Sunday 17 December 2017

Galway and Connemara: Going wild in the wonderful west

The vernacular architecture of the west is just part of its charms; pictured is An Sceach Gheal, one of the 17th century cottages at Cnoc Suain in Spiddal
The vernacular architecture of the west is just part of its charms; pictured is An Sceach Gheal, one of the 17th century cottages at Cnoc Suain in Spiddal
Gemma and her friend Chistine taking a break while cycling the picturesque Sky Road, Clifden
A view of the beautiful bog landscape at Derrigimlagh

Gemma Fullam

Bog standard. I've no idea who invented the term, but they've obviously never been to Co Galway, where the peat lands are anything but standard. As I leaned over the half-door of An Sceach Gheal, I was transported to the bee-loud glade of Yeats's iconic poem, where peace came dropping slow. But I wasn't in Sligo, I was in Spiddal - Cnoc Suain, to be precise - on a 'restful hill' in a bog deep in the Connemara Gaeltacht; blissed out by the beauty.

I've always found the west offers a kind of balm for the soul; a particular state of grace only to be found far beyond the Pale. My friend Christine and I were hoping to find just that, as we headed for the City of the Tribes to explore some of the Wild Atlantic Way while doing a mini digital detox. No emails, no social media: just us and the wild west, old-school style.

We'd been to Galway City before, but neither of us knew its history, so we met up with Brian Nolan of galwaywalks.com to be educated. Brian's knowledge of the city's history is encyclopaedic, which, coupled with his charm and storytelling prowess, makes for an irresistible combination. Our walk began on the Corrib's bank. At 6km, it's the shortest river in Ireland - and it led us through the city; a story at every turn. One pitstop was in the Claddagh, once a fishing enclave of traditional thatched cottages. In 1932, the vernacular architecture gave way to a corporation estate and what is today some of the most coveted real estate in the city. Some years ago, an enterprising man by the name of Mike Walsh built Katie's Claddagh Cottage, replicating a traditional thatched house of the Famine era. The house, which encompasses a museum, and a tea-cum-gift shop, is an unexpected jewel and a must-visit. See claddaghartscentre.com.

Galway, Brian told us, grew up in the 13th century around a castle owned by Norman, Richard de Burgh. The settlement grew and thrived under the Normans until the 14th century, when rule shifted to an oligarchy of 14 merchant families, the famous 'Tribes of Galway', dubbed such by Cromwell.

History is hungry work, but it was Saturday, so the market was on - it takes place from 6am-6pm weekly in Church Lane, adjacent to the historic St Nicholas's Collegiate Church, which dates from 1320; the saint being none other than Mr Claus himself. The historic church counts Christopher Columbus among its past worshippers; he visited in 1477. We sampled some of the market's myriad delights - Christine enjoyed her first oyster, I savoured Breckish Dairies' goat's cheese and we both purchased produce from Paddy Hogan of Kinvara; his family have been stallholders since 1937. But having walked the length and breath of the city at this stage, we were in need of more substantial fare, which we found at Ard Bia at Nimmos, an atmospheric gem with super staff, located opposite Galway City Museum. Following divine chowder, we lingered over excellent coffee before popping into the City Museum for a whistle-stop tour of its artefacts, and then on to Salthill, and our bed for the night, the Galway Bay Hotel. We headed straight for the pool, and, a few leisurely lengths later, we felt we'd earned our dinner. The hotel's restaurant, The Lobster Pot, faces the prom and has fabulous views of the ocean. The swim had us famished, so we polished off a smorgasbord of seafood, ranging from mussels and clams to scallops and sea bass.

Next morning, it was time to head for Connemara. Our first port of call was the aforementioned Cnoc Suain, an award-winning cultural retreat situated on a lofty hill outside Spiddal. Cnoc Suain is truly unlike anywhere I've ever been. Founded and lovingly run by husband and wife team Charlie and Dearbhaill (who is a native of the area), the 200-acre retreat offers an immersion in Irish culture, past and present, in a richly diverse bog landscape. There are 17th century cottages, perfect for an idyllic break; the field room, where Charlie illuminates guests on the wonders of the bog ecosystem; the meeting house, which hosts music (Dearbhaill is an accomplished musician), song and dance as part of the cultural experience of Cnoc Suain, all situated in luxuriant bog beauty. Because of the eco nature of the place, unless you're staying, visiting is through organised groups only, see cnocsuain.com for details.

It was a day for the bog, and next stop, via the vivid Connemara landscape of the Maam Valley, we arrived at Derrigimlagh, a desolate spot of outstanding boggy gorgeousness. Derrigimlagh has two claims to fame: it's the site of the (crash) landing of Alcock and Brown's Vickers Vimy biplane on June 15, 1919, having completed the world's first transatlantic flight; and it is also the location from where some of the earliest transatlantic wireless messages were sent by Marconi, who had a base here in the early 20th century. There's an informative looped trail explaining the site's rich history; indeed, so beguiled were we, we failed to notice the light fading, and had to hurry to make it back to the car before darkness descended. It was a short drive to our lodgings, the Connemara Sands Hotel, set on its own private Blue Flag beach on Mannin Bay. The beautiful boutique hotel is decorated in seaside hues, with a twist on the traditional, evident in the jewel-coloured velvet soft furnishings. Our suite had direct access to the beach, so following dinner in the hotel's Erriseask Restaurant - try the sublime salmon succotash - we headed to bed early, soothed and sated.

The morning brought unseasonably warm sunshine, so we grabbed a couple of the hotel's complimentary paddle boards and worked up a monster appetite for breakfast. Mannin Bay is a sublime palette of green sea, white sand, black rocks, brown earth and purple heather. Totally Insta-worthy, but we kept our phones firmly in our pockets. Post-breakfast, a long walk on the beach was just the ticket, followed by a leisurely brunch in the Sands Bar.

A little legwork was next on the agenda, but it was of the assisted kind. In Clifden, we hired electric bikes from All Things Connemara, a craft shop on Market Street. There are various routes you can follow, but ours was the famous Sky Road. It's hilly, to say the least, so the electric bikes were invaluable on what was a three-hour trip. The electric aspect of the bikes meant we were able to scale vertiginous gradients with relative ease. The sky was cloudless, making the views across Clifden Bay even more breathtaking.

Following a lingering meal back in Guys Bar in Clifden, it was time to point the car for home. Sad as we were to go, it didn't matter: we were firmly in a Galway state of mind.

GETTING THERE

This break to the Wild Atlantic Way is an opportunity to completely switch off and relax. The immersion will be more complete if you can make a conscious effort to minimise technology, social media, phone calls and email. Take this opportunity to fully immerse yourself in the external beauty of the Wild Atlantic Way and be fully present in everything you do. The enjoyment of this time out and mental rewards and sense of renewal will be much greater, the more you can allow yourself to truly switch off from daily life and engage with the Wild Atlantic Way.

Embrace the Wild Atlantic Way of Life today at WildAtlanticWay.com

Things to do

■ Best of Galway Walking Tour, see galwaywalks.com

■ Galway City Museum, see galwaycitymuseum.ie

■ Cnoc Suain, see cnocsuain.com

■ Derrigimlagh, see wildatlanticway.com/directory/signature/derrigimlagh-bog/342/

■ Discover Connemara by bike at allthingsconnemara.ie

Where to stay

■ Galway Bay Hotel, see galwaybayhotel.net

■ Connemara Sands Hotel, see connemarasands.com The Connemara Sands Hotel reopens for the season in March.

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