Few would describe Belfast as one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. It does, however, have character.
The Cathedral Quarter, the streets surrounding St Anne’s Cathedral, is working to reinvent itself as a cool cultural hangout. To judge from our little stroll around the area, it’s succeeding.
We’re waiting for the music to start in the John Hewitt Hotel. We’ve been here before, and know that it’s one of the few bars left in Belfast where we can be assured of a ‘session’ that doesn’t start after our normal bedtime.
‘Craic’ is all very well, but when it starts at 9.30pm or ‘maybe 10.30 if Seamus who plays the pipes is working late’, it doesn’t suit those of us who were hoping to rise early to go for a drive in the countryside.
So the John Hewitt it is, where it gets to be fun as unfashionably early as 6.00pm on a Saturday night.
There’s a parking spot right outside, so we know the fun hasn’t yet started. That leaves us time to duck into the cathedral itself…and duck out again when the attendant suggests that a fiver is an appropriate donation for the privilege.
Better value is the Writers’ Square opposite, where for exactly nothing we cheapskates can read quotes from Belfast’s literary notables preserved in the flagstones. We’re amused by the self-deprecating humour. ‘I was born in Belfast and was proud of my city. It was a surprise when I travelled to learn that other places in the world don’t have such a high opinion of Belfast as Belfast has of itself.’ (I’m paraphrasing that one – if anyone can remind me of the identity of the author and correct the quote I’d be grateful.)
From there we roam the streets and alleys, where people have begun to gather in the bars in the sunshine. The Cathedral Quarter will soon be hosting another ‘Festival of Fools’ – a celebration of street performance. As one who performed in Amsterdam’s Festival of Fools in the 70s, this prejudices me in its favour.
At around 5.30 we arrive back at the John Hewitt (he was a Belfast writer too) and the music is in full swing.
Due to baggage restrictions on Easyjet I’ve failed to bring my yellow fiddle with me on this trip. It’s a pity, because the session is friendly, everybody seems welcome, and I recognise a fair proportion of the tunes they’re playing.
This time I’m happy just to listen.