2 Years ago, I started watching Game Of Thrones. Well someone sort of “Made” me watch it, because I used to be one of those people who say “What? Game Of Thrones? Nah it’s overrated!” Anyway, so 7 seasons later I became a hardcore fan and then discovered that they shot most of it in Northern Ireland.
To be honest if you asked me before what I knew about Northern Ireland, I wouldn’t tell you much. First, I would’ve gone blank for a moment, then I would’ve probably told you how much I would like to go to Dublin (OK, but that’s not Northern Ireland), then I would’ve told you “Oh, I really love U2!”(Again, not Northern Ireland). My point is, I did not know much about it other than it looks beautiful on TV and pictures and it is where they shot Game Of Thrones.
So, after spending couple of days in London I flew to Belfast, which is 1 hour flight. The plan was to spend the first day visiting Belfast, then 2 days exploring the countryside and visiting Game Of Thrones filming locations.
To be frank with you, I didn’t know what to expect from this city. The first impression I had on my way from the airport was a sort of melancholy, not a sadness but a sort of “roughness” of the city that makes you feel that the streets want to tell you a story… Not sure if you know what I mean… (if not take a flight and go see for yourself!).
One of the things I didn’t know about Northern Ireland was that it went through a violent conflict called “The Troubles”, a conflict that began in the late 60s and ended in 1998. Long story short, “The Troubles” was a clash between “Loyalists” who wanted Northern Ireland to stay in the UK and “Nationalists” who wanted it to leave the kingdom and unite with the Republic of Ireland. I am telling this story because you will find bits of it everywhere you go; People who died are remembered in the Cathedrals and the hundreds of people who got arrested (from both sides) are talked about in the Crumlin Road Gaol Prison.
Let us start with the cathedral. People who know me, know how obsessed I am with cathedrals and their architectures, from the Gothic style in Central & Eastern Europe to the rich “Renaissance” style in Italy; cathedrals are always part of my travel experiences. Belfast cathedral’s name is St Ann, it was a simple church that was turned into a cathedral and I think I have never seen something like it before, I will explain. First, the architecture was a weird and interesting mix between the previous church, the new cathedral and a contemporary part that they added in 2006 (because why not!), it’s not a very luxurious cathedral when it comes to embellishments but it has its own charm.
Then, between 2 chapels, you could find random memorials; for Irish and English soldiers killed in WW2, for people who passed away in the Titanic (Yep Titanic was built and departed from Belfast, I didn’t know that either!) and for people who died during the Troubles. The most fascinating thing was listening to our guide talking about every single picture, every single window, and every single wall of the cathedral! Well he still asked where we were from and then followed up with “Oh wow you’re English is pretty good!” but I don’t blame him as he admitted that Anglo Saxons expect everyone else to speak English, which should not be the case.
Crumlin Road Gaol Prison was the 2nd thing I visited in Belfast. A 19th century jail closed in 1996 and turned into a touristic attraction, conference and concerts venue. It was the first time I visited a prison, and it was quite intense for me. The prison has a haunted underground tunnel where they used to take prisoners from the jail to court (located across the street) and vice versa, it has different cell types (Including cells for kids that they used to send to the prison in order to “teach them a lesson”). The most intense moment for me was going into the execution cell, where they executed 12 people (murderers for the most part), and as I am against death penalty (this is a subject for a whole post) seeing the hanging rope for real was not a very pleasant experience for me.
Titanic museum. The biggest surprise for me in Belfast was discovering that the Titanic was built and departed from Belfast to New York (It was supposed to reach New York at least!). I discovered this on my first day, because as soon as people discover you are a tourist they will tell you “the Titanic was totally fine when it left Belfast!”, actually everyone in Belfast will tell you that! The museum was impressive; it’s a completely interactive experience on 4 floors that takes you from the building of the ship, to the iceberg accident, to what happened after it sank, there is even an exhibition of some remains.
Now that I’m writing, I realize that even though I spent only one day around Belfast (and let’s be honest Belfast wasn’t the reason I flew to Northern Ireland!), It was a day filled with different emotions. Belfast is a city that sleeps at 7pm; seriously, after 7pm the city center shuts down and people are either in pubs (well… because it’s Ireland), in restaurants or at home. People are nice and very polite, and they’re always surprised to know where we came from, “Because we speak excellent English”.
One more thing, the city does take advantage of the fact that Northern Ireland is the “heart” of Game Of Thrones, as the number of visitors from around the world increased since the beginning of the show. Many companies organize tours to visit all the locations across the country. Obviously, I took all the available tours, it was AMAZING and you will know all about it in my next post!
Cheers to the places we are yet to see!