This is my third visit to Ireland, and just like the previous times we have chosen to go to the magnificent Connemara area. It contains some of the most beautiful and wild nature Ireland has to offer.
This is where you find grazing sheep, cows and horses. They stand with their necks bent against the howling wind. The rain is pouring down over the meadows and the clouds above are threatening to cover the entire world around us in total darkness as we drive along the curvy country roads. Everywhere in the hilly surroundings you see ancient stone walls and houses long collapsed. Houses that once housed shepherds and farming families. Now only the remains of the bare walls are left behind.
This may all sound a bit gloomy and sad. But in fact it is not. It is harsh and brutal, but also intriguing and oddly attracting in a peculiar way.
Imagine the biggest irish Hollywood cliches you can think of. Sheep. Grassy meadows. Rocks. Irish folk music in the background. Connemara has it all!
Together with Alexandra’s sister we had rented a cottage all the way out by the end of the world, where the views are just stunning. Next stop would be New York on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. We had Alexandra’s mother flown in from Munich. This was actually a surprise trip for her. She was scheduled to visit Alexandra’s sister in London, who had told her a story about them going to see a bit of Scotland together. But instead of flying to Scotland, the plane flew to Shannon, Ireland, from where their rental car took them to us. We were already waiting for them in the Connemara cottage. The best part was that my mother in law only noticed what was really happening as they left the Shannon airport. The large signs saying “Welcome to Ireland” were hard to miss. I can’t blame her though. Who knows all Scottish and Irish airport names by heart?
Anton was thrilled to see his Oma again after almost one year with only an image over Skype. And then of course his cousin Benjamin and little Jack, just 7 months old. This means that he was born while we were touring Australia. This was our very first introduction in “real life”.
It stormed and rained quite a bit while we resided in the little community of Renvyle. The locals out there have a saying: “If you don’t like the weather, just wait 15 minutes!” True that! Very often we could sit by the large windows in the dining room, enjoying the view over the Atlantic Ocean where clouds would come in with furious speed. And before we could even think of changing our plans for the day we would go from sunshine to a wild snowstorm. We had a constant wind coming in. A strong wind! Oddly enough, you find quite a few small luxury hotels and and some of the finest golf courses in the country. Literally located RIGHT on the coastline. We asked some of the locals if any serious golf players would really come all the way out here to play in this kind of weather. “Oh yes, of course!” - they said. “This is one of the toughest and most distinguished golf courses in the country!” I do not question the thing about how tough it is. I am no golf player. Had I been, I might have understood why this place is so attractive... I mean, walking around with red cheeks and frozen hands, swinging those clubs?! Our walk over the soaking, but nicely trimmed grass only lasted 30 minutes. By then we honestly felt that we had truly deserved a cup of hot tea in front of the fireplace.
One of the very first things I noticed, already during my first visit to Ireland, was the constant smell of burned peat that lingers everywhere in Ireland. It is really omnipresent! Perhaps because I have only been visiting in either fall or winter, where indoor fires are common to heat the houses. I am not completely up to date on the current rules of stoves and fireplaces in Germany or Denmark, but I am not sure that we are even allowed to use peat anymore. It seems a bit “traditional” and old fashioned. It is, nevertheless, a very effective and fast way of starting up a good and nicely warming fire. I grew up in a house with a fireplace, and every afternoon when I got home from school, it was my job to light the fire in order for our living room to be nice and warm by evening. I have lost count on the many hours I have wasted trying to get that fire going. And how many briquettes, fire-starters, newspapers and matches have I used?! With the use of peat and the modern coal-briquettes that we have also used over here (they create less smoke) lightening the fire every day is an easy and quick task. Most houses in the country side have a stove or fireplace and therefore the distinct smell of peat and coal lies like a thick cloud over the entire country. It is not unpleasant, but as a tourist you notice immediately.
In Connemara we visited Kylemore Abbey, which until recently was a boarding school for girls. Run and administrated by nuns. But then the nuns found out that it was much more profitable (and much less work) to run the place as a tourist attraction instead of a boarding school. So they shut it down. The very beautiful park and victorian, walled garden with a few neatly restored green houses is an attraction in itself. The wall around the garden adds a certain “fairytale dimension”. The giant, intriguing, turquoise gates will seduce you and you instinctively feel like going on a small exploring adventure though the many paths of the garden. Even during the winter it is magnificent. In the summertime it must be even more stunning. The castle itself is actually not that interesting. From the outside it reminds me of the Hogwarts castle from the Harry Potter books. Unfortunately the place was severely damaged during a fire sometime in the 1950’s, and much of the interior has not yet been completely restored. For this reason only 5 rooms are open to the public. The entrance fee might then seem a bit high, but I will still recommend a visit to Kylemore Abbey any time.
We also went to Connemara National Park. By the Visitor’s Center there is a nice playground where the children could burn off some energy. We went for a small hike along one of the easier routes in the area. We were visiting on a beautiful sunny day and the surrounding mountains still had snow on their tops from the previous days with sporadic snowstorms. The colors! They were absolutely amazing! The deep blue and turquoise tones of the ocean. The intense green of the grass and bushes. The brown from the dead grass, hay and fallen leaves. All mixed with the blue colors of the sky with its crisp, white clouds creating a sharp contrast to the gray mountain sides. I took quite a few pictures of all this, but I am afraid that none of them do the scenery any justice. This has to be seen for real! It reminded me of some of the most beautiful places on the south island of New Zealand. One could say that you would not have to travel so far to see such a scenery then. But I am afraid that you cannot really put it like that. Both places must be seen! And the Ireland beauties that we saw are not that common. The Gulf Stream in the Atlantic Ocean heats up the ocean and spares Ireland from most of the snow that it would otherwise have had during the winter. Actual, permanent snow is a rarity around here.
