Belfast had a problem. For more than three decades stretching from the 1960s into the late ’90s, its international image was almost entirely informed by “The Troubles,” a guerrilla war of sorts, which on the surface seemed to be a quasi-religious clash between Catholics and Protestants – but was actually much more about allegiance to Ireland on one side, loyalty to Britain on another.
The conflict was immortalized, for better or worse, in mainstream films like In The Name of the Father and Patriot Games. But surely the lyrics to the Stiff Little Fingers punk classic “Alternative Ulster” most viscerally and decisively captured the reality of life in Belfast during those times.
“Take a look where you’re livin’
You got the army on the street
And the R-U-C dog of repression
Is barking at your feet
Is this the kind of place you want to live?”
It was the right question to ask, of course – and after all, punk did tend to ask the right questions.
Fast forward, and certainly the problems didn’t just magically vanish with the signing of the landmark Good Friday Agreement in 1998; but that stifling, often terrifying sense of everyday division and fear was at last very much on its way out. Now Belfast, today, is a very different place.
Two decades on from the peace accord, we checked into the sleek and shiny new AC Hotel by Marriott Belfast on a sunny Saturday morning – and just beyond its generously proportioned windows was, indeed, a new alternative. There rising up along the once derelict docklands was the visually awe-inspiring new Titanic Quarter – with its corresponding, namesake museum. Yet shipbuilding, as with Liverpool, was always very much of part of the Belfast DNA; and the same Harland and Wolff shipyard that birthed that famous trio of cruise liners – the Titanic, the Olympic and the Britannic – remains to this day.
Local firm Todd Architects was primarily responsible for the revitalization – and what they built was all very much to human scale…unlike the so many high-rise monstrosities of contemporary London and New York. Nothing along the new waterfront skyline showily attempts to make a statement of itself, something which is arguably imperative in a cityscape so bereft of skyscrapers.
And the Titanic Museum is its true point of pride (it was recently ranked with the UK’s top cultural institutions), intelligently but entertainingly telling the story of the infamously doomed ship, which was built here in 1920 and, as the history books – and James Cameron – have it, fatally made impact with a massive iceberg on its maiden voyage. It is memorialized in a way that is part melancholy, part historic pride, the presentation showing its more serious side with an exhibit on the very real perils of shipbuilding life in the early 20th Century.
Yet it is the museum’s place in the overall visual tableau of the Titanic Quarter that resonates most poignantly and proudly within Northern Ireland’s still relatively humble capital. Comprised of four epic, polished steel structures meant to mimic the hull of a ship, it rises above the River Lagan as a constant reminder that the city is evolving towards a new, more hopeful future. Titanic, indeed.
But if the museum is a window into Belfast’s history, the nearby Titanic Studios have spent the last several years decisively positioning the city within the contemporary cultural zeitgeist. Indeed, this is where much of Game of Thrones was filmed (surely one of the half dozen or so greatest television shows ever), and so here, one can rightly say that a new generation of stars was born: Sophie Turner, Kit Harington and the rest of their considerable like.
Now that it’s all done, we’re not quite sure if locals are sad to see the production go, or happy to know how much mileage they will continue to get out of it in the coming years. To wit, a Game of Thrones exhibition is currently on show at the TEC Belfast; and for the millions-strong worldwide GOT geekdom, there are all manner of entertaining tours to be booked seven days a week.
Back in the center of the city, the Cathedral Quarter is buzzing these days with indie/DIY shops, which, with their general egalitarian vibe (hipsters are kinda hippie, after all), feel very much like a positive way forward from the internecine strife that kept Belfast so isolated from the Western tourism boom of the last few decades. Usfolk is an excellent example of this, making dual purpose as an agency for illustrators, and a raw, airy gallery to exhibit their budding talents. And through their wraparound windows, the view across the surrounding rooftops is replete with just the sort of patchwork charm you’d expect of this city.
Street art – not the trendy, mercenary sort, but the genuinely ideological kind – made for a powerful voice during those years of uncertainty. Belfast, it should be said, actually boasts a tradition of murals dating back more than a century; no surprise, they were generally of the political disposition. Today, one of the most striking is Connor Harrington‘s Dance by Candlelight, a biting commentary on the decline of empires, and all the macho posturing that so obliviously carries on despite said decline. It is castigation and elegy at once, especially considering the West’s recent worrying slide into right-wing nationalism.
Artists still come from all over Europe to tag in Belfast – it’s seen as a genuine of a badge of honor.
Connor Harrington, Dance by Candlelight
One of the most vivid outgrowths of this new creative spirit is the Belfast Design Week. Launched in 2015, rather than unnecessarily rushing to evolve it into an international event, it genuinely focuses on Northern Ireland’s plentiful design talent – though it takes on issues that are certainly global in scale. This year’s edition will take place November 4 – 10 at venues around the city.
Perhaps no venture embodies Belfast’s new spirit of design innovation more than Koto, whose Theo Dales we had the chance to meet. Along with partners Johnathon and Zoe Little, they are building modular “cabins” that are inspired by the Scandinavian connection to nature – and as has become increasingly obvious, clues to a more progressive future can mostly be found in Scandinavia.
On a more sybaritic note, and surely much to the delight of many, even food has gotten a makeover in Belfast. To be sure, a traditional culture of pub food and pies is now giving way to restaurants like Hadskis, which crosses European classics with Northern Irish influence in a stylish but inviting atmosphere. Coppi, Coco and The Muddlers Club are also not to be missed by visiting epicures.
Of course, there are never good times without the bad – and Brexit, specifically the Irish Border Backstop, currently looms ominously over contemporary Northern Ireland. But still and all, if you today posed the question to the citizens of Belfast, “Is this the kind of place you want to live?,” one imagines you’d get a very different answer than when Stiff Little Fingers’ Jake Burns first so despairingly asked it.
Belfast’s hospitality development had, let’s face it, been virtually non-existent for decades. But there’s something about a great new hotel that conveys a genuine sense of optimism – if you’re building it, it’s with the expectation that people will come from all over the world to stay in it. And the AC Hotel by Marriott Belfast isn’t just a slick new property – it is veritably a window into the future of the city. Indeed, perched dramatically as it is along the River Lagan, it looks across to the gleaming new Titanic Quarter – and such are the views that on a clear day, you may find yourself unable to tear yourself away from the window.
Rooms, as is the AC signature, are warmly contemporary, with elegantly muted color schemes, handsome wood floors, luxurious kingsize beds, and floor-to-ceiling windows. Downstairs there’s an AC Fitness Room, a stylish lounge and a glorious riverside terrace. The Cathedral Quarter is just ten minutes walk away.
But perhaps most notably, the hotel has decisively joined in the local culinary revolution, with its world class eatery Novelli at City Quays. The sort of effortless-chic restaurant one might find in Marylebone or West Hollywood, it boasts massive windows, generously spaced tables, retro-modern furnishings, and a buzzy bar area.
The food, however, by Michelin-starred chef Jean-Baptiste Novelli, is nothing short of a revelation. An unpretentious, very Irish take on contemporary Mediterranean cuisine, one can start with sourie ham hock terrine or porcini crepes, and move on to a local aged beef, Belfast black and brisket pie, or duck confit with braised lentils – like dining in some mythical culinary world between Ulster County and Marseilles. A dedicated vegetarian/vegan menu proves just how far Belfast has come.