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Getaway with John Hagan
Belfast's Europa Reborn into Modern Hotel
It Is Belfast's Gathering Place, Largest Hotel in N. Ireland
Special Contribution
By John Hagan
Facade of Europa Hotel in Belfast

It was just one month after the official opening, in July 1971, that the unfortunate events began which would eventually earn the Europa the sobriquet "the most bombed hotel in Europe."

Despite the numerous explosions — the staff stopped counting after 30 — I am reliably assured the "most bombed" cachet has long since been claimed by Sarajevo's Holiday Inn. It is a record the Europa is delighted to relinquish.

Today, Belfast's Europa Hotel is a modern, elegant, bustling, four-star hostlery, reflecting the increasing confidence and economic resurgence of a peaceful and prosperous Northern Ireland.

As a young teacher in Belfast during "the Troubles," the Europa was my weathervane, a powerful icon of survival and fortitude during the dark days of the 1970s and 1980s.

No matter how many times the hotel (and the city) was bombed, it stubbornly got right up again and refused to close. For John Toner, a former General Manager, the hotel is now, "A stronger and more robust business because of — and not in spite of — Northern Ireland's troubles."

Bedroom of Europa Hotel at Belfast

At the height of the civil unrest, the Europa, sometimes dubbed "Hotel Eurupta," was home to the world's press. It was from here that battle-hardened journalists such as the BBC's John Simpson, the Guardian's Simon Hoggart and Max Hastings of the Daily Telegraph wrote and filed stories to the world. While a guest in the Europa, Gerald Seymour, then a television reporter for ITN, conceived and developed the idea for his bestselling novel (and later TV presentation) Harry's Game.

Their news and feature writing became the stuff of legend, and many were able to file authoritative accounts of conflict without ever leaving the bar stool. Two other notable long-term guests, United States Sen. George Mitchell and Canada's Gen. John de Chastelain, who together successfully engineered Northern Ireland's peace process, looked upon the Europa as their "second home."

"Throughout all the troubles, thank God, nobody was ever killed by a bomb in the Europa," recalls Toner. "We had a great record of getting people out quickly." Each attack seemed to increase the resolution and the courage of both staff and management, as was epitomized by Harper Brown, the Europa's first manager, who defiantly issued guests with ties to commemorate each bombing.

Purchased in 1993 by Hastings Hotels, a Northern Ireland family business, the Europa, over the next twelve months, was refurbished to become Northern Ireland's flagship hotel. No nip-and-tuck effort this, but the full surgery, involving an extensive upgrading costing over 6 million pounds. The excision addressed every facet of operation.

Exterior grantie-based stone, marble and cherry wood reception foyer, Grand Ballroom and banqueting hall, restaurants, bars, business centre plus all those little intangible extras which add to guest comfort. Quality soft furnishings, excellent bedroom lighting, Nutrogena toiletries, cable tv, oversize beds and friendly attentive staff, have all contributed to the hotel's recent burgeoning reputation.

Crown Bar — Liquor Saloon in Belfast

The Europa, "Belfast's gathering place," and the largest hotel in Northern Ireland, is now the envy of the hospitality industry boasting occupancy rates in excess of 90 percent.

Located on Great Victoria Street, part of the city's "Golden Mile" with its coffee houses, restaurants, and brasseries serving food of every conceivable kind, the Europa is close to the city centre. Many of the major tourist attractions including the majestic Ulster Museum, the marvellous Botanic Gardens and the new Odyssey entertainment complex are within easy reach.

In fact, as Belfast is a very walkable city, nothing is too far distant. From my room on the tenth floor, across the street I can see one of my former haunts, the Crown Bar (Liquor Saloon). No Oorish theme pub this, but a lovingly restored Victorian gin palace, complete with baroque woodwork and stained glass, and arguably selling the best pint of stout in the city.

Another of the Europa's historic Victorian neighbours is the Grand Opera House. As Northern Ireland's premier theatre, it attracts renowned performers from all over the world, who generally make the hotel their pied-a-terre.

Grand Opera House in Belfast
Film stars like Eliot Gould, 007 Roger Moore, Julia Roberts; singers Tony Bennett, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan; and sportspersons like David Beckham, Bob Charles and Sir Alex Ferguson have all been clients, as has South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

It was in the Europa's bars and restaurants that Brad Pitt, wearing dark glasses, honed his Belfast accent for the starring role in The Devil's Own. But certainly the hotel's most famous patron was Bill Clinton.

On Nov. 30, 1995, on a peace mission, the first ever serving American president to visit Northern Ireland was resoundingly cheered by huge crowds down Royal Avenue and Great Victoria Street to his accommodation in the Europa. Rather than stay in the official Government residence at nearby Hillsborough Castle, the president chose to be with the people in the midst of the city.

"It was a statement of confidence in Belfast and us at the Europa Hotel,"says John Toner. The Clintons were accommodated in one of the hotels five luxury suites (Room 1011) on the tenth floor, subsequently renamed by Toner "The Clinton Suite."

It was this brief visit by the American president which heralded a flood of further investment, encouraged greater self-belief amongst the population and enhanced the peace dividend by laying some of Northern Ireland's inherent demons to rest.

For information on the Europa, and other Hastings Group hotels in Northern Ireland, visit the website www.hastingshotels.com



Other Articles by John Hagan
    Paddock To Plate at Ballymaloe
    24 Hours in Belfast
    24 Hours In Dublin
    24 Hours in Helsinki
    Mexico City's Blue House


John Hagan, who serves as a travel writer for The Seoul Times, is a freelance journalist based in Tasmania, Australia. Born in Ireland, and a graduate of Trinity College Dublin and the University of Wales, he emigrated to Australia in 1976 to take up a lecturing position. He contributes articles to a number of newspapers and magazines in South Africa, Canada, New Zealand, Israel, UK and Australia.

 

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