Airport Rating *****
Reception of locals ***1/2
The Segregated City
While the area of what is now Belfast has been inhabited for thousands of the years, the city's history as a major settlement extends only a handful of centuries. In the 17th century, settlement and colonisation by Protestants from Great Britain brought growth to Belfast, growth that accelerated during the Industrial Revolution where Belfast became the largest city in the whole of Ireland, and one of the most important cities in the world.
Before I continue it's probably worth identifying the differences between Great Britain, the United Kingdom, the British Isles and Ireland. The British Isles refer to the group of islands in the north-west of Europe encompassing two sovereign nations; the Republic of Ireland and the UK. Great Britain is the largest island in the British Isles and includes England, Wales and Scotland. The United Kingdom refers to the union of crowns between England & Wales and Scotland.
The island of Ireland sits next to Great Britain and forms the second largest island in the British Isles. Formerly a patchwork of independent nations, it was invaded by the English Army in the 16th and 17th centuries, who forcibly removed the native Irish from their lands, replacing the primarily Catholic Irish landowners, by Protestant Scottish and English settlers. If this sounds familiar, it's because the same thing happened in Canada, the United States, Australia, South Africa and many other countries. It also marks the beginning of a conflict that has continued to this day. The crowns of Ireland and Great Britain were united in 1801, creating the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
Following Irish independence in the early 20th century, we get to where we are today. While the Irish wanted independence for the entire island and Ireland, the British Empire did what they do best - draw an arbitrary line and watch everything burn. The island was partitioned between the six northeastern counties, which the British governed as Northern Ireland, and the rest of the island, which was the newly independent Irish Free State, which eventually became the Republic of Ireland.
Are you still with me?
That history lesson is important because it explains the Belfast of today, an incredibly divided and segregated city. There is nowhere else in the UK like this, and I can't imagine there are too many places left in the world like it either.
The moment I landed, there were Union flags absolutely everywhere. Hanging from street lights, fences, houses - hanging across roads, painted on the sides of houses and businesses. Honestly, it was surreal. It's something that I'll get back to a little later.
The doctor will see you...
My trip to Belfast was for yet another stag. Most of my friends got married in their mid-20's, but now the remaining ones are starting the take that next step - and with that comes stag parties across Europe. Belfast was a random choice, but something I was excited about.
Flights aren't cheap - in fact, it would have been cheaper to fly to Spain and Italy than it was to take the 45 minute trip across the Irish Sea. I landed in George Best Airport, a small airport near the centre of the city. As a Sikh I experienced no issues at the airport, in fact, it was in Birmingham International where I got an additional patdown - yep that Birmingham which is the Panjabi capital of the West.
After an afternoon of casually getting ourselves orientated we started getting changed to go out. My friend, who had been drinking quite heavily, called me over and asked me if this was normal - he coughed, and blood started pouring out. I gave my best performance of "don't worry it's probably nothing", while inside I was already planning his funeral. He decided he wanted to go to A&E, and being the only sober one, I decided to go along with him.
In the 20+ stag parties I've been on, this was, surprisingly, only the second time someone has ended up in hospital. The first time was pretty bad. My friend, while leaving a bar absolutely wrecked, fell and cracked his head off the floor, opening a gash so wide with blood was pouring out. He started vomiting luminous green, and I spent all night in a Liverpool hospital until his parents came along. This wasn't as bad and I thought at most, this would take a couple of hours out of my night.
We headed to City Hospital who told us they didn't have an A&E but the Royal Victoria Hospital, a half hour walk, did. But the receptionist added, you might be there for a while, after all....."it's Friday night Belfast"
That's when I realised we could be in for a bit of a wait - but nothing prepared us for the night ahead. We registered our attendance at 9:50pm - the wait....over 8 hours. I've never experienced anything like it. The two of us literally sat on a chair until the early morning. I had to leave at 5:30am because I was struggling, my friend had sobered up, and it was light outside - he stayed until 7am when he was finally seen. This was a reminder just how stretched this city is in terms of public services.
The world's worst bus tour
After a few hours sleep we headed out for an open top tour of the city. Only it wasn't open top, the tour guide seemed like it was her first time in the city and the sights that were pointed out included "the Premier Inn hotel".
Don't get me wrong, parts of it were very funny - but I'm just not sure Belfast is made for a particularly gripping tour. The local Parliament, Stormont and Queens University were probably the two key landmarks of note that I wouldn't have seen without the bus.
