Ireland: the West is the best!

The Wild West..of Éire.

The Wild West..of Éire.

Two weeks spent in Ireland this Summer confirmed several things for me. Firstly, the Greeks and Romans, who surely saw the outer Atlantic island as a dark and wintry place and called it names like Scotia and Hibernia, were right. There’s no doubt about it, if you come from the Mediterranean, Ireland – even in Summer – can seem a dark and wintry place. And secondly, when Jim Morrison said “the West is the best”..he was right too! (I don’t believe for a second that Jim was referring to California..).

After a few days visiting family in the East we headed West..to the Atlantic coast where i was born. More family visits but also getting closer to Nature. We first hit the coast in Cill Chaoi (Kilkee) in SouthWest Clare, where we walked along the cliffs just North of this small seaside town.

Looking out across Kilkee Bay and towards the Atlantic.

Looking out across Kilkee Bay and towards the Atlantic.

It was an afternoon of bright sunshine, but the fresh wind blowing in from the sea meant that jackets stayed mostly on and zipped up. Even my sister and her daughter – who live locally – found it cool.

Family group on the cliffs..in the wind.

Family group on the cliffs..in the wind.

This beautiful, rugged, western coast of Ireland has recently been marketed as the Wild Atlantic Way, and this part of the Clare coast certainly still retains something of wild.

George's Head to the left and the Wild Atlantic stretching away to the horizon.

George’s Head to the left and the Wild Atlantic stretching away to the horizon.

. . .

The following day the weather remained good and we got out on the sea, thanks to an old friend of mine who took us on his boat for a sail across the Shannon estuary, setting out from Cill Rois (Kilrush) and crossing towards the Kerry coast.

Under sail, and working the ropes, on the Shannon.

Under sail, and working the ropes, on the Shannon.

On the way back, we stopped off at a small island known as Inis Cathaigh (Scattery) where you can visit an ancient round tower and the ruins of an early Christian monastery founded in the sixth century by Senán, one of the first fathers of the Irish church.

Inis Cathaigh with its round tower and church ruins.

Inis Cathaigh with its round tower and church ruins.

The island is now uninhabited and despite being very close to the coast is rarely overrun by tourists – overrun by rabbits more like – so a visit to Inis Cathaigh can be a very tranquil experience, offering the opportunity to connect to the deep Christian past..when Christianity still meant something spiritual.

Celtic crosses in the graveyard at Inis Cathaigh.

Celtic crosses in the graveyard at Inis Cathaigh, in the evening light.

. . .

A couple of rainy days later, we headed to North Clare to visit one of Ireland’s biggest natural attractions, the Cliffs of Moher (Aillte an Mhothair). There are cliffs along many parts of the West Clare coast, and indeed all along the western coast of Ireland, but none as spectacular as the Cliffs of Moher.

Aillte an Mhothair - the Cliffs of Moher.

Aillte an Mhothair – the Cliffs of Moher.

My wife and i had done this same walk of about 15km along the top of the cliffs exactly fifteen years ago..so we thought we knew what to expect. Back then, while we were not exactly alone, there were few people walking along the cliffs – hill-walkers, the odd adventurous tourist – outside the central area near the high point of the cliffs where the Visitor Center is located. Even in the middle section, in the Summer of 1999, there were not more than a few hundred tourists. Late August 2014, it was almost like Grafton Street in Dublin, hoards of tourists, literally thousands of people..at least in the paved central stretch of 2km around O’Brien’s Tower. Evidence of the growth of tourism, i guess..so much for the Wild Atlantic Way.

Just a kilometer after the high point of the cliffs..and we were practically alone.

Just a kilometer after the high point of the cliffs..and we were practically alone.

In truth, you really only have to avoid those central two kilometers – or the central part of the day – to have a different experience of the cliffs. More solitary, quieter, wilder. And certainly no less beautiful than the middle part. You can be alone with the wild flowers, the vertiginous drops, the Atlantic breakers..and you can even say ‘hello’ to the people you meet.

