Expat Chronicles: A Wee Trip to Belfast

Writing a travel blog about a short trip to a city you’d never visited before can be a tricky business. You can’t really soak much up in only a couple of days, and your experience might have been influenced by some kind of weird outliers that don’t give a true picture of the place.

It is with these qualifications that I share a few thoughts on our trip up to Belfast, Northern Ireland, this past weekend. We traveled there mainly because Northern Ireland is in the UK, meaning we wouldn’t have to deal with any weird international travel rules related to the coronavirus. We had thought about visiting Dublin, in the Republic of Ireland, but decided it’s best to stay within the UK for now.

We arrived in Belfast around noon on Saturday to a city immersed in four different dynamics:

  1. It was a long holiday weekend, so many of the locals and visitors were in a festive mood.
  2. The weather was unseasonably warm and sunny. Temperatures hovered around 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 Celcius), under clear blue skies. Normally, it would have been closer to 50 degrees F (10 C), and overcast.
  3. It was a payday week.
  4. The city had just lifted many of its COVID-19 restrictions, meaning folks could cram the pubs and restaurants.

The combination of these four things turned downtown Belfast into something resembling Spring Break in Fort Lauderdale or Cozumel. The streets were crowded with merry makers, and the pubs and restaurants were bursting to the seams, with impossibly long lines to get in. We learned early on that if you hadn’t booked any reservations, you were shit out of luck.

Man, it was a wild scene. Belfast is not a particularly huge city – I believe the metro area population is about 600,000 – but downtown was packed, mostly with twenty-somethings on a mission to party like it’s 1999. Many were dolled up, like they were part of bachelor or bachelorette parties. But every so often you’d see a small group of tatted-up lads, often shirtless, looking ready to rumble or barf.

You didn’t see a lot of kids or families downtown, at least where we roamed. On certain streets it seemed like we were the only family with kids. We were even turned away from one pub because it’s “not insured for children.”

This was our first trip to Belfast, so I don’t have any previous experiences to go on. But something tells me we caught one of those rare weekends when all the stars lined up for this kind of action – warm weather, long holiday weekend, post-lockdown, payday, Party Central. I can’t imagine it’s as wild as this every weekend.

In fact, a lot of the restaurant folks hinted as much whenever we were turned away at the door, telling us: “Aye, it’s pee wik and the wather’s whaarm and it’s the wee hewliday wakeund.”

That’s my Northern Ireland translation for “Yes. It’s pay week, and the weather is warm, and it’s the holiday weekend.”

Interesting side note: All this talk of it being pay week conjured up images of the Old West, when the Wells Fargo stagecoach would arrive in town once a month, hauling pay to railroad workers and cowboys, and the townpeople would crowd the saloons, knocking back whiskey and singing bawdy songs and generally whooping it up.

Anyway, my wife had the presence of mind to book us a table at a restaurant for dinner Saturday. The earliest reservation available was at 8:30, but at least we had it. I’m not sure what we would have done otherwise.

The restaurant – Berts Jazz Bar – had an old-school vibe, with red leather dining booths, white linens, and excellent food in the steak/seafood/soup vein. Unfortunately, there was no live jazz, but they did play recorded jazz on the sound system. I sipped a very dry Beefeater’s martini. Susan had a red wine. Our young daughters did shots of Jager. JUUUUUUST kidding. They had fruit juice.

The next night we ate at another fancy place, called The Great Room, which also conjured up images of old money from way back when.

Interesting side note: The grocery and convenience stores downtown don’t seem to sell beer or wine. You have to go outside the downtown perimeter for that. I don’t know why. Weird.

So, Belfast. Very cool place, and worth visiting. As I’ve written before after other travels, Belfast is another one of those European cities that punches way above its weight. These tend to be cities that aren’t as big or well known as London, Paris or Istanbul, but they have a lot to offer in terms of culture, nightlife and entertainment, with beautiful scenery and excellent food. Others that come to mind are Lisbon, Brussels and Edinburgh.

