Travelogue N. Ireland 4: Belfast


17-19 March 2023

With an extravagant multicourse breakfast on board from our hotel in Enniskillen, we hit the road for the final leg of our Northern Ireland road trip; the drive to Belfast.

With our sights set on attending the Saint Patrick’s Day parade in the Belfast city centre in the early afternoon, Chris put foot and we went straight to drop off the car.

So concluded our 316 mile road trip of Northern Ireland as we pulled into the car rental drop off in Belfast Airport.

With heavy luggage and no time to waste figuring out the buses and whatnot, we got a taxi to take us door-to-door to our B&B in Belfast. All of the taxi cars at Belfast Airport were fancy, so we were soon nestled in the back of a Mercedes-Benz feeling like first class passengers.

Our driver was chatty, telling us all about how wonderful Belfast is and how friendly the people are, and was quick with recommendations for all of the items on our To Do list.

He also revealed that the route we were taking into the city was part of the Ulster Grand Prix motorbike race circuit, and shared the hair-raising speeds that the motorbikes would be taking on the various twists and turns that we were cautiously taking in the comfort of our luxury vehicle.

Our B&B, Gregory by the Warren, was a converted Victorian mansion, delightfully decorated in muted, earthy tones that complimented the double volume and preserved the feels of the pressed ceilings, ornate cornices, embossed wallpaper et cetera.

Consulting Google Maps, we hit the road on foot and found quite a direct route into the city that was merely a mile from our digs.

The walk into town went past Belfast University and explained how the majority of pedestrians were of student age. In their hordes! I shivered at how scantily-clad a lot of the girls were; dressed up for St Paddy’s Day in lots of bright green (of what little clothing they were wearing). 

Getting into town, there were already long queues outside quite a few pubs. We were concerned, thinking we may have missed the full show and that we had only arrived in line with the after-party.

Fortunately this was not the case and, as we rounded the corner to where the City Hall was, we realised that it was the students that were pre-gaming, and found ourselves in more like-minded company on the High Street waiting for the parade to start.

Of course by now, being Ireland, it was raining.  Just a light drizzle though, so not enough to dampen (literally) the spirits of the patient onlookers.

The crowd cheered as the first float came into sight; a massive model horse, with a booming fella, riding high and cheerleading the crowds to welcome the parader. Hot on his heels was a giant Neverending Story-looking Dog float… and then another float… and then another…

The crowd cheered and whooped and clapped for the procession of floats, bands, dancers, drummers, stilt-walkers, hula-hoopers and participants of all shapes, sizes and ages. Lions International members formed part of the stream of paraders, each carrying a sign showing where in the world they were from. Anywhere and everywhere! A true indication of how cosmopolitan modern Belfast is.

I was keen to get out of the rain, and even keener to clock our first pint for the Guinness Index… on Saint Patrick’s Day… in actual Ireland! We indiscriminately entered the first pub with a Guinness sign and no queue outside. The former being simple but the latter a challenge on arguably the busiest day of the year in this city.

The Hercules was very busy inside, but the skilful bartenders, managing multiple customers at the same time, kept the drinks flowing. Most of the patrons were watching that Cheltenham festival (horseracing) and furtively glancing back and forth between their race betting stubs and the screen, hoping to have picked a winner. 

Noting that a pint of Guinness was “only“ £4.30, and seeing on the menu that they served the ever-elusive pub pie, we pencilled in a return visit for the following day.

With no particular plan in mind, we next found ourselves at The Crown Liquor Saloon, lured in by the historical façade. In operation since 1860, and with largely the original fittings, it was incredible to be in a living Museum, with its heavy oak bar, individual gated stall booths, and all the original wood, panelling and embossed wallpaper you would expect of a Victorian watering hole. It came in at a price though; a big jump to £5.55 for a pint!

Interlacing sightseeing with our mini pub crawl, we found ourselves back outside the pub that we passed on our way in that had the queue all the way around the corner. By now the pavement was even busier, with new people queueing and already-serviced young patrons purging their St Paddy’s indulgences. Unprompted, the doorman gestured us a silent invite as we passed by, cocking his head toward the entrance, offering for us to jump the queue; we couldn’t help but oblige. 

