By Thomas Breathnach | BOSTON GLOBE CORRESPONDENT | November 27, 2011
Here in Ireland, we are well accustomed to our global city, Dublin, stealing the island’s limelight. However, with Belfast fresh from hosting the MTV Europe Music Awards this month and counting down to next year’s launch of its $200 million Titanic Belfast center, the tide seems to be turning north.
Two friends and I traveled to Northern Ireland to discover the country’s capital in its post-ceasefire glow, with its burgeoning city center and regenerated waterfront, all in a mythical mountain setting.
A 90-minute drive from Dublin brought us to the Europa on Great Victoria Street. Once notorious as “Europe’s most bombed hotel,’’ the Europa nowadays is a cosmopolitan oasis of calm and one of the symbols of Belfast’s turnaround. Our chic suite overlooked the bustling downtown, where pink double-decker buses wound around grand Edwardian and Victorian avenues.
Unquestionably, the best way for visitors to gather their cultural and geographical bearings is to take a black taxi tour with a native. Holding something of a cult status, the trips offer a voyeuristic visit to the neighborhoods of Belfast’s Protestant and Catholic communities (which largely identify themselves as British or Irish, respectively). “Yous can tell me which side of the tracks I come from, at the end,’’ joked Billy Scott, our ebullient guide.
After a scenic beeline past the landmarks of Queen’s University and the Parliament buildings at Stormont, we entered the Protestant estates of Shankill Road. Union Jacks fluttered across streets, while mere blocks away on the Catholic Falls Road, tricolors of green, white, and gold waved in abundance.
In the Shankill, a mural of Andrew Jackson commemorates him as one of 17 US presidents with Protestant Ulster-Scots ancestry. “So many Americans come to Belfast to find their Irish roots, only to find out they’re originally Scottish,’’ Scott said.
Despite the cessation of violence, Belfast’s “peace lines’’ are a striking symbol that deep-rooted tensions die hard. A series of mile-long barrier walls, built during the Troubles to minimize violence, the peace lines still divide pockets of Protestant and Catholic communities. They are coated with messages of hope and Scott pulled up to let us add our own. (In September the Belfast City Council revealed a new strategy to begin a gradual removal of the walls.)
Down at the Laganside waterfront, Harland & Wolff cranes, Samson and Goliath, tower over what was once the shipbuilding capital of the world. (Before World War I, Belfast’s population peaked around 400,000. It has steadily declined to its current 268,000, though it’s hoped it is leveling off. The metropolitan area is about 650,000.) Today all eyes are on the city’s Titanic Quarter. It may seem strange for a city to openly embrace its association with such an ill-fated ship, but locals are quick to offer the wry defense: “She was fine before she left.’’
Along the quay was the dazzling Titanic Belfast center. Opening in March, with an April 12 commemoration to coincide with the fateful night of the ship’s sinking, it is set to become the flagship tourist attraction. The seven-story museum, which charts all stages of the Titanic’s life, is a dramatic star-shaped design of shimmering zinc ship bows. It features a grandiose banquet hall, complete with an exact replica of the ship’s ornate staircase. Wedding bookings, they say, are already rolling in.
Belfast’s main food and culture scene centers around the ever-vibrant Cathedral Quarter, brimming with galleries, bars, and eateries. Formerly lined with linen factories and warehouses, its quaintness harks back to the industrial age, when horse-drawn carriages and laborers filled the cobbled streets. We dined at one of the district’s pioneers, Nick’s Warehouse. My coriander monkfish, with pawpaw salad followed by medallions of Fermanagh lamb and butternut puree was sublime, and a tantalizing testimony to Belfast’s slow-food movement.
As the early northern night descended, the quarter chimed with accents from across the United Kingdom (of which Northern Ireland is one of four countries) and Ireland. Like much of Ireland, Belfast’s demographic is noticeably young. This is the town after all that is headed by Lord Mayor Niall Ó Donnghaile, 25. We captured the pulse of the city at the stylish Greenroom – a retro lounge where locals drank wine to live Flamenco – and at the Belfast Spaniard, where we jived to a psychedelic ’60s set.
Traditional Irish music and smatterings of Gaelic spilled out of Fibber Magees, while the Crown Bar, with its stained glass windows and toasty snugs, made a perfect stop for a late nightcap.
We began the next morning with a traditional Ulster breakfast with scrumptious fried potato bread and a jolt of whiskey in the porridge. Afterward, the local haunt of St. George’s Market, site of a market since 1604, beckoned. Its Victorian makeover, with a red sandstone facade and ornate Roman arches, dates to 1890. As the rain came down on the glass ceilings, we ambled through a warren of antiques dealers, craft stalls, and gourmet delights, while a quintet of Dixieland jazz musicians added a soundtrack to the morning’s merriment.
Belfast and its waterfront are dominated by the Belfast Hills, a plateau of basaltic mountains steeped with legend and lore. Cave Hill, carved like a massive sleeping giant, is the vista said to have inspired Jonathan Swift to write “Gulliver’s Travels.’’ We began our ascent up the hills at Belfast Castle, a Scottish baronial fortress resplendent with manicured walled gardens and fairy-tale turrets. Through a dewy woodland trail of ferns and Irish oak, we rose past eerie caves and emerged on a grassy moorland splashed with the mauves of heather and clover to a panoramic view of the city. Beyond, Belfast Lough lapped across into the Irish Sea, the coast of Scotland visible on the horizon.
On our final night we took a tip from Scott and treated ourselves to a drink at the grande dame of Belfast’s hotels, the Merchant. In an opulent bar fusing Victorian grandeur with the city’s cosmopolitan edge, we felt lulled by Irish warmth, Ulster-Scots pride, echoes of imperial decadence, and a European joie de vivre.
Sipping my 12-year-old Bushmills malt, I suddenly realized we had never asked Scott which side of the tracks he was from. I guess we, along with Belfast, are simply moving on.
Cave Hill looks out onto all of Belfast, and on a clear day, visitors might see the Isle of Man and Scotland.
Where to stay
Great Victoria Street
Enjoy a stay in a piece of Belfast history including a full Ulster breakfast, $72 per person sharing.
Belfast Malmaison Hotel
34-38 Victoria St.
Belfast’s über-chic Gothic style hotel located in the Cathedral Quarter, $92 per person sharing.
16 Skipper St.
011-44-28-90234888www.themerchanthotel.com With Belfast hotels the UK’s best value, according to Tripadvisor, decadence at the Merchant is a bargain, $92 per person sharing.
Where to eat
7 Ascot House Shaftesbury Square
Pork belly with stir fried squid is a house special, entrees from $21.
35-39 Hill St.
Ulster fare with a quirky twist. Three-course set dinner menu from $34.
What to do
Black taxi tours
011-44-77-9860-2401Tours from $50 per hour.
Thomas Breathnach can be reached at www.thomasbreathnach.com.
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