Saturday, 19 September 2015

Galway Girl

London is an intoxicating, sometimes inspiring, occassionally infuriating but undoubtedly fun place to live, yet however much I travel or wherever I call home there will always be a piece of my heart that will forever belong to Ireland. I have a particular soft-spot for the north of the country especially Belfast where I grew up, having seen it emerge from dark days of the Troubles to become a thriving city which draws tourists and locals alike. That will of course be the focus of a future post but I recently visited County Galway, in south-west of Ireland for the first time and wanted to take this blog post to share the trip with you.

Before I go any further, in case you have never been to Ireland, this is the 'the 411' on this wonderful little island -

- It's often said that in Ireland you will get all four seasons in a day - this really isn't an exaggeration! You'll get periods of gorgeous sunshine, interspersed with rain (lots and lots of it), as well as the wind and cold. This means going out without a coat or umbrella, even during the elusive Irish summer would be seriously foolhardy. Inevitably you're going to look wild and windswept but my advice - just embrace not being in control - it is, in fact, incredibly liberating!

- Irish people are mostly very friendly. Ask them where to eat, drink or anything else and they will happily stop and chat with you for a good 10mins about your life, their life, the rain, the state of the world etc. A chat about the weather ended up with a dairy farmer inviting me to come and see his cows in Wexford - yes, Irish men really do have the gift of the gab!

- Apart from Dublin which has a small touch of London's frenetic energy, expect a much more chilled out pace of life. One which will make you feel super relaxed at first, but may eventually lead to restlessness as you start feeling withdrawal symptoms from city life. Prolonged exposure can either lead to a determination to pack in life in London for good and buy a field and some cows in Wexford too, or an uncontrollable desire to jump into the Irish sea and swim back to London - you have been warned!

Anyway back on topic, when my family suggested a road-trip to the Republic of Ireland I knew exactly where I wanted us to go. Galway City is widely considered the most Irish of Irish cities (on account of having the most native Irish speakers) and everything which visitors traditionally associate with the Emerald Isle (minus leprechauns who tend only to emerge for the Annual Pot of Gold Convention) have congregated en masse there.

The west coast is Ireland at its most romantic. So if you want a token of true love for your sweetheart there is only one place to go - head to Thomas Dillon's in Galway City, birthplace of the original claddagh ring (below) for a gorgeous traditional Irish symbol of timeless love. The ring represents love (the heart), loyalty (the crown) and friendship (the hands).

Need to clear out the cobwebs? Take a stroll along Galway Bay which provides a quintessential picture postcard view of Ireland of pretty little cottages set against the backdrop of the sea. On the day we visited the weather was wild - the wind so strong that it almost lifted me off the ground and was blowing grit from the beach and my hair into my face so much I bore an uncanny resemblance to Cousin Itt. Did I hate it? Nope, I actually though "Ah this is the life!"

Keen to soak up some history? Check out the Spanish Arch, the remainder of a 16th century bastion, added to the town's walls to protect merchant ships from looting. Step through the Arch and you will find yourself at Galway Museum. It's completely free and worth a wander round when the inevitable downpour begins.

Sampling Galway's nightlife is an absolute must-do. Head to Tig Coili, order a Guinness and sit back and enjoy some traditional Irish music. Standing round the band with the locals, drink in hand, nodding your head gently to the music, you can't fail to fall for Galway's charms.

Of course there is so much to see in County Galway beyond the city walls. Lacking in time we had to be incredibly selective so decided just to do a mini detour to Connemara. There are some gorgeous views enroute but the real treat is Kylemore Abbey below. Set against a dramatic backdrop of rolling hills, the first glimpse of Kylemore took my breath away.

Naturally a fairytale castle like this it comes with a story. The castle was built  in 1800s by Mitchell Henry a Manchester businessman and MP who was utterly devoted to his wife and built the castle for her after she fell in love with the area while on honeymoon. Kind-hearted souls that they were, they wanted everyone to be part of their good fortune and invested in lots of improvements for the local area, building a farm, dairy, saw mill etc. for the community. They had 9 children and were blissfully happy. Unfortunately it wasn't to last, as tragedy struck when Margaret died on a family visit to Egypt. Her devastated husband built a beautiful gothic church on the grounds in memory of her (a sort of mini Irish Taj Mahal) and had her remains brought back and placed in a mausoleum on the grounds. He never remarried and on his death his ashes were brought back to Kylemore and laid to rest next to his one true love. The castle passed hands a few times after that and is currently a Benedictine monastery. It is an absolute must-see if you are in the area.

While I so often dream of exploring far-flung places, this trip was a great reminder of the beautiful places on my doorstep. If this whistle-stop tour of some of the west coast of Ireland hasn't convinced you to visit then the video below of some of the stunning scenery in this little corner of the world surely will -

Now if you'll excuse me blogging is thirsty work and I have a pint of Guinness waiting with my name on it.

Slainte (Cheers!)

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