Belfast, Old And New

Belfast, Old And New

To be Jewish in Belfast is to exist blissfully apart from the tragic religious schism that long divided this city in Northern Ireland.

With most residents either Catholic or Protestant, Belfast’s small Jewish community remained largely on the sidelines during the decades of bitter strife known as the “Troubles,” although neutrality was often a complicated proposition in such a charged environment. In the decade-plus since the Good Friday Agreement brought an official end to the deadly violence, Belfast has emerged as an intriguing destination: a safe, modern and culturally rich city whose tourist potential is just emerging.

The name Belfast may evoke images of bombs and terror, but today’s Northern Ireland — a constituent country of the United Kingdom — looks resolutely toward the future. This sophisticated city boasts newly restored, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, upscale linen and china shops, sophisticated restaurants and elegant Victorian architecture, all under the soulful gray skies of Ireland’s far north.

It is perhaps unsurprising that Belfasters have worked hard to distance themselves from the past, despite lingering private tensions. Ethnic strife? It’s so last century. Today’s Belfast pursues the cosmopolitan good life, eating tapas and pierogis and living on Wifi. Young people regard the famous political murals that dot the city as historic art, not a call to arms.

So is this England or Ireland? A little of both, and an intriguing mix. Prices are in pounds, not euros (and they are not cheap). The weather is chilly, summer days are long, and parks are a shade of green rarely seen off the island.

But signs are quite frequently in three tongues: English, Irish and Ulster Scots, a reminder that Northern Ireland and its southern neighbor share the region of Ulster. And the lilting, fiddle-heavy live music that animates Belfast’s vibrant pub scene is undeniably Irish.

Then there is the Jewish community. Never particular large, the Jewish community has waxed and waned in size for two centuries, stabilizing in the low three figures. Its center is the Belfast Hebrew Congregation, a Chabad-affiliated institution with regular Orthodox services.

The center of town is marked, appropriately, by the stately City Hall, which presides over a scenic square and perpetual throngs of shoppers coming and going from the nearby avenues. Belfast has a long history as an industrial city and producer of high-quality products, in particular fine china and the famous Irish linen; shop around and you, too, can take home these useful souvenirs.

Many of the city’s hotels cluster in the area stretching to the south of the city center, between the so-called “Golden Mile” shopping and dining stretch of Great Victoria Road and the lavish grounds of Queen’s University. The university itself is a major Belfast attraction, with its striking Gothic spires and verdant grounds.

Surrounding it is the Botanic Garden, where roses burst into bloom in April, a lovely place to wander or picnic. Stop by the Ulster Museum, which recently re-opened after a multi-year renovation. It offers a bit of everything, much of which is entertaining: Irish history in photographs and archaeology, British landscape paintings, pop art, vintage furniture and clothing, rocks and minerals, botany, dinosaurs, mummies and more. After a day of flowers and history, the lively, student-filled streets around the university are a fun area to wander for dinner or a nightcap.

Down by the river, along the picturesque Queen’s Quay, is the so-called Titanic District, named for the legendary vessel that was built here a century ago. The reclaimed waterfront is in the nascent stages of a major restoration effort that will include a Titanic museum, shopping, dining and housing development.

A current attraction is the photo exhibit “Titanic: Designed & Built in Belfast,” through mid-April at the Odyssey W5 exhibition center. Marking the centennial of the boat’s construction, it offers a visual portrait of the Titanic itself, the shipyard and the city of Belfast around the turn of the last century, with documentary shots by the shipmaker’s official photographer. From April 3-11, the city will host the “Titanic – Made in Belfast Festival,” with events celebrating the ship and Belfast’s history of manufacturing.

Coming during the first week of May is the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, celebrating the performing arts at venues around that picturesque district. Performers ranging from traditional Irish accordionists to Mexican-American songwriters will take the stage starting April 29; more information will become available online in late March.

Named for its many historic houses of worship, including the majestic St. Anne’s Cathedral (Protestant), the Cathedral Quarter has been restored from a state of benign decay to become Belfast’s cultural center. Today this cobble-stoned district of musty alleys and renovated warehouses is home to numerous publications (like the satirical newspaper The Vacuum, a fun read available everywhere), atmospheric literary pubs, bookstores, and art galleries.

For a taste of history, step into the John Hewitt Bar on historic Donegall Street, the area’s main thoroughfare. The namesake of Belfast’s most storied poet, this local favorite was recently named one of the UK’s top gastropubs by The Independent, among other plaudits. It’s an ideal venue to chat up locals, and to contemplate a city with a complicated past and a confident future.

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