Belfast is both grim and heartening. This enterprising city with its shipbuilding, linen, rope-making and tobacco industries was the only one in Ireland to experience the full force of the Industrial Revolution. It grew wealthy as a result. Evidence of this prosperity is everywhere, in the form of churches, banks and public buildings like the Renaissance-styled City Hall.
But Belfast is more than the sum of its handsome parts. It's a city with a story to share, that has risen like a Phoenix above the ashes of rebellion, historical clashes and sectarian troubles between the Protestant and Catholic groups.
Today, university pubs overflow with students and optimism. The glitterati and literati frequent swish shops along Donegall Square.
Families throng the botanical gardens.
Tourists photograph regulars of the Crown Liquor Salon that dates all the way back to the 1880s and shot to fame as the setting for the film Odd Man Out.
A friendly local informs you that the panels in this bar were originally made for Brittanic, the sister ship of the Titanic, which was also built in Belfast. The bartender looks ready for a chat. Only, you are eager to join a group of friends on a visit to the Grand Opera House. On your way out, a troupe of students from Queen's University pour in for a stag party. Hope floats in the air like a fragrance.
Cultural capital This city is also a compelling cultural hub. Wherever you look, you'll find some provoking cultural artefact. The Folk and Transport Museum, which was established in 1958 to preserve the spirit of the rapidly changing countryside, is a good place to begin. The museum has acquired buildings from across the Ulster landscape, and restored them to illustrate life in in the early 1900s. Homes, workplaces, schools, shops, churches and halls tell stories of people who lived, worked and worshipped in them.
Next is a stop at the Ulster Museum, one of the three national museums of Northern Ireland. Here, you will find a varied collection of fine art, applied art, archaeology, ethnogra phy and local history. I expected to be impressed by the much-discussed Egyptian Mummy, Takabuti, who lived in 660BC. Instead, what sweeps me off my feet are the crowds of people that throng here to take in all these ancient and contemporary gems, topped up with work from artists like Sean Scully.
Outdoor art But art is not just indoors; it's out on the streets as well. The "Peace Lines" are a series of separation barriers ranging in length from a few hundred yards to over threemiles, separating Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods. For instance, Catholic Falls Road and Protestant Shankill Road are dotted with walls on which large impassioned murals and painted texts express religious and political sentiments. Built once to minimise sectarian violence, they now serve to preserve old scars and keep grim memories alive. Similarly, when you look around your feet in Writer's Square opposite the Church of St Anne, you'll see several political inscriptions gazing up at you, provoking you to think, demanding your attention. The one I'm standing quotes Robert Lloyd Praeger who lived between 1865 and 1953: "Ireland is a very lovely country indeed, there is only one thing wrong with it, and that is that the people in it, don't have the commonsense to live in peace with one another and their neighbour."
The peace process may have now borne fruit. The fighting may officially be over. But the reminders of the past linger on, perhaps to push people towards a brighter future.
You see this spirit in Belfast's new leisure and art developments on the banks of the river Lagan. The yellow cranes of the Harland & Wolff shipyards, east of the river, beam their approval. I see a hopeful rainbow lighting up the sky, above the politically motivated murals painted on walls and I feel that life here has finally come full circle.