Saturday, 30 July 2011

Crusading our way through the Europa League

Once again I've had a bit of a blogging dry-spell of late but in my defence I was first pre-occupied with a nasty case of food poisoning that lasted a whole week (woe) and then we were off adventuring, the latter being quite a bit more fun than the former. I will spare you the details of the food poisoning (if only because I don't want to relive it) but I will instead share the delights of our little trip. It might take me a few posts though because everything was so awesome that it deserves specific attention. So let us begin…


It all started on 20 June when the draws took place for the Europa League. Our local team, Crusaders FC, had made it into the second qualifying round and we were eagerly awaiting to see who we would be drawn against. The Yorkshireman had been hatching a cunning plan to maybe go and see the away match, so long as we weren't drawn against someone from the back of beyond that would take seven years and three planes, a train and a canoe to get to, so we were excited enough to watch the draw live on the Interwebz. We nearly fell off our seats when we realised that we would be playing either a team from the Faroe Islands called NSÍ Runavík or, more likely, Fulham FC.

This was great news for us. Fulham play in London, only a short, cheap flight away, so not only would it be easy enough for us to attend the away match, but should also mean a decent crowd of Fulham fans coming over to see their away match at Seaview. It promised to be a quite a crowd-pleaser for the locals too - the English Barclays Premier League is sadly more popular here than Northern Ireland's own Carling Premiership and it seemed that the chance to see "proper" footballers in action was quite appealing to all football fans, regardless of their feelings for Crusaders or Fulham specifically. It also helped that Fulham had somewhat of an admirable reputation in the competition, having actually gone all the way to the final against Atlético Madrid the year before.

However there was one small fly in the ointment - nothing is every straightforward is it? Basically, we couldn't go ahead and book our flights or our hotel because… what if, quite unexpectedly, NSÍ actually beat Fulham? We had done a little preliminary research and with flights to the Faroe Islands costing over £1,000 per person on those dates, we would definitely not be going to that away match anyway. But it would have been silly to be randomly flying off to London for a couple of days if it turned out our team was playing the Danes hundreds of miles away. But with every day that passed, flight and hotel prices were climbing. What to do, what to do?

In the end we booked a cancellable hotel but waited until after the first match to book anything non-refundable, reasoning that if Fulham suitably stomped NSÍ in the first leg, it would be a defeat from which the underdogs would be unlikely to recover in the second leg. Luckily for us, if not for NSÍ, that's just what happened and Fulham beat them 3-0 in the first leg on 30 June. The second game was due to take place on 7 July but we got too antsy watching the prices climb online and ended up caving in and booking everything a couple of days before. Again luck seemed to be on our side and the second leg ended 0-0, meaning Fulham were through and due to play the Crues at Seaview on 14 July - hurray!

The run up to the Crues home game was a busy time for the club. We were in the middle of adding new stands and suddenly the pressure was on to have them completed, health and safety approved and ready to go before the Fulham squad arrived for training. There were people working day and night and calls for fans to chip in and help out sprucing the place up. The Yorkshireman and I tried to volunteer but by the time we arrived in the evening there was no-one around except for a contractor who was taking down some fencing and had no idea what to make of the two eejits tentatively asking if they could help in any way. Oh well, at least we tried.

Regardless of our inaction everyone else pulled together and finally everything was in place just on time. It was just as well really, since the game was practically a sell-out. The Yorkshireman and I had to use all of our spidey-sense to find two seats together in the main stand!

The game itself was great craic. I'm not great with the blow-by-blow accounts, bearing in mind it takes me at least one season to associate a new player's name with a face on the pitch never mind continually identifying who is doing what at high speeds, but there's a match report on the BBC website if you're so-inclined. What I will say, though, is that I nearly imploded with excitement when we actually scored! Okay so we ended up losing the game 3-1 but I literally jumped for joy when one of our newest recruits, Timmy Adamson, sent the ball flying into Fulham's net.

So then it was just a matter of looking forward to the next week when we would be flying off to London to see the away leg. We knew it was likely we would be completely obliterated by the clearly stronger team, especially on their own turf rather than away at our artificial 4G surface, but it was still going to be an experience to be reckoned with!

The Yorkshireman and I had carefully set up other activities to keep us amused around the city while we were there, not to mention a bit of a twist for the ending of our trip. But there will be more on that to come over the next few days, as I will attempt to relive our awesome adventures on the mainland...

Friday, 15 July 2011

Date night dinner in the Cathedral Quarter

So, as I was saying yesterday, the Yorkshireman and I spend a lot of time walking through the Cathedral Quarter these days, but not a lot of time enjoying the bars and restaurants that have made it the hip and trendy place to be in Belfast at the moment. It's not that we wouldn't like to (food and alcohol being two of our favourite guilty pleasures) but alas we have a shortage of time and money, both of which are required in copious amounts for such a lifestyle. However as payday approached at the end of June I began haranguing the Yorkshireman about our plans for our next date night and we decided we would enjoy a pre-movie dinner in one of the Cathedral Quarter eateries we usually rush by in our excitement (ha!) to get to the gym.