Belfast has the added bonus of being very cheap compared to most of the European capitals we have visited. Also: You see a lot of amazing street art, maybe more than any city we’ve visited over here.

Downtown Belfast has numerous shopping and dining choices, as well as very lively and walkable streets. But other parts of town have their own charms. I particularly liked the area near Queens University and the Botanic Gardens, which has a much more relaxed vibe than downtown, but still offers plenty to see and do. The restaurants tend to be more ethnically diverse, with Himalayan, Nepalese, Cuban, Japanese, Chinese, Middle Eastern and Turkish choices along the main drag. We ate very good Japanese one day, and an excellent traditional Irish lunch the next, featuring seafood chowder, crusty bread, and sausage rolls.

The main drag also has numerous bookstores and charity shops. For bargain hunters, it’s the place to go for used books, clothes, accessories, record albums, toys, and doo-dads. I bought four books in Belfast. The rest of the family loaded up on clothes, shoes, and toys. Packing it all up for the plane ride home was quite a feat of engineering.

The Botanic Gardens are located in a park near the university, which makes for a nice place to chill out and commune with the grass, trees and flowers. The university area really reminded us of American college towns, ala Boston’s Back Bay. In fact, Belfast might have resembled America more than any European city we’ve visited. There was a fairly large American-style mall downtown, with many of the same shops and food court eateries you see in the States. Belfast International Airport is tucked way out in some green, pretty farmland, and on the taxi into town you pass some very American-looking subdivisions with single-family homes.

We spent part of one morning visiting the Titanic Museum on the other side of the River Lagan. It’s located in a kind of refurbished industrial area called, appropriately enough, the Titanic Quarter. You can see shipyards and ports nearby, and green highlands just in the distance. Belfast apparently went through a massive industrial revolution in the late 19th century, with tens of thousands pouring into the city to work at the various factories, ironworks, and textile mills.

The Titanic was built in Belfast, and the museum is a great, interactive resource for learning about when the ship was built, how it was built, who built it, and why it was considered a brilliant feat of modern technology at the time. The fact that the Titanic will be forever famous for hitting an iceberg and sinking to the bottom of the ocean is tragic on multiple levels. The museum building itself is gorgeous.

The greeter at the museum store noticed our accent and asked where we were from. When we said we lived in London, but had moved there from North Carolina, his eyes lit up, and he went into a little monologue about the Appalachian mountains, and how the culture there is heavily influenced by Scotch-Irish culture. Which is true. I went to college in the Appalachian mountains, and the Scotch-Irish culture runs deep in the music, food, and heritage.

“I like America,” the man told me. “But the real America, not the America you see in the movies. The working class America.”

I nodded and said I understood, even though it’s always been my experience that there is not any one real America. There are maybe thirty or forty real Americas. Whenever I hear an American tell me about the real America, I want to tell them to get out of the damn house more. But when an Irishman says it, I give it a pass.

At least the man said it in an accent I could mostly understand. Since moving to London three-and-a-half years ago, I always found Irish accents to be pretty easy to understand. But I must have been hearing people from the Republic of Ireland, further south. Because the Northern Irish accent can be hard to decipher to American ears. The one thing I know for sure is that they say “wee” a lot – like every other sentence. I took to using it a lot myself, which annoyed the hell out of our daughters, which only made me want to use it more….

One last thing about our trip: While walking or riding around Belfast, the city’s history was never far from my mind. We would be winding through certain neighborhoods, and they immediately brought to mind the news reports I used to see during the 1970s and 1980s.

Back then, Belfast seemed like maybe the most violent and divided city on earth because of the “troubles” between Catholics who wanted an independent country, and Protestants who wanted to remain in the UK. Protests and terrorist bombings seemed to be a weekly event in Belfast. Most of us only knew the city through the grim and deadly headlines.

The city we saw over the long weekend looked nothing like that other city from way back when. Here’s hoping it stays that way.

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