Once a byword for trouble, Northern Ireland's second-largest centre of population is gearing up to be UK City of Culture. Roger Ratcliffe went for a preview.
How do you sell a city that can't decide what it should be called? This is still a question with no clear answer on either side of the beautiful River Foyle.
"Derry" has always been the will of the Catholic majority living on the Foyle's west bank, but "Londonderry!" insists the smaller Protestant community on the other side of the Craigavon Bridge.
That name had been divisive for so long – smacking of the British Colonialism resented by Irish Nationalists, but comforting to those who wish to preserve ties with the UK mainland – and it became symbolic of the 30 years of Troubles.
In more peaceful times, it has been decided that the new era should be marked with a new name. And although it's still not official the local burghers hope that the world will sooner or later come to know their city as – buh-dum chhhh – Derry/Londonderry.
But a national radio broadcaster has been been calling it "Stroke City" for years because of the oblique notation separating the two names. And yet another name is being talked about. "Yes, we really hate to complicate matters further," says the council's Brendan McMenamin. "Wouldn't be great if our city become known as Legenderry?"
But there's a twinkle in his eye. Brendan is a local boy who eats, sleeps and breathes the promotion of his home town and is a member of the team who won the title of UK City of Culture for Derry/Londonderry in 2013.
The accolade's not a symbolic bunch of roses, or a sticking plaster intended to heal old wounds. Cities like Sheffield, Birmingham and Norwich also fought hard for the title and were squarely beaten for the right to stage the year-long festival in two years' time, because despite all the negative images that have filled TV news bulletins for decades Derry/Londonderry actually has a lot going on.
For a start, it's truly an enthralling place in a scenic location. And there are ambitious plans for its year in the spotlight, not least the almost-completed Peace Bridge linking the historic heart of the city with a major new arts and outdoor music arena on the other side of the Foyle.
As for the 2013 programme, no names have yet been announced but there are plenty of nods and winks going on, so just think of any Irish artists and performers – and think Big – and you can probably write the line-up yourself.
It's entirely a coincidence, but the City of Culture accolade will also celebrate the 400th anniversary of Derry/Londonderry's city walls. Built of grey-green schist and topped with walkways they form one of the best-preserved city walls in Europe, matched only by the magnesium limestone ramparts of York.
Since the Siege of Derry in 1688-89, when the gates were famously closed by Protestant apprentice boys to keep out the forces of the Catholic King James, they've always been at the heart of local history, in more recent times being used as observation posts by the British Army. A circuit of the walls usually starts on the south side at Ferryquay Gate and proceeds clockwise to pass some architectural gems. The first of these is St. Columb's Cathedral, finished in 1633. Further on is a beautiful Victorian school, now the Verbal Arts Centre. It's worth checking out the bistro if only to marvel at the entire text of James Joyce's 265,000-word novel Ulysses handwritten on just about every inch of space.
The city walls provide dramatic views over the Bogside, the Catholic community which become one of the most notorious centres of strife in Northern Ireland. It was here that the first civil rights demonstrations were held against Protestant domination of local government, the banning of which led to the start of "The Troubles".
Now the area is centre of the city's Nationalist political culture, and it is hard for visitors to avoid being drawn into the tragic story of the Bogside, not least because many of those who were closely involved are there to give you first-hand accounts, if not on one of several guided walking tours then less formally at night in the city's bars.
One of the main attractions is a series of 12 gable-end murals painted by the award-winning Bogside Artists - Kevin Hasson, Tom Kelly and his brother William - depicting some of the worst moments of The Troubles, events like the hunger strikes at The Maze Prison, the street shooting of a 14-year-old girl by a British soldier and the events of Bloody Sunday.
Bloody Sunday remains the single most traumatic event in the city's recent past. On January 30, 1972, the British Army opened fire on a Civil Rights demonstration, killing 14 people and injuring more than 60 others. Today there is a moving memorial to the victims in Rossville Street, and across the road – right next to some of the shootings – the story is told in the Museum of Free Derry run by relatives of some of the dead. Among the exhibits are the tweed jacket worn by 22-year-old Jim Wray, with two bullet holes in the back.
Inside the city walls and along the west bank of the River Foyle is where much of Derry/Londonderry's renaissance is going on. There's a lively, optimistic air in the streets. New bars and restaurants abound, places like The Bay Leaf – classic Irish food including the richest, creamiest colcannon you're likely to taste – and sooner or later everyone takes in an Irish music session at Peadar O'Donnells.
Shopping in the city is like stepping back in time. Most of the streets are free of the generic chains that blight UK town centres and there's the world's oldest department store, Austins. Go exploring and you'll find a lovely little back-street shopping arcade called The Craft Village, reconstructed around an 18th century square and with shops celebrating local culture like Irish dancing and quiltmaking.
Back at the City of Culture office, Brendan McMenamin says: "Winning the title for 2013 means so much for us. The whole place is buzzing. I believe that once people come to find out what we have we'll be seen on a par with places like York."
Jet2.com flies to Belfast International from Leeds-Bradford Airport. Flights are from 9.99 one way. www.jet2.com
Frequent buses connect the airport with Derry. Airporter on 028 7126 9996 or Translink-Ulsterbus on 028 7126 2261.
Roger Ratcliffe stayed at the The Merchant's House B&B, 028 7126 9691 or email email@example.com
The Bogside Artists tours start from The People's Gallery, 46 William Street. Tel. 028 7137 7331
The Museum of Free Derry: 55 Glenfada Park, Bogside. Tel. 028 7136 0880.
YP MAG 29/1/11