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Travel & Holiday

Remember the Titanic

Belfast, the birthplace of the Titanic, is coming out of its troubled past and becoming a thriving tourist destination
The Straits Times - April 17, 2012
By: Nicholas Yong
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Remember the Titanic The Titanic Belfast museum -- PHOTO: REUTERS

The former ship-building hub of Belfast, capital of Northern Ireland, is enjoying some new glory days - much like its famous creation, The Titanic, which sank a century ago last Sunday.

When I visited the city almost two weeks ago, posters and banners for a series of Titanic-themed events, from plays to exhibitions to memorial services, could be seen everywhere. They included billboards for screenings of the enormously popular Titanic (1997), now showing in 3-D.

And the centrepiece of it all is the Titanic Belfast, a six-storey museum that can accommodate 6,000 people at a time.

Such is Belfast's renaissance that it is now a booming holiday destination and not only because of its Titanic connections. It is all quite a turnabout, considering its troubled history.

Indeed, it was once better known for political and religious conflict called The Troubles. This involved three decades of sectarian violence between Protestants and Catholics from the late 1960s onwards, which saw bombings and violence on a regular basis in Belfast and Northern Ireland.

For example, a notorious paramilitary loyalist group, the Shankill Butchers, operated in Shankill Road, west Belfast, in the 1970s. They cruised around in black taxis and kidnapped, tortured and murdered at least 30 Catholic civilians.

Shankill Road and the nearby Falls Road are marked by a series of colourful political murals that were done during The Troubles. One is a memorial to the late Bobby Sands, the Provisional Irish Republican Army member and Member of the British Parliament who died while on hunger strike in a British jail in 1981. Sands was later portrayed by Irish-German actor Michael Fassbender in the critically acclaimed film Hunger (2008).

Black taxis, ironically, now offer tours of the murals, and the roiling passions that inspired them can barely be seen in what seems to be a quiet neighbourhood. Perhaps fittingly, I stroll past the murals just a few days before the 14th anniversary of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which marked the gradual start of peace in Northern Ireland.

The memories are evidently still raw for the people of Belfast, which has a population of just over 267,000.

While taking a bus tour to the outskirts of the city, our guide, the self-styled Wee Alan - he is actually more than 1.8m tall - constantly alludes to The Troubles, recalling the intimidating murals of masked men with guns in his neighbourhood when he was a child. Today, many of them have been painted over with pictures of smiling children.

But the bad times are over, and the charms of Belfast are many. Above all, the pleasantly lilting if sometimes indecipherable Irish accent which results in me having to ask people to repeat themselves. I overhear a little girl asking her mother: 'Wheeere we goh-ween?'

If Belfast is going anywhere, it is away from its troubled past and towards its new lease of life as a tourist destination, via well-known golf courses, scenic attractions and above all, in its historical legacy as the birthplace of the Titanic.

The centrepiece of the Titanic mania is the Titanic Belfast (www.titanicbelfast.com), a 14,000 sq m museum seven years in the making.

Modelled on four ships' hulls rising 27m high, the same height of Titanic, and clad in around 3,000 aluminium shards, the almost £100-million (S$200-million) building consists of nine interactive galleries. With a comprehensive retelling of not just the Titanic's story, but also the historical context from which it emerged, it is the place for Titanic buffs. There are nuggets of information, such as the fact that there were 254 recorded accidents with eight fatalities during its construction, conveyed via film, panels and even a short mini-car ride around a replica of the Titanic's rudder.

While it is often said that the Titanic claimed to be 'unsinkable', resulting in much derision for the shipbuilders after the disaster, they had actually proclaimed it to be 'virtually unsinkable'.

The galleries cover topics ranging from the Harland and Wolff shipyard where the Titanic was built, to exploring the Titanic's impact on popular culture with its portrayal in books, plays, films and more. And in the pop culture gallery, visitors can view exhibits with Celine Dion's My Heart Will Go On playing in the background.

But the most impressive is an 'underwater' gallery showing the Titanic's current resting place 3,800m below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. The wreckage is now inundated with rusticles, or the waste by-product of bacteria that consume iron oxide, making one feel as if it now resides in the underworld.

