Saturday morning, I was delighted to receive a text message on my wee Irish phone from my Agnes Scott roommate Kathryn! She had mentioned to me earlier that she and some study abroad friends from The University of Ulster might visit Belfast this weekend, but I had missed the Facebook messages she sent saying this was definite. I was sick with a cold for much of last week and didn’t feel like going out, but the prospect of spending time with Kathryn was the perfect motivation to get back to my sightseeing of Belfast.
I met Kathryn and her friends at the Ulster Museum, which is a hop, skip and a jump from Queen’s main campus. It was about twelve when I arrived; Kathryn and her friends had seen a few key exhibits and were hungry for lunch! As American tourists tend to, they wanted fish and chips, so we went to Maggie Mays Belfast Cafe, an adorable little place with two Belfast locations, one just around the corner from Queens.
I had had a late breakfast, so I was very satisfied with a pot of Earl Grey tea and a gigantic Maggie Mays scone with raspberry jam and clotted cream. Then, we decided to make the trek to Belfast Castle, a Scottish Baronial style castle on the outskirts of the city. Kathryn’s friends seemed a bit mistrustful when I suggested that we walk to a bus stop in the rain to catch a bus that would take us to another bus that would take us to the castle, but they followed nonetheless. With great persistence, we finally got off the bus at the brown “Belfast Castle” sign, slogged up a hill in the rain, and arrived in a lovely little fairytale!
The most magical element of the castle experience is the fantastic view. Belfast Castle is located on Cave Hill, about 400 feet above sea level. Looking up from the castle grounds, you can see the rock formations on top of the hill, nicknamed “Napoleon’s Nose” for their resemblance to an upturned face. Looking out, you can see everything: the rows of Belfast houses, steeples of churches and cathedrals, the huge yellow cranes, Samson and Goliath, in the harbour, the green, green hills, the sea. It is breathtaking, and my pictures don’t do it justice. You should visit yourself.
Inside the castle, you can see a beautiful ballroom, majestic carved wooden staircase, and the elegant dining rooms of the Cellar Restaurant, as well as several rooms of exhibits with history about Belfast Castle and Cave Hill. Belfast Castle was initially built by the Normans in the late 12th century in an area very near today’s Belfast City Centre. Sir Arthur Chichester, Baron of Belfast, built a stone and timber castle on the Norman site in 1611, but it burned to the ground years later. According to our ghost tour guides, a victim of this fire still haunts Castle Place in the busy shopping districts of Belfast.
The current Belfast Castle on Cave Hill was built by Chichester’s descendent the 3rd Marquis of Donegall. Architect John Lanyon designed the castle, completed in 1870. Fun fact: John Lanyon’s father, Charles Lanyon, designed the main building of Queen’s University, below. You know, the one that looks like Hogwarts.
Cave Hill itself is also full of fascinating history. There are five caves in the hill, which were apparently made by humans at some point, but they served as shelter for natives during the Viking conquest long ago as well as during the Belfast Blitz in 1941! Kathryn and I marveled at how one place can intersect with different and significant points in time.
One final, fun piece about the castle is that its exterior is decorated with cats! There is a cat mosaic in the patio, cat statues sleeping and prowling on the edge of the fountain and in the garden, a cat topiary. It’s delightful. Apparently, there is a legend that as long as there is a cat at Belfast Castle, Cave Hill will be safe from harm. Designing a cat-themed grounds was clearly more convenient for the Belfast City Council than keeping a kitty around the castle at all times. I can’t understand why you wouldn’t want a kitty in your castle, but perhaps the royal litter box was a factor.
After thoroughly enjoying ourselves at Belfast Castle, we got back on the bus to City Centre, and after a little shopping, Kathryn and her friends met their train back to Coleraine! It was great fun to see her and to explore more of Belfast.