After six days in Dublin, we headed out to see more of Ireland. The most common ways to explore the island are guided coach tours or self-guided driving tours. The coach tours are very popular and relatively inexpensive, but I’ve long since decided that getting packed into a bus early each morning and schlepped around from site to site by a driver/guide is just not my cup of tea. Meanwhile, I mentioned that we had utterly failed to locate a rental car. So we were left with only option: the train.

We love trains and have used them throughout our trip. Unfortunately, Irish Rail (Iarnród Éireann in Irish, which sounds suspiciously like “iron road Ireland”) is just awful compared to the rest of Europe. Instead of sleek, electric trains that whisk you around at up to 300 kph between every little town or village, trains in Ireland are diesel-powered slugs that just simply don’t go very many places (and much less than they did a century ago). In other words, a lot like rail service in the U.S. But one place they do go is straight across the middle of the island to Galway, so that’s where we were going next!

To be fair, the train was completely adequate, and the trip was only about 2½ hours—but Ireland is not a very big island. I was a bit surprised that most of what we saw was flat, grassy, and unremarkable except for the lack of trees (though there was some scattered forests). Pretty enough, I suppose, but not the rugged emerald hills and valleys I had expected in Ireland.

Things got a lot more interesting as we edged up to Atlantic and rolled into the little city of Galway, which really couldn’t be more different from whence we’d come. Dublin is a big, flat, sprawling metropolis which seems mostly oblivious to the fact that it’s on the coast, perhaps trying to ignore its big industrial port. Galway, on the other hand, is a compact little fishing town that is married to the sea. In Dublin, the summer days were hot, humid and sunny; in Galway, we experienced some quintessential coastal weather, dreary and gray with a chilly wind whipping off the ocean. Where Dublin seemed quite eager to reinvent (at least parts of) itself as a gleaming modern hub of technology and finance and a gateway to the world, Galway is quite content to be be a charming relic of a bygone era and a funky university town. For Dubliners, English is the default language; but Galway apparently has the largest Gaeltacht or community of native Irish speakers or in Ireland. In other words, Galway is utterly quaint and endearing, in a way that Dublin isn’t, or at least hasn’t been in a long time.

Part of the charm is perhaps how remote Galway is. With only around 80,000 people (smaller than Santa Barbara), it’s the largest town on Ireland’s sparsely populated west coast. It’s also the capital of Connacht, the province where most of the native Irish population was driven from the rest of the island in the middle of the 17th century. “To hell or Connacht” were the options supposedly given by Oliver Cromwell and the English when they conquered and punished the rebellious Irish, as they took all the more desirable lands for themselves. This forced migration has has been called “perhaps the greatest exercise in ethnic cleansing in early modern Europe“, yet it was just one of the many hardships visited upon the Irish. But centuries later, one result is that Connacht feels (and likely is) a lot more authentically Irish than some other regions. The capital of Galway (or Gaillimh in Irish) simultaneously reflects this heritage while also being more cosmopolitan, a mix of old and new.

The town is actually only 900 years old—quite young by European standards. Today its economy is focused on tourism and tech. But it was once a lively trading hub, and historically it was controlled not by a king or duke but by a group of 14 merchant families known as the Tribes of Galway, who vyed with each other for influence. Of course, like any self-respecting medieval town, it boasted a city wall, which has long since been outgrown—but we were surprised to find one remaining section, including a tower, sitting proudly in the middle of a Galway shopping mall! Another, much more famous chunk adjoins the harbor. Outside the city walls, a sleepy fishing village named The Claddagh actually predates the city by several centuries. Today, the two have now merged together, split by the River Corrib as it rushes impatiently to meet the sea. But distracting the river from this urgent task are a web of natural streams and manmade canals of various sizes that branch off the river, meander through and under the town, and then rejoin it just before the harbor, slicing up the town into a number of islands. These waterways once powered various mills and industries and one, the Eglinton Canal, provided a navigable channel up the river; but today they serve no other purpose than to prettify the city and make urban planning much more interesting. (The Eglinton also sports an artificial double waterfall that is quite popular with adrenaline-seeking kayakers!)

