Even during the most difficult and tense times, when republican and loyalist gunmen controlled the high streets and British soldiers were thick on the ground in their armoured cars, Belfast could be the most welcoming of cities. Providing, of course, you knew where to go… or more precisely, where not to go.
"The Troubles" might have been declared officially over with the historic Good Friday Agreement of 1998, but until a few years ago the trouble continued regardless in the form of periodic sectarian killings, paramilitary intimidation, the glacial pace of the Irish Republican Army's disarmament and ongoing political instability. It was during this period that I was first assigned to cover Northern Ireland as an Australian newspaper correspondent. It was my job back then to look for trouble. And I found it all too easily. Most memorably, during one of my numerous visits to Belfast, at a bleak housing estate off the Protestant Shankill Road: in a room with one of Ulster's most violent paramilitary leaders, Johnny Adair, a gaggle of pistol-toting minders and a wildly agitated Rottweiler.
Shaken and stirred, there was nothing for it that night but a visit to Deanes (then as today, Deanes is a Belfast fine-dining institution just a stone's throw from the Europa - reputedly the most bombed hotel in Europe) and a post-dinner Bushmills whiskey or two at the nearby Crown Bar. It was here that my local friends assured me things would one day change in their city. "These eejits will be chased out of town eventually," said my mate Gerry, a permanent fixture at that grand old pub since well before my very first Belfast visit. "Belfast will bloom in the peace."
Today the IRA has decommissioned its arms and the other paramilitaries are largely dormant if not quite disbanded. Recent violence at the hands of a dissident republican group serves to remind the world that peace is never easily won, but these recent attacks have been regarded as aberrant rather than part of what was once the norm. The British Army has largely vacated Northern Ireland and a power-sharing government has been formed from old enemies - the loyalists and the republicans. This was once unthinkable; as unthinkable as the new non-sectarian police force, or indeed the Queen visiting the Republic of Ireland.
But this is the optimistic new reality of what was always a charming, though once decidedly very nervy, city. Gerry is right: Belfast - the capital of the "other Ireland" - has bloomed in the peace. So much so that today Belfast is emerging as a new cultural mecca in the United Kingdom, with a vibrant restaurant, music and bar scene to rival those of the mainland British cities.
Five years ago Londoners favoured Dublin for their famed "mini-breaks" (pardon the Bridget Jones parlance). So much so, I recall, that one of my London neighbours declared me "quite batty" for the pleasure I took in my frequent work visits to Northern Ireland. "Why on earth would you want to go there?" he sneered.
Today, word having spread that the place is largely safe, Londoners are coming to Belfast, Derry (or Londonderry) and the breathtakingly moody Antrim coast in ever-greater numbers, and the city has grown enormously in confidence. The ever-present friendliness of the place is now more pronounced than ever.
While the city's violent and tumultuous past is recorded in the huge street murals featuring masked gunmen and martyrs from both sides, there are no longer areas that are seriously no-go because of sectarian paramilitary-ism. Whereas five years ago a stranger with a foreign accent might have been shaken down and questioned on entering a pub in the Catholic Falls Road, today you're more likely to be shouted a beer and challenged to a game of pool.
The Belfast boom is reflected in the hundreds of new inner-city apartments, some of them built on what were literally bomb sites for more than 60 years courtesy of the German Blitz. Despite the effects of the global financial crisis and the recent downturn in Northern Ireland's economy - consistent with the United Kingdom trend - leading European architects are still vying for contracts to produce structures sympathetic to the majestic low-rise Victorian buildings that adorn Belfast's wide streets and narrow lanes.
The most ambitious development has unfolded around the dockside Titanic Quarter - the place where the ill-fated vessel of the same name was built by Harland and Wolff a century ago. More than $10.7 billion is being sunk into the commercial and residential development that has as its centrepiece a $153-million "Titanic Experience" building, which will open, it is anticipated, in time for the 2012 London Olympics.
