Shout it loud, shout it proud, Belfast is a brilliant place
Belfast. That quirky, plucky city of unexpected joys and occasional frustrations. Where some are proud to be British while disliking the British, and others reject being British while remaining British, and everyone agrees that they dislike the English.
Where you can eat amazing food and listen to amazing music. Where people actually queue - QUEUE - for a burrito. Where the largest convenience store chain shares its name with a self-defence spray. Where it's quicker to fly to France than it is to reach the airport. Where the people are at once friendly, welcoming and generous, but in a slightly jaded way, as though you've just wandered into their prison cell with your washbag ready to do a stretch.
I loved Belfast the moment I arrived, striding along the Crumlin Road to my digs. Over the next two years Belfast became a true home to me. It was a real love affair. Why was that? Something to do with its rough honesty, its unpretentiousness. It's pure sense of fun. I'm yet to cut the cord.
But selling the city to my friends back in London wasn't easy. The first batch arrived with their ironic glasses and Home Counties accents (which suddenly sounded horribly jarring). Three of the seven had brought euros with them. One asked if Belfast had a cashpoint. They were hopelessly and embarrassingly ignorant and the weekend felt like one long exercise in belittling my happy new home.
But, at the very least, they did concede that Belfast had confounded their very low expectations, as it had mine. After all, what had I expected when I first moved over? Concrete, razor wire, fog and bombs. Laughable, isn't it?
But ask yourself: what do we see of Belfast in the wider world? It's a true injustice. One sunken ship. Riots. The rain cloud on the weather report. And killing. The stain of it. Certainly not laughter, music, gorgeous bars, five-star hotels and world-class restaurants. Live music. Museums, theatres, galleries. A thriving gay scene and a tussling, proud population happy to see you.
So now, back in London, I'm doing my bit for the tourist board, spreading the word. But Belfast doesn't always help me out. I was enthusing about the city last Friday evening to a friend whose image of Northern Ireland was akin to that of a recovering alcoholic.
"Yes," she said, with a grimace. "I've heard it's doing much better now." A common phrase. She was concerned about visiting in case there were still bombings. I said she needn't worry and that wasn't the Belfast of 2016.
And, then, on Saturday morning, she sent a damning text message. No words, just a screenshot of an article in a London newspaper. East Belfast bomb on Woodstock Road. She won't be visiting.
The shadow of the Troubles will continue to warp the impression people have of Belfast over the Irish Sea. And that just isn't proportionate. Or fair.
So, now is the time to shout even louder across the Irish Sea. This is what we offer. This is what we have. Come and share it with us. Because Belfast thoroughly deserved to be named Best City in the Guardian and Observer Travel Awards 2016.
I was so proud when I heard the news. Seven million people visit a year, though less than a third stay the night. The city must make itself a destination in its own right, not just a curiosity before heading south.
Holidaymakers love Belfast. Now we have the proof. I hope the city continues to spread the word. I'll certainly be doing my bit.