Next to the river and the harbor, the city’s most popular attraction is the old city center known as the Latin Quarter. It’s only a handful of narrow streets, laid out in the random medieval fashion, lined with far more delightful pubs, shops, restaurants, and churches than a town this size should be allowed to have. Here you’ll find throngs of tourists packing the lanes as they gorge on fish & chips, wash it down with a pint, then stock up on souvenirs. Just across the river, next to old Claddagh, we found Galway’s colorful “West End” neighborhood to be almost as cute as the Latin Quarter but not nearly so overrun—at least during the day. But at night, locals, college students, and tourists transformed it into the city’s epicenter of live music and drunken carousing.

In the middle of all this was our apartment, about the only one we could find. Unlike much of the well-worn old town, this was a sharp-edged modern building, gleaming white and full of windows, cleverly fit within the crumbling walls of the old Semple Mill on a wedge of land between two canals. A mill race still flowed through the center of the complex and under the buildings, and the peaceful sound of rushing water floated up to our third story windows. Except at night, when it was drowned out by the raucous West End bars. Seems that, at least in the summer, every night is a party in Galway. It’s amazing that our visit apparently didn’t coincide with any of the 120 or so festivals held in the city each year, which make it the festival capital of Ireland.

With my mom and sister, we enjoyed five lively nights in Galway, just enough to get familiar with the place and explore some of the environs. For my sister Shannon, this was one of her first trips outside the U.S., and she was eager to experience two things: Irish castles and Irish pubs. We managed to do that and much more besides. Here are a round-up of some of our favorite adventures.

The Aran Islands

We used our first full day to voyage out to the haunting Aran Islands, one of the most popular excursions from Galway. Rarely have I seen a place so barren and inhospitable to human life as this trio of windswept, almost treeless islands. And yet, people have somehow eked out a living here for millennia, as evidenced by the remains of ancient stone forts here that date to at least 1100 BC, some of the oldest archaeological sites in Ireland. Monasteries and churches were founded here as early as the 5th century AD, and this remote outpost became an early foothold for the church and a center of learning that contributed to Ireland’s reputation as “the island of saints and scholars”. (Some argue that monasteries like the ones on the Aran Islands actually saved western civilization during Europe’s Dark Ages.)

But the principle inhabitants here, at least for the past few centuries, have been some very hardy fishermen, farmers, and knitters. To say that the islands are “rocky” is an understatement; they’re big piles of limestone with no natural topsoil. But people here have made their own, layering seaweed and sand while collecting all the loose rocks and stacking them into low walls to protect their improvised fields—a true exercise in patience. But it worked well enough that the islands supported a population of several thousand people, where the primary language was Irish (Gaelic) and the old ways prevailed—at least until fairly recently. But while tourism and modernity are changing the islands, they still provide a fascinating remnant of a lonely and austere existence that few of us can imagine.

I believe the idea for the trip came from Shannon—or rather an old friend of hers named Tara who’d permanently relocated to Ireland’s west coast and suggested we meet her out on the islands. Unfortunately, a day trip is a bit of a slog; while they’re not far from the mainland, they are far from Galway, so you typically spend more time on the ferry—some five hours round-trip—than you do on the islands. Most boats, including ours, take you to the largest island, Inishmore (aka Inis Mór), where a flourishing cottage industry has sprung up around it, at least in the summer months. As the ferry boats pull into the Kilronan, population 297, the sedate port suddenly becomes a hive of activity, as eager tourists like us pour out to rent bikes and minibus tours or a horsedrawn carriage, grab a coffee, a pint, or a meal, and peruse handmade sweaters and kitschy crafts they never knew they needed. Of course, everybody is in a mad rush to get it all done before the ferry departs, or risk being stranded on the island for the night. Shannon, Tara, and my mom opted for the driving tour, so they quickly found a driver and disappeared.

