Belfast: it’s a country that’s changing

Whilst visiting Trieste, one day I had lunch at a small and very old-school seafood restaurant hidden round the back of San Giusto hill. The staff were curious to know where I came from, and when I responded with Northern Ireland the chef was called out. He excitedly told me he had been travelling throughout Scotland and Ireland, and that Belfast had been “the big surprise” of his holiday, for its “fantastic architecture” and because “we Triestin are also drunkards”. Not what one might expect to hear, but I can see why Belfast might have resonated with him. There used to be these vast empires, and as the empires have vanished, so has the raison d’etre of many of their cities -without Habsburg patronage, Trieste went from the 2nd busiest port in the Mediterranean to the 12th busiest in Italy- but their now purposeless grand buildings are still there.

On this walk, Belfast also gave me a surprise or two. If you take a good hard look at buildings that provided the backdrop to your childhood, buildings which you have always taken for granted and seen without seeing, you can in effect become a tourist in your hometown. This is not a comprehensive survey; I didn’t have time to include Belfast’s best asset, its roster of five-star pubs, or the “golden mile” leading to Queens University which a visiting friend once compared, to my disbelief, to the leafier parts of New York City. Anyway, here is our town (he said, having moved away the first chance he got and never gone back). My trips to the city centre usually see me dropped off at the rear of Castle Court shopping mall. It leads to Royal Avenue, the closest thing there is to a boulevard. Castle Court, a slightly tired-looking behemoth of glass and steel, opened when I was 9 but I cannot remember a time when it wasn’t there. The castle burnt down in 1708 and was replaced by a piece of Victorian whimsy miles from the centre.

Royal Avenue culminates with City Hall, and gets more run-down the further you walk in the other direction. There are a couple of tall and striking art deco buildings, currently abandoned to ruin; the Bank of Ireland building still looks handsome despite the pockmarks of graffiti and boarded-up windows. The only use that has been found for it in recent years was when Occupy squatted here.

Further down we see the handsome red sandstone of Central Library and the Belfast Telegraph. Their headquarters may sit serene and garlanded with classical features, but these two pillars of the community are tottering in the digital age. Likewise the University of Ulster, whose buildings are connected by an airborne walkway resembling a hamster’s assault course.

On our right looms the fine, C20th Romanesque of St Anne’s Cathedral. The regenerated ‘Cathedral Quarter’ is the place to go in Belfast these days but 10-15 years ago, it barely existed as an entity. An arriviste itself as cathedrals go, its array of little turrets give St Anne’s a pleasing dash of romanticism.

The framing and layout of the modest figurines on the facade is an unashamed steal from C12th Verona, but a bit more arch and skilfully rendered than those effigies. The doors and arches are bedecked with strident Biblical quotations emphasising faith and righteousness; whereas the Italians or the C of E can carry churches off with great elegance, here there’s the slightly awkward implication that Ulster actually believes all this stuff (and boy, do they ever). The board with opening hours invites punters to enjoy St Anne’s “lofty grandeur” for “a small fee”, I’ll make do with sticking my head inside.

The interior is great, if you can ignore the woman at the ‘Welcome Desk’ trying to catch your eye and get a few quid out of you. Tall, uncluttered Romanesque arches and elephantine grey stone giving way to light around the altar. Although war memorials are a common feature to churches, the military emphasis here is something you don’t often find in other places. The aisles are festooned with Union Jacks and ensigns belonging to the diverse branches of the armed forces. Icons are out, the state must step in for the saints.

To counter such totalitarianism, the eyes are soothed by a few wonderful mosaics in the early Christian style, made by someone who’s studied the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia.

Behind the Cathedral is more regenerated land that is entirely new to me; St. Anne’s Square and the adjoining Mac arts centre. The square and its classical columns are an attempt to impose European piazza living onto a city where it is foreign. The city of a quick pint down the pub and a fish supper from the chippy is given something called a Chopin Grand Caffe, with the presumption that it will be good for them. The piazza has to be organic, a place that people were using anyway. One that a town planner sticks down in previously unused space cannot help having a sterile feel; still, it’s early days. The upmarket chains scream gentrification and my lunch companion tells me that a few streets of terracing were cleared to make space for all this (“there used to be a community here, now there’s just an arts centre”).

