Belfast: the crack is good and streets are safe

As Northern Ireland faces up to its future, Patrick Kelly went out looking for flashpoints. He came home enchanted

There are six of us in Walter's taxi. Two Canadians, two Italians, Michel from Switzerland and me. Before we set off on our tour of heavily fortified police stations, burnt-out buses and murals of Belfast's most notorious sectarian flashpoints, Walter turns around in his seat to announce: "Your flak jackets are underneath your seats." As eyes open wide with incredulity, he bursts into full-throated laughter.

A sense of humour is as indispensable on a trip to Belfast as a guidebook. This is a city whose people, even in the most troubled times, cannot resist taking the rise out of their age-old quarrel.

This waggish tendency may also explain why this otherwise unprepossessing industrial city, riven by sectarian conflict and battered by economic misfortune, has continued to attract thousands of sightseers. Fresh-faced backpackers, greying American matrons, cyclists from Clermont-Ferrand and walkers from Wales can be found admiring murals celebrating King Billy's victory in 1690 or the Easter Rising of 1916. Few seemed fazed even when tension was at its height during the recent marching season. For them, a trip to Belfast is a low-risk adventure - a chance to see the streets that feature on the news back home.

The highlight of Walter's "Tin Hat Tour" is the stop at the Peace Line, which divides nationalist and unionist areas of west Belfast. Here, Walter produces a felt-tip pen and invites passengers to write messages of peace. Few resist the invitation to write their footnote to Belfast's turbulent story.

Like Megan Kear, 26, a lab technician from Australia, most of this hardy band of travellers are here "just to have a look". "Everyone at home says it's so scary but I was intrigued by the story of the place," says Megan. "I've been all over Europe, but this is just something a bit different." Canadians Liza Ikiriko and Aaron Jacobs were nervous about their trip to the troubled capital. When they arrived to find the city streets deserted, they feared the worst. "Then somebody told us it was a bank holiday and we realised we hadn't walked into a curfew," says Liza.

Nor is it just young people turning up. At the Holiday Inn in the city centre, coachloads of older tourists arrive each summer. "One group had barely checked in before they all rushed off to catch the Orange parades," says manager Joanne Dixon. "They didn't seem at all worried."

Others, like Howard and Jean Kelly, a retired couple from Los Angeles, visit Northern Ireland to trace their Irish forebears - and can't resist a chance to sneak a look at the violent side of their ancestral past. "But there are more armed police in downtown LA than there are here," confesses Howard, a trifle disappointed.

In fact, you would have to work extremely hard to put yourself in danger. Belfast has such a low crime rate (apart from the political variety) that it baffles sociologists - even if, like Alex Lesniowski, you are determined to ask awkward questions. Alex, a teacher from Cheltenham and a keen racegoer, was spurred to visit Belfast after the Grand National was cancelled because of a bomb scare. "I felt it was about time British people like me made an effort to understand what was going on. You could say its an educational visit." But educating himself on the causes of the dispute has been more problematic than he expected. "People are warm and friendly, but they will talk to you about anything but the Troubles."

Whatever their reasons for visiting, the arrival of this new breed of tourist has created a "boomlet" for those only too happy to cater for their curiosity. Walter and his fellow taximen (cabbie is not a word in common usage here) each organise two or three trips a day in the summer, and even the public transport company runs a "Living History" tour twice a week.

Hostels, guesthouses and hotels have opened their doors to cater for this growing market. Places such as Arnie's Backpackers, an unassuming terraced house in a quiet university area, are full all year round. The hostel, which can provide beds for up to 21 travellers at pounds 7.50 a head, is popular for its relaxed atmosphere.

For someone who was born and brought up in this once-dour Victorian city, its popularity as a holiday destination has been a puzzle. When I left nearly 25 years ago, the Troubles were at their height. The death toll was running into thousands annually. The city centre was a fortress of iron gates and security searches. Cinemas closed early, pubs and clubs were shut to anyone but regulars, and restaurants did not exist. This was a city steeped in its own economic misery, cocooned in a Puritan timewarp where anything that smacked of enjoyment or fun was frowned upon. Why would anyone want to spend a holiday here?

The short answer is that Belfast in the Nineties is a very different place. The security gates have gone, along with the constant presence of heavily armed military or police patrols. New buildings, including a stunning concert hall by the river Lagan, have transformed a skyline once dominated by steeples, and hundreds of pubs and restaurants have sprung up to replace the derelict shops and factories.

