“Why Belfast?” was the response I received after telling one of my co-workers about my puente. I was kind of surprised by the comment (so opposite from the “ooohs and ahhhs” I had going on in my head) and he elaborated by describing the political conflict that has defined the city for the past several decades. Honestly the true answer is that that’s where the discount flight landed… but I want to continue my travel piece for GAPBRAVE and rave about how much I enjoyed Belfast.
The first “side” of Northern Ireland’s struggle is those who want Northern Ireland to remain a part of the United Kingdom, mostly consisting of those who consider themselves British and Protestant. The other is the Irish nationalists, mostly Roman Catholic, who want to leave the UK and unite all of Ireland. The conflict is characterized by disputes between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the British government, full of riots, strikes, and violence. It’s assumed to have ended in the “Good Friday” Agreement of 1998 which declares Ireland will remain a part of the UK unless a majority of Northern Ireland votes otherwise.
However, political tension still exists. During my time in Belfast I stayed in the eastern part of the city, which has an entire street framed by political murals. Some depict masked IRA soldiers declaring war while others were created in memory of innocent people killed. East Belfast also holds a street dividing the Protestant and Catholic communities. This can still be the site of minor public disturbances, but I want to look past this conflict and describe what else I truly saw in Belfast.
We got off a bit on the wrong foot with an exceptionally awkward experience at the Belfast International Airport. When we landed, we were confused by customs because everyone was in the “EU Passports” line. NO ONE was in the “All Other Passports” line. Each time we tried to glance ahead, we received fierce glares from fellow travelers assuming we were passing them in line. Fast forward 25 minutes– we are in the wrong line and haven’t filled out the necessary form. We are the last ones in the entire line to go through customs. Also, customs stops us because we don’t know the address of where we are staying. Frantically, I try to call our host, Daniel, but no answer. So the jolly ol’ chap let’s us slip by after seeing my puppy dog eyes. After walking through a seemingly vacant airport (still confused by that..) we boarded the bus and headed along.
Next I must say that my favorite part of Belfast besides Jay’s constant imitation of an Irish accent was our company. Or we were their company I should say. For our first time Couchsurfing we stayed with a young couple from Vienna, Austria. We met Agnes first, meeting up in front of City Hall, and she treated us to dinner. Although her and Daniel worked a lot while we were there, they went far out of their way to spend time with us whenever they were off. They showed us around the city and the area they live in, helped us set up the tour we wanted to take and find bus times, and took us to their favorite pubs for dinner, drinks, and listening to music. We had so much fun with them! I feel like our personalities really meshed and we kept finding small, random things we have in common.
A gem of Belfast is the St. George Market. It is a special treat for those used to only shopping at commercial grocery stores, especially at Christmas time. The market is open every weekend Friday through Sunday, and each day has a new main feature. Some examples include regional crafts, fresh spices, artisan coffee, baked goods, freshly-caught seafood, and home-grown vegetables. Just walking in the building can make your mouth water. I enjoyed a traditional Belfast Bap breakfast sandwich, local coffee and an artisan crepe. I need to perfect my ordering in Spanish ASAP so that I can take advantage of the mercado down our street in Logrono.
Something I noticed about Belfast was the abundance of music. Throughout the city center you can find street musicians playing classic Christmas tunes by harmonica or even mellow hit covers by guitar. The night-life in Belfast is defined by music. A traditional pub can be transformed if only a live band is playing, and those I witnessed were pretty great. Of course, a trip to Northern Ireland wouldn’t be complete without a visit to a few public houses. Belfast is home to some of the oldest pubs in all of Ireland. The most famous include The Crown Liquor Saloon, The Duke of York, and Kelly’s Cellars. I was able to visit Kelly’s—a small hole-in-the-wall erected almost 300 years ago in 1720. This is the place to be for traditional Irish music and grabbing a pint of Guinness, Magners Cider, or Smithwicks—if only you can find a place to sit! On our last night we started off at Alley Cat for dinner drinks and ended up at a place I can’t remember the name of where we found crazy, loud techno music! The place was decked out in Christmas lights and the Irish partying… hard. After a couple tequila shots Agnes and I were dancing the night away. It was a great send-off!
Maybe I’m too sentimental, but leaving Belfast made me tear up a little bit. Mostly because of the new found friendships with Daniel and Agnes, who seemed to become close friends in such a short period of time. I got to thinking about how relationships are– when you meet someone your lives cross paths, during this time you are influencing each other whether good or bad, then you head off in your own way… you don’t know if you’ll meet again but that relationship has, in some way, shaped you. The rest of my sadness was leaving such a beautiful place that made me feel at home in a way I hadn’t yet experienced during our travels.