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New Boom in Belfast Photograph: Preeti Verma Lal

Jonathan Swift and I call for no comparison. He the Horatian satirist with vitriol in his pen, I a mere mortal. But at least there is one thing common; there is one road we have both walked, 250 years apart, though – he in his breeches on his stallion, I in my leggings in my Mercedes, both staring at Napoleon’s Nose on the Cave Hill mountain overlooking the city of Belfast. Swift is said to have borrowed his inspiration from the basaltic outcrop for Gulliver’s Travel, I just stood there stupefied waiting for some inspiration to walk my way. That rainy day in Belfast I perhaps waited too long for inspiration, but when none moseyed up to me on the sidewalk, I chose titanic options.

The real Titanic. The ship that sank on April 14, 1912, and was once the world’s largest movable object was built in Belfast. In the Titanic Quarter, I stand by the large hole that was specially dug up to fit the colossal hull of the Titanic; I peep from behind the grime of the window of Harland and Wolff office where designers poured over drawing boards to make the blueprint of what they ironically flaunted as the “ship designed to be unsinkable.” Across the street in the world’s largest dry dock, the Samson and Goliath yellow gantry cranes emblazoned with the signature H & W insignia stand stoically as the city’s landmark. The giant cranes must snuffled for 852 ft liner that bumped into an iceberg, its thud like the tear of a calico, but Belfast has not forgotten its favorite ship; it is gearing up to celebrate the Titanic centenary in 2012.

That day in Belfast I was hurrying from literature to a luxurious tragedy, but when I walked into Malmaison hotel, I was to meet Napoleon again. Actually, this time his wife, Josephine de Beauharnais, who bought a rundown 150-acre Chateau Mailmson near Paris for a princely 300,000 francs in 1799. Like the chateau, the Malmaison hotel has no orangery for pineapples or a hundred stoves to keep the greenhouse warm, but it retains the tongue twister of its name and has its own curios – a large box camera, Victorian chaise lounges, black wooden trusses, doors with unusual knobs, five faces sculpted on the Baroque façade to represent five continents and a black bell that hangs over the reception like the Damocles sword.   

Time was flitting past me in Belfast and the rain gods were unrelenting. But thank God there was Andrew Bigss, my guide, who was like a fun history book, not too many dreary facts, instead great anecdotes told with a sly smile. Andrew had seen The Troubles, the strife that tore the beautiful island of woods and meadows until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. The bombs no longer drop from heaven and Northern Ireland gloats about its peace and prosperity now. I had thought I would go pub crawling, specially to the Crown Liquor Saloon, where the only light is from the gas lamps on the ceiling and the rays peeping through Victorian windows. There is no electricity here, but this pub is sure gutsy, it has survived 42 bombs during The Troubles! But Andrew was feeling ritzy that evening and recommended an afternoon tea in The Merchant Hotel.

Walk into The Merchant and you wonder whether it is a Roman cathedral or a palace - Victorian lamp posts embellished in gilt, unending steps in buff, ornate glass dome, stained glass windows, walls and pillars laden with figurines, modern stone sculptures in the garden. All this in what was originally built to house a bank! Now, who would believe that. What you cannot believe is the fare they serve for the afternoon tea – dainty scones, sumptuous sandwiches, cakes that can crumble with touch. Here you would not find the traditional champ, Ulster fry or the Irish moss that is collected and dried in spring or the dulse seaweed. For that you need to walk into the pedestrianised streets that are flanked by eateries and pubs.

I had soaked so much of Belfast in one day that was feet were sore and my camera fogged with all the rain. But my itinerary was packed for the next day, I was to head to the walled city of Londonderry, an hour’s drive from Belfast. I was tempted to skip but history fascinates me, and that day I had another temptation, a bright and sunny day in Derry. I chose the sun. And history.

On the map, Derry might seem like an end of the world entrepot, but Derry is so seeped in history and so subtle in its style that I fell in love the moment I stepped in. There are flowers everywhere, so are murals, everything arranged meticulously, like the city which is shaped around a diamond. Derry was walled in the early days, segregating the Catholics from the Protestants, with the Catholics having to leave the walled areas when the bell tolled at night. But all that is history, what remains now are the beefy walls, the world’s first department store called Austin’s, the cannons that stay silent, the churches that scrape the sky, the Tower Museum that narrates tales of the yore and a pub that was established in 1729.

As I sat in the trendy Halo Grill the past seems to converse with present. The Halo lounge has diaphanous sequined green curtains pitted against magenta drapes; the settees are modern to the last dowel and its owner John McAllister with moussed hair and striped shirt seems to have sprung out of a fashion catalogue. I peep out of the large windows and see the city spread out, the cannons and the wall lording over the landscape. I look at the bonfire stacked for the night, a fire that would symbolically burn all that divides man from man.

Andrew was right. Northern Ireland can take you by surprise. And who does not love surprises. I definitely do!


Published in The Economic Times, 2008


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