The cinema experience of a lifetime (without even watching a movie)

Stumbled on an old cinema in Paris with Elle and found ourselves so enthralled by a tour that we wanted to share with movie fans back home.

The cinema is the stunning Rex in the Opera District. As fans of cinema heritage we simply could not believe how well the Rex tour brings the cinema to life for a new generation.

You can see why this caught our eye…


The building is split into the cinema/ theatre, the behind the scenes tour and a nightclub (originally founded by Laurent Garnier no less)…


The start of the tour, which sets off in groups by chosen language and uses speakers on the wall instead of headphone audio guides…


What happened next? We had a chance to visit a reproduction of the cinema tower, enjoy a version of the ‘manager’s office’, glimpse at the scale of the many levels behind the stage of the main screen, check out a projection booth of old, take part in a green screen shoot, use a sound studio, be extras in a special effects scene, watch our efforts cut into a trailer in the creening room and wave for the Press on a red carpet…



Yes, it is all designed for a very broad audience – that’s the joy of it – and with the Rex being a working venue you see less of the actual cinema than you’d expect.

BUT every part of the tour drips with the love of film and cinema heritage. It is glorious.

Oh, and thanks to some kind staff in the venue itself we were able to take a look at the (closed) main screen from the audience side.

It is absolutely stunning (and with 2,600 seats it is Europe’s largest too)…


In Belfast we (almost always) demolish our old cinemas, yet elsewhere they find a way to bring the beauty of a different age of cinema to young and old alike.

Thank you to everyone at the Rex – we loved every second we spent with you.

Why our shops are filling with Belfast pride 


A slick, viral video showing smiling people in celebratory mood at the launch of a brand new product in Belfast appeared on social media in February this year.

But the launch was different from many launches seen until now. Different because it used the rapidly-rising popularity, even the heart and soul, of Belfast as a central marketing hook.

Held among the rich sights and smells of the Linen Hall Library, the event was held to welcome a new brand of locally-made Belfast gin to be sold by independent outlets in the city and beyond.

Even the name Jawbox Gin, stamped onto the side of stoneware mugs at the launch beneath posters with the slogan “True Character”, links a tactile sense of timeless Belfast to the historic setting.

And the urbane, folksy tone of the video also hints at something very new: a sense of modern, outgoing Belfast pride creating demand for products celebrating everything the city has become in the present day and remembering the best of Belfast’s past.

The drink is joined on the shelves by other products including the Ashton Watch Company’s new Belfast-branded goods, by the relaunched Dunville’s Belfast whiskey, by RubyBlue vodka and by the likes of the Ardour gym wear company’s ‘BLFST’ range. Meanwhile, artists like Deborah Toner have filled the award-winning St George’s Market with pieces proudly celebrating our city.

The arrival of the Belfast-branded products has come about through the growing confidence of those who live and work in the modern capital, in turn encouraged by the city hosting successful international events and enjoying praise from guidebooks and travel writers in recent years for its lively, welcoming nightlife.

Gerry White, creator of Jawbox Gin, explained: “There’s a vibrancy about Belfast today and that’s why we have more investment in places like great restaurants. It has meant a change for people here in how they think about Belfast: there’s more enthusiasm, helped by Belfast pulling off impressive events better than many larger cities could have managed.”

Belfast writer Alan Meban was asked if he has seen our shop-shelves begin to change. He recalled how moves by Belfast City Council almost ten years ago could well have sparked a drive to turn Belfast pride into local products: “In the summer of 2008, Belfast City Council re-branded the city with a stylised heart-shaped B. It kick-started a movement to make the city most associated with conflict into a softer, fluffier, feel-good place. Today, the name Belfast is at the heart of the designs of merchandise from independent creatives.

“We certainly export this new Belfast to visitors and tourists: it’s the image we want to project. The centenary of the 1912 sinking of the Titanic was an opportunity to celebrate ship-building and tall ships, cycling races and continental markets have all brought people together”.

Alan warned, though, that an ongoing struggle with the more visceral symbols of identity – “flags, bonfires, parading, murals and housing” – can still threaten our own, united sense of a new Belfast.

That sense of common self-regard, he argues, is key to turning Belfast pride into Belfast pounds.

We can all drink to that.

