Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Connemara

We walked back to our hotel into a stiff sea breeze that did not bode well for our next day of traveling. It had been raining off and on since sundown and the evening weather forecast confirmed that it was going to be another stormy day. We went to bed with the rain lashing the window and the wind howling through the streets. And the morning broke with the same weather – heavier rain and a stronger wind. But by the time we went out to find breakfast, the rain had stopped. Tucking into another small restaurant along Quay Street we ordered Eggs Benedict and coffee and sat back listening to alternative rock while admiring the western motif – snaffle bits, halters and paintings of Clint Eastwood. The name of the place was Rodeo, and they’d done their best to convey that idea. The food was excellent and the raspberry jam with my croissant was probably the best I have ever had.

After breakfast we checked out of the hotel and after completing the 109 tiny maneuvers required to get the car out of the Elizabethan era parking garage we were on the road again. Getting out of Galway was surprisingly easy, the signs made sense and the traffic was light. One hundred and twenty dollars bought us a tank of gas and another 700 kilometers of range. As we passed the outer edges of the town the rain stopped and I allowed myself a moment to consider for a moment that the day might turn out all right.

The landscape here was different compared to what we’d been driving through over the past couple of days, more open with higher hills and less of those dense hedgerows that make driving here so claustrophobic. It reminded me a lot of upstate New York. I drove past an Ireland Heritage sign advertising a castle ruin and decided that since this was vacation, we might as well stop to have a look. I made a quick u-turn and headed down a narrow lane that bisected a beautiful golf course; at the end was a small parking lot for Aughnanure Castle.

A big pointer came bounding up to me as I started up the path followed a few seconds later by his black and white piebald pal. Both were very friendly, some sort of greeting committee for people stopping by to see the ruins. They walked up the path with us along a fast running river that no doubt once formed part of the defensive perimeter of this site. A few minutes up the trail mossy walls appeared on the other side of the water, light shining through the keyhole shaped defensive slits in the walls. The black and white dog grabbed a stick and I played tug with him thinking perhaps that he wanted me to throw it. His friend came back and grabbed one end and they stumbled off in a growling game of tug. We crossed an old stone bridge and paid the 3 Euro entrance fee. The black and white dog followed us in, no entry fee for him. He was kind enough to pose for a last photograph before he headed off to harass some other visitors.

Aughnanure was built in the 15th century by one of the powerful clans that ruled this region of Ireland. A balance of power existed among these families due to the rugged country that separated them and a lack of weapons powerful enough to breach defensive positions such as this. That changed in the late 1500’s when the English figured out a way to bring artillery cross-country which altered the balance – stone ramparts could now be easily broken. And such was the case with this place – the English captured it and ended the reign of this particular family.

There were two rings of walls with towers at the corners. Mostly destroyed, it was still easy to get a feeling for what it must have looked like 600 years ago. The main structure was a tall stone tower, well preserved and renovated. I took the time to climb a narrow wet spiral staircase stopping on each floor to get a feel for what this place must have been like when it was in use or under siege. Two interesting things popped out, one a tiny room hidden behind a wall that might have served as a dismal dungeon for select enemies. The other was the latrine, a seat in a rectangular niche in a wall at the end of a small room. In the center was slit that opened up above a chute that fell three stories down to the ground. The principle of operation on this simple device was easy to understand. Inside the tower it was easy to get a feeling for how people lived there - big fireplaces for cooking and heating, large rooms for eating and scheming and holes in the ramparts for dropping things on the heads or their adversaries.

As we left the lot the two dogs re-appeared waiting to welcome the next round of visitors. This time though everyone seemed to be leaving and as we pulled away they stood there obviously wondering why the party had to end. What a life, hanging around for a new set of humans to drop in and provide a little afternoon entertainment, each and every day.

The Connemara region is characterized by tall barren hills, heather-covered peat bogs and pothole lakes, a completely different look than the Ireland of the south. We drove along passing the occasional pile of peat bricks drying by the side of the road. Thousands of sheep grazed on the hillsides eating what little forage this hard land provides; every mile or so groups of their less well-behaved compatriots were outside the fence, grazing on the better stuff at the side of the road. I didn’t see any sheep bodies so they must be smart enough to stay out of the way of what little traffic passes this way. The sky was clearing a bit and the sun played across the top of the rocky hills. At the town of Clifden we stopped for lunch in a small shop, the wife of the operation waiting tables while the husband rustled up the food in the back. We walked up and down the main street stopping at a bakery for some additional fuel.

We went off the main road at the village of Letterfrack to take a loop road around a headland that promised a castle ruin. The castle was a bust but the scenery was spectacular – small green islands out in the surf, one sporting a ruin of an old manor house. The sea was a deep navy blue which contrasted with the pale gray rocky shore. Off in the distance the mountains on the far side of Clew Bay loomed green on the horizon. Big white clouds rolled in off the ocean. This was classical north Atlantic littoral, and I was loving it. In the small village of Tully Cross I finally found a classic thatch roofed cottage close enough to a parking spot to get a picture.

Down the road I took a slightly wrong turn and ended up on a rutted farm lane that led across a small valley dotted with sheep and crisscrossed with ancient rock walls. We tooled around for a while before finding our way back to the main road; every choice we made seemed to lead to an even narrower path. A mile or so further down we got stuck behind some farmers transferring sheep between trailers; eventually they moved out of our way and we headed on.

The road turned away from the sea and began to cut across the peninsula towards our evening destination, Westport. We kept trying to get a cell phone signal to make a reservation for the evening, but none was forthcoming. We fell into a line of traffic stuck behind a truck, content to drive a bit below the speed limit, enjoying the hills instead, the shadows on the mountains and a long loch that ran parallel to our route. Beyond the village of Launeen the line of cars dipped down into a valley and crossing a small bridge I hit something and blew the left front tire of the car. I somehow managed to find about the only roadside pull-off in the whole country and got out to survey the damage.

The tire was destroyed - a big gapping flap was ripped off just above the wheel. I fished around in the trunk for the spare and the necessary tools, realizing after I was pretty greased up that Volvo was kind enough to provide a clean pair of cotton work gloves. Those meticulous Swedes. After figuring out how to mount the jack to the car I wound it up changed the tire and just as I was wrapping things up, it started to rain on me.

Westport was an easy 15 kilometers down the road and we reached it in time to get stuck in a bit of evening traffic. The hotel we’d planned on using had a single room left, the remainder taken by a tour led by the company founded by the author of the travel guide we’d been relying on for this trip; one more irony for the day. It turned out to be a nice choice even though the long red-wall-papered hallway seemed to be straight out of “The Shining.” A big modern room, such a contrast to the last place we rolled the dice based on a guidebook recommendation. Out our window the river rolled past hemmed in by stone walls. After checking in I called the rental car company and was informed that I was responsible for the tire, another problem to be solved before heading home.

We wandered around looking for dinner before settling on the restaurant in the basement of the hotel. I had liked the looks of the menu at a pub around the block but the atmosphere in the place put me off. Someday perhaps I’ll get over this particular phobia of hating to eat in local bars. For some reason, I just can’t continue in when every in the place stops what they’re doing to watch me. But it all worked out, I ended up with a great duck and the pint of Smithwick’s that I’d been craving for the entire trip.

Flat tires aside, I think Connemara is a pretty great place. My new favorite for Ireland and one I’ll certainly make my way back to again. I suppose the funny thing is that after a day of rest in Galway and looking at another day of sitting in a car navigating rain swept roads, I was ready to throw in the towel before this day even began. Once again the old cliché is proven – something interesting is always around the corner if you’re willing to take the time to look.















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