Much has changed, courtesy of this flurry of development. But Belfast remains Belfast to its core, and she is opening her arms to the world. So here's some advice: get to Belfast soon, while you can still get a room in one of the city's charming boutique hotels and a table at Deanes, and before you need to book to see the murals down the Falls and Shankill Roads.
"I think we've got to actually use the Troubles to our advantage to promote Belfast," says Michael Deane, whose restaurant Deanes (controversially stripped of its Michelin star of 14 years in 2011) has had a recent makeover. "It is such a big part of our past and people are very interested in what happened here."
At the upper end of the market there's plenty of tough competition these days from restaurants such as Cayenne, Nick's Warehouse, The Ginger Bistro, Shu and The Great Room of The Merchant Hotel.
The Merchant, situated in the meticulously restored Italianate former headquarters of the Ulster Bank, is a five-star hotel of 62 rooms, 26 of them Victorian and 36 art deco in style. Staying at The Merchant is an intimate, serene and somewhat other-worldly experience. In the Great Room, it pays to look towards the heavens: I counted 55 cherubs on the dome overhead. (Perhaps one or two escaped me.) It's the type of hotel you must force yourself to leave; it would be easy to spend too much of your visit within its alluring confines.
The Malmaison in nearby Victoria Street offers an altogether more modern boutique hotel experience. From its chic black bar with over-sized furniture to its eclectic brasserie, the Malmaison is (there is no other word) happening. It's a great place for star-spotting - a pursuit that was, in the not-too-distant good old days, the preserve of Crown Bar, where over the years I had the good fortune to encounter a former Doctor Who, a British soccer star or two, and numerous emerging artists and writers. The elaborate, ornate Victorian beauty of Crown Bar (also known as The Crown Liquor Saloon, and today owned by the National Trust) means it has permanent membership of Belfast's "must visit" fixture. Try one of the intimate snugs - individual rooms enclosing a single table.
In central Belfast, it's fair to say, you'll never be more than 100 metres or so from a pub and, since this city's renaissance, a lively bar or three. The pub in Ireland is, of course, more than just a place to get a drink. To the Ulsterman or woman, booze is a social lubricant and a panacea to the ills of the world. And the Belfast pub is at once a lounge room, a university, a meeting place, an entertainment venue and a restaurant. Countless are the times I've gone into a Belfast pub for a drink and ended up at an art exhibition, a movie premiere, a poetry recital or a book launch, or been invited home to "mum's" for a meal.
Which brings us to the food. Living in Britain, I always felt slightly queasy when the English invited me to dine at a "gastropub". Should I carry a supply of Stemetil and Lomotil, I always wondered, or borrow some wellies and an apron?
Well, in Belfast, and for that matter through much of Northern Ireland, a pub is just called a pub - no gastro about it. And pubs here are synonymous with great food. And so, you can safely walk through the doors in anticipation of excellent, earthy food made of the finest local produce. Scallops, prawns and fish of all varieties are caught fresh daily on the nearby Antrim coast. True carnivores will be delighted, meanwhile, with the local breeds of cattle,
sheep and pigs.
sheep and pigs.
Belfast is not a city in which to deny yourself the food you'd normally shun for health reasons. Have the steak and kidney pie. Go the bangers. Order the Irish stew. Most of all, take it with the mash, for the potato - baked, boiled, chipped, and with butter, milk, spring onions and salt - remains the staple of true Irish cooking. Sometimes you'll find several treatments of the spud on a single plate. And just when you think you couldn't possibly demolish that mound of mash, you will.
A drive through leafy, slate-roofed, red-bricked south and east Belfast is a must, if only to see Little Lea, the childhood home of the Belfast-born writer CS Lewis, on Circular Road. Belfast was the muse for so many of the world's finest English language writers, and you don't need to travel far to trace their footsteps. Over there are the gates of Campbell College where Samuel Beckett briefly taught French to a class of school boys whom he famously declared to be "rich and thick" when he was told they were "the cream" of Belfast. And there, just up on the Antrim Road, is St Malachy's College, which alumnus Bernard MacLaverty unsentimentally depicted as uncompromisingly bleak in his discomfiting coming-of-age novel The Anatomy School.
