x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

Belfast goes full steam ahead with Titanic festival

The Northern Ireland capital, where the Titanic was built, will mark the centenary of the world's most infamous maritime disaster next month with a series of events.

A 15-tonne steel sign is lowered into place in front of the Titanic building in Belfast. PA Wire/Press Association Images
A 15-tonne steel sign is lowered into place in front of the Titanic building in Belfast. PA Wire/Press Association Images

The distress call from the North Atlantic read: "SOS 11.50am. We have struck an iceberg. Sinking fast. Come to our assistance. Position Lat 41.46 north; Lon 50.14 west. We are putting passengers off in small boats. Weather clear."

Built at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, Northern Ireland, RMS Titanic was launched on May 31, 1911. With 2,223 people aboard, the most luxuriously appointed and largest ship ever built hit an iceberg on April 14, 1912, sinking the next morning. More than 1,500 people and £20m (Dh117m) worth of early 20th-century millionaires perished on her maiden voyage. The wreck was only discovered in 1985.

To mark the centenary of the world's most infamous maritime disaster, Belfast, which already attracts thousands of Titanic tourists each year, is holding a Titanic Festival from March 31 to April 22), with lectures, concerts, plays, a musical, walking and bus tours as well as exhibitions. A wreath-laying ceremony will take place at the Titanic monument outside Belfast's 1906 City Hall. The names of 112 Ulstermen who died in the disaster are inscribed on the monument, which depicts a goddess receiving a seaman's body from two mermaids.

Escorted Titanic walking tours start and end at the memorial, although you can find your own way around with a map or a "Node Explorer", a portable media player. These - as well as real-life guides - are available from the Belfast Tourist Visitor and Convention Bureau near the 1788 Linen Hall Library.

Former soldier Pat gives Titanic-themed tours around his beloved Belfast all year round. His grandfather, Danny, died in the tragedy. He had deserted from the Royal Navy and somehow ended up on board the liner's fateful maiden journey. Pat's tour lasts two hours, with a one-hour cruise (£20; Dh115 per person).

Belfast's future is bright. The whole of Ulster has been commercially and socially rejuvenated since three decades of "Troubles" ended in 1998. The city is celebrating its past history, rather than its more recent and bloody one. And, in doing so, its future, too. The Titanic has become a flagship for optimism and the international tourist drive.

Turning a corner, Pat smiles proudly. "Let me introduce you to Samson and Goliath. Welcome to the Titanic Quarter, a mini-version of Dubai."

Samson and Goliath are city landmarks - two giant yellow gantry cranes adjacent to the £78m (Dh450m), 74-hectare Titanic Quarter, Europe's largest mixed-used waterfront development that is already home to a science park, leisure complex, public records office, hotel, marina and exclusive apartments.

Belfast is upbeat again. As we walk along the streets, music issues from pub doors. Pat scratches his head when I ask about the best place to go. There is a big choice. "Madden's on Berry Street in the Gaeltacht [Irish-speaking area], around the Falls Road," he decides. "The pub goes back to 1751 and is an institution."

Heading east, we cross Queen's Bridge onto Queen's Island (both named after Queen Victoria). The island was created from spoil when the river Lagan was straightened in 1840. We walk down Queen's Road into the heart of Titanic country.

First stop is the Pump House and Dock (Entrance is£5 [Dh30]). Titanic received her final fit-out here. The listed 19th-century building is a series of gabled red-and-cream brick pavilions with Romanesque openings and classical motifs. The blue-and-white pumping equipment is still in situ. Nearly 26m gallons of water were pumped in and out in 90 minutes.

We stare down at the huge brick-lined stepped maw and the keel blocks that Titanic rested upon. Close by are the drawing offices. The ship was designed on the ground floor. It was Harland and Woolf's headquarters until 1969, an eerie place with an empty barrel- ceilinged space that makes Pat's voice echo. "This is where modern Belfast melds with old Belfast. This is where Titanic was born, and where the city has grown from."

I find myself staring at an ordinary-looking table. Pat grins at my bewilderment. The Harbour Commissioner's office on Corporation Road by the M3 bridge goes back to 1854. "It's not just any old table. That's the original captain's table. It didn't get made quickly enough and missed the boat," explains Pat.

After paying our respects to the SS Nomadic, which carried passengers out to the Titanic, Pat started talking money. "Titanic is big business for the city and developers. And for collectors. Memorabilia fetches huge sums. A first-class menu from the Titanic sold for £32,380 (Dh187,000)."