Almost total solitude..just us and the wild flowers, a few kilometers on.

Almost total solitude..just us and the wild flowers, a few kilometers on.

As the kilometers pass, the cliffs begin to lose height and you drop down closer to the ocean. The elemental power of the sea is always present, even from 200m above, but as you get nearer to the great waves breaking on the rocks, it becomes really palpable.

Atlantic breakers racing towards the shore..as evening draws in.

Atlantic breakers racing towards the shore..as evening draws in.

However the sea was not the only ‘powerful element’ around that afternoon..if you looked back along the cliffs towards the South – where we were coming from – the view was bucolic and relatively tranquil..

Cliffs, cows, clouds..and people walking thru the landscape.

Great cliffs, grazing cows, cool clouds, crashing waves..and people walking thru the landscape.

..but if you looked forward, northwards, where we were heading, the picture was not so pretty (well, the picture understood literally as an aesthetic entity might even be considered relatively pretty..but the “picture” understood figuratively as our immediate situation was at least a little threatening!)..

The elements to the North didn't look too promising.

The elements to the North didn’t look too promising.

We had suffered a couple of light showers earlier in the afternoon, but what we could see up ahead was no light shower. So we quickened our pace as much we were able to..but having a five-year-old in your group means that there are limitations on how fast you can go.

The sea frothing up a storm near Doolin..but the sky seemed to have calmed down.

The sea frothing up a storm near Doolin..but the sky seemed to have calmed down.

Still we did very well, making good time towards our destination, the small North Clare village of Dúlainn (Doolin), and the clouds appeared to be lightening up as we got nearer. When we arrived in town it even seemed that the storm had passed..

The picturesque town center of Doolin.

The picturesque town center of Doolin.

..but within five minutes it began to rain, softly at first but soon it was lashing down. We were glad to be inside!

. . .

On the boat to Inis Óir.

On the boat to Inis Óir.

The next day was a bit grey and gloomy weatherwise, but at least it wasn’t raining and the forecast promised a more or less dry day. So we took the ferry from Doolin out to Inis Óir (Inisheer), the smallest of the Aran Islands and the nearest to the Clare coast. Again, out on the water on a choppy day, even on a relatively large boat carrying upwards of one hundred people, you really feel the power of the sea. The crossing only takes about 45 minutes but some people were feeling the worse for it. I am always filled with admiration for the spirit of those who took to the sea in small rowboats thousands of years ago in these same waters. Even today the local people still occasionally use the traditional boat, the currach, to cross from the mainland to the islands with nothing more than the power of their arms to propel them. And the classical image is that of a boat with just two or three men, at most four, at the oars. Tough guys!

Approaching Inis Óir, people on deck were hanging onto the railings.

Approaching Inis Óir, people on deck were hanging onto the railings.

We were fortunate enough to see a dolphin playing about the boat as we pulled in to Inis Óir. On the island we spent quite a bit of time in a large playground near the beach, before making the short trek up to the hill to the top of the island where there is an ancient ringfort with a small late medieval castle built inside of it.

Hill top view over the island, with its traditional dry stone wall building.

Hill top view over the island, with its traditional dry stone wall building.

This still left us time to do a slightly longer trek along the eastern coast of the island, before taking the boat back to the mainland, in order to visit a rather unusual – not to say unnatural – tourist attraction. Twenty minutes walking brought us to the wreck of the Plassy, a cargo ship which ran aground on the rocky shore of the island fifty years ago..and remains there today.

Looking across the karst landscape towards the wreck of the Plassy.

Looking across the karst landscape towards the wreck of the Plassy.

But maybe more on that another day..!

Map of Clare.

Map of Ireland.

Coming soon: Ireland, Part 2: The East ain’t so bad either.

PS – if this inspires you to visit the West of Ireland and in particular the Atlantic coast of Clare, be sure to drop in to my sister’s pub – Walsh’s – in the small village of Cree (also Creegh, or An Chríoch), quite close to Kilkee.