Lavery’s was prepared for their student patrons, and was serving the bustling barful drinks by the dozen in plastic cups. The TV screens were also showing the horseracing. It was receiving far less attention than in The Hercules, but a very very drunk student did press a “£1 off a pint” voucher into my hand saying that she was sharing her “wee winnings” with me. How nice.

Chris has already been served so we couldn’t use it. I paid it forward by giving it to a mousy and sober girl alone at the bar, who’d been waiting ages to be served, quite bewildered and very out of place. She beamed at the gesture. I wonder if she’s been served yet…

Between our intermittent sightseeing and nursing each of our drinks (paying in Pounds is no joke!) time was moving on and we needed to think about dinner.

Heading towards the Queen’s Quarter, we set our sights on The Parlour which had good reviews for food and atmosphere. Hardly surprising since it was nestled in between the university buildings.

We had a fabulous time for a couple of hours, starting with a £5.10 pint of Guinness, benefiting from the power of observation of the  (not-on-the-menu, absolute bargain £4) cheesy garlic pizza and even having a bolshy English student insist we try a Baby Guinness shot (Kahlua and Bailey’s), as his treat because he was (allegedly) half-Saffa (certainly not the tallest of the tales he’d told us).

As a last blast on the way home, we stuck our head in at the pub around the corner from our accommodation, Ryan’s. With the aromas of dinnertime still hanging in the air, the pub smelt great, and sounded even better with the traditional fiddler-dee band playing and the hum of people enjoying each other’s company (in a calmly fashion).

What a treat to be have experienced a genuine Irish St Paddy’s Day!


Thinking it a clear morning, we started with a jog around the neighbourhood to get our bearings. Typically, as we approached the farthest point of our pre-planned circuit, it started to rain so we had no choice but to grin and bear it on the return journey. 

By the time we were showered and dressed, it was dry again. But of course once we left home and headed into town on foot, it started raining again. Properly.

The first order of business was some necessary banking at Halifax. We arrived at the branch bedraggled and – speaking for myself – in no mood for the admin uphill that inevitably lay ahead.

The upside of the next hour is that it was warm and dry and there was free Wi-Fi in the branch. The downside is that being Halifax Bank, I once again achieved nothing.  The safest bank account in the world, since not even the account holder, try as they might, can access it. Talk about ‘forced savings’. Pffft.

Desperately in need of a mood-lifter, we made a beeline back to The Hercules for that ever-elusive pie. 

Thank heavens they were open and serving, had a table for us, and were sharp-sharp with bringing out the lightest, fluffiest Chicken and Ham (me) and Beef and Bushmills (Christian) pies. I had champ on the side, to be authentic. Mash with green onions. Yum!

In far better spirits and ready to tackle Belfast again, we set about with the order of the afternoon: explore the Titanic Quarter. Extensive signage along the quayside helped immensely with creating a self-guided walking tour.

According to a board, when Queen’s Quay opened in 1877, it provided much-needed berthing space for the numerous sailing colliers. This vast Port of Belfast was once the heart of the world’s largest shipbuilding industry, and it was from a nearby slipway that the ill-fated Titanic was launched in 1911, later to set out on her maiden voyage in 1912.

The sailing ships have long gone, but Queen’s Quay still plays a vital role as a portal into Titanic Quarter – the largest waterfront development (residential, commercial and entertainment) in Europe, at 185 acres with a mile of water frontage. 

There are many monuments and landmarks to visit along the river, not least of which a collection of bridges, the leaning clocktower (built on top of a river, eroded its foundations), a giant blue and white tiled fish, and of course the multi-million Pound Titanic Museum our taxi driver told could be an afternoon’s investment all on its own.

We paid a visit to Hill Street, popular to Belfast’s good-timers for centuries and we’re amused by the names of the pubs. The Thirsty Goat… The Dirty Onion… The Dark Horse. All in buildings aging from 1680 and up! 

In retrospect, I think we may have chosen poorly; it was only once we’d ordered and were seated that we realised that The Harp, based on wall-to-ceiling Bushmills paraphernalia, was a whiskey bar. No mind, it was nice anyway in our velvet wingback chairs in the window.

