Hopping Across The Border To Belfast

Much to my dismay, I've been lacking the energy and inspiration to sit down and write these past few weeks. I've had plenty of ideas, but it's difficult to stop procrastinating when you're not in the mood to write. Also, just after my weekend in Sligo I came down with a cough and cold and I just can't seem to shake the cough, no matter how much Chinese medicine I take. I've had a blocked nose for almost a month and I'm fed up. (Between you and me, my cough isn't the only thing I'm fed up with but let's not get into a whine-fest, it's likely to go on for half an eternity.) On the other hand, my fish has been complimenting me on my Chinese pronunciation. It seems I have a better grasp of the tones when I'm all stuffed up.

Cold, cough and Chinese aside, I've been keeping somewhat busy. I think. There was a birthday to celebrate and a chocolate cake to eat and loads of Chinese food to indulge in. There's also work, you know that thing I have to do that pays my bills. Last but not least, it's been disgustingly cold in Ireland lately. Cold, wet, windy, rainy, overcast...plain bleak. Throw all that in a bag and yes, I'm feeling rather exhausted these days. So much that 10 pm has become my preferred bedtime and I've been picking useless fights with the other half (who is way too understanding for my own good!). A total fail.

I've been throwing wild ideas at my friend in terms of holiday destinations (including a one way ticket to Hong Kong) and she patiently endured. Her suggestions were a little more reasonable, such as London, Belfast or Frankfurt. I kind of shrugged all of them off. It wasn't that I didn't want to go, I just didn't want to plan anything. Then, last Friday, just before heading out for my lunch I found myself checking the price and availability for the Dublin Belfast Express and I couldn't resist. One text, an approving "Let's Go!" from my friend and 20 minutes later I had booked two return tickets and one night in a lovely English Guesthouse.


It was a bargain!

I tend to need a nudge into the right direction before I jump at last minute holidays, heck I planned my China trip eight months in advance, but last Friday I made a pretty good decision, if I may say so myself. I didn't have much time to contemplate the pros and cons. Although while queuing for the train I did lament the fact that going away for the weekend meant I wouldn't have time to do my laundry. As you can see, my life is so utterly rock and roll that I don't even have words to describe how awesome it is. It's dominated by weekends doing the laundry and cleaning. I must've been a housewife in my previous life. Or maybe I'm just plain boring. Or getting old. I must ask the fish what he sees in me.

Anywho, enough of me and back to Belfast.

The train that connects Dublin with Belfast is actually pretty fast, a convenient two hours. I wouldn't put it into the same category as the German ICE or the Chinese and Japanese bullet trains but it's not a snail unlike the Sligo Intercity. Yawn.

Second Class is pretty comfortable with plenty of space for your belongings and to stretch out your feet. Sadly I find First Class at 99€ somewhat overpriced but it looks ridiculously comfortable. I was so tempted!

The only downside is that arrivals and departures are scheduled so close together that the staff doesn't have the time to clean the train while it's in Belfast or Dublin. This means that the crew will pass you at least five times to collect all your rubbish. Actually it's not a downside at all, it's quite funny. You'll have to experience it for yourself, it's no fun just telling you all about it, it just isn't the same.

We were lucky enough to end up sharing a table with a lovely Irish couple who were going up to Belfast for a couple of days, a present from one of their kids. They were lovely and chatty and the husband was delighted when he discovered that I'm German. He was so enthusiastic about German ICE trains, German efficiency and German Christmas markets and the place in general that I found myself missing home just a little bit. I tell you, in my seven years here in Ireland I've had some amazing conversations with complete strangers. Just one reason why I love the place.

Next stop Belfast!

The train pulled into Belfast Central just before noon and we wandered out of the station with free guide and city map in hand shortly after. The heart of Belfast is a comfortable 10 to 15 minute walk from the station but if you present your train ticket to the Metro bus driver, he will take you into the city for free. Brilliant offer, Dublin needs to cop on and copy that, not that they ever will. Dublin Bus loves making money way too much...but back to Belfast.

