Belfast is a real contrast – it has one of the best visitor attractions I have ever seen in the Titanic exhibition. And one of the most deprived city centres in the United Kingdom.
We were on the cruise ship Marco Polo for the day, which provided its passengers with a free transfer into Belfast city centre. We wanted to go to the Titanic, so shared a taxi from the quayside direct to the exhibition centre. Four occupants and the fare was a very reasonable £8.
We had been warned that the exterior represented the side of a liner, but we couldn’t see it. Lots of glass, wide drop off area, but no reproduction of the famous ship. As pensioners, we paid £15 each, which included the ride inside. Without this addition it would have been £3 less. There is an underground car park, but the majority or people seemed to be either from the cruise ships, schools, or organised groups.
Prices were also quoted in euros throughout the centre, the staff issuing the tickets were extremely welcoming. You know how it is when you go somewhere and the staff just seem so used to dealing with the public they become uninterested when handing over the ticket, well, they actually seemed genuinely interested when chatting. Nothing hurried.
I have no idea how many levels the exhibition is on, because you walk up and down steps – there are slopes for the handicapped – and the walls are so full of fascinating photos and artefacts that it isn’t really important where you are in the building.
For those unaware, the Titanic sunk on her maiden voyage in 1912. She was built in Belfast, and the black and white photos are evocative of the period. A new idea here is to show the large photo on a wall, with superimposed shadows walking across with the newer image being in period costume.
Behind glass are reconstructions of cabins, third class with a surprising amount of room and luxury, second class for the wealthier, and then state rooms, which were the height of sophistication.
The highlight of our tour was the little car ride. It seats four, two in front and the two behind at a much higher level so all can see. The distance covered I suspect is not great, but you travel from the lower to upper levels, seeing how the ship was constructed, the basic working conditions the riveters were working under, it was hardly surprising that there was such a high level of injuries and fatalities.
When you leave the main building, opposite is the Titanic tender called the Nomadic. This is in permanent dry dock, and is the only genuine part of the ship that still exists. Passengers would be ferried by this surprisingly large vessel, of course segregated into the usual three classes. It was derelict for some years, restored to the original so it could be part of the Titanic experience.
Back across the road to the inevitable souvenir ship and refreshments, then with the same couple who shared our original taxi we went for an hour long personal city tour. Our driver should not have collected us from outside the exhibition hall because all journeys must be pre-booked. We were unaware of this at the time, there were no cabs shaped liked London cabs, which are the only ones licensed to collect fares in this way. These cabs are run exclusively by the Catholic drivers, extensively used during the Troubles by that side of the community. The divide is still there.
His mother was a local lady, his father from central Africa, we were lucky to find him because he was knowledgeable, and reasonably priced. He first took us through the Catholic area, then into the Protestant side. There is still a dividing wall, with an electric gate that closes at 8pm every night of the year so they can have some semblance of peace. That gate is huge, with a high wall. The marching season for Protestants starts in late April, every Saturday for the summer, forget about trying to get around then. The main hospital is adjacent to the court house and disused jail, two tourist spots on the main visitor route. The open top buses are plentiful.
The driver only charged us £15 for our hour long tour, returning us to our ship.
What was our impression of Belfast? We found the contrast remarkable, with the Titanic exhibition drawing in the crowds. The shopping and tourist areas were not much better than slums, many shops boarded, and forget about trying to get around at night. New hotels are being built, concert venues are popular, bars and restaurants are lively, just be fully aware of your surroundings.
Titanic visitor centre www.titanicbelfast.com
Open top bus www.belfastcitysightseeing.com