Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Aran Islands - Stoned in Ireland

We had wanted to get to the Aran Islands, which lie off of the west coast of Ireland, for years. Rick Steves (heart) describes them perfectly in his 2015 Guide to Ireland, "Strewn like limestone chips hammered off the jagged west coast, the three Aran Islands- Inishmore, Inishman and Inisheer- confront the wild Atlantic with stubborn grit." Stubborn, maybe, but all the more spectacular for it. Needless to say, we were super excited that we could fit them into our trip this time.

We took a shuttle / ferry combination from Galway. It was a wet, miserable Irish day and the seas were churning. For someone who is almost more comfortable in the water than
on land I was surprised how nervous I was on the crossing. The ferry felt like it was being tossed around by the violent waves like a piece of inconsequential driftwood. You couldn't see out the windows due to massive sloshes of water constantly battering the sides of the boat, and there were no windows in the front. I was very happy when the ferry landed on the pier of Inishmore. To make the arrival even more sweet- like a rainbow after a storm- there were dolphins playing just off the pier, even a baby dolphin! I was even happier when we arrived at our guesthouse, Clai Ban, and were shown to an adorable, bright room with windows looking down to the ocean. Yay!

The Aran islands are short on one thing- dirt. There is less than 6 inches of it! According to Rick, the
islanders had to make their own soil by layering seaweed, limestone sand and animal dung. This lack of soil is apparent everywhere you look. Boulders, rocks, tiny tufts of grass stretch as far as the eye can see, but very little farm land or trees. Nevertheless, small "fields" are divided by waist-height stone walls constructed without mortar. Rocks are set on top of each other and angled to allow farmers to move them if need be, and to allow the winter winds to pass through. Its fascinating what people can make work! Plus, these stone fences are super photogenic.

Most people visit Inishmore on a day trip. There are countless bikes awaiting rental within steps of getting off the boat. There are friendly locals with vans and a few horse and buggies ready and willing to take day trippers around. Everyone does the same loop, taking in the most popular sights all at the same time. This did not appeal to us. By staying over a couple nights we could be free to explore as we wished, have time to see the less popular sights, and with any luck, feel like we have the island to ourselves.

Instead of renting bikes we decided to walk the island. Why not, we had the time. Plus, walking allowed us to get off the road and see the island from its small pathways. We first set off east and came upon lots of beautiful things. The ocean on our side the whole way, we hiked up to the remains of  the old stone St. Benen's Church with spectacular views over the eastern edge of the island and ocean.  We stopped to chat to some cows along the way, but otherwise, didn't see a single soul! Then it was off to the windswept Black Fort ruins, making up our own trail over the starkly beautiful landscape and exposed rock. The Black Fort looks today like a semi-circle to stone walls, abruptly falling away at the edge of dramatic cliffs. A bit more erosion and the entire fort looks like it would tumble down the sheer rock and crash into the Atlantic. You can't help but be awed by its precarious location and the insane weather its long-ago inhabitants would have faced.  Again, not another tourist in sight. It was a bit surreal.

The next day we headed off along the centre of the island, following narrow paths made by the farmers and enclosed on both sides by stone fences. Walking along the ridge of the island we had breath-taking views the entire day. The land, boxed into endless squares by the stone fences stretched out for a couple kilometers before plunging away at the cliffs. Whenever we came up on a new stone ruin, it felt like we were discovering it for the first time. The abandoned stone forts, churches and mystery buildings looked like no one had stepped foot near them for centuries. We came upon some lonely horses, sheep and a cow or two- but never a fellow tourist. The island's major sight- and the place most tourists make a bee-line to as soon as getting on the ferry- is Dun Aenghus. Its an impressive stone fortress standing very precariously on the edge of a 200ft cliff looking directly down on the roaring Atlantic. Wow. No one knows why the fort was created, but it is thought to be from the Iron Age, more than 2000 years ago! It is built of four concentric walls of stone, 13ft thick and 10 ft tall. The fort has a huge stone slab like an altar in the middle, but otherwise little indication as to what the space was used for. Scholars think Dun Aenghus might
have been a different shape originally, maybe a D or an oval. With sections having collapsed into the sea over the last millennia, what's left is more like a semi-circle. Whatever the fort was, or why it was built, it has a spectacular view now. From an outcropping, with the fort itself as our backrest we ate our picnic. It was one of the most spectacular spots we had ever had the pleasure of picnicking. With a clear view down the coast and kilometers of uninterrupted cliffs that comprise the western edge of the entire island we contemplated life over baguettes and Irish cheese. When we were full, we walked down from the fort to the other side of the island. The road hugged a particularly clear, turquoise sea the entire walk home. Every turn was a new gorgeous panorama. A white sand beach that could have been transported straight from the Caribbean, ancient grey stone houses with overgrown vines for roofs, and livestock munching away on tufts of grass, oblivious to that fact that they have a dining room view that would be envied the world over.

Everything about Inishmore made it a perfect Irish stop for us. Waking up to mooing cows and an ocean view,  the B&B house dog named Guinness, the actual Guinness... If this is island life- sign me up.

Where we Stayed: Clai Ban B&B- clean, friendly, great breakfast, cash-only. We would stay there again
Where we Ate: Mostly from the Spar grocery store but also Ti Joe Wattys and The Bar down on the waterfront. Both great places for pub food and a pint (of Guinness).

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