IT’S AN EASY TWO-HOUR BUS RIDE from Dublin to Belfast, Northern Ireland, where I traveled last week to fulfill my original goal in planning an Ireland trip in the first place: seeing Van Morrison in concert in an intimate supper-club setting at Belfast’s Hotel Europa.
Belfast is Van’s hometown, and I (mistakenly, as it turned out) thought he would surely give his all for a local crowd. But there seemed to be more Americans there than any other nationality. I met people from Arizona, New Orleans, Texas, Oregon, Chicago.
I’m a longtime fan of Van’s and had seen him perform half a dozen times, so I knew the show could be either a transcendental experience or just him, as they say, “phoning it in.”
This one was probably more the latter, with a couple of exceptional moments. Van did the requisite 90 minutes and ran off with barely an encore or a thank you, without properly introducing his fantastic band or even his daughter, Shana, who joined him onstage for one number.
Still, I had a blast, seated at a convivial table of mostly Americans, plus one Swede and one Irishman, in a room holding just 350 people.
I spent only a day-and-a-half in Belfast, a city with some truly grand Neoclassical architecture interspersed with harsh modern structures, staying one night in a stylish boutique hotel called Ten Square and moving the next night to the Europa.
My Belfast explorations took the form of a daylong pilgrimage to spots Van has written about in his songs over the years, about two miles from the center of town in gritty East Belfast. I walked there from my hotel, passing some of Belfast’s major Victorian landmarks, crossing the Albert Bridge over the Lagan River under dreary skies.
Roughly following a self-guided walking tour laid out by a local development organization, I headed for Van’s humble birthplace on Hyndford Street, where he lived until adolescence, evoked in a long spoken-word piece on the album Hymns to the Silence; Cyprus Avenue, mentioned in more than one song, lined with stately homes he aspired to as a kid; and bucolic spots like the famous “hollow” of Brown Eyed Girl, and Orangefield, the park that inspired a gorgeous, romantic song on Avalon Sunset.
I wasn’t in Belfast long enough to fully understand its history of sectarian conflict, now mostly calmed, or pick up on the cultural differences between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK (the border my bus had sailed across was a sticking point in the Brexit talks while I was there, the TV news about nothing else). I didn’t have time to investigate Belfast’s restaurant scene or the galleries in the Cathedral Quarter, apparently the arty part of town.
But I saw plenty. Come let me show you what I did get to see of Belfast.
Above, an Art Nouveau relic, the first thing I photographed on getting off the bus from Dublin.
Lovely intact Georgian terrace (or, as we say in Brooklyn, early 19th century row houses), above.
The recently renovated Ten Square Hotel, across from the 1906 Town Hall, below (which I read somewhere is a “shameless copy” of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral — not a bad thing to copy).
View of Great Victoria Street from my third floor room at the Europa, with the world-famous, putty-colored Crown Liquor Saloon, an 1885 extravaganza of tile work, etched glass and carved wood, on the corner.
Originally a Victorian ‘gin palace,’ I was looking forward to a gin and tonic, but The Crown doesn’t do cocktails — only beer and whiskey.
The Soviet-style Hotel Europa was once known as the most-bombed hotel in Europe, or perhaps the world. Its new history began in 1994, after “The Troubles” subsided.
Next door to the Europa, the 1895 Grand Opera House survives!
Below, buildings of interest seen as I wended my way toward East Belfast.
The enormous St. George’s Market, below, is used several days a week for produce and such.
The 1869 Albert Memorial Clock, below.
Views from the Albert Bridge, below, one of many bridges over the Lagan River. Belfast was once a shipbuilding powerhouse. The Titanic was built there, and the Titanic Belfast is a massive new tourist attraction. Not for me, however — I was on my way to Van Morrison’s birthplace!
East Belfast, below, was quiet on a Tuesday morning in early December.
My first Van-related site, above: the beautiful grounds of the still-extant Elmgrove Primary School, a leafy contrast to the barren surrounding streets.
Above, “the hollow”
Hey, where did we go, Days when the rains came?
Down in the hollow, Playing a new game…
Hyndford Street, above, was deserted. Number 125 — the “two-up, two-down” house of Van’s first 16 years — is marked by a discreet (that is to say, minuscule) brass plaque.
Down on Cyprus Avenue
With a childlike vision leaping into view
Clicking, clacking of the high heeled shoe
Ford and Fitzroy, Madame George
I really enjoyed my stroll through Orangefield Park, above, even calling up the relevant song on Spotify, plugging in my earbuds, and listening to it as I walked. Dorky but perfect.
You came my way in Orangefield
Saw you standing by the riverside in Orangefield
How I loved you then in Orangefield
Like I love you now in Orangefield…
Then I hopped a double-decker bus back to Donegall Square, above, in the city center (only because I couldn’t get a cab to stop).
There was a Christmas market going on in front of City Hall.
I felt like I’d really been somewhere — not just to the other side of town, but to a different era, and I came back with a prize: a deeper appreciation for the source of the music I’ve so enjoyed over the years.