And so, week before last, to Belfast, where we stayed two nights before heading up to stay a similar time on the coast near Larne. Let me say right off the bat that the so-called ‘city break’ of two nights is never enough to see a city – or even a town – of any substance.
We had a similar experience trying to ‘do’ Vienna in two nights a few years ago: the first night you’ve inevitably arrived in the afternoon to get into your accommodation, so you spend the rest of the time that night orienting yourself and trying to find somewhere to eat; the next day is really when you have to pack everything in, because even if you’ve time before your onward journey on the third day, you’ve usually got luggage to humf around with you.
So, in that order: we arrived by train from Larne to find our hotel was as centrally located as we’d thought; just up the road from the Europa Hotel, which carries the record for being the most bombed hotel anywhere – 47 times I believe. When you heard it was the favourite place for journalists from the mainland to stay, and saw how it was located directly across the road from the BBC, you kind of understood why. Good way of getting the London media’s attention.
Anyway, our hotel, the Fitzwilliam, was a few doors up, and everyone was at pains to tell us all that was behind them now, and the Peace Process was holding. The hotel was actually pretty lovely, with a definite Art Deco with a modern twist feel. The staff were superfriendly and helpful, and I’d definitely recommend it. Not cheap, but not out of the box either.
We were even to have a drink in the hotel bar – the carpeting there gave it a bit of an Art Deco with a Shining twist, but it was still all good – where the waitress admitted that, although the Guinness in the hotel was OK, the best in Belfast was to be had elsewhere, namely either Kelly’s Cellars (which claims to be the oldest pub in the city) or the Crown.
By then, we had formed our own very high opinion of the latter, because the Crown is similarly close by our hotel and the Europa – probably no coincidence that triangulation, given that journalism’s a thirsty profession: BBC, one of the best pubs in Belfast, and they could genuinely claim to be at the centre of the action. I bet it became an act of faith to get booked in at the Europa.
Unfortunately some royals or other had visited the Crown recently, so the world and his whippet wanted in. My advice would be book early. However, having done almost zero research, we were spawny enough to grab at table at the front porch without booking, where we sampled the best Guinness you’ll get, certainly outside of Dublin.
From there, we set out in search of somewhere to eat, but not being in much of a hurry, ended up wandering far and wide. We ended up eating at a good Indian place – name escapes me for now, but I’ll update when we get the bank statement – but the area near the Botanics looks to be a good, multi-ethnic kind of place, with lots of options.
Next day, the day to do everything, started off, naturally enough, with a trip to the Titanic Quarter and the Museum there. Lots to see – too much, actually, with social distancing still sort of in place, and the itchy feeling one gets in crowded spaces these days. The locals seem disappointed with it, but we thought it was really good, with lots of imaginative ways to present the story. Only criticism for me would be I wanted to find out at the end more about the lives of the survivors, rather than the Ocean Floor Exploration stuff.
We ended up having both breakfast and lunch at a nearby cafe, the Paper Cup. Don’t be put off by the fact that it’s in a modern building and has a slightly daft name suggesting it just does takeaways: this is a really good mom and pop (well, mom at least) joint that does excellent coffee and bakery in particular.
And so to the bus tour, which, like many city bus tours, is a good way of seeing the city. Your man the tour guide handled the political stuff very sensitively, but was also genuinely funny, with definite shades of Frank Carson. He even whipped out a guitar and got us to do a singalong at one point. We had to get a second bus to get back to our hotel, and it was just the taped version, which was tame by comparison.
Anyway, your man had plenty of stories to tell, and although it was pissing down and therefore hard to see all the art murals, it was well worth the money.
Last but not least, I’d recommend Coco’s as a place for a fancy-but-not-too-fancy meal. Food is, to state the bleeding obvious, a subjective thing, but for these peasants the menu was just the right side of too cheffy whilst pushing us to try stuff we might not have otherwise: the thing on the left was a starter wrapped in filo pastry with duck, celeriac, and chicken liver parfait, by crikey, and the one on the right was a chocolate creation with blobs of mint jelly.
In between Mrs F had seared scallops and I went for halibut, which was great but I was glad I’d ordered a side of chips (those peasant genes are never too far away). Price not too bad at all for that level of cookery.
The next day, there was time before we got the train north to sample St George’s Market, which operates on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday, offering slightly different stalls each day. Friday was a kind of vintage/antiques type of thing, but also with lots of food stalls. We’d been recommended the breakfasts there, and that turned out to be a good recommendation, with herself going for a crepe, and myself sampling a sausage bap from your man at El Toro, who turned out to be a charming chap from Malaga, who seemed to understand my through-a-mask Spanish better than my English. Or maybe he was just being polite.
All in all a great end to a crammed 48 hours or slightly less in the Northern Irish capital. Would definitely go again, although Transport Scotland could do with doing something with the A77, because it’s a long old drive to Cairnryan, even from the Central Belt.
Or maybe Boris will build that tunnel or bridge between us and our cousins he was talking about earlier in the year – oh wait! A pig just flew past the window!
There’s about as much chance as the Salmon of Knowledge (yes, or so they told us anyway) talking.