Amy and I preferred to pedal, so we waited in a crowd to get fitted up for bikes, helmets, and a trailer for Griffin. After fueling up on coffee and scones and grabbing some water & snacks from the tiny grocery store (the only one on the island), we set off along a narrow, meandering road…admidst several dozen other people. Many probably hadn’t been on a bike in decades, and it seemed more like comedic version of the Tour de France than the quiet, relaxing ride we’d hoped for. Especially since Inishmore is all hills, I was towing Griffin, and my rickety bike wouldn’t shift into the lowest gear. (I guess the island bike shops have little incentive to keep their fleet in top condition for their captive audience!) But at least Amy’s bike was in good shape, and she was giddy to be back on a bike. We had a good time meandering along the coastline, wandering through the ruins of an old church, spotting some seals, feeding apples to some gregarious donkeys, and playing on one of the only beaches, where the white sand and ridiculously turquise water seemed like they belonged in the Carribean rather than the North Atlantic. We also tried to reach the island’s star attraction, the Dún Aonghasa hill fort, dramatically perched on a high cliff over the sea. But we were deterred by the admission price, the crowds of people, and the long walk up to the fort which surely would have made us miss our ferry. So, after running into Shannon, Tara, and my mom, we hopped back on our bikes and headed up a much steeper but less crowded road back for the 7 km ride back to the port. But I was still determined to see a hill fort! So with only a few minutes to spare, I pedaled furiously up a steep side road towards one of the island’s other six forts, where we found no admission fee, no crowds…not even a sign. After dumping our bikes and clambering up to the top of a massive circular mound of stones…we realized, to our dismay, that we had just summited a huge water tank, probably the port’s main water reservoir, which is so cleverly camoflaged with loose stones that it looks like part of the landscape. Turns out the much smaller hill fort was actually on the hill above us, but by then we had no time left to reach it, as our ferry began boarding in a matter of minutes. Drat!

Everybody seemed in a stupor on the long ferry ride back, especially me after that ride. But there was more to see. First, we passed the other two, smaller Aran Islands, and I quickly resolved that, in the unlikely event that I ever return here, I will stay the night in little Inisheer, where what appears to be a more quaint and compact village sits immediately below yet another hill fort, surely providing a less strenuous and touristy experience than the one we had just had. (And I’ll bring my own bike!) Then we headed back to the mainland, approaching the dramatic Cliffs of Moher, one of Ireland’s most iconic landmarks. Remember the “Cliffs of Insanity” from The Princess Bride? Yeah, those. At nine miles long and rup to 700 feet high, they’re hard to miss. Virtually every guided tour of Ireland stops here, but I’m quite certain we enjoyed a better view from the boat…as well as some stomach-churning whitecaps! Next, we cruised past the weird and wonderful Burren, a rocky, Martian-like landscape that seems devoid of life but is actually surprisingly biodiverse. An English general once said of this place, rather morbidly, that it has “not water enough to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury him.” We might have appreciated the stark beauty more, had we not just seen the islands.

Back in Galway

I said that the weather in Galway was often gray & gloomy, but we did enjoy some bouts of glorious weather. We took advantage of one of these on Wednesday to explore the coastline southeast of the city center, following the rocky shore along Galway Bay to a large, mostly empty beach in front of some low-slung suburban homes. Not the most spectacular coastline I have ever seen, but certainly not a bad view to enjoy from your living room either! My bartender sister, who had somehow retained her nocturnal schedule despite the change of time zones, was lagging and finally caught up several kilometers later. By now we were in the suburb of Salthill, where Galwegians go for summer fun. Here we found a charming little main street and a seaside promenade, an arcade, a miniature golf course, and best of all, a small carnival! How often do you get to do roller coasters and bumper cars on the beach in Ireland? Griffin, quite the adrenaline junkie these days, wanted to do all the fastest, scariest rides…and of course get some cotton candy!