 

* Dedicated to my beloved Elle who helped me see Belfast through new eyes – and also loves to help explore our city and its changes for these blog posts.

Random Reykjavik: ignoring the guide book in Iceland’s capital 

(Dedicated with love to Elle)

It started with a delicious breakfast Dunville’s whiskey in Belfast International Airport and the pair of us laughing like a pair of children.

I’d told a friend I was off to Iceland and my phone pinged with the response: “Aurora?”.

My reply: “Couldn’t afford to take a lap-dancer, so Elle is here instead”.

And so it continued on the easyJet flight: Elle threatened to ask the pilot to do an about-turn after seeing puffin mentioned in the in-flight magazine as an Icelandic attraction for diners as opposed to twitchers.

Impatient to arrive, a decision was made at that to spend our four days in Rehyjavik without the benefit of anything as sensible as a guide book, map, tour, hire car or anything remotely approaching a plan. We aren’t shoppers or fans of tourist pubs either so we couldn’t wait to see what else Iceland’s capital had to offer.

And it responded with plenty: from a random, remote birthday party with locals to a very long cold, heavily-layered walk to try to catch the Northern Lights.

Friday

We touched down and promised our 4am-awoken selves the 10am lunch our stomachs believed they were owed. 

And then?

– Supplies: Well, we did think about picking up food for our main street apartment but we we couldn’t wait to see the city. We did have a bottle of excellent  Northern Irish Ruby Blue vodka from the airport though.

– First impressions: Rehyjavik has the look of a fashionable, urbane city but in the morning has a strange feel due to the streets being fairly dark, the open shops keeping their lights turned low indoors. We later found that the heating inside shops is usually turned to an Equatorial setting.

– Apartment not hotel: Being January, it wasn’t expensive and meant we had our own kitchen to take a break from eating cheap stodge or very expensive non-stodge for four days. Watch out, though, as ‘kitchen’ might not include an oven. Oh, and McDonald’s left Iceland (apparently during the recession) and haven’t been back.

– Old records and vintage clothes: A bit of wandering around the city brought us to Lucky Records, a superb and huge record shop, near the centre. There are any number of vintage clothes shops too.

– Stocking-up at last: A trip to a Polish supermarket and a main street grocer meant we found out the unusual licensing laws in Iceland mean only ‘light’ beer is available from a grocery shop. The reminder comes from officially-sanctioned off-sales which seem to close at 6pm.

– No oasis for gamblers: Iceland has no casinos or bookmakers. The closest things are slot machine shops similar to the UK ‘Oasis’ arcades.

– Birthday with a difference: We met with a local I already know who kindly talked us into taking a seat in a 4×4 packed with his friends to make our way, charging over piles of show, to a party in ‘an apartment’ outside town. The apartment turned out to be a very large rental venue with a high-end band (including the birthday boy). They even played Van Morrison for us, or so we liked to think.

It was the first chance to answer the question: what do Icelanders in the capital wear at night? The guys were dressed like Conor McGregor and the girls like they have stepped out of modelling for a knitwear catalogue. Us? Shirt and jeans. my shirt even had a pocket, practically formal wear by Belfast standards.

Saturday 

– Barry Bru!: A corner shop off the main street sells the biggest collection of fizzy drinks from around the world you’ll ever see and will arrange a quick and cheap burger and chips. We spotted Irn Bru, always a welcome taste of home. Apparently the shop does a roaring trade selling can after can to hungover UK visitors.

– Flea-market: Could be a Marmite place, especially if the plentiful posh shopping is more your thing. But we chatted to  sellers of old books who were passionate about their stock and about local history, even picking up a stunning 1930s postcard which was written by a traveller to his young son at home in the North of Scotland. Vinyl is plentiful too.

– ‘Liquor store’: These are the government-approved places but watch out as they seem to close at 6pm. Again, the beer you buy in corner shops etc is light beer at around 2% alcohol. Best to stock up at the airport in any case.

– A shopping speciality: The rows of upmarket bags and boots and jackets didn’t hold our attention but the choice of local silversmith shops did. These workshop outlets have a range of unusual and beautifully-crafted items which are often made on the premises. An exception worth seeing even for non-shoppers. Our favourites were ‘Gudbrandur Josef Jezorski’ and ‘Orr’ on the main street, both had beautiful stock and were extremely friendly.

