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Travel: Belfast tells a tale of two cities – one changed utterly, one still the same

© ShutterstockBelfast City Hall.
Belfast City Hall.

There was an advert that played on TV in Troubles-hit Northern Ireland during the 1990s. It was an uplifting ad that promised better days ahead if everyone embraced the fragile peace deal that was the Good Friday Agreement.

The advert showed two children, one representing each side of the community, running in a field and being friends as Van Morrison sang in the background “there’ll be days like this”.

As we land in Belfast after a short flight from Edinburgh, the sun bright against a cobalt sky, it feels like we are living in the time promised by that Troubles-era advert.

The famous Europa Hotel.
The famous Europa Hotel.

Our destination for the weekend is the Europa Hotel in Belfast city centre. In many ways the Europa mirrors the history of the city itself. It has stood as silent witness to the darkest days, when Northern Ireland was thrown into violent turmoil that lasted for more than 30 years.

Indeed, the Troubles saw the Europa gain the unenvious title of the most-bombed hotel in Europe. Yet, even during those bleak days, life went on and the Europa represented a city with an indomitable spirit. Speak to anyone from Belfast and they will tell you of school formals held in the historic hotel, of awards ceremonies, wedding receptions and even visiting celebrities hosted there – Bill Clinton stayed at the Europa when he was engaged in talks that would eventually bring peace to the country.

Today in post-Troubles Northern Ireland, life is flourishing and the Hastings Hotels-owned Europa is too.

The Europa Hotel

The building has just completed a £15 million renovation, taking the storied hotel into the modern era while retaining the history that makes the Europa what it is. All 272 guest bedrooms have been redesigned and we were lucky to stay in one of the new suites, which was very much five-star quality, with a grand, open living area and separate bedroom and bathroom.

It is a fitting redevelopment in a city that feels reborn after so many years of hardship. Stepping outside the Europa you can feel the renewed sense of optimism. Directly across the street in the Crown Bar, there is a hubbub from the ornate wooden booths inside the famous hostelry. Locals chat with tourists from across the world over pints of Guinness. The options for food and drink in Belfast are seemingly endless but a standout is Trademarket, just a few hundred metres from the Europa.

Belfast City Hall. © Shutterstock
Belfast City Hall.

Trademarket is located on a once-derelict plot on the city’s Dublin Road and from the outside looks like a building site but, inside, dozens of street-food vendors are working flat out selling everything from Filipino cuisine to pizza and hotdogs. It feels fresh and raw and cool and modern as people from all sides of Belfast come to hangout. It is everything Belfast should be.

Tourism has become a huge industry in Belfast and we hear accents from Germany and Australia as we join one of the most popular attractions, a black taxi tour. The tour takes visitors on a journey that only travels a couple of miles in distance from the city centre but spans decades into the bloody past. Our taxi driver and tour guide Geordie drives us into the heart of the Shankhill Road. Here he shows us a mural of a paramilitary fighter that covers the entire gable-end wall of a small council house. The subject of the painting, who was nicknamed Top Gun, has been memorialised forever for his skill in killing the most Catholics. It is a chilling reminder of the violence that tore Protestant and Catholic communities apart. Just a short drive away, Geordie stops at the site of the IRA bomb that killed 10 innocent people in 1993.

We pass between the huge metal gates in the 20-foot high steel and concrete peace wall that separates these two tightly packed communities. On the Catholic Falls Road side, we visit a tiny row of houses. There, a little girl of about four cycles on stabilisers, passing in and out of the shadows cast by the towering steel barricade. The houses here look like every other house in every other estate across the UK. That is apart from the small detail of an enormous metal cage covering their entire back garden.

“It’s to stop people throwing stones and petrol bombs over the fence from the other side,” explains Geordie.

A city reinvented

It is on top of this turbulent history that Belfast is rebuilding but at the same time not shying away from. As we finish our black taxi tour, we see a dozen other taxi tour guides attempting to explain the intricacies of the past to American tourists.

Geordie drops us a short distance away at the Crumlin Road Goal, a Victorian former prison that was built in 1845 and which had its own fair share of Troubles history. The prison housed the likes of Eamon de Valera, Martin McGuinness, Michael Stone and Bobby Sands over the years. It was even bombed by the IRA in 1991, killing two Loyalist prisoners.

Today, like much of Belfast, the building has been repurposed and reinvented and now houses not inmates but a whiskey distillery.

Inside Crumlin Road Gaol, now a distillery.
Inside Crumlin Road Gaol, now a distillery.

McConnell’s Irish Whisky – they spell it the Scottish way – and Visitor Experience, built over the last two years in the A wing of the iconic gaol, has opened to the public after a £12m redevelopment.

Inside, the bones of the prison building still remain, like the old metal staircases and cell doors, but around that a thoroughly modern and impeccably designed distillery and events space has been created. And like the fermented grains and spices, McConnell’s have used the Crumlin Road Gaol’s fascinating history as a key ingredient in its whiskey.

A pint of the black stuff. © SYSTEM
A pint of the black stuff.

McConnell’s chief executive John Kelly from north Belfast said: “We have turned an empty wing of an historic gaol into a place of investment, employment and opportunity, and it is now the home of the famous McConnell’s Irish Whisky which was originally born in Belfast in 1776.”

Something that remains unchanged is Belfast’s taste for a drink and the McConnell’s tour has whetted our appetite, so we take a short taxi ride back into the centre and arrive at White’s Tavern, the city’s oldest pub that dates back to 1630.

The bar is packed, with pints of Guinness lined up five deep on the bar. Inside the once-tiny tavern has expanded to house at least four bars catering for young and old, in search of some of the famous Belfast craic.

Back at the Europa the next morning and a little worse for wear, we are delighted to find that something else remains the same – the hotel’s bountiful breakfast. We are shown to a booth and are mercifully supplied with enough food to sink the Titanic while gallons of coffee helps to take the edge of the sore head. Still the same old Belfast, but changed for the better.

P.S. McConnell’s Irish Whisky distillery was first established in 1776. You might notice that McConnell’s spells its whisky without the ‘e’, which became a convention of Irish whiskey makers in the 19th Century to distinguish it from Scotch whisky. McConnell’s though, have gone back to their roots and dropped the added ‘e’.


The Europa hotel (+44 (0) 28 9027 1066) Titanic Suite starts from £1,040 per night.

McConnell’s Whisky: Tours of the Distillery & Visitor Experience can be booked here.