Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Connemara

After a brilliant stay in NI we had a couple of travel transition days, moving down the island from North to West.

When you try to gauge distances using Google Maps, it’s easy to fall into the trap of equating distance with time. It doesn’t work that way in Ireland! Unless you travel on the main highways (predictably boring as they bypass all the towns), travel is slow. The roads, even in towns were designed for horse and cart width and are bordered by hedges – high, thick ones that you don’t want to wrangle with in your rental car. It’s virtually impossible to see what’s coming around the corner or over the rise and I’ve taken to closing my eyes and holding my breath in each instance so that I don’t make involuntary shrieks that might distract the driver. Generally, all drivers are very considerate and one person or the other will pull in tight to the hedgerow to let the other pass but, as in every country, there are a fair share of hoons who overtake or just whiz around the bends with no thought for anyone’s safety. As a result of all of the above, travel is slow. This doesn’t worry us as we are in no rush to get from place to place, the journey, not the destination being the priority for us on this trip.
Overtaking lane!
As you cross the border there’s nothing to tell you you’re changing countries, from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland except that the bunting – a regular feature in most towns and outside many houses, changes from the Ulster flag accompanied by the Union Jack to the green, white and orange of the Irish flag, the speed limits are in kms instead of miles and you suddenly have to pay in Euro rather than Stirling.

From Ballycastle we drove down through Derry and Donegal to our overnight stop at Dromahair. It was here we struck our first issue with accommodation because, a) the place was hard to find, b) there was no sign of life when we got there except an elderly man who mistook Geoff for a ‘Jimmy’ (policeman) and got quite agitated believing that he had come to complain about some kids who were ‘no any of his responsibility’. Thankfully we have Sophie’s UK phone for such events but when she rang the owners they told her the apartment wouldn’t be ready for check in till 5pm because the laundry was late!
Old Mill Apartments - don't stay here
To fill the time we drove back into the closest big town, Sligo and checked out the Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery. I usually find standing stones quite fascinating but at the end of a long day, and at 13 Euro, we were struggling to find our zen and this field looked pretty much like any paddock around Dundonnell at home. The information provided was interesting though and it is certainly fascinating to know you are looking at evidence of a civilisation that existed 6000 years ago.
Carrowmore
Back at Dromahair, still no sign of a check in person meant another phone call to be advised that someone would come and let us in immediately. Immediately in this case turned out to be 20 minutes, so it was nearly 7 by the time we were settled. Given that the check out next morning was 9, the price seemed a little excessive for a 14 hr stay! To add insult to injury, there was no wifi (even though it was advertised) and no toaster. One of our travel issues is avoiding Taine’s ‘hangriness’ (getting angry because you’re hungry) and morning hangriness is the worst.

Given the lack of toaster it wasn’t hard to make an early start the next morning to the Connemara. This drive took us down through Westport where we stopped for lunch at a lovely cafĂ© in the main street. From Westport you enter a whole new landscape, one that’s difficult to describe. It’s a bit like the Scottish Highlands meets the Otway Forest by the sea!
The paddocks were dotted with black faced sheep (who cross the road whenever they feel like it), there were fishing boats of every description out on the fjord and crofters in the fields harvesting peat. I didn’t even know that was still done.
Westport
Why did the sheep cross the road?

Crofter


Clifden is the hub of the Connemara and like all other coastal towns in Summer, full of people. We’re staying in the penthouse of the Tom Barry House apartments. It’s a penthouse because it’s at the top of the building, up 66 stairs from the ground, above a bookmaker’s shop! We even have a little decking outside the lounge window. Unfortunately this is a shared decking and has public access so anyone who wants to sit up there looks straight in our windows but so far no one has so it’s a lovely little kingdom at the top of the town. And it has a toaster. And wifi!
 
View from the Penthouse
We used the 2 night layover opportunity to have a bit of a sleep in and then took a drive around the Sky Road with a view to hiring bikes and going back around it later in the day. The Sky Road is beautiful with expansive views out over the coastline. Despite its close proximity to the town, this is a quiet and laid back countryside, punctuated by little farms, lots of Connemarra ponies, tiny harbours and the odd B and B. I’m not sure the photos will do justice to the kaleidoscope of colours.






We’d packed a picnic lunch so we drove out to the National Park looking for a nice walk to get our steps up for the day. Geoff spotted a mountain (it was called a Diamond Hill, but I know a mountain when I see one) and discovered on his Maps.me that it was only a 3km walk away. I hate climbing things but holidays are all about family bonding and the sun was shining so I agreed to walk the base track and maybe wait for them to do the climb. Of course, one base track led to another and there were small children gallivanting on in front of me so on I tramped until suddenly we were committed to the one way track to the summit. With Geoff physically dragging me up the steep bits and the kids making encouraging noises I managed to make it to the top, only truly losing the plot when the uneven stone steps became an actual rock climb and the wind threatened to pick me up and throw me over the edge.
 
All smiles and sunshine at the start

Should have stopped here

Panic attack. But at least Taine looks good in the pic!

Summit

The fun really began as we started our descent and the weather turned from sunny to wild and windy to sleet followed by rain so heavy that no one could see, especially not the old lady wearing glasses. Sophie got the giggles as I crawled sideways, blind and Gollum like, down the steepest bits, clinging to Geoff’s hand in the hope he might be able to drag me back up if I fell. Keeping in mind that I managed to fall flat on my face walking down the street in Montreal, falling off the mountain was a definite possibility!