– Street art: It is stunning and it is everywhere. We saw some incredible works of art wherever we went.

– Lights the thran way: We decided to walk, layered up and faces near-covered (if we ever go for a career-change to become burglars we’ll be well-equipped) for an hour out of the street lights to try to catch the Northern Lights. After a few wrong turns around a very dark harbour – the western obsession with health and safety doesn’t seen to have reached this, a country where more than a little determined drinking can be seen being done – we found the right path and eventually the shadow of a lighthouse far from the city along the shore.

And the lights? They began just as we sat down with a hip-flask, snapped us from our enthralled viewing by fading away and then starting again with green streaks across the sky just as we stood up to leave. It was even an emotional experience to share such a remarkable phenomenon together. 
Afterwards, thrilled and giggling (“I could see some red in the lights too”, “yeah Elle, but you’re a bit peshed”), it was a joy to see the city’s streets late at night.

Sunday 

– The bells!!: Sunday morning bells in Rehykavik seem to go on for the entire, well, Sunday morning. It seems a cruel punishment for a city famous for all-night partying by the younger locals but it doesn’t seem to deter anyone.

– Breaking the rules: Well, we would have if we’d have set any rules to our ‘plan not to plan break’. So we jumped on a tour bus to feed our new-found Northern Lights addiction, this time going further from the city lights and armed with a iPhone app to capture the moment. Amused on the way by a local host (try it in a local accent…”I will tell you stories about Iceland but the truth often sounds very close to it being that I am telling lies to you”) we heard tales like the development of an app local people – many being related – can use if they meet a potential mate in a pub to check that the family lines don’t cut too close.

The guide, just outside the city, was launching into his schtick about the uncertainty of the adventure and the night of lights-hunting ahead being full of the joy of the chase when a passenger pointed and said “emm…aren’t those the lights?”. And so, the bus was hurriedly stopped to watch a remarkable display its shimmering and flicking green streaks. Simply breath-taking.

Monday 

– Force-feeding: Our local friend refused allow us to leave Iceland without trying the national dish of the crunchy, rich hot dog. The weather deteriorating fast, we were even driven to the harbour to the best spot for hot dogs to ‘ohh’ and ‘ahhh’ in delight at their moreish taste. 

– Ski hats and topcoats: Back in the (extremely) warm Keflavik airport we loved seeing the huddle of Belfast folk still hugging giant coats and ski-hatted heads making our corner of departures look like a Where’s Wally convention. We spotted a Linfield FC scarf and enjoyed reminding each other that the Icelandic for ‘yes’ sounds a lot like the Northern Ireland-owned official national shout of ‘yyyeeeoww’.

Off, then, for a look in duty free (great for local drinks and Scotch, not so much for Irish whiskey) and a flight home apparently full of Belfast travellers but few – if any – people from Iceland making the trip to Northern Ireland.

Overall, a stunning, fascinating place and not just for the headline activities of shopping, guided tours and tourist bar-crawling.

Ignoring occasionally frosty customer service, we were met with a generally friendly welcome as we took in the remarkable city of Rehykavik.

As an aside, a local friend told us few Icelandic people take advantage of the cheap Belfast flight to explore our city and we hope some day this will change: with cheaper alcohol, clubs with fewer family ties among the clientele, beautiful old pubs and relatively lax gambling laws we have much to offer.

Finally, the two big questions everyone seems to ask: how expensive was it and what to wear.

Cost: Long story short, if you rent an apartment (try to get one with an actual oven), try not to eat out, settle for junk food when possible, drink during the (long) happy hours and leave the shopping bug at home the cost won’t be much different from a trip to London.

What to wear: An easy one…a thermal layer if you are going on a tour or walking lots on a cold day, normal clothes on top and a good big coat with a hat and gloves as needed. It felt just as cold in Belfast when we arrived home as it had done for much of the time we spent wandering the city streets.

Oh, and if you want to start conversation, ask a local how Iceland discovered North America.

Thank you again, Elle, for your part in a perfect trip and random adventure. 

To readers from Iceland: we’d all love to be able to show off Belfast to more Icelandic visitors, especially since a direct flight now exists.   