But it's not just a physical transformation. There's a hedonism here that Madrid or Barcelona would find hard to match. A lively nightlife attracts thousands of young people to the city centre and university district every night. It's as if the city were determined to forget its problems by immersing itself in a heady mix of music, alcohol and chat - known locally as "the crack". The crack is not exclusive. In pubs such as the Rotterdam in the Docks area, or Kelly Cellars in the city centre, warmth is readily extended to tourists. One visitor described the compact, chummy atmosphere as akin to "stumbling upon a wedding reception and being invited to join in".

It's this aspect of the city's appeal that tourist authorities want to emphasise. And they are determined not to be caught off guard. When the IRA hung up its holsters in 1994, the number of visitors shot up by 68 per cent. Demand for accommodation soared and the tourist board had to set up an emergency "welcome centre" to cope with the requests for information.

Since then government grants have prompted a huge rise in hotel development. Jurys, the Dublin-based chain, has just opened a 190-bed hotel aimed at the tourist market, as has Holiday Inn, and a new riverside Hilton is expected to open in 1998. Families have been encouraged to enter the bed-and-breakfast trade and blue-badge guides have been trained to take visitors on tours of the city's cultural and architectural heritage. The local council has set up a tourism promotion department to attract holiday, business and conference trade.

Belfast is not going to win any beauty contests against the likes of Edinburgh, Bath, York or even Glasgow, but it does have some marvellous Victorian architecture and a beautiful setting between mountains and the sea. A fine view of both can be had from the Cavehill Country Park, overlooking the city. A short walk around the city centre would take in the City Hall; the remarkable Linenhall Library; the Ormeau Baths Gallery; and the Grand Opera House. For an evening stroll, the river Lagan is best. Bridges, the weir and the magnificent rotunda of the Waterfront Hall are all brightly lit at night and highlight the city's new pride. For those who like a meal out, Belfast can boast more top-class restaurants than most cities of its size, including the Michelin-starred Roscoff's in Shaftesbury Square, while drinkers would look hard to find a more splendid example of Victoriana than the Crown Liquor Saloon, a gin palace of gleaming mirrors, where a pint of Guinness is treated with all the respect due a piece of porcelain china.

If this ceasefire holds, Belfast could become a magnet for weekenders or tourists seeking a base for a holiday in the breathtakingly beautiful countryside of Northern Ireland. That would, of course, mean that those who service the more intrepid holidaymakers will have to do some market repositioning. But Walter has already thought of that. If the Troubles really do come to an end and the Peace Line is dismantled, that international graffiti, suitably packaged, of course, would make handy souvenirs.

belfast Fact file

GETTING THERE

Jersey European flies direct to Belfast city airport from London Gatwick, and from London Stansted to Belfast international. Six flights a day on weekdays and Sundays, four flights on Saturdays. Lowest economy fare is pounds 59 return (pounds 29 single on selected flights only) plus pounds 5 airport tax. Reservations 0990 676676. British Midland and British Airways fly from Heathrow.

ACCOMMODATION

Jurys Belfast Inn, Gt Victoria St (tel: 01232 533500), city centre location, all rooms en suite, large family rooms, pounds 55 per room per night. Holiday Inn Garden Court, Brunswick Street (01232 333555), double room pounds 85. Europa Hotel (01232 327000) - favoured hang-out of the world's press - comes complete with its own nightclub. Bed and breakfast pounds 115 (pounds 6O at weekends). Lismore Lodge Guest House (01232 641205) quiet residential area, big on family hospitality. B&B pounds 27 (single), pounds 42 (double). Arnie's Backpackers (01232 242867), international flavour, no curfew. Bed pounds 7.50. Malone Mews Apartments (01232 381606), luxury self-catering in smart university area, from pounds 60 per apartment per night.

GETTING AROUND

Northern Ireland Tourist Information, 59 North Street, (01232 246609); Citybus Tours, Citybus Short Strand Depot (01232 458484). Troubled History Tours (Phone Walter on 0421 067752).

ENTERTAINMENT

Traditional music at The Rotterdam Bar, Pilot Street; Kelly's Cellars, Castle Lane. Rock music at Robinsons, Great Victoria Street; comedy at the Empire, Botanic Avenue. Theatre at the Grand Opera House, Great Victoria Street; the Lyric, Ridgeway Street or the Arts Theatre, Botanic Avenue.

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