Garavogue River, Sligo, Ireland

Sligo, Garavogue River, Western Ireland

Garavogue River, Sligo, Ireland

The tranquility and silence feels overwhelming while walking along Ireland‘s shortest river on a sunny autumn afternoon. The small town (and region) of Sligo, hidden away in Ireland’s northwestern corner, is happily left off the bus-tourism itineraries. It is a small place, lacking the diverse and cultured festivals, events and museums of Dublin or Galway or Limerick. But what Sligo lacks in this respect, it makes up for it in the Great Outdoors. Sligo is town literally built between land and sea: on its right-hand edge is the colossal Lough Gill; on the left is Sligo Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. And flowing right down the middle – Sligo’s main artery – is the Garavogue River. To the east is the iconic table mountain, Ben Bulben, and to the south is the small but sacred Knocknarea Mountain. And in the middle is Sligo town. This place is the quiet adventurer’s paradise: stand up paddling, kayaking, hiking, cycling, paragliding, mountain-biking, trail running and horse-riding are normal weekend activities here. Emerald hills, rugged coasts, romantic castles, crashing waves, wandering sheep – this is the picture of quintessential Ireland, and of Sligo itself. County Sligo is an unassuming, down-to-earth sort of place where people go about their lives much like these boats: in a slow but buoyant fashion, floating and glowing along the river – something that us city-dwellers, suburbanites and fast-walkers could learn a lesson from.


More Rivers in Europe
  1. The Rhone River, France
  2. The Saone River, France
  3. Gard River, France
  4. The Thames, England
  5. Vltava River, Czech Republic
  6. Po River, Italy

 

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Lough Conn, Co. Mayo, Ireland

Lough Conn, lakes County Mayo Ireland

Lough Conn, Co. Mayo, Ireland

Northern County Mayo is perhaps the closest you’ll get to true wilderness in Ireland. At the very least, Mayo is remote (and travel to and around), rural, quiet, and under-rated. There is little tourism infrastructure in the northern nether regions of Mayo (the southern part of the county fares better: parts of Connemara, the town of Westport and the holy mountain of Croagh Patrick all draw visitors). The problem does not lie in the lack of beauty – more in the lack of roads leading to said beautiful places. Lough Conn, a large lake outside of the not-overwhelming town of Ballina, is a diamond in the rough. Not far off the famous Wild Atlantic Way driving route, the glittering shores, fantastic sunsets, and little-visited beaches make Lough Conn an ideal place for off-the-beaten-track nature enthusiasts. It is a lovely place for wild camping (otherwise known as ‘real camping’ – no showers or wifi here!) or even just a beachside barbecue on a sunlit evening at the end of summer. Lough Conn itself is quite large – it measures 14,000 acres (57 km²). There are two accounts for the name (and very existence) of the lake. In Irish mythology, Lough Conn was created by famous giant Finn McCool (also credited with creating the Giant’s Causeway – a story for another day!). Hunting with his hounds Conn and Cullin, they chased a wild boar for days until water began to pour from the boar’s feet. It swam across the newly-created lakes one after the other but Conn the Hound drowned in the first lake (Lough Conn) and Cullin drowned in the second lake (becoming Lough Cullin). A version of the story was later attributed to an Irish chieftain, Chief Modh, though in this account, the pigs, not the hounds, was drowned. Drowning aside, both lakes are lovely, quiet places – a true glimpse into unspoilt Ireland. For a bit of local culture, stop by Foxford Woollen Mills on the way back to civilisation – a respected local weaving and crafting designer!


More Places to Experience Wilderness in Europe
  1. Auvergne, France
  2. Tatra Mountains in Poland & Slovakia
  3. Sognefjord, Norway
  4. Highlands in Scotland
  5. Alps, Switzerland

 