Originally we had decided on the Cloth Ear, which is the pub attached to the Merchant Hotel. It offers a 'Dine With Wine' special deal - two main courses and a bottle of wine for £23.50, 5-9pm Monday to Thursday - which seemed perfect for a wine-loving couple out for dinner before the cinema. I'd been to the Cloth Ear before for lunch with former work colleagues and had really enjoyed it; I recall lounging around chatting for hours after our meal in a relaxed atmosphere and sipping some very decent Guinness. However on a Thursday night it seems that it's a different beast entirely.

The Yorkshireman and I made our way through the crowd of smokers hanging out by the door and enjoying the occasional glimpse of the sun available that evening, and entered only to be faced with a wall of noise and a sea of people. The place was packed full, with every table seemingly full and many others enjoying a post-work drink standing wherever they could find space. We hovered behind one such group who had stationed themselves by the "wait here to be seated" sign but lost our nerve after a few minutes and headed back on to Waring Street, blinking in the light and allowing our senses to recover before deciding on our next move.

First we looked across the street at 21 Social. They also had a special offer on that day, which I think was maybe two courses and a glass of wine each for £40 or so all in, but that seemed a little expensive in comparison to our original choice and we weren't that inspired by the menu choices. Besides the Yorkshireman is often spooked by places that appear too trendy and I think 21 Social was setting off his inner hipster alarm. And so we moved on.

Next on our list was 2Taps. I'd heard great things about this place from a few people and the Yorkshireman and I both love tapas, so we decided this would indeed be our pre-cinema date night dinner spot. Despite the rather temperamental and fleeting presence of the sun that evening, we opted to sit inside the restaurant rather than under the parasols outside with most of the other patrons. It turned out to be a good move on our part since the outdoor crowd had gotten a little too rowdy for my liking by the time we were leaving whereas inside remained blissfully ambient - just the right noise level to converse with your indoor voices should you choose but otherwise just enjoy what was actually a really great selection of music playing quietly in the background.

The food was very good too - I won't say great because it didn't blow my mind or anything - but it was certainly up there amongst the best meals I've eaten recently. We ordered four dishes each. The Yorkshireman had the selection of breads (one of which interestingly seemed to have apple baked into it) with pesto olive oil and balsamic vinegar, the potted mackerel with chilli butter and ciabatta toast, chargrilled beef with peppered sauce and rice, and his old favourite, patatas bravas. I'm on a bit of a low carb kick at the minute so I had the grilled seabass in citrus butter and mixed pepper salad, the asparagus in lemon butter and parmesan, the flat cup mushrooms with pesto and brie and the meatballs in a tomato and almond sauce (you've gotta love some albondigas!). I would say that most of the tapas were comparable with La Tasca at their best, with a couple of the dishes marginally edging ahead in quality and imagination. We also shared a bottle of their house red wine and it was utterly delicious - I regret not writing down its name.

In all we spent around £45, which ended up being almost double the cost of our intended dinner at the Cloth Ear, and cost more even than 21 Social's "too expensive" meal deal, but I think we enjoyed it sufficiently to make up for the extra expense. I would be tempted to go back for lunch on a warm and commitment-free afternoon, just to sit in the sun and enjoy the flavours of the Mediterranean… and drink some more of that wine obviously! That kind of range of flavours and textures isn't something you find much outside of tapas and the restaurant itself was very pleasant - so pleasant in fact that we spent about two hours there and ended up having to rush to our movie. If only we'd known the trailers were to last for an extra half an hour we could have completed our Spanish-themed evening by popping into the Spaniard for another quick drink but alas I'd left my crystal ball in my other handbag.

There are still a good few places I would like to try in the Cathedral Quarter. I would actually like to get into the Cloth Ear at some point for one thing - perhaps that's another lunch occasion. I'd also like to go for a drink in 21 Social, if not a meal. Then of course there are the old faithfuls of that area, who were thriving there long before everyone else jumped on the bandwagon, namely Nick's Warehouse, Hill Street Brasserie and No 27. My gym overlooks The Potted Hen, so I've always fancy going and blowing all those hard-burned calories in there one night too. And then of course I've also been itching for a return visit to my current favourite restaurant in Belfast, Made in Belfast Cathedral Quarter. So I guess that's a few more date nights taken care of if nothing else!

P.S. For those who were curious, I thought that the movie itself (Bad Teacher) was just okay (maybe a 5/10 overall), although I did enjoy watching Jason Segel on the big screen following our recent discovery of - and consequent box set marathon of - How I Met Your Mother, which you can read about over at the Yorkshireman's blog.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Building Belfast bigger and better

I was born and bred in Belfast and I would always have considered myself fairly familiar with the city centre. I mean, the City Hall, Castle Court, McDonalds, the In-Shops… what else really is there to it? Or at least that's what I might have said if you asked me ten years ago. Back then I thought that the city centre was made up of about three main streets (Royal Avenue/Donegall Place, Castle Place/High Street and Ann Street) and that the rest of the smaller side streets and entries were fairly pointless, with boring, tacky little shops and old man pubs. And hey, for a cynical teenager, I wasn't really that far wrong.

