Saturday, November 14, 2009

Visiting the Aran Islands- Inishmore to be Exact

This is my fourth trip to Ireland and I finally made it to the Aran Islands. I really wanted to do this during my other visits, but never could make it work. Plus, I was ignorant and thought that if I couldn’t take the ferry from Doolin, then taking a ferry wasn’t an option. But just a 40-minute drive south of Ballynahinch, we parked the car and took a 45-minute ferry ride from Rossaveal, just north of Galway. The ferry ride was just long enough to have a quick nap.

Immediately upon arriving at the Aran Islands we were accosted by locals trying to get us on their horse and carriage for a ride or in their van for a tour of the island. Katie and I were debating whether we should bike (and fulfill an Irish dream of ours) or take the van (where we could undoubtedly learn all about the Aran Islands thought the eyes of a local.

Fitness and dreaming won out and we left Erica and Sawnia to a tour via van and local driver while Katie and I headed down the hill to hire a bike for the day.

Everyone we met with kept telling us how lucky we were with the weather. The sun was shining and it’s very possible that I’ll wake up with a sunburn tomorrow. Apparently the night before they had gale force winds and crazy amounts of rain. We are definitely thankful anytime the sun is shining!

After a little bit of bike trouble (Katie had unrealistic expectations of the shape her bike should be in), we were on our way. As I said to Katie, I was very glad that we were biking, I was just going to complain about:

1. How uncomfortable the seat was.
2. How one week on vacation and not in the gym doing cardio left me feeling like an inhaler would have helped immensely.
3. How much I’ve forgotten what it’s like to work out in cold weather- my lungs were on fire!
4. How hard the hills were.

Honestly, apart from all of that, and possibly because of it as well, we had a great time. I’m definitely glad we chose the bike route. I could see how that wouldn’t be as fun of an option during high tourist season. Today we only had to dodge a few cars and tractors, bikes and dogs, and even a soccer ball.

But the day was epic. It’s hard to explain the Aran Islands and unfortunately my pictures don’t capture the landscape as well as I’d hoped. Here’s what we learned from Erica & Sawnia’s recap of their tour:
1. Each family gets 40 – 50 acres to build a house.
2. You have to be from the Aran Islands- or marry someone from here- in order to build.
3. If you’re not from the Aran Islands, you can purchase a developed home (but you can’t build your own).
4. The breakdown of the island’s economy is as follows:
a. Fishing = 50%
b. Tourism = 40%
c. Knitwear = 5%
d. Farming = 5%
5. The smallest bank in Ireland is on Inishmore and is only opened two days a week- Wednesday & Thursday. Their tour driver said, “Wednesday we put it in. Thursday we take it out.” Which clearly gets a laugh every time.
6. There are 8 thatched houses on Inishmore.
7. All the houses are rectangular in shape except for one- which is round.
8. Most of the knitwear for sale on the Aran Islands, especially Inishmore, isn’t even made here.
9. There’s a Gaelic submersion program taught for three months each summer for 800 Euros/month. If you are caught speaking English more than three times, you’re sent packing without a refund!
10. There are 7 faces to each rock. This means there are 7 different ways to stack a rock.
11. Stone walls are built with spaces so the wind can go through and not knock them down.

Our bike ride took us first to Dun Aonghasa (pronounced Doon Angus). My tour book says “This Iron or Bronze Age promontory fort has four concentric stone walls. It is also protected by a chevaux de frise, a ring of razor-sharp pointed stone stakes.” In Molly speak, it was a 20-minute walk to the top of cliffs with an amazing view of the Atlantic Ocean and very cool stonewalls.

From there we had lunch at a super cute cafĂ© where I had amazing looking (but not great tasting) Guinness beef stew and mashed potatoes. I also couldn’t resist the chocolate Guinness cake, which was much better than the stew. We walked across the street to three little shops and then continued on the bike to another popular attraction on Inishmore: The Seven Churches.

Tour book description says, “The so-called Seven Churches make up a monastic settlement dedicated to St. Brecan. Built between the 9th and 15th centuries, some are probably domestic buildings. Again, in Molly speak, the name is misleading, because (according to Erica & Sawnia’s tour guide, there were once seven buildings on this property, but never seven churches. Also, this was basically some ruins with a lot of tombstones and graves.

Instead of taking the hilly ride back, we took the coastal route. Although we couldn’t enjoy it as much as we had hoped because 1) our asses were killing us at this point. We’d been on our bikes for a good couple of hours and the uncomfortableness of being on a bike that had no amount of comfort to offer was settling in. Also, 2) as with most of Ireland, there was no good signage or indication that we were going the right way. And because we were so uncomfortable and ready to ditch our bikes, the thought of having to turn around because we were going the wrong way was causing anxiety. We were supposed to be on the “seal road” or maybe the “sea road” and it turns out we were (you’d think biking right along the sea would have been reassurance enough), but we didn’t know that until we spit out onto the “main road” and were about two minutes from the bike hire shop.

As I said, being able to bike around the island was a spectacular way to see this part of Ireland. I feel like I appreciated our time here more because we in turn worked harder to see all it had to offer.

After dropping the bike off, Katie and I were both very happy to be on our own two feet walking back to the B&B. We spent the evening warming up and relaxing before heading out for dinner at the pub two doors down- Ti Jay Watty’s.

We had killer local mussels for dinner- my first bit of seafood apart from salmon in Dublin. It was delicious and even better knowing that it was about as local as one could get. The pub atmosphere was lacking, seriously, and was quite disappointing. But I often find that after spending a night at The Thatch, nothing really can compare. This place was just off. There was some weirdo walking out of the place to smoke just as soon as we walked in. Someone who caused Erica, Sawnia & Katie to make constant comparisons to a character our of Harry Potter- Mr. Filch. Only having a little bit of knowledge of Harry Potter, I can’t say I know who they’re talking about. But seeing this guy, and knowing the kind of characters that come outta the world of Harry Potter, I knew this was no compliment.

The night was brief and I didn’t have a drink. In fact, I’ve only had a few sips of Guinness since The Thatch on Wednesday. Which I’m okay with.

Tomorrow we are up early for the ferry ride at 815am. We drive from Rossaveal to Dingle, which will be our longest day in the car. It’s nice that it’s only one long day of driving, and because we have to be up to catch the ferry, at least we know we’ll be getting on the road early enough that we can enjoy Dingle once we do arrive.

Dingle is a place we blew through last year. We spent the night in Annascaul (which you get to just before hitting Dingle) and had such a long day of driving that when we finally arrived, we ate and pretty much called it a night. So I’m hoping we get there on the early side so we can walk around some more and enjoy Dingle.

I have a week left before we go home. I’m definitely relaxed and enjoying myself. The pace with which we move is slow and comfortable. We haven’t gone crazy being on vacation as far as food is concerned. We’ve done a good job of watching what we’re eating, but of also not making ourselves crazy trying to eat perfectly either. And we have taken almost every opportunity we could to fit in some exercise. It all feels really good.

Pictures to be posted later- when I have a better internet connection!


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