You may well find that Belfast has much more to offer in 2016 than you think.

   
     

Why Belfast’s theatres aren’t just for panto 

If you haven’t experienced the best of Belfast nightlife lately then there’s never been a better time to sample a bar-scene, with great pubs old and new, that can hold its own with any city.

That’s not to mention a cosmopolitan atmosphere that has the tourist guide books lauding Europe’s new night out in our small but vibrant capital city.

However, Belfast has a theatre scene that has never been in better health. And it is all too easy for local people to overlook the great choice of theatres on our doorstep as simple places where we watched panto as youngsters.

The truth is that our theatre scene – jewels in the crown of Belfast’s night-time economy – offers much, much more and can be a central part of an unforgettable night out.

Returning to the theatre for the first time since childhood, myself and my partner Elle skipped some of our normal cinema visits (recommendation: The Strand, QFT or any Cineplex, preferably Omniplex) to rediscover the atmosphere of a live show in the heart of our beloved city….

Lyric Theatre Belfast 

What is it?: A stunning theatre in a landmark new building in South Belfast. Friendly, relaxed and surprisingly homely with an ultra-modern feel.

Our visit: We’ve watched Pillowman, Dancing at Lughnasa and the Night Alive. Incredibly, never paying more than £15 and sometimes just £10 for a midweek show. 

Perfect for you if: You want an outstanding range of shows and a buzzing but laid-back atmosphere that will make you want to return again and again.

How to make an night of it: Walk down to Stranmillis before and after for an excellent choice of eateries such as the wonderful ‘Welcome’ Chinese and a choice of smart, modern bars.

The MAC 

What is it?: The newest addition to Belfast’s arts scene. A gallery, bar and conference venue with an urbane feel in the bustling Cathedral Quarter. Beautifully-designed and extremely welcoming.

Our visit: We watched the high-tech, high-adrenaline Gulliver by Northern Ireland’s very own Big Telly Theatre Company. We’re still recovering.

Perfect for you if: You want to enjoy the art exhibitions and savour modern Belfast in its most urbane and vibrant form. 

How to make a night of it: A post-show pub crawl to visit some of Belfast’s outstanding and long-established pubs – which are the envy of any European city – like White’s Tavern, the John Hewitt or Bittles. There’s also the option of newer, slicker offerings like The Perch and Bert’s Jazz Bar.

Grand Opera House

What is it?: Grand by name and grand by nature, Belfast’s Opera House has offered nights out in sumptuous and timeless surroundings since 1895.

Our visit: We saw a Puccini opera called Turandot. Completely new to opera, the finer points were lost on us but the epic experience of sight and sound wasn’t. We liked the bit where they were singing.

Perfect for you if: This is a venue with a sense of occasion and dripping with history, perfect if you want to see a variety of shows in the best of surroundings.

How to make a night of it: With a central location, the Opera House leaves you with the city at your feet. However, Rhubarb Fresh Food Cafe and Ginger restaurant are both excellent. There’s also the Sun Kee on Donegall Pass which never disappoints.

The Strand Arts Centre 

What is it: A glorious 1930s Art Deco venue in heart of the East Belfast many of us already know and love.

Our visit: For classic film shows, kids screenings and live music. Non-profit. Provides arts events including a recent Withnail and I performance and big-occasion cinema nights such as a ‘Spectre Spectacular’. Full disclosure: we love this place.

Perfect for you if: You have a love of history, a love of classic Belfast at its finest or a love of movies and ‘proper’ cinemas.

How to make a night of it: With Belmont Road and the wonderful urban village of Ballyhackamore nearby you can take your pick. The Italian restaurant Il Pirata is one of the best restaurants in Northern Ireland, in our humble opinion. The Mandarin City Chinese next door to Il Pirata is very good.

Don’t forget: the choice of venues in Belfast’s doesn’t stop there. Far from it. There are arts venues as The Crescent as well as concert halls including the much-loved Ulster Hall and the Waterfront Hall (with, strangely, an incredibly high wafty-scarf-count when we last visited).

It would be a shame to keep the theatre for panto. There’s a world of entertainment worthy of your support in Belfast and at a much wider range of cost and tastes than you might think.

Enjoy.