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By Hania Moheeb
A frequent traveler’s usual choice for accommodation when visiting a famous city is a small cozy room in the heart of downtown: a place where you can feel the pulse of the place and notice the daily simple, yet significant details. However, it’s equally good to choose a place that has both beauty and history, not far away from the city.
I was yearning to visit Belfast, and my first visit – that I hope it’s not the last – to this special city didn’t all fall in the heart of the city. The conference I was attending was hosted in a magnificent estate, standing on top of the green slopes of the Holywood Hills, overlooking Belfast Lough (bay). The Culloden Estate is Northern Ireland’s most prestigious hotel and a great retreat.
Originally built in 1876 as an official Palace for the Bishops of Down, the Culloden mansion stands in 12 acres of beautiful secluded gardens and woodland. Most of the stone used in the graceful Gothic building was said to have come from Scotland by boat, arriving in the County Down fishing village of Portaferry and being brought to the site by horse and cart.
An easy ten minutes downhill stroll leads you to the shore of the bay or the Lough where you can enjoy a quiet walk or a bicycled ride. Palatial surroundings, fine antiques, high level service with a smile, and a relaxing spa combine to give the Culloden a unique air of elegance.
The hotel lies at a distance of six miles from Belfast and it takes about 10 minutes by bus or car to reach the city. Luckily enough, the Culledon stands at a short walking distance from underground and bus stations.
My knowledge about the Northern Ireland was very little and maybe totally derived from movies like Mel Gibson’s “In the Name of the Father”. But the knowledge you acquire from news bulletins or the movies about civil strife and sectarian conflicts are not really sufficient to convey the reality.
One of the strikingly shocking ‘monuments’ of this beautiful European city is the several meters high sectarian wall that separates the Catholic and the Protestant neighborhoods. Sadly, such kind of walls has kept growing in size and number throughout two decades of slow-blooming peace in Northern Ireland. Residents today on both sides of so-called “peace lines” — barricades of brick, steel and barbed wire that divide neighborhoods, roads and even one Belfast playground — insist the physical divisions must stay to keep violence under control.
Belfast’s first so-called peace lines were erected with the breaking out of Northern Ireland’s conflict in 1969, when impoverished parts of the city suffered an explosion and most Catholics living in chiefly Protestant areas were forced to flee. The British Army erected the first makeshift barricades thinking they would be taken down in months. The conflict escalated instead and the beautiful city saw so much violence and more walls and barriers. Although a peace pact was struck in 1998 – Friday Peace Deal – the people of Belfast can’t pull down 34 kms of walls yet. Renowned northern Ireland peace activist Ann Paterson says, “We have the walls because we have peace but not security.”
The Titanic Museum
Maybe one of the less known facts about the city of Belfast is that it was the place where the Titanic was built. The biggest structure on earth at the time, Titanic was built at the dock of Belfast. It departed for its first and last trip in May 1911 and met its tragic destiny in the ocean on a moonless night in April 1912.
One hundred years later in April 2012, a magnificent state of the art museum was inaugurated to host the memorabilia of the great vessel, the tragedy it lived, and to preserve the history of the harbor of Belfast. Similar to the crowd of 100,000 spectators who stood by the harbor to watch Titanic depart, another huge crowd was there to watch the launch of the Titanic museum and an extraordinary light and sound show.
The building is a unique piece of modern architecture that you can’t miss when taking a ride along the Lough. The façade is clad in three thousand three-dimensional aluminum plates, creating an awe-inspiring crystalline appearance that catches the eyes at a glimpse. The multi-faceted façades standing at angles of about 72 degrees is enhanced by reflective pools of water surrounding the base. The unique architecture was influenced by several maritime themes.
The museum was launched in 2009 and cost 100 million pounds. It spans over 14,000 sqm. and accommodates nine galleries of interactive exhibition space, including a dark ride, underwater exploration theatre, recreations of the ship’s decks and cabins and a luxurious conference & banqueting suite with capacity for up to 1000 guests. It’s a visit you shouldn’t miss, ranked as one of the top five tourist attractions of the city.
Belfast City Hall
And from ultra modern to classical architecture, you can visit the magnificent Belfast City hall; a stunning masterpiece of Portland stone, set in an attractive public lawn.
It is the civic building of Belfast City Council and it first opened its doors in 1906. The building remains one of the most important examples of the Classical Renaissance style anywhere in the British Isles.
Free public tours of City Hall are available Monday to Saturday. Led by an experienced guide, they last around one hour and uncover the history of Belfast City Hall, while exploring some of its finest features.
The Irish pub experience
If you wish to sense the genuine taste of Belfast, you should spend an evening at the Bittles Bar. One of Belfast’s more curious pubs, Brittles Bar is located close to the bustling Victoria Square and stands tall with its red-brick structure. It is a wonderful example of a traditional Victorian Bar.
Bittles was founded in 1868 and was originally called the Shakespeare, reflecting is theatrical clientele. It offers one of Belfast’s widest selections of local and international draught and bottle beers and ciders and is famed for its extensive whisky (and whisky) collection. A talking point for countrymen and visitors alike, is the eclectic range of artwork adorning the triangular lounge – portraits celebrating Ireland’s literary and sporting heroes including Beckett, Joyce, Yeats, Wilde, Best, Higgins and McGuigan and some of Northern Ireland’s most famous politicians.
When in Belfast you shouldn’t miss the opportunity of getting a real seafood blast. Many of the city’s restaurants offer exclusive quality sea food at reasonable prices. Locals recommend Mourne Seafood Bar that offers a wide range of extremely fresh and delicious dishes. The variety includes oysters, both natural and Japanese style, oyster shooters, fish and chips, squid, and ceviche in addition to soups and seafood pastas. It offers perfect desserts as well.
Mourne overlooks a nice open space on Banks Street in downtown Belfast with simple, yet cozy interior that set the proper theater for the seafood dinner. A combination of dark wood, exposed brickwork, blackboards with the daily specials on the walls give a nice relaxed vibe. The young staff is very friendly and helpful.