A few days back when I Googled the route between Edinburgh and Belfast I mistook it to be 133 miles. I had attempted to book online for the ferry from Toorn to Larne and was completely unsuccessful. Knowing that there are just two services a day – one at 11 am and the other at 7 pm – I was keen to get on to the morning ferry so that we would get some time to move around the city of Belfast. With the distance of 133 miles and the ferry remaining unbooked I confirmed with Lal that we would move out of the Hotel immediately after breakfast at 7.15 am. Prior to reaching the restaurant we loaded the luggage into the car and checked out. As soon as the doors opened for breakfast we were among the first to be inside. There was a fairly wide selection of hot and cold foods. I stuck to the standard scrambled eggs, baked beans, bacon and bread combination. A large cup of coffee was the chaser. I saw a large number of young boys in the restaurant with Delhi University track suits on. I joined a couple of seniors and introduced myself as an old student of the University. I learnt that they were part of the University hockey team that was on an experience tour of Scotland, as part of sports and cultural exchange between the Universities of Delhi and Edinburgh.
When I got into the car and set the Navigator for Belfast it showed the distance to be covered as 133 kms! Anyway, I was relieved that the problem of covering the distance was solved with enough and more time with us. The remaining issue was the ferry ticket. In bright weather we drove to Troon harbour to board the P&O ferries to Larne. The drive was incident free and comfortable. We did the distance in about 2 hours. I was a bit anxious when I reached the gate of the P&O ferry terminal. I need not have been. A friendly man at the gate directed me to a lane to buy the ticket, which suggested that we could be on the ferry after all. When I reached the drive in counter the lady spent a lot of time wanting to know about the journey and explaining what we could experience in Belfast – she hailed from Northern Ireland. The ferry cost GBP 156. I then drove in and was asked to park for security check where the car hood was opened and examined and I was subjected to a body check – after seeking my permission for the same! I must confess that the accent of the Irish completely baffled me. I had to strain every bit of functional auditory nerves to understand pieces of their conversation. I guess I made the grade quite comfortably for they requested me drive ahead and park in the appropriate lane and await boarding announcement. We had more than an hour to kill which we spent in the passenger lounge of the terminal. I completed the blog post and other left over documentation when it was time to board. The ferry was small and could possibly take about 200 odd passenger cars. The low height did not permit the loading of commercial vehicles, or at least I did not see any of them. The ferry took close to 2 hours to reach Larne. The sun deck of the ferry did not offer any great views – it was more of a smokers’ lounge - since it was in the middle of the vessel with view obstructed by accommodation and signal equipment of it. View from the window was hindered by salt tints. Hence, bored with little else to do I slept soundly for an hour.
On shore before 1 pm I reached the Bed & Breakfast location in the heart of Belfast in less than three quarters of an hour. Being a Sunday people were everywhere and I could not locate a parking slot near the hotel. I double parked and sought the advice of Andre, the B&B owner. He asked me to park anywhere I could find a place for all of them were for free. I found a slot not very far from the hotel and brought in the luggage and checked in. The room was yet to be cleaned. Therefore, we left the bags in the appointed room and went to Restaurant 25 around the corner of the busy street, a place recommended by Andre, for lunch. He had first suggested the Moghul restaurant next door thinking that we would be keen on Indian food. We had a long wait for the dish ordered - Penne Alla 25. It was worth every minute of it; the chicken and ham dish delighted as also the sticky toffee pudding. The restaurant was full when we were there and was operated by just one Manager, a young girl, and the Chef. The girl was clearly overworked and too busy to actually service customers in time. When I brought this to her attention she was extremely apologetic about it and said that she would be joined by other staff later in the evening.
The delight, despite the small accommodation, was the hassle free WiFi access. Once we were through the social media updates and a short nap we set out for what was becoming the routine – walk to the city centre. The aim was to cover the Titanic Memorial and City Hall and whatever fell in between. A feature of the city, I soon discovered, was that there was excellent description of historic buildings and culturally important places right beside them. During the walk that lasted about three hours some of the main attractions we enjoyed were:
BBC House – operations of British Broadcasting Corporation were shifted to this 6 storey building in 1941 after they had functioned since 1924 from a linen warehouse. Extensions have been done to accommodate the growing business since 1975.
