The triumphant tune played on to broadcast the punctuality of the airline annoyed some who had already retrieved their mobile phones to call people and announce their arrival.
Once the hustle and bustle of passengers pulling down their cabin baggage was over, I left the claustrophobic cabin and stretched my arms to a brave new world. My friend's welcoming words “Céad míle fáilte” reverberated in my thoughts. In Irish it meant, “a hundred thousand welcome”.
This was my first visit to Belfast, a place I have only known through my friend's descriptions and Google. Things that appeal to her had already been envisioned in my mind, and I felt that I could identify them easily—a familiarity that grew on my being subject to myriad accounts of the place, the landscape, the music, the musings and the humour (“Irish craic”—as the locals call it).
My friend Heather, who runs a small bed and breakfast place, is Irish hospitality personified, and was eager to take me around. I was all set to discover Belfast on a double-decker open-top bus that snakes around the centre and the by-lanes of the city, fraught with reminders of unpleasant historical events. The sectarian divide is obvious in certain parts of the city, where the murals on the walls show snippets of past events—from Bobby Sands to King William. The guides chattered the history and the key tourist attractions, and highlighted the fact that Titanic was perfectly built by Irishmen, joking that it was the fault of the Scottish captain and the English navigator that led to the tragedy. In the Titanic quarter, which houses a museum built like the fateful cruise ship, one can re-live the entire experience. The trip ends with a splash tour along the Lagan river.
The breathtaking drive to the Gaint's Causeway through lush green Irish landscape and the rugged coastline captivates and inspires tourists as well as natives. We stopped for lunch at a small local pub, where I savoured the Irish stew and soda farls. Heather was famished and went for the ‘surf-and-turf' menu, which had portions of both fried scampi and steak with roasted root vegetables and champ; potatoes are a staple of the Irish diet. Guinness, the popular Irish brew, is great to wash down your meal and the teetotallers, too, would enjoy the refreshing elderflower cordial with lime.
At the Giant's Causeway one can marvel at the beauty of the unique natural hexagonal stones (hardened molten basalt from volcanic lava) stretching into the sea. It is a World Heritage Site—the only one in Ireland. Myths and legends flourish in Ireland and there a few about this, too.
On our subsequent jaunt we went down the Marble Arch caves by boat, along the subterranean Cladagh River and walked along the narrow slippery rocks of the underground cavern where we saw a fascinating array of stalagmites and stalactites. We stopped at the tomb of Saint Patrick, the Patron Saint of Ireland in Downpatrick, which surprisingly did not contain his body. Shamrock, an Irish symbol, was used by St Patrick to illustrate the Christian Trinity and people tend to wear them on their lapels when they celebrate St Patrick's Day.
There are theatres and halls that showcase a variety of events and my host recommended an Irish dance show. It was along the lines of the popular Riverdance. The dancing was superb and the music, lively. We joined the enthralled audience who were clapping and tapping throughout. If you love to party all night there are trendy nightclubs scattered all around the Queens Island and City Centre. Adrenalin junkies can go bungee jumping at Finnegan's leap or take a paraglider flight. Acrophobics beware!
The bustling bars, pubs, cafes, bistros and restaurants reflect the ethnic diversity in Belfast when it comes to taste buds. There are hidden gems scattered along the countryside, too. The Ulster Museum, the Ulster Folk Park and the Transport Museum are treasure troves, where I had a glimpse of the past and present Ulster. For those who like a leisurely stroll the beautiful Botanic Gardens, the grounds of Belfast Castle and the International Rose Gardens are picturesque. Off the beaten path I found Writers' Square paved with quotations and poetry from the North Irish literary names like Louis MacNeice, Hewitt and C.S. Lewis.
Of course, I couldn't resist the urge to indulge in some retail therapy in the city's malls and markets. Irish crystal, linen, pottery, celtic art and jewellery make great gifts. I spent my last few coins in the souvenir shop. Bye Belfast, I'd love to be back!