Happy to be back on the road, we headed from our WWOOFing placement in central Ireland out to the western coast.
The starting point for our ride was Galway City, and a short ride west out of the city brought us into the Connemara region. While the exact boundaries of Connemara seem to be in dispute, it's area overlaps with the Gaeltacht (Irish) speaking region of western County Galway. After passing this dual-language welcome sign, we were surprised that the official road signs, typically in both Irish and English throughout the rest of Ireland, were often in Irish only.
Connemara is known for it's windswept, remote landscapes. We were lucky to be passing through while the heather was still in bloom, as well as several varieties of colorful wildflowers.
The Connemara pony is another common sight; a stocky and rugged horse breed that some believe to be an ancestor to Scandinavian ponies brought to the isle by early Vikings. This one insisted on a too-close close-up portrait.
Early in our ride, as we moved northwest into Connemara from Galway, we had a constant view of the mountain range known as the Twelve Bens. The peaks are not high (ranging from 516 to 729 meters), and are popular with hikers and trail runners. A popular trial runner challenge is to summit all twelve peaks in a single day!
Even on the most desolate and sparsely populated stretches of our ride, the landscape seemed to be dotted with roving bands of sheep. We enjoyed photographing these animals, and marveled at their ability to scramble up the steep terrain and find sustenance in the rocky, scrubby landscape.
For much of our ride we hugged the coastline, and many of the campgrounds we stayed at were located along stunning beaches, bays, and inlets.
Sunset beach walks were a welcome way to stretch our muscles after long days in the saddle.
Camp cooking at the wind-swept coastal campgrounds was sometimes a challenge, and we found that our Trangia stove ran through fuel at a quicker rate in windy conditions. Fresh and simple meals was often the solution.
The wind led to another unexpected challenge on the road. While setting up camp one night on a site directly next to a barbed-wire fence, Heide lost hold on one of our inflatable Exped mats and it tumbled headlong into the wire. The damage: two large rips of over 1.5", one of .25", and one minute puncture. It ended up taking three patching sessions to get the mat back to an airtight condition. There were some uncomfortable nights and grumpy mornings.
While for much of our ride we were happy to simply take in the stunning scenery, we did have two destinations along our route. The first of these was the site of the Dillisk Project, an inspiring farm-to-table "seaside food project" on the machair of Aughrusbeg.
We contacted one of the project founders in advance, Katie Sanderson, but unfortunately unreliable internet access led to us missing her response to us with her contact information. We passed this handmade road sign that let us know we were close by, but we could not find the converted boat shed in which she hosts her dinners - maybe next time?
The other site we planned to visit on this ride is much less off the beaten track. Built at the turn of the last century, Kylemore Abbey is the most popular tourist destinations in the Connemara region. Once the home of a wealthy English doctor and textile heir, the building and 5,000 acres of surrounding grounds were purchased by the Irish Benedictine Nuns in 1920. The nuns ran a boarding school on the estate up until 2010, when a lack of qualified teachers forced them to close the institution.
Today visitors can tour a small selection of rooms in the Abbey, as well as the 6-acre walled garden. The garden is divided into two distinct areas: a formal garden and a kitchen garden.
Many of the plantings in the formal garden have been restored through the use of historic photographs. Two of twenty-one interlinked glasshouses have also been rebuilt, while the partial ruins of other glasshouses have been excavated to reveal their complex soil and air heating systems.
The master gardener's house, under gardener's quarters, and tool sheds have also been restored.
The kitchen garden is fairly sparsely planted in formal, widely spaced beds. In the early days of the estate this garden would have fed the family and guests; while the boarding school was in operation it functioned as an agricultural laboratory and classroom for students.
Leaving Kylemore Abbey, we headed further north into Connemara. The northern boundary of Connemara is considered by many to by Killary Harbour, which is one of three glacial fjords that exist in Ireland. No ferries or bridges cross this long fjord, and our ride took us along it's northern and southern boundaries before we were able to cut north into County Mayo.
Crossing into County Mayo, we were pleased to see a sharp increase in bicycle facilities along the narrow, rural roads. Signed bicycle routes, bicycle racks, and picnic tables at lookout points abounded. We changed our route spontaneously to follow this signed cycle route to our next destination, the coastal town of Westport.
Along the ride the mountainous landscape was crisscrossed by fly-fishing rivers and sheep-grazing land.
As we neared Westport, the scenery changed dramatically. We were no longer passing sheep on the road, but were cycling along dedicated bike lanes and bridges. Scattered farm buildings gave way to widely spaced homes and carefully manicured gardens.
Westport and County Mayo felt subtly wealthier and more kept than other areas we have seen in Ireland. The campground we overnighted in was located on the grounds of this restored historic manor, Wesport House.
When in Westport, our plan was to ride north towards Sligo, passing through the surf towns of Enniscrone and Strandhill along the way. We stopped in a cafe to ask the best cycling route north, and a local cyclist we met advised us to change our route drastically: "why would you want to go there? The best cycling in Ireland is just west of here. Head to Achill Island along the Great Western Greenway." A quick web search revealed that there was also surfing at Achill, an island considered by many to be one of Ireland's most beautiful. So we took his advice.
A mere 42 kilometers in length, the Greenway still ranks as Ireland's longest car-free cycle route in the country. It follows the route of an old rail line, and passes through public and private lands, including active fields and pastures. Elaborate fences, turn-styles and cattle grids were built for the farmers who gave their land for public access. Stout fence posts were constructed from reclaimed rail ties.
While much of the trail is fairly flat, a few low hills and bridges afford incredible views of the coastline.
Slow rivers and shallow lakes crisscross the boglands, and much of the landscape is sparsely populated.
For much of our ride, dramatic weather conditions led to periodic sun showers and the occasional rainbow.
Once on Achill Island we decided to make Keel our home base and found a great campground on the beach at the edge of town.
Keel Beach is a popular destination for beginning surfers, and several surf outfits operate schools and rental shops out of buses and trailers. Unfortunately the conditions were less then ideal during our stay, and Patrick could not bring himself to rent one of the lightweight foam boards on offer.
There was a small golf course adjacent to our campground, with views to the stunning sea cliffs that surround the cove-like beach. We found their lawn maintenance program clever and logical - grazing sheep!
Our time on Keel was the first time we camped anywhere for more than one night, and we liked it so much that we stayed for four nights. Each morning and evening the golf course's crew of grazing sheep would pass our little site tucked into the dunes at the campground's edge.
A short day trip from our camp took us to Keem Beach, a small, protected cove that locals rave is the most beautiful beach in all of Ireland.
The ride to Keem Beach was indeed breathtaking, with a steep climb that afforded us wide views of the surrounding coastline.
After four days on Achill Island, we headed back onto the Greenway for a return to Westport and the ride east to our next host farm. For the first time in our five month journey, we biked along the same route twice, and we were able to enjoy the scenery for a second time.
Our last Irish host farm lies on the eastern fringe of County Galway, about 70 kilometers outside of Wesport. The landscape quickly changed as we cycled east, and within a day we had left behind the rugged coastline for one crisscrossed with cattle fields and fences. Wonder what this next farm holds in store?