However in recent years Belfast has come on in leaps and bounds. Areas that were previously unknown or boring or thought to be "a bit dodgy" have blossomed and been developed, each with its own little personality. More restaurant and retail chains from the mainland UK have opened branches here in our wee city. On a sunny Friday evening Belfast is genuinely a pleasure to wander around and you definitely won't go short of entertainment, even if it's only warily eyeing the teenagers attempting to scale the Spirit of Belfast and laughing when they inevitably fail (and fall).

The development of Victoria Square was one of the big transformative events for Belfast. I remember being a child and bring dragged around the shops in the old Victoria Centre that was on the site beforehand. I don't remember much about it and, since that was back in the days before the Internet really took off, there's not really much information about it online. However I remember there was a big Spar that always had all the newest sweeties (like Nerds and caramel Wispas) and a Poundstretcher and also a second-hand book shop. It wasn't a particularly classy or even useful shopping centre (for that you would have headed to the newer metal-and-glass-fronted Castle Court); in fact that whole area was pretty dull back in those days.

I imagine that when the plans to flatten a massive area of land in the city centre (including plans to implode the city's former tallest building) and build the super-chic Victoria Square development first came out, a lot of people probably wondered if Belfast was quite the right location for such a grand scheme. I mean it's not like we were a huge metropolis like London or Manchester, or even Dublin - would enough people even shop there to make it all worthwhile?

However I'm glad that someone out there had the courage of their convictions and believed that, yes, the people of Belfast do want better. They want to be a major city, with plenty of things to do and see and tourists flocking in from all over the world. And so Victoria Square was built. Oddly the best place to see photographs of the whole process, from the implosion of Churchill House through to the lighting of the dome, is in the corridor leading to the toilets on the second floor of Victoria Square itself, tucked in between Nandos and Gourmet Burger King.

I guess some people might argue that the introduction of more luxury, designer stores is merely a sign of capitalism gone wild but I would argue that it's just nice to have the choice to indulge a little if you have the money to do so. I don't by the way - Primark and Dunnes are much more my kind of budget than Hollister and Fossil - but I enjoy looking and dreaming all the same!

Anyways, at around the same time as Victoria Square was being dragged up, other areas of our wee city were growing up too. It's not even that these places were particularly down-at-heel to start with - I just reckon not many people really considered going there very often, maybe because it was a bit inconvenient or maybe because of a preconception about the area. Thankfully we're all getting a little more adventurous and in the last couple of years I've found myself in streets and entries that I never even knew existed. What's more is that so have a lot of other locals and visitors and there's not one bar I can think of that's not stuffed to the gills on a Friday or Saturday night, no matter how tucked away it may seem.

One of the areas I've especially enjoyed seeing develop over the last few years has been the Cathedral Quarter. I realise that the arty crowd have been frequenting the likes of Hill Street for quite some time, but in recent years new developments nearby have connected it a bit more obviously with the city centre, for instance the Merchant Hotel's recent extension and the new St Anne's Square and MAC Centre developments.

The Cathedral Quarter is now widely considered as the hip and happenin' place to be for the young professionals crowd, something fairly evident to anyone who should venture in that direction on an evening after work. Even getting through the door of places like the Duke of York, the John Hewitt or the Cloth Ear on a Friday night is nearly impossible, never mind securing a round of drinks at the bar or, heaven forbid, actually finding somewhere to sit down. At least the Duke of York lets you spill into the entry outside - sitting on one of their red benches sipping a lovely, cold pint of Guinness on a warm evening is a very enjoyable experience altogether.

The Yorkshireman and I spend a lot of time in the Cathedral Quarter area these days because that's where our gym happens to be, so we've gotten to know it quite well. But although we walk past all of the trendy bars and restaurants a couple of times a week, we never really stop and go in, even though at 27 years old and both working full time in office-based jobs that we hate but endure so that we can jet off and explore the world, we're probably as close as we'll ever get to fitting into that whole "young professionals" crowd. And so on our last date night we agreed to finally frequent one of the eateries we so often passed by - I shall bring you more on our tale of dinner in the Cathedral Quarter tomorrow.

There are, of course, still plenty of areas in Belfast that could do with a bit of a makeover, but with the recession over the last few years, I imagine funding for regeneration has been a bit thin on the ground. But we are trying. I think the new ARC development over by the Odyssey, for example, is another wonderful development - I only hope that they find enough of the hip and trendy young professionals crowd to live there and make it the upmarket, waterfront, urban area it clearly has the potential to be. Perhaps they could try drumming up business at the Cathedral Quarter after office hours..?