After a cozy and relaxing week with plenty of time in front of the fireplace and by the dining table we drove to Clifden and checked in to the Abbeyglen Castle Hotel. The first time we were there, back in 2005, it was a coincidence. We simply drove by and found it interesting. This is our third time. We keep coming back because the place has a certain “something”. In the dark and stormy winter landscape it may look a bit sad and old, but as soon as you enter the lobby you are greeted by a warm fireplace, deep leather chairs, Gilbert the parrot and a lot of passionate and service minded staff. You can book your stay with or without meals, but we have always had an “all inclusive” deal. The food is fantastic! Also the breakfast. The restaurant staff is attentive and in the evening, at dinner, there is a piano player in charge of the background music. The interior decor is traditional, sometimes even old fashioned. The rooms are all with a personal touch and quite luxurious. Many of them have a fireplace and a jacuzzi. The first times we were here we simply just sat in the middle of it all and observed everything happening around us. It’s like being part of a good old Agatha Christie movie, taking place in the 1920’s. But everything is very authentic and the service is warm and hearty. You cannot help feeling at home and in good hands immediately!
Did I mention that complimentary afternoon tea and scones are served every day and that a champagne reception takes place every evening, just before dinner is served? All guests are invited to both. And this is all included in the room rates, of course. When we arrived on Friday, around noon, in the middle of one of the worst storms they have had in a while, our rooms were not quite ready yet. We did arrive a few hours too early because of the rain, and because we simply did not have much else to do, we just decided to go to the hotel. We were offered tea and scones in the library, while we were waiting for our rooms. Again, everything complimentary. Nice!
This may all sound very expensive in the end. And yes, this is not the cheapest accommodation we have had during our journey. But we had “saved” for this one, and we wanted to enjoy a few days here together with Alexandra’s family. The hotel is, in fact, not really that expensive compared to what you get. Far from it! You get a truly genuine and classic hotel experience, old school, where you are greeted by name by the staff (even the children) and where everyone knows who you are and where you are to be seated in the restaurant, to which room number all drinks and spa treatments go etc etc. You are rarely asked about this! And even though this is a stylish hotel, with helipads in the garden for those guests arriving by helicopter, neither guests nor staff are the slightest snobbish. Jeans and t-shirts are OK. Otherwise we would have had a bit of an issue there, with the contents of our backpacks. By the way, Anton and Benjamin were thrilled about the helicopters. We all watched a lift-off at close hand on Saturday morning!
On Sunday it was my birthday. During the evening dinner I was surprised with a birthday song from the staff and they served me a nice birthday cake, with chocolate inscription. I had not mentioned to anyone that it was my birthday, but I think Alexandra might have mentioned it when we arrived. But then forgotten about it again. But at Abbeyglen Castle things like that are kept in mind...
Monday morning we drove to Galway, and from here Alexandra’s sister and her family, together with my mother in law, went to the airport to catch a plane back to London. After 10 days together with the whole family, we were once again threeonthego.
Galway is also a must when you are visiting Ireland. The city was founded back in 1124 when the fortress Dún Bhun na Gaillimhe was built. Over time the city grew throughout the surrounding area. Today Galway is a modern city with apprx. 76000 inhabitants and a highly recognized university (quite a few famous personalities have degrees from Galway. Among these are Nelson Mandela, Martin Sheen, Gabriel Byrne and Enya). Culture is broadly represented by plenty of museums and theaters. Also a long list of various music events takes place. Irish music is, of course, well represented but there are many other musical styles present. Arts, crafts, jewellery and antiques are to be found everywhere in shops on the main pedestrian street and in the small, cozy side streets throughout the inner city. Side by side with highly awarded pubs where you can eat good food and have the omnipresent pint of Guiness to accompany it.
There are many old buildings in Galway and the streets are curvy, narrow and oftentimes one-way directed. That will give you some stressful moments when you need to find a parking spot for the rental car without scratching it. But so far we have managed just fine. At this point we do know the infrastructure of the city well enough NOT to make all the classic tourist mistakes that we see many others do. But it takes some getting used to!
One of our really good friends, Ken, who lives in Mönchengladbach, Germany, is originally from Galway. His parents have a small, very fine little antique shop in the latin quarter. Alexandra knows them well and I have previously met them a few times. We were invited to their house one evening. It was really nice of them to do so and we were talking about everything from the irish, to Ireland’s role in the global community and about the country’s current financial situation. As in most other European countries, the financial crisis has left its mark here and you can see that they have had better times. But the irish are proud and stubborn people, so they will get by just the same. We have not yet seen real poverty over here, but I am sure it exist!
Thank you Phil and Frank for your true, irish hospitality and for your genuine interest in our journey. And thank you for the many good suggestions to our onward journey through Ireland!
We will continue our Ireland trip over the next week, before we fly to London, which will be our base for the last part of our world tour. From here we will visit England, Wales and Scotland.