Amson and Goliath loom menacingly over me in all their grandeur. The former, a ‘wee’ 33 feet taller than his 315 foot-tall companion. Their yellow bodies glisten in the rays of the morning sun above the city of Belfast, Northern Ireland’s quaint little capital city. But before you begin to imagine me time travelling back to Biblical times, I must confess to possessing no such supernatural abilities. For, I am merely waxing lyrical about a set of shipbuilding cranes named after the ancient warrior heroes that inhabit the pages of The Old Testament!
But possessed I am nonetheless. Possessed by the sheer scale and audacity of the erstwhile Harland & Wolff shipyard — the birthing spot of the ill-fated RMS Titanic. The aquatic Leviathan that till today is as alive in Belfast as it was over a century ago, and the raison d’être of my weekend tryst with this fascinating city by the River Lagan. Being a card-carrying, life-long member of the ‘I Love Titanic’ club and eager to be privy to the un- ‘Hollywoodised’ side of Titanic’s legend, I simply had to begin my Titanic innings at Ground Zero.
As the newest resident of Belfast’s historic and once derelict Titanic Quarter, Titanic Belfast along Queen’s Road, just 10 minutes from the bustling city centre, opened its doors in March 2012. This glass and steel edifice is an eight-storied museum containing more than 130,000 sq ft of floor space, most of which is occupied by the dry dock where Titanic and her White Star Line sister ships, the lesser known RMS Olympic and HMHS Britannic were built almost simultaneously between 1910 to 1912. The rest of the museum is made up by a series of galleries chronicling every stage of the ‘Titanicification’ as it were — from its drawing board blueprints to its fatal encounter with the infamous iceberg in the North Atlantic Sea. The most awe-inspiring of the lot being the life size replica of Titanic’s fifth and sixth floor banqueting suite that is kitted out in exactly the same fashion with all the same trimmings, including plush carpeting and a winding mahogany staircase.
Trawling through the vast acreage of the museum complex, I make my way towards another dry dock that houses the fully restored SS Nomadic. This is that very tender ship that brought some of the Titanic’s passengers like the legendary ‘unsinkable’ American millionairess Margaret (Maggie) Brown and industrialist Benjamin Guggenheim on board from the port of Cherbourg in France. With separate sections for first and second class passengers, the apparent and rather militant social disparity, which was prevalent in those early years of the last century, is well-referenced by the heavily padlocked metal doors. They cordon off the two areas that divide the tender into two distinct zones.
Also inhabiting the grounds of Titanic Belfast is a giant toy modelling kit of the Titanic designed by English artist Tony Stallard. As a tribute to the shipbuilders who constructed the Titanic on that very spot a century ago, scale replicas of its component parts have now returned to the docks in the form of this very novel public artwork. What’s even more heartwarming is that present-day engineers from Harland & Wolff — the ship construction company that built the world’s most famous passenger ship-helped in the construction of the towering bronze sculpture standing at 13.5-metres tall. It draws inspiration from the plastic frames synonymous with Airfix model kits.
Taking a temporary detour from all things Titanic, the weekend Victorian St George’s Market on May Street beckons me to take in its gourmet wonders for lunch. Besides its 150-plus kiosks-peddling everything from traditional Northern Irish fare like Soda Bread, Belfast Bap and Ulster Fries to Blood Sausage and cheeses — the market also has a full-fledged restaurant called the St George’s Market Bar & Grill. This is the place that introduces me to the authentic Irish Coffee laced with copious amounts of Jameson Whiskey and topped with an unctuous layer of whipped cream. Revved up with all that caffeine coursing through my veins I get right back upon the Titanic bandwagon, albeit adopting a little more sober countenance. The place I visit demanded that of me.
The Titanic Memorial housed on the grounds of Belfast’s very Victorian City Hall on Donegall Square is next on the itinerary. An itinerary is part of the £30 (R3,000 approximately) per person Titanic Tour conducted by Susie Millar, the great-granddaughter of Thomas Millar, who worked in Harland & Wolff on the construction of Titanic and then sailed onboard her as an engineer on the fateful maiden voyage. Built in 1920 in honour of the souls on board the Titanic, by funds collected from the public, shipyard workers and families of the victims, I am told by a sotto-voiced Susie that there is never a single day that goes by without a wreath of blood red poppies laid out before the memorial by someone or the other. The memorial itself takes the form of a female personification of Death holding a laurel wreath over the head of a drowned sailor raised above the waves by a pair of mermaids. Poignant and introspective are the two words that typify this monument.
A Titanic dinner
Completing the Titanic leitmotif of my day about town, the curtain call is a Titanic-themed nine course dinner, but of course! Something that I am looking forward to the minute I had heard of it from a friend who highly recommended it. I won’t even get into the economics of it, with the hefty £69 (R7,000 approx.) per person plus 10 per cent service charge addition to the bill. Hosted nightly by the folks at Rayanne House in Belfast’s very own Hollywood neighbourhood, the dinner attempts at recreating the exact same dinner that was served to the ship’s ‘privileged’ (never mind the irony!) first class passengers. The culinary orgy oscillated from the exotic salad course of Asparagus and Watercress Salad with Roast Squab to the sublime sixth entrée course of Pan-Seared Filet Mignon topped with Foie Gras and Truffles finally climaxing with the dessert course of Spiced Peaches in Chartreuse Jelly and French Vanilla Ice Cream with a whole lot of other courses thrown in.
Fully satiated and basking in the aftermath of Belfast’s assorted treats, my 12 hours of vicarious Titanic thrills met their end without a single iceberg in sight… not even one that goes by the name of a singing Celine Dion!
>> Attend a musical concert by Belfast born music legend Van Morrison and other local Irish Celtic folk music bands.
>> Enjoy a pint of Guinness beer and a plate of freshly shucked oysters at a pub like the iconic Duke of York Pub in Belfast’s historic Half Bap area
>> Commune with nature at Belfast’s lush Botanic Gardens in the south end of the city.
>> Visit the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum located in Cultra, just 15 minutes out of the Belfast’s city centre.
As there are no direct flights to Northern Ireland from India, one needs to fly in to Belfast’s George Best Belfast City Airport via London on airlines like British Airways and Aer Lingus. For travel within Belfast, there are plenty of buses and taxis that ply between neighbourhoods. But the best way to discover this compact city is on foot with most attractions near to each other.
When to Visit
May to September
There is a good range of accommodation options available in Belfast that suit most budgets starting from about £70 (R7,000 approx) per night for double occupancy with breakfast. Some value-for-money options are:
>> Europa Hotel(www.hastingshotels.com/europa-belfast/)
>> Merchant Hotel (www.themerchanthotel.com)
>> Days Hotel Belfast (www.dayshotelbelfast.co.uk)