It is a story like no other. The mother of all ships was built, and it sank a few days into its maiden voyage. Stories of the R.M.S. Titanic have captured the minds and imaginations of many generations. Tales of the ship, its survivors, and those who lost their lives with it are the stuff of reality—and the stuff of myth and legend.
The ship that launched a thousand stories has dozens of films dedicated to it, including a blockbuster Hollywood epic. There are countless books, and several museums devoted to it. Entire careers in the modern world continue to revolve around the dramatic sinking of the Titanic. As I wander through Belfast’s Titanic Quarter, tourists like me are everywhere. The once beleaguered industrial wasteland in Northern Ireland’s capital is now a revitalized neighbourhood on the move. Millions of visitors have been streaming into the Titanic Quarter since the Titanic Belfast opened in 2012, one hundred years after the infamous ship sank in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. I can see how important this story has been to the regeneration of this city.
Whenever I’m in a new city, I like to walk its streets. It helps me understand its pulse. Nearly two decades after the end of 30 years of conflict in this region, Belfast is still rebuilding itself. I see a large number of students everywhere, and the atmosphere is lively. I walk the three kilometres from downtown Belfast, crossing the Lagan River via a footbridge, to reach the dock area that is now called the Titanic Quarter. Titanic Belfast, the huge, 126-foot-high silver building that dominates the quarter is stunning in scale and appearance. It is uniquely shaped like four gigantic, angular hulls covered in aluminium panels that shimmer in the afternoon light.
Having read every National Geographic account of the Titanic with fascination, I know different versions of the ship’s story. But it’s only inside the museum’s first exhibit that I learn that the world’s most famous ship was built here in Belfast, at this very spot on the harbour. I walk through exhibits of Belfast’s industrial and maritime history from the 1800s to the early 20th century when its economy was booming. Unlike what I’ve heard before, the focus at this museum is more on the building of the great luxury liner, than on its sinking.
In the semi-darkness, I experience the simulated Shipyard Ride. A six-seater wagon takes us through the process of building the massive ship. The sound effects make me feel like I’m witnessing rivets being hammered into the frame. I can almost feel the heat from the iron being smelted. Standing on a gantry, I watch how workers built the enormous passenger liner, and listen to commentary on their living conditions. It allows me a tiny glimpse of the city’s shipbuilding history.
Using my audio guide, I spend the next several hours touring the rest of the museum’s exhibits. Exploring mock ups of the different classes of cabins on board, I get a sense of the luxurious interiors the patrons were meant to enjoy. I read stories of the passengers and crew, and then finally reach the exhibit about the ship’s end. There are so many legends and myths around the sinking of the Titanic. They have been told over and again, but never seem to get old. Even as I am writing this, yet another documentary film has been released that says it wasn’t really the collision with the iceberg that sank the ship, instead it claims, it was a fire that had weakened the ship’s hull.
A giant screen in the fascinating last section of the museum takes me to the bottom of the ocean, where the wreck lies, about four kilometres below the surface. The Ocean Exploration Centre has live links to ongoing diving expeditions and up-to-date information on undersea explorations. Besides the footage, there are various interactive exhibits and visitors can get an insight into the high-tech equipment and technology used during deep-sea expeditions.
Stepping back outside, I see the cranes of the shipyard and the dock from where the ill-fated ship was launched. I tour the inside of the S.S. Nomadic, another ship built alongside the Titanic, and used to transfer passengers from the shallow dock further out to deeper waters where the Titanic was anchored. Circling back I return to the museum building, taking in the bronze sculpture of a woman nicknamed Titanica, in the classic “Titanic pose” made famous by Kate Winslet in the 1997 film. Another bronze sculpture has the words TITANIC spelled out—a spot for visitors to capture a souvenir photograph. Looking upward at the magnificent modern building, it really looks like the prow of a massive ship. I can see why the Titanic caused such a stir: building something so mammoth in 1912 represented an act of audaciousness.
I walk a longer route back to my hotel, to stop off at another bronze sculpture called Titanic Yardmen 401. It depicts three workers of Belfast, and is meant to commemorate the city’s shipbuilding workforce. Standing in front of them, it becomes clear how closely the Titanic is connected to the history of Belfast city. A few months later, when I read that the Titanic Belfast was Europe’s most visited tourist attraction in 2016, I can see that it is also very much connected to its revival and future.
Appeared in the February 2017 issue as “From Belfast: The Ship That Launched A Thousand Stories”.
Getting There In Belfast, Northern Ireland, it’s very easy to reach the dockside Titanic Quarter, in the eastern part of the city.
Hours Between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m., varies according to season.
Entry Adults £17.50/₹1,475, children (5-16 yr) £7.25/₹611, under 5 yr free; see titanicbelfast.com.
Tip You need at least 3-4 hours to fully cover this attraction. Entry stops 1 hr 45 min before closing time.
Niloufer Venkatraman ’s idea of unwinding is to put on boots and meander through the wilderness or the by-lanes of a city. She is obsessive about family holidays and has already instilled in her young daughter wanderlust and a love for the outdoors. She is the former Editor-In-Chief of National Geographic Traveller India.