Our new friends in the North

Jo Siedlecka discovers the hidden hospitality of Armagh
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The dramatic coastline, with its mountains and glens, the Giant's Causeway and Rathlin Island, have long been a favourite with visitors to Northern Ireland. But it is only in the past two years that tourists have been venturing further afield.

With just three days to spend, I decided to visit one of the lesser known provinces - Armagh. In recent years it became known as "Bandit Country" - the no-go area between Northern Ireland and the Republic. But when the ceasefire was declared the barricades came down, and this most beautiful part of the world began opening up to tourism. Though, after the breakdown of the truce, a military presence has returned, facilities for tourists have improved so much that visitors are unlikely to be aware of the "troubles".

Set on two hills, topped by the Roman Catholic and Anglican cathedrals, Armagh is the spiritual capital of Ireland. St Patrick established his mission here in the fifth century. But by then the city had already been featured in Ptolemy's second-century world atlas.

On my first morning I explored both cathedrals. Eighteen buildings have stood on the site of the Anglican cathedral of St Patrick since the saint chose it in AD417. The Catholic cathedral, also named after St Patrick, was completed in 1973 and is worth the steep climb for the view.

For a good overview of Armagh's history, I recommend St Patrick's Trian - a museum and exhibition centre next to the tourist office in the town centre - but, for the most stunning historical site and excellent exhibition centre, get the free bus to Navan Fort two miles out of town. This was the chief stronghold of the Kings of Ulster from about 700BC until AD332. The exhibition, one of the best I have seen, introduces visitors to the world of pre-Christian Ireland, before explaining how archaeologists uncovered many of the secrets of the huge earthworks just 30 years ago.

That evening I accepted an invitation for dinner at Castle Leslie - just over the border in County Monaghan. Two years ago the drive would have taken hours because of roadblocks and potholes. I got there in 20 minutes. The castle is slightly off the beaten track, but well worth a visit for a meal or overnight stay. Book in advance though - this is still a family home and places are limited.

The castle retains furniture, portraits and archives going back to 1660. That night I slept in a bed once occupied by a Cardinal.

The next day I was about to call for a cab when one house guest offered me a lift all the way to Belfast. Yet another example of Irish hospitality.

Despite not knowing a soul when I arrived, and only staying for three days, by the time I left I felt as though I had been with a group of old friends. I will certainly be back soon - and for a much longer visit.

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