Despite growing up not three hours from Belfast, it was never a city I had thought to explore. I thought of it as dreary, if I’m honest. Dreary and rough. The kind of city where the wrong accent in the wrong bar garners a cold stare at best. My dad said it was dangerous. My mum said it was depressing. My granny, tongue loosened by a flurry of white wine spritzers, said it was something much worse. I had been living in Scotland for 7 years before news of an alternative Belfast began to reach my ears. The art scene is thriving. The history is fascinating. The place has guts, grit and even glamour. It appeared I’d been working off old information and I harboured a sneaking suspicion that I may have missed a trick. In a perfect confluence of events it was around this time that my boyfriend lost his passport the day before he had planned to take me to Paris. Keen to avoid a meltdown he hastily searched for a stopgap city where I might want to go and to which he could travel on a driving license. Belfast it was.
‘Is this a bad neighbourhood, are there BOMBS here?’ We are on an open bus tour and the Canadian group to our right has some important questions to ask. ‘It’s all in our past, it’s all in our past, this is the new Belfast!’ comes the harried response from our guide as she waves her hands around in a frantic motion with which one could literally paper over a crack. Three minutes later we drive past a newly burnt out car. ‘All in your PAST’ exclaims the Canadian, his lungs filling with metal scented smoke, ‘Jesus CHRIST’. While I felt he was being a touch too hysterical the truth was that this sanitised, hand wringing tour was getting on my nerves too. The city has a 40ft high peace wall running through it. A peace wall that a reported 69% of current residents deem necessary. Clearly there are still tensions at play. The supplied history of The Troubles felt equally mimsy, delivered along the lines of ‘the Catholics felt oppressed, the Protestants felt loyal to the Crown, strife ensued but now we’re all friends’. If I wanted harsh realities I was going to have to go elsewhere.
Coiste Tours offers a walking tour of the Falls Road led by former political prisoners from the Republican community. From the moment I meet our guide (who I will refer to as Barry) it’s clear this tour will be the polar opposite of the bland, unbiased bus tour of the day before; he is shockingly open in the answering of questions and the telling of stories. I ask how long he had been in prison. ’12 years’. What were you convicted of? ‘Planting a bomb and conspiracy to commit terrorism’. Where did the IRA get their weapons? ‘Gaddafi’. Where else? ‘Smuggled from New York on the QE2’. Where did you learn to speak as Gaeilge? ‘Prison’. Do you support the New IRA? ‘No’. We walk for hours amongst the ghosts of the past, listening to Barry and his version of history. He talks about the beginnings of the Provisional IRA movement and how it has splintered. He discusses the Real IRA and New IRA groups that are still active, formed by those who opposed the Good Friday Agreement. I haven’t been on a tour this unabashedly biased since a tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels in Vietnam that concluded with a mandatory standing ovation to honour the Vietnamese soldiers who had killed the most Americans – ‘get on your feet, get on your FEET’ (spoiler, the Americans on the tour were displeased). I ask Barry if my English boyfriend is considered unwelcome on this side. ‘Him? Unwelcome? You’re more likely to be unwelcome on the other side with a strong Southern accent than he would be here. Unwelcome indeed!’ As we walk it becomes clear that Barry is something of a bigwig on this side of the wall. People stop to chat, to shake his hand, to ask him questions about the community initiatives that he is now heavily involved with. While never articulated, the sense is that to these people, Barry is not an ex-convict who served over a decade of hard time on a bomb related offence, he is a hero.
As soon as the tour ends we begin another on the Shankill Road. Our guide on this side is a little less open than Barry. He is more guarded and so there is less to expand on, but suffice it say he wholeheartedly believes in a completely different version of events. To those on this side of the wall, Barry and his ilk are the terrorists who subjected their community to unspeakable acts of violence. Far from fighting for the people, they believe that their actions hamstrung Northern Ireland to such a degree that it is only beginning to recover. I ask him the reverse question that I asked Barry, is there anywhere on this side of the wall that I might be unwelcome? He says no, definitely not, but that if I went wandering on the other side with an Englishman ‘I’d want my head examined’. Right. To give a personal opinion regarding the subject matter of these tours is not my place. I’m not a historian. I’m not a political analyst. I’m not Northern Irish. What I will say is that these tours were two of the most interesting that I have been on anywhere in the world and it’s vital when in Belfast to experience both, regardless of political leaning. The tours are so personal and so emotive that to do one would be hopelessly unbalanced.
After so many hours of walking my brain is mush and my ankles are balloons. It is back to The Fitzwillliam for a rest before a more lighthearted exploration of what Belfast has to offer. When in the market for a cocktail, the Linen Quarter should be the first port of call. Sweet Afton and Rita’s are fun and stylish bars with custom menus located on the same block with The Perch, a visually stunning roof top bar accessed by elevator and accessorised with birdsong, situated on top. It was here, in this extremely beautiful bar, that we first notice something unusual; Belfast venues are extremely reluctant to run a tab. It is standard practice in bars and cafes for anything ordered to be paid for before being served. This feels very odd especially in the fancier, higher end venues with table service but it’s more or less the case across the board. For the sake of tradition at least one drink should be had around the corner within etched glass windows and marble pillars of the Crown Liquor Saloon, a Victorian Gin Palace with more carved mahogany and original tile than you can shake a stick at. Muriel’s Cafe Bar is a must for gin and The Hudson Bar plays host a startling range of music acts, as does Vandal. To round it out the traditional live music pubs of Commercial Court alley are always a good time.
Food in Belfast is a little trickier. The quest for a decent brunch went ultimately unfulfilled. For lunch I like Made In Belfast. For dinner I like Hadskis and The Muddlers Club. For something more casual I like beer and wings at The Yardbird. There is an Avoca on Arthur Street. Cafe Vaudeville is widely recommended but I’m not sure why. Yes the venue is beautiful and truly Parisian with full sized palm trees and baroque furnishings but the coffee is noticeably overpriced and tastes like scorched dirt. I asked if maybe the coffee was burnt but was told with a cold look and a curled lip that ‘no, that’s just how we do it here’. To call a spade a spade, much of the coffee that I had in Belfast was lacklustre. That is, with the notable of exceptions of Established Coffee and Town Sq. both of which I would highly recommend. There is also a cafe at The Mac, an art hub, gig space and exhibition centre in the Cathedral Quarter. Also in this area is Black Box, an arts venue described as ‘a home for live music, theatre, literature, comedy, film, visual art, live art, circus, cabaret and all points in between’.
I spent four nights in the city and, although I enjoyed it, I would say that two nights is the perfect amount of time for a visitor to cut through the mediocre and experience the best of what is on offer. What’s unusual about Belfast is that, despite the extensive regeneration, it is a not city that attempts to hide it’s history. Through the murals and the flags and the barb-topped fences, the legacy of the Troubles is very much out in the open. The fancy cocktail bars and hipster restaurants that often blanket over the heart a gentrified city have rather mushroomed up instead. The past and the present sit side and by side in Belfast and that makes it a very interesting place to be.