To kick off our travel for less special, Kirstin Innes visits Belfast and discovers an exciting, invigorating city which is full of contradictions
St George’s Market on a Saturday morning. High, tented ceilings filling up with barbeque smoke; cheerful art graduates selling hand-printed T-shirts side by side with grumpy, knowledgeable fishmongers and cheese merchants; stalls offering gourmet olive oils, costume jewellery and bric a brac. An old man with one arm is growling the blues into a microphone near the centre of the hubbub. He does short bursts on the trombone, too, somehow playing with his good arm, and the people around heckle him, friendly-like.
We’ll spend most of the rest of the weekend saying how much Belfast reminds us of Glasgow; the beautiful, scorched post-industrial Victorian buildings, the way manicured, glossy style bars and designer shops sit alongside burnt-out arcades and remnants of hardship, the gallus, survivalist friendliness of the people. But there are times during our visit when the whole city comes into much sharper focus than even our hometown, charged through with life-force. St George’s Market, which has been running for over a century, long before the Troubles, is as good an introduction as you can get to the exhilarating patchwork that makes up modern Belfast: a half-hour, £30 flight away, with strange similarities to Scotland that make the huge historic and social differences seem that much more uncanny.
We’re staying in Ten Square, the city’s top boutique hotel, glamorous, celebrity-studded and one of moneyed Belfast’s top night spots; on the same street as St George’s Market but a whole world away from that cosy, foodie chaos. One of the great things about staying so centrally is that everything is within immediate walking distance. The big brands are all in place in the city centre, but we find a proliferation of funky little clothes shops and secondhand book and record shops tucked into arcades, too. The independent spirit seems important here: even in our thorough scouring of the streets we don’t pass a single Starbucks.
The Cathedral Quarter is the cultural heart of the city these days: a network of old buildings with new arts venues inside them, excellent, unpretentious cafés and hip bars bubbling over with excited chatter and music at night. It currently plays host to two multi-arts festivals: Out To Lunch in January, and the upcoming, much bigger Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival (1-11 May, www.cqaf.com), which involves over 140 theatre, literature, comedy, live music and visual art events. This year, Germaine Greer, Colm Tóibín, Brendon Burns, Andrew Maxwell, The Fall and Sinead O’Connor are all taking part, alongside younger, emergent and often local acts. It’s all centred around the Black Box, a new venue rather like Glasgow’s Arches crossed with Edinburgh’s Forest Café, which we’ll witness filling up with hip hop kids and sensitive-looking poetic types awaiting Scroobius Pip.
There’s another district, of course, which has had much greater, longer lasting impact on the feel of the city. The West Belfast area has been safe for tourists since the Good Friday agreements, but the paint’s still fresh on murals daubing the houses on both the Falls (Republican) and Shankhill (Loyalist) Roads, frighteningly close to each other.
We start off driving down the Falls Road, where romantic political murals express sympathy with Tibet, Cuba and Catalonia; where shamrocks wreath dreamy-eyed portraits of local heroes like Bobby Sands and the hunger strikers. It’s a Sunday and the roads are quiet, most of the traffic coming from the Black Cab Tours of the murals. Two girls, up on a hill, wrap their arms round each other and pose for smiling photos by the back of a house emblazoned with a revolver.
Hugh Rice, our softly-spoken tour guide, doesn’t even need to tell us that we’ve entered the Loyalist area. The colours of the murals change immediately, from green to red, white, blue and flinty, chilling, balaclava-clad portraits with menacing grins. Hugh remains carefully neutral throughout our trip. He only reveals when he’s about to drop us off at one of the many hostelries claiming to be ‘Belfast’s oldest and most historic pub’ that he spent 35 years teaching at St Catherine’s School on the Falls Road; that he taught two of the hunger strikers personally. It’s a jolt, realising just how close to the surface the scars and huge wells of hurt are in this city.
Our last point of call is Skibunny (www.skibunnyclub.co.uk), an indie-electronica night run by DJs Mark and Tanya (former Edinburgh University students), and one of the coolest clubs in the city. This is the new, Belfast, edgy and optimistic – the tiny upstairs room of the live music pub Aunt Annie’s is packed out, and there’s an excited, sweaty, achingly cool atmosphere, despite Optimo’s Twitch and Wilkes having done something similar at rival club Stiff Kitten just the night before.
Flybe (flybe.com) offer direct flights from both Edinburgh and Glasgow to Belfast City Airport (a ten-minute taxi ride from the city centre) from £29.99 including tax.
Where to stay
Ten Square, right behind City Hall, does the lap of luxury very well indeed. Rooms start at £170 bed and breakfast, based on two people sharing (www.tensquare.co.uk). The Pearl Court Guest House in the University Quarter does B&B from £60 for a double room. (www.pearlcourt.com)
Where to eat & drink
The community-run John Hewitt Bar in the Cathedral Quarter does excellent, unusual and cheap cooking in a comfy, traditional pub setting (www.thejohnhewitt.com). Just down the road, the Spaniard’s Bar is a tiny, hip tapas bar and bolthole, although it gets packed out at weekends (www.thespaniardbar.com)
Where to shop
Belfast is a great place for independent shopping. St George’s Market on May Street runs on Saturdays, the legendary Smithfield Market (Winetavern Street) is a treasure trove of locally-run curio shops, and Liberty Blue (myspace.com/libertyblue) is brilliant for unpretentious but cool frocks at cheaper-than-high street prices.
Find out more
The Belfast Welcome Centre at 47 Donegall Place, just north of City Hall, provides far more information than your average tourist office. Black Cab Tours of the murals can be booked there. Hugh Rice is an excellent, knowledgeable, registered Blue Badge Tour Guide, who offers tours of the entire city, including the University and Titanic Quarters as well as the Falls and Shankhill Roads. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org