Why Irish eyes are smiling
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A tour of Belfast city centre reveals a city revived after years of turmoil
There was a saying doing the rounds among battle-hardened people of Belfast during the height of the Troubles in the 1970s and ‘80s, which went something like this: “Anyone who isn’t confused here, doesn’t really understand what’s going on.”
Today, a confident new Belfast is emerging from the fog of battle and tourists are returning in droves to spots once made famous for all the wrong reasons.
As the guide on my open-top bus tour succinctly put it: “Buildings are now going up — where once they’d be blowing up.”
Taking the bus tour from the city centre is a great way to find your bearings — especially if, like me, you are a first-time visitor.
Northern Ireland's magnificent parliament building, Stormont Castle
It takes in all of the well-known landmarks — from the stately Stormont parliamentary buildings, with their impressively sprawling and landscaped grounds, to former paramilitary fiefdoms along the Falls and Shankhill roads, complete with their murals of republican and loyalist icons.
Along the way, the bus passes a landmark which pretty-much sums up the new Belfast and its relationship with the past.
The famous yellow Harland and Wolf cranes, Samson and Goliath — once centrepieces of a bustling dockyard where the Titanic was built — now act as markers for a new, multi-million pound science park and technology complex called, perhaps predictably, The Titanic Quarter.
This new centre is just along the River Lagan from another product of the millions of pounds of investment now being pumped into Northern Ireland in the wake of recent peace agreements. This is the 2,000-plus seat Waterside Hall which is developing into a major international entertainment venue — attracting everyone from Amy Winehouse and The Proclaimers to Nana Mouskouri and The Ulster Orchestra.
One of the good things about visiting Belfast at the moment, before the corporates get too strong a foothold, is that the city boasts more than its fair share of intimate eateries, niche shopping outlets and idiosyncratic attractions.
The Belfast Eye and the main shopping district
The main shopping district starts near the Belfast Eye (the city’s own version of London’s embankment tourist spot) next to City Hall. Then, fanning out along Donegall Place and Royal Avenue, it still possesses the odd quirky shop that isn’t part of a major chain or design dynasty.
The glass-roofed Castlecourt Centre on Royal Avenue, complete with fountains and cafés, is the largest covered shopping area in the city, and there are a number of other smaller arcades in the surrounding side streets. Probably the best of these is Queen’s Arcade, with a slew of jewellers and some small, specialist boutiques.
In addition to the city-centre malls and restaurants, there is also a chance to sample something slightly different by heading towards the bars, clubs and restaurants near the student quarter around Queen’s University.
Well worth a visit here is the traditional Beatrice Kennedy restaurant, which modestly describes itself as “a Belfast institution”, but comes up with the goods in the shape of hearty Sunday lunches which can, if necessary, be walked off at the nearby free-admission Botanic Gardens.
Billed as a “diminutive Kew gardens”, and complete with a Victorian palm-house built in the 1830s, the gardens also play host to the Ulster Museum, which includes an impressive top-floor gallery showcasing the works of Irish and British painters.
If you feel like escaping the city, and venturing out into the nearby countryside, day-trips fall into two main categories — the many attractions within easy striking distance and a few which are further afield but well worth the extra effort.
Belfast Castle, the Cave Hill Country Park and Bangor by the sea can all be reached in under 30 minutes. The legendary Mountains of Morne are around an hour away to the south of the city and the historic Giants Causeway is about a 90-minute drive in the opposite direction.
Murphy’s law, of course, dictates that of these, the most impressive is the furthest away, in the shape of the fascinating and spectacular Giant’s Causeway on the north-east coast. A world heritage site, it is a nature reserve with 15 miles of footpaths providing a perfect platform to take in the truly breathtaking views.
The quickest way to get to the Causeway from Belfast is via inland roads that take under two hours. But a longer route out of the city — along the coastal roads — really does repay the extra effort and the additional 30 minutes or so.
Along the way there are views of majestic cliffs and inaccessible bays bound up in myths and legends stretching back for thousands of years, along with much talk of shipwrecks and giants taking haven in some of the quaint fishermen’s cottages that are dotted around the area.
The Culloden Hotel and Spa
If you are looking for something a lot more luxurious in the way of accommodation but still want to capture the benefits of rural Belfast, you could not do better than the five-star Culloden Hotel & Spa. Built in the 19th century as a palace for local bishops, has been painstakingly renovated.
Overlooking the River Lagan, and just up the road from George Best City Airport on the outskirts of Belfast, the hotel provides an excellent and value-for-money base for visitors and has been reinforcing its links with the small local Jewish community recently by offering to stage a range of kosher functions.
Wherever you stay, and whatever you do, it is hard to escape the air of born-again optimism flowing through Belfast. From 2003 to 2006, visitor numbers rose by over a million to almost seven million. And there’s every sign of another big rise in 2008. Anyone looking for an intriguing city break may well want to be among them.