I had to come to Belfast. Stan didn't, but after he signed on to our crazy trip, he didn't have a choice. I've read so much about Northern Ireland, about the Troubles and the IRA, the years of hatred and violence that have scarred the country. Northen Ireland's story has fascinated me like little else I've encountered. When I planned this trip to Europe, Belfast had to be on the itinerary.
Thursday morning, we caught a lazy train from Dublin, gliding through the Irish countryside, past the coast and green hills and tiny villages. Some areas seemed peaceful in a way I've probably never experienced; others struck us as empty, depressed, and filled with drudgery.
We reached Belfast in two hours and rode a free bus to the city centre. We found the welcome center, which became our home base for the day: a place to leave our bags, an Internet center, and an all-important loo.
Belfast was nothing like I expected. For a city that's seen so much death and destruction, it's friendly, open, and helpful. Taxi drivers made animated conversation and took an interest in us. Everyone there had lived through years of fighting and hatred, yet they seemed genuinely optimistic that things are finally getting better.
The original plan was to take a black taxi tour around the city, but the man at the welcome center suggested something else: a three-hour walking "political" tour through the Catholic area of Belfast, guided by a former IRA man. Wow. I half-asked Stan if he was okay with a three-hour walk, then I ignored his answer and signed us up.
The tour was one of the high points of my life; I almost don't care if everything from here is a letdown. Our guide was an animated, grey-haired, potbellied man in his 50s. He'd fought for the IRA all through his youth and into middle age; he'd been in the Maze prison in 1981 during the hunger strike; he'd even been Gerry Adams's bodyguard and traveled with him around the world. Hearing his first-hand perspective illuminated events I was certain I'd known everything about.
He led us and five others through the Falls area, spinning tales and answering our questions. Despite his years of partisan fighting, he was open-minded and all about reconciliation. He took us past a wall full of murals, pointed out bullet holes in the side of a school, and brought us to the city's shining Bobby Sands mural.
We visited the Catholic cemetary, filled with ornate plots, shiny tombstones, and crosses taller than me. The last stop was the IRA section of the cemetary, where we walked past the graves of Sands and other IRA men who died on active duty. We admired the pristine stones while our guide breathlessly described the 1988 funeral he'd attended there that had been shot up and bombed by a crazy Protestant loyalist.
I was happy for Stan, who didn't know about the Troubles but still got so much out of the tour. As for me, the tour - and just being in Belfast - was the culmination of years of reading books and watching movies and being fascinated despite my disconnect with the actual place. That disconnect ended Thursday - ideas, however fascinating before, took on color and shape, became experiences, and are now memories.
At the end of the tour, the eight of us went to a pub for a complimentary Guinness. We all talked, and as people trickled away, eventually it was just us and two others: Jesse, a cute, excited college graduate from California, and Gemma, a 50-ish Belfast native who now teaches high school in California. Gemma bought us another round of drinks, and we all got to know each other over the next few hours.
When we were done, the four of us took a taxi back to the city centre. Gemma headed out, and Stan and Jesse and I jumped on a cheesy double-decker tour bus for a tourist's-eye view of the city.
Cheesy or not, the tour was a lot of fun. We all sat on top and let the cool wind hit us as our Scottish tour guide pointed out the wonders of Belfast. There was the shipyard where the Titanic was built and launched ("It was just fine when it left here"); and dozens of buildings that were fascinating for being either ornate and Victorian, or surrounded by thick, bomb-resistant walls, or both.
We visited the Catholic Falls Road again, as well as the Protestant Shankill Road, full of proud murals depicting paramilitary men wearing black ski masks and clutching rifles. We passed through the "Peace Wall" between the Catholic and Protestant areas, which is still closed every evening.
Every hour or so, I'd catch myself and yell at Stan, "We're in Belfast!" It seemed so improbable - to be so far away, in a city that's so important to me, far from my routine and normal life. But improbable as it was, we were there. I soaked it in as much as I could.
After the tour, we made tentative plans to meet up with Jesse and Gemma later in the evening. We retrieved our bags and rolled them down Great Victoria Street, towards our hostel. On the way, we stopped and ate at an excellent Indian restaurant, then rolled on to our hostel and checked in.
By the time we washed up and ran through the cool drizzle to meet Jesse and Gemma at Madden's pub, we were an hour late. They were still there, though, with a bottle of Magner's cider, which they shared with us. Then I bought us a round of Guinnesses, and we talked and joked and drank. Gemma told us about growing up in Belfast and taught us about hurling and gaelic football. I've rarely felt so relaxed and happy as I was at that pub, drinking in a festive atmosphere in a new city with incredibly friendly people.
Finally, we headed out, walking through an empty, almost eerie quiet that was occasionally pierced by the sound of carousing Irish kids. We stopped in The Crown, an old, ornately decorated pub still lit with gas lamps. There, Stan bought us another bottle of Magner's cider, and we talked and drank some more. Then we all headed out and said our goodbyes. Stan and I stumbled through the cool evening back to our hostel and crashed.
It was a relentless day, trains and buses and taxis, walking and walking, stark, depressing, fascinating history, and making fleeting, deep connections with incredibly warm people. Maybe you've noticed the lack of snark in this entry, that I haven't mentioned the jaw-dropping prices or the shower that was just a lonely nozzle in the middle of our bathroom. None of that mattered on Thursday. It was simply one of the most fun, rich, and rewarding days I've ever had in my life.
I didn't want to leave Belfast. I know we had to - there's so much more to see in Europe, and as our cab driver pointed out, you can see most of Belfast in one day. But my connection to the city over the past day has been so strong, almost tangible, and I'm sad knowing that I might not be back for years. Still, I know I'll visit again.
As I write this, we've just touched down in London for the next leg of our journey. Thanks as always for reading - I'll do my best to keep you updated on our travels.
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