When I arrived in Belfast, I knew I would go to the pub, shop on the high street and meet friendly locals - but I didn't think I would learn about its history through public art.
I have several friends who were born in this city and moved because of the Troubles. I remember their stories, snapshots of childhood spent with family in this Northern Ireland capital - the raucous dinners filled with stories, precious moments spent with grandparents as well as soldiers on the streets and the security checkpoints.
I had heard about the murals and graffiti of Belfast, but I wasn't prepared for its impact on my view of the city and that it would be the first lessons in learning about its history.
Early on a Sunday morning, I was taken by my guide to the Falls Road in west Belfast, not far from the downtown. After passing several new buildings and developments, the beginning of the Falls Road murals are painted on a brick wall, found along the main road of the residential neighbourhood.
This group was a mix of images: memories of the Troubles, advertisements for local businesses, commentary about racism and political activism. The boldness of the images are hard to ignore - male figures with balaclavas covering their faces and holding automatic weapons are displayed with pride alongside images of locals and other freedom fighters like Che Guevara.
But not all the murals portrayed an aggressive stance or combative element. The next mural was in memory of Bobby Sands, a local man who went on hunger strike in the Belfast jail to protest the treatment of his fellow political prisoners. His young smiling face painted on the brick wall is a daily reminder for locals and visitors of his sacrifice for his community.
Since it was Sunday morning, most businesses were closed and the streets empty of traffic and pedestrians, which added to the solitary experience of seeing these stark images. My guide, who survived the Troubles, let me see the images and then would tell me about each mural, and what had happened in history.
The next stop was one of the peace walls; these are three storey walls were erected by British military to divide the people and keep the peace. No longer needed, the walls are now community billboards for graffiti, art and commentary.
The wall's lower half are covered in graffiti tags, personal messages, oversized murals and art installations. From signs of peace, protest and solidarity to personal messages of peace, love and joy, the wall was a swirl of political opinions and community support. I realized this display was a billboard sign the residents - a place for their voice to be heard without filters.
I headed to east Belfast's Shankill Road, where more murals - a mix of political protest and commentary as well as pride in their neighbourhood - where equally displayed on the sides of buildings and houses.
I saw the same kind of brick housing, and the same well-kept streets - the only difference was the flags, here the Union Jack reigned supreme unlike the Irish Republic flags I had seen in west Belfast.
I saw a memorial on Shankill Road, a small plaque in memory of those who had died due to a bombing during the Troubles of a local fish and chip shop. I noticed the post nearby with a cross and flowers attached, an ongoing reminder of the deaths of nine people just steps away, although over 15 years ago.
My guide explained how this bombing was a tipping point, and no matter what your political beliefs, everyone wanted the Troubles to end.
With each piece of community art, I learned more about the history of the city, the Troubles and its effects on the city. I found the art was as informative as any article or historical document, and even more poignant for the emotional connection it made with me at every turn.
Share and discuss this story with your friends
I'm a Toronto-based freelance journalist, writing about travel, design, cuisine and people who are passionate about what they create. I’ve written for newspaper, magazine, websites and blogs since 2000, love taking photos and happy to share what I've found wandering our planet.
Located: Toronto Canada
Likes: Pacific rim, Middle East, Caribbean, islands, pop culture, art, architecture, cuisine, photography