Belfast, a city long plagued by Troubles, might not be high on your list of travel destinations, but maybe it should be? Not because it’s particularly beautiful though it does have a lot to offer, but simply because you can, and that in itself is a big deal. Having chosen Belfast for it’s relatively close proximity to the Giant’s Causeway, a UNESCO World Heritage site, we had no idea just how much we would enjoy the visit.
In fact our visit to Belfast and the Antrim coast of Northern Ireland were probably the two most impactful days of our six-week journey through Ireland, the United Kingdom and Europe! This speaks volumes as our itinerary was filled with some of the world’s most famous and beautiful places, but travel isn’t just about tasting the food, enjoying the beauty and learning the history. It’s also about experiencing the culture through interactions with the people, seeing how they live their everyday lives and learning to be open to different points of view. Our visit to Northern Ireland was all of the above and more!
To better understand Belfast it’s important to understand at least a little bit about The Troubles. Fueled by earlier events in history The Troubles took place in the mid to later part of the 20th century. Though there are many factors, one key issue was whether or not Northern Ireland, which had become separated from the Republic of Ireland, would continue to be a part of the United Kingdom, or would/should it once again become part of the Republic. I don’t mean to oversimplify, but in a nutshell, many Protestants consider themselves British and have no wish to leave the UK, while many Catholics consider themselves Irish and wish to once again become part of what is now the Republic of Ireland.
I’m no expert on what is a very complicated situation in Northern Ireland, and rather than spend a lot of time paraphrasing what I learned online and during our tour, what I really hope to share with you are our personal experiences in the city and with the people we met there.
On the Edge of Peace
As a child I remember hearing about the troubles in Northern Ireland and Belfast. The nightly news painting a picture of a city plagued by terrorism, unsafe and divided. This was a place I was sure I would never visit. It never even crossed my mind. Yet here we were! Just the very idea that things have progressed enough for our visit to safely take place was so meaningful! The people we met and spent time with were some of the kindest and most pleasant of our entire trip.
The Troubles officially ended in 1998, but during our visit it became immediately clear to us that the peace, which exists today, is a tenuous one at best. Belfast is still very much a city divided, and when I say divided I mean quite literally. Walls or “peace lines” as they are known, some as high as 25 feet, separate the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. A number of these walls were built AFTER the 1998 peace agreement.
Many of the peace walls have gates which are at times staffed by police. They are open for passage during the day, but are closed at nights and in some locations on the weekends as well.
So, Is It Safe?
While I am a big proponent of stepping off the beaten path I’ve also learned that at times hiring a guide is best and this is definitely the case in a city like Belfast. After doing a bit of research I discovered the very highly rated Paddy Campbell’s Belfast Famous Black Cab Tours! I just can’t say enough about them! From the first email communication to the drop off at our hotel at the end of the day and every moment in between it was a perfect experience! No wonder they’re number one on Trip Advisor!
Our guide, Tom, picked us up at our hotel promptly at 9am. We piled in his “black” taxicab and set off for a full day* tour! He came prepared with snacks (chocolates and crisps) and bottled water for the four of us!
Tom, born and raised in Belfast, was a wealth of information. He drove us through the city explaining the history of Belfast, the Troubles, and the peace walls. We drove through both catholic and protestant neighborhoods easily identified by the different flags flying high outside their homes. Catholics, fly Irish flags, while the Protestants fly British flags…We got out at the wall and signed our names and wrote messages of peace.
Tom did a great job explaining The Troubles. He encouraged us to ask questions and explained everything in a friendly, fair and impartial manner. He waited until after the tour was over to tell us the more personal details about himself so as not to create a bias.
One can only imagine what it must have been like growing up in the midst of so much turmoil, no matter what side you stood for, especially because to us the city still seems fraught with so much tension. As tourists we never felt endangered exactly, it’s just that our feelings about Belfast changed dramatically after the tour.
It’s hard not to form opinions when you see homes with cages covering them for protection from the debris thrown over the top of the walls. Political murals depicting loss of life or celebrating each side’s “heroes” are prominently displayed on the side of apartments and many other buildings throughout Belfast. In fact there are over 2800 of these murals and multiple bonfires as large as city blocks are erected all over the city every July 12th and burned within spitting distance of residential homes. There are numerous parades through the streets, which demonstrate the clear division between the two sides. These things are all happening TODAY! Now!
Hearing about the Troubles from a first hand account really drove home how little we knew about the situation. Everything we knew came from American news sources and hearing the story from a different point of view really drove home the idea that no matter how open minded we believe ourselves to be, we rarely get the entire story making it difficult to have a truly informed opinion.
Troubled, fascinating, and surprising, this is Belfast.
Of course there is so much more to Belfast than it’s Troubles. Though the city seemed to have an industrial feel about it, there were many architecturally beautiful buildings, the people were some of the friendliest we encountered and we enjoyed a number of good restaurants during our stay. Belfast was a pleasant surprise and it’s troubled and fascinating history had an unexpected and profound effect on all of us.
*For the purpose of this post I am focusing only on the city portion of our tour, but stay tuned for a future post about our visit to the incredible Antrim Coast!