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Back..to the furnace!

Just got back to Spain yesterday, after two weeks in Ireland where the temperatures never reached much above 18-19ºC, and..it was the hottest day of the Summer! Ok, it’s normally not too warm in Éire but this year August has also been very mild in Spain, particularly in Cercedilla where maximums barely exceeded 28ºC until the final days of the month – the 27th of August saw 29.7ºC – and where the normal thing would be to have several days well over 3oºC. So, as September and the return to Hispania drew near, i was feeling confident that i had this Summer licked..but was i wrong! 32.2ºC awaited me yesterday, Tuesday the 2nd of September..hot, though happily a stormy downpour cooled things down a bit in the early evening.

Posts coming about the trip to my old country, Hibernia, the country of Winter.

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Valley of Benasque, first visit for my five-year-old

The sun shines over Benasque's valley, flowers and mountains.

The sun shines over Benasque’s valley, flowers and mountains.

Early August we travelled to the North to visit the Pyrenees, a little concerned about the weather forecast which promised serious precipitation over the course of the week. The first days were innocent enough, although the clouds began to threaten during the second afternoon..

Clouds mounting, above Baños de Benasque.

Clouds mounting, above Baños de Benasque.

The friends we had been walking with that day left us in Plan de Senarta where it was our intention to spend a couple of nights camping. I was in a hurry to pitch our little tent just in case the ominous clouds materialised their threat..but in the end they melted away into a clear evening sky.

Late evening in Senarta..almost bedtime!

Late evening in Senarta..almost bedtime!

However, during the night the clouds returned and early in the morning discharged a few heavy storm-showers. By the time we got up the sky had improved a bit, but still looked less than promising. After a couple of hours mulling it over, we finally decided with some reluctance to head back down the valley – instead of up – towards the town of Benasque.

Beautiful "atmospheric" morning in Benasque valley.

Beautiful “atmospheric” morning in Benasque valley.

The clouds came and went thru the morning..making for one of those mountain mornings where the sensations oscillate from magical to menacing. The mountain rivers rushed in torrents, the birds twittered innocently, the crags and peaks towered over us, the clouds swelled up and then receded again..as we walked neither hurriedly nor leisurely down the valley.

Puente de San Chaume, below Tuca de Ixeia.

Ancient wonders of stone, Puente de San Chaume below Tuca de Ixeia.

As we approached the town of Benasque, looking back up the valley, the weather seemed to have improved, the clouds dissipating..and, as i began to sweat in the hot sun, i was feeling a little pissed off – to say the least – with the forecasters. Nevertheless, just half an hour later, the storm seemed set to break over Benasque..

La Villa de Benasque, storm clouds hovering overhead.

La Villa de Benasque, storm clouds hovering overhead.

..but it didn’t. At least not immediately. In any case we continued to retreat, towards Graus, an hour to the South in prepirineo, and the shelter of our friends’ house. The evening continued to be hot and humid until shortly before nightfall..when the sky finally came down, with thunder and lightning, electrical spectacle, the whole shebang. In some areas of the Pyrenees there were intense rainstorms..not the best night to spend in a tent. In fact many campers had to be evacuated. So, in the end, we had made the right decision.

The following days we spent in the region of Graus, in Panillo where our friends live, visiting the ancient and now abandoned hilltop settlement of Muro de Roda, kayaking on the Barasona reservoir, and making an evening visit to the Dag Shang Kagyu Buddhist monastery..some consolation for not quite getting into the High Pyrenees!

 

 

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From the heights of Summer to the depths of Winter

La Hoya del Toril, Cotos, late February 2014.

La Hoya del Toril, Cotos, late February 2014.

This is one of my favourite photos from this past Winter. It gives me great solace, in the heat of Summer, to allow memory to overflow imagination and let the mind wallow in deep snow. Not that i’m suffering too much from the high temperatures this month of August..yesterday morning we had 8.6ºC in Cercedilla and afternoon temps are not getting much above 25ºC these days. But even though i really can’t complain about the heat this year, i still like to think on deep!