Limerick, Ireland

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Limerick, Ireland

Feel like writing a limerick? Or perhaps just visit the city of the same name! The name of the 5-line poetry form is generally accepted to come from this city in western Ireland. Tracing its routes back to Viking times – in fact, cities didn’t exist in Ireland until the Vikings founded them – Limerick doesn’t feel like a city with ancient roots. Once a prominent port city and industrial hub, Limerick sports a lot of brick and concrete. Walking the streets of Limerick actually feels similar to wandering around Boston or any other New England city; it’s not hard to see where the new US immigrants found their architectural inspiration! Don’t let the brick facade fool you though – quirky, bright-coloured doors spice up townhouse facades, charming restaurants line the city centre, shaded parks dot the city squares, and a wide promenade hugs the river, ideal for strolling, relaxing and enjoying the sun (when it’s out!). The ruins of King John’s Castle cling to the river banks, and vivid flowers peak out from every corner. Despite the large size of the city, the people are pleasant and cheerful, always making time to stop for a quick chat – acting much like you’d expect small-town residents to act! Ireland’s 3rd-largest city buzzes with life in a way that is ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. When in the region, take time to visit the nearby Curraghchase Manor Ruins & Forest Park, a great way to get out of the city.


More About Travel in Ireland
  1. Slea Head, Ireland’s Westernmost Point
  2. Knocknarea Hill & Megalithic Site
  3. Dublin’s St Stephan’s Green Park
  4. Muckross Abbey in Killarney National Park
  5. Nun Island in Galway

 

Knocknarea Mountain, Ireland

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Happy Pup near Knocknarea Mountain, Ireland

Nothing beats the look of joy on a happy pup’s face, and this real-life teddy bear dog’s expression is pretty good. Ireland – being an island! – has plenty of coastline and therefore, plenty of sand dunes; perfect places for happy skipping and running if you’re man’s best friend! Pooches aside, Strandhill sand dunes are a wonderful place for a quiet, coastal walk, but for a little more of a challenge – and for stunning views of Strandhill village, the Atlantic Ocean, and the vast, windswept landscapes of Co. Sligo made famous by Irish poet, W.B. Yeats, climb to the top of Knocknarea. The views are worth it! Along the way, you’ll pass a ruined famine village (i.e., a village abandoned during the famine years due to harsh climes). Surrounding tombs date to Megalithic times (2,000-5,000 BC) – and no one knows exactly how the ancient people got the rocks all the way up there! At the summit, you’ll be confronted with legendary Irish warrior Queen Maeve’s massive tomb (called a cairn, it’s essentially a huge pile of rocks). Bring a rock to add to the pile for good luck, but beware – removing any stones brings on the (very) bad luck!

Coumeenoole, Ireland

Coumeelee Ireland on Slea Head Peninsula along Wild Atlantic Way

Coumeenoole along the Slea Head Drive, Ireland

A flash of movement, a shimmer of gold, a glimpse of green. Welcome to the land of the leprechauns – a spit of land near the westernmost point of mainland Ireland. Bearded little men with a penchant for mischief-making, leprechauns have become a prominent part of Irish folklore, and though today’s prankster wears green, the original creature actually wore red. The Dingle Peninsula, where the Slea Head Drive is located, is a magical place with or without the leprechauns. Though cars scoot by along narrow Irish roads following the infamous Wild Atlantic Way, those who venture into the rolling green hills with only sheep for company will be immensely rewarded. While visitors may not find a leprechaun or even his pot of gold, what you will find is much more valuable. As you walk barefoot through the soft blanket of thick Irish grass on the rugged peninsula that overlooks the waves of green hills of the unpronounceable Coumeenoole, you will bask in the solace of tranquillity and total immersion, living wholly in this magical moment lost in the Irish countryside – all the while knowing that once you begin to craving vivacity, you will surely find raucous fun in the next village’s pub. It’s an amazing and intricate balance that only Ireland seems capable of creating and maintaining!

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Nun’s Island Theatre, Galway, Ireland

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Nun’s Island Theatre, Galway, Ireland

The cherry-red doorway stands out amongst the backdrop of grey stone. Doorways, being a threshold between one place and another, always feel like opportunities that provide endless possibilities regarding what lays on the other side. While a universal object, doors and their thresholds often still somehow manage to stay culturally unique, varying dramatically across Europe (and by extension, across the world as well). Doors in Ireland are often bright, colourful and arresting – see this door in Dublin for example – which reflects the playfulness of the Irish culture. This door opens onto the old Nun’s Island Theatre in west coast city of Galway, just a stone’s throw away from the youthful Galway Cathedral. Built in Neo-classical style, this proud little theatre was once a Presbyterian church in the 19th century. Nun’s Island, the theatre’s location and namesake, gets its name from a group of 30 nuns from the order of Poor Clare who sought shelter on the island during  the  Ulster Rebellion of 1641. The striking red door and gate is an eye-catching sight on this otherwise low-key street in Galway, one of the most beautiful cities along the western coast of Ireland.

