City where they built the Titanic rises again

Northern Ireland could never gloss over its tragic past, but it’s becoming increasingly, and reassuringly clear, that the peace between once-warring communities is lasting, and will last. Belfast is a city which was once a byword for strife. Today it feels feels bright and renewed, with new city centre attractions and a regenerated industrial district. I found it a rewarding short break destination, where a resilient people are stressing the positive.

In most cities in the world one of the last places where you would look for a significant historical statement, some words to say a terrible time may be over, is a covered shopping mall.
There are two amazing names on the plaque marking the opening of the city centre Victoria Square shopping complex, a soaring new retail space, full of light and moving stairways and the usual big name stores. Normally a minor royal or dull civic worthy does the deed. But, incongruous and remarkable, I saw it was Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, once deep political enemies, who jointly cut the ribbon.
Shopping is playing a key role in rebuilding this ravaged city. Another symbol of the recovery is remarkable city centre hotel. It’s not technically correct to describe the Europa is a sanctuary during the Troubles. Even when the world’s press were based here, this city centre hotel was regularly bombed. It has now been refurbished as a stylish city centre haven. (Its sister hotel, where I stayed, is the Culloden, a 20 minute train ride in the country north-east of the city. I’m coming to that later.)
Belfast’s is an easy enough city centre to see on foot. I slipped easily between the eras in the course of a short stroll. In Great Victoria Street, directly opposite the Europa, and next to the ornate Grand Opera House, is a little gem of a pub, the National Trust’s Crown Liquor Saloon. This Victorian gin palace is all scalloped gas lights, gleaming brass work, coloured glass and cosy snugs.
100 years ago Belfast, in its city centre buildings, was every bit as grand and distinguished as the great Victorian cities of mainland Britain, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds. Today the chief legacy of that age of late Victorian pride is the monumental City Hall.
To the east of the city, past that big confident post-Troubles statement, Waterfront Hall, busy with conferences and concerts, is a piece of history with which I’m not so sure Belfast would like its name to be associated, even though it is good for business (and it is no reflection on the city’s craftsmen).
The Titanic, “the new wonder of the world,” the most luxurious ship in the world until that date, was completed here in the former Harland and Wolff shipyards between 1909 and 1911. It seemed fitting to commemorate the people who died on this leviathan with a huge empty space, where the great doomed liner once stood.
She exactly fitted the empty dry dock which you are allowed to walk past. It is a respectful negative: you contemplate two of the dimensions of something that is not there. (In a way I prefer it to the Belfast Titanic complex which opens shortly. The building will house nine galleries with interactive exhibitions, including recreations of the ship’s decks and cabins.)
After that the city is entitled to celebrate triumphs before, and after, the tragedy. Many more great liners, such as the Britannic and the Olympic, were launched from these yards. Newest old vessels include the SS Nomadic, the White Star Line’s last surviving ship of that time. The monster cranes Samson and Goliath stand as powerful symbols of the city maritime heritage.
It’s a 10 minute walk from the city centre to the neat streets and quiet parks of the Queen’s University district, with its lively supporting cast of restaurants and cafes. I found here a shining example of a new museum that manages to make history fun and even exciting.
The main purpose of the bold and sparkling Ulster Museum (free entry) seems to be to entertain while it informs. Walking through the door, the visitor is treated to a four-storey overview. A great steel and glass display tower “Window on our World” rises high into the atrium, scattered with random wonders. I wrote down: 1908 Chambers Car, Ireland’s most complete dinosaur fossil, Viking brooches, gold coins from the Spanish Amada, a Solomon Islands canoe, and Alex McQueen’s Hummingbird Dress. They have certainly managed to take the dull out of the old. And there’s a fresh air bonus: the Botanical Gardens are right next door.
The city does not try to draw a veil over its violent past. The Ulster Museum gives a frank and honest overview of Ulster’s history, including The Troubles, the frightful 1963-1985 period of sectarian strife.
Our guide on the open top bus tour did more in an hour than multiple news reports down the years to explain the great damage 300 years of hatred actually wreaked on Belfast. He gave an excellent, and impartial commentary as we weaved around the key locations, from the outrageous excess of Stormont Castle, set imperiously on the hill above the city, to the tragic Falls Road and Shankill Road, still divided by an enormous wall, on which world leaders write prayers of peace. The rival murals celebrating figures in the struggle are both moving and terrifying for the passions they betray. Then the bus pulls on to sedate Victorian streets that could be anywhere in Britain. Another way to understand the city’s troubled past is on a personalized tour in a black cab.
I stayed at the five-star Culloden hotel, a great slab of stone-built Victorian elegance high and peaceful in sloping parkland six miles out of town, overlooking Belfast Lough, a five minute taxi ride from George Best Airport. With an excellent restaurant, spa and swimming pool (nearby are two golf courses and Holywood village and the County Antrim coastline) it’s the very model of the genteel and spacious country hotel.

Join Directory of Destinations on Facebook
Follow Directory of Destinations on Twitter