27 May 2010

We Saw the Western Coast

A few months ago, Eoin approached me with the brilliant idea to cycle the west coast of Ireland. I was immediately keen on the idea, as I had been riding almost every day since January. I couldn't think of a better way to spend my last week in Ireland, especially since our route would take us to towns and areas I had not yet visited. On recommendation from one of Eoin's mates, our original route was to start in Galway and ended up in the north, in County Donegal. A few weeks before we left this changed to going as far north as Killala and riding back to Galway. On Day 3 our route further changed, as you will read, but all told it was an epic experience. By the time we headed out for Galway on the 17th our gang included Eoin, two Canadians Laura and Brendan, and Maarten, from the Netherlands. The following is the gist of what happened along the way.

Day 1 - Galway to Aran Islands
Following a great night out in Galway with Bridget, we headed to West Side Cycles to pick up our rides for the week from the shop's owner, Alan. Pannier bags loaded, we set off out of Galway east towards Rossaveal to catch the Aran Island ferry. Decent pace in the on and off rain, through I did have a bit of gear trouble early on. On arrival to the island, first stop was the hostel to get rid of the gear. The weather remained overcast and rainy, but we decided to cycle the island as best we could anyway. The main point of interest was DĂșn Aonghasa, an ancient fort situated on the edge of a cliff along the south western coastline. Stopped for soup and brown bread at the base of the hill before venturing up to the cliffs in the pouring rain. You can literally stand right on the edge looking over the Atlantic, about 100meters up... totally liberating feeling. The ride back into "town" was a bit annoying as the downpour continued, but a hot shower cured that problem. Finished out the day with a home cooked dinner and a few rounds of cards and headed to bed exhausted.

Day 2 - Aran Islands to Letterfrack
8:15am ferry back to the mainland, left the island in a beautiful early morning mist. Picked up the R335 headed north out of Rossaveal and then turned east along the R340. If you consult a map there are a few coastal loops in that area leading up to Clifden. We meant to cut out the first loop but misread our map and did the first one. Stopped in Cill Chiarain, then continued south along the coastal road, ultimately turning north again along the western side towards Cashel. Picked up the R342 out of Cashel heading west to cut across the second coastal road. Seriously, it was the middle of nowhere. Nothing but sheep along the one lane, at times unpaved road across a landscape dotted by small lakes and rolling hills. We emerged from the isolation in Ballinaboy and headed north again. Bit of an uphill battle the last 3km into Clifden where we stopped for lunch. Unfortunately it was too late in the day to do the sky road, so that will be saved for another adventure. Took the N59 up to Letterfrack, mostly uphill it felt like. 75km total for the day I think. Letterfrack Lodge was amazing, and definitely worth the stay if you're in the area. Another great home cooked meal followed by a pint at Molly's, the single pub in town. Also met a Canadian girl at the Lodge who is traveling around Ireland. Finally got around to making up our pinnies, 2.50euro tank tops, or singlets as the Aussies call them, from Dunnes. I was appointed "Gramps", Eoin called "Glumpy", Maarten, quite naturally, "The Flying Dutchman", Brendan (no surprise) was given "Boy" and Laura, the only girl in the group, took the name "Her". Good craic, great day all around.

