Postcard from Belfast

(Kaleidoscope, inflight mag of LOT airlines, 2007)

More than Lived Up to Memories

“Only the foolhardy would venture here after 6PM,” our guide said chirpily in a melodic sing-song accent. We were entering Crumlin Road, leading on to the Shankill and Falls Road area. The bus slowed down for the lenses to zoom in on the wall murals, the street art reminding of the “Troubles” from a not so distant past.

“Thank God the dark days are behind us,” the guide added before switching off his mike to chat with a lady, who like me, was visiting the city after some years of absence. In my case, it was after a 13-year break. In those days, as I was trudging my way to the lecture halls of the Queen’s University of Belfast, I never imagined that one day I would be riding pass these ultimate “no go” streets on the top deck of a Hop-on Hop-Off tourist bus.

The climate change is here to stay. Even before the May 2007 official ceremony to mark the power-sharing among diametric parties, day-to-day routines have taken a turn. No more are there “bag checks” at the entrances to public buildings, cinemas or shopping malls. Conspicuously absent are the military-green patrol trucks combing the streets. Instead, the outcomes of the “peace dividend” and “positive regeneration” abound. Regeneration has given fresh lease of life to previously woebegone backstreets. Selected segments of the city are being redeveloped and have emerged with catchy monikers such as the Titanic Quarter. Across the River Lagan, the Odyssey Complex is a new playground with offerings for all ages.

Last night, we checked out the offerings of another new quarter. The Cathedral Quarter is now home to stylish watering holes including the Merchant Hotel’s bar and restaurant. The restaurant just managed to squeeze us into a 6PM slot in the Great Room, a neo-Baroque dining room that is impudently scarlet and opulent. We had clear instructions to wine and dine and vacate our table by 8PM to make way for the next set of guests. My scallop starter came with a frothy and foamy sauce. And the chocolate fondant was worth the 15-minute wait. This establishment, apparently, plays host to many big names.

Oddly, despite all the vogue eats, this trip down the memory lane whetted my appetite for the simple staples of my salad days. I was smacked with a craving for hot-cross buns, soda farls, tray bakes, Indian takeaways, fish and chips and doner kebabs. And of course, Ulster Fry, the Northern Ireland’s version of the English breakfast, served with potato bread. We forked out good money for a platter of eggs and sausages at Café Paul Rankin. Rankin is the local Michelin-studded chef, who, like the city, has flourished. He even has his own range of bread in delicatessens. Foolhardy or not, we eschewed the art and historic pub trails and embarked on our own quest for the best ever Banoffee Pie, a dessert with slices of bananas sandwiched between a biscuit base and a toffee topping.

But topping my list was the common scone slathered with butter and jam. For that, I revisited Lisburn Road where I used to get my grocery. This stretch of road is now filled to brim chic cafés, restaurants, boutiques and specialty shops. Thankfully, Randals Coffee House remains much the same with heartwarming stacks of plain and fruit scones and free coffee refills. What has changed is the no smoking policy put in place since May in pubs and eateries. Further down the from Randals is a new comer called The Chocolate Room. As I sauntered out with my truffles and chocolate mousse, a friendly granddad told me that a free coffee comes with every purchase. And that I found endearing. Though Belfast is growing more sophisticated, it hasn’t quite lost its warmth and regional nuances. It hasn’t become another bland metropolitan.

Before leaving, we stopped at St. George’s Market to catch a glimpse of kelps and fishmongers, the cheeses and greengrocers. In the bric-a-brac section, I picked up an old Dandy comic book, a steal at £2, for my son.

I can’t wait to return again. Next time, I won’t be so foolhardy as to sit out another 13 years.

(Kaleidoscope, inflight mag of LOT airlines, 2007)