The Yorkshireman and I are off to pay hommage to another of the world's great cities and it was whilst thinking about that on Wednesday morning on the bus journey into Belfast City Centre that I wondered how my own wee city would look through the eyes of a tourist. It's a thought I often have actually, mainly because the city centre has evolved so much since I abandoned it temporarily to go and live in Yorkshire back in 2004 and my view of it now, especially since the Yorkshireman and I returned to live here a few years ago, is constantly changing. We have most of the big high street stores already and new ones are opening every day, alongside cute little cupcake and coffee shops, converting a once dreary and somewhat-left-behind UK city into an interesting and attractive place to be.
After years of carrying around the tourist-scaring ghost of "The Troubles", Belfast has finally spent the last few years trying hard to shed its past and has been coming into its own as a destination for weekend breaks, history buffs and even hen parties. We even made it into Frommer's Top 12 Destinations List for 2009, amongst Istanbul, Berlin and Cape Town, which is no mean achievement! I am a Belfast girl through and through and so seeing my city finally leave behind its ugly past and really beginning to shine fills me with pride.
So every now and then, just like I did on Wednesday morning, I put on my imaginary "first time visitor to Belfast" glasses and try to really look at the city centre as the bus weaves its way through the city centre. When you were born and bred somewhere, you tend to take things for granted - you know where that building is, that shop is, that restaurant is, without even having to think about it - so you never really stop to actually look at everything through fresh eyes. I personally find it fascinating.
I live in the North of the city and so the first real "landmark" I pass on the way into the main city centre is probably the University of Ulster. In the past it was just a little outpost (the main campuses are in Jordanstown and Coleraine) and seemed to house nothing but ever-evolving, strange and wonderful pieces of art in a sort of run-down building on one side of the road. However a few years ago they developed the campus and the old building is now connected to a new, shiny campus building on the other side of the road by an over-road tunnel. They also now even have a student bar, which given the cash-poor experience of my own university years, makes me happy for them.
Just as you pass the new campus on the left-hand side, St Anne's Cathedral suddenly appears beside it, set back from the road behind an open garden featuring three navigational bhoys (well, we are a maritime city). The Cathedral is well known in the city and many of our more famous inhabitants tend to have their funeral services there (most recently Alex Higgins). It is also home to the infamous (in Belfast at least) figure of Black Santa at Christmas, which I think is a wonderful tradition. The cathedral building itself is interesting. It's built of white stone and features what the Belfast tour bus operators claim is "the biggest celtic cross in Ireland" on the side facing Royal Avenue. It's a beautiful building, but it still mystifies me why they decided to put up a massive stainless steel spire (called the Spire of Hope) when it looks so strange against the old white stone. I thought I would get used to it with time and although I don't really notice it any more, I must admit that when I do really look at it through my "tourist eyes", it does look a bit odd!
At this point on the main road into the city centre you can't really see much else that particularly jumps out at you; apart from a couple of shops, there just seems to be a lot of generic buildings, some old, some new, most probably offices. However as you advance up the road, you soon realise that two of the generic buildings on your right-hand side are Belfast Central Library and the Belfast Telegraph building. Perhaps this doesn't mean much to a tourist (after all, who goes on holiday to sit in a library and read a book or bothers to buy a local paper?) but the Central Library has always been a bit of an intimidating institution for me (I've only been in once and nearly got lost) and I spent my evenings as a child speaking to my father through the broadsheet pages of "the Tele'", as he read it every night religiously (ironically for an agnostic), so they're noteworthy buildings to me. As a tourist they're probably useful as landmark buildings to figure out where you're going ("oh look, it's the Belfast Telegraph office again, so the Cathedral must be round this corner!"), although at the minute the only way you would really recognise Central Library is as “the building completely covered in scaffolding!” Hopefully its newly restored frontage will be back on display to us all soon.
After a bend in the road, at what is locally known as "the white bank", despite no longer functioning as a bank nor being particularly white any more, is when you realise you're in the city centre proper. Suddenly you see more coffee shops, high street shops, a shopping centre on the right-hand side (Castle Court)… it's looking a little more like a city centre now, as the shops stretch out in front of you. In fact you're so busy eyeing up Debenhams, Cult and Republic that you don't really notice what I would consider to be the main feature of Belfast City Centre suddenly appear at the end of the road.
