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Belfast Baps – Northern Ireland

I’ve forgotten what it feels like to wake up at 2.30pm and have an extended sleep in, especially after the 11am checkouts, snorers, 5am room bargers and dorm bed shakers of hostels. That’s not to say i don’t enjoy them, because they are a hell of alot of fun. However waking up in a single bed with a mattress without sag is amazing. It’s more like there’s a choir of angels singing ‘ALLELUIA’ in piano tones, gold light shining down from the gods of travel, caressing my dreams with their warm touch and willing me an eternity of comfortable beds. Aaaaahhhhhhh…

I arrive in Belfast at 9.45 in the morning, after a smooth, lush, green, train ride from Dublin. After walking into town and dumping my pack at the visitor’s centre, i head straight for the christmas markets at city hall.  Smells of smoky boar burgers and krakauer sausages stream though the air, while the churros bar is tempting passers by with mouth watering churros and chocolate sauce. Real candy tents litter the small area offering everything from chocolate rocks to jack daniels fudge. Coffee stands with flavours like amaretto, bounty island cream and dutch apple pie offer me a nose orgasm. 2 beer halls have been erected in the middle, filled with punters sipping a pint, looking snug inside, out of the typical rain and wind of an irish winter. I opt for a 12 inch smoky krakauer in a fresh baguette, and squirt on the mustard and tomato sauce from the overhanging sauce tubs. It feels like i’m milking a cow with an oversized udder. No shit. Greatest sausage on a roll ever!

After a delicious breakfast, i head over to the cathedral quarter to stalk the street art scene, and man do i hit a gold mine. Slinking down alleyways and lanesways, i manage to find a ton of wall art, something which may perhaps rival Glasgows street scene. Backsides of buildings have been coloured up artfully, along with carparks to cafes, and combined with the cobblestone pavements spread about, really gives this part of town an extra hit of character. Mix it in with the cathedral spires reaching for heaven, and the quirky alternative clothing and ska shops spread about, it could be Belfasts answer to Sydneys newtown or glebe.

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As the sun starts to go down, I remember that i still haven’t found a place to sleep. Recalling where the university area is, after making a quick phone call, I pick up my backpack from town and march 15 mins down the road to Vagabonds. I can comfortably say from the minute i walked in, hands down the coolest hostel to stay in Belfast for anyone looking for a guaranteed ripper time, and a good clean bed for the night. The staff are friendlier then a fat kid is to cake, and the people you cross paths with at Vagabonds all carry that same friendly sentiment. It has that comfy homey feel to it, in which part i think is due to the people that work there. Well wishes and slogans graffitied all over the common room wall makes it feel like you’re in a hipster cafe’s paradise. All kinds of quirky art adorn the walls, everything from Chris’s 8b pencil art in the common room to the stag heads hanging over a few of the dorm doors and a pool table out back. And the woodfired boiler in the dining room. Aahhh, that bloody thing is amazing…

One thing i can suggest to only the bravest of people is – climb cave hill pre sunrise at the beginning of winter. In high winds. Without a map. And then make sure you get lost off the perfectly useful gravel path, onto the dirtbike paths, where it’s nice and slushy, and climb up the hill passing the first cave, onto the steepest climb, where if you aren’t a little careful, you’ll fall on your arse and roll down the hill a ways, maybe off the steep sides into the brush. Once you get to the top, brave the winds, and the sleeting icy cold, ignore the fact that the ground is covered in thick white frost and you’ve forgotten your tripod, and enjoy the rewarding full view over Belfast, even if you can’t feel your hands or even use them for that matter. Standing 370m over belfast watching the sun creep up over the horizon is quite something, and was worth every minute of abuse i hurled at the dirtbike trails.

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Cave hill

The walk down the gravel path now that i could see, was beautiful. Greens, oranges, yellows, reds and browns were everywhere, the aged trees caught in some mysterious dance moves, and the stone slabs installed as stairs were a welcome change from muddy bike paths. Great views over Belfast were repeated over several points of the winding trail. Strolling downwards on the gravel, the trees pitched their multicoloured canopy, and upon meeting a great old irish gent taking his morning walk up the hill, we both stopped for a good 10 min chat, about hiking, grandchildren, travelling and Australia. After resuming my walk, i caught the soothing sound of water escaping off the hill, and with the sun really starting to shine it felt like i was almost in front of the Vagabonds boiler. Almost…

After lazing about for a few hours on the couch on saturday morning, a couple of friends by the names of Bhrett and Andrew (not surprisingly aussie and kiwi, i’ve come to the conclusion there’s more australians here then irish) and i decided to head down to St George markets for lunch, then onto ulster hall for the beer and cider festival. 10 mins down the road we entered the markets. The smells. The food. The music. It was like a… food orgasm shooting rainbows. Stalls of homecrafts, paintings, photography and all manner of things were set up in a neat and orderly line. Leathermen’s creations, celtic wares and vintage stalls were hard at work, selling and crafting. Sweating it out over the various hot grills were chefs making falafel, 12ou steak burgers, belfast baps, crepes, fry ups, spicy seafood, mexican burritos, you name it, it was there. After opting for those glorious steak burgers, we finished our food fest with olive tasting, bread and various types of olive oil and vinegar. And cupcakes. Big fuck off ones, covered in awe inspiring mum icing, looking like delicious miniature mountains of sweetness.

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Want some olives with your olives?