St Malachy’s Catholic Church – the focal point of the parishioners, and in my view a symbol of Catholic assertion against the dominant Protestant, has been a place of worship for over 170 years. The church looks like a Tudor Castle on the outside and is ornate on the inside.
Belfast City Hall – one of the most iconic buildings in the City, is the civic building from where the local administration is carried out. A notice on the front door paid tribute to the lives lost in the recent Gaza conflict. Apart from a stately statue of Queen Victoria the grounds of the City Hall features a number of monuments and memorials.
Ulster Hall – this place played host to Charles Dickens, Lord Randolph Churchill and Caruso in the first 50 years since its commissioning in 1862. This entertainment centre even entertained American soldiers during the war when they were billeted in Ireland. Orchestra, boxing matches and music shows are the like are all held here.
The Belfast Waterfront – is a large complex purpose built for conferences, arts and entertainment. The modern construction has been busy hosting events since 1997. Just in front of the road leading to the waterfront is the Royal Courts of Justice. The old building and its modern extension are worth a visit.
Thanksgiving Square – the female form represents various themes associated with aspiration and hope, peace and reconciliation. Her position on the globe signifies a unified approach to life of earth. The aim of the sculpture is to bring people together and to bring hearts and minds together – to build bridges across divides in community and societies.
W5 at Odyssey – where they seek to answer whowhatwherewhenwhy questions. It is a science and discovery centre in the Titanic Quarter and on the way to the memorial. The centre is meant to unlock curiosity and quench the thirst for scientific information.
Titanic Belfast – the city is the birthplace of the famous RMS Titanic, where she was built by the skyline dominating cranes of the Harland & Wolff shipyard. The Titanic experience is located in an iconic six floor modern building that showcase the four hulls of the ship as its façade. The Titanic experience from conception to launch can be experienced at the centre.
The Big Fish – just at the point where the Lagan Wier – where Belfast’s shipbuilding history began - walkway ends the 10 meter Salmon celebrates the regeneration of River Lagan, the history of Belfast and the historical significance of the confluence of the River Lagan and Farset. The external ‘skin’ of the Big Fish is made up of ceramic tiles. Behind that looms the large Custom House.
Albert Clock – beside the Custom House is the Albert Clock, which was said, in jest, as Belfast’s answer to the Pisa monument. The tall 113 ft Gothic structure was built in 1865 on reclaimed land and hence, it started tilting and was corrected in a recent renovation.
Grand Opera House – is Northern Ireland’s premier theatre, which was established in 1895. Just before it we passed the grand Presbyterian Assembly building which is the headquarters of the Irish Presbyterian Church. Just ahead of it was a church that was under demolition!
Crown Liquor Saloon – the historic traditional pub is revered for its range of real ales and classy pub food. We were given to understand that what makes it stand out is the famous Irish hospitality in the pub. The Crown is a favourite of Belfast and is considered one of the greatest old bars of the world. From the outside the bar is an architectural masterpiece and a visual gem.
By now the feet were near protest and we reached the hotel. Fortunately a parking space had become available in front of the hotel and I shifted the car to that place. Andre and his friend were amused to see the car. Dinner had to be at the Restaurant 25; we loved the food at the place and hence, did not want to experience anything else. After a couple of shots of Malibu and Smirnoff Red we had the Gamberoni Picante – king prawns in white wine, garlic butter and fresh chillies – for starters and Branzino Asparagi – fillet of sea bass, basil whipped mashed potato, wilted spinach, pencil asparagus, sun dried tomato and basil infused butter – for the main course. After the heavy meal we decided against a dessert. Once the meal was over I chatted with Malachy, the owner of the restauarant, and Naomi, the Manager cum waitress. I congratulated Malachy for having someone as efficient as Naomi who cared for the customers and worked hard there. He told me how he was near closing down the place ten weeks back and how hiring her had changed his fortunes! He passionately explained to us the problems Belfast had seen in the past and the uneasy truce that prevails in the city. The 65% Catholic population feel that they have been given the short shrift by the Protestants. Underneath the apparently calm surface is a definite simmer.
Before I fell asleep I ruminated about the 10 weeks that we had been on the road and the destination being just a few days away.