Belfast and Paris
Fancy a trip away but haven’t got much time or money? Not to worry, we have two fantastic holidays away from Scotland costing a meagre £50. Ben Connor and Eileen Heuston make a break for it to discover the charms of Belfast and Paris.
After leaving my home in Sydney, Australia, and budget-travelling the world for a year, somehow in the past six months I have become stationary; living and working in Edinburgh.
I couldn’t resist the challenge of getting out on the road again. Legoland in Denmark was close and appealing. Riga, the capital of Latvia, I’d heard was cheap, but no matter how hard I searched I couldn’t find flights for under £50.
I toyed with the idea of stowing aboard a commercial ship to Denmark but legality was an issue. Belfast perhaps? Its troubled past gives it a gritty appeal and I’ve always liked Guinness.
Eureka! A quick internet search revealed a return rail and ferry journey for only £38 when booked two days in advance. I would only have four hours in the city but quick phone enquiries established bicycles could travel for no extra charge and there is no cheaper or better way to see a city than on a bike. I did a quick search of Belfast attractions and planned a loose itinerary.
Two days later I’m up at 4:15am. I hurriedly dress, eat breakfast, fill my coffee thermos, and make a packed lunch before grabbing my neighbour’s bike and heading out the door.
It’s pitch black outside as I ride to Edinburgh’s Waverley station, climb aboard the 4:50am train to Glasgow then promptly fall asleep.
7:13am. On the train to Stranraer, the sun is out and the sky’s a brilliant blue. I pass through dazzling countryside. 9:55am presents a contrast as I step onboard the ferry to Belfast to find myself in a floating modern mall. There are cinemas, video game parlours, fruit machines, restaurants and shops.
At 12:20pm we arrive, late, at Belfast port and I’ve missed the city bus connection. With only four hours till the last returning ferry, I decide to make my own way on a two-wheeled tourist blitz of the city. Exiting the port area I’m immediately faced with one of the city’s famed murals which I would have missed if I’d caught the bus - an impressive depiction, in black, white and brilliant red, of transport workers pulling a loaded cart. Closer inspection reveals it is dedicated to the Irish Transport and General Workers Union.
Zipping down York Street, I happen upon the glorious St Anne’s Cathedral before continuing on to Donegal Place and past the massive, domed City Hall. A fantastic Balkan brass band is busking on a corner: I give them £2. Moving on, to the Crown Liquor Saloon, I stop to enjoy a half pint of Guinness (£1.50) and talk with the barmen. With two hours until the ferry departs, I visit the Botanical Gardens, ride by the famous Queen’s University and race down the riverside bike trail - admiring waterside sculptures (including a particularly impressive big blue fish tiled mosaic). That leaves me with just enough time to check out the Albert Memorial Clock Tower and to pop into the 300-year-old Duke of York bar (half pint £1.50).
It’s over. While not a particularly beautiful city, there is something endearing about Belfast with its friendly locals, diverse architectural styles, sculptures and murals colouring the ultimately dreary urban landscape. I board the ferry with £7 to spare, shattered but happy to have rediscovered the adventurer within.
The Crown Bar, 46 Victoria Street, Belfast, 028 9024 3187, www.crownbar.com, Mon-Fri 11.30am-midnight; Sun 12:30am-10pm.
Duke of York, 7-11 Commercial Court, Belfast, 028 9024 1062, daily noon-1am.
A cheap flight to Paris was just the ticket I needed. The downside - it meant getting up at 3am. Worth it? Absolutely. Worth 13 hours in transit and eight hours in the city? Yes. Yes, yes and yes. Especially when I read the forecast in Paris was for glorious sunshine.
With the promise of lunch in a sun-soaked Parisian pavement café in mind, I battled against the driving wind and howling rain to Buchanan Street Bus Station to catch the 4.45am bus to Prestwick (£6). The day gets off to a promising start when a group of French ladies sitting opposite me give the iPod generation a lesson in civility by immediately lowering their voices to a whisper when the driver starts his engine. Marvelling at such sophistication to attempt coherent, intelligent dialogue at that ungodly hour, I fall asleep.
When I wake up, the boys behind me are ready to boil the mesdames’ heids: ‘They’ve no stopped yappin’ a’ journey!’ ?’ Glasgow Prestwick International Airport. There are three pre-7am flights, so the departure lounge is busy. We board on time and the 6.40am flight to Paris Beauvais (£36.75 including taxes) goes smoothly, without any of the turbulence predicted by our captain. As we land a fanfare suddenly bursts out over the sound system,accompanied by canned applause: ‘another early or
on-time arrival for Ryanair’. If no one else blows your trumpet …
The bus from Beauvais is packed and, despite the early hour, everyone is in rowdy form so I kiss goodbye to any thoughts of more sleep. Just 10 minutes on the metro (ticket £1) and I’m in St-Germain-des-Pres, in the heart of the Left Bank. It’s an area that’s been used in many films and today there is a crew filming opposite the station. I pass the wonderful church of St-Sulpice, ‘Cathedral of the Rive Gauche’, before entering the Luxembourg Gardens, a perfect - free! - chill-out spot and so laid-back that a small group of gendarmes are dummy-fighting. It is noon and the area is getting busy with students, schoolkids and workers gathering for lunch. I pop into St-Etienne-Du-Mont (free entrance), next to the Pantheon and learn that it held the tomb of Genevieve, Paris’ patron saint. 12.30pm and on to Rue Moufettard, a charming narrow street that was fairly unknown until the film Three Colours Blue put it on the map.
I eat the (by now crumpled) sandwich I brought with me in the bright sun and work it off with a walk towards the Bastille. I wanted to go to Musée Carnavalet, but it’s closed so I wander on down the Rue des Francs- Bourgeois. What a catwalk for hipsters! Intersecting as it does the über-cool areas of Beauboug, Marais and Basille, I suppose it’s not
surprising. All the women are wearing tailored jackets, black or blue skinny jeans and scruffy plimsolls or Converse. For hip garçons, it’s the same but with pointed toe shoes.
Dishevelled is apparently key. I gaze longingly through the window of Jean Bart Bar and Brasserie on the Rue St-Antoine. It offers traditional food at good prices but is still too expensive for my budget. I just have time left to walk down the Rue de Rivoli and past the Hotel de Ville to see the majestic Notre Dame in the fading blue sky before heading for
the metro (£1). The 10.50pm flight to Glasgow is quiet but windswept and I find out later that we were only just able to land at Prestwick. It was 29 knots (that’s not a reference to
the ones in our stomachs as we landed) and the cut-off safety level is 30. Gulp. It’s been a lightening fast, cheap-as-frites tour of the French capital but I’ve proved it can be done. Just.
Beauvais-Paris bus: http://tickets.aeroportbeauvais.com
St. Sulpice, Rue St-Sulpice, 6e, Paris, +33 146 332 178, www.paroisse-saint-sulpice-paris.org, daily 8.30am-8pm, free.
St-Etienne-Du-Mont, 1 place Ste-Geneviève, 5e, Paris, +33 143 541 179, opening times vary, free.