For more than half a century, Belfast has been the home to one of the most celebrated international arts festivals in Europe. It may have a different name these days (thanks to shifting its main sponsor from Queen’s University to Ulster Bank) but its focus remains the same, and 2015’s events was the biggest in its history: 134 events representing the creativity of 23 countries.
For a whole month, you’ll find performances of dance, music, theatre, interviews and artwork scattered across Belfast, some of it making its first appearance (2015’s event included 18 UK and Ireland premières and two world premieres). It’s a place where big names have their debut – and of course, it’s the public that benefits the most (as long as they don’t assume they can see everything – it’s just too big of an event, even if you have the whole month free).
It’s also an opportunity for the festival’s artists to experiment and rewrite the rules, as with director Calixto Bieito’s brutal, bloody reinterpretation of Puccini’s ‘Turandot’ in 2015 – controversially performed without the traditionally upbeat ending. Or take ‘The Kitchen’, a piece of theatre about a strained marital relationship, delivered wordlessly against a backdrop of two huge pots making an Indian rice dessert, accompanied by thunderous drumming. At the end of the performance, the audience had the chance to go forward and taste what had been cooking while they’d been entertained. If there’s an official name for this type of performance, this writer isn’t aware of it.
Staying with India – this festival works hard to earn the “international” part of its title. While you’ll find a lot of Northern Irish culture in the festival lineup, it’s the festival’s ability to attract luminaries (and visitors) from around the world that makes its flavour unique. Every year the mix is different, with 2015’s event centred around Indian and Mexican influences. It’s a great time to see a very different side to Belfast.
If all you know of Belfast is its troubled recent history and you’re expecting an exhausted, rainy, poignant corner of Northern Ireland, you’re in for a surprise. It’s a rejuvenated modern city that’s open for business in every sense, attracting investment and tourism in record numbers.
Take the Titanic quarter, the riverside area that was home to the famous Harland and Wollf shipyards where the world’s most famous ship was built. After nearly £400m ($580m) in investment, this 185-acre stretch of land now houses one of Belfast’s most spectacular visitor attractions, Titanic Belfast – halfway between a museum, a monument and a spectacular fairground ride, and well worth a visit. A few hundred yards away is Titanic Studios, one of Europe’s largest film & television studios where HBO’s ‘Game Of Thrones’ is filmed – and a short walk in the other direction is the dry-dock where SS Nomadic is on display (see ‘Personal Highlight’, below). These are the results of the first phase of a 30-year redevelopment project that’s bringing enormous amounts of money into the city, changing the skyline forever, and already attracting in excess of a million visitors a year.
If you want to explore Belfast’s history, the best place to start is the Ulster Museum. It’ll give you an admirably frank and even-handed overview of the Troubles – and then it’ll put it in the right context. Belfast’s history stretches back 5,000 years, as a nearby henge monument called the Giant’s Ring attests. Wander up into the Cave Hill country park (a mountainside overlooking the city) and you’ll find the 19th Century incarnation of Belfast Castle, gifted to the city in 1934. If the recent political and religious history is your thing, you can go chasing down the many impressive murals on displays on the city streets, including the ones either side of the ‘peace lines’ – it’s best to book a taxi tour for this, as it’s quite a walk…
A word on walking: Northern Ireland is lush and green, and the reason for it falls out of the sky around 200 days every year. If you plan to walk around Belfast (and in some places, it’s absolutely the best way to explore it), always carry a waterproof!
Money Saving Tips
- If you’re getting around using public transport, a Belfast Visitor Pass will save you a ton of money. It gives you unlimited bus & rail travel within the city for 1, 2 or 3 days – and a significant discount on some of the biggest paid attractions (for example, Titanic Belfast).
- If eating out threatens to overwhelm your food budget, pop into St. George’s Food Market (Oxford Street). It’s been offering tasty things to eat for over a century, and it’s a great place to stock up on ingredients (plus, wander round with your nose in the air, chasing delicious smells).
Did You Know?
- It’s believed that Cavehill so resembled a sleeping giant to visiting writer Jonathan Swift that it gave him the inspiration for a satirical fantasy story in which a traveller is imprisoned by a race of tiny men…and so ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ was born.
- Led Zepplin gave their first performance of ‘Stairway To Heaven’ in Belfast’s Ulster Hall on March 5th, 1971 – to an apparently underwhelmed audience that thought it was “too ballady”.
- At the time of its launch in 1912, Titanic was the biggest passenger ship in the world, and the previous record-holder was its sister, Olympic, launched the previous year. At one point, incredibly, both ships were in construction alongside each other in the Harland & Wolff shipyard – surely one of the greatest feats of ambition in modern engineering (although it also made sound financial sense too).
— As impressive as Titanic Belfast is, I felt far more of an emotional impact by walking the deck of SS Nomadic. It’s a steamship originally built to ferry passengers to the Titanic, and today it’s the last surviving vessel of the White Star Line still afloat. After a return journey involving two worlds wars, thousands of passengers (many of them troops) and a stint as a restaurant while moored under the Eiffel Tower, Nomadic’s new home is in drydock in the Titanic quarter – and it’s a wonderfully atmospheric and beautifully restored reminder of one of the most celebrated stories of Belfast’s shipping history. Unmissable.