I’m always fascinated when I visit cities that have overcome turbulent pasts. Some places seem to let it define them, never quite able to shrug off the terrible memories; they continue to be filled with an air of sadness. Meanwhile others undergo a transformation, emerging stronger and more confident – telling the world they will not be defined by their history.
On the first of our #12Trips challenge we visited Belfast, a city which definitely falls into the second category.
This was a visit I was really looking forward to, my first ever trip to Northern Ireland. My knowledge of the country for many years was based on memories of growing up watching the Troubles on television, a 30 year conflict between loyalists and republicans as they fought over whether to remain in the UK or became part of the Republic of Ireland.
More than 3,600 died during the conflict and thousands more were injured. A number of attempts to end the violence failed and at times it felt like there it would be impossible to find a solution. But finally one day it did come to an end, with the Good Friday Agreement on 10th April 1998.
Getting that agreement wasn’t easy. So many people had to put aside their anger, their grief, and their personal feelings for the greater good. But they managed it. And while things may not be 100% perfect, Belfast is moving on. After 16 years the city has been transformed.
We arrived to a frosty welcome – literally. But despite the snow which was falling as we left the airport, the welcome from everyone we met couldn’t have been warmer. Everywhere we went we were greeted by the friendliest, most helpful people I’ve ever met on my travels – asking to share a table with someone in a pub led to a 15 minute conversation.
On Saturday night as we sat in front of an open fire, enjoying the traditional Irish music being played by a number of musicians who seemed to drop in and leave on an unknown schedule, a number of locals told us “we’d never have come out in the city centre like this ten years ago”.
Walking through the busy streets and sitting in the warm, cosy bars, it was hard to imagine a time when the streets were empty. But a bus tour of the city brought home how recent the Troubles were. Driving through the Shankill and Falls estates, which remain separated by a peace wall, there is still a gate which closes every evening between the two which keeps the communities apart.
However back in the city centre it’s clear to see that people are keen to put the past behind them. With a growing tourism, thanks in part to the Titanic museum which opened in a bid to regenerate the city in 2012; a growing food scene and the friendliest locals around, it’s clear to see that Belfast is on the up.
During our visit I remarked a number of times that Belfast reminded me of Berlin, another city which has managed to move on from its troubled past. Sometimes when I watch the news I can’t see a way out of wars in countries like Syria, but Belfast is a lesson that we should never get up. That peace is always the best option and if everyone keeps striving for it, one day it will be achieved.