Story of the week: a Titanic trip to Belfast

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* Another story from the back catalogue, this week the last in a series of northern Ireland stories from last year. This autumn I’ll be switching my focus to Glasgow to preview the Commonwealth Games – coming in 2014. Follow me on Twitter or subscribe to the RSS for more story updates. 

The array of souvenirs was bewildering: an oven glove, a compact mirror, a decorative ashtray – all of them Titanic themed.

“Over there,” suggests the girl controlling the increasingly unruly queue outside the Titanic shop in the new Titanic Belfast visitor attraction, the £97m project newly trumpeted as the cornerstone of Northern Ireland’s tourism renaissance.

“The Titanic teabags are the best seller,” she deadpans. “Just £2.69 for 80 teabags.”

Later that night, sat in the audience of a BBC Radio Ulster concert, a procession of Irish musicians from both the north and south of Ireland are playing at the bottom of the grand staircase, a recreation of the Titanic’s ballroom.

Cathal Coughlan of Fatima Mansions fame, a stalwart of John Peel shows that soundtracked my early teenage years, is playing his powerhouse-lyric protest songs for the assembled throng.

“Forgive me,” he announces, “if this all sounds a bit hysterical.”

Maybe it’s the hefty shot of Titanic whisky I’d just downed at the bar  – no ice, ‘natch – but I’m starting to feel a bit seasick.

Then again, the whole of Belfast has been giddy with Titanic-sized fervour as the events to mark the centenary of the world’s greatest passenger shipping disaster worked towards a frenzied crescendo after Easter.

It was, as signposts around the city constantly reminded us, “It’s our time.”

Titanic story 

To be fair, Titanic Belfast [pictured above] is suitably impressive with its nine interactive galleries, including a sub-Disney ride through the Belfast shipyards, and moments of heartstring-tugging seriousness as we read personal stories behind the tragedy.

The Titanic Light Show, which projected the Titanic story onto the side of the new building via digital mapping, was also highly evocative – despite the rain. Other events across the city ranged from concerts to exhibitions via a newly commissioned requiem.

“We have our own little story and our own little craziness. That’s what makes us Belfast,” says Stuart Bailie, the fast-talking founder of the Oh Yeah Music Centre, a project for local musicians and showcase of Belfast’s musical heritage.

“You can still find live music in Belfast most night – traditional music at Madden’s, or up-and-coming bands like Two Door Cinema Club at the Limelight,” he adds.

“Belfast isn’t cooking up phony stories. It’s alive.”

Titanic Belfast, with its the four angular hulls, towers over the Titanic Quarter, east Belfast’s 185-acre waterside regeneration area.

But the west bank of the River Lagan, across the river from the Titanic Quarter, also offers glimpses of Belfast’s changing fortunes over the centuries.

The Custom House, just off Donegall Quay, is a stately 1850’s building with a triumvirate of sculpted heads, Neptune, Britannia and Mercury, while the Ring of Thanksgiving, is a 15m-high public artwork of a steel woman holding a ring of peace on the quayside.

Cathedral Quarter

Across town, the Cathedral Quarter takes its name from St Anne’s Cathedral with its towering Celtic cross on the western façade. Formerly the domain of run-down whisky warehouses, the area is better known today as a hub for dining, drinking and arts events.

The district has even spawned its own arts festival, The Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, staged each May. Close to the John Hewitt pub, home to regular literary salons, the MAC, the city’s dedicated new contemporary arts space, opened in April with two theatres, three art galleries and a dance studio.

But I was hungry for more Titanic treats and the Merchant Hotel, the Cathedral Quarter’s chicest hangout, didn’t disappoint.

The Great Room of the opulent hotel, the former vault during its time as the Ulster Bank, had been given an haute-cuisine nautical makeover as RMS Merchant. I tucked into the tasting menu based on the flavours of 1912, including dishes such as cold asparagus truffle vinaigrette, poached oysters, and turbot and lamb à la Francaise.

The only sinking feeling was the cost – £85 per head with wine.

But as Titanic fever subsides, Northern Ireland can perhaps look beyond the brouhaha and get on with re-inventing itself as a city-break destination free of political troubles. Later this year the Belfast Festival at Queen’s, running October 19 to November 3 at venues across the city, celebrates its 50th anniversary with a newly expanded programme.

More immediately, Land of Giants is an outdoor theatre show based around five poems about giants of Northern Ireland culture.

These include Finn McCool (of Giant’s Causeway fame) and the shipyard’s Harland and Wolff shipyard cranes, known affectionately as Samson and Goliath. The event forms part of the Cultural Olympiad and will be staged on the Titanic Slipways on June 30.

“Giants are part of our history and society,” explains Associate Producer Kathy Hayes. “You’ll see something that happened once before and is unlikely to ever happen again,” she adds enigmatically.

“It’s a must-be-there moment.”

Causeway cruise

Further along the Causeway Coast route, the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Experience opens this summer at the Unesco-listed site near the village of Bushmills.

The project incorporates the new visitor centre to replace an outdated centre, new interpretation material around the site and new cliff-top walking trails. Two key features of the exhibition are a revolving CGI presentation of the legend of Finn McCool and a large-scale sculpture of the Causeway Coast.

The opening will be accompanied by a public art installation, Flags, around the causeway by the German artist Hans Peter Kuhn. The installation, which embeds hundreds of semaphore flags around the Port Noffer headland, will coincide with the closing of the London 2012 Festival on September 9.

“The building is not the destination. After all, we have one of the natural wonders of the world on our doorstep,” says Project Director for the National Trust, Graham Thompson.

“It’s a stepping stone to the World Heritage Site.”

Back at the Titanic shop, I’m deciding between a Titanic teddy with a jaunty sailor’s hat, or a Titanic T-shirt.

In the end, I decide on a set of books to read up on the truth behind the myths. Some 1,514 lives were lost on the icy water of the North Atlantic in the early hours of April 15, 1912.

For Northern Ireland it’s time to honour them and move on.

* This story first appeared in Real Travel magazine in 2012. Liked this? Try also A Cultural Tour from Belfast to Derry.

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