It hadn’t occurred to us that we could visit Northern Ireland while we were in Dublin. Without evaluating our options, and with heads filled with outdated media soundbites of violence and strife, I think we had unconsciously assumed that Ireland (south of the border), was the only part of the island that was legitimately open for us to visit. We are so thankful that our house sit hosts in Waterford set us straight and recommended a day trip to Belfast.
While out walking in Dublin, this went by, and we knew we had a trip to schedule. The Dublin Coach M1 Express service travels between Dublin and Belfast every hour, with the first bus from each city departing at about 5:30 a.m. and the last one departing at about 8:30 p.m.
There is just one pick-up/drop-off point in Dublin, so we walked the 30 minutes from our AirBnB to catch the 8:30 a.m. bus. We were a bit surprised to see the number of people milling about, most holding printouts of receipts or readying their cell phone screens to display proof that they had booked online. We had not. Those with online bookings took priority, so the remaining 15 or so less-prepared souls anxiously awaited our fate. Every one of us got on, but only after several head and seat counts by the driver to confirm space. Lesson learned!
I had been told by a colleague that the drive to Belfast would go through some scenic areas, but it was a bit too grey and misty to see very much on the 2-hour journey. We had brought our passports, assuming there would be some checkpoint (we had to go through customs and immigration when we arrived in Dublin from Scotland), but we couldn’t even tell when we had crossed a border. It was as easy as an everyday bus trip to another town, though everyone warns that this is likely to be different once Brexit is executed.
We had planned to take part in the Free Walking Tour at 11:00, so just had enough time to walk from the bus drop-off point to the front of City Hall where the tour was to start, after a quick stop at an ATM for some pounds sterling (as we were back in the UK and away from the land of Euros). We were there on an early December Saturday and the Christmas Market at City Hall was in full swing. We zipped inside to use the facilities and found the ground floor buzzing with visitors to its exhibition area and central Christmas tree.
Our 90-minute walking tour didn’t cover very much geographically, but the narrative provided by our guide, Michael, was enlightening. Michael, clearly proud of the advancements his troubled country has made of late, pointed out that his tour guide job didn’t exist as recently as 18 months ago (he may have been exaggerating a little).
There are still areas of Belfast where communities on both sides of the conflict meet (an interface), except for the division created by a peace wall. If you are up for it, there are ways to learn more about the conflict and view the walls. A Black Taxi tour is popular (but possibly one-sided), and the Free Walking Tour group offers a 3-hour tour where you spend 90 minutes on each side of a wall with an ex-prisoner from each side of the conflict.
The Titanic was built in Belfast, and the city has been building on that story with memorial gardens beside the city hall and, most recently, with the opening of the lavish attraction, Titanic Belfast. According to Michael, construction of this mega project was much maligned–people couldn’t understand why the city would invest in a tourist attraction when there were no tourists.
Our tour ended where Michael could point us in the direction of Titanic Belfast or St. George’s Market.
We walked across the bridge to view the Titanic Belfast building. Even on a cold December day, there were several buses outside and loads of folks milling about and following the same path we did from the city center. Tourism has definitely arrived.
Back on the city side of the bridge, we walked toward St. George’s Market and found many new and modern commercial and residential buildings. At one time, Belfast was much bigger than Dublin with a robust economy. Many old buildings were destroyed, and the city now holds only half the residents that Dublin does, but the economy is growing and development is everywhere.
With our last few minutes before catching the bus back to Dublin, we tried to check out the Christmas Market in front of city hall.
Food seemed to be the major draw, with people cramming every available space. Savory aromas and cheery sweets were everywhere, but the crowds were a bit too much for our weary bodies. We picked up a sandwich at a nearby shop and settled happily into our bus seats for the ride back to Dublin.