Well-rested, we took a walk ‘across the tracks’ to hunt down Falls Road to see the famous mural of Bobby Sands, an IRA volunteer who was jailed for a bombing of a clothing factory in Dunmurry and the ensuing gun battle with the police. 

Whilst in prison, Sands was elected as an MP, the youngest at the time. He succumbed to a 66 day hunger strike less than a year later, protesting against the removal of special privileges that  “political” prisoners had but ordinary criminals didn’t. He never took his seat in the House of Commons and a bill was passed preventing people who have served a term in prison from being voted into parliament, in order to prevent any of the other strikers from running to replace him.

We got more than we bargained for; well worth the almost 2km trek to see several murals and sombre tributes to the violent and turbulent times this city has seen, as well as those in other parts of the world like Gaza, Catalonia and our very own South Africa.

Chris was keen to catch some of the Ireland vs England game but we were quite intimidated at the bars in Fall Road which were Irish to the point of having no English signage. Rugby spectating being loud and rowdy by convention didn’t help to make us feel any more welcome as we tested the waters.

We were also reluctant to get drawn into another student fiasco so needed to pick our pub wisely.

We rationalised that downtown would be a dog show and we’d fare better in the ‘burbs. By now familiar with our surroundings, we cut through the Botanical Gardens thinking that the Botanic Inn sounded sedate.

Boy, were we wrong!

There was a fan park of sorts erected between the hotel and the Chicken Wings pop-up street-food restaurant next door and you could hear the roaring crowd from all the way down the street!

We slipped into Plan B and were pleased to find that the The Jeggy Nettle was, although festive and spirited, more age-appropriate.

Exhausted from almost 20km of on-foot mileage over the course of the day (!!) I asked a group of 4 at a table next to the door if we could perch on the end of their booth seat. They smiled and obliged, and we were grateful to squeeze in.

With a resounding victory for the Irish, the patrons were giddy when the game was over and the traditional band started seamlessly as the commentators started their post-match autopsy.

A band of 4, the young lads fiddled and fluted and squeezed on the accordion like life depended on it. An inspired rendition of Fields of Athenry raised a chorus from the customers (including us) and I swear there would have been jigging happening if there was an inch to spare on the heavy-wood ancient floorboards!

With little wind left in our sails, we opted for a quick n easy takeout (but eat-in) type meal. We simply had to go to the Thai-Tanic to fit the theme of the day! 


Hard to believe it was home time already!

We had sights set on a walking tour at 11am (a bit backwards ending off with it, but so be it) and a quick roast lunch before needing to be at the bus station for our 15h30 departure for Dublin International Airport to fly home.

We were at City Hall spot on 11am to meet the guide with the yellow umbrella. He started his patter with the usual go-round of who is from where. When we offered “South Africa”, he shared that our Durban City Hall was built off the same plan as the magnificent Belfast City Hall! I don’t recall ours being as grand, but will have to refresh my memory when next I’m in Durbs.

Our guide was a wealth of knowledge, threading the story of Belfast through the ages from a political, religious and economic perspective as he pointed out places of interest to illustrate the story. As someone who had lived through the latter half of the twentieth century in this troubled city, he spoken sincerely, passionately and often poignantly, padding the sometimes sterile timeline of events with his personal experiences. 

He repeated what we’d learnt in Derry about the Plantation of 1609 and was emphatic that those early days of banning Irish and Catholicism were the seeds of the Troubles, seen centuries before and festering through the ages, with Rebellion through the 1700s to remove the British rule.

He spoke of the devastating potato famine of 1845-1852 and how the Irish people not only received no aid from the UK, but how the British actually exported food from Ireland under armed guard. Some 1.5 million people starved to death and a further estimated 3 million left the country. Apparently 15 US presidents have claimed proudly to be from this Irish stock (including Joe Biden), so who know what a powerhouse Ireland could have been without that brain-drain (sound familiar, South Africa??)

Ireland picked itself up and dusted itself off and by 1880 had a thriving Economy and was an industrial powerhouse for linen, whiskey and its shipyard. The graphic illustrations around the quayside had shown an elegant society with beautiful buildings and horse-drawn carriages, which must have been this heyday.

It was in these grand times that the City Hall was finished (1888), and no expense was spared in the magnificent fittings and fixtures inside. The building is open and free to access, which is also pretty remarkable.

