A relative of mine is getting married soon, which of course meant a hen party, or as seems to be the increasingly popular choice these days, a hen weekend. However said relative is in her forties, divorced with an adult daughter and actually lives in England now and had travelled "back home" to Belfast to celebrate her last month or so of the single life, so this hen weekend was a little bit different than the usual all-day piss-up in a pink fire engine round your home town. Different, but not boring!
Our group was made up of locals, Northern Irish ex-pats who now live on the mainland, and true Brits, some of whom had never been to Belfast before. The ages ranged from 18 to 60+ and personalities from the introverted to the downright mental. So we had an interesting mix of participants to say the least!
On the first night I actually only joined the party for dinner at the Washington Bar. I was only vaguely aware of this place since I had actively avoided it in its previous incarnation as the Skye Bar, famous for being hugely chavvy and for the infamous attacks and the like outside. However I'm a firm believer in second chances and I love trying out new venues, so I was happy to give it a try. And actually? It was really good! We ate in the upstairs lounge and it was all very ornately decorated but a teeny bit too dark: people were co-opting the tealights from the tables to read their menus. That said, I'm a creature of darkness myself and hiss at bright lights, so it suited me down to the ground. I had a Combo Sharing Platter (which I didn't share) for my meal and every bit of it was wonderful. I'll definitely be back.
After dinner the rest of the hens headed out to M Club's Groovy Train after dinner but it's not really my scene and I'm a bit cash-poor at the moment, so I gave it a miss. Whilst I don't regret not spending the night hobbling around the dance floor in my heeled boots to Jackon Five b-sides and spending a fortune on drinks, I did apparently miss out on meeting Steve Miller of Fat Families fame, who was merrily boogying away with the other hens. I do love that show so that was a bit of a shame. Oh well!
Day two saw us up bright and early for a very educational trip aboard an open-top City Sightseeing tour bus. Well, it would maybe have been more educational if we hadn't all been laughing hysterically for most of it, but I found it a great experience as always.
We left from the city centre (Castle Place, outside HMV) and headed over towards the Titanic Quarter. I think this is the area that surprised a lot of the locals onboard the most. It's not an area that people who live here generally frequent because until recently there wasn't really very much going on over that way except for the shipyards, etc. However there has been a lot of development over the last few years (which is still ongoing) and the area is being completely revitalised. People who actually live and work in Belfast were shocked to discover the lovely new apartments, the new PRONI building, the new Belfast Metropolitan College campus, the new Premier Inn, the Painthall Studio and of course our wonderful new masterpiece in progress, Titanic Belfast, all of which had been built practically under their noses and yet without their knowledge.
After the Titanic Quarter we braved the howling wind on the dual carriageway and headed over to Parliament Buildings. I must admit I do always have to laugh at visitors' panic when the security officers board the bus at the entrance of Stormont Estate and start searching the aisles and looking under the seats. They don't realise that it's just a precautionary measure and are convinced there must be something really wrong. Is there a bomb on the bus?! It is Belfast after all! Aaargh save us! Yeah… no. You'd think the bored-looking faces of the security staff would be a hint that there is not an immediate threat to their safety but I guess people just expect the worst. It's all a bit silly really when you consider how much security you have to go through at an airport these days, and at least these security men let you bring your bottle of water through the gates of Massey Avenue!
Having explained to the British hens what exactly Parliament Buildings was and what happens there (or more often doesn't happen there), we headed back around Lord Carson's statue (giggling because it looks like he's either sticking two fingers up at Belfast or else throwing down some funky dance moves) and back out of the Estate.
We braved the winds once again on the return to the city centre and then headed out towards the Shankill and Falls Roads. This is the part of the tour I never really like. I despise sectarianism in all its forms and I think that, like a two year old having a tantrum, the more attention you give these eejits, the more it encourages them. But still, I realise it's a part of our country's (not so distant) history and so it has the right to be included in these tours.
I don't have to like it though, especially when one of our group (a local) made a sectarian remark herself, which was met with awkward laughter from some, confused glances from others and a huge black look from me. It just proved to me that these sort of backwards attitudes still exist, closer to home than I'd like. On the other hand I overheard some of the British visitors puzzledly ask each other why it should ever be such a big deal what road you lived on, which is what I often wonder too, so perhaps there's hope yet that common sense will eventually overtake ignorance.
Leaving the bitter divides of West Belfast aside, our bus trundled up to the Queens University area, down Great Victoria Street and back into the city centre, where I left the rest of the hens to buy copious amounts of souvenirs from Carroll's Gift Shop and headed home to regroup.
That evening I met up with the group again at the slightly odd location of Long's Fish and Chip Shop, which has a reputation for being the best chippy in the city. Not a fan of batter, I opted for a chicken burger and a curry chip to line my stomach for the night of drinking inevitably ahead of me. Alas even the chicken came battered and I managed to stain my lovely new dress with a big glob of grease! The food was… ok. Nice enough but nothing special; pretty much exactly what you would expect chip shop fare to taste like really. But the "best" in Belfast? I'm not convinced. Certainly it was no better than, say, The Golden Chip in Dundonald anyway. The offish manner of the overworked ladies staffing the restaurant didn't exactly endear me to Long's either though. Ah well it was worth trying once but I won't be hurrying back.
Arteries sufficiently clogged, we embarked upon a booze-filled night of pubs aimed at the older clientelle. We started off upstairs in White's Tavern for a good few hours of live music by local duo Richard and Brendan, who covered everything from Neil Diamond to Journey to Rihanna. I really enjoyed it actually - I'm a Radio 1 kind of girl usually but it's nice to sing along to some of the classics every now and then too.
But then we headed (not very far away) to the back room at Monico Bars for yet more live music, this time a duet of very young-looking girls whose name I didn't catch. Their set was pretty much identical to the one we'd just heard at White's though, so there was a bit of déjà vu going on, not least because a few of the creepier older men who had been slobbering over our group in White's had followed us there. I'm not exactly sure how we eventually managed to extract the bride from the gropey clasps of one particularly creepy guy but eventually we decided to leave.
Our next destination was Brennan's Bar, which I used to frequent back for a decent lunch and a reasonably priced pint of Guinness when it was the Beaten Docket and I worked nearby. Unfortunately by the time we had escorted the (pretty pissed by this stage) bride up to the upstairs bar, we had lost most of our party. Apparently the siren call of McDonalds was too strong for the rest of the drunken hens to resist. Having left the bride at the bar in the company of another (equally pissed) relative, and having extracted myself from the sweaty handshakes of increasingly creepier men more than twice my age (what is it with that handshake thing older men insist on doing?!), sister dearest and I decided enough was enough and made our escape off into the night air.
By the end of the night I had reconsidered my stance on classics from the 70s and 80s: I swear if I'd heard Sweet Caroline one more time I would have felt compelled to "bam bam bammm" the offending act round the head with their microphones. However all in all it wasn't a bad night considering none of the venues were particularly my kind of thing. The bride certainly seemed to enjoy herself anyway and that's the most important thing at the end of the day.
It has given me a bit of a taste for a night out though. I'd forgotten how much fun it can be to enjoy a few drinks and perk up when you hear a good record come on ("Oh I LOVE this song!"). There are maybe only a handful of places I know in Belfast that play the sort of music I like but then crowd tends to be a bit young for me these days. However there are a few newer venues that I'd quite like to try. Now I just need some friends who actually like going out to come with me. And some money. And a spare Saturday night. Hmmm, maybe next year, eh?