Rising above the city of Belfast is the beautiful landscape of Cavehill Country Park. Once part of Belfast Castle’s extensive estate, the hill is covered in lush woodland criss-crossed with narrow muddy tracks. After meandering on an upwardly-sloping path under a canopy of leaves, you suddenly break out into a beautiful panorama – behind you to one side is an aerial view of all Belfast, the little streets and buildings looking small at the bottom of the hills. And on the other side the landscape of Cavehill seems as if it comes straight out of a fairytale land, dramatic emerald and golden hills punctured with mysterious caves. It seems perhaps a scene you’d find in The Chronicles of Narnia – you almost expect to see fauns and centaurs and talking animals wandering about the hills. Even though you haven’t quite crossed over into a magical land, you’re as close as you can get – CS Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia grew up in Belfast (and was educated at Oxford) and spent his boyhood exploring these hills – the Mourne Mountains to the south up to the Causeway Coast to the north (Dunluce Castle is said to have been the inspiration of the ruined Cair Paravel in Prince Caspian). It’s reasonable to expect that CS Lewis would have climbed the slopes of Cavehill just behind his hometown, and it’s again reasonable to expect that the places he encountered in Ireland as a boy would have formed as inspiration for Narnia. Interesting again that the “real world” places of TheChronicles of Narnia resemble Oxford and its environs, but the mystical, magical places of Narnia and other magical lands find their inspirations in the landscapes of Ireland…perhaps Ireland is just a magical place.
Pro tip: There is a family-friendly car park to go straight to the top of the hill to McArt’s Fort, but you’ll miss the hike, forest, and actual cave hills in the panorama above. It’s worth it to start at Belfast Castle and do the full loop – at 6.5-7km, it should take you about 2 hours. It can be muddy, so bring your boots and waterproof jacket. As of this post, the route from Belfast Zoo is closed (but not the castle). Check here for hiking info.
Everyone knows of Belfast, and most have heard of Derry, but the border town of Enniskillen slips under most people’s radar. Smaller than the other two, and further south on the border with the Republic of Ireland, Enniskillen is a fascinating little place. As with most cities in Northern Ireland, it was bombed during the Troubles – in Enniskillen’s case, it happened on Remembrance Day (November 8th, 1987), and several civilians died. But that’s all in the past now. Today, Enniskillen is a thriving town, a bustling cosmopolitan centre in an otherwise rural region of Ireland, and a perfect stop for road trips from Belfast to the west coast of Sligo or Connemara and Galway. In Irish, Enniskillen means island of Cethlenn, a mythological Irish goddess, and in fact it is still known as “The Island Town.” At the centre of Enniskillen, its oldest structure is Enniskillen Castle, built in the 16th century on the foundations of a much older fortification (dating back to 1428), which came under siege several times during the Irish rebellions against British rule (including falling to Irish rule from 1595-1602). Later, Enniskillen Castle was built up with barracks for soldiers, giving the castle the look more of a military fort. Today, the castle site hold a collection of museums on the history of Enniskillen and County Fermanagh in general, as well as the military history of the castle. Though not the most medieval castle, the border town of Enniskillen and its castle is a fascinating look at the history of the Irish border from the 1500s through the Irish Rebellion, the Revolution, the Troubles, all the way through to today and whatever Brexit holds for the future.
Pro tip: There’s a great pizzeria in Enniskillen called Little Wing Pizza – close to the castle with reasonable prices and a varied menu. Learn more about the castle visit (hours & tarifs) here. If you arrive 1 hour before closing, you’ll get a reduced price ticket. Nearby, visit a number of other castles. Explore the islands of Lough Erne – take a boat to Devenish Island, just north of Enniskillen, or White Island, further north. Both contain the ancient ruins well worth visiting.
Hidden away in the little-known County Fermangh along the Ireland–Northern Ireland border is the Marble Arch geopark and the Boho Caves. Buried within the hollowed hills is a collection of limestone caves. Some caves can be visited – such as those in the Marble Arch geopark – while others are harder to find. Pollenagollum Cave is one of those subterranean worlds that few discover – and those who do are not disappointed. Located in Belmore Mountain Park, Pollenagollum Cave (meaning “hole of the doves”) bores into the face of a small 12-metre-high cliff, its mouth at the bottom of a graceful waterfall. The cave itself goes back about 2 km, where there is another entrance in the hollowed-out hills of Marble Arch, though an underground stream makes the cave impassible (only the first kilometre or so is unblocked). Pollenagollumm Cave’s claim to fame is quite recent – it was here that, in the much-loved Game of Thrones TV Series, the scene in which Beric Dondarrian had Arya and her companions where brought to his underground hideout was filmed! The limestone cave is impressive, and the surrounding Belmore Forest and quarry is tranquil and beautiful.
