Uncovering Northern Ireland is as easy as drawing back a curtain. No longer under the radar, it has splendid locations for movies and TV series, grand nature, castles to explore, food to savour and a coastline that roars.
Northern Ireland has become a superstar on the European billboard. Out of the doldrums from years of conflict and isolation (well, it wasn’t on everyone’s wish list), since the peace talks of 1998, Belfast has gone from no-go to must-go for travellers.
Belfast is a small city, hospitable, compact and walkable, and houses fine food, good coffee, good craic (fun) and enough quality shops to ease the weight of pounds from your person!
Step out and don’t miss a thing here, you’ll be surprised at the strength of character of the Northern Irish folk, who at best are resilient, cheeky and charismatic.
A once unmoved skyline has changed and there are many cranes hovering over new developments. Around the waterways cafes have sprung up and the inviting spectre of Titanic Belfast cuts through the sky with its cutting-edge architecture. Inside is an extraordinary museum with an homage to the workers who built the ill-fated ship. There are six storeys of engineering and historic wonders to explore and this is all sitting on the site where the Titanic was built (and as the locals say: “It was fine when it left us”).
The architectural brilliance of this building is awe-inspiring and the ship-like angles show the depth, from the first deck to the bottom of the ship.
A tasty find in the city is Sawers – suppliers of fine food, imported gourmet treats, poultry, imported and local cheeses and game – is for a casual takeaway, good value. Sawers was established in 1897 and it supplied R.M.S. Titanic with all of the above and more for its onboard events.
Part of the fascination of walking in and around the city is to take in Belfast’s murals, which are an historic legacy of past and present times. Some of the images are ironic, many political – from both sides, outrageous, fierce and funny, with heroes of the ‘Resistance’ gazing upon all who walk past. To get a good look at these artworks, take a black cab ride to delve into the recent past, and maybe your driver will have an interesting past of his own… just saying.
Get Up & Go out of town…
It’s not far to, or from, anywhere in Ireland and the Antrim Coast is close by to Belfast. The beauty of the rugged, ancient cliffs is enhanced by the wild, pounding seas. Clustered, quiet seaside towns dot the coast and at sea level the bays spread the shallow water out far and wide, fringing long, sandy beaches.
The Causeway Coastal Route takes you past the eerie ruins of medieval Dunluce Castle, which sits on the edge of the basalt cliff. The story goes that the kitchen caught fire in the 1500s and as it was at the cliff’s edge it fell into the sea below, killing many of the kitchen staff. Dinner was not served that night.
And on to Game of Thrones locations. Now if you aren’t a fan, I do encourage you to bite the bullet and start watching the series. If you don’t give a hoot – then the show’s locations are still beautiful discoveries when you travel around Northern Ireland.
First stop along the way was to visit one of the oldest libraries in Ireland, Armagh Public Library. Established in 1771 by Archbishop Robinson, it holds the Archbishop’s personal library of 17th and 18th century books on various subjects, as well as rare books such as incunabula (books and pamphlets printed in the early days of typography), plus artefacts, gems and coins.
One of the rare gems here is the original manuscript of Gulliver’s Travels with a few corrections written in the margins.
Rated as one of the world’s top five road trips, we cruise along the Causeway Coastal Route where you’ll find villages such as Glenarm, Carnlough, Cushendall and Cushendun. Inland are the Glens of Antrim, the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge (not if you’re scared of heights), Ballintoy and the bold and beautiful Giant’s Causeway. One of the little shops in Glenarm is The Steensons Workshop and Gallery which was chosen by HBO to design jewellery for Game of Thrones – brooches, belts and crowns.
Close by there’s a short walk on the coast at Cushendun where there’s the cave where the sorceress Melisandre gives birth to a shadow baby (you had to watch the show).
Next a stop at the ethereal Dark Hedges, an avenue of beech trees close to 300 years old, which featured in series two of Game of Thrones.
And (squeals with delight), Castle Ward. This 18th century eccentric house with two different styles built together, classical and Gothic, is the scene for much of the House of Stark shenanigans – a tragic fall, a flaying alive (you still with me?) and a takeover. Transformed to ‘Winterfell’, Castle Ward is a multifaceted star in its own right.
And it’s here you can enjoy archery lessons, meet the Direwolves that feature in the show (more happy squealing) and have the full guided tour of the locations around the vast estate where many scenes were filmed.
A tour of this ilk is classy and for a fan it’s like winning the lottery. For the nonbelievers it offers a fascinating look into the history and charm of what lies beyond the city limits of Belfast.
From cliffs to castles, from villages to garden estates, Northern Ireland beckons the traveller who thinks they have seen it all – you haven’t until you set foot here.