After having lived in Belfast for a couple of months, I reckoned I’d lost my newcomer tourist rights and would therefore have to wait for visitors to take a Black Taxi Tour. Accordingly, when guests from the US arrived a couple of weeks ago, I jumped at the chance to show them around Belfast via one of these much-celebrated taxi tours.
Available from a seemingly endless array of companies, black taxi tours are essentially exactly what it says on the tin – a tour of the city from the (dis)comfort of a (not always) black taxi. The history of these tours apparently stems from twinned tourist interest in but anxiety about wandering around on foot in certain areas of Belfast – the Falls Rd., the Shankill, the ever-changing display of murals around these areas, peace lines, etc. Although I imagine the tourist industry would be quick to deny any current threat to tourists taking in the sights on a walk through the city, a black taxi tour is, as advertised by the companies themselves, a pretty much guaranteed way of getting a safe and comfortable tour from a very knowledgeable guide with an incredible familiarity with the streets of Belfast and their sights.
For four of us, our tour (from this company) lasted an hour and a half and cost a tenner each – at least a fiver less than the alternative bus tour and, while you don’t see quite as much of the city as you do on the bus tour, you do get an intimate look at parts of Belfast you might not otherwise venture into by yourself (see the Google map of our route here). Our tour started when our taxi kindly picked us up at a place and time of our choosing – behind City Hall at 3 pm. We piled into the taxi (disappointingly blue, not black), and our heavily tattoo-ed driver gave us a brief history of the Troubles. Then, it was off to the Shankill and into a little housing estate replete with an amazing collection of murals. After pulling into the estate and giving us some more historical tidbits, the taxi driver told us to walk around and have a look at the murals, which included a vivid depiction of the myth of ‘the red hand of Ulster’; one of ten murals designed to replace paramilitary images with images of national culture and heritage; and a slightly freaky paramilitary mural picturing a balaclava-clad paramilitary pointing his rifle out at the viewer. Our taxi driver had told us to pay particular attention to this last one and to watch how the rifle followed us as we walked – very disturbing.
From the Shankill, we headed over to the Falls Rd. via the peace line – barriers that shut every night to keep opposing factions segregated as much as possible. (I won’t go into the history of Belfast’s religious and sectarian conflict here, but there’s some great info and a detailed bibliography here.) We also got to have a look at the recently refurbished Peace Wall. It used to be quite plain and bare, with just the notes and signatures from visitors and well-wishers decorating it, but it now has some fantastic graffiti and other artwork produced by a group of artists who had their safety guaranteed by the local homeowners before commencing their work during Easter 2009. (There’s a great personal account by an artist involved in this project here.) Of course, we signed our names and wrote a brief message before heading on to the Falls Road, where we saw a variety of murals, including the famous one of Bobby Sands (right next to the Sinn Fein offices), and a series of murals linking Belfast history with conflicts in other areas, including Palestine.
That was the bulk of our tour, and, though the route seems laughably short, we managed to see more of and learn more about Belfast than we ever expected. For my guests, it was an enjoyable and informative experience; for me, it was a fantastic insider’s view of some of the city’s most contested areas. Definitely worth a go if ever you find yourself in Belfast!