Each semester, one student from each HECUA program abroad takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. Giorgia Piantanida will be HECUA’s student blogger for the Northern Ireland program this spring semester. Giorgia is a junior at Swarthmore College, double-majoring in Peace and Conflict Studies and Environmental Studies. Read on for Giorgia’s first post!
As a student in HECUA’s Northern Ireland program, I am living, studying and interning in Derry/Londonderry, a small city where everyone knows everyone. This past weekend, the six other HECUA students and I decided to travel to Belfast to soak up a city where we knew absolutely no one, as well as get ready for our class excursion there on Monday.
We left Derry/Londonderry in the midst of a very rainy, windy Sunday morning and traversed the country, sharing some laughs and some very large burritos, excited for the adventure ahead of us. The train itself took us across the northern coast, and we were able to see the ocean and some cozy little towns that tend to be overlooked. Just these views were enough to take your breath away.
When we finally pulled up to the Belfast station, we got off and headed to our hostel. We had booked this weekend within the first week or so of our arrival, and although tons had changed since then, our decision to stay in Botanical Backpackers was still as brilliant as before. It was located somewhere between the city center and one of the universities, so that everything we could ever need was within a reasonable walking distance.
Once we were able to drop off all our stuff and run to the bathroom, we immediately headed out to start taking in the sights, starting off with the botanical gardens. While beautiful and rather large, seeing them in March is probably not comparable to seeing them later in the spring, when all the flowers are in bloom. We had also shown up rather late due to our train, so we missed seeing the two greenhouses they had on the grounds. But we were in high spirits, and there was nothing that could get in our way of having a great time.
Botanical Gardens in Belfast.
That weekend we saw plenty of sights. One of the more interesting ones was definitely the Titanic Experience, located right next to the spot the ship was built about a century ago. This museum was meant to explain the solid shipping industry Belfast used to have, and how it fell apart due to wars and industrialization. While it did not spend much time talking about the Titanic and why it sank, it did introduce audiences to a different aspect of Belfast. Indeed, one of the men who worked there explained that the museum had been built to show the flourishing Belfast that existed in those times, rather than yet another exhibit on how and why their most famous ship sank.
The exterior of the Titanic Experience, designed to represent three ships sailing forward.
As part of the class excursion, we were able to tour Stormont, which is the government building here in Northern Ireland. I was really excited because I am very interested in politics and government, so getting the chance to explore the building and meet with some politicians seemed like a good opportunity.
The mood was definitely set even before we showed up – since the government here requires two parties to be in charge, it can be quite difficult to always keep it running. And two years ago, there was a falling out between the parties, and since then, the government has been in a shutdown of sorts. So it definitely felt as though we were going into a place of uncertainty, and certainly a place about which most locals had something negative to say.
We pulled up and the grandiose gates welcomed us, leading us to a massive uphill road that led directly to the parliament buildings.
Leaving Stormont with a beautifully tragic sky that was far better than the pouring rain!
We were all shocked by the sight, as the place was so imposing it hardly felt you could take a breath at first. The feeling remained as we first went into the building. Its decorations, both inside and outside, were immaculate. We were offered an extensive run down of how the government works, which definitely left all of us mentally jogging to keep up with all the information, as well as meet with two politicians. The entire experience helped us ground everything we had learned inside the classroom to real, physical people and places, and certainly kept us on our toes throughout.
And of course, I cannot forget to mention the most important part of the trip – the various foods we devoured. As we have a vegan in our group, and I am lactose intolerant, we tried to look for places to eat in which we could all be accommodated. So the very first stop we made was in a vegan restaurant called Eat Street. While we were all a little hesitant and unsure of what to order at first, we all took our chances with some milkshakes and various dishes, including chips and sweets. I myself had a Biscoff milkshake, paired with a vanilla sponge cupcake, and it was just absolutely amazing. Even though most people had never eaten vegan (nor had any desire to), there was not one unsatisfied customer there.
The other really fantastic place we went to eat was a small diner-esque restaurant called Maggie May’s. It was recommended to us by a friend of a friend, and it was probably the best recommendation we had all weekend. They not only had a vegan menu there as well, but an all-day breakfast and so many different milkshake creations that it was hard to choose just one. We ended up dining there twice, once for dinner with some burgers, and another time for breakfast for Full Frys, the typical Northern Irish breakfast. And honestly, I would go back for another meal in a heartbeat.
Belfast was a very fun, very different experience from anything we had been through in the first month of Derry/Londonderry. The places and people we met seamlessly tied in with the lessons we were learning in the classroom, and the time we had together as a group was a great way for us to bond with each other. Although we’ve only known each other for a month and change, I truly think we have become a very closely-knitted friend group, and look forward to making even more memories together as the semester continues!