The museum itself is in the Titanic Quarter, a waterfront development where the sites significant to the Titanic are also located. For example, just a five-minute walk from the museum is the Harland and Wolff shipyard and the drawing offices where the ship was designed.

Cliched as it sounds, strolling through the galleries makes me feel as if I had gone back in time. I begin to understand why the Titanic's story still appeals a century on. After all, it touched the lives of thousands, from the shipyard workers who built it, to the owners who commissioned it and of course, the unfortunate souls who went down with it.

The price of admission is fairly steep at £13.50, and bookings which can be done on the website are essential: When I arrived at Titanic Belfast, tickets had been sold out for that day and the day after. About three hours later, a sign went up announcing that tickets had been sold out for the next 10 days as well.

It is no surprise, considering that more than 400,000 visitors are expected at the museum in its first year alone.

Unfortunately, even a museum this impressive has its cheesy elements. If you cannot get in, you can always pop into its souvenir shop for Titanic magnets, Titanic beer mugs and even Titanic tea.

But the birthplace of the renowned novelist C.S. Lewis has more to offer than just historical kitsch and Hollywood has taken notice. Key scenes from the HBO series Game Of Thrones were shot in Belfast and other parts of Northern Ireland, taking advantage of the countryside's green rolling hills.

Another key attraction is the 65-million-year-old Giant's Causeway, a series of interlocking basalt columns formed by a volcanic eruption which is a Unesco World Heritage Site. An old Irish myth goes that it was formed by the giant Finn McCool, in order to walk to Scotland to battle the giant Benandonner.Centuries of weathering have resulted in some unusual shapes, such as the structures christened the Giant's Boot and the Organ.

Fog and rain set in during my visit there, bringing temperatures down to 3 deg C, giving the Causeway a mysterious, ethereal quality. I am freezing and almost soaked to the skin while exploring it, but the magnificent sight of the dark rocks plunging into the sea is well worth it.

More than the city itself, the friendly and approachable people of Belfast may be its biggest draw. At the Titanic Belfast, an elderly Irish woman approaches me and my travelling companion, asking where we are from. On hearing that we are Singaporeans, she exclaims: 'That's a long way to travel. Isn't it wonderful, to have people coming here from all over?'

After the years of conflict and despair, it certainly is.

 WHERE TO EAT AND STAY

WEST GOURMET SANDWICH BAR

What: Sandwiches, wraps and salads made on the spot, plus all day breakfast. It is packed with hungry customers and friendly waitresses.

Price: From £3.50 (S$7)

Where: 28 Castle Street

Info: Call +44-2890-32-5649

GOURMET BURGER KITCHEN

 

What: Part of a burger restaurant chain created by three New Zealanders and started in London. Try the Classic Burger with Irish beef filling.

Price: From £7

Where: Victoria Square Shopping Centre, 2nd Floor, 1 Victoria Square

Info: call +44-2890-24-6681

JAMES STREET SOUTH RESTAURANT

What: Opened in 2003, this award-winning restaurant specialises in classical French cooking, using Northern Irish produce. It changes its menus weekly.

Price: From £14.95 for a two-course set lunch

Where: 21 James Street South

Info: Call +44-2890-43-4310 or go to www.jamesstreetsouth.co.uk

HOTEL IBIS BELFAST CITY CENTRE

What: A budget hotel right in the city centre. Comfortable and reasonably sized rooms.

Price: Rates from £45 a night

Where: 100 Castle Street

Info: Call +44-2890-23-8888 or go to www.ibishotel.com/gb/hotel-7232-ibis-belfast-city-centre/index.shtml

EUROPA HOTEL

What: A four-star hotel in the city centre next to the Grand Opera House.

Price: Rates from £58 a night

Where: 38 Great Victoria Street

Info: Call +44-2890-27-1066 or go to www.hastingshotels.com/europa-belfast.html

FITZWILLIAM HOTEL BELFAST

What: A boutique hotel in the city centre.

Price: From £88 a night

Where: Great Victoria Street

Info: Call +44-2890-44-2080 or go to www.fitzwilliamhotelbelfast.com

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