Curraghchase Manor, Ireland

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Curraghchase Manor House (near Limerick), Ireland 

Shuttered, dark, and eerie, this once-elegant manor strikes an odd contrast with the surrounding cheery, green estate-turned-park. Curraghchase Manor (the centrepiece of Curraghchase Forest Park), once the reigning jewel of the land, was exterminated by fire in 1941, and its grounds were turned into a happy-go-lucky park for locals of Limerick‘s surroundings to take a stroll, go for a jog, have a picnic, or play fetch with the dog. The manor, though, is haunting. A rounded stone building once elegant and home to the de Vere family who could trace their lineage to a tenant-in-chief of William the Conquerer, today it is completely encased, with no way in or out except the open roof. Gutted by the flames of the mid 20th century, the interior now makes a home for the birds and the bees, the only critters who can fly over its high walls. As proof of its former splendour, it was once the inspiration for Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem, Lady Clara Vere de Vere. Today however, the manor exudes a certain eerie quality, not unlike that of the abandoned Krimulda Manor deep in the Latvian forests, or  Lake Annecy’s remote, ivy-covered chateau. While today the Curraghchase grounds are full of a variety of tree types, twisting forest paths, trickling streams, silent ponds, and even a miniature (and sad) pet cemetery where beloved pets were once laid to rest, it is still Curraghchase Manor that arrests the eye, thoughts and senses of the visitor. On a more intriguing note, according to local legend, it was the ghostly figure of the Lady of the Lake, first seen by Tennyson, that supposedly caused the tree to come crashing through the window and knocked over the candelabra that started the fire? Once cannot help but shiver when thinking about the long-neglected interior, left for nature slowly to take its course, the mythic ghost, or about the scared inhabitants who abandoned their splendid home one cold night in December of 1941, never to return again. Despite the shining sun and beautiful grounds, as one passes in front of Curraghchase Manor one cannot help a little shiver, and a feeling of desolation that passes as quickly as it came before you meander off to discover the rest of the grounds.


More Unbelievable Stories Myths & Legends of Europe
  1. The Little Mermaid: Copenhagen, Denmark
  2. Rose of Turaida: Gutmanis Cave, Latvia
  3. Queen Maeve: Sligo, Ireland
  4. Dracula: Highgate Cemetery in London
  5. King Arthur & Avalon: Glastonbury, England
  6. The Devil’s Footprint: Munich, Germany
  7. The Head-Butting Goat Clock of Poznan, Poland

 

Muckross Abbey, Ireland

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Muckross Abbey in Killarney National Park, Ireland

The silent headstones reach out of the earth like fingernails. A soft layer of grass covers the ground; ivy climbs the walls. Wildflowers, left to their own devices, plant their roots in their chosen bits of earth. Muckross Abbey, a squat, ancient building within the beautiful Killarney National Park in western Ireland, rings of silence. As one approaches the roofless, hollow structure, the quantity of graves thickens, as in Catholicism, being buried on Holy Ground was a believer’s final life objective. Graves are everywhere, even inside the building. The ground by the abbey seems to be higher than the ground further away, but that’s no trick of the light or any natural phenomenon – no, that’s a result of as many people being buried on Holy Ground by the church as possible. The silence inside is deafening. Your footsteps echo in the cloisters as you circle the inner courtyard. Climbing to the second floor, you come face-to-face with the ancient, scared yew tree planted by the monks of yesteryears, a symbol of their eternal faith. Finally at the top of the tower, you get a sweeping view of the rest of the churchyard, and beyond it, the lush greens of Killarney National Park, a good bit of which was once the property of the Muckross Estate before becoming Ireland’s first national park in 1932. The spell is finally broken when a group of boisterous tourists lumber through the abbey’s gates, and you take your cue, quietly slipping out onto one of the many forested paths winding in and around Killarney’s famous park.

