BelfastWords Richard Cooke
Photography Sam Stowell
The thing about Belfast is that you’ve been there before. You’ve been there before the way you’ve been to New York or Paris or Las Vegas before, because you’ve seen it on screen so many times, except instead of seeing it in the movies you’ve seen it on the news, and instead of familiar brownstones or avenues of neon, the déjà vu comes from streets of smoke-coloured terraces, murals of militants and grim stretches of wall called the Peace Lines, their appearance as ugly as their purpose. Names like Shankill, Falls Road and Ardoyne are known to everyone old enough to watch the news, names that are only ever a few words away from a phrase like ‘flare ups in sectarian violence’.
It’s been that way for as long as anyone can remember, but those places make the news less often now, and at least one of those phrases – ‘shaky ceasefire’ – is half out of date. It’s no longer shaky, and to a visitor, the ‘as seen on TV’ view of Belfast looks more and more like history, even from the streets of the city itself. Around it is the Belfast you haven’t seen before, one of the safest cities in the world, where the same instincts of community, passion and energy that caused so much havoc in war are proving just as powerful in peacetime, cluttering the sky with cranes, pushing happy throngs to the pubs, firing a culinary revival and driving a sudden flush of development that is even starting to push against the Peace Lines.
“It might seem hard to believe, but even when the Troubles were at their worst, this was still a friendly place,” says Hugh Rice, a schoolteacher turned guide who tells us how much the place has changed, with a tone that shows he can hardly fathom it himself. That Belfast stayed friendly at its worst is only hard to believe for someone who hasn’t been in town long; the hospitality here runs so deep it can’t be new. A visitor striking up a conversation in a warm pub (there are few anywhere better than the iron-shaped Bittle’s Bar) will soon have the good company of more than one stranger.
Even mentioning you’re “a visitor to Belfast” shows how different things are now. Not long ago there were none, or at least no tourists. That era’s only real hotel, the Europa, still stands near the city centre, and as we drive past Hugh slows to take in the façade, which looks a little weary. “It was bombed 39 times,” he says. “They’ll tell you it was only bombed three times, but that’s not counting the ones that went off outside.” In the old Belfast, getting bombed three times was the good version. There’s one obvious form of faith the new buildings are showing in the peace process: huge sheets of glass.
Nowhere does the glass gleam brighter than the city’s Titanic Quarter, an unlikely name for a region of restored fortunes. It was here that the dry docks of the famous Harland & Wolff birthed the ill-starred ship. When it sank poor old Belfast took the blame (it was incorrectly thought shoddy workmanship had weakened the hull) and for decades it left a stain on the city that wouldn’t shift. Now Titanic Tours boats cruise the River Lagan showing tourists still high on the film version where she was built. The billions of pounds worth of businesses, apartments and entertainment beginning to cluster around the area reflect the ship in their architecture, curving like a stern or thinning to a keel point; one building even stands at the same height the Titanic did when it was in the water. There’s a quiet pride in the construction feat, and the shame has given way to a different sentiment: “she was alright when she left here.”
On the other bank of the Lagan there’s a sculpture marking the peace process, a lacy, silver woman, officially called the Ring of Thanksgiving, but known to citysiders as the Thing with the Ring, the Nuala with the Hula, or the Doll on the Ball. There’s an ambivalence about official attempts to mark the peace, like the Spire of Hope that rises out of Belfast Cathedral, an aluminium needle against the sky.
“The Hope Spire,” says Hugh, as we look up at it from the quiet of the cathedral. “I was hoping someone would take it away.” The sculpture everyone seems to like is known locally as the Big Fish, a 10-metre-long blue, ceramic salmon, celebrating the return of the species to the newly clean river.
Fish is the key ingredient in what some people call Belfast’s culinary revival, although there’s not a lot of evidence there was much to revive. The good food comes from fine local produce, and a rivalry between chefs who know what to do with it – Michael Deane and Paul Rankin. Their flagship restaurants, Deanes (which has a Michelin star) and Cayenne, have set a standard that filters down to more modest restaurants, cafés and even a pub like the John Hewitt Bar, where herring can come straight from the dock to plate via the kitchen, not even making it onto the specials menu. Champ, the Irish mash of potatoes, spring onions, milk and cream, is the perfect side.
