IF A change really is as good as a rest, a city break can be almost as useful as a week’s holiday.
It can recharge tired batteries while also contributing to our understanding of the world as we can observe at close quarters a foreign history or culture.
But city breaks can be expensive. And if you want your teenage children to come too it can be difficult to find the right spot; one that won’t break either the bank or your relationship with your little darlings.
My husband is English and for years he has been suggesting that we take a weekend in Belfast.
My response has gone from “Belfast, nah I don’t think so” to the more recent “nah, having to change money and all that, nah”.
He became increasingly frustrated with my intransigence on the issue.
It was honestly something I couldn’t explain, except to assume it was some kind of subconscious overhang from having grown up witnessing (albeit from a generally safe distance) ‘the troubles’.
However this summer I thought it was time to get over myself.
So on a sunny Friday morning in August we threw overnight cases in the car, hit the M1 and headed north with two underwhelmed teenagers squinting like zombies in the early morning sunshine in the back of the car.
I had put some thought into the itinerary.
Obviously it had to include Titanic but I also wanted to light a fire or maybe just a little bit of a smoulder in my teenagers’ souls for history, particularly recent Irish history of which they know very little.
Two and a half hours after leaving home we arrived at the Clayton Hotel in the city centre where we dumped our bags and headed towards the Belfast docks, stopping into the Cast and Crew cafe for a tasty lunch before crossing the road into the Titanic Experience.
This is a world class exhibition which will keep all ages enthralled. There is even a Disneyesque ‘ride’ around the Titanic dockyard.
It was busy when we were there but still very easy to negotiate.
The exhibition moves from the story of the building of the great ship to her sinking on April 15, 1912, taking 1,517 lives with her and finishes with some stunning underwater footage of her final resting place and the debris field that surrounds the wreck.
Over one hundred years later it is still poignant to remember those whose lives were lost that night.
However as we exited back into the sunlight of late afternoon I couldn’t help but wonder why we are not so moved by the loss of thousands of lives this year alone in the Mediterranean. Human nature is unfathomable sometimes.
In front of the iconic Titanic building is another ship in a dry dock. She would be easy to miss and she is one of the best parts of the exhibition.
The Nomadic was one of two tenders built to serve the great liners of the Olympic class.
It was from the Nomadic that many of the most illustrious and wealthy passengers boarded Titanic in Cherbourg.
She has been faithfully restored and we were given a most informative, old fashioned tour by our guide, David who managed to bring her chequered history alive.
We took a leisurely stroll over the newly opened Lagan Weir pedestrian bridge back to the Clayton Hotel for some down time before heading out for dinner at the very lovely and rather trendy Hadski’s Restaurant in the Cathedral Quarter of the city.
Twitter had long ago introduced me to St Georges Market and so it was first thing on our agenda on Saturday morning. I find that exploring a city’s market gives one a real a sense of the place.
St Georges Market didn’t disappoint. Buzzing with colour, smells and music the market is a hive of creative and gastronomic activity.
We spent a happy couple of hours browsing and left clutching precious purchases which included a pot of delicious banana and strawberry jam.
Our final afternoon in Belfast was full of places whose names were so familiar to me.
We began at Crumlin Road Gaol which closed in 1996 but which provides a fascinating glimpse into the history of this city.
Modelled on London’s Pentonville Prison, this Victorian Jail opened in 1845; famine times in Ireland and among its first inmates were both women and children, many of whom committed the crime of stealing food.
In more recent years of course the Jail was home to some of the current politicians in Northern Ireland.
Once again we had a wonderful guide in Brian who managed to deliver the story of the prison with dignified enthusiasm.
Our final activity was a taxi tour of the city and for all of us this was probably the highlight.
Our driver, Stephen was a most passionate and knowledgeable guide. He took us to Belfast Castle which is a great spot to enjoy a coffee and the wonderful views over the city.
As we drove up the long avenue to Stormont, Stephen filled us in on the recent history of Government in Northern Ireland along with an anecdote about the funeral of Belfast’s favourite son, George Best.
The girls were somewhat disappointed to hear the imposing statue we stopped to admire wasn’t in fact the aforementioned Mr Best but some boring politician guy called Carson!
Stephen then took us on a journey around the places in Belfast that we all know of.
The Shankill and the Falls roads and the ‘Peace Wall’ that divides the two communities.
Like all visitors we left our messages among the graffiti, although my daughters were horrified that such a divide exists.
We drove under forests of fluttering Union Jacks, to look at murals commemorating lives and ideals and onto areas where the place names were also ‘as gaeilge’ and where each neighbourhood has a ‘garden of remembrance’ to those in the community who lost their lives.
It was a sobering and sombre exercise but one which is, I think, necessary in order to get a real handle on this city.
As we drove back to our hotel I realised that Belfast has not only risen from the ashes of conflict but it has also found its soul.
It’s a city that is so proud of itself and that pride is tangible. It was evident in every person we spoke to from waiting staff to tour guides, all of whom really wanted us to enjoy their city.
It shines from all the recent architecture and the regeneration of the older quarters.
Belfast is also a city with a very Irish sense of humour; something that each of our tour guides used to great effect.
As I type this I am drinking tea from a mug purchased in Georges Market, which features an outline of a liner and the words “it was grand when it left here, so it was”.
Belfast is a joyous place which doesn’t take itself too seriously but takes nothing for granted.
As a city break it ticks all the boxes.
I don’t know why I waited so long to visit.
Barbara and her family stayed at the centrally located Clayton Hotel. www.claytonhotelbelfast.com
For more info on the restaurants see www.castandcrewbelfast.co.uk and www.hadskis.co.uk
St Georges Market is only open at the weekends. For more info see www.visit-belfast.com
Barbara’s taxi tour was with Value Cabs www.valuecabs.co.uk