Ireland. Just the very mention of this country conjures up images of endless green fields, dramatic cliffs, rain, stone cottages and lots of sheep. Pubs. Rain. Whiskey. Guinness. Peat fires. Rain. Aran sweaters. Seafood. Celtic music. I could go on.
Until recently, my only foray to this land rich with tradition and heritage, was in my childhood when we spent a rainy week on a family holiday in County Cork. I must have been about 11. I remember riding horses with my dad (a rare occurrence), and eating amazing jam doughnuts from a bakery in Skibereen. My mum dashing out of the car, avoiding the rain as best she could, and returning with a plastic bag full of fragrant, doughy, sugary heaven. This, too, was a rare occurrence. My mum wasn’t one to buy us sweet treats but holiday rules were different.
When my brother announced he was getting married in Dublin (a long-awaited event), I decided to take a few extra days to explore. Initially I’d hoped to do a food-inspired jaunt down the west coast, definitely taking in Dingle and maybe going down as far as the south west tip – perhaps revisiting Skibereen – but the best laid plans can go astray.
My main mistake was renting a car, instead of hopping on a flight down to Cork. Weary from a red-eye flight, we decided to drive directly west from Dublin airport, aiming for a small village called Barna, just up from Galway. (Note: never rent a car from Dooley’s at the airport – appalling customer service, poorly maintained cars. Extra note: credit cards generally do not offer automatic car insurance in Ireland so I ended up paying an extra 133 euros just for the insurance.) My second mistake was underestimating how narrow windy roads can make a short distance take a long time. My third error? Failing to account for the fact we’d actually want to stop and savor all the destinations along the way.
The journey to Galway is about two and a half hours, and with little sleep in the prior 24 hours, driving was more like a commando expedition requiring keen mental alertness while fighting off the desire to curl up in the back seat with a blanket. Thankfully we made it, although the outskirts of Galway didn’t exactly match up with my mental picture of a rustic and wild Ireland. Driving past KFC, Tesco and other big box retailers, I wondered whether Galway had been a good call.
We checked into our hotel in Barna and headed down to the beach for an evening stroll. It was really windy and a bit rainy – much like a winter’s day if (like me) you call California home. And despite not being in the most picturesque village in Ireland, it was gorgeous.
Weathered cottages, although dilapidated, offered up cheery colored paintwork which contrasted with the grey overhead. A plump cow with two well-fed calves enjoyed ocean-view grazing, protected from any rising tide by only a stone wall. Fishing boats and dinghies lay on their sides in the mud flats behind their sea wall. Even an abandoned wooden boat (shipwreck seems too grandiose a description), seemingly washed high ashore, brightened up the landscape with its aged, flaking, white and yellow paint. Tide pools, surrounded by seaweed and rocks, revealed little in the way of sea life, but were still fun to mooch around. Out in the distance we spotted kite surfers enjoying stellar conditions—the wind so strong they were catching HUGE air. Airborne you wondered if they might just get carried off across the bay without ever touching down.
All too soon, our ears were burning from the cold, and so we turned in for an early night, knowing we had a full day of adventures the next day, which included horse riding near Loughrea and a desire to explore the Burren and maybe the Cliffs of Moher.
Over Irish breakfast the next morning—bacon, sausage, bright yellow-yoked fried eggs, black pudding and toast—it became clear, that no matter how hard I studied Google maps, we couldn’t fit a five-hour driving tour and a two-hour horse ride, into six hours, and have time to get out of the car and enjoy our surroundings. Sadly, I vowed to save the Cliffs of Moher for another trip, and we headed towards The Burren – an area of dramatic landscapes underpinned by limestone mountains and natural beauty. En route, we spotted Dunguaire Castle and Kilvarra bay – a fine spot for a photo opp as evidenced by the number of tourists who stopped to do the same.
Much like Italy and other parts of Europe, Ireland is now quite overrun with tourists. Huge buses navigate the small windy roads, ferrying sightseers from one historic spot to another. Beware, they don’t slow down or pullover for smaller vehicles, so we quickly got off the beaten track and found ourselves wending down almost-single-lane roads into The Burren.
I was in awe of the many, many stone walls dividing up the land as far as the eye can see. Up and down hills, and left to right, they seem to go on forever, and are built in various styles. To think that they were created by hand, over hundreds of years and thousands of hours of labor makes you pause for just a moment.
The Burren was once covered in a glacier, which no doubt spread the rocks around the area, and I was told that building the walls was in part done to clear the land and make it useful for agriculture. No crops are grown here, but there are plenty of cows and sheep contained within these secure walls. Other structures can be spotted—from round “houses” with no doors, windows or other means of entry, to standalone walls in the middle of fields. I’ve no idea on their purpose.
The other thing about The Burren is the abundance of wild flowers and, of course, the green grass which contrasts against the light grey of the limestone. Stopping to trek across a field, with the promise of a holy well (which we couldn’t find) I was floored by just how many varietals and species of flora abounded. Apparently, 27 orchid species wild orchids grow in the spring, along with bluebells, and heather, to name but a few. A must-stop is The Burren Perfumery which is hard to find, save for a signpost which tells you it’s 11km away (and then leaves you scratching your head at a subsequent Y in the road). Just as I was hoping for cell phone coverage to call them for guidance, lo and behold the entrance appeared on our left.
Inspired by nature’s bounty, the Perfumery has been there for 40 years. It’s a busy little spot, complete with a sweet café, but it’s soothing, smells like nothing on earth, and is beautifully designed. From lotions to face creams, essential oils to perfumes and candles, this is a great spot to treat yourself and your senses.
Another place we had wanted to check out, but which was unfortunately closed on Mondays, was the Hazel Mountain Chocolate one of a just a few bean to bar manufacturers in Europe.
Our final destination of the day was a two and a half-hour horse ride through the woods and common lands around Loughrea at An Sibin riding center. It was with some level of panic that I discovered the journey from the Perfumery to the riding center was not in fact 40 mins, but an hour and forty. We sped along country roads, watching the changing landscape as we traveled inland, cursing the lack of cell phone signal, the complete absence of road signs, and hoping that my terrible map-reading skills would eventually get us to where we needed to be. And it turns out, luck was on our side.
Greeted by an exuberant yellow Lab, we apologized profusely (not to the Labrador, of course) as we donned all-weather gear. The elements are schizophrenic here: one minute warm sunshine, the next rain and wind. Soon enough we were on our way and traveling at an altogether different speed. Enjoying the clip-clop of our mounts’ hooves. Smelling the pines. Listening to our guide tell stories about fairy trees (two trees that weave their trunks together) and leprechauns. Intrigued, as our horses insisted on stopping to drink from a small pool of water along the track—possibly drawn to it by the minerals and nutrients. We wove through an abandoned settlement with tumbling down, bright moss-covered stone walls. Spotted semi-wild ponies grazing on common land with their foals. It was a really great way to experience Ireland’s rich countryside at just the right pace and the perfect way to end our day.