As you might expect from a city at the northern tip of an island in the Atlantic Ocean, Belfast is not always a dry place at the end of February. It poured down from the moment I stepped off the plane at George Best Airport until I took off again.
George Best Belfast City Airport is the only one in the world named after a footballer. Unless Buenos Aires or Três Corações get around to renaming their air terminals after hometown boys Diego Maradona or Pele there will be no airborne association with a more gifted player. Best is everywhere in Belfast and a true unifying figure in a city which still has visible divisions, even if today’s Belfast is very much looking forward to a shared future.
I was only in town for one night but dropped in on the Crown Liquor Saloon. This pub is a Victorian folly that somehow made it as a boozer, complete with ornate woodcarvings, neo-Gothic decor and huge private booths that hide you from the outside world. I congratulated myself on snagging one, only to realise you’re totally left alone once inside and that it was more fun chatting at the bar. Strolling the city in the evening drizzle I happened upon bands setting up to play gigs in the bars tucked away in the cobbled Cathedral Quarter and hotels like the Fitzwilliam offering upscale drinking and dining that was too trendy for a soggy corduroy-clad hack like me.
The next morning I had a chance to look around. City Hall, the visible expression of the nineteenth century prosperity, the end result of Belfast’s status as one of the world’s manufacturing and shipbuilding powerhouse has excellent exhibitions and a great guided tour. It’ easy to find, next to the Belfast Wheel which is the best place from which to see the changing skyline. If big ships are your thing – and the giant Harland & Woolf cranes which are visible from all over the city prove that it was Belfast’s thing for generations – then don’t miss the fascinating Titanic Trail and accompanying boat tour. Both take in sights associated with the ill-fated ocean liner which left here – working perfectly, as locals will point out with tongue firmly in cheek – a hundred years ago next year. You’ll also find an art trail hugging the banks of the Lagan River, including this fishy fellow below.
A visit to West Belfast, still home to large working class Catholic and Protestant communities, is the best way to get a handle on the Sectarian divide which shaped the twentieth century history of the Northern Irish capital. Many come on excellent and informative Black Taxi Tours. I opted to go on foot, and suspect I was the only person to walk down both the Shankill and Falls Roads that day. Both areas are aware of their attraction to visitors and the both local communities and the city council have signs and maps to direct casual visitors around and make you feel welcome.
It is hard to avoid the sense that these murals belong to the last century, not this one. The first mural you come to walking west along the Shankill Road no longer homages the loyalist cause but makes a proud claim on the area being the earliest of Belfast’s settlements. Yes, you’ll still find militaristic and political murals, and other monuments while exploring both sides of West Belfast, but the more recent renewals are more benign and hopeful and in many places offer outlets for imaginative local artists. My favourite, found elsewhere in the city, is this one devoted to one of Science’s most philosophical questions. I passed it while out running so was camera-less.
Interesting place, Belfast. It has centuries of history, a few cracking hotels and anyone who grew up with Northern Ireland looming large in the news would do well to go and see it for themselves. The city sits in the shadow of some towering mountains and is close to some lovely coast, meaning with a few extra days you could see a lot of what Northern Ireland has to offer. Bring an umbrella.