Titanic endeavour: Simon Calder previews Belfast’s newest attraction

A century after Titanic set sail from Belfast prior to her tragic maiden journey, a £97m tribute to the ship and her makers is almost ready.

"That's where she was built. That's where she was designed. That's where the workers lived." Noel Molloy is a man with a mission to explain – and entertain. He is project manager for Titanic Belfast, a structure as monumental as the ship it commemorates.

Like a magnificent liner in the final stages of construction, the shell of Northern Ireland's new landmark is complete. Sprouting from a quay overlooking Belfast Lough is an angular, aluminium-clad eruption. Imagine if Ikea made a flatpack ship, and someone had made a right old muddle of the instructions: that's roughly how Titanic Belfast looks.

For once, the term "of Titanic proportions" applies literally. The top of the five-storey building is exactly as high as the tip of Titanic when the transatlantic liner was completed at the Harland and Wolff yard a century ago. During construction, she was known as SS No 401; her twin, Olympic, occupied the adjacent slipway as SS No 400.

As any Belfast resident will tell you, "Titanic was fine when she left us" on 2 April 1912. Twelve days later, on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, Titanic struck an iceberg. As she sank, with the loss of 1,517 lives, at 2.20am the next morning, the seeds of a thousand legends took root.

"We know thousands of people whose relatives worked on Titanic," says Mr Molloy, "but we can't find anyone who worked on Olympic."

The reason, of course, is the most compelling tragedy in maritime history. "Whatever is the latest story out is the truth," sighs Mr Molloy. His team of 600 faced a formidable task: to create a visitor attraction that puts the story in its social context; to explain events with veracity and panache; and to pay due respect to the victims. If they succeed, this anodised angel may prove the salvation of a city.

Tragedy plus time equals tourism. The killing fields of the Somme, the skeletal fragments of Hiroshima that survived the atomic bomb, and the tunnels of Cu Chi where the Viet Cong fought: all are now tourist attractions that intrigue as much as they appal. The brutality and heroism of 20th-century conflict lure visitors in their millions. Now Belfast has signed up for the same franchise.

God knows the city saw more than its fair share of tragedy in the 20th century. One hundred years ago, Northern Ireland's capital was a proud and wealthy powerhouse of the British Empire, its foundations resting on the linen trade and heavy engineering – with the finest shipbuilders on earth.

Decades of decline stoked sectarianism. The murals along the Falls and Shankill Roads testify to the Troubles – the slow, bitter slaughter of that corroded Belfast for the final three decades of the 20th century. Some still regard Belfast as the dysfunctional sibling of those other great Celtic cities, Glasgow and Dublin. That the political art of Republicans and Loyalists has become a tourist draw shows how the city has been transformed since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. The army checkpoints are long gone, and Belfast is now an open, friendly city. In the dramatically expanded Ulster Museum, it boasts one of the UK's finest provincial collections. You can barely turn a corner without stumbling upon a boutique hotel or award-winning restaurant, sometimes within the same building. The problem is: few tourists have noticed. That is why the city council and the Northern Ireland Executive have chipped in towards the £97m bill to "do a Bilbao".

Twenty years ago, the capital of Spain's Basque lands appeared a hopeless economic and political case. The shipbuilding industry was moribund, and decline became a crucible for terrorism. Bilbao was not twinned with Belfast, but it shared the same DNA of despair.

Today, Bilbao is a vibrant, elegant city that stands alongside Amsterdam, Barcelona and Berlin as an alluring city-break destination. The catalyst was the Guggenheim, a waterside modern-art museum which appeared to be constructed out of offcuts from an Airbus factory. The bold architecture began to attract tourists, who soon spread the word about the pleasures of the historic city centre and its fascinating hinterland.

With Titanic Belfast, I sense the city could do a Bilbao – only better. The Guggenheim's exterior is much more appealing and energising than its interior, which is filled with mildly diverting modern works that have nothing to do with their surroundings. In contrast, almost every aspect of Titanic Belfast chimes with the city beyond the structure's metal jacket and big windows. And as with Titanic herself, the fitting out is designed to impress.

Your journey begins in an atrium echoing with industrial might. Walkways and escalators lead you through a labyrinth of distressed steel and concrete. The Titanic story is told in nine chapters – beginning with "Boomtown Belfast", when the city's hopes were as high as the prow of an ocean liner. In the 19th century, the railways shrank individual nations; in the early 20th century, ocean-going liners were the instruments of globalisation.

