Travel review: Belfast - Tourist? No Troubles

Belfast is a city that has reinvented itself with impressive optimism.
Belfast is a city that has reinvented itself with impressive optimism.
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Jill Turton discovers how modern Belfast has built a cultural and gastronomic excellence to make it a real visitor destination.

The last time I stayed at the Europa Hotel there were security men on the door who gave you a mirror on a stick to check beneath your car for bombs. This was in the early 80s when the Europa was the hotel of choice for journalists during the Troubles and had the dubious reputation of being the most bombed hotel in Europe.

In those dark times Belfast city centre was surrounded by a ring of steel with security turnstiles at every entrance. At night it was in lock-down. There wasn’t much in the way of restaurants so we made for the handsome Crown Liquor Saloon opposite the hotel with its beautiful ornate tiles, stained glass and wood-panelled booths. It was then, and still is, one of the loveliest pubs in Belfast. Today it is in the care of the National Trust and is an unmissable part of a visit to Belfast.

Belfast – tourist town – who’d have thought it? But with the peace has come a major transformation – arts, heritage, culture, great food and drink and the legendary Europa now elegantly restored. Belfast is a city that has reinvented itself with impressive optimism.

That optimism is amply illustrated by the must-have building that any regenerated city worth its name has to have, think Gateshead’s Baltic or Bilbao’s Guggenheim. Titanic Belfast is the £77m, glittering, silver Leviathan rising from the old Harland & Wolff shipyard where the original RMS Titanic was built.

Completed in 2012, this state-of-the-art visitor attraction is designed to represent four gigantic ships hulls, each bow rising 90ft, the exact height of the original Titanic. It contains nine galleries that take visitors from bustling 1900s Belfast to the building, launch, fit-out and fateful maiden voyage.

As well as an extravagant building, a renaissance city needs an exciting local food culture, but when the only traditional dish of note to come out of Belfast was the Ulster Fry, a loaded fry-up of eggs, bacon, sausage, tomato, beans, potato farls and soda bread and anything else that would fit on the plate, there was some way to go. “It’s no wonder,” remarked one of our Blue Badge Guides, “the portable defibrillator was invented here.”

These days though, there’s so much more to celebrate. The city’s food renaissance really began in 1989 when Paul Rankin of Ready Steady Cook fame, opened his restaurant, Roscoff. In those troubled days people ate out at lunchtime but few ventured into the city centre at night. Nor was local or seasonal produce much on anyone’s radar, farmers and growers kept on doing what they’d always done, and chefs had fancy produce flown in from Paris.

With the peace, all that has changed. Rankin’s protégés have opened their own places in Belfast and across the six counties. These pioneering chefs are demanding top quality, seasonal and local produce, and the farmers and growers have risen to the challenge. Organic shorthorn beef raised on the Glenarm Estate on the Antrim coast, aged by butcher Peter Hannan for 35 days in a chamber lined with bricks of Himalayan salt, counts among the best beef I’ve ever tasted.

Then there’s an enterprising young couple from the Rademon Estate, north of Belfast, who purchased a custom-made copper still from Germany to distil apples, elderberries, wild clover, juniper and coriander for their beautifully aromatic Shortcross Gin.

What has emerged from all this enterprise is a dynamic and innovative food and restaurant culture. Niall McKenna, at James Street South, has a menu that might feature wild venison from County Tyrone’s Baronscourt Estate paired with Pat O’Doherty’s black pudding, followed by cheese from the rosy cheeked Adam Kelly, who gave up a career in insurance to make the gorgeous Leggygowan Farm goat’s milk cheese, and Michael Thompson, who learned cheesemaking at the School of Artisan Food in Nottinghamshire and has since created Young Buck, Northern Ireland’s first organic, unpasteurised, blue, here served with home-made crackers and Abernethy’s hand-made butter.

Another restaurateur, Michael Deane, operates seven restaurants across the city and holds a raft of awards. Lunch cheaply and well on a £6.50 plate at any of the seven Deane’s restaurants in the city except for the swanky Deanes Eipic.

A vibrant arts and cultural scene continues at The Mac, the Metropolitan Arts Centre runs a programme of art and performance and entry is free, while the once daunting Crumlin Road Gaol, closed in 1996, has reopened, restored and regenerated as a music and arts venue and for public guided tours. Game of Thrones fans (series 1-5 was filmed here) can take in Winterfell, the King’s Road and sites from the series in a full day location tour.

But no-one can visit Belfast without recalling what went before. You can learn about the darkest days from the back of a black cab. London taxis were imported during the Troubles to provide transport for people when all other forms were disrupted. With the peace the cabbies turned to running entertaining and informative taxi tours around the city taking in the Falls Road, the Shankill Road, the Peace Wall and the murals. There are plenty of black cabs offering tours, but Billy Scott of the Black Cab Tour is the only qualified Blue Badge Guide.

Just how far Belfast and Northern Ireland (an area only a little bigger than Yorkshire) have come since the peace, was illustrated last year when Northern Ireland hosted the G8 Summit and against a backdrop of Lough Erne in the sunshine, David Cameron announced that Northern Ireland was “open for business”. On a micro-level, organic farmer John McCormick agrees: “With the peace dividend we are past survival and we’re now into enjoying life.”

• Jill Turton flew to Belfast from Leeds Bradford Airport courtesy of www.flybe.com

Northern Ireland Tourist Board, Welcome Centre, 9 Donegall Square North, www.visit-belfast.com

Europa Hotel, Great Victoria Street, www.hastingshotels.com

James Street South, 21 James Street South, www.jamesstreetsouth.co.uk

Deanes, 28-40 Howard Street, www.michaeldeane.co.uk