Star rating - 10/10
Like many other people, I had never been to Belfast before, and was not sure what to expect from a city which in the past had made the headlines so much for all the wrong reasons. I was there for the annual Belfast Blues festival (http://www.belfastcityblues.com/index.htm) but also to just to have a weekend break as a tourist. And I am very happy to say that it is an amazing place where the people couldn't be more welcoming and the craic is as good, if not better than, fabled.
In many ways the city has been transformed from the battlefield it was before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, and there has been lots of regeneration in the last decade, like the Titanic centre (the ill-fated ship was built here); the shiny new shopping centre in the middle of town, and the Cathedral Quarter with its trendy bars and eateries.
With limited time, a bus tour is the best way to get a whistle stop, potted history of the city and also to look at its main attractions without having to spend hours walking around. It is fascinating, taking in the Titanic docks are; Stormont - the parliament building set in beautiful grounds with impressive avenues; and the palatial university building with its many mullioned windows. Susan, the tour guide, even gave some unsolicited advice on the male population of Belfast - 'useless every one of them - and I should know I've been looking for 30 years.' What a legend.
The tour also takes you on a 'political' section - to the Shankhill and Falls Roads - for so long the heartland of the two warring factions in the bitter and violent three decades' long conflict. It's quite chilling to see the sights first hand that were on so many news bulletins for so long. And the tensions between the republican and unionist communities are still very much in evidence, especially as this is marching season for the unionists. The 'peace wall', higher than the Berlin Wall, remains as a constant reminder that the two communities are still divided, and there is no prospect of it coming down any time soon.
But to dwell too much on this tension is to do a great disservice to Belfast. It is buzzing with life and friendly people having a good time. The Blues Festival was grand, as they say over there, with great music, including from Belfast legend Rab McCullogh, going on in bars, barges, and pubs all over the city, much of it free to get into. The locals are genuinely shocked and delighted when they learn that you are actually there as a tourist from Manchester - and let me tell you - many drinks are bought for you on the back of that piece of information. Singing, dancing, banter, craic - it's all going on 'til late - despite the official 1pm closing time in the pubs.
There is the Good Vibrations record shop/cafe owned by the legendary Terri Hooley who discovered The Undertones, and was the subject of the excellent recent Glenn Leyburn and Lisa Barros D'Sa directed film of the same name. I didn't get to meet Terri himself but maybe that would have ruined the mystique.
And if you thought all this was enticing enough, well let me tell you that in
February there is a Belfast Nashville festival
now that may be just too exciting for words. But I certainly hope to be there...