BC Business Magazine
Window seat in Belfast
Kneecaps brushing my chin as I try to ignore the tired jokes of three 14-year-old flight attendants, I’m wedged sideways into a back-busting seat on a bumpy budget jaunt from London. That’ll teach me to spend less on my ticket than the price of a large latte. Tempted by the el-cheapo airline’s exotic roster of destinations – do Pau and Jerez actually exist? – I’m on a swift weekend hop to Ireland.
But while sensible tourists make for the dreamy spires of Dublin for their Guinness-fuelled craic, I’m en route to Belfast, the historic centre of “the Troubles” – that euphemistically named era when the locals’ main pastime was blowing each other up. With the bombs now officially replaced with bonhomie, I’m curious to find out what else ticks in Northern Ireland’s newly-optimistic capital.
According to my chatty cabbie (the fare into town costs three times more than my flight), commerce has replaced violence as the city’s main motivator. Mirroring similar revivals in Manchester and Glasgow, Belfast is undergoing rapid gentrification, its former no-go areas now swankified with loft apartments and boutique stores. In fact, it’s hard to find a view here that isn’t framed by towering cranes and a soundtrack of construction hammering.
Dropping my overnight bag at one of Donegall Square’s swish new sleepovers – it’s like a loungey Opus Hotel in an old heritage building – I hit the bustling, shopper-lined streets heavily armed with a water bottle and a dog-eared Lonely Planet. First stop: West Belfast’s infamous republican and unionist strongholds.
Lined with tricolour Éire flags, the stoically catholic Falls Road clings doggedly to the past. While most of Northern Ireland faces firmly forward, the clutch of large, well-maintained wall murals here still depict IRA hunger strikers and never-forgotten local battles. Surprisingly, the murals are now one of the city’s leading visitor attractions and several friendly residents stop to ask where I’m from as I wave my camera around.
It’s a similar story on protestant Shankill Road. Partially separated from the Falls by a barbed-wire-topped Peace Wall – a Doublespeak name that seems straight from Orwell – this working-class enclave is lined with drab row houses bookended with giant paintings of hooded paramilitary figures. Updating the approach, newer murals satirize President Bush or celebrate Belfast football legend George Best.
Following my afternoon of political tourism, I weave back to the city centre to review my photos at the old-school Crown Liquor Salon. Facing the Europa – once Belfast’s most bombed hotel – it’s a sumptuous, high-ceiling bar dripping with stained glass art nouveau flourishes. Full of just-released office workers, its relaxed ambiance is in stark contrast to past years, when walking the streets at night was often a mistake.
Strolling with impunity today, I amble over to the freshly-scrubbed Cathedral Quarter then cross to the art-lined waterfront. Earmarked for future museums and yuppie condos, today’s main landmark is a shiny, glass-encased concert hall. A multimillion-dollar edifice that would have been a prime bomb target in the bad old days, tonight it’s hosting a concert by arch Irish musicians the Chieftains.
Not usually a fan of Riverdancing bagpipe players, I impulsively duck inside and bag a seat. Packed to the rafters with laughing locals, the sprightly old band soon whips us into a frenzy of rampant foot-stomping. An inveterate loather of public sing-a-longs, I’m nevertheless caught-up in the revelries, even joining a giant conga line encircling the auditorium. It’s been a long time coming, but twinkle-eyed Belfast is finally remembering how to party.
Can’t miss: Hurling
If you thought hockey was tough, head to Casement Park on June 28 for the hurling championship qualifier between Aontroim and Gaillimh. Even if you can’t pronounce the team names, you’ll be treated to the sight of 30 stick-brandishing thugs running around smashing a small ball at each other in Europe’s oldest field sport. Tickets from £15. gaa.ie.
Cool eats: James Street South
A contemporary restaurant that manages to be both ultra-trendy and snob-free, the knowledgeable servers here are more than happy to walk you through the menu. Opt for roast monkfish with spiced crab foam and you won’t go wrong. Mains from £12.50. jamesstreetsouth.co.uk.
Best bed: Ten Square Hotel
A comfortable, classy boutique property occupying a handsome heritage building in the city centre, Ten Square also houses a cracking bar to lure you from your in-room TV. Rooms from £120. tensquare.co.uk.
One thing we need:
Cliché-free Irish pubs. Few shamrocks or shillelaghs adorn Belfast bars: they’re much more interested in properly poured Guinness than nasty green St.Paddy’s day booze.
One thing we don’t need:
Fried everything. Dining on a budget here usually means scoffing deep-fried chips, burgers and sausages – right up until you have a stroke.
Sunny June can stretch to a balmy 22 degrees with occasional showers. And since the local kids are still trapped in school, it’s an ideal time to visit.