Day 3 - Letterfrack to Westport
Started the day with a coastal road called the Connemara Loop. Gorgeous beach views along the northern part of the road. Met up with the main road again, the N59, and cycled east along the Killary Fjord, supposedly the only real one in Ireland. We turned around at the bottom of the fjord in Leenaun and headed west again along the opposite side. The R335 turns north and inland at Lettereeragh, which we followed till we found the "Lost Road", as described to us the the Letterfrack Lodge owner, Matt. This lost road seems appropriately named, as it really is just a single lane road pass between two large ridges. The climb was tough in the hot Ireland sun (yes, it really was hot), but the remote beauty was worth the struggle. I think we saw two cars the whole time. The road spilled out in Liscarney where we picked up the N59 again for the last 8 or so km north into Westport. The town itself is worth a visit it seemed from the view hours we were there. We stayed at the Old Mill Hostel, great accommodations. Had my gears looked at by the local mechanic, an older gent by the name of Mr. Salmon. We also made the decision to skip out on going to Killala, as we realized it was alot further away then we first thought. The night after Achill Islands would be spent in Castlebar. That evening we paid visit to Matt Malloy's, a pub named for and owned Chieftains flute player Matt Malloy. At one point the bartender drew our attention to an old painting of the Chieftains, pointed at the figure second from the right, then to the bald, white bearded gent sitting on a stool at the other end of the bar. Mr. Malloy had aged a bit since that painting was done, but it was still brilliant to see the famous musician in his own pub. Too bad none of us had the guts to go up and say hello...

Day 4 - Westport to Achill Islands
Felt a bit raw in the morning after the previous evening's pints, but the sunshine and fresh air cured the feeling relatively quickly. First leg of the day was a 11km sprint north to Newport, which we covered faster than expected. Out of Newport we turned west again and picked up the Green Mountain Way, a bike path that parallels the main road along the coast. Getting away from the cars was a nice change of pace and made for some excellent riding. Still hot under the beating Irish sun. 18km later the trail ended in Mullarrany, where we continued along the R319 out to Achill Sound, the first town across the bridge on the Achill Islands. Our ultimate destination was Keel, a beach town 14km further west. Big uphill leading up to an amazing downhill into the village. A mountain ridge and lake bordered one side of the long flat stretch into Keel while a beach bordered the other. Brilliant. Keel has great surfing beaches and is a km away from the third tallest cliffs in Europe (yes, its true, the Croaghaun Cliffs stand at 668 metres above sea level). Our gig for the night was the Richview hostel, basically an old house up the street from the beach. After dropping our bags we headed down to the beach. The water was far to cold for swimming, in my opinion, but Brendan took it upon himself to show us up and run headlong into the waves in his boxers. Brave soul. Met an old man walking along the beach who chatted us up for awhile, as well as a couple who had seen us riding into town. We asked if they knew a good spot to grab fish and chips, and made a phone call for us. Mind you, that was the 4th phone made by a random person on our behalf. Dinner was a bit pricey but totally delicious, and was followed with a few pints at the one pub in town, the Menawn View Bar. The place had a total Sinn Fein/Republican vibe, clearly evident in the posters and pictures hanging on the walls. It was still light out when we arrived (it stays light till 10:00pm easily this time of the year), so it was cool to sit in the pub and look out across the street to the beach and the cliffs as the evening mist rolled in. Brendan again impressed us with a bit of improv tin whistle playing with a few old men who brought down a guitar and an accordion. Brilliant evening all around.

On the Green Mountain Way
Day 5 - Achill Islands to Castlebar
Saturday dawned beautifully, and there was serious talk about giving up Castlebar and staying another night in Keel. Sunshine, beautiful beaches... how could we possibly leave! The idea was scrapped based on the logistics. It was strange to think Achill was the furthest we would come on the trip and for the most part would be riding back towards Galway the rest of the time. The great turning point if you will. Reluctantly, we pedaled out of Keel the same way we rode in the day before, and ran into a Canadian couple at the top of the hill. They were also on a cycling trip and suggested we ride part of the Atlantic Drive, the coastal road around Achill (we had ridden into Keel via the inland road). The entire thing would have easily added 25km to the day, so we decided to do part of it. Best decision we could have made. Ending up on a set of cliffs on the south side of the island that rivaled the Cliffs of Moher easily. Do check out the pics. Leaving the cliffs, made our way back to Achill Sound for a quick bite to eat, then on to Mullaranny again. Decided on the mountain way trail again to avoid the cars on the main road, and we again tackled the 18km to Newport in a breeze. Really warm out again. From Newport the fastest way to Castlebar was the main road, which was mostly uphill but not terribly busy. The hostel in Castlebar was among the sketchiest I've ever seen, so please, don't ever stay in the Castlebar Holiday Lodge. We made up for it with an excellent dinner at the pub called Bosh, recomended by Eoin's mate from the town. Burger with Pineapple and Bacon, followed by apple crumble with ice cream. Beyond words. Watched InterMilan take down Bayern Munich, much to my disappointment. Called it an early night, and slept like babies in spite of the strangeness of the hostel.

