Monday, July 03, 2006

On Belfast

She is handsome, she is pretty, she is the belle of Belfast city...

That song will forever bring a smile to my face following my weekend in Belfast, where, though there are indeed many beautiful women to be seen, they are vastly outnumbered by morbidly obese, tattooed mamas with growly tobacco-stained voices, getting stuck into a huge mountain of salty chips and fried potato bread at Blinkers. Mmmm!

Comedy aside, though, my impressions of the city were really very positive. This wasn't the first visit I'd made - boyfriend issues have made this my third trip in less than a year to the "Hibernian Rio" that is Belfast. It was, however, the first time I had been during the summer, and to my mind, that made all the difference. Without being too simplistic (well, maybe just a little), I think there's a real sense of optimism and hope for the future in Belfast at the moment, and it's being expressed in ways that you don't tend to hear about in the usual Peace Process-type news coverage, especially on the BBC.

Yes, there are abandoned old eyesore office blocks and student halls that dot the city centre, waiting to be pulled down. But there are also fancy new restaurants, caf├ęs and shops opening at every corner. We in London like to gripe about the evils of "gentrification", but the fact that entrepreneurs are deciding that it's worth investing in real estate in a city that still boasted "Europe's most bombed hotel" just over a decade ago can surely only be a good thing.

Another sign of change is the type of restaurants that are opening. Thai, sushi, curry, tapas... In many cases there is only one example of these eateries in the entire city, and they've obviously only been there for a couple of years at most. For a city that's not exactly renowned for the adventurousness of its cuisine, it's a sign of things to come and, hopefully, an indication that Belfast's cultural isolation from the outside world is slowly dissipating.

There was a big festival being held down by Clarendon Docks over the weekend as well, with a fleet of tall ships celebrating the city's maritime history. Local music, imported beers, an international food market and, err, a rockabilly club night combined to make a fun and memorable weekend, and the good weather meant that I am now sporting a shocking sunburn. The point is, the locals that I spoke to all told me the same thing: "This would never have happened a few years ago." Especially so close to 12 July, presumably.

Now before I get a load of cynics writing in and telling me that a couple of new shops and an open-air festival don't equate to an end to the violence and troubles of Belfast, let me reassure you that I'm not suggesting they are. Gang violence and murders, cheek-by-jowl territorialism, drug trafficking, racism, bitter resentment and all sorts of atrocities that I, as an outsider, will probably never see, are all still there, and aren't going to disappear in a hurry. All I'm saying is, outside perceptions of the city are starting to change for the better, and that can only be because, no matter how halting the progress, Belfast is starting to define itself as more than just a backdrop to the Northern Ireland conflict.

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