Slea Head Peninsula, Ireland

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Slea Head Peninsula along the Wild Atlantic Way, Ireland

One of the most interesting examples of a tourism product produced by a destination(s) is the infamous Wild Atlantic Way, a route that conducts travellers through nine counties for roughly 2,500 km (1,550 miles) along the western coastline of Ireland. Developed to showcase the best of Western Ireland, the Wild Atlantic Way does a pretty fantastic job of connecting otherwise isolated regions, counties, villages, cliffs, beaches and attractions into something much greater. One place along the Wild Atlantic Way that is particularly awe-inspiring is Slea Head, the tip of the oft-overlooked Dingle Peninsula. Sitting here in the soft, green grass at the tip of the point, overlooking a few rugged, rocky islands, it sends a shiver down your spine to realise that the next thing out there after the miles and miles of waves is North America. While most tourists do not stray far from the well-worn tracks of the Ring of Kerry, Dingle is much more rugged and authentic, peopled by cheery Irishmen and women who hold an innate love of their country. Slea Head is as green as it is peaceful. In fact, at Slea Head, the only other beings you’re likely to meet is the local farmer’s fleecy sheep and lumbering cattle, making this amazing natural landscape a great place for internal reflection.

Dublin, Ireland

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St Stephan’s Green in Dublin, Ireland

In honor of St Patrick’s Day, I present to you a very green Ireland. We all know that Ireland and the color green go together like two peas in a pod (which are also green…). But why? In fact…shocking…Ireland’s national colour was originally blue! I know, this seems strange. No one knows seems to why Ireland switched from blue to green (or where the colors came from either…) but blue seems to be associated with the island’s colonial history as well as with old Irish myths. As for the colour green – well it’s the Emerald Isle, and it’s not hard to guess why. Anyone who has been to Ireland can attest to both its rural nature and its green landscape. Ireland is green because it rains a lot and has fertile ground, without many cities crushing the green countryside (as is sometimes the case in places like England or France where the population is more dense). And St Stephan’s Green – well it’s right there in the name. Even in central Dublin, Ireland is in need of reminding its population that it is in fact very, very green. So happy St Patty’s Day to all of you out there! Get your green on, pinch someone who doesn’t, have a pint of Guinness or Kilkenny and make plans to visit the country that made March 17th an international drinking holiday!

St Sephen’s Green, Dublin, Ireland

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St Sephen’s Green, Dublin, Ireland

Ireland is green, we all know that. It’s green not because of the leprechauns (sadly), but because of the rain; we know that too. So it only makes sense that Dublin’s biggest city centre park would have the word ‘green’ in the title. Anyone fancy a stroll through Fusiliers’ Arch, past the duck-ponds, through the flowers, among all the statues of famous Irish writers (like James Joyce, WB Yeats, James Clarence Mangan, etc)? It may seem peaceful – but it wasn’t always so. Dublin has – how to put it? – a troubled history. (In fact, for such a small country, Ireland has a bit of troubled history…). There was the the Dublin Lock-out made famous by Yeats’ “September 1913” poem. There was the infamous Bloody Sunday (in 1972; chillingly recent). And of course there was the Easter Rising of 1916. The Rising was an armed conflict between the “Irish Republicans” wanting to set up an independent Irish Republic, and the British nationalists who wanted to continue the Queen’s rule over the island. You may ask how that involves the park. Well, for some reason, the Irish insurgents set up camp in St Stephan’s Green. They barricaded the frontiers, they blocked the exits, and they dug trenches (trenches! In central Dublin! Try to imagine…). They turned the poor park into a war-zone. It wasn’t until they realised the Brits had set up shop in high up the nearby Shelbourne Hotel (guns pointed downwards straight at them), that they abandoned the war-park – and 100 years later, it’s beautiful again. Though interestingly enough, while they were still occupying the park, a cease-fire was briefly called so that the park’s guardian could…wait for it…feed the park’s colony of ducks! (FYI, the ducks are still there, and doing just fine!)

