Saturday, January 26, 2008

Galway and the West

I rolled out of bed this morning at the very civilized hour of 8, had the breakfast buffet and loaded up for a day on the road. My goal was generally the west coast of Ireland and the areas around Galway in particular.

Before leaving I took a stroll around the grounds, the calls of the birds being just too irresistible to ignore. In just a short walk I saw some type of Wren, Coal Tit, Great Tit, Thrush, Wood Pigeon , Rook, Jackdaw and Eurasian Blackbird. My inability to refine a few of the species reminded me that I really need to bring a field guide with me on these trip. The hotel is built around an old manor house, and the grounds are quite nice.



I managed to pull out of the car park (using the correct local term) without running into anything. I've been doing pretty well this trip, having only scraped the curb twice leaving the airport last night. In fact, last night I successfully navigated the Airport to M1 to M50 to N4 to M4 to Enfield and into the hotel lot maze without driving off the road or hitting anything which is saying something considering I had just flown 6000 miles, been up for 24 hours and was 8 time zones out of sync. I didn't even miss a shift!

A toll booth blocked the entrance to the highway but I miraculously had correct change in hand - the leftovers from my $10 Coke on the plane last night. Tolls are expensive here, on the order of $4+ so or. I paid and entered the divided carriageway (again using the correct local term.)

One way in which my driving does come up short is my tendency to drift too far to the right. I am constantly running over the rumble strip which annoys me to no end. But driving on the right side, it's hard to see that left corner of the hood. I rumble and I correct, a theme that is pervasive through the next 5 hours of exploration.

The divided road lasted for a long time but finally reduced to a regular 60 mph two lane road that wove through the countryside and all the towns along the way. It's beautiful country - green fields divided by stone walls creating pens for draft horses and big, fat white sheep. A lot of farm vehicles share the road, sometimes blocking the way and others properly using the shoulder which is extra wide and marked as a slow lane.

RTE Lyric on the radio set the mood. I love this station, it's an eclectic mishmash with wonderful sounding DJs and little advertising. The day is divided up into 2 or 3 hour programs, blocks of music punctuated by the news. Over the course of my drive, they offered programs on Broadway show tunes, movie themes, a great classical segment, a focus on a certain Czech composer whose name escapes me but whose Czech language rendition of a certain folk song that sounded like the 60s hit "Guantanamera" was something to behold, and a special program of music that ran from 1st century BC Chinese drinking songs played on a 7 string zither to Mississippi bluesman Robert "Son" House. The first thing I do when I land here is dial in this station.

The countryside rolled by and I began to plot my course off the motorway and down towards the peninsula which is the home of the Cliffs of Moher, one of Ireland's most famous landmarks. I missed a couple of shortcuts and ended up going a bit out of my way in order to take a better marked route. The tiny roads are tough here - they're not well marked, they change, they're often not where they're supposed to be and while being 10 feet wide, they're all marked at 100KPH.

I found my way onto the road I wanted and began to curve around the bottom of Galway Bay. The land changed a bit - no more trees - and the fields became greener and greener. Here the hill and bay sides are all divided up by neat little stone walls. By now, I was in The Burren, a big surprise to be as I had no idea what that was despite all my pre-trip map scouring. Turns out The Burren is a classic example of Karst geology, limestone and other bedrock scoured and cleaved by glaciers. The result is big stony hills with nothing more than a few patches of heath breaking the gray rocky monotony. In essence they look like giant hills of gravel. Their effect on the local man-made landscape was obvious - the materials from the rock walls and the stone houses all came from these rocky hills.

It's hard to capture the grandeur of the bigs hills in a photograph. For some reason, the camera just doesn't portray how big and stark they are.



Here I've included a shot of one of those tiny little roads. Imagine for a moment driving your backwards car down this at 60 MPH. And you thought I was exaggerating, didn't you?




