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Europe Tour Guide: Irish Brightest Part Is Waving Hand

It’s said that Ireland, once visited, is never forgotten. The Irish landscape has a mythic resonance, the country’s history is almost tangible.

There’s a part of the Emerald Isle that shines brightest of all.

Connemara on the midwest coast of Ireland is not as famous as the enchanting Ring of Kerry to the south.

Nor does it attract the daily armada of coaches that spill out hundreds of holiday-makers at all the pubs, rest stops and scenic vantage points along their route.

That can be a blessing when you don’t want other camera-toting tourists straying into your own panoramic shots. Plus, the wonder evoked by the landscape is more powerful when you have it all to yourself.

With no other souls around, the ancient mountains and the rivers that run through them seem to belong to you – momentarily and magically.

The big catch with Connemara is that to experience it at its most beautiful, you need blue skies and sunshine. On the Atlantic seaboard of Ireland, your chances of getting a few sunny days in a row are roughly equal to those of seeing a real leprechaun.

The scenery is impressive in all weather, even when the tops of the Twelve Bens are shrouded in grey mist. But having based myself in the area for a month I can testify that its true beauty is only revealed when the sun appears and takes its paintbrush to land and water, revealing a wondrous mix of colours and textures.

The good news is there is plenty to do and see in the area when you’re waiting for those rare and blessed days of sunshine. For the gateway to Connemara is Galway, my favourite city in Ireland.

Plenty of hookers

The City of Tribes is the cultural heart of the nation, where history, the arts and entertainment combine to make a fun, vibrant and interesting destination in its own right.

On the history side, the charming and cobbled streets of the ancient capital of the province of Connaught are easily explored on foot.

There’s the Church of St Nicholas where Christopher Columbus heard mass before setting off on his voyage of discovery. The Spanish Arch, built in 1594, acknowledges the city’s close commercial ties to Spain in that period.

Between landmarks, walkers will be distracted by fancy boutiques, cafes and music – not just the strains of traditional Irish music emanating from the plethora of pubs but buskers on every corner and in many doorways, playing everything from jazz to contemporary sounds.

There are also plenty of hookers. I should add that in this part of the world, a hooker is a boat. There’s even a 5500-year-old local fishing canoe on display at the Galway Atlantaquaria, which is Ireland’s National Aquarium.

It accommodates the country’s largest display of aquatic life and appeals to visitors with children in tow.

While the city is very lively during the day, it buzzes at night. Even midweek and in the midst of high unemployment and a horrid recession, people were out eating and drinking in large numbers.

The seaside suburb of Salthill, with its long promenade, also goes off most evenings.

Indeed Galway is so vibrant it might not be a suitable base for everyone.

But there’s an abundance of choice for those visitors who merely seek a slice of old Ireland, the smell of turf fires burning and, of course, the unspoilt wilderness and breathtaking views.

The Happy Monk delivers

There’s a good choice of accommodation, pubs and restaurants, including the newly renovated Connemara Lake Hotel.

If you’re going to stop there, ask the friendly locals to point you to the spot on the river where you can watch salmon and trout jumping up a waterfall.

There are 365 islands on Lough Corrib, though only a dozen are inhabited. In the summer, there are daily cruises from Oughterard to Ashford Castle and the pretty village of Cong.

Ashford Castle is relatively young as Irish castles go – built in 1870 for the
Guinness family – but is very impressive nonetheless and its grounds are well worth exploring if you have time.

The view from the castle over Corrib’s north shore is something special.

Cong’s claim to fame is that it was the location for the movie The Quiet Man, starring John Wayne. But Cong’s appeal is in its quiet charm.

After visiting Ashford Castle, pop into the The Hungry Monk cafe for a tasty snack.

Although pub grub and café food is generally of a very high standard in Ireland, finding a good coffee outside the city is more of challenge. Thankfully the Happy Monk delivered.

It takes at least a week to tour the area properly. Clifden is the capital of Connemara and also a good base for exploring. The welcoming pubs promise ‘‘ceoil agus craic’’ – music and fun.

Top spot for fly fishing

Save Kylemore Abbey for a lovely day to appreciate its idyllic setting. The abbey is unsurprisingly one of the most photographed buildings in Ireland. Not far away is Ballynahinch Castle and its salmon fishery, which is reputed to be one of the top spots in the world for fly fishing.

The castle hotel has a cafe and bar where you can overhear guests who’ve flown in from America and beyond bemoaning ‘‘the one that got away’’.

Roundstone on Bertraghboy Bay is a very pretty spot where beaches are framed by mountains. If you’re feeling brave enough to dip your toes into the Atlantic, Dog Bay is a fantastic sheltered beach, especially suited for children.

In Roundstone, check out the silver jewellery made there.

Of course, you don’t have to do all your travelling by car. There are many hiking and pony trails.

Delphi Adventure Centre in Killary Harbour caters for the adventurous-at-heart who can choose between surfing, mountain biking, horse riding, kayaking through the fjord or climbing the highest mountain in the west of Ireland.

Claddagh and Spiddle, near Galway, are havens for local arts and crafts.

Galway is also within striking range of County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher and the mystical rocky landscape of the Burren.

The best chance of good weather is at the beginning and end of summer – May and September. But you can’t bank on it.

In Ireland, and particularly the west, you are always at the mercy of the gods. That’s why it pays to have a flexible itinerary and a hire car.

The only other thing you need is a sense of humour. Then let the history, people and landscape sweep you up.

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