EDINBURGH Airport is as bustling as can be expected for a summer’s day. Flights are boarding for Amsterdam, Newark and London, with plenty more soon to board. But not the plane to Belfast, it’s sitting tucked away around the corner of the terminal, a handful of tapes and pipes connecting it to the ground like a post-apocalyptic umbilical cord.
This isn’t the concerning part, however, it’s the fact that it should have started boarding ten minutes ago. Yet myself and Ian are still sat in a café, becoming increasingly bored and frustrated. We just want to be there already. That’s the thing about short flights, you spend more time waiting on them than you do flying on them. If we’d wanted the reverse, we could have paid £25 less and enjoyed a seven hour coach and ferry trip. Instead, that valuable £25 has been spent on what is effectively an extra day with Rebekah in Northern Ireland.
Eventually we’re called for boarding. Not that anyone seems in any sort of rush, everyone saunters towards the pencil-thin propeller aircraft and, equally leisurely, take their seats in the cramped cabin. We’re in row 21, the very back. Ian has the window seat, I’m stuck in the aisle. I ask one of the cabin crew if I can swap to a vacant seat, but she’s already promised it to someone else. The captain comes on over the PA system, promising in a somewhat laid-back tone that he’ll get us to Belfast “as fast as we can.”
Twenty minutes later than scheduled, our Dash-8 turns on to the runway. The tiny plane is deceptively powerful, forcing me right into the back of my seat as we tear down the runway, and pulling a massive grin across my face.
We’ve only just reached cruising altitude when we reach the coast and begin descending again, a bumpy ride through the clouds across the North Channel before a less rough landing.
The Irish (both northerners and southerners) are stereotyped as lovers of potatoes. The fact that the first thing we encounter on Northern Irish soil is a Tayto crisp vending machine does nothing to dispel this. In fact, it’s practically encouraged as we pass through the terminal: the “Welcome to Belfast” sign features Tayto’s branding and mascot – a man with a tuber for a head – prominently.
Our second sight of Northern Ireland is not so pretty, as our bus into the city centre passes Sydenham we spot a large loyalist wall mural on the side of a house. We don’t have enough time to read it, but it draws our attention to the number of union jacks and UVF flags attached to nearby lampposts.
Minutes we later we step in to the city of Belfast proper. Population: 286,000. Traffic: hellish. Last sectarian-fuelled riot: Friday.
Rebekah’s bus is late. So we wait for her in the gardens outside the city hall. On a giant TV, we watch the local news – all marching is suspended after 56 police officers were injured in clashes on Friday night. The footage used leaves nothing to the imagination.
A Japanese tourist accosts us, was that in Belfast? Yes. He looks shocked. When did that happen? Last Friday. “Whoah!” he exclaims. We then have to briefly explain the last 200 years in the history of Ulster. He clearly thinks we’re locals, since he asks us which side we’re on. Oh dear, this is not a clever question to ask in Belfast. We explain as best we can that asking that particular question could result in unexpected consequences. We preface this with that fact that we’re Scottish and are on neither side. He seems to have got the idea.
It’s at this point Rebekah arrives, our new Japanese friend butts in to our greetings and asks if she is local, and which side is she on? God (the one thing many Northern Irish seem to have in common) help us.
Our hostel is in Kent Street, on the edge of the city centre – although ‘on the edge’ is just as appropriate. There’s a sparsely populated car park and an abandoned shell of a building next to our hostel. It’s the sort of place you expect to find Crimewatch filming a reconstruction.
Our rooms are as sparse as the street outside, the plus sides of note include the presence of beds and windows. The less said, the better. When I tell Rebekah about this she tells me, “It can’t be that bad!” I have no opportunity to prove her wrong, as the receptionist won’t allow non-guests past the lobby area.
After a quick lunch, we do what any self-respecting tourists to a new city do: we go to the pub. We hit a place called The Parlour in Queens Quarter, opposite the university. The design is retro, the drinks aren’t: the house special is a slushy with rum.
Just across the road is the students’ union – conveniently open to all all summer. It takes less than 20 minutes for Rebekah to show-up me and Ian’s lack of skill at playing pool.
Carrying on with the theme of drinking, we move to another pub for food. Rebekah and Ian both opt for spirits with their meals, I stick with a Pepsi. The hostel looks uncomfortable enough, without me making things worse.
We wait with Rebekah until he bus arrives, then head back across the city centre to the hostel. One thing, or rather the lack of it, stands out – there’s no-one around. This is a major city centre in the middle of summer, it’s only just after 10.30pm – but we see only a dozen or so people, mainly waiting at bus stops, as we wander back.
The hostel is worse than we thought. Ian’s room is the same size as mine, yet is home to the bunk beds crammed in. Ian alleges that there’s strange noises that he can’t find the source of either. We agree to share rooms from now on. Just as I lay back in bed, the icing on the cake appears…there is a damp, cracked ceiling above my head. Great.