Magazine article The Spectator

No More Troubles

Magazine article The Spectator

No More Troubles

Article excerpt

Thirty years ago Belfast was about as appealing a destination as Kabul or Baghdad are today. Growing up there at the time, we witnessed thousands of troops and armed police on the streets.

Rigorous security checks were held right across the city centre. Bombings and shootings were an almost daily occurrence.

But since the triumph of the peace process, Belfast has been transformed. No longer a pinched, gloomy, bullet-scarred place, it is now one of the most vibrant cities in the British Isles, full of great restaurants, shops, art galleries and entertainment. In recent years, because of research for various books, I have had to travel a great deal around the north and Midlands of England, staying in most of the big industrial conurbations like Manchester, Bradford, Liverpool and Birmingham. Superficially, these might appear to be similar red-brick, Victorian provincial centres to Belfast, but I find Northern Ireland's capital far more attractive.

Now some might say that I am biased, since Belfast is my native town. But that could hardly be less true. In fact, throughout my childhood I loathed the place and was desperate to leave. It always seemed so drab, so pulled down by bigotry and fear, so lacking in anything of real interest beyond the Troubles.

But on my recent visits back there, I feel as if a miracle has been worked. Dripping with restaurants, brasseries, cafés, nightclubs and chic stores, the city now sparkles with a liveliness and sense of affluence that exceed anything I have found in the north of England.

In my experience, it is more enjoyable to eat out in Belfast than in Provence. That might seem a laughable statement, but I can honestly say that, in the last couple of years, I have had finer cuisine in Ulster than anything in Avignon. Deane's restaurant, right in the centre beside the vast edifice of the City Hall, is a particularly good example of the way Belfast has improved so dramatically, as is the very popular Nick's in the Cathedral quarter nearby, while Roscoff, run by Paul Rankin, has built a deserved international reputation. In the same way, Belfast has a richer contemporary arts scene than many other British cities, epitomised by the achingly fashionable Ormeau Baths Gallery housed in a former Victorian bathhouse.

As befits its growing popularity, Belfast now has an ever-growing number of excellent hotels, like the five-star Culloden, a majestic Gothic edifice with dramatic views of Belfast Lough, or the ultra-chic modernist Ten Square in the centre of the city. There are also more big concert venues than there were in the dark day of the Troubles, including the circular, glass-fronted Waterfront Hall and the vast Odyssey Arena. …

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