“Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, but about learning how to dance in the rain”, it read on the wall of my hostel room.
“And don’t forget: drink as much as you can, but learn to enjoy the hangover”, said the driver of my cab ride across Belfast – which I highly recommend, but I’ll get to that.
Now, before I go on: I usually solemnly hate sentences like those first above: cute, instagram-prone but meaningless in the end. As to the second, I don’t know whether the driver’s DNA gave him hangovers with rainbows and unicorns, but mine were always hopelessly awful – and on that note, they keep getting worse. However, those two sentences seem to make sense in Belfast and attest to the struggle and the hardship that is at the heart of the city.
Belfast isn’t beautiful by any means – and that dawns on you pretty early on when you touchdown in the city. The weather certainly doesn’t help, but the city is far from aesthetically impressive: its best parts are average – a few exceptions noted – and a good part of it is – let’s face it – just ugly. But there’s something that strikes you just as immediately, which is the reflection of the city’s recent past in the people and in the spaces you visit. Virtually all Belfast ‘tourism’ circles around the tensions between protestants and catholics, British and Irish. Not because it’s what the city could offer in those terms, but because it is at the very heart of what Belfast became: the battleground for the fight between those two identities and, more recently, the meeting point between them. The Belfast Black Cab Tours will give you a good sense of that. I had no idea there were still walls dividing the two parts of the city with gates that close at 6pm, to be opened only at dawn the next day. The tensions between nationalists and unionists are still there, among signs of reconciliation.
That is probably what Belfast has to offer: the struggle between conflicting identities that no so long ago were at odds (quite an understatement here) with one another and how they both reconcile and still avoid each other. Please don’t go to Belfast expecting an idyllic weekend away to feed your Instagram albums. But please go to Belfast, it’s worth it.
P. S. – I stayed at Vagabonds in Belfast and I highly recommend it. The staff are really very friendly and easygoing (just like the other guests I met there) and will make you feel at home – and I don’t even like hostels that much.