Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A very Derry halloween

Derry coat of arms,
castle and a skeleton
So we abandoned our exploration of the Wild Atlantic Way to visit Derry for Halloween. Australia does not take Halloween very seriously and we wanted to get the full Halloween experience from a place that does. Well trust me, Derry takes it very very seriously. There had been celebrations going on all week, shops, houses and restaurants were adorned with skeletons and ghosts and by the time the big day arrived around half the people in the city were covered in elaborate costumes. The medieval wall that surrounds the old town had circus performers riding around on big bicycles, doing acrobatics and blowing fire every night during the week. Parts of the wall were very dark and children would appear out of nowhere in ghoulish costumes and scare the s*** out of you. The night itself saw a huge parade with floats going past for about half an hour followed by huge fireworks over the river Foyle. The city stayed buzzing with excitement until the wee hours and many pints of Guinness were drunk (not by me though).

Peace bridge with guild hall in
the background
Derry is steeped in history and has been a focal point throughout the ages. It sports the only remaining completely intact walled city in Ireland and you can walk along the top of the wall all the way around. The wall was never breached despite numerous attempts. Bloody Sunday occurred here in 1972 and we visited the guildhall where the inquiry into the massacre took place. It was bombed several times but has been renovated and is a magnificent church-like structure. We were offered a free tour while in there and an enthusiastic entertaining gentleman in a typically Irish storytelling style proceeded to give us a thousand years worth of history as represented in the stained glass windows in the multi purpose hall. The Derry city council meets here to try to progress a peaceful agenda but all around the city are reminders of the past and that there is still a long way to go. Even the city's name is contentious; it is widely known as Derry but its official name is Londonderry and the two names are used interchangeably in most facets of the city and on signs.

After Halloween we extended the car hire for another week to catch up on the Wild Atlantic Way again. One of the first places we visited was the cliffs at Sliabh Liag. Remember when we said the cliffs at Achill Island are the highest sea cliffs in Europe? Well, these ones are the other highest sea cliffs in Europe. I wonder how many 'highest sea cliffs in Europe' Ireland has? Nevertheless they were beautiful and high, but again very marshy and bog ridden trekking. I have just about destroyed my hiking boots and they are not even a year old. Will need to replace soon or stop hiking, as my feet are getting cold and wet.

Elizabeth, Shaun and Lucky
Hostels in Ireland are really hospitable. We stayed at a lovely one called Derrylahan with owner Shaun and his dog Lucky. With a fire going every night in the large lounge, we would make dinners in the large kitchen and Shaun would entertain us with stories in the way only the Irish can. The hostel was part of a working farm and Shaun would be relentlessly shooing his sheep out of the garden. We had this kind of welcoming experience at lots of hostels in Ireland.

As we continued along the Wild Atlantic Way we came across many more fabulous sites. The last one I will mention is the Giant's Causeway (not strictly still on the WAW as it's further around on the coast of Northern Ireland). Folk tales abound to explain the mysteries of these weird rock formations that look like paving bricks placed uniformly on the shore but are really really thick, like giant toothpicks stuck in the ground. Created over 60 million years by volcanic eruptions and geologic activities or by the shenanigans of the giants Finn MacCool and Benandonner and Finn's wife Oonagh, depending on which story you want to believe :-) They were certainly worth the visit, and try to get on a ranger hike from the visitor centre as they are always a mine of useful (and useless but entertaining) information.

We eventually made it all the way around and back to Dublin for a few days R and R and then a ferry across to England. Bye bye Ireland.

Malin Head
Carrick-a-Rede bridge

Dunluce Castle
Ballintoy Harbour features as Pyke Harbour in Game of Thrones

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Taming the Wild Atlantic Way

For 2,500km along Ireland's west coast is a signposted detailed coastal route called the Wild Atlantic Way. Wild it is as it follows some of the best coastal scenery, captivating beaches, high cliffs, quaint Irish villages, national parks and architectural sites and ruins. What they don't tell you about are the tiny winding roads that are lucky to fit one car on let alone two, the rain and the wind of the variable Irish climate and the difficulties of following a complicated route by signs (we are too cheap to buy a map).

We flew into Dublin and gave the city one day as it was not really our cup of tea (if you drink Guinness then this is your town), and then headed west to try and find the Wild Atlantic Way. Enroute we spent a day in Killarney, a town that had the most wonderful national park with quaint horse drawn carriages, an old vine encrusted castle and captivating hikes to high viewpoints and cascading waterfalls.
Torc Waterfall

Muckross House

Loop Head Peninsula

From there we continued west and intersected the route at a town called Tralee. We followed as best we could and successfully found our first signature point (really special place) at Loop Head Peninsula. The winds were blowing a gale and the rain was sleeting down but that never stops a true traveller who might never be here again. We were already wearing three layers including waterproof and windproof pants so the rain had Buckley's chance of breaking through our well worn ensemble. Preparation comes with experience. As nice as the peninsula was, the coastal drive skirting high cliffs and crashing waves was much more fascinating. The cows looked on bemused as I tried taking photos while my lens kept getting wet.

Reaching our first stop on the WAW in the tiny stereotypically Irish town of Doolin, we found the best pub called Gus O'Connor's with five musicians sitting on benches in the middle of the pub providing live music. At one stage a patron/performer did an Irish jig among the crowd. The next day was another signature point: the Cliffs of Moher.

The visitor centre 
built into the cliffs
Fabulous cliffs that went on forever in both directions but were totally fogged in, blowing a gale and raining as we arrived. We survived the race to the visitors centre and decided to enjoy the exhibition and cafe while waiting for the weather to improve. While reading one of the many interactive geological information boards I learned something new about global warming. There is a concern that the amount of cold water coming from the melting Arctic into the North Atlantic could shut down the circulation that brings warm water from the Equator and trigger an ice age for Ireland. Just another reminder of the unpredictable nature of the changes we are causing to the climate.

The Cliffs of Moher
After lunch we checked the state of the weather and found the rain had stopped and the visibility had improved, still windy though. We braved a trip along some of the cliff trails taking in the fantastic views but eventually needing to give up as we feared being blown over the cliffs on one rock strewn slippery track.
The Burren

Dunguaire Castle

The next day was our longest driving day, following the WAW to our last stop on this fantastic route: Ireland's largest island, Achill. The views are amazing: huge cliffs punctuated by sandy beaches around the whole island. Our day there turned out to be our first fully fine blue sky day in Ireland. The highlight was climbing from Keem beach to the top of the highest sea cliffs in Europe. My shoes may never forgive me after sloshing up the boggy hill and my socks got soaked but the views from the top were well worth it. Not quite as prepared as the day before. At this time of year sunset comes early (around 5:20) and we only found the lovely Keel beach just in time to see the sun go down while looking across to the hill we had climbed a few hours earlier.

Keel beach

Keem Beach

We only experienced a small sample of the WAW as we had to get to Londonderry to catch up with a friend and experience a full-on Halloween; I had been told it is huge there. You could easily allow a month to fully immerse yourself in the wonders of the Wild Atlantic Way, but for now this will go on our list of places we might need to come back to.

Note: I have destroyed another camera on my travels. My Canon Powershot SX150 IS has been dying for a while, struggling to open its lens. It has taken about 15,000 photos since purchase in Chile in 2012 for about $200 Aussie. Valiantly clicking from deserts to the Arctic Circle, from sea level to 5000m, from camels' backs to the tops of volcanoes and much much more. All while sitting uncovered in my pants pocket, always at the ready. Thanks for a job well done.