The Stormont Estates were visually quite stunning, but Northern Ireland hasn't had a functioning government for a while now, so the estates were eerily quiet. At £10 a head, I wouldn't recommend it to anyone.
But it's not like I learned nothing. I realised half of the city is named after Queen Victoria, and the other half after Sir Charles Lanyon, who it seems, designed almost everything.
Cathedral Quarter & Titanic Quarter
There are areas of the city that were very beautiful though, and the Cathedral Quarter and Titanic Quarter were two of the best.
The former is older, full of small alleyways with bars, clubs and restaurants. The area is named after the impressive St. Anne's Cathedral. A lot of focus is being put on developing this area to be a central hub for the city, and I can see why. It's a beautiful, if at times very gritty neighbourhood, and it was probably my favourite part of the city. It's not far from the near 150 year old Albert Memorial Clock, a great structure dedicated to Prince Albert - one of many in the UK.
The Titanic Quarter is relatively new. I walked through the area during my walk to the airport. By the way, a suggestion, don't walk from the city to the airport. I decided that the roughly one and a half hour walk might allow me to see parts of the city I missed - but other than the beautiful Victoria Park which is near the airport, I spent roughly 50 minutes walking either through a long industrial road on the outskirts of the Titanic Quarter, or a fume heavy dual carriageway which was basically a motorway, and I was the only idiot walking on the side of the road.
The key parts of the Titanic Quarter are the Titanic Museum and the Titanic studio. The museum (£19 entry) is dedicated to the city's shipbuilding history - it was once the largest shipyard in the world. It has a particular focus on the RMS Titanic, probably the most famous ocean going vessel in history. For me, it was the building itself that was most specular. It's supposed to represent the front of a ship, but as someone pointed out - it looks more like an iceberg. Still, it's a unique bit of architecture. The studio's up the road produce film and TV, perhaps most famously Game of Thrones. My brother is a big fan, and while I've seen some episodes, I decided against paying the near £20 for a visit.
The entire quarter makes for a nice walk. On the other side of the inlet of water is the skyline of Belfast, with rolling green hills in the background. A short walk away from the museum brings you to Samson and Goliath, two huge cranes which are a landmark of the city. Built in the 1970s for the Harland and Wolff company, they were built when Belfast was still one of the largest shipyards in the world. But the business, and the company, declined almost immediately after completion. I really liked them, they weirdly have character to them and I was glad I got to see them up close.
I saw quite a few flats in the area and thought to myself, if ever my career brought me to Belfast, this is probably the area that I'd like to stay.
Markets, bars and the most bombed hotel in Europe
The centre of the city is beautiful; from the Edwardian style opulence of City Hall, to the Crown, a glittering golden pub over one hundred years old. We went during the day so that we could get one of the famous booths. We ordered some tea and coffee and sat in what I can only describe as the most extravagantly decorated pub I've probably ever been to. I never advertise or promote drinking in this blog given how it has destroyed our community, but go in for a tea - it's definitely worth it.
I also visited St. George's Market. I'm not sure what to make of it. I mean, it was fine. It struck me as being not too dissimilar to Greenwich Market in London, and smaller than Camden Market. Some of the things being sold were quite nice, particularly the art work, others were like things you'd find in a car boot sale.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing I learned was the Europa Hotel, opposite the Crown, is the most bombed hotel in Europe. Now, when you consider that Europe includes areas that have seen numerous wars like the Balkans and Ukraine - it's a pretty damning statistic for how bad 'The Troubles' were. The hotel was bombed on 33 different occasions by the IRA, a remarkable number.
Shankill Road, the Peace Wall, and the Falls
I stayed on an extra day to discover some of the history behind 'The Troubles'. This refers to a time, encompassing the second half of the 20th century, where nationalists/Catholics fought unionists/Protestants. Growing up, it seemed to always be on the news and seeing in person the divide in the city is something that will stay with me forever.
Segregation doesn't only extend to where people live, but even schools are massively segregated - in 2019!! Perhaps most haunting of all are a serious of gates that separate the two communities, each of which are closed during the evenings, particularly in marching season. It felt like something from a post-apocalyptic dystopian nightmare. The huge metal gates, topped off with barbed wire run right through estates. I walked up to one, right behind a residential street, with children playing on the road. To them it's normal - which is a damn shame.