Day 6 - Castlebar to Cong
Without a doubt one of the best days of the tour, as well as one of the shortest/easiest distance wise. With an eye for hightailing it out of Castlebar as fast as possible, we hit the road around 8:30am. Sunday morning meant few cars and we cleared the 35km or so to Cong by lunch time. Cong is a small town located between two lakes, Lough Corrib and Lough Mask. The main point of interest is the Ashford Castle, one of the most famous small hotels in Europe. Cong Abbey is also there. The town itself is rather small, with a Spar being the only establishment open to buy groceries for dinner. The hostel for the night was a combination caravan/camping/hostel type setup, run by a few really awesome folks. We ended up having two rooms on the second floor of a house on the property next to the main building. The receptionist didn't want us to be kept awake all night by the pack of 70 thirteen year old boys who would be staying the night in the main building. After dropping the bags, we headed to the Ashford Castle and cruised around the grounds for awhile, ending up down by the lake. Brilliant swim on a hot day. After the swim we headed into town to pick up dinner, with an eye for making use of the charcoal grill we saw behind the hostel. With limited options, we settled on two rib racks, a mess of sausages, and tons of veggies and potatoes. Add in a few beers and a bottle of wine, and needless to say we had a stellar evening. Good craic watching the 13 year olds cause chaos around the property. Brilliant.

Day 7 - Cong the Galway
Last leg of our journey. Managed to pull off making breakfast among the chaos of the 13 year olds again. Hit the road around 10, taking the R345 out of Cong along the lake , just skirting the edge of the hills that form Joyces Country. Passed through Cornamona and turned onto the mountain pass in the Leckurea Mtns at Maum. Big, gradual uphill, not something I overly enjoyed. Descended into Maam Cross and picked up the N59 heading east towards Oughterard. Realized by back tire was basically flat a few km. Maarten patched it up and we carried on, though a bit slower on my end. Stopped in Oughterard for lunch and carried on the last 20km to Galway. I couldn't wait to get back. We got into Gort Na Corbe around 3pm, an Emma (Bridget's roommate) was waiting for us with cold beers. Got the luggage sorted out and returned the bikes, and I headed into city centre to do some last minute souvenir shopping. Eoin cooked up one of his infamous curry dishes for dinner, and we sat outside quite content with our food and beers, satisfied with a solid week of riding. For the doubters, we got it done, even if it cost my knees. Around 10:30 we headed to the pubs, namely the Quays, one of the coolest spots in Galway right on Shop Street. A live irish band was on when we arrived, and was followed by a more modern act around midnight. Guinness, Bulmers Cider, and a glass of Jameson each... brilliant last night out in Ireland. Stayed till they escorted us out of the door at the 2am closing time. Walk back to the apartment was chaotic as per the usual, involving ending up in piles on the side walks, ripping pants, and stealing a massive street cone, thru which Eoin yelled all sorts of profanities. Passed out quite happy with ourselves, having lived it up as best we could.
End of the Road: Myself, Eoin, Maarten, Laura and Brendan back in Galway

Tuesday morning I got up early, walked across the street to get my last copy of the Irish Times, and enjoyed a quiet breakfast while everyone else stayed asleep. Around 9:30 my cab came, and with a few final farewells I headed to the bus station to catch my ride to the Dublin Airport. At 4:15 I boarded my Aer Lingus flight, and with that my four and a half months in Ireland came to an end. In no uncertain terms, what a brilliant ride it had been. Ireland, it was swell, and I'll be back soon. Cheers.

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