After dinner, the city centre can go quiet, a legacy of the bad old days, when a security perimeter called the ‘ring of steel’ locked down the area around the City Hall throughout the night. Drinking is done in the Cathedral Quarter, still accompanied by traditional, raucous Irish music. A congregation of musicians that rambles through the town snowballs as it picks up members, before ending up at Maddens. Tonight, they’ve been joined by a Gaelic choir, and the bouncer is having a tough time closing the place. “All right. This is definitely it. Last drinks. That’s it. No more,” says the bald-headed bloke, but he’s definitely getting drowned out by another wave of singing in Irish, and his authority face breaks down completely into a smile when a couple of lasses wrap their arms around him.
We wind up at a house party with the choir on the Lisburn Road, where the conversation is in Irish and everyone knows the words to the jigs and reels. I have a crash course in playing a traditional drum, the bodhrán, which is thrummed with a small stick. My lesson in the wristy technique starts with “Now imagine yer a thorteen-year-old boy...” and goes a long way to explaining why most bodhrán players are men. They suffer from the same jokes drummers do elsewhere in the world:
“A guy goes into a pub with a big bag, and orders a Guinness. This being Belfast, the barman is immediately suspicious, and asks him what’s in the bag. ‘Oh nothing,’ the man replies. ‘Just dynamite and some fuses.’ ‘Thank God,’ says the barman. “I thought it was a bodhrán.’”
At two in the morning there’s a loud hammering on the wall, which sounds like a complaint about the bodhrán playing. But this being Belfast, it turns out to be just more people wanting to be let inside to join in the party.
EAT & DRINK
Deanes 36–40 Howard St; 028 9056 0000. The flagship restaurant of a cuisine fiefdom that extends to a deli, a bistro and a bar and grill, Deanes has earned every point of its Michelin star. A menu starring local produce melds perfectly with an excellent wine list and cheese of rare quality.
Cayenne 7 Ascot House, Shaftesbury Square; 028 9033 1532. Paul Rankin (who earned a Michelin star, Belfast’s first, at Roscoff) draws on a wide variety of international influences without ever losing his assured aim: simple food, great ingredients, perfectly cooked.
The Ginger Bistro 7 Hope Street; 0871 426 7885. Dishes featuring local produce, south-east Asian flavours, the pie with parsnip chips and a side-helping of tunes attract Belfast’s urbanites to this relaxed bistro.
James Street South 21 James Street; 028 9043 4310. Niall McKenna’s innovative cuisine balances local ingredients with flavours sourced from around the globe. One of Belfast’s many restaurants with a strong wine list.
Made In Belfast Units 1 & 2 Wellington Buildings, Wellington Street; 028 9024 6712. A ‘restolounge’ that serves up the finest in organic, seasonal and local food; simple, well-portioned rustic favourites with a twist. It’s packed at the most unlikely times, the crowds drawn by the food and flair of the place.
Mourne Seafood Bar 34-36 Bank St; 028 9024 8544. Hearty portions of herring, cod, hake and other favourites, as well as local shellfish. It’s hard to find fish done this simply, this well, anywhere.
The John Hewitt Bar and Restaurant 51 Donegall Street; 028 9023 3768. Not-for-profit alehouse, named after a poet who’d have sung the praises of its fare, centred around fish so fresh it practically flaps on the plate.
The Bar at The Merchant Hotel 35–39 Waring St; 028 9023 4888. Chief among this hotel’s pantheon of world-beating drinking holes, the Merchant’s cocktail bar is an altar to drink. It’s not just the Victorian interior and vintage Baccarat chandeliers that are antique: the drinks list (or Book, as it’s called here) boasts ancient spirits like Bacardi from the 1920s. Those pushing the boat out won’t find a better place to launch than the ‘platinum’ section of the menu, featuring the self-styled World’s Most Expensive Cocktail, a £750 Mai Tai poured from one of the world’s only bottles of Wray & Nephew 17-year-old rum. No surprise it’s regularly shortlisted for ‘best drinks selection’ type awards. Also, don’t miss the Cloth Ear bar on the corner – it’s the hotel’s very own pub with traditional bar food and specialty beers.
Bittle’s Bar 70 Upper Church Lane; 028 9031 1088. Flat-iron shaped watering hole that specialises in warmth, whiskey and oddball paintings of figures from Irish life and letters.
