I have to admit that I approached my first visit to Belfast with some trepidation. The so called ‘troubles’ that killed so many on both sides of the religious and political divide was a constant, jarring backdrop to my life for three decades. A good friend of mine died out there in the course of those. Back in those days, every image of the place seemed negative.
But the invite to take part in the centenary commemorations for the launch of the Titanic proved too much to resist. Because if there is any other shadow that looms over that proud, grimy city, then it is that of Titanic. She grew from the very ground of Belfast for over three years, literally towering over the skyline. Her loss triggered a kind of city wide nervous breakdown that is only now beginning to finally abate.
The story of that hugely moving event is told elsewhere on this blog. What concerned me was; what kind of a welcome- if any- would I find in a city that had been divided for decades by sectarianism; one that was polarised far more effectively in many ways than cold war era Berlin ever was.
I need hardly have worried. From my digs at the fine, funky Malmaison Belfast to the amazing, ornately tiled and overly gilded pubs, Belfast was far more open and welcoming than I ever dared hope. And, while I didn’t actively seek out areas of potential lingering menace such as the Falls Road, I felt perfectly safe and, more importantly, comfortable over my three day stay in Belfast.
The people are an earthy, resilient lot, full of warmth and self deprecation, all served up with a healthy dollop of irony. Thus, in the pub where the young Gerry Adams worked as a bartender, you can buy such exotic shots as the Car Bomb, served with nary a raised eyebrow anywhere. It is this kind of wry gallows humour that got the ordinary people through those violent, angry years.
The food is extraordinary. Belfast built it’s worldwide reputation on shipbuilding and linen factories but, being a sea port, it always boasted a thriving fishing industry. The seafood is a joy to savour; the Mourne Oysters are truly the stuff of legend. And, if you’re partial to a drop of Guinness (and I’m not) I’m assured that the local stuff is simply sublime.
Belfast is a compact, graceful little gem, with nuggets of Victorian architecture. The waterfront Albert Clock is a local landmark, shearing a few inches away from the vertical. It is said that a few locals climbed it to witness the launch of the Titanic on May 31st, 1911. It’s a big story in a city chock full of such tales. It may even be true.
The imposing City Hall on Donegal Street is approached along an avenue lined with street lamps, deliberately shaped like outstretched davits from long gone ocean liners. Each one is engraved with the name of one of the White Star liners that was built here between 1869 and 1930. Every single new build for that famous company was built here in Belfast. It is a rare, brilliant form of tribute, and it makes you realise just how important Harland and Wolff was to the city, and its economy.
Of course, it is the newly wrought Titanic Quarter that, ironically, has become the driving engine for the city’s future. But the story of that area belongs properly in another blog of it’s own.
Inevitably, the recent, still simmering residue of the ‘troubles’ is never far from the surface, and each side naturally has its own version of that era. You can tour the bloody highlights- if you’re so inclined- with separate protestant and catholic taxi drivers, and be regaled with two different versions of history. As always, the truth lies somewhere in between.
You could come here just to savour the ambiance of a string of perfectly preserved, Victorian era pubs, complete with deep, dark panelling, cosy little snugs, and a riot of opulent tiled wall coverings, both outside and indoors. My favourite was The Crown, a rollicking, boisterous hostelry jam packed to capacity at four in the afternoon. Only in Belfast would you see whiskey described on a chalk board as the soup of the day.
Belfast is like a patient slowly coming out of a forty year long coma, blinking herself awake, and gradually adjusting to harsh new realities. But the city is a beauty that begs your attention; proud, battered, storied and, as you’ll discover, infinitely hospitable. The people are open, welcoming, and brim full of stories. Go for the food. The oysters. Whatever. It’s all good.
I can’t wait to go back there. Belfast? Top city. Simple as that.