The Past Builds a New Future in Ulster; Lisa Piddington Returns to Northern Ireland - and Finds a Country Rediscovering Its Turbulent Past
Ifirst visited Belfast in the early 1990s when my partner took me for a week to visit his family and I found an oppressed city, with soldiers on the streets, armed police checks and a strong security presence in the major shopping areas.
It was a city that could not escape from The Troubles that have constantly surrounded it and its people in recent years. But even then I discovered a place that was as remarkable for all that it had achieved as it was notorious for its violence.
Today, though, there is a new Belfast emerging, one that is rising from the ashes (literally) to offer its tourists an insight into its past, as well as the traditionally warm Irish welcome. Many of the major companies have now moved in offering a finan cial commitment to peace, and, despite arriving the day of the Omagh bomb, I found a more optimistic atmosphere everywhere I visited.
One of the finest examples of this new, up and coming city is the Belfast Waterfront Hall & Conference Centre, now the jewel in Northern Ireland's entertaining crown. It first opened its doors in January 1997 and has since hosted such international star s as Kiri Te Kanawa and James Galway and marks a turning point in rejuvenation.
Belfast itself is not the largest of cities, making it ideal to discover in a few days and there are plenty of hotels offering good priced quality accommodation within walking distance of the centre.
For history lovers, the best way to start a discovery tour is on foot at the City Hall. Built in 1906 in classic Renaissance style, the Portland stone exterior conceals a sumptuous Italian marble interior. You can join free guided tours to give you even more of an insight into one of the city's most important buildings.
The Queen's University building on University Road, is well worth a visit, if not just to marvel at its stunning facade designed by Charles Lanyon. There is a visitors' centre which hosts exhibitions as well as selling memorabilia.
Five minutes walk towards the Botanic Garden is the Ulster Museum, where you can start to unravel the history of the North through displays of Irish art and archaeology, the Early Ireland Gallery and fascinating treasures from the Spanish Armada.
It would be hard to visit any great Irish city and not experience the genuine "craic", which is easy enough to stumble across, as there seem to be pubs on every corner and down every alleyway. A great place to start is the world famous Crown Liquor Salo on in Great Victoria Street, the only National Trust pub in the UK. Its the perfect place to take over one of the beautifully restored snugs and spend a few hours supping the Guinness, while admiring the stunning decor.
A walk through the centre of the city brings you to Whites Tavern. Established in 1630 it is one of Belfast's oldest pubs. Originally a bonded warehouse, it still maintains its true identity with exposed beams and rough plaster walls.
Belfast is also incredibly well situated for car tours of the North, either by choosing the main motorways that run through the country, or the beautiful coastal route that takes you on a breathtaking journey through some of the most amazing scenery in the world.
We set off from Belfast and headed over to the Enniskillen, nestling between two lochs in the picturesque county of Fermanagh just over 80 miles away. Sadly, this small market town, like its neighbouring Omagh, is now more famous for the tragedy of rece nt years. However, the people of Northern Ireland are renowned for being tough and resourceful and continue life as normal and a warm welcome is always assured.
From Enniskillen, it is just a half hour drive to the southern counties of Sligo and Donegal, both of which offer superb beaches (the great thing about the Irish weather means beaches are often deserted) as well as bustling county towns.
However, we set off north again, through Donegal, and back across the border to Derry - or Londonderry, depending on who you are talking to. …