Yet just as the bus approaches the Tesco Metro situated in an impressive former bank building (the only supermarket I've seen with ornately decorated domes on the ceiling inside), there it is straight ahead of you: no, not McDonalds, but rather Belfast City Hall, looming over Royal Avenue, Donegall Place and Donegall Square in all its white and green glory.
I love the City Hall. I've seen several during my travels (from Leeds Town Hall to L’Hôtel de Ville in Paris and to me, none compares to Belfast. There's just something majestic and yet beautiful about its green dome, the white stone exterior, the stained glass windows, the well-cared for grounds with the various statues around it. Even the sheer size and height of it makes it a focal point of the city centre. Ok so there tend to be emo kids hanging around in front of it after school and on Saturdays but they never bother you (too wrapped up in their own mini dramas I imagine).
The City Hall was previously improved upon by having the Belfast Wheel situated on its East side - its twinkly lights were a pretty addition to the area - but then the Yorkshireman popped the question to me at the top of the Wheel so I'm a little biased! The Wheel is sadly no more, having been dismantled in April. However the City Hall continues to become even prettier for visitors to the city when the Continental Market comes to visit. Usually it's there in the summer and again at Christmas, and indeed we don't have long to wait before the cute little wooden huts and delicious smells of bratwurst, fudge and mulled wine return, as the Christmas Continental Market will be back on 20th November this year, when the Christmas lights will also be turned on throughout the city, creating a sparkling winter wonderland that will appeal to tourists even more.
Getting back to our trip through the city centre, you're now driving up past Castle Place on your left-hand side (with more shops and the famous leaning Albert Clock visible at the end of High Street) and heading on to Donegall Place, towards the City Hall.
Part of the charm of Belfast, so far as I can tell, is the variation in the architecture. There are red brick buildings, white stone buildings, sandstone buildings, glass and steel buildings, boring buildings, unique buildings, old buildings, modern buildings, and then buildings that have a bit of everything thrown in. Moving temporarily away from our current position in Donegall Place, the Waterfront Hall and Victoria Square Shopping Centre are great examples of modern buildings that have managed to take some of the older styles (white stone and sandstone) and fused them with the newer styles of glass and smooth, rounded edges.
Heading back to Donegall Place and you can see plenty of different styles of building all around you, most now housing one high street shop or another. M&S is a bit of a strange but perfect example, in that the Donegall Place side of their store is now entirely glass fronted to fit in with its modern neighbours like Next and WHSmith, whilst the Donegall Square North side is housed in an old red stone building, which Oscar Wilde reputedly called Belfast's "one beautiful building".
Across the road from M&S is the Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau’s Welcome Centre, which is basically the city's tourist information centre. It's always struck me as a little odd that as soon as you enter the building you have to immediately go up an escalator to actually get to the information centre itself, but the staff have always been very helpful to me the few times I've been in, which makes up for the oddity.
At this point on our journey we're pretty much now at the City Hall itself, which I like to think of as the centre of the centre. And of course you're really only getting started. We haven't yet explored Castle Place or Ann Street or Victoria Square or the Cathedral Quarter or Corn Market or Fountain Street or Oxford Street or the Entries or St George’s Market or Great Victoria Street, never mind venturing outside the very centre of the city. But to discuss all that would take up far more than one blog post.
All I know is that if I were a visitor to Belfast city centre, especially on a crisp and bright morning like Wednesday morning was, I would be intrigued by this compact and traditional yet modern little city. I would be pleasantly surprised by the good mix of high street stores and little unique shops, by the big restaurants and little cafés. In fact the only thing that would put me off at the moment is the ongoing improvement works in Royal Avenue, Donegall Place and Castle Place, with the large orange and white barriers preventing you crossing a street without taking a detour, but even all this is to make our wee city even more appealing, so I can't really complain.
In fact the only thing I can think of right now that would improve Belfast city centre to my (admittedly undemanding) standards is a branch or two of Greggs! One day, perhaps one day...