The gardens contain a 30 metre plinth tribute to the Titanic. 

The story as told to us is that Thomas Andrews announced he would build the biggest, fastest, most luxurious, most expensive and ‘unsinkable’ ship. The Titanic was then built by experts with the finest materials. The downfall was wanting to be the the fastest crossing to the US; Titanic was warned by other boats about icebergs, but kept going. The rest is history and almost 2000 people perished.

Our guide’s perspective was that the ship was perfect when it left Belfast and that the proof was in the arrogant and negligent navigational pudding. Nonetheless, the disaster hit Belfast’s ship-building reputation. 

The beautiful design of the Victorian City Hall sparked further discussion on the architecture downtown.

Sadly, Belfast very heavily bombed in World War II over 3 nights in April 1941 because of their well-known contribution to ship and air building for the English. Between the World War and the raging IRA bombings – multiple daily, according to the guide’s personal recollection – many great buildings were destroyed and replaced with functional and boring successors. This explains the eclectic mix of architecture in the inner city. 

Fortunately, buildings of historical value are listed and protected. One such being the majestic The Crown pub that we’d happened upon the previous day. 

Originally called The Railway Inn (because it was opposite old railway), the owner negotiated with a group of skilled Italian artisans who were in the city decorating a church to facelift his bar at night and on weekends. They obliged, hence the ornate work and the rename to the more regal and befitting The Crown.

It sits opposite the Europa Hotel which has the dubious honour of being the most bombed building in Dublin. A victim of poor timing, the hotel was opened at the start of the Troubles. The terrorism caused tourism to tank so the hotel was largely populated with press coming to cover the unrest. The IRA bombed it 33 times.

The IRA no longer exists but Shin Fein is now the leading party. According to a census two years ago, Northern Ireland is now majority Catholic, so could be headed for their first Catholic Prime Minister. And with all the contention around Brexit and having to get special dispensation because having EU borders between Northern Ireland and the Republic breaks the Good Friday Agreement… Watch this space indeed!

The tour ended at the Salmon of Knowledge (the Big Fish we’d seen the previous day) on the banks of the River Lagan, which flows through Belfast and into the Irish Sea. 

On the far side is the Titanic Quarter, with the museum and the minor ship building activities, mostly fitting luxury cruise ships. The addition of the residences, business and light industrial bits make it the biggest waterfront development in the world.

The Big Fish was erected to celebrate the return of salmon to the River of Lagan in 1999 for the first time in 200 years, with pollution having previously driven them away. A bridge had been installed to clean the the river by raising the level of the water and keeping it fast-moving. It not only brought back the fish, but also removed the smell, the eradication of which had stimulated development and tourism in the area. 

The Big Fish is filled with time capsules about life in Belfast in 1999 and with instruction not to open them for 100 years.

Who knows what the contributors chose to preserve. They would have been fresh off the end of the Conflict, in the Good Friday Agreement in Easter 1998. The militarised  borders and checkpoints would just have been removed. Tony Blair had just apologised in parliament for the treatment of the Irish people in the famine. They would no doubt speak of a city divided by religion, with peace walls gated at either end, locked every night at 7pm. (Still in place and locked nightly, and if placed end to end, stretch 21km). They would not yet have seen the population finally reach 7 million, as it is today, only now reaching the same as 1840s! And couldn’t predict that 3/4 of the population lives in the 200 mile strip between Belfast and Dublin! 

The parting shot was some advice on pubs and restaurants. Our guide said that one of downtown Belfast’s novel features is that pubs are required to be in back lanes so families can go about their business in the high streets undisturbed. 

We were delighted to already have visited some of his recommendations and – I couldn’t help it – asked for the cheapest pint in Belfast so we could pay a quick visit and add it to the Index.

That’s how we ended up having our last pint in Belfast as Wetherspoons, for £3.75.

It was a very quick one because we still had a roast lunch to squeeze in.

We got to Maggie May’s at 13h40, just 10 minutes off schedule. We were greeted and seated in the 9-table parlour room of this beautifully preserved Victorian house and served a steaming hot plate of roast beef, with mash and roast taties, carrots and parsnips, drenched in thick brown gravy.

And they lived happily ever after.

The end.