I confess to just having finished ‘The Great Railway Bazaar‘ by Paul Theroux which may have convinced me after 300 + pages that I could use a train journey. While trains aren’t always the most affordable or even the best way to get around Ireland, the service between Dublin and Belfast is quick and convenient, so this week I boarded the train for a 2-hour journey through the Irish countryside.
Of course, I didn’t book the tickets in advance, and looking at the Irish Rail website online the night before I planned on going, I discovered there was only seats left in first class. The ticket wasn’t prohibitively pricey, and I thought in the name of research, I’d take a first class seat on the way up, and a standard class seat for the journey home that evening. Trains leave from Connolly Station in the center of Dublin, and speed along the coastline and through the countryside to Belfast Central.
Luckily I had a tour guide waiting for me at the other side. A friend & fellow poet agreed to show me around Belfast, so I didn’t bring a map or even do any research on what to see. Although it was a rainy day, the clouds remained menacing and didn’t release a downpour until we were safely seated at a cozy table for dinner. The hours before dinner were spent in precisely the way I like to explore a new city: wandering around on foot and occasionally stopping to eat, drink, and take in the scene.
My tour began in the historic Cathedral Quarter. British black cabs drove down narrow, cobbled lanes and I was reminded that Northern Ireland, as part of Great Britain, is different than the rest of the island in small ways. Besides the different currency (British pound vs. Euro), a distinct accent, and British architecture there were small things that also felt very Irish. After a delicious and affordable lunch at Hill Street Brasserie, we took a look at the oldest pub in Belfast, the Duke of York, and saw the Belfast Cathedral.
Similar to Dublin, one of the attractions of Belfast is how small and manageable it is. There was never a need for public transportation as we moved from one attraction to the next: the City Hall, Queens University, the Botanical Gardens, and Victoria Square Shopping Centre. At this modern shopping centre, we took an elevator to the viewing deck located high in the dome at the top of the mall. With panoramic views of Belfast and the hills beyond, this was one of my favorite attractions of the day.
After a stop in the Queens University bookstore (and a lot of chat about poetry!) we sat down for a drink at a great bar called Apartment, overlooking City Hall. Snagging a seat by the window, we had a great spot for people watching in the streets below. Atmospheric bars such as Apartment show the regeneration that has taken place in Belfast in recent years. Asking my friend about his opinion on Northern Ireland and the ‘Troubles’ I was glad to hear him report that all of those politics are far removed from our generation. The past is where it belongs in Belfast, in the past, and today it is a safe and interesting place to visit.
My tour concluded at a great restaurant called Made in Belfast. The space seemed as if it was picked up from downtown NYC and dropped into Belfast. Eclectic decor, mix-and-match furniture, and tables full of flowers and candles all provided a great atmosphere for a casual dinner. Outside, the clouds finally made up their minds and let loose the rain that had been threatening our fun all day. Right as we paid the bill, the clouds passed.
Content with a stomach full of a 1/2 honey and lavender roasted chicken, potato wedges, and salad – I strolled back to the train station. This time of year in Ireland the sun doesn’t set until after 10pm, so my train ride was a gorgeous orange-lit experience through rolling hills, farms separated by stone fences, and seaside towns. Pulling back into Connolly, not only was my train craving fulfilled, but my interest in Belfast was piqued. I left wanting more, and I’m already looking forward to returning for further exploration.