The Harland and Wolff shipyards, birthplace of the Titanic, have also inspired their share of literature. The Thompson dry dock where the great ship was built is today a tourist attraction and remains much as it was when the vessel was under construction 100 years ago. Looking into the dock from above, you can still see the original keel blocks - each weighing about the same as three family cars - upon which the Titanic was built. This was once the engine room of the Belfast economy, and more than 3000 vessels - including the HMAS Canberra - were built in these yards. But today, in the post-industrial UK, no ships are built here, and while Northern Ireland's economy still has a comparatively healthy manufacturing and building sector, Belfast is increasingly relying on service industries and tourism.
Rug up and walk through central Belfast. Most Antipodeans will find the weather akin to permafrost - winter and summer - but Belfast's leaden skies suit her grey streets and Victorian and postmodern façades: the Albert Memorial Clock and the tiled mural of Transport House are best off-set by northern hemisphere gloom.
Brace yourself against the wind and head for the Linen Hall Library, founded in 1788. This is Belfast's oldest library, and it boasts a fascinating political collection documenting the Troubles, as well as stills and film of the Titanic.
Then take in what is perhaps the most distinctive building in Belfast, the City Hall. This Belfast landmark was famously described by English writer EM Forster as a "costly Renaissance pile, which shouts 'Dublin can't beat me' from all its pediments and domes, but does not say anything else".
It's worth stopping before Belfast Cathedral, the cathedral church of St Anne (1904), if only to admire the controversial postmodern spire - a needle-like structure that can be seen from most places in the city. "It's simply wrong, I'm telling yer," declares our guide, Hugh Rice from Blue Badge Tourist Guides.
Rice, a teacher at a Belfast Catholic boys' school in a former life, couples his strong views about most things with a delightful capacity to weave stories about Belfast's past - including the Troubles - with its present. And so it is that as we take in the republican murals on the Falls Road, including that depicting the 10 IRA hunger strikers of 1981, Hugh confides, sotto voce, that he taught two of the martyred men, Joe McDonnell and Kieran Doherty. "Good boys, both," he says. "A truly sad, sad business it was."
Sadness and tragedy are, of course, part of Belfast's moody fabric. The reminders of history are ever present, and nobody truly forgets. But life rolls on, new hope blooms, and the once boarded-up and derelict shops and pubs around Bank Street, a former dead-city zone, are alive again.
At Bank Street's centre is Mourne Seafood Bar, in what was a disused saloon. The restaurant has a simple informal décor of exposed bricks, dark wooden panelling and polished floorboards. Drawing on its own specially farmed supplies of oysters and mussels, Mourne gives the diner seafood at its best: presented simply and with care, but no fuss. "These are as fresh as you'll get," says our waiter, as he places a plate of oysters before me. "They have come straight from the loch this morning." Think of any superlative you can to describe an oyster, and describe it here. I can't recall better seafood.
There is but one thing to end another unforgettable few days in Belfast. Yes, of course, a pub crawl.
Begin at McHugh's bar (1711), the oldest building in Belfast, and wind on through to The Morning Star, Whites Tavern and Kelly's Cellars. Also in Bank Street, Kelly's is variously described as "no nonsense" and full of "Belfast characters" - a euphemism for many types who like a drink. This is the most Belfast of Belfast watering holes, a pub that is as raucous and friendly today as it was during - and in the years immediately after - the Troubles, when I first set foot in it. Some things have never changed in Belfast, the people's ubiquitous optimism and friendliness included.
"There's a reason why we people who lived here never left - even when things got very bad," says Rice. "We just liked the place so much, and so everyone laughed their way through the Troubles. Because if we didn't laugh, we'd all crack up."
I'll always return to this enchanting and moody city confident that each time I do it will be a little bit more interesting. Not to mention less nervy.