, I could mention the links with Titanic but if I were honest it would be a branch of Tesco.
But before the local tourist people weep in frustration, let me explain. This Tesco is in Royal Avenue, slightly set back from the pavement. In other cities and towns it could be the assembly rooms or a town hall. It is white with pillars shading the doors and, through them, you can see the aisles, tills and produce. But the ceiling and some of the walls are in a vibrant blues. There is a glass dome overhanging the check-outs and you wonder whether the shoppers stop and wonder at what they see. Certainly, you won’t find it in most of the guide books (I haven’t read them all) nor in the material you get from the tourist information people.

Served by two airports, the closest to the centre of Belfast is the George Best Belfast City Airport. The connecting bus service (£2 a single, £3 return) takes you into the bus station where you can switch to buses or trains. (Great Victoria Street station) Although the city centre is walkable, if you plan on visiting the Ulster Museum or the Titanic Quarter and museum, (it opens on 31st March) I’d suggest you spend £2.90 on a day long bus pass. The single bus or train fare within the city is £1.40 (a return, £1.80) so provided you do more than two trips, the day pass is better value.
There is another pass called the Belfast Visitor Pass which you can buy for one, two or three  days and costs £6.50, £10.50 and £14 respectively. A child’s pass is cheaper. Is this worth it? You get free travel on the local buses just like the cheaper pass but you can also use the trains. It also gives you discounts ranging from 10-25 percent off entry to some attractions and the zoo but if you weren’t planning to go to some, think twice and do the maths first. If you take a city bus tour (of which there are five, then there are hefty discounts if you have the Pass.) Remember the Ulster Museum – as a national museum – has free entry but with the Pass you can get 10 percent off purchases in the gift shop.

At the moment in Belfast, most of the talk is about Titanic. There are exhibitions planned, a new museum, there are public sculptures looking like copper-clad tusks in Royal Avenue that list the names of some of the more famous White Star Line ships (look down onto the pavement for the details of each) and near the Odyssey entertainment complex there is a model of the Titanic vertically suspended in front of a block of flats.

Hanging Titanic

The Titanic Quarter, an area east of the city and adjacent to where the ferries dock, is undergoing fantastic change as blocks of flats are built, a science park has opened and they ready the landscape for the opening day. Harland and Wolff, who built the Titanic for the White Star Line, still operate and their two gigantic yellow cranes – called Goliath and Samson – dominate the landscape. They are hardly forty years old, still in use, but already scheduled monuments. Much of the old buildings have been demolished but some of the offices remain and sightseers crowd under an arch in the old building to take photographs of the new museum.

The Pumping House is still there, open to the public, and you can take a tour. But outside the Pumping House, the old Thompson Dry Dock is still there, the very dock in which the Titanic was constructed. At first sight it looks smaller than you would imagine it to be. Its only when you walk around the whole thing that you appreciate its size. It would be nice to go down to the bottom of the dock which, I think, would give an even more impressive view of it but that is not allowed. Around the outside there are still the railway lines that would have ferried in the materials used in the work as are the fittings that would have held her in place. So too are a stack of the keel blocks on which the Titanic would have sat as she was being built. Each weighed four and a half tons.

The new Titanic museum

The soon-to-be opened museum is a spectacle of polished squares adorning what I think looks like a geometric propeller shaft which surrounds a glass structure inside. It is actually an image of three hulls of the Titanic, Oceanic and Britannic which inspired the architect when he saw an old photograph. More on this after it opens at the end of March.

There is one other sight that is easily overlooked as most visitors just head straight for the Titanic links. HMS Caroline is moored here, the only surviving ship from the Battle of Jutland in the WWI. The second oldest surviving ship in the navy (the eldest, Nelson’s HMS Victory, is moored in Portsmouth,) she is still used for the naval reserve and, although in reasonable condition, could use a bit of TLC to improve her looks.

There are quite a few shopping areas in the middle of the city and the retail heart is the Royal Avenue (which is dominated by Castle Court Centre) and the side streets off it. But make a special visit to Victoria Square. Here there is a central dome at the top of a circular staircase (use the lift to go up) and you can get a good view of the city and the hills outside. The wooden cladding around the centre makes it a striking piece of public architecture in its own right. And go to St George’s Market in May Street, a fresh food and produce area where you can get the pick of Northern Ireland’s best. On Sundays it becomes an antiques and craft market.

Victoria Square Shopping

The architecture is something that you cannot miss as you walk around. The well-known City Hall is a striking piece of grand Victoriana but spare some time for some less well-known ones. Opposite each other on the corners of Royal Avenue and North Street are two buildings. One is the art deco Sinclair building but which has a gone-to-the-wall retailer, Grand Central, on it at ground level. The building is in splendid condition unlike the other 1930’s building of the Bank of Ireland. Daubed with anti-bank graffiti, it needs some upkeep but still is easy to see how grand it once would have looked. Unlike the Belfast Telegraph building and the library which were constructed in the red stone that marks many of the Victorian buildings and are in splendid condition. Go up to the reference section in the library to see another doom that lets light flood onto the readers. Another building you should see is Café Vaudeville, once a bank, now a popular nightspot. From the outside it doesn’t look very imposing. Inside, and you get a surprise. With its marble floors, glass dome and palm plants it strikes a very different and glamorous appeal. Even the outside of the King’s Hall – a conference centre – in stark blue and pink recalls the art deco days.

can you see the join?

To the south of the city and past the grand structure that makes up part of Queen’s University, are the botanic gardens and the widely known Ulster Museum. The gardens contain a glass greenhouse called the Palm House and which is a bit like the glass building in Kew Gardens in London. And no wonder, because they were both designer by Dubliner, Richard Turner. Only Belfast’s came first!
The museum began as a fairly typical looking early twentieth century museum built of white stone with pillars and that air of solidity. When it needed to expand, the additions were made of concrete and continued the lines of the stone but without windows and then evolved into modern concrete styles. You can easily see the join where it happened, the intermediary stage where the architect tries to combine the two and then the modern. The information sign outside points out the success of this achievement. Not everyone might be convinced. Today, images generally only show the modern entrance area. What they will have no criticism of is the light and airy central area inside. But go into the different rooms and you can get confused with the walkways and end up in the same areas. Some areas worth visiting could be the collection of gun barrels recovered from Spanish ships that sank during the Armada as the fled before the storms around the west coast of Ireland in 1588 and the street art exhibition complete with Banksy prints. In the history section there is an exhibit of the period of the Troubles. Composed of just black and white images, no memorabilia or personal reminiscences on tape for you to listen to, it is eerily effective despite the fact that the Troubles were neither black nor white.

Belfast, shipbuilding and the sea are entwined in history. So it comes as a surprise that after you pass the ferry terminal and the estuary becomes the River Lagan it narrows rapidly and becomes no wider than many ordinary rivers. The change is as dramatic as you see in Belfast itself as it has moved from shipbuilding to financial services and from industrial city to “hot” tourist destination which is how National Geographic Travel Magazine has labelled it.

Titanic is everywhere

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