Belfast is the perfect place for a weekend or a long weekend away. It's full to the brim with things to do. Museums, places of interest, sight-seeing, shopping, food, relaxing, culture...you name it, Belfast probably has it at some point or other during the year. I used to take the train up to Belfast just to go to the theatre to see a play at the Grand Opera.


You can't miss that!

It's also ridiculously easy to orientate yourself in the city centre. If you're too lazy to walk, here are plenty of English cabs (or their modern counterparts) although I would recommend that you just hop on a bus. The bus drivers are helpful and know their routes. If you're walking around city centre, all you really need to do is to remember where City Hall is and you're sorted. The building is somewhat impossible to miss. Although you could try to put Wang Leehom on the other side of the road, then I'd most definitely miss it. On a more serious note, the tourist information centre is nearby and the staff a ridiculously friendly and helpful. When I popped in and announced that Central Station had vanished off the map they all collectively laughed and one of the staff kindly pointed me into the right direction.

I've been to Belfast a good few times but up until last weekend I've always stayed in semi-swanky hotels, beats me why really. This time I booked a night in a cosy guesthouse just outside the city centre. Pearl Court Guesthouse is within walking distance from the city, alternatively you can just hop on a bus, it's a five minute drive. It's located in the Queen's Quarters part of Belfast, a lovely Victorian district with flair, history and a sense of homeliness. It's surrounded by lovely buildings and plenty of green. I'm a bit sad that we didn't have the time to explore the area, I'd have loved to take a stroll.

Living Room...with fire place!
 
Entrance Hall

Our room...on the top floor!


Breakfast!

The staff at the guesthouse were really welcoming and utterly lovely. They are full of advice and recommendations and really care about their guests. It's definitely not the kind of "give me your money and f-off" attitude you get in some hotels. I checked out some reviews before booking and I have nothing negative to say, except maybe that the rooms are not en-suite but there are shared bathrooms. This isn't a bad thing, except my friend would like me to note that our room was too far from the bathrooms and climbing two flights of stairs at three am in the morning wasn't really her cup of tea. Unlike some of the reviews I read, I don't consider this to be a bad thing. The entire place is clean, homely, well cared for and the breakfast is simply the fabulous.

The guesthouse doesn't offer a full Ulster fry but they do offer a coffee, tea, juice, egg, toast, pancakes, soda bread, brown bread, toast, cheese, ham, yoghurt, fruits, jam, fresh cereals and milk... It's all fresh and excuse me while I find something to eat, I'm hungry now.

Across the road from the guesthouse is a little eatery, the staff recommended to us. We went there for a Ulster fry (at lunch time) and let me tell you, if you want great food and amazing atmosphere go to Maggie May's. The prices are very reasonable, the place is packed from morning to evening and locals and visitors alike are queuing out the door for a table. They all can't be wrong. I wish I'd remembered to take a photo of my awesome fry but when the waiter put the plate down in front of me I couldn't think of anything but wolf it down ASAP. I'd actually go back to Belfast for another portion and a sample of the rest of their menu, I kid you not. When you visit, do go to the bogs there whether you need to or not. I promise, you'll love it, that's all I'm going to say.

For this trip to Belfast we limited ourselves to a pampering shopping trip, although this time around I was content to just look and take some pictures instead of splashing out on things. I left the buying up to my friend. Belfast has some lovely shopping malls to sort out whatever wishes you may have. I even spotted Santa. Normally I would now complain about being forced to endure Christmas decoration and songs in November but I this time around I will do no such thing.

I'm feeling christmassy this year - it may have something to do with the fact that I spent half an hour trying to explain the concept of an Advent Calendar to my other half, let's just say it was endearing. Also, my mum is coming over to spend the holidays with me, it's lovely to know I won't have to spend Christmas Eve by my lonesome. Last year was kind of pants. This year I'll have somebody to annoy! I'm also still hoping that my fish will finally get his visa approved so that he can come and visit me. Lately I'm looking at Dublin with a new-found curiosity. I want nothing more than to take my other half by the hand and show him the place that has been my home for the last seven years.

I'm going off topic, as usual. Back to Dublin. I mean, Belfast. I'm all confused.