Pat confesses he would love to own anything belonging to the lookout, Frederick Fleet; it would make him a rich man. Everyone wants to own something that belonged to the man who didn't see the iceberg. Fleet is buried in Southampton on the south coast of England, from where the Titanic set sail to New York via Cherbourg and Queenstown (Cobh) in Ireland.

There are plenty of sights enthusiasts can visit near Belfast, such as the town of Comber, where the chief designer, naval architect Thomas Andrews lived (he went down with the ship); the family home is still there. On the way to the old linen-making town, you pass George Best City airport and Stormont, the Greek Classical parliament buildings.

After crossing back over the river from Co Down into Co Antrim, we arrive at Laganside, the new riverfront development. The old towpath has 30 pieces of modern art, including sculptures and a long mural comprising photos of local schoolchildren. Pat, still in blarney mode, tells me that Belfast's skyline is changing all the time: a 26-storey residential tower is planned, maybe a college campus, too.

Sightseeing cruises are available daily round the harbour and into Belfast Lough - the inlet connecting Belfast with the east coast and the Irish Sea. The cruise boat, Joy Too, an 11m former Royal Navy tender, sails from Donegall Quay, five minutes from the memorial.

"Everyone on board is a Titanic expert. Or soon will be," Pat observes as the gangplank is pulled in.

We enter Belfast harbour's Victoria channel. Through the drizzle we see the ship's famous slipway - Thompson Graving No 3. An MTV concert is planned there. "Graving means hull cleaning," explains Pat.

Cameras click, capturing the giant hole. "You are looking at Titanic's footprint," my guide adds earnestly.

"In the 1760s, the area produced steam engines to power the linen mills and stoves to dry tea leaves," a fellow passenger tells me as we pass Queen's Island.

"It was a pleasure garden complete with a zoo," adds a Canadian passenger. One of his relations worked in the shipyard. It took 3,000 men two years to build the Titanic, he informs me.

As we chug along, wrapped up against the bitter wind, I learn how much the rudder weighed (110 tonnes) and that one of funnels was fake. And that two dogs and 703 people (including J Bruce Ismay, the president of the White Star Line) were saved. And that the median price for a first class ticket was $2,500 ($57,200; Dh210,000) in today's currency); the most expensive cabins were the equivalent of $103,000 (over Dh378,000) today; third-class was $40 ($900 or Dh3,305 today).

For the next 20 minutes we lap the Lough and just about see Napoleon's Nose, the headland of Cavehill or Ben Madigan, the hill overlooking Belfast. We dock after an hour. "It's pretty impressive," says Pat, flushing with pride. We were facing an enormous shiny building resembling the hulls of four ships - the high-tech £98m (Dh565m) Titanic building. "It holds the record for Northern Ireland's largest concrete pour," says Pat.

Entry is £13.50 (Dh79) for adults. Through its interactive galleries, it traces the city's history and engineering past - Belfast is where air conditioning was invented. It is tipped to become the city's top attraction.

The capital of Northern Ireland is once again being promoted as the gateway to other attractions, such as the Mourne Mountains, the St Patrick Centre in Downpatrick, the Giant's Causeway (a Unesco World Heritage site) and Mount Pleasant Gardens. The city boasts its own Botanic Gardens near Queen's University. Famous for its Fernery and Palm House, this public park is an important part of the city's Victorian heritage.

"Do you know anything about Thomas Andrews?" asks Pat, the tour over.

Finally, I have to tell him. "He was my wife's great, great uncle."

Pat's Adam's apple bungee-jumps. I have inadvertently taken the wind out of his sails and he had, over the previous two hours, built up a fair head of steam.

Many people have an interest in Northern Ireland. That's why they go there. The film doesn't tell the whole story.

 

If You Go

The flight Return flights to Belfast from Abu Dhabi with Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) cost from Dh4,100, including taxes

The tour Lagan Boat Company (www.laganboatcompany.com; 00 44 0289 90 330844) organises one-hour Titanic boat tours priced at £10 (Dh58) for adults and £8 (Dh46) for children

The hotels Premier Inn in the Titanic Quarter (www.premierinn.com; 00 0871 527 9210) has double rooms from £40 (Dh228) per night, per person. The historic Europa Hotel on Great Victoria Street (www.hastingshotels.com; 00 44 0289 271066) offers two-day Titanic Breaks for £111 (Dh642), including accommodation, dinner, breakfast and a limited edition Titanic bath duck

The tour For details about the 2012 Titanic Festival and other events, visit www.discovernorthernireland.com