Pro tip: The whole loop in Belmore Forest is about 7km, though the cave is only about 1km along the trail. There is also a stone marked with neolithic-era Curvilinear art not far off the path, but isn’t well marked. Please note that access to the cave is by permission only – some speleology associations may be able to bring curious visitors. Otherwise, there is a viewpoint just about the cave and waterfall for those who simply want to enjoy the panorama.
From most cities, one must drive a long distance to find wild landscapes, but just 15 minutes from Belfast, there lies the magnificent Cave Hill. It is easy to see why fantasy writer CS Lewis – born and raised near Belfast despite spending his adult life in Oxford – gained his inspiration for the fantastic landscapes of his imaginary land of Narnia from Northern Ireland (just look at the bizarre Causeway Coast!). Cave Hill – part of Cave Hill Country Park – overlooks Belfast and yet transport the hiker into another world. With woodland paths starting from Belfast Castle, weave through the moss-covered forests until suddenly you emerge into a clearing facing the magnificent caves that lent the name to hill. Rolling hills, emerald greens, brilliant yellows, rugged rock faces – one almost expects to see a satyr or dwarf making its home in the cave! But it’s not over just yet – follow the path around the hill to the top for this epic view of the hill itself and Belfast sprawled below. On the narrow outcrop in the distance are the remains of an iron are fort – McArt’s Fort. Little is left today (just a few rocks, really), and its exposed position suggests that this rath (ringfort) was only ever used for defensive purposes. Thousands of years later, McArt’s Fort became the secret meeting place of United Irishmen to plot their famed – and doomed – attack in the rebellion of 1798 (when the Irish rose against the oppressive forces of the British nobility and military. The rebellion failed, and caused a large loss of life on the Irish side). Because Cave Hill is near Belfast, it can get busy but even with other hikers enjoying the views alongside you, this place emits a magic that cannot be rivalled.
Pro tip: Start your hike at Belfast Castle, and follow the signs for the Cave path. The first part is muddy in places, and there are a few steep bits so wear a proper pair of hiking boots. The whole walk is about 7km. There is also a “family friendly” trail starting from another car park on the backside of the hill, but this means you’ll miss most of the good stuff, and it’s not a looped path.
On the shores of Lough Neagh (Ireland’s largest lake, though far from its most interesting one…), Shane’s Castle is one of the most fascinating castle ruins on the Emerald Isle. Built in 1345 by the O’Neill dynasty (one of the major family clans in Ulster, the northern half of Ireland), the original name was actually Eden-duff-carrick – only becoming the far more catchier “Shane’s Castle” in 1722 when Shane MacBrien O’Neill changed its name to suit him. Today, the castle is famous for its many uses in HBO’s Game of Thrones TV series. Though largely ruins, most visitors to Shane’s Castle will miss the most fascinating part (only accessible through certain tours and events): the huge network of tunnels, caves and catacombs twisting underneath the castle’s foundations! Dark and windy, these tunnels featured in several GoT scenes. Not far way, the infamous Battle of Antrim was fought on on 7 June 1798 as an unsuccessful rebellion of Irish peasants against the British Rule (the Republic of Ireland only managed to get independence from Great Britain in 1922 after years of fighting, and obviously Northern Ireland is still a region within the UK). Though this can still be a contentious subject in Ireland (both north & south), a lot has changed in recent years making the whole island a fun and safe destination.
Pro tip: Every year in July, the grounds of Shane’s Castle holds Ireland’s largest Country & Game Fair, including living history and reenactments – well worth the visit! The event includes is a historical component showcasing ways of living in the past, from the Viking age through to modern times, with a reenactment of the Battle of Antrim.
One of the many murals of Belfast, Northern Ireland
Belfast is known for a lot of things. It’s known for struggles, religious and political unrest, even for terror. But a lot has changed in recent years. Belfast has become a cosmopolitan hub, with an up-and-coming foodie scene that surpasses Dublin and rivals other European capitals. It’s a quirky place where art meets urban life in the best possible ways. For one, there are the Peace Walls. Massive walls that divides the Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods, Peace Walls were constructed to protect each side from the other but at the end of the day, it is a barrier through the middle of the city dividing the two sides (not unlike the Berlin Wallonce did). Today the wall is still there and the sides are still divided but the wall is now a Peace Wall, full of thousands of messages of hope and courage written by residents and visitors alike, and the two sides have come together much more. But that’s not the only wall in Belfast. The city of Belfast is full of murals. Some are well known, others aren’t. Some are religious or political, some are artistic. Some are massive, others small. The above mural is one of the many one finds in the city centre, ‘neutral’ territory where both Protestants (aka unionists) and Catholics (aka republicans) rub shoulders. Belfast is still a divided city, and though on the island of Ireland, it resembles England far more than Ireland (in regards to architecture, way of life, fashions, shop brands…). Yet despite this – or perhaps because of this – it is a fascinating place to visit. Particularly the murals!
Pro tip: To truly appreciate Belfast, its history and its murals, take one of the famous Black Cab tours – Paddy Campbell’sis the original and the best!
Other Fascinating Sites to Visit in Ireland (North & South)