Thursday, April 14, 2016

Diary of a World Traveler

Galway Day 11 (Inishmore): "They are predators. They will eat you."

Today was an absolutely amazing day. I know I say that almost every day here, but this is even more serious than before. This is the first time that the group has stayed over night on the Aran Islands, and I am so glad that I got to see and experience everything without time constraint. The beaches, the seals, the churches, the landscape... everything was worth the trip.   

We started the day bright and early for the 10AM ferry. Our hotel in Galway was so accommodating and made us all a packed lunch, so we were all stocked with a ham sandwich, apple, and water bottle for the journey. We drove by Galway Bay to get to the ferry station in Rossaveal. We boarded the ferry and found a spot in the very front in the middle deck. The entire top deck was open, so when we got going on the open water, we walked up the stairs to let the wind blow our hair back a little. The sky was overcast, but by the time we trolled in to Inishmore, the sun was fighting valiantly to get out.

Inishmore is the largest of the Aran Islands, and Kilronan is the largest city there. There is only one hotel on the entire island—the rest are hostels or B&Bs. And we booked up almost the entire hotel with our 19 rooms! But we would not get to see them until later, because our tour started right after we dropped off our bags.

We rode around the island in large vans outfitted like buses. Even these smaller vehicles seemed large on the island—the roads and even the general atmosphere of the island reminded me of a colder, smaller, more stone-filled Tortola. People made room for others on the road, beaches were plentiful, and farm animals were literally everywhere. Stones removed from fields were made into fences that checked the land in every yard, every farm, every open space imaginable. Our first stop was the Seven Churches, which were part of a band of medieval monasteries that stretched all the way from Europe. Not much is known about the churches themselves, but they would have housed people wanting to get away from the unstable events on the continent. Apparently, there were people living there from Italy and France, which were both in political and social upheaval during those times. The churches are ruins now, but many of the graves and main walls remain. My favorite space was a large church called Temple Bhreacáin. It was originally a small church dated to the 8th century, and then became the current space when two more rooms were added in the 10th century. We walked around the entire site for a little while, then piled back on the bus to head out to Rock Island.

Yes, Rock Island. It is not called that anymore, apparently, but it was pretty neat to go from Rock Island to Rock Island. The island itself is at the western most point of the islands. It is not inhabited, though there is a lighthouse that went automated in the 1980s. Other than that, it is just a slab of rock right off the coast of Inishmore where boats and seals like to live. This was also one of the most impressive landscapes I’ve seen. There were tidal pools that we could walk out and look at, since the tide was very low and the whole boat ramp was exposed. We had to be careful not to slip on kelp at the end of the slope—especially when we all started running because we saw seals in the water. Yes, seals. In the wild. Wild seals, bobbing their curious heads out of the water and looking at us making a fuss. There were four in total, all swimming in the little bay. So cool! 

But the tidal pools were also fascinating to observe. There were smaller rocks that housed the pools, which turned into larger boulders further down the coast. I found algae, open sea anemones, and pools so deep that I could stand in them. It was so cool! The landscape itself was incredible anyway, since it was almost all rock face filled with little caters from the water. The other Rock Island looks like a pretty amazing place to live, that’s for sure.

Our next stop was Dun Aengus (Dun Aonghasa in Irish). This is a prehistoric stone fort even old than the ring forts we saw the other day near Cahersiveen. The structure dates approximately to 1100BC! There are three levels of wall defense surrounding the fort, complete with a rock minefield to prevent invasion on horseback. But the best part of this stop was seeing the sheer cliff face drop into the Atlantic ocean. We could walk right up to the edge, which is not normal at most other cliff sites. We were fortunate enough to have a great day with absolutely no wind, so we could sit down on the cliff and look right down to the ground where the waves were crashing against the land. The views were amazing—we could not tell where the ocean met the sky met the clouds. Everything was beautifully grayish blue and ambiguous. Learning about the fort was great, but seeing the sights from up that high on the westernmost part of the island. 

Once we had made it down the path to the small shopping area, we stopped for some much needed refreshment: a scoop of ice cream and a delicious toffee caramel bar from the lovely little café at the base of the site. That café is possibly the cutest place I have ever been—a small stone building with a little fireplace, brightly colored chairs set at tables covered in floral tablecloths, and stocked with all the coffee and cake anyone could want. The sun poured in from the windows, warming us as we ate. I also went across the street to the various gift shops to get a keychain (made of green Connemara marble) and a really cool postcard made by a local artist. This particular artist does black and white print designs of ancient Celtic mythological characters and puts them on paper and tshirts. The shirts were amazing, but sadly, I had no room or money left to purchase one. Instead, I settled on a postcard with the Young Warrior design. That half hour of browsing the shops and basking in the sunshine was a perfect way to get recuperated for the rest of the day.

And what a rest of the day it was. We drove back to the hotel in the buses, seeing more seals on the way. According to our bus driver, they are basically just “bananas on rocks”. Once we arrived back at home base, we threw our stuff in the room, leaving everything except the necessities, and then headed back out across the street to the beach. This is not the most popular beach on Inishmore, but it was so close that we couldn’t pass up just walking around for a bit. A bit… or two hours. The weather was perfect for taking our shoes off and tromping through the warm waves. The water got pretty cold further out, but it was just right to walk along the shore and look at sea shells. I found clam shells as big as my hand, prefect spiral shells, dead crabs, and more sea kelp than I’m used to. The water was so clear that I found a lot of the bigger, better shells in the water and pulled them out. There were also a lot up by the boulders near the road. The good ones were often hiding in between or under the smaller rocks, so we had to dig for them. I collected so many beautiful shells that I really hope survive the trip back home—to Galway, and to the States!

The sun slowly went lower in the sky as we wound up our walking and swimming adventure in favor of dry feet and warm rooms. We only had a few minutes before dinner, so we changed into dry socks and pants and washed our shells to let them start drying. Then we went back down to the bar, where we had the choice of five options for the main course alone. I went with an starter of local goat’s cheese on bread, the main course of sea bass and goat’s cheese with tomato salsa, and a chocolate brownie for dessert. All of it was delicious! The fish was my favorite, but the goat’s cheese was great on everything. It was great to have some local fish and cheese on my plate, as well. When in the land of goat farming, eat the cheese.

After dinner, we were fairly tired, but the hotel was bringing in a musician to play. Most of us went quickly back up to our rooms to grab cards or money fro drinks, then came back down and listened to the acoustic guitar. He played and sang songs of all types. There were quite a few traditional tunes or songs that he wrote himself, but he would also switch it up and play songs like La Bamba and Twist and Shout. Either way, he was very good. We tried to keep our card playing on the quiet side so that we could listen to him, so we went with games like Blackjack, BS, and Spoons. We eventually got into Slap Jack, too, even though that got a little heated. It was fun to have some fun and not worry about anything but getting up the next morning. We would have to be up early to watch the sun rise over the ocean, though, so we went to bed pretty early. Honestly, I was tired anyway, so I was glad for the early night. We did and saw so much in such a short time! And I loved every bit of it. Tomorrow we head back to the mainland to see Connemara, the western half of Galway. I can't wait to climb some more mountains and see the region!

photo credit Diana Cleveland & Katie Walker

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