Wednesday, January 26, 2011

From Belfast with love - ten thoughts

I've been meaning to sit down and blog a few thoughts about Belfast these last few days. I've been over twice recently and have been very impressed. Then, today, there was the news that an explosive device was left in Antrim Road, to the north of the city centre, planted by dissident Republicans. Anyway, here are ten thoughts that have sprung to mind about a city that deserves your attention. I'm slightly ashamed that I haven't been before and amazed how few people have. Do something about that and go there soon.

Don't look back in anger - This depressing return to the past will have saddened the hearts of everyone I spoke to in Belfast, who have all been incredibly candid about the past. But to a man and a woman the message was consistent. That was the past, we have moved on. Northern Ireland needs to move on. And that even those who are politically engaged are lagging behind business people, creative people and a new professional class that sees bigger issues in the world than the colour of the kerbstones. I was also struck by such a passion and a decency about everyone. It sounds patronising coming from a chippy Northern Englishman but I have never felt as welcomed in a new city as I have in Belfast.

Troubles tourism - here's a picture of me on the Falls Road alongside some Republican murals. We also took a tour along the peace line and through the Unionist Shankill area too. This is a must. It has to be seen to be believed, it also drives home the appetite for normality, and the pride that comes from these conflicting and often violent traditions. The murals, which always fascinated me have become more romantic and less sinister, but they've certainly put a marker down for the permanence of their street culture.

The regeneration game - for urban planners Belfast is a work in progress. Example, the Titanic Quarter - one of 5 (figure that one out) - is a massively ambitious project that looks almost Arabian or Chinese in its ambition. It's a £25bn 25 year plan that seeks to extend the city through its docks. Economic development is a long and complex process. We're at a poor spot in a cycle at the moment, but Belfast has challenges in a UK setting, never mind a global context. The state dominates the economy. That is unsustainable in Liverpool, Manchester or Newcastle. Belfast is no different.

The Titanic - "She was fine when she left here" is the boast. Belfast is gearing up to open Titanic Belfast, a stunning visitor attraction that marks the city's contribution to shipbuilding and the centenary of the maiden voyage.

A good place for an elegant weekend away with Rachel? I tell you what, I've been to some well turned out hotels with a good bar, a nice service culture and some fine food, but I'd hazard that the Merchant is without equal in a provincial British city. Just a theory. They've spent £16.5m on it, or so it says here. It shows. We had an amazing lunch and the ambience of a Friday afternoon tea was just lovely.

Good place for a lad's trip? Well, the Guinness is good. They Belfast Visitor Bureau have picked the worst Oasis album to steal a title - Be Here Now. But it looks brilliant for a weekend away. We had a quick one in the Duke of York in the Cathedral Quarter, but there are loads of character pubs. Here's a pic of the Red Hand Guinness sign at that pub. There are also now flights to the Belfast George Best City Airport direct from Manchester with both FlyBe and BMI Baby. On balance I prefer BMI Baby's bigger planes, but both offer bargains.

Breakfast - you can and should judge a place by the quality of the breakfasts. I wasn't disappointed by my first genuine Ulster Fry at the legendary Oscar's but I left my two remaining pieces of fried soda bread. On Friday's St George's Market has local food produce and plants. That's a good spot for the next trip, I reckon.

Clobber - I happened upon a very smart clothes shop. The Bureau. Like Oi Polloi, but smarter. More like Paul Smith on Floral Street in London. Quirky.

Churches - I do like to visit a church in a city centre, especially in the middle of a frantic day. Recommended  was the beautifully restored Saint Malachy's in Alfred Street. It has an understated spleandour, but it has also had an awful lot of money spent on it.

Outcomes - Back in my student days I studied the sociological aspects to the conflict in the 1980s, tending towards a very bleak view of life as articulated by Professor Steve Bruce of Aberdeen University in his study of Ian Paisley and Unionism. "This is not a problem. Problems have solutions. This is a conflict, conflicts only have outcomes." I rather think the outcome has been for the better, certainly happier than any of us envisaged back then.

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