Image credit: Tourism Northern Ireland
Belfast blends history and legend with a warm welcome
I had barely been on Belfast soil half an hour before being regaled with my first piece of folklore – the fable of Finn MacCool.
This tale of a cunning Irish giant who outwitted his Scottish rival and sent him fleeing back to the Highlands – creating the Giant’s Causeway in the process – says more about Irish ingenuity than any real belief in how the causeway was formed.
Yet in this region of rolling hills and sweeping coastal scenery that seems to shift from one moment to the next, it’s not hard to see how legends of mythical giants might have sprung up.
Even today, it has lent itself to another epic fantasy in cult TV show Game of Thrones, which is filmed in Belfast studios and on location around Northern Ireland, tapping into the air of mystery that surrounds these striking landscapes.
And while Finn MacCool might not have rolled out the welcome mat for Scottish giant Benandonner, I found the exact opposite, meeting people with a real sense of pride in their homeland and genuine hospitality everywhere I went.
Given half a chance, I might even have believed the taxi driver who tried to convince me the iconic ‘H&W’ painted on to the cranes in Belfast’s harbour, greeting anyone who approaches the city from that direction, really did stand for ‘hello & welcome’.
Those cranes are, in fact, the icons of shipbuilding firm Harland & Wolff, most famous for building the Titanic.
Once a source of some embarrassment that the ill-fated liner was struck by an iceberg just 12 days after leaving Belfast in April 1912, the emphasis has now shifted to celebrating the feat of engineering that brought the mega-ship into existence in the first place.
“She was all right when she left here,” has become a familiar refrain.
That is the overwhelming theme of the Titanic Quarter, a collection of attractions set around the redeveloped docks.
While most visitors race straight to the high-profile Titanic Belfast, I’d suggest starting with the less-glamorous Titanic Dock and Pump-House.
This is the dry dock where the Titanic was fitted out, and nothing offers a perspective on the ship’s scale like standing at the bottom of the enormous dock and looking up.
Image credit: Tourism Northern Ireland
“This is history,” says tour guide and self-confessed ‘Titanorak’ Chris Woods.
“You can see it and touch it. When you imagine how much work went on down here, it’s quite exciting.”
The dock could hold an unprecedented 21 million gallons of water – or 168 million pints of Guinness, which Chris tells me is the preferred measurement in these parts – underlining Belfast’s position at the cutting edge of this early-20th-century industry (tours cost £6 for adults and £3.50 for children).
With a modern design and a more child-friendly vibe, Titanic Belfast also brings to life the realityof the shipbuilding yards, albeit with a few bells and whistles, with interactive displays emphasising the noise and heat from the furnaces, and stories told in the authentic east Belfast accents of the men who worked here.
Don’t expect to skip straight to the sinking – this lengthy exhibition traces every step of the ship’s journey from its construction in Belfast through to the scientific techniques used to explore the wreckage decades later – so it’s worth allowing a good few hours to explore the story behind the ship (£15.50 adults, £7.25 children).
It would be easy to look at the Troubles as a thing of the past, a bloody and brutal episode that has now been laid to rest.
But if current debate over the future of Northern Ireland’s fragile peace accord weren't a stark enough reminder that history is a living thing here, a tour through its most segregated communities certainly brings it home.
The hop-on hop-off bus tour took in Belfast’s most notable sights – the grand white parliament buildings of Stormont, rarefied red-brick halls of Queen’s University and bustling craft stalls of St George’s Market among them – but the most striking chapter of the tour was undoubtedly its journey through the republican Falls Road area and loyalist Shankill Road.
The Irish tricolours might give way to red, white and blue, and murals of Bobby Sands to images of the royal family painted on the gable ends, but the violent overtones of murals depicting fighters armed with machine guns are just as disturbing no matter which side of the fence you’re on.
The hop-on hop-off bus tour is £12.50 for adults and £6 for children, with a free walking tour through the city centre departing twice-daily opposite the Europa Hotel.
Having never seen Game of Thrones, I was in the minority on a one-day Westeros tour run by local coach operator McComb’s – not only were most of my fellow passengers American, but they were all, without exception, dedicated fans.
That’s hardly surprising: it would be hard to overstate the impact of this cult series on tourism to Northern Ireland: just as Lord of the Rings did for New Zealand, the show has put this region on the map for international visitors, spawning sightseeing tours and Game of Thrones-themed activities.
Yet the tour also works as a straightforward sightseeing excursion around some of Northern Ireland’s most scenic spots, with the Giant’s Causeway (not used in filming) thrown in for good measure.
Ballintoy harbour is worth a visit whether or not you’ve seen Theon Greyjoy arriving back in the Iron Islands here; and the Dark Hedges, an avenue of tangled beech trees that have twisted together over three centuries, are just as spooky regardless of whether you recognise them as where rebellious Arya Stark made her escape.
Image credit: Tourism Northern Ireland
The tour runs five days a week from £35, with a twice-weekly Winterfell option starting at £40.
As intriguing as these film locations are, even the most dedicated fan would still place the Giant’s Causeway as the crowning glory of the day.
This array of 40,000 basalt columns was formed by volcanic eruptions 60 million years ago, but during a day devoted to the magic of Game of Thrones, I couldn’t help wishing the story of Finn MacCool was more than just a legend.
Tried & Tested: Hastings Hotels
Culloden Estate and Spa: While the city centre is a buzz with activity, this spa hotel, set 15 minutes out of town towards Bangor, is an exercise in tranquility. As a former bishop’s palace, the sprawling estate has a heritage feel, with high ceilings and dark-wood furnishings dominating the decor.
Yet the Espa spa and gym couldn’t be more modern, with an octagonal pool, Jacuzzi, steam room and generous gym which, despite accepting local members, never felt crowded.
The real highlight is the hotel’s gourmet restaurant, though, where the phrase ‘locally sourced’ takes on a whole new meaning. Anything the chefs can’t grow in their own herb garden comes from Northern Irish producers so well known to staff that they can recite the origin of every ingredient on my plate.
I almost feel bad tucking in after such a detailed background, but with food this delightful, it would be rude not to.
Europa Hotel: Being the city’s most bombed hotel sounds a dubious distinction at best, but it does at least underline the Europa’s position at the heart of Belfast life, literally and metaphorically. Having played host to such distinguished guests as Bill and Hillary Clinton and Sir Trevor MacDonald over its 44-year history (it was a favourite hangout for politicians and journalists at the height of the Troubles) the hotel has become a cultural icon in its own right.
It’s not best suited to a quiet stay, with a lobby that seems to hum with activity at all times of day and night and a relaxed bistro-style restaurant which is frequented as much by locals as guests, but it would be tough to beat its central location and unique history. hastingshotels.com
Book it: SuperBreak offers two nights’ bed and breakfast from £220 at the Europa and £293 at the Culloden. The prices are for departures on November 13 and include flights from Liverpool to Belfast International airport. All excursions are also pre-bookable through SuperBreak. superbreak.com/agents
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