While Harland and Wolff did not have a monopoly on large ships, the Belfast yard was biggest and best. The White Star Line wanted to achieve supremacy on the world's leading intercontinental link, which – then as now – connected southern England with New York. Just as Heathrow to New York JFK is the 21st century's leading intercontinental air route, Southampton to Manhattan was the primary link between Europe and the US. White Star's flagships were Belfast born.

A problem facing any Titanic attraction is how to convey the sheer scale of the vessel without actually building a life-size replica. The solution at Titanic Belfast: something akin to a theme-park ride through a simulated shipyard, from the laying of the keel upwards. Little cars hoist visitors up and around a life-size model of the rudder that made the ship's final, fatal turn.

Some may see the ride as the unwarranted intrusion of Disneyfication. But it resolves the conflicting needs to educate and entertain the 425,000 expected annual visitors. And it is also an efficient device for taking people to a startling viewpoint: looking directly down on the remains of the slipways where Olympic and Titanic were built.

Such proximity settles the argument over which city "owns" the Titanic story. Southampton's new Sea City commemorates the vessel. Cobh in Ireland (which, as Queenstown, was her final port of call), has opened a Titanic Experience in the former White Star Line terminal. But Titanic Belfast's chief executive, Tim Husbands, insists: "No other city can say 'She was designed here, built here and launched here'."

Your perch – and other high-altitude viewpoints around the building – also helps you understand the city a little better. Belfast has a lucky location, crowded around the Lagan river with hills rising beyond and the lough opening the city to the world. Equally clear is the desolation that consumed much of the city's economy and self-confidence. The Harland and Wolff yard occupied the former Queen's Island, now rebranded Titanic Quarter and at the heart of Belfast's regeneration.

Time to get on board, figuratively, and compare the first-class chic with the rudiments of third class. (Statistically, the more a Titanic passenger paid for their ticket, the higher their chance of survival.) Titanic Belfast is not, though, a museum. If you seek artefacts from the ship, visit the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, seven miles east of Belfast, which has a soup tureen and a porthole recovered from the sea bed.

All the energy and artistry invested in Titanic were nullified in the 160 minutes beginning at 11.40pm on 14 April 1912, when the ship was fatally wounded by an iceberg. Thomas Hardy's poem, "The Convergence of the Twain", is quoted: "And as the smart ship grew in stature, grace, and hue/In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too."

Voices of some survivors, recorded in the 1960s, recount that horrifying night. The needless loss of life was soon exposed by official inquiries by the Board of Trade and the US Senate, which revealed how cost-cutting and a botched evacuation took many lives. Titanic carried lifeboats for fewer than half her passengers and crew, and many of the vessels were only half-full when they were launched.

Enough time and space remain to outline the myth-making that has followed in Titanic's fatal wake, and the efforts to explore the wreck two miles beneath the surface of the Atlantic.

One more strange twist remains: not in the Titanic story, but in the building itself. Most of it is an ingenious commemoration of the genius and follies of man. But the top two floors comprise a banqueting suite, resembling a dozen upmarket hotels between here and Dublin.

Sales conferences and wedding receptions will help pay the rent, which will help if Titanic Belfast fails to meet visitor targets. But its prospects, unlike its subject's, seem set fair. The opening on 31 March will harness the surge in interest around the centenary of the sinking – exemplified by Julian Fellowes' ITV miniseries Titanic. "We have put together an exhibition that is educational, that is respectful – but is also very, very entertaining," says chief executive Tim Husbands. And it may also help the city lay its own ghosts to rest: "It took many, many decades before Belfast itself could come to terms with the loss."

Travel essentials: Belfast

Getting there

* George Best Belfast City, served from from numerous UK airports by Flybe (0871 700 0123; flybe.com) and from Heathrow by BMI (0871 60 70 555; flybmi.com), offers the easiest access to Titanic Belfast – a 10-minute, £4 taxi ride away.

* Aer Lingus (0871 718 2020; aerlingus.com), easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com) and Jet2 (0870 737 8282; jet2.com) serve Belfast International airport from a range of British cities, though it is poorly located for Titanic Belfast.

* By sea, the easiest links are on Stena Line (0844 770 7070; stenaline.co.uk) from Cairnryan and Liverpool. Ferries dock close to Titanic Belfast.

Seeing there

* Titanic Belfast (028-9076 6300; titanicbelfast.com) opens on 31 March. It will open 9am-7pm daily (10am-5pm daily except Monday from October to March), admission £13.50.

Further information

* Tourism Ireland (0800 313 4000; discoverireland.com).

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