independent

Saturday 19 April 2014

Galway's golden touch

Summer may be over, but there are plenty of festivities and activities to enjoy in the City of the Tribes, says Tanya Sweeney

Tourists flock to the west for a version of Ireland that they've long read about or pictured in their mind's eye: green, romantic and full of charming gaiety.

Galway has long enjoyed a reputation as an unspoiled, enchanting land, but that's not to say that it can't be action-packed. Scratch the surface and you'll find that, whatever your persuasion, there's rarely a dull moment in the City of the Tribes.

The world is your oyster

A stone's throw -- okay, a stone's pelt -- from Galway city proper, Clarenbridge is first and foremost known as a prime oyster-breeding ground. So where better to sample the sea's offerings than in this truly picturesque village?

Since 1954, the Clarenbridge Oyster Festival has celebrated the sea's bounty with food, dancing, music and plenty of old-fashioned craic. There's even a prize for the festival's best-dressed lady, so it's as stylish an outing as it is lively. A full rundown of all events is available on clarenbridge.com.

Later on in the month, the Galway International Oyster and Seafood Festival will liven up the streets of Galway with a host of festivities and its own Mardi Gras-style parade. Enjoy a restaurant seafood trail, a showcase of local seafood producers and the World Oyster Opening Championships.

See galwayoysterfest.com.

Enjoy a blast from the past

It's a truth universally acknowledged that Galway is rich in history, heritage and lore, and you could do worse than take a weekend to brush up on it all. For those interested in the city's medieval past, make haste to the 13th-century town walls, and the ancient Lynch Castle.

Many aren't aware of Christopher Columbus's strong links to Galway: visit St Nicholas's Church, where he once prayed, or the Spanish Arch, where he famously landed. And, once you're there, try dinner at Ard Bia at Nimmo's (ardbia.com, 091 561 114), roundly believed to be one of the finest restaurants in the city.

Or, if you fancy going slightly off-grid for your history lesson, the spectacular Inis Meain, off the coast of Galway, is home to a fort that's said to be up to 4,000 years old.

Something a bit more active

All those tourism adverts from yesteryear often featured fresh-faced types horseriding through the surf, and with good reason. The secluded idyll of Omey Island, near Claddaghduff on the western edge of Connemara, is best seen on horseback.

Cleggan Riding Centre in Co Galway (clegganridingcentre.com, 083 388 8135), runs horse-riding treks and there's a race against time to access the island via a sandbridge.

On Achill Island, Calvey's Equestrian Centre (calveysofachill.com) offers daily pony treks to the Keel beach and sandy banks. Once you're there, you can enjoy the scenery from the award-winning Calvey's Restaurant. Call 087 988 1093 for details on equestrian holidays.

Several Irish counties are by the coast, but few appear to have such an affinity with the sea as Galway does. If you're interested in delving deep, so to speak, the National Aquarium of Ireland in Salthill is a good place to start, and its views over Galway Bay are definitely worth catching. See nationalaquarium.ie or call 091 585 100 for more information.

Islands West (islandswest.ie, 087 222 7098) has a popular diving centre on Inishbofin, and is open to greenhorns and seasoned veterans. From sea angling and island hopping to angling and night diving, Island West leaves no stone unturned when it comes to making the most of the sea.

And for those who want to really find their sea legs (or rather, their river legs), the Corrib Princess sails from the heart of Galway down the river on a relaxing and bracing 90-minute cruise. The boat sails from Woodquay, Galway city, three times a day (12.30pm, 2.30pm and 4.30pm). See corribprincess.ie or call 091 592 447 for details.

Shop 'til you drop

The shopping opportunities are every bit as varied as in Cork, Dublin or Belfast, but if you're in the market for local finds, head to the old farmers' market at St Nicholas Collegiate Church (galwaymarket.com). Held every Saturday and featuring a host of local artisan producers, it's the place to pick up the best of Irish cheese, chocolate, and hand-made breads.