As for dinner, we had planned to try some Indian food but we were struggling to find the place we'd picked (Apple Maps isn't even worth switching 3G on and paying the roaming charges!). In the end, we came across a Chinese restaurant and went in to check out the menu, then we just stayed.

Look who visited! The best thing about dinner.

Unfortunately, the food was neither impressive nor especially good. The price was okay but the staff asked us way too often whether everything was okay and looked kind of offended when I rejected the free crab chips - I so regret not making a snide remark in Mandarin. Sorry, but not every laowai likes those horrible crab chips. It's not even a Chinese dish! Especially not the kind of laowai who has actually been to China and knows a thing or two about Chinese food and how to appreciate the real thing. I ain't Ms "I'd like spring rolls and chips, please".

The place was filled with too many laowais. In fact the only Chinese/Asian in the restaurant were my friend and the staff. None of the guests knew how to behave in a restaurant. A Chinese is restaurant is NOT a karaoke bar, there bloody well is a difference, thank you very much. 

The menu was a fusion of Hong Kong and Sichuan food...gone wrong. Whatever they said in the menu about the excellency of the chefs can't have been true. It was mediocre and for the first time in my life I've had the worst dumplings ever. I never thought I'd ever dislike eating dumplings but these were awful. So was the Sichuan/Hong Kong clay pot dish, we ordered for that matter. The rice was kind of okay.

I wouldn't go back if you paid me too and I'm not sure I feel sorry for the laowais who go to that restaurant, in fact the meanie in me just wants to laugh. These laowais know about as much about Chinese food as I know about Egyptian cuisine...namely nothing. The only comment my friend made, and she chuckled while she said it, was: "You're definitely not European." I'm hard to please but I've had the pleasure of home-cooked, real Chinese food. I ate real Chinese food as while in China and a series of visits to good Chinese restaurants here in Dublin made me up the stakes considerably. I'm most definitely spoiled. Subsequently, if a place doesn't live up to my standards, I won't mince my words when writing a review of the place.

On Sunday we did something I just had to do when I was reminded about it while leafing through Belfast's free city guide.


You can see the museum in the distance.

It was a good choice and the price for our tickets was reasonable enough for the amount of things you get out of the place. The staff at the tourist office suggested that we plan at least two hours, I would say plan at least three. There are so many things to read, see and experience that you won't enjoy it if you feel rushed.

I don't know why, but there is something incredibly fascinating about that ship, it's history and it's passengers. If I'm honest, I don't really understand it, but I was happy to dive into another world for a couple of hours. There's plenty to learn about the Titanic, from its' birth right up to its' legacy. The exhibition is really well done, a lot of effort was put into it to create an informative, dynamic and interactive environment about a ship wreckage that has fascinated mankind for 100 years.

Personally, the section I enjoyed the most was learning about the interior design, how the ship was build, the effort, blood, sweat and tears that went into such an extraordinary venture. There are so many blue prints to explore - I don't even understand why these fascinate me. I've always found floor plans utterly boring, must be the other half's engineering influence. He's brooding over them ever other day and then complains that they make this eyes hurt.

I'm glad that James Cameron's movie only plays a very small part in the exhibition. The whole thing would've been just plain tacky otherwise. Next time I go back to Belfast, I really want to visit the restaurant where they rebuilt the famous staircase. I want to get an idea of what it would have felt like to stand on that ship, on that staircase. All the photos and 3D videos look magnificent but it isn't real, you can't touch it.

Really, I have no idea what it is about that ship that I find so fascinating. I remember, back when the movie came out I refused to join my classmates to see it in the cinema. I was too chicken. The thought of watching a ship sink and people die was my idea of a horror movie. I didn't see the movie until two years later when it was shown on television and even then I forced my dad to suffer through it for my sake. The next person I'm planning to force to suffer through the entire movie is my other half. It's only fair. He made me suffer through an English rendition of him singing "My Heart Will Go On". If he'd stopped after the Backstreet Boys, I might have let it slip but now he's in for it.

We spent just a little over 24 hours in Belfast but it felt like a whole week. I hope this relaxed post-holiday feeling lasts for a while, I like it...

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