August 19, 2007

A Stolen Day

On Tuesday morning I woke up in some sort of funk. I got up at the same time I do every morning, got ready for work and left the house in my usual manner. Except, when I got to work, instead of parking the car, some strange impulse came over me and I just kept driving. I wasn't even sure where I was going, but I just decided to keep going. I'm not one for taking days off work usually, but I really just felt like I needed to break away for a day.

It felt quite nice to leave the congested traffic and the city behind as I headed out towards County Clare. It wasn't a particularly nice day - overcast and with the threat of rain - but it didn't really matter. I put on some music, more to drown out the niggling thoughts at the back of my head about my rash decision and how I was going to explain it away to my boss. As the car ate up the miles, I began to care less and less and decided to really make the most of this day to myself.

Initially, I thought I might head to Galway, Ireland's hub for the Arts and my former home. But the more I thought about it, the less I felt like heading to another busy city and dealing with parking hassles and throngs of tourists. So, I turned off after Gort into The Burren, one of the world's most unique landscapes.

This is one of my favourite places in Ireland, somewhere you can just go and be alone if you wish or equally find some of the most interesting company. I enjoyed the drive through the crazy winding roads which brought me to Kinvarra, a jewel of a little town nestled in a little cove. I hadn't had breakfast and my tummy was trying to communicate this to me, so I went down to a little cafe I know down on the harbour. I sat at a table overlooking the harbour with its colourful little fishing boats, ordered eggs on toast and some coffee and was joined by a companiable ginger cat, who wrapped himself in circles around my ankles. A couple of backpackers came in and sat near me. They were French I think. They looked totally pissed off with our Irish "summer" and settled down with their paperbacks and two hot chocolates. Sure enough, a soft drizzle had started to come down outside. Before long, it brought int a lot more tourists and the cafe had a bit of a buzz about it. I sat and read my book, aptly enough called "The Sea", by John Banville and ordered some more coffee. The smell of it was amazing, or maybe that's just because it was coffee in Kinvarra and not coffee from the office perculator.

Once the rain stopped, I decided to hike up to Kinvarra Castle, which sits on a promintory overlooking the town. When I got up there, there were a lot of other people who'd had the same idea. I walked around the perimter and took some photos and read a bit of the history of the place. Lots of people seemed to be gathered around a notice advertising a Medieval Banquet later that night.

Anyway, I didnt have time to stick around for banquets, so I hopped back in the car bound for the beautiful harbour of Ballyvaughan next. It was about 30miles away. On the way, I saw an interesting looking sign for an art gallery. It meant turning right off the route I was on with no indication of how far it might be, but I made a snap decision to go and check it out. I was so glad I did. I almost drove past it, so inconspicuous was it. Situated in a renovated old mill building just back off the road, it would be easy to miss it. The sign outside said Open but it seemed as if there was no around. Nevertheless, I pushed open the door. An unseen bell announced my arrival. Still, there was no sign of anyone. With an inward shrug, I thought I might as well look around. What a beautiful little gallery it was, and deceptively quite big. I saw some amazing paintings, one in particular by a local artist - an abstract of the burren with the most arresting mix of colours. The price tag was a heartstopping €7,000. I could only absorb it and move on. Eventually, I heard some stirrings from the bowels of the building followed by footsteps. A very pleasant looking man poked his head around a doorframe, bade me hello and then left me to my own devices again which I loved. It's rfreshing to be just left to mosey around instead of being watched with an eagle eye from the cash desk. I picked up a great book of short stories, some beautiful local jewellery and some prints. When I was ready to go I peeped into an inner room and the owner was in there with his hands covered in clay. Beaming at me, he said he'd be right with me. Well to cut what's beomcing a long story short, we had a lovely chat for about an hour about all sorts of things - travel, tourists, planning permission in the Irish countryside, wine, name it! We covered it! His name was Andy, and a lovely lovely man he was. I told him if I win the Lotto I'm coming back for "that painting".

It's funny how the briefest of interactions with other people can brighten your day. I enjoyed talking to him so much. He promised to invite me to their next gallery evening and if he does I will go, despite the distance. Glowing, I hopped back into the Micra and hit the road once again. I passed a lot of unknown territory to me - miles of beautiful rugged coastline, beautiful even in the day's gloomy light. I came around a bend in the road and saw a Martello town on the horizon.

I parked again, and walked along a rough shingle beach towards it. Rain was falling softly again and the silence of the place was impressive. There seemed to be no-one around for miles. This was exactly what I needed. The tower was an imposing grey structure with a forbidding sort of air about it. There wasnt much to do or see once you arrived it. It just seemed like a good spot to walk to.

About a half an hour later, I was cozily ensconsed in a Ballyvaughan cafe, sipping some green tea and indulging in the next chapter of the book. Ballyvaughan seemed very subdued this particular day, due I suppose to the inclement weather. I was really looking forward to the next section of the drive which would bring me through some of the most rugged parts of the Burren along the coast. Revived by my tea, yet again I was back behind the wheel. Now, on a fine day this drive is absolutely stunning with a clear view of the Aran Islands on one side and the rocky crags of the Burren on the other. Today, it was less spectacular its true, but enjoyable nonetheless. As the road wound its way along the cliffs, I could just make out Inisheer on the horizon - in the dense mist, it looked like a big black whale sitting just off shore. I had it in mind to stop at the Cliffs of Moher; however, by the time I reached them it was POURING, so much so that I could barely keep my windscreen clear! To make matters work, the air system in my car is on the fritz and so I couldnt clear the steamy windows very well. Rubbing the screen frantically with the sleeve of my jumper and at the same time navigating the crazy bumpy roads with the other hand, my heart went out to the poors poncho-clad tourists who habitually had to jump off the road into the heather to avoid being soaked, or even worse mowed down!

Anyway, after an hour's driving in those conditions I thought I'd stop and have some food again. Doolin was the next stop. Doolin is a trad music mecca tucked away in the ass-end of Co. Clare and hence a great spot!! I ran from my car in the pelting rain to the Magnetic Music Cafe. It's in an old whitewash cottage with stone floors and its half a cafe, half music store. It does great pizza slices and so I hopped up on a stool at the counter and ordered pizza and a "Blonde Biddie", which is a local brew :D It's run by two very affable Germans who are devotees of Irish trad music. I chatted away to one of them, mainly about the state of Irish weather. I was looking for a good cd of bodhran music and they were able to recommend some good ones. I stayed there for quite a while, just soaking up the atmosphere and feeling a million miles from work. The thing about West Clare is that it has that feel to it - you really feel cut off from "civilization" out there I think.

Eventually towards late afternoon I reluctantly headed back in the direction of home. My spirits were high after such an enjoyable day, having met such friendly and interesting characters. Since I have been away, I really have a new appreciation of what Ireland has to offer. Aside from the cost of it, being a tourist in Ireland must be great fun! It's something I'm going to do much more often.

At the start of September I am going to a bodhran workshop in County Donegal which will be a real treat. Donegal is another spectacular culture-rich part of Ireland and somewhere I havent been to since I was a teenager. It will take place over three days, and I'm looking forward to it immensly - just playing music with other people and staying in a hostel again!

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