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HindustanTimes Thu,27 Nov 2014
Of music, murals and pubs: a vacation in Belfast
Hindustan Times
January 18, 2014
First Published: 14:19 IST(18/1/2014)
Last Updated: 20:01 IST(18/1/2014)
Belfast’s murals and its landmarks tell an intriguing tale of the town’s past, present and future. To follow its story of change, just see its murals. Over 2000 have been documented since 1970s and they mark everything -- war, peace, diversity, music and spirit of the moment. This mural features a character from Irish folklore. Text and Photo by Kalpana Sunder

Throw a stone anywhere in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland (in the north-eastern part of the UK), and it will probably land on a spot connected with shipbuilding or linen. The port city’s reputation as ‘Linenopolis’ or the world’s linen capital developed as the flax from its fields was turned into tablecloths and clothing for royalty.

The region was historically the most industrialised in the UK. But for many decades, Belfast was a city torn by strife and civil war. Today it seems to have made peace with its past. Hotels, clubs and restaurants are springing up everywhere, and new residential and commercial blocks are changing the skyline. Scorched buildings stand alongside swish glass-fronted structures, and hip bars bubble over with music and chatter. I admire Belfast’s talent for regeneration – Victorian bank buildings have morphed into luxury hotels and linen mills are now community spaces and libraries. To follow its story of change, just see its murals. Over 2,000 have been documented since the 1970s and they mark everything – war, peace, diversity, music and the spirit of the moment. Or take in its many
historical sights. 

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Culture Vulture
Belfast has literature in its DNA. Novelist CS Lewis, famous for his Narnia books, was born here. There’s even a bookish connect to Napoleon’s Nose – it is believed that the hill inspired Jonathan Swift to write Gulliver’s Travels. Drive past the red-bricked Tudor building housing the Queen’s university, the design of which was inspired by Oxford’s Magdalen College. It has distinguished alumni, including Nobel Prize winning poet Seamus Heaney and actor Liam Neeson.
Whiskey meets history at the Crown Liquor Saloon, which dates back to 1826. It has ornate accents, mosaics, Corinthian columns, moulded ceilings and old-fashioned gas lighting. The most charming part of the pub are the cosy ‘snugs’ or booths of carved wood and stained glass that were supposedly reserved for women, so they could drink without being exposed to the unwelcome stares and crude language of the men. A good pub crawl in search of Irish craic (which translates as fun or good times) will take you to Commercial Court, which used to be the commercial heart of the city. Today, it’s filled with atmospheric pubs and baskets of hanging flowers. Pay your visits to Duke of York – a watering hole that has been a great favourite with journalists and politicians, with bronze plaques and carved wooden interiors. It’s a pretty happening place for musical gigs.

Another place to drink in history with your spirit is Café Vaudeville, housed in an 1860s building of a former bank with palm trees, marble columns, chandeliers and live music. I ended my evening at the Merchant Hotel, which used to house the Ulster Bank and has now been tastefully converted into a luxury hotel. Its Italian facade is crowned with a dramatic group of sculptures depicting Commerce, Britannia and Justice.

Visual Appeal
Piety follows pints in Belfast, you’ll discover, as you visit the French Gothic-style Clonard church and monastery that features mosaics, stained glass and Portland stone. Clonard’s priests have played crucial roles in the peace process and many women and children have sought refuge in the church during tense times.
Among Belfast’s cocktail of architectural styles is the restored twin-domed Grand Opera House, designed by Frank Matcham, a prolific architect of the time, who was inspired by the architecture of Japan and India. The Opera House has hosted musicals, plays and operas over the years, and was  where Pavarotti made his UK debut. Stop by the extravagant Stormont, the seat of Parliament, with a spectacular setting on a hill surrounded by green landscaped lawns and a drive that’s a mile long. Does it look familiar? It was conceived on the model of the Capitol in Washington, but then the stock market crashed in 1929 and the cash crunch was felt all across the West. In Belfast, too, budgets were tight. The Irish constructed their building anyway – they just made it domeless! They say that to camouflage Stormont during the war, it was painted with bitumen and cow dung, which took years to remove. Today, it seems to be a favoured place for locals to exercise.
walk through yesterday.

There are reminders of the past everywhere. Ulster Hall is where legendary opera singers started their careers. Rock band Led Zeppelin gave his first live performance of Stairway to Heaven and Charles Dickens had a reading here. Belfast’s architectural centrepiece, the white Portland stone City Hall that dates back to 1906, took six years to build. But its baroque interiors, grand staircase, copper-domed roof and marble columns take your breath away. City Hall was worked on by the same craftsmen who built the ill-fated liner, the Titanic. Take in its exquisite stained-glass windows, which depict important stages in the history of the city. 

Next door to the City Hall is the oldest library in Belfast – the atmospheric Linen Hall library – housed in an old linen warehouse which dates back to 1788. Its shelves are bursting with over 20,000 books. Not all museums are as vintage. The Ulster Museum is all glass and metal interiors and houses eclectic exhibits  – dinosaur skeletons and Takabuti, the first Egyptian mummy ever exhibited outside Egypt. 

Laganside, Belfast’s waterfront, is your best bet to see public art. I love the big fish sculpture, whose scales are a mosaic of text and images from Belfast’s history. This  is the city where the Titanic was built and they have translated that tragedy into an opportunity. The swish new Titanic Museum is on every tourist’s to-do list. Building this was a gargantuan task – it cost almost 97 million pounds, took 10 years to plan and three years to construct. The museum’s outer facade is made of silvery anodised aluminium shards that glint in the rays of the sun. Walk through the nine levels of the the museum that showcase the history of the ship from its launch to the disaster and its recovery on the seabed. And you’ll know that Belfast and its people are truly unsinkable!


More About The Murals
Northern Ireland’s tradition of painting murals dates back to the early 1900s. Lee Morgan, my guide, tells me that the first murals mostly represented historical figures. In the ’60s, internal conflict was an obvious choice. And now, this public art gives you an insight into the history, politics and culture of this city.
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The International Wall on Falls Road has many murals which refer to the troubles in other countries like Israel and Cuba, as Belfast residents felt that they could relate to them.

The new murals that have been commissioned include some Celtic myths that celebrate the Irish landscape.

Local heroes like Samuel Best now grace the walls in place of paramilitary images.

Another interesting place to find murals is a small alley called Mural Alley near the Duke of York pub. It depicts many famous Irish people, and is like a quiz for tourists.

I also spend some time at the longest peace wall on Cupar Way, which since the signing of the peace agreement in 1998, has become a canvas where
visitors and graffiti artists produce thought-provoking works of art.

Visit the public art installation called the Beacon of Hope. In this statue made of stainless steel, the maiden looks upwards holding a spiralling ring of thanksgiving. The globe at her feet represents peace and harmony. Head in the future but feet deeply entrenched in the past – just like Belfast.


TRAVEL INFO

Visa: Indians need a visa, unless you have a current UK visa. Check www.vfs-ireland.co.in
Flights: No direct flights from Mumbai.
Currency: One euro is approximately Rs. 84.
 
Text and photos by Kalpana Sunder

From HT Brunch, January 19

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