“ Belfast walking tours - book online at www.urbanadventures.com „
If you want to really get to know a place you need to do two things. The first is to see it through the eyes of a local, the other is to put on a pair of comfortable shoes and hit the pavements. I first visited Belfast about six years ago; my second visit was in May 2011 and in the interim the city seems to have gone tourism crazy. Spend two minutes around the City Hall and you'll be approached by at least half a dozen touts offering coach tours: it's hard to believe that there could be enough visitors to fill them.
But really, what do you see from a tour bus? The outside of buildings as you whizz round the one-way system. And maybe not even that if you're sitting on the wrong side of the bus. The bus often lags behind the commentary and by the time you've heard the French and Spanish versions and get to the English, the building being described is but a dot on the horizon behind you.
In the Tourist Information Office we set a challenge - what was the most unusual and exciting thing to do in Belfast? We weren't especially enamoured with the suggestions we got - clearly he rated Auntie Sandra's sweet factory more highly than we did - so we telephoned Arthur Magee.
Arthur runs Belfast Urban Adventures (formerly Belfast Free Tours), daily walking tours with a difference - and that difference is Arthur. He's a born raconteur with a deep passion for his home city and he clearly loves to share that passion with others. On one of Arthur's tours you will see an alternative side to Belfast; you'll be able to access places that a double-decker bus can't get to and Arthur will point out to you the little details that say so much about Belfast's economic and social history.
We had picked up a leaflet advertising the tour and wanted to make sure, because it was a public holiday, that the tour would be going ahead that day. We left a voicemail and Arthur called us back soon after. The tours start in front of City Hall and before you set off, Arthur gets everyone to introduce themselves (there were only four of us on our tour, I expect he doesn't do that for large groups). He's naturally friendly and seems genuinely interested in who people are and where they're from, and using what he's learned about you in that short time to pitch his tour.
Although this is a walking tour it's primarily a looking and listening tour: yes there's walking but it's not miles and miles so you don't need to be super-fit. You may find that you're taken to streets you've already walked down but you can bet that Arthur will point out something you hadn't noticed before. With Arthur's help, small details in buildings become the doors to some fascinating aspect or other of the city. I promise no spoilers but I will say that, in connection with a charming little Presbyterian church, I learned the two most interesting things I have ever learned on a guided tour.
What would be barely noticeable to most visitors turns out to be the location of one of the city gates - not an ancient structure, but ones that existed until only recently during "the Troubles" when shoppers had to be searched before they could enter the shopping area. Down by the river a striking fish sculpture tells more stories of Belfast and its history than you could possibly learn on that big red bus. Don't get me wrong, that bus tour will make sure you see the grand sights, but Arthur's tour helps you really get under the skin of the city.
Our tour lasted about two and a half hours but Belfast Urban Adventures also offer full days tours that include a pub lunch and offers an opportunity to see at first hand some of the political murals of the residential areas. With Arthur's brilliant insights you're sure to learn a great deal but have fun into the bargain. It sounds like a great way to spend a day.
The Urban Adventures walking tour costs £10 per person which is great value. I came away enlightened, educated and thoroughly entertained. I must have told ten people about the tour on my first day back at work and another ten the next. I'm still quoting facts I learned to anyone who'll listen.
So if you want to see the real Belfast and actually learn something about the city other than the name of the buildings, give Arthur a ring or meet him in front of the City Hall at 11.00am (12 noon on Sundays). He'll be there with that umbrella - and say hi from me.