Visitors can also stock up on authentic, locally made Celtic jewellery and Aran jumpers. If you'd rather enjoy a walkabout and are looking for streets dense with craft shops and silversmiths, the Latin Quarter and Left Bank are your best bet.

Join the culture club

Most Irish adults have put their Irish language skills to rest, but when you're this close to the Connemara Gaeltacht, it'd be rude not to brush up on your mother tongue again. The National Irish Language Theatre on Middle Street, which regularly produces Irish language plays for audiences of all ages, is certainly a good place to start (antaibhdhearc.com; 091 562 024).

Alternatively, drop into the Irish-speaking Club Aras na nGael on Dominic Street (arasnangael.ie, 091 567 824), or visit Tig Coili on Mainguard Street (091 561 294) or Tigh Taaffes on Shop Street; bars where you're likely to find regulars with a cupla focail.

Galway is certainly the right place to rekindle a love of Irish culture, and if you want to get down and dirty with trad music, you'll find no shortage of stomping grounds. The Crane Bar (2 Sea Road, 091 587 419; thecranebar.com), Monroe's in Dominick Street (086 075 9111 or monroes.ie) or Tigh Neachtain (27 Cross Street, Galway, 091 568 820; tighneachtain.com) are some of the liveliest spots in town.

Never let it be said that Galwegians don't know how to celebrate their musical heritage in grand style: this year, the much-loved Trad on the Prom takes place at the Galway Bay Hotel and runs until the end of September. Year after year, trad fans have been drawn to the event's winning blend of music, song and high-spirited dance. See tradontheprom.com or call 091 582 860 to secure tickets.

Try a tour (de force)

If time isn't on your side, a day tour is the best way to experience the vast richness of the county while packing a lot in fast. Who can resist the siren call of the wilds of Connemara, the picturesque town of Clifden or the baronial-style Kylemore Abbey and its Victorian walled garden? All are just an hour's drive from the city.

The road less travelled also throws up some oft-overlooked gems, such as the beautiful 11-acre St Brigit's Garden, a Celtic-inspired delight and a mere 20-minute spin from the city.

Poetry enthusiasts will also find much to like if they venture to the next county over, namely to the adjoining cottages once owned by WB Yeats (at Ballinode, Sligo Town; see yeatsvillage.ie), as well as Coole Park, where Yeats's co-pioneer of the Irish Literary Revival, Lady Gregory, once lived.

Festival fever

Of the 700-odd Irish festivals on offer each year, it's good to know that much of the action has yet to come. Head to the Shorelines Arts Festival taking place in Portumna (September 19-22; shorelinesartsfestival. com), for a hearty local celebration. Sculptors, photographers and painters will convene so that revellers can enjoy a bewildering array of pavement art, community art and street theatre.

Elsewhere, the Galway Theatre Festival (galwaytheatrefestival.com, September 30- October 6) features world-class plays and performances across the city.

Younger visitors needn't be left out of the action, either. In fact, Ireland's biggest arts celebration for children -- the Baboro International Arts Festival -- is set to descend on the city from October 14-20. See baboro.ie or call 091 91 562 667 for information on the many all-ages activities on offer.

The windswept wilds of Connemara are the perfect backdrop for the Connemara Four Seasons Walking Festival (October 18-20; connemara4seasonswalkingfestival.com). The festival will include a bracing hike to Cleggan Head and the Renvyle Peninsula -- perfect for a crisp autumn day.

And if you prefer belly laughs to hardcore gut-busting, the Bulmers Galway Comedy Festival (October 22-28; galway comedyfestival.com) features an impressive roll-call of homegrown and international performers, among them Eleanor Tiernan, Sean Lock, Stewart Lee, Jason Byrne, David O'Doherty and Lee Mack.

It's a line-up that should keep you laughing all the way to winter.

For more, see discoverireland.ie/galway

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