After mooching our way through St george markets, we strike gold at the ulster hall, which is filled with barrels upon barrels of ales, stouts and ciders. The smell of hops lingers in the air and we begin raising our glasses and sipping away to a trad band giving it a good go, making the air buzz with the sweet happy tunes flowing from their fingers deftly dancing over banjos and guitars. After powering through 6 half pints, and slighty tipsy after a few of the 8.5 percenters, we wander off for a german sausage and after milking the mustard cow, we happily meander 10 mins back down great victoria to our hostel for the night.

Sunday makes itself known by uncharacteristically providing Belfast with a clear blue sky, a more then welcome change from the on and off rain that usually carries on in this part of the world. Over my shoulder my camera goes and i make the march down over QV bridge to the titanic quarter. Smack bang in the middle is the giant Titanic museum, standing guard over the river Lagan, which runs itself past the shipping quarter filled with cranes, ramps, docks and rigs into Belfast lough. I wander off to the Harland and Wolff shipyard, their huge yellow gantry cranes are synonymous with Belfast, and dominate the Belfast skyline. Wandering around t13, i sneak about the warehousing and yards, discovering more graffiti strewn about on the well beaten walls. I go for a good piss in what i thought was a brilliant spot, until i turn around and lo and behold, a couple and their photographer appear, trying their absolute utter best not to look at me while i finish nourishing the dirt patch. As usual, good old reliable Murphys is doing its work.

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T13 outdoor gym

Towards the end of the afternoon the gods of the sky grace me with a stunning sunset, making the shipyards and loading docks all around look magical. I manage to climb over the retaining fence on the waterfront and gain myself clear and spectacular views down both the river and over the lough. Purples and pinks make it seem like neverneverland has turned up for the afternoon, oranges and reds transform the River Lagan into a firestorm of colour. The whole shipping district becomes a city unto itself. Floodlights start snapping on across the whole riverfront while the moon overlooks them all like a proud mother, cargo ships thrum and park up on the docks for the evening, while a few smaller boats make their way out to the lough. Even the titanic musuem is giving me a light show of yellows and blues, and backed by the setting sun, gifts me an afternoon to remember.

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Sunset River Lagan, Titanic quarter

The following day, upon the recommendation of brother Andrew, i hop into a black cab with a new bunch of friends and get the renowned tour of ‘the troubles’ starting off with our man Gerry. Thinking this is all going to be a touristy punt, i don’t hold much in the way of expectations. In short, it was the best 10 quid i spent in Belfast. I learnt more on that 2 hour drive than i learnt over a year of TAFE. Driving down falls rd, onto the shankill, through the peace gates and onto the long stretch of the peace wall,(photographers snapped the berlin wall years ago and then repainted sections of the peace wall as a replica FYI) Gerry repaints a vivid history for us as we go. Hauntingly close to home for him like most people in Belfast, he relays stories of the Shankill Butchers, IRA bombings and political movements in the 30 yrs of ‘the troubles’. Much light is shed on the history of the belfast troubles, and after hopping out, back into the seemimgly never ending rain, we all head inside our hostel with a better insight into the city’s history.

Now, a visit to an irish city isn’t complete without visiting a few of the trad bars around. Trad is a generalised term here, because you have your trad bands and then you have your trad bands. I’m no expert though. So, after meeting my legendary couch host Claire, we headed out with a large crew to fibbers. Very typical in the pubs timber everything, and small but always cosy, homey interior, the duo carried on playing a mix of favorites on their banjo and guitar pairing, jamming the never old galway girl and nirvana’s come as you are. Quite a different “trad” collection from what i’ve heard in Gorey, Galway or Trim. A passionate, rugby-ised mosh pit in a pub essentially. If you’ve ever been to an irish wedding you’ll know what i mean. A guaranteed blast.

The other side of the trad coin was the following night, where my friend Claire took me to kellys cellars, which dates back to 1720. Filled with all kinds of pots and trinkets, in a corner around a table, sat 6 or so musicians, drums, tambourines, flutes, guitars and banjos filling up the tiny space, pints of guiness spread around the rustic timber table, with a full cellar watching on. The atmosphere was light, the hops were good, and the temperature was cosy. Topping it all off the music began, just loud enough to hear comfortably, but soft enough to chat if need be. The musicians set a relaxed and chilled tone, quite different to the foot smashing, ball busting tunes you’ll get in the tourist sectors of Dublin and Belfast. Definitely a 2 sided coin of trad i could get used to.

After spending 7 days in Belfast (3 days more then i expected), it’s time to move onto the next adventure. There is great many more stories i’d like to share, but for the sake of keeping this blog as short as possible, we’ll end it here. Like Dublin, it does feel quite homey and comfortable, more friendly even, if that’s possible, which for me makes it a little hard to leave. Everyone here comes across quite optimistic, and with their no worries attitude, makes this a favourite city of mine. Being a city that you can get around on by foot, the exploration and discovery of its secrets is made easy. The ever lovely cobblestone alleys and laneways that are spread through the merchant and cathedal quarter are renowned for housing great pubs, bars and nightlife. Let’s not forget the amazing streetart dotted about town. Friendly, warm in character and with many stories to share, Belfast is an amazing place to spend time in, and for a city that only ended 30 yrs of intense conflict 20 years ago, has bloomed into an oversized iris. Ireland never fails to impress me, and once again it’s outdone itself. Until next time Belfast ✌

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