“Belfast is a city which, while not forgetting its past, is living comfortably with its present and looking forward to its future.” – James Nesbitt
We started our walking tour at the restored Victorian St George’s indoor Market and as soon as we went through the doors I knew that I had been there before. In 2002 I attended an Environmental Health conference in Belfast and one evening there was live entertainment and a lot of drinking in this place.
It looked quite different today laid out with market stalls selling all sorts of food and traditional produce. We would have liked to have stayed and looked around but Saturday it seems is early closing and all of the stall holders were in a rush to pack up and get off home or down to the pub. The information board at the door told us that it was open again tomorrow so we were obliged to postpone our visit for twenty-four hours or so.
From the Victorian Market we made our way to the modern Victoria Square shopping centre which is much like any other UK shopping centre and sent the same sort of shivers down my spine that I get in Grimsby or Nottingham but happily we weren’t there for shopping we were there to find the steel observation tower set under a glass dome with good views across all of the city and we climbed the spiral staircase to the to the top platform for a 360° panorama of Belfast.
I might have mentioned before that I don’t really like shopping centres and arcades but this one impressed me. Not because of the merchandise but simply because it exists. Twenty years ago Belfast city centre was a soulless place with army patrols and check and search points but now it is a vibrant and colourful city centre with a healthy beating heart and shops and department stores that would never have considered locating here during the times of trouble and violence.
Getting away from the centre proved a little difficult because shops have tractor beams that draw women inside and we had to stop regularly as Kim and Pauline were unable to resist the shoes and the sparkly things in the shop windows. I am completely unable to understand the need to shop but here it was even more confusing. We were in the UK and these shops were exactly the same shops that you can see in any UK town or city so where was the need I wondered to go inside and touch things. And that is another peculiarity of shopping, women need to touch things even if they have no intention of buying them. I raised this point and asked for an explanation but all got was a ‘you wouldn’t understand’ sort of look in response. Too right I wouldn’t!
A feature of cities is that they give different areas quaint touristy names and now we made our way to the Cathedral Quarter, so named for no other reason than this is where the Cathedral is. We stepped inside but there was an admission charge of £5 so put off by this we just stayed in the entrance area and looked at the interior from a distance. This might sound a bit mean but I am always reluctant to pay to visit an Anglican Cathedral on account of the fact that they are always disappointingly dull.
Now somewhere called the Cathedral Quarter sounds as though it should be rather well worth visiting but all in all we found it a bit of a let down and then I found this on Wikipedia:
“The Cathedral Quarter is a developing area of the city. While it has considerable good attractions it is also true that its designation as a cultural quarter may easily lead to an apprehension of a busy and significantly developed cultural area, which may bring some disappointment to visitors.”
Turning back now to the City centre we did stray into one rather lively street with a courtyard of entertaining murals and a street of lively and colourful pubs; It looked like a street that was trying to become a sort of Temple Bar (Dublin) but it has to be said that it still has some way to go.
As we walked it began to get rather cloudy and soon there were spots of rain. Kim and Pauline used this as an excuse to shelter in a shop, Richard went looking for a guide book and I decided to wander back to the hotel. The weather changes quickly in Ireland however and I hadn’t gone very far when the clouds broke and the sun was poking its smiley face through again.
This conveniently coincided with my arrival at the Belfast City Hall in Donegall Square. This is without doubt the finest building in Belfast commissioned in 1888 after Queen Victoria awarded Belfast city status and as a mark of gratitude her statue stands proudly outside the main entrance.
There were no flags flying. In 2012, the City Council voted to limit the days that the Union Flag flies from City Hall to no more than eighteen designated days. Since 1906, the flag had been flown every day of the year. The move was backed by the Council’s Irish nationalist Councillors but was opposed by the unionist Councillors. On the night of the vote, unionist and loyalist protesters tried to storm City Hall and they held protests throughout Northern Ireland.
Later we met in the bar for a Guinness and a debate about where to eat. We took the word of a helpful young barman who recommended an Italian restaurant called the Cheeky Cherub which personally I didn’t think that sounded all that promising but we went there anyway and after a first class meal we all agreed that we were glad that we took that advice.
Next day we were going to see the Titanic Exhibition.