A Weekend in Northern Ireland by Shelley Doyle

A highlight of being a heritage travel blogger is being invited to experience the best a destination has to offer with knowledgeable hosts. The latest destination was Northern Ireland, courtesy of Tourism Northern Ireland. A 90 minute flight from Cardiff International took us straight into George Best Belfast City Airport, a mere ten minute drive from the very heart of Belfast and named after one of the city's most beloved sons.

First Impressions

Grand – with magnificent buildings, like City Hall on Donegal Square, which runs free hourly tours of the interior throughout the day. Walk by it at night and you’ll see it glowing with translucent light.

Quirky – with a string of kitsch cafes, serving classic dishes, afternoon teas and wine with a background of folk music, antique chairs and an eclectic mix of paintings. Visit Harlem Café on Bedford Street to experience it for yourself.

Lively Cathedral Quarter was full of energy on Saturday night, with traditional live music at most establishments, locals telling colourful stories and the 9 – 5 clearly a distant memory. According to Cathedral Quarter, Guinness is the answer to everything.

Atmospheric – Sunday trading laws mean there is little open before 2pm on a Sunday, except for cafes and markets. Our advice, eat breakfast early and then take a walk along the canal or the Botanic Gardens and then head to St Georges Market, which has a delicious variety of local street food stalls. We ate fresh oysters from Donegal alongside slices of puffball mushrooms for an unusual but delicious take on surf and turf. Music from local musicians builds the atmosphere at the centre of the market where everyone congregates to tuck into their chosen dish. Walk it all off by browsing the local crafts and antiques being sold around the periphery of the market.

As part of our trip, we were treated to an evening aboard the SS Nomadic. A ship that was built in tandem with the Titanic as a means of transporting passengers to its famous sister ship. Campaigners spent years raising funds to restore her and she is now ready for visitors to come aboard and experience her, just as the Titanic passengers did in 1912.

After Belfast we travelled east to the Causeway Coastal Route to experience The Gobbins. This coastal walk was first imagined by visionary engineer Berkeley Deane Wise and established in 1902 by the Belfast & Northern Counties Railway Company. The aim was to entice visitors to explore the country by rail. Sure enough it became the most popular tourist destination in Northern Ireland, until the 1930’s when costs of maintaining the path became hard for the Railway Company to find, owing to the growing popularity of cars. The path was closed during the Second World War when it fell into disrepair.

The Gobbins reopened this year, after a £7.5m refurbishment. It’s a stunning coastal walk and if you visit at high tide, as we were lucky to experience, the crashing waves against the rocks is exhilarating, turning parts of it into a wet water attraction. Back in the early 1900’s local children would get their thrills by rocking one of the suspension bridges, while well-dressed visitors were halfway across. You may be relieved to know this isn’t possible today! View the historic timeline of the Gobbins here.

Derry (Londonderry) was the final stop on our tour of Northern Ireland. Perhaps more famous for its role in The Troubles of the late 1980’s and early 90’s, today the 'walled city' has turned itself around into a cultural city, abuzz with micro-breweries, sculptures and festivals. Winning the accolade of UK City of Culture in 2013 illustrates just how far the city has come.

Visiting the Derry Tower Museum we were given a history lesson by their charismatic guide, Gerry from Derry, on The Battle of the Boyne, 1690.  The battle was between William III (aka William of Orange) who reigned alongside his wife Mary II, against Mary’s father James II - the deposed Catholic king who had lost his throne to William the year before. The battle came to a head in Londonderry where the Protestant King William defeated the Catholic King James, thus securing the Protestant ascendancy. Controversially it’s understood that Pope Alexander VIII actually funded William in this battle, as a win by James would have led to a stronger alliance between France and Spain, resulting in less power to Rome.

Click here to view an authentic William and Mary style house in York.

We managed to see a lot during our three days in Northern Ireland, however a second trip is already on the wish-list, especially to visit Giant’s Causeway, Rathlin Island, Armagh and Downpatrick - Saint Patrick’s Country.

For more inspiration for your Northern Ireland adventure visit http://www.discovernorthernireland.com/ 

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