1. Galway and Connemara
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Does every country have a region that is like a sort of distilled version of it, a concentrate of its qualities or a compendium of its identity? Perhaps, as it happens for every stereotype, it' s the insistence with which it keeps coming back that does the trick. In any case, it's a fact that when many foreigners think of Italy the images conjured up by their imagination are actually those of Tuscany. For France, it may be Burgundy, for Germany, Bavaria, for Spain, Andalusia, and so on. Am I trying to prove something here? Not really, I just wanted to introduce the destination of this tour: if one were to choose Ireland to verify the theory mentioned above, the least one can say is that Connemara would be the first name on his test docket.
We start our tour in Galway, a sort of capital of West Ireland. (I don' know, are there other contenders?). Among the many things worth mentioning in Galway (for the Races, see photo album), there's one in which a fellow citizen of mine is involved. Guglielmo Marconi, according to a stone set at the entrance of the harbour, realized from here one of the first experiments of trans-oceanic wireless communication. Marconi would have undoubtedly appreciated the development that trans- oceanic communications have seen around here, even taking into account the comeback of the wire that originated it. If Europe had a border with the United States, it would run around here, a cyber-frontier that would in fact be more open than the Schengen Area customs.
All things considered, as far as technologies go the Web is one of the most discreet. Thanks to it, there may no longer be places that one can describe as remote, and yet it doesn't prevent those places to retain outwardly a remote appearance. One of the places that I trust will take full advantage of this opportunity are the Aran Islands. Once one of the most isolated places of Europe, today they could propose to enter some sort of administrative partnership with the town council of, say, Marta's Vineyard without making it sound excessively outrageous.
Yet for us cycling around Inishmore felt just like the real thing, namely, land's end, and never more so than when, at its westernmost tip, the road ended abruptly and in front of us there was nothing but sea (even if the visibility was reduced to perhaps half a mile). Undoubtedly the fact that the weather was dismal helped. Drenched to the bone, we could more easily identify with the old Aran islanders portrayed by Robert Flaherty in the classical documentary Man of Aran. A local theatre that shows the film around the clock provides also a welcome shelter against bad weather, and we heartily applaud the decision to stint on the projector and splurge on the heating.
The next day, taking advantage of the improved weather, we start off from Rossaveal for a tour around the headlands and inlets that give to this part of the Irish coast a decidedly meandering appearance. Basically we follow the road that circles Kilkieran Bay. We enter the Rosmuck Peninsula and stop to pay homage to one of Ireland independence fighters by visiting Pearse's Cottage. As famous as he is in Ireland, Padraig Pearce would certainly be better know around the world today if they had added just half an hour at the beginning of Michael Collins. Competing the other half of the Bay tour we arrive in Carna to end this day's ride.
The following day's route takes us across the heart of Connemara. Unfortunately, our ride is beset by the kind of bad weather that is apparently so typical of these parts. The weather keeps getting worse as we approach the most interesting stretch of road, that cuts across two ranges of mountains (more like hills, in fact, if one was to judge by their elevation, but I imagine there are other criteria): the Twelve Bens, and the Maamturk Mountains. The Twelve Bens in particular are a wilderness area still very much unspoilt.
Since we keep to the paved road, we only skirt them but, considering the kind of day that we are having, we are just content with that. We make a detour to Kylemore Abbey where we get a short respite in the stately buildings. Our final destination however is still some kilometres away, in Leenane, a stretch that we cover under a relentless downpouring. We would surely appreciate the sight of the scenic Killary Harbour more, if it wasn't for the thought that there's nothing in it but still more water. If the better way to describe the weather around here is: unpredictable, it follows that there's at least one thing you can be sure of: it's going to change. As predictable as a Swiss town clock striking twelve, the sun shines on the next day for the better part of our ride.
Our route crosses the northern part of Connemara and takes us to the seaside again on the vast gulf of Clew Bay. We follow the coast until we arrive in Westport. Just before entering the town, on our left appears the rather imposing mass of Croagh Patrick, St. Patrick's Hill (sorry, Mountain...), the final destination of one of Ireland's most important pilgrimages. Even the sceptic that chooses to follow the faithful to the top will be rewarded with a spectacular view of the bay and its countless islands (actually, according to some traditions, there should be 365 of them, as many as the days in one year -do they have a floating one they bring in on leap years?). In Westport I discover that my decision to postpone my shopping turns out to have been the right one, considering the opportunities that the town offers to stock up on Irish crafts.
We have still two days of cycling to get back to Galway, and this time we leave the sea behind for good and, heading south, we cycle along Connemara's eastern border, where the watery part of the scenery is provided by two big lakes, the Lough Mask and the Lough Corrib. Before getting there we make a stop to visit Ballintubber Abbey, among whose notable features, we are told, is the fact that it has retained its roof (or has had it restored, whatever). Apparently the fact that so many ancient Irish churches are on open air, so to say, has something to do with Cromwell. This man showed apparently some sort of evil genius in his decision to allow his religious adversaries to worship only on sunny days. Given the weather here, the resentment it created is understandable.
There's no trace of roof in the Abbey of Cong, but ignore if Cromwell has something to do with it. To tell the truth, there isn't much trace left of the walls either. On a less contentious note, the surroundings of Cong provided the set for the shooting of John Ford's The Quiet Man (John Wayne must have agreed to play an Irish film when he learned that it was in the west of Ireland). Another more recent film set in Connemara is The Field, directed by Jim Sheridan (with Richard Harris and Tom Berenger, among others), and with this information we go back to our original question: is there something as a region that contains the characters of a whole nation? Well, if they make so many movies in it, maybe we are getting close to some answer here, what do you think?
Click here to go to Part II: Kerry and Cork.