At least may phone still works

Completely soaked, we finally made it to the base track and so desperate was I to get back to cover (and the toilet) that I broke into a jog for the last bit. I sincerely hope I am able to walk well enough tomorrow to get down the 66 steps to the car. I may need to be removed with a crane.

Actual running- bloody mountain in the background
Tom Barry House let us down by not having any hot water when we got back, the only black mark in an otherwise perfect accommodation.
We’ve been trying to get to an Irish pub for dinner since we got here. We tried again tonight and finally got a spot at Guys. Unfortunately, they didn’t have any live music but the pub next door to us does so we’ll open the window and listen to that for free.


Tuesday, July 25, 2017

In the steps of giants.

Northern Ireland turned on its prettiest face for us today. Blue skies, clear water, no wind.
We dined on a scrumptious Ulster breakfast (eggs, bacon, black pudding, sausage, potato bread and mushrooms) at the guesthouse and then tried to beat some of the crowds to the highlighted tourist spots of NI. We were almost successful at the Dark Hedges (as featured in Game of Thrones). We parked at the Dark Hedges hotel car park (very nice of them to allow this and a considerate tourist thing for everyone to do so you don’t mess up other people’s photos with your car) and walked the 500 metres or so to the road. I managed to take two clear shots of the hedges with no one else in them and then suddenly we were swamped by other people on the same mission. Unfortunately, most of them just parked their cars on the side of the Dark Hedge road, making it impossible for anyone to get a sense of the mysterious atmosphere.

The Dark Hedges
We weren’t quite early enough at Carrick-a-rede rope bridge. The ticket box had just opened but the car park was already full and the path to the bridge was reminiscent of the hordes at Niagara Falls. The bridge spans a little gorge between the mainland and a rocky outcrop. It’s a loooong way down but the bridge is steady and they only allow 8 people on it at a time so I managed it quite easily. On the other side, the views are spectacular, especially on a gorgeous day like this but the edges are unfenced and the drop is sheer. The terror of watching everyone get as close as possible for the perfect photo gave me a panic attack so I had to sit and do some mindfulness exercises!
 
Across the bridge

View from the top

Too close to the edge!

Time out for a panic

From there we went to the Giant’s Causeway and that’s when the desire to see the natural wonders of the world on a sunny Sunday in Summer got bat shit crazy. The carpark looked like the MCG on grand final day, as every tour bus and international school camp in NI and about ten thousand locals vied for a chance to pay 10 pound, (about $18 each), to step foot on the ancient, tessellated rocks. This was too much for us Aussies (not bad grammar, just an appropriate line from Spamalot) so we retreated to try again at a later, or earlier time.


Portrush is the epicentre of the beach towns along the northern coast. We’d planned to have lunch there but it too was wall to wall cars along the beach front, the harbour and the street. There were numerous amusement arcades and a giant mobile home park. In the public toilets there were several teenage girls changing into bikinis, applying 57 layers of makeup and creating cocktails with vodka in their drink bottles! We parked down the far end and did a bit of people watching, decided we were very glad we were staying in Ballycastle and took off again, back through Coleraine and the Dark Hedge road (bumper to bumper by this time). Ballycastle was busy too but in a pleasant, country village way, with a hurling tournament and a market by the beach. The runners (everyone but me) did their exercise thing and I strolled through the market and down the beach.
 
Break hour in Ballycastle

Ballycastle beach

For dinner we packed a picnic with ingredients from Tesco and headed back to the Giant’s Causeway. This time we avoided the Information Centre altogether and, quite legally, took the red trail (extreme cliff climb!), at no cost, to the causeway. Our picnic spot at Saguenay Fjord last week was a definite winner for lunch but this is a new contender for best dinner venue. I doubt there are many days in NI where you can comfortably walk across the causeway in your shorts and t shirt at 9.30pm, but this was one of them. It was absolutely stunning.
 
162 steps down


The Giant’s Causeway stretches out and up like a 3D version of Hexa. It’s pretty hard to believe that these stones aren’t man made; there are thousands of perfect hexagons in different sized stacks, reaching out into the sea. To make it even more perfect, the sun was beginning to set and we were sharing this amazing vision with only a handful of other people. Don’t get me wrong- I think it’s wonderful that so many people are travelling the world but like my fantasy of first class air travel, I just wish they weren’t all doing it at the same time as me so the decision to wait till the evening to visit will go down as one of the best decisions of this trip. Turns out the blue trail (moderate, no steps path) is also accessible without an official ticket, so we returned to the car that way.



On the way home we stopped at Ballintoy harbour to watch the last of the sunset.

It was a perfect day.


PS - for any of my Humanities class reading this today - we're in Clifden now on the West coast and then we're travelling through Galway to the Cliffs of Moher before we go back to Dublin. See if you can find out something for us to do in the Connemarra area tomorrow and maybe somewhere to stop off on the trip to the cliffs and then back to Dublin ;-)
Also, if the kids are reading - it is not usually OK to use swear words on a public blog. The term 'bat shit' is vernacular (look it up the word vernacular and add to your glossary) and just because I used it doesn't mean you should!