I rounded a corner and found a castle overlooking an inlet to the bay. Too good an opportunity so I bundled up and got out of the car. It was low tide, and the rocks and shore of the bay were exposed. A Grey Heron stood on the far side of the inlet. A small group of Eurasian Widgeon were huddled on the rocks, hunkered down out of the wind, which was blowing at gale force. A single (Eurasian) Green-winged Teal bobbed in a shallow pool and what appeared to be some sort of Godwit was picking through the exposed sea weed.



The castle is called Dunguaire and was built in 1520 by the Hynes clan. It is said to be the most photographed castle in all of Ireland.



From there I intended to take a coastal road but somehow I missed that turn and ended up spending the next hour or so winding my way through The Burren's farmlands on the tiniest 100KPH road I had yet encountered. The scenery was stunning, albeit not what I had intended. Finally I came to a crossroads that was decorated with the remains of an abbey of indeterminate age as well as signs pointing to some towns I recognized. Thus corrected, I headed back towards the coast.



Finally, the ocean came into view and I was on the road to the Cliffs. Off to the side I saw an interesting castle tower and some beautiful shoreline but I missed the turn so I decided to turn around and head back. Which brings us to the other problem with these tiny roads - there are so few pull-offs and driveways that often you need to drive miles before finding a way to turn around. Forget a u-turn - the road is too narrow. Forget a k-turn - in the time it took you to execute, you'd get creamed. So you drive and you wait and you get angry when you see how the local homeowners put big boulders in their front yards when they got tired of people turning around in them.

I did find a place and after over-revving the engine and grinding the transmission trying to get it into 1st gear I went back and down the steepest, tiniest road to date. I was glad no one was coming up.

It was worth it. The ocean was crashing on rocks in the surf. The Cliffs of Moher could be seen off to the south and the Isles of Aran clung to the horizon to the west. I parked and hiked down the coast across a very strange granite landscape of big square and rectangular blocks with gaps worn smooth by the pounding of the waves. A couple of big enclosed fields held some cows grazing and a farmer was there in his Wellingtons checking on them. The wind was howling and the spray was flying - it was a great moment.









From there, back up that tiny little road and on my way to Moher. Arriving, I was
sort of disappointed to discover it was like every other major natural wonder in the civilized world - crowded with people who had partaken of the paid parking to put their cars in between the tour buses. On of which was blocking the entrance to the lot as the driver could not figure out how to pay. Traffic was backing up in both directions and I decided that it was not worth the 8 Euro fee so I pulled out of the queue (continuing my local terminology) and went on my way.

Coming down the grade I stopped to take a couple of pictures of the beaches and an old stone abbey standing vigil over a cemetery. Interestingly, all the new grave stones were stark, angular black granite. Quite a contrast to the weathered gray headstones so common in these burial grounds.




A couple of women came down the lane walking their dogs, one of whom did not like me at all until we talked and he backed down. Speaking of dogs, this part of the country is overrun with Border Collies, all black and white and the big, robust kind you do not typically see in the US.



It was getting late and I was about done looking at things so I decided to head back. I took a shortcut to avoid the town of Ennis and somehow missed a turn and ended up looping right back onto the road I had left. I had a bit of a challenge navigating Ennis (which is why I was trying to avoid it in the first place) but finally I found the N18 and headed back towards home.

I passed by one last interesting site, Castle Cloghan. It was a derelict site until purchased by its present owner and restored. Originally a Norman keep, built around 1239, it is now a rental unit used for parties and weddings.




It was really a great day overall. I drove around 400 kilometers, saw all kinds of wondrous natural things and some good ruins too. I passed through horse country and even found the Ireland Museum of the Horse, a stop for the future. In the field near the turn, there is a great bronze of a horse standing and grazing while his master, also in bronze, crashes to the ground behind him. Today the pair was surrounded by a flock of sheep, enjoying the same grass.

Tomorrow I head for the east coast, although the places I missed today beckon. We'll see.

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