The Mac itself does theatre, gourmet coffee and is apparently a meeting place for the Belfast take on the middle-aged Shoreditch boho (some of the beards on display would elicit screams in Dalston). It’s top-drawer modern architecture and Belfast’s pitch to join the globalised world. The car park side is a slab of red brick that appears to fold open like a book, with lots of pointy shard ends and acute angles. Brutalism is coming in from the cold and people are belatedly discovering the beauty of concrete. An overhead rainbow of coloured piano wires counters the prison-movie feel of the staircases and auditorium entrances. I recognise the style from Tallinn museum and Porto concert hall.

Early in the day, the cathedral quarter is sleeping it off. One of its old mainstays, the Duke of York, is a classic Belfast pub nestled in an alleyway. The building opposite has recently been turned into a bar housing Duke of York overspill, and decorated with a chummy Sgt Pepper-style mural depicting Van Morrison, George Best and a whole load of third-tier celebrities to make the numbers up. Such forced bonhomie feels more Dublin than Belfast (we should really call it Bonomie). Elsewhere, places that are new to me continue to pop up, the one below dealing in bombsite chic.

One of my vivid childhood memories is going to Waring St bank with my mother and being bemused by a heavy rotating door and counter tellers working under a frescoed ceiling with winged putti. After extensive spit and polish the bank is now one of Belfast’s poshest hotels, The Merchant. Comedy & music venue The Black Box has a curious postmodern spin on the Belfast terrace-end murals.

The Cathedral Quarter having been around for a while, hipsterdom is seeping across into North Street, a traditionally low-rent and ramshackle section of town with old man pubs, old man barbers and musty second-hand shops. The art deco shopping arcade had been attracting some DIY culture (my friend ran a clubnight in the cafe) when it was burnt down in 2004, amidst accusations of foul play. There is no sign of the arcade reopening but the frankly surreal sight of pop-up art galleries here shows that the setback was not terminal.

The Deer’s Head pub has been colonised by hipsters and is now the Aether & Echo. The use of graffiti gives the street the feel of a mini-Berlin.

Turning back towards Royal Avenue the buildings get even more grandiose as chic cocktail bars give way to retail, and it’s something of an embarrassment that we have nothing better to do with them. Looking upwards, it’s a surprise to see that the building I have always known as Mothercare is an exemplary piece of Brussels art nouveau.

Side-by-side, two of our best edifices now house Primark and Tesco. Una vergogna!

The emblematic and grandiloquent City Hall at the end of the street dominates the view. A couple of years ago it was denuded of its Union Flag, the moment Belfast City Council attained a slight Catholic majority. I felt as uncomfortable as anyone about the pointed vindictiveness of it, but thought the way to respond should have been to point out that the Provos had just voted in favour of flying the British flag on the twelve days that the Queen wants you to. An ever-dwindling number of fleggers making their weekly protest just looks ridiculous.

Looking at City Hall, what strikes me is that it is far, far too big. It could be a landmark in Berlin, Paris or Rome, but it serves a capital city that is more of a Ljubljana or Luxembourg. The Portland Stone and the central dome flanked by two towers are a very obvious nod to Wren. The Wren style was a British Empire template, an emblem of their bestowing the gift of civilisation upon the world, and Durban in South Africa has a near-identical city hall.

It’s all very Official and the surrounded gardens are littered with statues advertising the ancien regime. A stern Queen Victoria takes centre stage, whilst the Titanic memorial is so stately and composed that it seems like crocodile tears. Some of it is pure Windsor Davies stuff that apparently begs to be satirised.

In our less reverent age, there’s an attempt to make City Hall cuddly, friendly and accessible, which works about as well as asking Gordon Brown to smile for the cameras and make small talk with old ladies. Of an evening, coloured lights will be projected onto it; red/blue for Linfield/Cliftonville wins, orange/green for designated days of tribal self-celebration, and probably pink or rainbow for Pride. During my visit the gardens are packed out with wigwams for some ghastly food market.

Surrounding City Hall, Donegall Square showcases a few notable buildings from Belfast’s very-distant economic boom, in a variety of styles. Following a trend, this one is our Burger King.

Others in blood-red sandstone are pure Ruskin gothic, such as the M&S and this corner building (which even has a bridge of sighs connecting it to the neo-classical bank next door).

Running into the side-streets are some pretty Georgian townhouses, rare survivors from days when there wasn’t much of a town to speak of.

