For 50 years the Europa Hotel has been at the heart of Belfast.
"If you're talking about Belfast over the last 50 years, you have to include the Europa," says head concierge Martin Mulholland. "It played such an integral part in the history of the city."
Over that half-century the Europa has seen its reputation transformed from the most-bombed hotel in the world to a symbol of the peace process and now a part of the city’s renaissance as a tourist destination.
"The city sightseeing tours drive past and they point it out as the most-bombed hotel," says marketing director Julie Hastings. "When people go to Belfast now they have it on their bucket list; they have to see the Titanic and they have to go to the Europa."
An interactive exhibition marking the anniversary is due to open at the end of the month.
When the hotel, which was built on the site of the former Great Northern Railway Station on Great Victoria Street, opened in 1971 it quickly became a base for international journalists who were in Belfast to cover the Troubles.
"It was the hub of everything," remembers Renagh Holohan, then this newspaper's Northern Editor. "All the press conferences were held in the Europa, and everybody stayed there."
When its own Belfast office was blown up by a car bomb, The Irish Times relocated temporarily to the Europa. The new office – in a suite – put the reporters “in the centre of everything”, not least “party central”, says Holohan.
She recalls being evacuated while having lunch in the hotel because of a bomb in the side street.
“I saw my little car sitting in Glengall Street and I said to a soldier at the barricade could I get it out, and he said, ‘If you’re quick’, so I ran up Glengall Street and before I got there the bomb went off.
“I fell down and I looked up, I’ll never forget it. I looked up and I saw the Europa sway – that’s what it’s supposed to do, apparently – it swayed and I saw panes of glass come out whole and shatter on the way down.”
The windows were broken so many times, those at the front of the hotel were boarded up – it was known as the “Hardboard hotel” – and rooms at the back of the hotel that had windows cost £10 more.
In the bar on the top floor, drinks were served by the Penthouse Poppets, Northern Ireland’s answer to bunny girls.
Nobody really knows, says Hastings, how many times the hotel was targeted, though the estimate is 33. "There seemed to be three hotels – the Holiday Inns in Sarajevo and Beirut, and the Europa – which all got mentioned in the same sentence as the most-bombed hotel in somewhere," says Hastings.
“Its big claim to fame is it stayed open throughout the Troubles, it never closed. The very first time the Europa closed was during Covid.”
The hotel was bought by Hastings' father, local hotelier William Hastings, in 1993; the hotel had been badly damaged by "the last bomb it ever suffered, touch wood" and he was able to buy it at a "knockdown price", she says.
"The government at the time and the tourist board, they really wanted an international brand to come to the city – it had no Hilton, no Holiday Inn – but once the final bomb came in 1993, anybody from outside of Northern Ireland toddled on and the only person left was my dad."
He spent £8 million turning it into “a four-star hotel, one the city could be proud of, right in the city centre”. It was “a huge gamble, people thought he was crazy” but it “certainly paid off”, she says.
The turning point for the hotel and for Belfast came when then US president Bill Clinton stayed there in 1995.
"That was a big, big thing for the whole city and for the country. He came as part of the peace process. There was the ceasefire, and normally when anybody like that came to stay, they stayed in Hillsborough Castle, but he wanted to make a statement and said, 'No, I'm going to stay in the Europa,'" says Hastings.
Mulholland was picked to represent the hotel. "It was the highlight of the Europa's as well as my own career. It's not every day you get to look after the president of the United States."
The president and his wife, Hillary, went on to stay at the Europa on several occasions, and in 2002 wrote to the staff to congratulate them on their work during “profound adversity” and their contribution to the “continuing success” of the hotel.
The Europa, he said, symbolised the “strength of Irish character” and was “a living reminder of an extraordinary past and the promise of an even greater future”.
“He did so much for the peace process and for Northern Ireland,” says Mulholland. “Staying here was his own endorsement. He was saying, ‘We know the Europa’s history but Belfast is open for business.’”
Open for business
Today, the Europa is again open for business following the Covid-19 pandemic; it is one of seven luxury hotels owned by the Hastings Group across Northern Ireland, including the recently built Grand Central in Belfast and the Stormont Hotel opposite Parliament Buildings.
“Belfast is busy enough now that it can fill all these hotels and many others,” says Hastings. “The staycation market over the summer has been very busy, and it’s brought people up from the South that have never been to the North before.”
Standing in the lobby of the hotel and looking out through the revolving door on to a busy Great Victoria Street, Mulholland reflects that much has changed.
“Back then there were no hop-on, hop-off tours, no Giant’s Causeway tours, in fact there were very few tourists. Belfast wasn’t really a tourist destination.
“Today, okay we’re coming out of Covid, but certainly the hotel has never stood still, and certainly under Hastings the investment has always been there. We’ve gone from 160 rooms to 270 rooms, and we have the exhibition centre, the ballroom.
“If you look at the plans for Belfast, the transportation hub is being built behind us in the old GNR station so there’ll be the train from Dublin coming into the city and all the bus routes.
“The Europa will be right at the heart of all that, as always.”