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The ruins of Casa Eraso and Montón de Trigo

Early Summer morning in the mountains

Early Summer morning in the mountains

It’s surprisingly easy to forget, when one gets very involved in the sporty or athletic side of mountain activity, just how beautiful it is to be in the mountains. It certainly happens to me sometimes..but this last weekend i got reminded, once again, of just how powerful, in a sensual and aesthetic way, the mountains can be.

We spent a couple of days in an area that i know very well but have visited little in recent years, Puerto de Fuenfría and its Northern aspect where the ancient Roman road begins its descent towards Segovia. We started out from the Hospital de Fuenfría (1345m) and ascended towards the Fuenfría pass (1792m) along the Camino Viejo de Segovia (Old Segovia Way), a trail made very pleasant by Fuenfría’s wonderful wild Pines and the shade that they give on a hot Summer’s day.

Uncaring adults dragging an innocent delicate child up a mountain on a hot Summer's day!

Uncaring adults dragging a wilting delicate child up a mountain..on a hot Summer’s day!

On the other side of Fuenfría the shady ambience continued as we headed for the ruins of Casa Eraso overlooking the vast valley of Valsaín with its great pine forests.

Running to catch up..as the evening shadows lengthen below Montón de Trigo

Recovered! ..and running to catch up, as the evening shadows lengthen below Montón de Trigo.

Casa Eraso, also known as Casarás, was once a large palatial residence used by Spain’s royalty travelling over the mountains between Madrid and Valsaín. Built by Felipe II in the late 16th century, this was how it looked back then. And this is how it looks today..

Ruined fragments of the great house are all that remain today

Ruined fragments of the once great house are all that remain today.

Though Casa Eraso is now little more than a pile of ruins, the beauty of the spot is undiminished..and perhaps even added to – for those of a Romantic spirit – precisely by the ruinous decadence of past human presence. The views over the enormous extension of Valsaín’s valley and the massif of Peñalara are magnificent.

Peñalara, as seen from Casarás, rising above Valsaín.

Peñalara, as seen from Casarás, rising above Valsaín.

We spent the night just by the ruins..and though no ghost appeared, we were disturbed by the aggressive bellowing of a small bull who came to check us out, and thereafter by the jangling of the bells of the cows who followed him. A night in the wild is not always a guarantee of blissful peace!

Sunrise over Valsaín

Sunrise over Valsaín

However the sunrise was magical, as it almost always is in the mountains in Summer. We quickly broke camp and headed for Montón de Trigo, the mountain which stands over Caso Eraso and Puerto de Fuenfría.

Montón de Trigo towers over our camp by the ruins of Casarás.

Montón de Trigo towers over our camp by the ruins of Casarás.

Our plan was to start early so as to complete the ascension before midday, thereby avoiding the heat of the afternoon. We were on the move well before nine, which i thought was pretty good given the inclusion of at least one five-year-old in our party.

There were other little people on the move early in the morning too.

There were other little people on the move early in the morning too. Valsaín squirrel.

Back at Fuenfría pass once more, we began to climb towards Cerro Minguete..soon leaving behind the trees and their shade. Though still early, this is Summer in Spain and the sun starts to hit long before midday. Despite being close to 2000m, we began to feel the heat.

Getting close to the top of Cerro Minguete, Puerto de Fuenfría below and behind us.

Getting close to the top of Cerro Minguete, Puerto de Fuenfría below and behind us.

At this point we were getting up a sweat, and from the top of Minguete we would have to drop down slightly and then ascend once more along a steep path to the rocky summit of Montón de Trigo. I could sense that our spirits were flagging..maybe the heat and the height were going to be too much for us.

We pushed on. I pushed a little (and pulled a lot)..and we pushed on up. Close to the top, as the trail steepened even more, mamma and auntie had had enough and gave up. But there was no stopping the youngest mountaineer of our party, barely five years old, who went hopping – yes, literally hopping – to the top. Montón de Trigo, 2161m.

