Galway & Western Ireland
 

Earlier this week we rented a car and drove from Dublin to Galway, on Ireland’s west coast. Since then, we’ve been using Galway as a home base to drive around and explore some of the most stunning - and famous - bits of Ireland’s breathtaking natural beauty.

During this time, we have seen a lot of rocks. All kinds of rocks. Manmade formations, natural outcrops made of a zillion different kind of stone, rocky houses, rocky cliffs, rocky churches, you name it. Of course, it makes sense that Ireland would be rocky. The ancient Celts didn’t build their forts and henges out of imported rocks, after all. But for all the reading and research I’ve done about Ireland, I still pictured it as a land full of misty hills, lush, fertile soil and happily grazing sheep. In reality, all those things exist, but they’re sitting atop a thick layer of rock.

If you can emotionally survive the car ride, the Wild Atlantic Way offers breathtaking views of Ireland's natural beauty. And also rain. Lots of rain. 

If you can emotionally survive the car ride, the Wild Atlantic Way offers breathtaking views of Ireland's natural beauty. And also rain. Lots of rain. 

Maybe this makes the landscape sound desolate, but knowing that layer of rock exists below all the green beauty gives me an enormous amount of respect for those that have eked out their living for thousands of years on this beautiful but harsh island, creating monuments that have withstood the test of time. Everything here feels so impossibly ancient - it feels like around every corner there’s a castle ruin or an ancient stone fort just existing next to sheep and cows in the natural landscape. It’s mind-boggling to visitors - but here in Ireland, it’s perfectly normal.

Another element of our road trip that was crazy to us but normal for the Irish was the very task of driving. Sure, they drive on the left here, which means everything from roundabouts to rearview mirrors is reversed - but that’s no big deal. What’s really mystifying is how everyone manages to make do with the ridiculously - and I mean ridiculously - narrow roads. Our scenic routes took us down a number of little country roads that cut through vast swathes of farmland. These roads are tiny - even if the roads were one-way, they’d still be pretty narrow, and we’re in a tiny Nissan Micra. But all the roads, however skinny, are two-lane affairs, and that meant a lot of stopping and pulling over to let a car pass heading in the other direction. Couple that with the inevitable livestock traffic jams (we witnessed two - one flock of sheep grazing in the road, and one group of runaway cows being chased by their owner) and you better believe we were both white-knuckling it the entire time.

If that sounds hair-raising - and believe me, it is - please don’t let it scare you away from renting a car in Ireland. We are so glad we did: the beauty of this country lies in quiet drives among acres of farmland and turning around a corner to see majestic cliff faces jutting out into the ocean. Sure, you can ride in a tour bus and see the highlights, but being able to stop the car whenever we see something interesting, or follow one of the well-marked ‘scenic routes’ for a while, has afforded us some of our favorite memories from the trip so far - from touring an abandoned mine in the middle of Connemara to eating a full Irish breakfast in a tiny fishing hamlet on the Atlantic coast. Sure, we’ve seen the big sights - we’ve driven part of the Wild Atlantic Way and spent three nights in the lively coastal town of Galway, but you can’t travel to Ireland and not spend some time just driving aimlessly. That’s where the real beauty of the country lies.

Connemara National Park. Not pictured: extreme wind conditions, pelting rain, and a surprising number of German tourists. 

Connemara National Park. Not pictured: extreme wind conditions, pelting rain, and a surprising number of German tourists. 

Not all of our adventures have involved driving, though: many involve simply moving our legs. I don’t think either of us realized quite how active our time in Ireland would be. We’ve explored two national parks in three days, accidentally climbed most of a (small) mountain in Connemara  in the pouring rain and ‘high danger’ wind conditions, and biked across the tiny island of Inis Mór (Inishmore), the largest of the Aran Islands off the Atlantic coast.

To get to Inis Mór, you have to ride a ferry from the port town of Rossaveal (plus a shuttle from Galway), and they run only a few times per day. The journey happens rain or shine: we picked a relatively clear day, although the Atlantic was still so choppy that an alarming number of people became seasick during the 45-minute journey. Once you disembark on the island, you have the run of the place. Most tourists choose to hire a horse buggy or a van and guide to tour the island, but it’s so small - 12 square miles! - that we opted to hire bicycles and explore at our own pace.

Inis Mór is full of tiny rocky paths like this one that cut across acres of farmland. If you're (un)lucky, you might come across a particularly vocal cow who seems to be saying "get off my lawn!"

Inis Mór is full of tiny rocky paths like this one that cut across acres of farmland. If you're (un)lucky, you might come across a particularly vocal cow who seems to be saying "get off my lawn!"

Inis Mór feels like stepping back in time: the island has a population of around 800, all of whom speak primarily Irish. Hearing Irish spoken is such an incredible thing - the language just sounds ancient, and as our friend Shane told us, it’s dying out because so few people in the younger generation ever use it despite learning it in school, so it was amazing to see an area where Irish is still being used in full force.

Having the bikes gave us the ability to go pretty much wherever we wanted. There’s only one main road traversing the island, but there are two smaller side roads - one on each side of the coast. For such a tiny island, it’s incredibly steeped in history and absolutely overflowing with ruins and ancient churches, including some of the best-preserved stone forts in all of Ireland. At Dun Aengus, the most famous of the ruins on the island, there are no guardrails preventing you from being swept off the edge of a cliff - and it’s really windy up there, trust me. But that’s part of the tremendous appeal - it’s perfectly preserved, unchanged from the way it was when the ancient Celts dragged these rocks all the way uphill thousands of years before us. It’s crazy to look out over the ruins and think about what must have inspired them to come all the way to this barren, rocky island and build this massive fort on the edge of a 100-meter cliff. Part of the reason I’m passionate about travel is because in some ancient places you can really feel what it might have been like to be there in its heyday - it’s hard to describe, but it’s a powerful feeling. I’ve been chasing that feeling all across Ireland, and I finally found it at Dun Aengus.

Pirates have 'walk the plank,' the Ancient Celts had 'walk the cliff.'

Pirates have 'walk the plank,' the Ancient Celts had 'walk the cliff.'

After leaving Inis Mór and checking out of our hostel in Galway, we made a beeline for the Cliffs of Moher. Our coastal route through County Clare took us through hills and valleys that could have been at home in Napa Valley, as well as a vast landscape of vast mountains that looked like they were covered in snow or flowers - but up close, it was just massive stacks of moonlike white rocks that felt so out of place among the countless shades of green that make up the rest of the Irish countryside.

The Cliffs of Moher themselves did not disappoint, although Alex and I do recommend taking a left out of the visitor’s center and walking as far south as your legs will carry you, for optimal views with no guardrail. Here, for the second time in as many days, I laid down on the edge of a cliff face and stared down into the churning, cerulean blue waters of the Atlantic, feeling the sea spray on my face and pondering my own tiny place in the world. I felt overwhelmed with gratitude: that I have the ability to travel around the world, and that Alex and I are on this journey together and are able to see all of these incredible places. I felt so small next to those cliffs, yet I also felt like I was a part of something greater, and I can’t wait to chase that feeling all around the world on this trip.