Trip Start Sep 04, 2006
24Trip End Dec 24, 2006
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Back to my trip, though. We got into Belfast Friday evening, and I was happy to get another stamp on my passport (they didn't have any passport controls either coming into Austria or returning to France from Austria...the British are a little more anti-Europe, though, so I expected them to do it). We got the bus to the city centre, walked out of the bus station, and promptly started freezing. Our hostel wasn't far, though. We had planned to go out that night, but cold, tiredness, and my headache led us to turn in early. So we started our real Belfast stuff Saturday morning. They had a cafe for breakfast at the hostel, which turned out to be surprisingly good - Alec had a full Irish breakfast, which is huge...soda bread, sausages, beans on toast, and I don't remember what else, and I had the first bagel and scrambled eggs I've had since I can't remember when. We asked at the hostel front desk about setting up a "black taxi" tour, which is supposed to be the way to see the politically/religiously divided areas in West Belfast, with a guide who takes you around and explains all the history, etc. They called for us, and within a half hour, we were climbing into the backseat of our taxi, with Pat as our guide. He was very lively and fun, and seemed pleased that I had Irish heritage, knew about them (name, where they came from, when, etc.), and that I already knew a lot about the situation in Northern Ireland
First, he took us to the Protestant Shankill Road area, and pulled over to explain the complicated history of what is known in Ireland as "The Troubles". Both areas, Catholic and Protestant, are full of political murals, expressing political points of view, honoring martyrs, groups, or historical icons representing their particular ideology, showing solidarity with people they feel like they have something in common with, and of course displaying their preferred flags, icons, and name for the area they live in (i.e. to Protestant Unionists, Northern Ireland is "Ulster", to Catholic Nationalists/Republicans, Northern Ireland is "The Six Counties"). I was worried beforehand that it wouldn't be okay to get out or conspicuously take pictures of the murals, but Pat said it was perfectly fine and that people were used to it. We had several opportunities to get out, walk around, and take plenty of photos. The murals in the Shankill were more overtly militant - the most well-known is one with a gunman who seems to be pointing his gun at you no matter where you are - not to mention sectarian (I was particularly disgusted by one with a painting of Oliver Cromwell and a quote from him talking about how Catholicism is more than just a religion, it's a political power, and there will be no peace in Ireland until the Catholic Church is crushed). We also made a stop at the "peace wall", which divides the two communities, and where you can still see damage from Molotov cocktails thrown during the height of the Troubles
Then, it was on to the Catholic Falls Road. We made another stop, this time in front of the Sinn Fein offices (in case you didn't know, Sinn Fein, which is Irish for "we ourselves", is the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, and is one of the two main Northern Irish political parties who support dissolution of the union with Great Britain and a single united Irish Republic. It's the more extreme of the two, and dominates Nationalist/Republican politics in Belfast). This is of course where Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein president and possibly the best known Northern Irish politician because of the peace process, has his office, and is also the location of Belfast's most famous mural, dedicated to Bobby Sands, who died in 1981 at the age of 26 leading the hunger strike in prison for rights for Northern Irish Republican prisoners. He was elected to Parliament while in prison in the context of a campaign for the hunger strikers and the prisoners in general, and is one of the most revered icons of the Republican cause - his death is generally seen as the turning point for the political legitimization of Sinn Fein and the Republican cause, and for more widespread public support of the cause. Anyway, we got to see that particular mural, and then we had a little while to look around the Sinn Fein bookstore
We went on down the Falls and saw the rest of the murals
After lunch, we headed to the Belfast City Hall, which is really beautiful, and had all kinds of special exhibits for its centennial this year (including the switch with which Bill Clinton turned on the Christmas lights in the city a few years ago). We took a very interesting tour of the building, and I got to try on the councilman's robes and sit in the Lord Mayor's chair when we were in the council chamber. After that, we walked south to see the very beautiful Queen's University Belfast
Sunday, we slept as late as we could, did the breakfast thing again, and then tried to find something to do. It was so cold that we couldn't do something that required a lot of outside stuff, we had to check out of the hostel at 11am, and our flight didn't leave until 5:40p.m., so we decided to go to a movie. We arrived just in time to see something I've been wanting to see for weeks, Borat. It was hysterical, although the least politically correct thing I've seen in a while. We got a late lunch, visited the Belfast Welcome Centre, which was oddly the only place I saw in the entire city where you could buy Belfast/Northern Ireland/etc. souvenirs (Belfast just isn't too touristy), and then headed for the airport, where our flight was delayed 50 minutes, causing me to miss my train from Paris to Nantes (and naturally it was the last train of the evening). So being stuck in Paris for the night and unable to get back until the first train that left after the ticket window opened at 8, I crashed at Alec's apartment, which meant no 8am French grammar class for me (believe me, I was crushed). I got back to Nantes just before lunch. It was a great weekend, though.