Donzo recently made a video with Irish travel website Ireland Before You Die about the history of Belfast’s famous Europa Hotel. Watch his three minute potted history and then dive a little deeper with a BBC archive report from the 1970s and an in-depth documentary by Al-Jazeera.
The Europa Hotel opened in 1971 near the start of the Troubles, and it is iconic for many reasons. Not only is it a twelve storey 4 star hotel with a presidential suite, but it acquired an unenviable status of being the most bombed building in Belfast and for a while, the most bombed hotel in Europe, a title it lost to the Sarajevo Holiday Inn in the 1990s.
Needless to say, the quick-witted people of Belfast nicknamed it the “Hardboard Hotel” due to the windows being regularly boarded up following explosions. In those days rooms at the back of the hotel that had windows cost £10 more.
“A big modern hotel with no normal clients”
It acted as a base for the world’s media during this turbulent period, guaranteeing any bomb attack instant press coverage. BBC journalist John Sergeant called it “a big modern hotel with no normal clients” while the Guardian’s Simon Hoggart described it as “a headquarters, a training school, a private club and only marginally a hotel … Everyone came to the Europa – the press mainly, but everyone else came because of the press. If you were a politician, or a soldier, or even a paramilitary, you knew that was where to put the word out. It was the information exchange.”
One journalist remembers that when a bomb attack disrupted the hotel’s water supply, everyone was given half-bottles of champagne to brush their teeth with instead. Fortunately nobody was killed as a result of any of the thirty-three bomb attacks on the hotel and it only ever briefly closed its doors twice during that period.
A night at the Europa – 1973 BBC Nationwide feature
Over the years the Europa’s entrance became surrounded by barricades and barbed wire to try to prevent cars (and lorries) from driving up to the door. Guests had to be searched before they entered, as you can see in the opening scenes of this next video. It’s a feature from the 1970s BBC programme Nationwide, where a young Bernard Falk spends a night at the Europa, talking to hotel staff about their experiences working there.
Harper Brown, the Europa’s legendary manager
Its manager during much of the Troubles, Harper Brown, became the face of the hotel during the toughest of times, always managing a smile even when surveying the damage after an attack.
He brought bunny girl style “Penthouse Poppets’ to Belfast, with glamorous hostesses wearing bunny ears mingling with guests in the penthouse nightclub during the 70s and 80s. Certainly not something that was commonplace in Belfast at that time.
And the job adverts would certainly raise an eyebrow today:
The 1974 Workers Strike
During the 1974 general strike, power cuts meant the city was plunged into darkness. The Europa kept going, serving drinks by candle light, providing meals cooked on a hastily constructed barbecue at the side of the hotel and taking the bedlinen to the laundry run by the Nazareth Lodge nuns on the Ormeau Road (who had their own generator!).
Through bombs and power cuts the staff always behaved as if the situation was completely normal. It was only in 1975, when a 1,000lb bomb was planted in a lorry and detonated outside the hotel that it was forced to close for over a year. The explosion blew the lorry’s engine block into a room on the 10th floor of the hotel and the front entrance, lift shaft and second and third floors were badly damaged.
Al-Jazeera documentary on the Europa from the “War Hotels” series
This excellent in-depth documentary by Al-Jazeera focuses on how the hotel was run during the Troubles and is part of their War Hotels series (there’s a great book to accompany the series too). It includes footage of explosions, clear ups and bomb disposals as well as interviews with some of the journalists – Martin Bell, Robin Walsh, Henry Kelly and Gerald Seymour – who stayed there.
If you want to find out more about the Europa and other Belfast city centre highlights, it features on our Best of Belfast self guided tour which you can download to your phone before you explore the city. It’s packed with fascinating facts, videos and audio, so you can explore our city at your own pace whilst listening to Jamesy’s dulcet tones!
Mark is the owner of DC Tours. Born and raised in Belfast, after achieving a degree in Social Anthropology & Archaeology he has had a varied and chequered career. Doorman, hospital A&E receptionist, concert stage manager and recruitment consultant (that was the worst one) are all on his CV.
Tour guiding is definitely the best job he's ever had.
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