About 30 minutes into my walk through the new four-storey, 150,000-square-foot Titanic museum in Belfast, disappointment began to set in.
Where, I wondered, are the artifacts?
Yes, it's all very modern and immersive, with expertly done video installations and a moving audio collection of survivors' memories of that icy April night. But there are no artifacts. And I don't know about you, but I expect objects to wonder at in museums; they're the only things you can't get online.
By the time I was browsing the gift shop, with its Heart of the Ocean replica necklaces and ties made from the lost ship's upholstery patterns, I was wondering whether the Titanic Foundation hadn't wasted the $130-million they spent on this admittedly gorgeous building. Are we going to care that much about the big boat in 10 years?
Then I looked around.
The museum, located on the grounds of the shipyard where the great vessel went up, is the anchor of a 75-hectare, 10-year development project called the Titanic Quarter. When it's completed by 2020, it will house apartments, restaurants, bars, clubs and even a college.
But the quarter, in what used to be the nether regions of city, is already a marvel of industrial reclamation, the landscaping and monumental architecture easing the area out of its purely utilitarian past. The reason the foundation didn't spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on artifacts, I came to see, was because the Titanic Quarter is not, ultimately, about the Titanic. It's about Belfast. The museum's exhibits are as much about shipbuilding in Belfast as a whole as they are about building that one famous liner. And looking around the city, it's clear people are treating the excitement that led up to the centenary much the way other cities treat the Olympics: as an excuse to revitalize the city.
Just outside the museum window, two huge old warehouses that served as paint halls for the Harland & Wolff shipyard are now owned by Tom Hanks, I'm told. He bought them to make a movie in 2007 called City of Ember. Now, they're home to the TV series Game of Thrones, which wrapped its third season of filming here and the surrounding areas in November. Using The Lord of the Rings tourism in New Zealand as a model, Irish Tourism is developing a Game of Thrones tour, which it hopes to have ready by the time season three airs.
The large influx of tourists for the Titanic centenary this past year – more than 400,000 – has made a difference both to the economy and the mood of this erstwhile abject city. And compared with the Celtic Tiger-skin rug to the south, Northern Ireland, as part of the United Kingdom, suffered only moderately in the 2008 crash.
The last time I was in town, in 2009, the city was emerging from its Troubles. One of Europe's best new hotels, the Merchant, had just opened in the downtown core, as had the nearby Victoria Square Shopping Centre, with its spectacular dome from which you can see the city and the hills beyond. There were boutique hotels, bistros and lots of excitement, but the crash had hit, and no one seemed certain whether it would all fall down around their ankles.
It hasn't. The Merchant has become a central part of the new upscale Belfast scene, and though its restaurant is distinctly mediocre (I sent back my gummy pumpkin risotto), its bar is the place to see and be seen. The cafés and bistros have multiplied. The James Street South restaurant, also in the city's compact, walkable downtown, is a highlight. It's everything the Merchant dining room is not: simply designed, with a thoughtful but not overwrought menu, flawlessly executed. Like the similarly impressive James Street Bar and Grill that opened next door last year by the same folks (including chef Niall McKenna), it's a mature restaurant for a city that's ready to get serious about its food.
The city also has a new art gallery, the Metropolitan Arts Centre, set in a strikingly contemporary concrete building on Exchange Street, near the river in the Cathedral Quarter. Its 60,000 square feet are given over to no more than two or three artists at a time. Scottish artist Peter Doig is showing his first major Northern Irish show right now, for instance, and I saw three large rooms devoted to Swedish video artist Johanna Billing when I went through last month.
To all this new stuff, one must add the profound experience of touring – or merely walking by – the murals and still-standing dividing walls between the Catholic Falls Road and the Protestant Shankill Road, minutes by foot from downtown. They are so far from Belfast's current settled state, and yet remain so deeply a part of every Belfastian's psyche. This is now and forever what separates Belfast from other European capitals – this history of street violence, this cheek-by-jowl animosity expressed in bombs, fire, sticks, stones and bricks, that seemed like it would never be healed. For many North Americans, tribal warfare in Africa or the Baltic states can seem obscure, incomprehensible. But Belfast we understood, and it stands as an accessible monument to its own recent history.
Throw in a literary heritage that includes C.S. Lewis and Seamus Heaney, add a couple of the best pubs in the world (no trip would be complete without stopping in at the Crown and getting a nip of Midleton Irish whisky from Karen the manager at the Duke of York), and you've got the sort of city for which it's worth crossing the Atlantic. You'll want to take the plane, though, just to be safe.
What to see
Titanic Belfast The city's biggest new attraction focuses not only on the ship, but on Belfast's spectacular history as a shipbuilding capital. 1 Olympic Way, Queen's Road, titanicbelfast.com
The Fitzwilliam Hotel is the city's newest high-end boutique hotel, complete with restaurant and resident bar (which means it's open until you stumble back to your room). 1-3 Great Victoria St., fitzwilliamhotelbelfast.com
James Street Bar and Grill A great addition to Belfast's increasingly cosmopolitan culinary scene. Though there's nothing molecular on the menu, it's good food done radically well. 21 James St. South, belfastbargrill.co.uk
Galley Café Organic and local ingredients form the menu of this new Titanic Quarter eatery, an intimate space on a large docked barge on the river Lagan. 1 Lanyon Quay, belfastbarge.com
Metropolitan Art Centre Art gallery, theatre and dance space, the MAC has more than 300 performances and events a year, in addition to a credible bar in the lobby. 10 Exchange St. West, themaclive.com
Merchant Hotel Opened several years ago in a renovated bank, the Merchant doubled in size in 2010, adding a spa, another bar and 38 new rooms. The old bar, in the original bank space, is still one of the best in Europe. 16 Skipper St., themerchanthotel.com
Lyric Theatre This venerable institution is where Liam Neeson and many other actors got their start. The Lyric was rebuilt and opened last year, three times the size of the original. 55 Ridgeway St., www.lyrictheatre.co.uk