Friday, June 09, 2006

Connemara with a touch of Mayo

[Thursday] I had a late start this morning, partly due to staying up very late to do some more family tree climbing, and then I got into a long conversation over breakfast with a family at my B&B. So when we got on the road, to do a last lap of the Connemara region, it was nearly 10.30am

First port of call was Clifden, "capital" of the Connemara, and while "only" 77km away, it was a very solid hour of driving with the awful roads and some numbingly slow traffic. It can be difficult to enjoy the view along the way, as the road requires so much attention, and I sometimes skip stops at view-points because I know it will mean getting stuck behind someone I just spent 15 minutes trying to overtake.

Clifden turned out to be rather different to what I imagined, but none the less enjoyable for that. There's the same collection of brightly-coloured buildings seen almost everywhere but Galway City, and it has a number of beaches in proximity, although sadly I didn't have time to visit any on this day. It seemed every other person I spoke to today had worked for a short time in Australia. The cafe I lunched at had a menu that looked like it came from a Sydney venue - indded, one of the proprietors had worked in Neutral Bay. Anyway for somewhere perched out on the edge of Europe there was a healthy cafe/food culture in evidence. Now I could care less about places aping Australian cuisine, but after finding over-priced fried crap or school tuckshop sandwiches offered in 90% of the places I visit, you really appreciate a decent offering with well-presented local ingredients.

After Clifden was my major stop of the day: Kylemore Abbey. This gothic revival castle - built on drained moorland for a tycoon's wife circa 1870 - became the new home for an order of Belgian Benedictine nuns. Slipped between mountains and lake, it's a completely unexpected find. I didn't go into the castle, but I did visit the Victorian walled garden restored by the nuns.

There was neither habit nor hair-shirt to be seen of the nuns, unless they're masquerading as beefy male gardeners tending the herbaceous borders. "This is Sister Colin, who has given up shaving for Lent....".

I think after Bondi's visit to the shower recess yesterday, he's getting a taste for cloistered life.

It was another hot day and Bondi took to the lake for an extended swim, much to the amusement of the 2 busloads of French visitors touring the grounds. Lucky me, after 2 months in Paris, I could now reliably inform them that the sky was blue and that my dog weighed soixante-dix kilos, and that he had already visited other abbeys and chateaux in the Loire.

I tried to tell one woman that he was actually "une petite nonne poilue" (a short hairy nun), but I suspect I said "une petite nain poilu" ( a short hairy dwarf). She was having none of it anyway.

There are some interesting items in the Abbey craft-store, but none of the pennants that the nuns make everyday.

After leaving the Abbey, I drove on towards Leenane and stopped by Killary fjord again, where these two buses had already pulled over. I left Bondi in the car, with the backwindows down while I quickly snapped some shots of the salmon or whatever-the-hell-they-are farms in the fjord, and turned my head back to see a stream of unashamed French tourists making a beeline for the car - peering in the half-open rear-window, to examine the malamute nest in the back.

Westport, County Mayo, was my last coastal stop. It's a very attractive planned town which I'd hoped to use as a base for several days, but couldn't find affordable dog-friendly accommodation there. It will have to wait for a return visit.

On the way back to Galway (roughly 90km), I dropped by Cong again, site of my camera failure earlier in the week. When I got there, I drove through Ashford Castle, another Gothic revival effort from 1870, now a luxury hotel, with its own golf-course and frontage to Lough Corrib. I took some photos of the adjacent ruin of the 12th century Cong Abbey, and the shallow canal linking Lough Corrib with Lough Mask. The name Cong refers to the isthmus (strip of land) running between these two lakes, made up of very porous limestone.

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