Marching season lasts most of the summer period, and sees marches from both unionist and nationalist communities. I saw three unionist marches, and they're pretty provocative. Large union flags and lines of people in uniforms parade through different parts of the city. Every march had a few police vans at the front and bank - not the kind you see in England, but armoured vehicles - like the ones I had seen on the news growing up. In one of the marches, I saw a young Catholic lad try and grab and Union flag, before quickly being stopped by police.
Shankill Road is one of the more famous unionist roads. Murals are painted across almost every corner building, as they are in other parts of the city, depicting the Ulster Volunteer Force, or the UVF, a loyalist paramilitary group, as well as various atrocities that the nationalist led Irish Republican Army, or the IRA, have committed.
Just south of Shankill is Falls Road, the nationalist neighbourhood, and just like Shankill, murals play an important role. Both areas are amongst the most deprived in the city. Here they depict the atrocities caused by the British Army. Signs are all over the area warn locals not to collaborate with the British intelligence services. The murals also take on an international flavour, with commentary on British and American support for Saudi Arabia and Israel, and murals supporting the Palestinian struggle.
It really does look like these communities are worlds apart. In the middle of the two famous roads is the Peace Wall, which looks anything but peaceful. A giant concrete wall with metal along the top. The murals on the wall are less artistic than those described above, but this wall just looks evil. I was the only person at the Peace Wall, and the estates either side, you could tell, were very deprived. I never felt unsafe, but it was eerie. The size of the wall is something I thought I'd see in the middle east, not in the UK. Yet here it was.
I'm not going to say who is right or wrong - I'm not from Ireland, but I will definitely be writing an article in the next few months on lines Britain drew around the world, and the effects they have today. I would say, while you can see murals in most parts of the city, it's definitely worth visiting these areas to get a feel for split between the two communities.
Crumlin Road Goal
Just north of Shankill Road is the Crumlin Road Gaol, a mid 19th century prison. Again, after my friends left, I decided to pay the £12 to take a 75 minute tour of one of Ireland's most notorious prisons.
Designed by Charles Lanyon (yep, him again), the prison was one of the most advanced in the Victorian age. Different wings separated different types of prisoners; women and children, men committing petty crime, and men committing the most serious crimes. The wings also split up unionists and nationalists. An underground tunnel connected the prison from the courthouse across the road. The tunnel was originally paved with cobblestones, until prisoners started chipping away the stones to use as weapons.
The tour is pretty comprehensive, you get to see a fair few of the prison wings, as well as the Governors room - the only room in the prison with a carpet. You can walk into some of the cells, as well as seeing things like the post room, classrooms, kitchens, bathrooms and rooms used for torture (including a form of torture rack).
By far the creepiest thing was seeing the execution chamber. 17 prisoners were executed in the prison and most of them were executed in a private room, behind a movable bookshelf. The room had a hangman's noose and the names of all those executed in the background. This is the same noose that was used for executions, and the trapdoor below is made of glass, so you can see where the executed prisoners fell.
In the grounds of the prison there is a large helicopter and military vehicle, both used during 'The Troubles'. The helicopter in particular, a large RAF Wessex military type was very impressive. The outdoor area was also where some of the executed prisoners were buried, right next to a wall that hosted the few public executions that happened.
I really enjoyed the tour, and would definitely recommend a trip to Crumlin Road Gaol if you get the chance.
Would I recommend Belfast?
It's a city unlike any other in the UK, and for that alone, I think it's worth a visit. I'm not sure you'd need more than a day or two to see some of the main landmarks. But it's not the landmarks and attractions that make this a place to visit.
This city is a lesson against division and segregation. The whole experience of gates separating housing estates, a large wall separating two communities, murals, flags and marches is intense as it is just a little bit sad to see in 2019.
As a Sikh, I won't say people approached me with open arms, and I did get a few looks. At one of the establishments I visited the bouncer told me to "take that hat off". I informed him as a Sikh I couldn't, and he told me that I wasn't going in. He didn't seem to budge, so I told my friend to go inside and bring some food and drink out for me. I told the bouncer I wasn't leaving, but I'll just hang out on the doorstep eating and drinking. Realising it probably wasn't a good look, he let me in.
But on the whole I didn't experience too many issues when I was out and about, and certainly no issues at the airport. If you're a Sikh and you're new to travelling, I wouldn't recommend Belfast being one of the first places you visit.
British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.