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Let's Celebrate Belfast's Positive Changes

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In a decade that has been marred by travel advisories, it's very nice and reassuring to note that things can change for the better.

When the Belfast Agreement, that long-negotiated truce, first brought peace and political stability to Northern Ireland in 1998, you wouldn't have thought to take a vacation in Belfast. Thirty years of violence between Catholics and Protestants had left the world with impressions of horror on the high roads.

But Ireland's second-largest city (population around 300,000) has in the ensuing decade done an about-face in lifestyle: It's now a peaceful, prosperous, cheerful, safe and thoroughly appealing place to visit.

Located in Ulster province, on the border of counties Antrim and Down, Belfast is situated at the head of Belfast Lough on Ireland's northeastern coast.

The city still bears evidence of "The Troubles," and spots like the Peace Wall (or Peace Line) have become popular tourist attractions. On "Black Taxi Tours," sometimes guided by ex-political prisoners who relate fascinating stories, you'll visit the series of partitions that divided Catholic Falls Road in West Belfast from Protestant Shankhill Road. Most of the partitions are covered with colorful murals depicting the political, cultural and literary history of Northern Ireland.

"Black Taxi Tours" aren't an obligation, but you'll be remiss if you fail to reflect upon the profoundly positive effects of peace.

Belfast's historical and cultural highlights are in the heart of the city. To explore and enjoy, take a walking tour of the city center: an area dotted with Victorian buildings, many with charming boutiques and attractive restaurants.

Browse through St. George's Market (on May Street), a covered warren of stalls and shops selling everything you'd need to set up house in Belfast — and lots of items you'll want to bring home. St. George's Market is a place where you can stretch the shrunken value of the U.S. dollar to maximum purchasing power.

There's no cost involved in enjoying a stroll through the gardens surrounding century-old City Hall (Donegall Square) or stopping to see the landmark Albert Memorial Clock (Victoria Square). Don't miss Customs House (Customs House Square), Royal Belfast Academical Institution (College Square East), St.

George's Church (High Street), Ulster Hall and Windsor House (both on Bedford Street).

Trendy shops, restaurants and entertainment venues abound in Cathedral Quarter (around Anglican St. Anne's Cathedral; St. Peter's, the Catholic cathedral is west of the city center), and at the Laganside Development area.

Before heading for Belfast's renowned Linen Hall Library, rest, refresh and pay homage to Ireland's wordsmiths at Bittle's Bar (in Victoria Square), the famous literary hangout that celebrates Ireland's poets and writers.

Linen Hall Library (Donegall Square North), founded in 1788, is renowned for its unequaled Irish and Local Studies Collection, ranging from early Belfast and Ulster printed books to some 250,000 items in its Northern Ireland Political Collection, the definitive archive of the recent "Troubles."

The library boasts a treasury of Titanic memorabilia (the ship was built in Belfast). Follow Belfast's Titanic Tourism Trail to Harland & Wolff shipyard's dry dock, where the doomed ship was built, and see the SS Nomadic, a refurbished White Star liner of that era.

Also of special interest is Belfast's Van Morrison heritage. The beloved singer-songwriter was raised at 125 Hyndford Street (in Bloomfield), now marked by a bronze plaque. Take a self-guided tour of spots frequented by Morrison.

For scenic overviews, head for Cavehill (1,200 feet above sea level). You can see the Isle of Man and, on a clear day, Scotland. One Cavehill outcropping resembling a giant's head is said to have inspired Jonathan Swift to create the title character in "Gulliver's Travels."

Giant's Causeway, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and National Nature Reserve that's located an hour from Belfast, features towering cliffs that overlook the sea. Tour the Visitor Centre, then board Bushmills Railway's steam locomotive to ride to historic Bushmills, home of the world's oldest whiskey distillery — and (if you hadn't guessed) tastings. It's a great place to buy souvenirs.

Speaking of which, if you buy "Troubles"-related souvenirs — IRA T-shirts

are sold everywhere — don't wear them around town. Picking a healed wound

can make it bleed.

For more information about travel to Belfast and surrounding areas, as wells as accommodations and attractions, visit www.gotobelfast.com and www.discoverireland.com.

To find out more about Jennifer Merin and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

COPYRIGHT 2007 JENNIFER MERIN

DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS SYNDICATE INC.


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