I was standing near the dressing room at Forever 21 blinking at the sales clerk like an idiot.
“What?” I asked for the third time.
“Dew you ‘av the tahme?”
She finally tapped her wrist.
“Oh. Quarter to one.”
Belfast was so bizarrely different from the rest of my time in Ireland. It may or may not have included kissing one of my best friends during a special hostel game of Jenga, and a strange late-night club experience on a Tuesday evening. Tuesday, Belfast. Tuesday.
As soon as we crossed the border into the North, my phone dinged to let me know that my European calling card would no longer be in service. Damn. How could I get around without Google maps? The insanity.
The change is abrupt, immediate, and as noticeable as the Union flag dominating the streets.
The first thing you should do is get a history lesson.
Black Cab Tours
Just about everyone I talked to when travelling to the North told me to do a Black Taxi Tour. For about 30 GBP you’ll be taken on a ride through the city, and your guide will give you a succinct account of The Troubles. We stopped by political murals, the Crumlin Road Jail and Court House, and City Hall.
Each stop had its own horror stories of violence and political strife. But it was the Peaceline that took us by surprise the most: literally a wall built to divide the Nationalists and Loyalists (read: Catholics and Protestants), right in the middle of the city. It’s hard to imagine something like that existing in such a modern country.
Twice on my trip around Ireland I was treated to a lengthy introduction to The Troubles, written in my notebook with painstaking detail impossible to summarize. The Guardian has a nice timeline for your reference, but hearing it first hand from a guide who worked the streets during The Troubles is something special.
Some might argue that there’s still a bit of political instability in the country, but Northern Ireland has really morphed into an entity all its own, independent from both Britain and Ireland (figuratively, at least). When a lady asked our hostel owner what he “called” himself, British or Irish, he promptly responded with “Northern Irish.”
The fun stuff
You cannot visit Northern Ireland without a history lesson. I mean that. Shame on you, otherwise.
Once you’ve had your history lesson, Belfast is yours for the taking. She’s a beautiful city to dance around, which is what Julia and I spent most of our time doing. And shopping. Oh, the shopping.
Simply hang out next to City Hall. All the weirdos are there, including religious fanatics touting their messages to pedestrians. You can also check out Titanic Belfast, where the ship was built. (It always seemed a little odd to me to take pride in a ship that went down, but there you have it.) And if you climb up to Cave Hill Country Park, you’ll get the best view of Belfast in the whole wide world.
One of our biggest highlights, though, was chilling out at Vagabonds Belfast hostel. I’m not much of a hostel-goer these days, but Ireland was expensive and we figured a small place downtown would work. The owner and the other guests invited us to join them for beers and games before heading out on the town, and despite the epic shenanigans that took place for two weeks in Sligo, we proclaimed a “YOLO” and pulled up our chairs.
We can’t share what happened next. This photo speaks volumes. But the night quickly unravelled into a storm.
Tuesday night in Belfast is apparently a huge party night. We ended up a nightclub called Limelight, Julia and I being much too sober to be surrounded by 18 year olds in high-waisted pants and crop tops. I have literally never seen such a chaotic mess. We watch horrified and amused as a circus show took place on stage, complete with acrobats and people dressed in elephant costumes.
We kept getting jostled by a foursome – two young girls and two young men – who were taking turns making out with each other. One of our new friends just kept dancing with a giant pole in the middle of the dance floor.
“Did I dance with anyone last night?” he asked the next morning.
“Well, it wasn’t a person…”
We were supposed to have an early morning rise to catch a ride with a guest who had invited us on a day trip around the North to see the sights, but she showed up at our door at 11 AM looking frazzled. She then launched into a huge account about how one of the guests from the hostel tried to park her car last night, and then they somehow ended up miles away near the airport with a busted tire.
She left and we looked at each other.
“Weren’t they both really drunk?”
Belfast. You are weird. Don’t let strangers drive your cars, kid. Especially when they’re drunk.