Maddens 74 Berry St; 028 9024 4114. The singing Irish heart of musical Belfast, Maddens attracts a moveable feast of players and singers by the late evening. It’s a little rough around the edges, but that only adds to the character.
Kelly’s Cellars 30–32 Bank St; 028 9024 6058. Ancient cellars where drinkers throng under a canopy of copper kettles and enamel jugs. Visitors should expect plenty of song and sentiment (and some of that sentiment is Republican).
Muriel’s Cafe Bar 12-14 Church Lane; 028 9033 2445. Don’t be confused by the lines of ladies’ smalls adorning the ceiling – this den of decadence is just paying dues to its heritage as a house of ill-repute. Now it has a reputation as one of the best small bars in Belfast.
The Crown Liquor Saloon 46 Great Victoria Street; 028 9024 3187. The magnificent mirrors, lavish tiling and beautiful booths give this place an enchanted feel – so does the fact it survived 42 bombing attempts. Enjoy a peaceful drink on a sunny afternoon, if Belfast’s mercurial weather allows.
Kremlin 96 Donegall St; 028 9031 6060. Soviet-themed gay bar that threatens world (well, Irish at least) domination of the gay scene. Its loyal followers are attracted to the cocktails, its eclectic music mix and the clientele.
Merchant Hotel 35–39 Waring St; 028 9023 4888. Alabaster angels, gilt domes and stained glass accent this multi-million pound refurbishment. A piano in the lounge, one of the best cocktail bars in the world, and that’s before we’ve even talked about the afternoon teas…
Fitzwilliam Hotel Great Victoria St; 028 9044 2080. Squeezed in next to the opera house (where Pavarotti got his big break), this gem of a modern hotel is spacious, opulent and perfectly appointed; modern enough to make you feel indulged, friendly enough to make you feel at home.
Europa Hotel Great Victoria Street; 028 90271066. Thankfully, staying at the world’s most bombed hotel has never been so comfortable. The Europa boasts attentive staff and a location just steps from the centre of town.
Belfast Castle Antrim Rd, County Antrim; 028 9077 6925. Eccentric castle rebuilt after the original burned down in the 18th century. Looks out over the city and the lough, while nearby Cave Hill recalls a giant’s face against the skyline and helped inspire Jonathan Swift to write Gulliver’s Travels. A quirky treasure hunt invites you to find the nine cats in various forms (from topiary to mosaic) that are hidden around the Castle’s gardens.
Belfast Cathedral Donegall St; 028 9032 8332. In one of the areas heaviest hit by the Blitz (Belfast had no air defences), Belfast Cathedral was almost destroyed, and the restoration work was hampered by the Troubles. Finally in one piece after the Spire of Hope was added in 2007.
Belfast City Hall and the Belfast Wheel Donegall Square; 028 9032 0202, 028 9031 0607. While the stately baroque revival City Hall, hewn from Portland stone, imposes itself on the city, a junior version of the London Eye tries to imposes itself on the hall itself. During the day, the wheel might as well be called the Belfast Eyesore; at night, though, the two somehow look just right next to each other. Climb on board for views to the coast and beyond.
Titanic Tours 48 St John’s Close, 2 Laganbank Road; 028 9033 0844. It might have said Liverpool on the tin, but the great ship Titanic was born and built in Belfast. Sail aboard a more sturdy vessel, and see the famous Harland & Wolff dry docks, as well as the water where the liner first floated on the Lagan.
Crumlin Road Gaol 114 Malone Avenue; 028 9024 6609. Once one of the most notorious prisons in the world, Crumlin Road Gaol housed both Loyalist and Republican paramilitaries. Linked to the derelict courthouse over the road by a tunnel, it’s one of the most fascinating and brutal remnants of Northern Ireland’s troubled recent history.
St George’s Market 12–20 East Bridge Street; 028 9032 0202. One of Belfast’s oldest attractions, built between 1890 and 1896. The market takes place every Saturday from 9am until 3pm, everything from hot-housed meats, to local game, and incredible range of Irish cheeses, including Drumkeel, which arrives shaped like one of the Giant’s Causeway stones.
Visit the tourist board’s website, discoverireland.com, or call them on 0808 234 2009.