Saturday, May 2, 2009

Belfast in the peace.

The Red Bus tour in Belfast are a little different to the others we have been on to date. But then, Belfast is quite a different city. Of course there is the historic side, although with heavy bombing sustained in WWII, much of the history is recent. There are a few remaining older structures such as the impressive City Hall, the Albert Clock and the Opera House as well as a plethora of churches.

The reason for the WWII bombings was that Belfast was a hub for shipbuilding and aircraft manufacture. Both these industries have since declined. In its hey day 35,000 men were employed in the shipyards that amongst others was responsible for the building of the Titanic and other White Star Line ships. To date Belfast does not have a museum to the Titanic, but they are working to rectify that. East Belfast was developed as a suburb just to house these workers and then a bridge over the Lagan River to enable them easy access. Now, if anyone back home thought that 1,400 workers departing Walkers on foot and bike at 4 pm was a sight, you can't begin to imagine the seething rush of sweaty humanity that is 35,000 men! And all these men were able to churn out 6 ships a week at their peak - not like boats, sea going ships for trade and travel.

As part of the infrastructure two huge cranes - Samson and Goliath - that have become part of the Belfast skyline were constructed over a dry dock that is more than half a mile long. Earmarked to be sold, the people of Belfast rose in protest and they are now listed structures that will remain in perpetuity. And they are still working cranes - albeit no longer as busy!

But of course Belfast has seen much more recent conflict than WWII. The struggle between the Loyalists and the Nationalists, the Protestants and the Catholics has ensured that the name of Belfast is in recent memory. It is amazing (and sad yet again to see religious differences at the core of conflict) that the city could be so segregated, with enclaves in clusters - here one, next to it the other, then the opponent again and so on and so on. Although today there is relative calm between groups, the existence of a Berlin or Gaza style 'Peace Wall' in parts up to 70 feet high and visible in the housing estates that can be shut off and locked at nights and over the weekends helps to ensure that conflicts are thwarted today. The two bastions of Shankill Road and Falls Road both contain numerous memorials to the cause and the senseless loss of life that comes with communities unable to live together in harmony. Now, I am not saying that there has not been provocation (on both sides) nor the need for the communities to stand for what they believe in and hold dear, but when is humakind ever going to learn that the spilling of blood does not do it - especially in today's times.

Other sites we saw included the Parliament Buildings set in parklands and in WWII covered in a mixture of tar and manure to camoflage the white building where momentous events such as the order to sink the Bismark were given, the new comercial/ residential development of the Titanic Quarter on the riverside site of the former docks, the Crumlin Gaol and Court House, Queens University and the Botanic Gardens. Interestingly, architect Sir Charles Lanyon, has designed many of the public and civic buildings in Belfast - all in the shape of letters of the alphabet - Queens University is in an 'E' for education.

As we alighted from the bus, we could hear bands and the sounds of people marching. It was, of course, the May Day Street March. And in the city that is so passionate about causes and the right to be heard, there was very good participation by the various union and support groups. One sight for us though was that of a piano accordian marching band - what next?!

Once the crowds had marched on by it was off to the City Hall and Belfast Wheel. There were lots of people taking the sun so to speak on the green lawns of the City Hall that is presently closed for a major renovation lasting 3 years. And there were a number of activities associated with the march such as the 'Get Lost' maze. The Belfast Wheel sits in the grounds of City Hall at time dominating and from other angles dominated by it. The views from the Wheel are great over the city.

The Crown Bar in Great Victoria Street is a Belfast landmark. Steve at the Cairnryan House B&B in Scotland had suggested that we head here for a meal - and it was advice well given. Now owned by the National Trust (but thankfully operated under licence!) this is a Victorian Gem that relives the days of everything grand and ornate. With incredible timberwork and more so glasswork, it is plush, initimate, full of noise and fun.

Served by the lovely Elaine who single handedly (and very capably) managed to take the bookings, seat people and serve all the booths while remaining cool, calm and collected - you go girl! What an amazing Irishwoman!! We had to wait about 30 minutes for a table and that was at 2:30 pm! Didn't matter, the Magners Cider was cold and wet. All the tables are in 'snugs' - doored booths with stained glass panels - very quaint. A bell system alerts the waitress that you need something. On the walls of the booths (inside and out) are MATCHES strike plates and above us are the original gas lights!!!
Strangford Mussels (in a wine sauce with wheaten bread) Michael
Crispy Chicken Goujons (tenderloins with a sweet chilli sauce) Maria
Beef & Guinness Pie (Beef cooked in Guinness with pastry top served with Champ and vegetables) both of us.

After lunch we wander int he city a little longer taking in the sights and stopping at the Visitor Information Centre to get information on areas further afield and to buy some little souvenirs. At 6:30 pm we find ourselves back at the Opera House for the 7:45 pm performance of HMS Pinafore by the Carl Rosa Opera Company (London). Sitting in the bar, the characters of the ensemble were moving between tables selling programs. Near to us sat a couple (no drinks or anything) and when approached, the gentleman was about to buy a program when his wife almost nastily turned and said no. And not only did she decline to buy the program, she went on and on when the lass selling them said it would support the Arts in the UK. Totally uncalled for! And all for a measly £3.50. Gosh, you have not been able to get a program to a school play that cheaply in Australia for years, let alone a top opera performance. We on the other hand happily bought the souvenir and Ms Carla Maney was happy to sign our copy and pose for a photo (which was too shaky to be able to use). So into the beautifully ornate Belfast Grand Opera House we went to thoroughly enjoy the adaptation of Gilbert & Sullivan's HMS Pinafore with witty comment on the ruling class every bit as applicable today!

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