On Thursday, Griffin and I took Shannon to see a castle. Which doesn’t seem like something that should be hard to find in Ireland, but the nearest one we could visit, Aughnanure Castle, was quite some distance outside of town…and we didn’t have a car. We ended up catching a bus a half hour out into the countryside, getting off sort of in the middle of nowhere, and then walking another half hour along several roads and through a golf course. But it was a pleasant enough walk, as we picked blackberries along the way and fed an apple to a pair of inquisitive horses. The castle, home of the fearsome O’Flaherty family and later the O’Malleys, is certainly not the most imposing stronghold we’ve seen on this trip, nor the best preserved, but Shannon seemed duly impressed. Griffin and I did enjoy exploring the six-story keep, including the garderobe (castle toilet) and the murder holes where boiling oil and other discouragements could be dropped onto invaders. The banquet hall hasn’t fared as well as the tower, having collapsed into a creek that ran beneath it, but I was impressed to learn it once featured a small hole in the floor where unwelcome dinner guests could be flung into that creek! (Of more interest to Griffin and Shannon were the resident dogs and cats that either lived at the castle or were brought there daily by the park staff.)

After making our way back to Galway, we met up with my mom and Amy to explore more of the town. We walked through the pretty Victorian quadrangle of Galway University, home to 17,000 students. We explored some more of the canals and the beautifully landscaped Millennium Park & Playground. We took a stroll around and through Galway Cathedral, a large but not particularly ornate edifice built surprisingly between 1958–1965, making it last great stone cathedral to be built in Europe. But we preferred the much older and quainter St. Nicholas’ Church in the Latin Quarter, built in the 14th century, almost certainly the oldest structure my sister had ever been inside.

On Friday, we spent some time learning about the history of Galway, The Claddagh fishing village, Ireland’s west coast, and even Irish “Travelers” (gypsies) at the compact Galway City Museum, which was interesting enough that we came back again the next day. We wandered the bustling lanes of the Latin Quarter and ambled along the much more peaceful harbor, where Griffin hopped about on rocks and discovered what the tide had left behind. We were surprised to find not just sea gulls and other typical shorebirds, but also a large flock of swans that call Galway home, photogenically bobbing around the harbor.

A lot of our time was devoted to eating and drinking, particularly at the city’s many lovely pubs (including the homey Dáil Bar, the ornate Skeff Bar, and the upscale Brasserie on the Corner), and we spent most mornings at the Gourmet Tart Co. next to our apartment munching on some excellent croissants. Griffin and the girls also enjoyed high tea at a delightful little tea shop in the Latin Quarter called Cupán Tae (which is Irish for…”cup of tea”). Rest assured, you’ll eat well in Galway!

While we felt like we’d gotten a pretty good feel for Galway by day, we felt we couldn’t fully understand it without also surveying the nightlife in this semi-nocturnal city. Shannon and Amy, the night owls, took one for the team doing exhaustive cultural research in our neighborhood, the West End, particularly at an establishment called Taylor’s. Their notes show that after 10 pm, on almost every night of the week, the popular bar turns into a big raucous singalong to 80s and 90s hits, led by a DJ belting out tunes, which we were able to corroborate from our apartment just across the canal. Fuzzy reports were also logged of interactions with a number of gregarious and hilarious locals, and apparently they sampled some of the craft cocktails that Galwegians occasionally consume apart from their staple diet of beer. On Friday night, I helped them expand the their research by joining them briefly at another West End institution, Monroe’s Tavern, where a live band churned out a steady stream of that fast-paced, infectious, fiddle-driven traditional Irish music which proved a very satisfying accompaniment to a Guinness, a Jameson’s Crested, and some hot chips. Anthropological research has rarely been so delightful!

After five lively days and nights in Galway, it was time to say goodbye to Ireland. My mom and sister took a morning bus to the Dublin airport, while Amy, Griffin and I followed on the train a few hours later, making our way to an airport hotel for the night so that we could fly out early to our next European destiantion: Croatia!