In the less salubrious side-streets behind City Hall nestles the Tudor revival facade of St. Malachy’s, one of the city’s notable Catholic churches. In any other city on Earth, as a sightseer I would head straight into the Catholic cathedrals with a hop, skip and a jump to feast my eyes on all that great art; but in the one remote pocket of Europe that is still at war over the Counter-Reformation, to be a Protestant walking into a Catholic church feels transgressive and taboo.

After recent restoration, the interior is glorious; Sacre Coeur sugar-white, gilded with handsome marble, statues of the saints and stations of the cross. I want to snap everything but can’t; unlike any other city in Europe, I’m the only person here for the art and the other 30/40 visitors are all in the solemn business of prayer. These Romans are crazy.

Belfast’s oldest Catholic church, St Mary’s, was paid for by Presbyterians (how times change). The grotto can be viewed from the street and as a child it baffled me even more than the Merchant Bank. The interior is modest, with a buttressed roof and Latin-style covered altar.

Whilst I’m on a roll, St Patrick’s church sits by the foot of Antrim Rd servicing North Belfast, and is more handsome romanesque, vast arches with slightly Byzantine icons painted in the dome. The church houses an excellent Madonna of the Lakes triptych by Sir John Lavery of the Glasgow School, to which my camera does not do justice; worth popping in during Mass when they probably illuminate it.

Before heading towards the river I contemplate a couple more famous buildings, the Grand Opera House and the Europa hotel. The opera house is far likelier to be showing whimsical comedy or stand-ups from the telly than any actual opera, and its roll-up roll-up facade does look more Victorian music hall than Vienna. The Europa is reputedly the most bombed building in Europe. It was where my affluent American uncle stayed when I was a child, and for me it was Belfast’s small chink of glamour, the one spot where we interacted with the outside world. In today’s townscape of swanky boutique hotels, it looks an anachronism; like the one hotel in an Eastern European city where Westerners were allowed to stay and every room was bugged by the KGB. They’ve tarted up the ground floor but that sign on top gives it away as a palace of Kim Il Sung/Ceaucescu kitsch.

Heading for the Waterfront, we pass yet more official grandeur from another time in Belfast’s leaning tower, The Albert Clock (formerly a gathering spot for ladies of the night) and the sumptuous Customs House.

The Lagan river leads to the mouth of Belfast Lough, old docks and shipyards that used to provide residents with a livelihood. From here the 100m tall, canary-yellow cranes Samson & Goliath keep a forlorn watch over a depressed East Belfast. It recalls Season Two of The Wire. As the city centre starts there are a few hotels and concert venues from the 1990s, most of them eyesores. Further along, the land is being regenerated and sold to the world as the “Titanic Quarter”; as the centenary loomed, Belfast retained enough of that mercantile spirit to beat Southampton to the Yankee dollar.

A rent gap has been identified in this slice of overlooked real estate and there’s a bit of a construction gold rush, Bob the Builder racing to knock up riverside yuppie flats. The Odyssey is Belfast’s O2 Dome, your go-to venue to see the Eagles play for £95. It delights me not.

The riverside has been tarted up with palm trees and outdoor steps to sit on with your Aperol spritz, to encourage people to promenade here, go for dates or sit by the river on summer nights. Like St Anne’s Square, it’s an attempt to bring mediterranean cafe culture to one of the rainiest cities on Earth.

Although not exactly enjoying the walk, I press on until I catch sight of the Titanic Centre. Built in 2012 it is hoped that this will be Belfast’s version of the Bilbao Guggenheim. It’s an audacious dazzle ship, like an iceberg recast by Peter Saville. It’s a bit look-at-me, like all modern architecture, but I like it. We’ve moved on from the Victorian piety of the City Hall memorial and the building reflects this. If the Titanic had sunk within living memory, people would rightly be up-in-arms at the irreverence of the design, but enough water has passed under the bridge and it was the film that repackaged mass death as Disney.

Coming back into town via the footbridge, my heart sinks to see that it has become a focus for the infantile, narcissistic practice of leaving a padlock to symbolise your lovelife. To do this in Paris is one thing, but to do start doing it in a city which is known throughout the world for blind hatred and sadistic violence and eternal grudges is not so much a grand exercise in point-missing as point-throttling. All cities have a modern, cutting-edge concrete arts centre, all cities are easily accessed on the Easyjet weekend break roster, and all cities are exactly the fucking same.

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