One ordinary Saturday, 20 years ago, IRA terrorists ignited a bomb in Manchester.
They created mayhem and loss, a scar that will always be there, but it also created a momentum that saw the city bloom into the extraordinary, fascinating and stronger place it is today – a phoenix from the ashes of disaster.
At no time of year does this transformation become more apparent than at Christmas, when the city centre lights up with an energy that sees hundreds of glittering market stalls snake down the streets, past the high end department stores and quirky shops and restaurants, linking together history with modernity.
Here novelty hat stalls rub along with Harvey Nichols, German sausages with Selfridges, the streets filled with a glorious aroma of Gluhwein, frothy hot chocolate, food, conversation and laughter in a non-stop, all-day Christmas party for all.
It is irrestible, a web of sparkly, joy-filled, German-inspired retail therapy stretching from its hub in Albert Square, where a giant Santa Claus clings to the side of the lit-up town hall over hearty wooden bars and through numerous streets, like a festive trail.
These days, Manchester boasts an unashamed glamour alongside its proud industrial heritage, something which was confimed to me at breakfast, during my weekend stay in this amazing city.
‘The glamour of Manchester’ mural built into the tiled wall above the restaurant in my hotel – the newly revamped and renamed Principal (formerly the Palace) on Oxford Road, right next to the Palace Theatre – proved the point.
This grade 2 listed building, originally built to house the Refuge Assurance company, is an extra special old lady of the city which after a £25m revamp, re-opened a month or so ago as a fabulous five-star establishment, which reveals its stunning Victorian excess to perfection, starting with the huge, welcoming, marbled,reception area under a domed glass ceiling.
Detail is everything in this hotel, where dated decor has been stripped out and every historic tile, piece of marble and thousands of pieces of stained glass have been restored to their original glory – it feels Titanic in its grandeur and unashamedly luxurious in its transformation.
My room was spacious, comfortable, and every detail is taken care of. No expensive mini-bar here, there is free water and milk in the fridge, a complementary box of tea bags, chocolate and crisps in a ‘tuck box’.
The phone is lovely, red, old-school dialler complete with instructions but the TV is a huge plasma.
The toiletries in the sparkling bathroom, which you are encouraged to take, are Neal’s Yard and the shower a torrent of gleaming chrome.
If you don’t use the lift, you can glide down grandiose staircases, tiled in Victorian green, past, elegant windows, before reaching the ground floor, where you can dine in the huge ‘Refuge’ bar and restaurant, it was buzzing the entire time I was there.
We ate breakfast in the restaurant in the Winter Gardens, an enclosed glass courtyard complete with twinkling trees, it really is beautiful and the breakfast is delicious.
Manchester is a city where you can eat like a Queen – we dined one evening at Albert’s Chop House, an atmospheric dining pub and restaurant built into the once neglected and iconic Memorial Hall warehouse in 1886 and right next to the Christmas Markets hub on Albert Square.
Famous Mancunians adorned the walls as we ate in a industrial-chic cosy booth, chowing through an excellent British menu.
From from part of the city’s history to another as we headed under the railway arches (and minutes from the hotel again) for industrial chic with a grill menu, sampling sumptuous steaks and chicken in the hugely busy, buzzy, Gorilla bar which also houses a live music venue and a gin parlour.
And on Sunday, the culinary piece de resistance where, despite a weekend of food, we were tempted into a stunning roast dinner and even a delicious doughnut trio at the fabulous, Albert Schloss.
Serenaded by a fabulous gospel choir, we took in the festive sights and sounds of the ‘Bavarian Bier palace’, where even dogs are welcomed with open arms. One was sitting at the table in his own chair.
Manchester is fabulous and even more so at Christmas – and there is an invitation for all to this party.