Buzz Lightyear waves from the top of Montón de Trigo, 2161m. the promontory of Casarás visible far below.

Buzz Lightyear waves from the top of Montón de Trigo, the promontory of Casarás visible (center, in shadow) far below.

From a sporty, athletic point of view, that’s close to 1000m of vertical gain (and almost 17km) in under 24 hours. Not bad for a day over five!

 

More on the history of Casa Eraso (in Spanish).

 

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Cool Summer..again!

As i’ve said so many times in the past on this blog, i often suffer thru the Summer in Spain. Some years it’s better, others it’s worse..when the temperatures soar, putting up with the heat day after day can be tough. And this goes not only for northern-born Celts like me..i know many native Iberians who feel the same. But the last couple of years the Summers have not been too bad. Three years ago, in 2011, July was quite mild – i blogged about it here – and this year again, after a relatively cool June, the first three weeks of July have brought us just four hot days. When the temps started to rise last week i thought “well, this is it..here comes the heat” and yes we had a few pretty hot days..but temperatures plunged at the weekend, from 30-31ºC last Wednesday-Thursday  in Cercedilla (1200m) to barely 20º on Saturday-Sunday. They’ll be back up again this week and there’s still plenty of time for the heat to hit of course, but pretty cool so far!

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Rascafría, valley high among mountains

I have spent hundreds of days in my life looking down the Rascafría valley..also known as the Lozoya valley due to the river that flows thru it. It’s a high valley in the Sierra de Guadarrama between the mountains of Peñalara and los Montes Carpetanos on one side and Cabezas de Hierro and Cuerda Larga on the other. Since these mountains are usually accessed from Puerto de Cotos – and i come from “the other side” – i rarely go down the valley..always up towards the peaks!

El Risco de Claveles, the second highest peak of Guadarrama, and it's beautiful SE spur.

Winter-Spring view down the Rascafría valley from Peñalara..you can see the town of Rascafría quite clearly in the distance.

Rascafría and its valley are very different from “the near side” of the Sierra, Cercedilla and the Fuenfría valley for example. Rascafría is much less accessible from the capital, almost 100km whichever route you take, and the most direct routes to get there oblige you to go up to almost 1800m – crossing high mountain passes – for Rascafría is literally surrounded by mountains. Historically this has meant that this valley has been relatively isolated..and, some would say, has protected Rascafría from the excesses of development all too clearly visible on the Madrid side of the Sierra.

This is not to say that Rascafría has not seen touristic development in recent decades. On a recent visit i was surprised to find hundreds of people crowding the scenic spot known as Las Presillas, a popular area for bathing and picnicking in Summer.

Las Presillas with a view towards Peñalara, where a few patches of snow still resist Summer's heat.

Las Presillas with a view towards Peñalara, where a few patches of snow still resist Summer’s heat.

In the photo you don’t see too many people apart from my son and his aunt and a few shy bathers..but trust me, there were hundreds, maybe up to a thousand bodies all around and about. Most of them in swimsuits but very few in the water..not too surprising as it was still extremely cold, and i doubt that it gets much warmer even at the height of summer.

We soon moved on – the beach ambience was a little too much for me – to sample the more tranquil rustic delights of one of the many trails that the lower valley offers.

Walking under the oaks of Rascafría, ever under Peñalara.

Walking under the oaks of Rascafría, ever under Peñalara.

Walking in this area many years ago, it reminded me quite a bit of Ireland..somewhat drier perhaps, but there are moments when you feel you really could be strolling along a country path in the Emerald Isle.

The town of Rascafría itself while not spectacular certainly has some very pretty spots and, as i said before, does not suffer from the often horrible consequences of development so commonly seen elsewhere.

The church and steeple of Rascafría.

The church and steeple of Rascafría.

So Rascafría, perhaps not the remote location it once was..but still very much worth a visit!

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