Dublin, Ireland

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Dublin, Ireland

I’m not quite sure how much of this is a working door and how much of it is just a painting. To me, it looks bit as if it walked straight off a page of a Dr Seuss book. And to think that this is downtown Dublin! Of course, Dublin is amazing for all the normal reasons: Guinness, stag parties, pubs that once watered the likes of Joyce and Wilde, Seamus Heaney, Shaw, and good ol’ Samuel Beckett. But the real reason for Dublin’s greatness? It’s a city where oddity is preferred over normalcy, a city that embraces insanity, spunk, colour and vivacity with streets that flow with life. Perhaps it was all those pints of Guinness and Murphy’s and Kilkenny over the years, but Dublin seems to have inspired artists on all levels, and the entire city literally vibrates with life (except, perhaps at 7 am, after the party. Then Dublin quiets down a bit…). No matter where you go, Dublin’s art and life always follow.

The sea in Howth, Ireland

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Howth, Ireland

To me, beaches are all the same. Show me a photo of a beach and I’d have trouble deciding whether it was in Florida or Thailand. You go to the beach and everyone always seems to be doing the exact same thing: lying on a towel facing the same way and reading the same books, the children building a half-collapsed sandcastle nearby. Everyone goes into the water for a few minutes then spends the rest of the time sunning and trying to get a tan without getting a burn. Everything about the beach cries stagnant normalcy. Therefore, when I go to the beach, I don’t go for the beach, I go for the towns by the beach. At the beach, I enjoy watching the waves for a bit, I dip my toes in the water, and I’m finished. Time to move on. I’d rather be somewhere else. Revolutionary I know, but I don’t like the beach! That said, I love coastal towns. They have fantastic food, attractive views, and generally nice people. This village here is Howth, Ireland, just outside of Dublin. To me, this photo signifies perfectly what I like about the sea: chaotic, energetic, adventurous. This isn’t a beach. Howth doesn’t have one in the conventional sense. Instead, there is a pier and a harbour and a collection of rocks. The combination of these make for huge, crashing waves that reach icy fingers out to attack passersby. Here, you better watch out because these Irish waters attack all of the beach stereotypes – nothing about these waves are calm or relaxing or boring; instead, they are exciting and adventurous.

Oscar Wilde Statue, Merrion Square, Dublin, Ireland

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Oscar Wilde Statue, Merrian Square, Dublin

Dublin is famous for Guinness, crazy stag parties (in American English, bachelor/ette parties), and its pride for the Irish writers.  Joyce, Yeats, Heaney, Singe, Bowen and Wilde are just a select few writers that Dublin immortalizes. From quotes in the Guinness factory to plaques on the streets to statues in the parks, Dublin is teeming with an intense love for the writers who originated from this small but impressive country. Oscar Wilde is one of them—the man who wrote The Importance of Being Earnest and The Picture of Dorian Gray—and is remembered for his clever (and usually insulting) wit, as well as his alcoholism and homosexuality.  Wilde was a dandy, that rare class of men that dressed meticulously and extravagantly. He was famous at Magdalen College (pronounced maud-a-lin) before he even wrote anything of consequence, though he went on to publish plays with lines like,

“We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars.”

A true friend stabs you in the front.”

All art is quite useless.”

“To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.”

 “We really have everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.”

So, go find his statue the next time you’re in Dublin, nicknamed the Quare [queer] in the Square, because don’t we all love Oscar?

Howth, Ireland

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Howth, Ireland

Howth is a little fishing village somewhere outside of Dublin. As a literature student, the only thing I knew about Howth was that this is the town where James Joyce and his lover, Nora Barnacle supposedly met for their less-than-chaste weekend getaways outside the hubbub and craziness of Dublin. Its castle is also one of the oldest occupied buildings in Ireland. Located on Howth Head peninsula in Dublin Bay, it has a very dramatic and breath-taking coastline. Stroll through the charming seaside town, relax done by the coast, shop in the bustling local market, have a picnic on the steep hillsides overlooking the bay, or look for the Joyce’s and Nora’s secret romantic getaway spot(s?)…Howth is a lovely place to go if you need a break from Dublin’s whirlwind Temple Bar and back-to-back pints o’ porter!