A visit to Northern Ireland: No more Troubles, but a lot of Game of Thrones

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Text and photos by Cathy Rose A. Garcia, Associate Editor

NORTHERN Ireland may not be on most people’s itineraries when visiting the United Kingdom, but it should be.

Belfast is no longer a dangerous war zone as the dark days of the Troubles have been long over. (The Troubles is how they refer to the violent 30-year conflict between the Protestant-majority unionists who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK, and the Catholic-Republicans who want to join the Republic of Ireland.)

The capital of Northern Ireland is now a booming city, with lively pubs, a stunning museum dedicated to the Titanic, Instagram-worthy street art, and bragging rights as the main production hub for Game of Thrones.

Belfast makes for a great side trip from London, which is only about an hour and a half away by plane. Most fares on budget airlines are reasonable (I managed to get a one-way ticket to the George Best Belfast City Airport from London City Airport for £35 or around P2,400).

Tourism to Northern Ireland is steadily growing. Data from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) showed 2.7 million overnight trips from external visitors in 2017, a 3% increase from the previous year.

According to NISRA, the top attractions in Northern Ireland (excluding parks, forests, and gardens) based on ticket sales in 2017 included the Giant’s Causeway, Titanic Belfast, the Ulster Museum, and Carrick-a-Rede.

A natural rock formation, Giant’s Causeway is Northern Ireland’s only World Heritage site. Carrick-a-Rede features a rope bridge, suspended 80 feet above the rocks, connecting a tiny island to the Irish mainland.

Titanic Belfast is located on the site of the former Harland & Wolff shipyard, where the ill-fated ship was built. Opened in 2012, the £101 million museum has been nicknamed “The Iceberg” for its facade featuring silver aluminum shards.

At the Titanic Quarter, visitors can also drop by the old headquarters of Harland & Wolff and go on board the SS Nomadic, which is the last surviving White Star Line ship.

From afar, one can also spot the distinctive yellow gantry cranes of Harland and Wolff dubbed “Samson” and “Goliath.”

If you’re a Game of Thrones fan, you should definitely visit Northern Ireland. The HBO series has had many scenes filmed at The Paint Hall, tucked away in the Titanic Quarter, in Belfast.

But more importantly, the lush forests, dramatic coastlines, and craggy mountains of Northern Ireland served as a backdrop for many Game of Thrones episodes. Over 25 filming locations, such as Winterfell and Iron Islands, can be found throughout the country.

Northern Ireland now promotes itself as Game of Thrones territory, and several companies offer coach tours of several filming locations.

A fan of the Starks, I picked the “Winterfell Locations Trek” day tour. It involved two three-kilometer walks, one in the morning, and another in the afternoon, but it wasn’t as daunting as it sounds perhaps because the weather was uncharacteristically sunny for most of the day.

Our tour guide, Andrew, has appeared as an extra on the show since season 4, and entertained us with behind-the-scenes stories. Even if we tried to get some spoilers for the final season, Andrew kept his lips shut.

We visited Castle Ward Estate, which overlooks Strangford Lough in County Down. There are nine Game of Thrones locations on the estate, including the castle and stable yard which served as Winterfell for most of Season 1. The 15th century Tower House was also the site of Robb Stark’s camp in the Riverlands.

With such picturesque scenery, a trek through the lush green forest and hills of Castle Ward is enjoyable even if you’re not a Game of Thrones fan.

After the trek, we had lunch at The Cuan, one of 10 restaurants and pubs throughout Northern Ireland that have Game of Thrones-inspired wooden doors. The wood came from 18th century beech trees at the famous Dark Hedges, which was used as the backdrop for the Kingsroad. The trees were felled during a storm in January 2016.

The Cuan’s wooden door is carved with the geography of Westeros, referencing the Game of Thrones opening sequence. Other doors are located in restaurants in Portaferry, Newcastle, and Londonderry, all near Game of Thrones filming spots.

As part of the tour, we met two of the most adorable extras on Game of Thrones — Odin and Thor. The Northern Inuit dogs played the direwolves Summer and Grey Wind on the show.

In the afternoon, we walked through Tollymore Forest Park at the foothills of Mourne Mountains. The forest was the setting for key scenes on the show such as the opening scene in the Game of Thrones pilot where Night’s Watch members discover Wilding bodies before encountering White Walkers, as well as the spot where Tyrion and Jon Snow built a campfire before heading to the Wall.

While the tour focused on Winterfell, there are other Game of Thrones tours featuring stops at the Iron Islands, Cushendun Caves (where Melisandre gave birth to a shadow creature in Season 2), Dark Hedges, as well as tourist attractions Rope Bridge and the Giant’s Causeway.

In Belfast, a Game of Thrones tapestry is on public display at the Ulster Museum. It is made of Irish linen from one of the last surviving linen mills in the country — Thomas Ferguson Irish Linen in Banbridge, County Down.

The 80-meter long, medieval-style wall hanging depicts key events and characters throughout Game of Thrones’ seven seasons.

Even if you haven’t watched an episode of Game of Thrones, Belfast is certainly worth a visit. The city itself is very “Instagrammable,” with historic buildings and unique street art almost everywhere.

One of the most photographed buildings is City Hall, and for good reason. With its classical Renaissance design, the building is stunning from any angle.

The Albert Clock, which was built in 1865, is Belfast’s version of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The memorial to Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, was constructed on wooden piles on marshy, reclaimed land around the river — the reason for its tilt.

Queen’s University also boasts of the iconic Lanyon Building, which is featured on banknotes and tourism posters.

Belfast is also known for its street art, with tributes to Game of Thrones and the late actress Carrie Fisher found around the city.

Murals also decorate the so-called “peace walls” that separate the Republican and Nationalist Catholic neighborhoods from the Loyalist and Unionist Protestant communities. These walls were erected during the Troubles to protect residents from sectarian attacks.

Twenty years since the Good Friday agreement was signed in 1998, violence may have stopped but the walls remain. The most famous peace walls are along the nationalist Falls Road, and the unionist Shankill Road in the western area of Belfast.

While it may be tempting to use these peace walls as the backdrop for your OOTD, it’s best to be sensitive to the political history behind the murals. Some murals pay tribute to victims of the Troubles, while most have strong political themes.

Belfast also has a lively pub culture. The Crown Liquor Saloon, which dates back to 1826, is widely considered the city’s most famous pub. Visually, the Victorian gin palace dazzles with its architecture — brocaded walls, wood carvings, elaborate mirrors, colorful painted windows, and painted mosaic floor tiles. It also has cozy “drinking snugs” or wooden boxes where diners can have some privacy when eating or drinking.

The Crown is also where Prince Harry and his then-fiancée Meghan Markle had lunch when they visited Belfast in March.

When I had lunch at The Crown, I sampled the Irish lamb stew with a rich, flavorful sauce that reminded me of caldereta. Later when I was paying for my meal, the server said she served the royals during their visit and that Ms. Markle had the same dish and apparently “loved it.”

Before leaving Belfast, make sure to order an Ulster fry for breakfast. Consisting of sausages, bacon, soda bread, potatoes, egg, beans, tomato, and black pudding, this meal will leave you with warm memories of the city and wishing you can go back for more.