x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Galway: count on fun, not sun

The capital of western Ireland is all about activities to entertain and overcome the rain, says Eugene Harnan.

A view of the bay at Roundstone, Connemara, in County Galway.
A view of the bay at Roundstone, Connemara, in County Galway.

Ireland's third-largest city is far removed from the Hollywood stereotypes of the Irish. The City of Tribes doesn't put on any silly jigs to attract its thousands of visitors; instead, it is on the tourist map for its thriving arts scene, cultural ambitions and its year-round atmosphere. Galway is only classed as a city because it has a cathedral; it has the look and feel of a provincial town, complete with charm, atmosphere and hanging flower baskets on its main street.

This is an ideal town for a quiet break with a noisy agenda: time can be spent alone on Lough Corrib trying your luck for a brown trout on the fly or, if that westerly gale is too much, you can find shelter in one of its public houses and indulge yourself in good food, music and conversation. One of Galway's main claims to fame is its ability to stage a continuous stream of festivals without becoming repetitive or boring. Last year it pulled out all the stops to host one of the stages of the Volvo Ocean Race, which comes to Abu Dhabi in 2011. Every year, thousands of visitors flock to the capital of the western seaboard for the Galway Arts Festival and the Race Week, one of Europe's largest horse-racing events. It also stages Ireland's leading poetry and literature festivals, a film festival and the world-famous Oyster Festival.

Because of the unreliable weather, locals say, there is nothing else to do other than have a good time. When the sun peers through, they break out the T-shirts and hit the cobbled Norman-era streets to celebrate. In neighbouring Salthill, the country's longest promenade is jammed with walkers and runners. It's the best place to watch the world go by, a well recommended pastime in Galway.

The only competition for a hotel room is the debt collector, who has closed some of the city's top hotels over the past 24 months. Those surviving the recession offer favourable rates to those who ask. Park House Hotel (www.parkhousehotel.ie; 00 353 91 564924) offers double rooms from €110 (Dh527) a night with breakfast, including taxes. It's ideally located next to the city's main focal point, Eyre Square, and within walking distance of every attraction.

A few doors down, the Hotel Meyrick (www.hotelmeyrick.ie; 00 353 91 564041) looks across Eyre Square. Double rooms start from €135 (Dh647), including breakfast and taxes. Overlooking Galway Bay and Lough Atalia, the Radisson Blu Hotel & Spa (http://www.radissonblu.ie/hotel-galway; 00 353 91 538300) has double rooms starting from €180 (Dh863) including breakfast and taxes. Throughout County Galway there is no shortage of bed and breakfast (b&b) establishments that are cheap and just as good as other hotels in the city. They are usually purpose-built residential houses and can be found on busy thoroughfares or on quiet back roads. Marian Lodge (www.marian-lodge.com; 00 353 91 521678) in Salthill is beside a golf course and overlooks Galway Bay. Prices per person start from €38 (Dh182).

There is no shortage of tour guides for the city and there are several tours that will also take you out to Connemara, one of the last unspoilt parts of Ireland. Galway revolves around its main pedestrianised street, Shop Street. Start in Eyre Square and find the spot from where the US president John F Kennedy addressed the city. Work your way west along Shop Street and stop off in Taaffe's Pub to listen to local musicians practice for a traditional music session in the evening.

From the door, you can see the Collegiate Church of St Nicholas. Built in 1320, it is the country's oldest medieval church still in use and has an illustrious history. One of Galway's most famous tales is about Lynch's Window, at the back of the church, which commemorates the mayor James Lynch FitzStephen, who is said to have hanged his own son for murder in 1493 to prove he meant business in bringing law and order to the town. The horseshoe marks can still be seen in and around the church from the time when Cromwell used it as a stable after invading the city in 1651. The Galway market is held around its grounds at weekends. Walk on to the top of Quay Street, where there are some of the best restaurants, and finish up at the Spanish Arch, where you'll find the town's new museum and Ireland's largest flock of swans.

Approaching the locals is encouraged because most Galwegians are curious about why you chose to visit their city and are exceptionally proud of their home. They are well skilled in the art of conversation, and the best starting point is the weather, then the traffic. Before you know it, you will have graduated to discussing the ailing economy.

Gaelic is spoken in parts of the city, but everyone speaks English. If you want to hear Gaelic spoken, the best place would be Aras na nGael (which translates as Big House of the Irish People) where non-Gaelic patrons are the only ones allowed not to speak Irish. Traditional music can be found in several of the town's public houses. The Roisin Dubh (roisindubh.net) is best for contemporary music, while five minutes down the street is The Crane (www.thecranebar.com), which has won numerous national awards for traditional Irish music.

With views across Galway Bay and next to the village harbour wall, O'Gradys on the Pier (www.ogradysonthepier.com) in Barna is probably Galway's finest seafood restaurant. It's a 20-minute drive from Galway town and will be the first recommendation from any local. Its seafood chowder is a popular starter (€6.50; Dh31). The daily specials depend on that morning's catch, but expect pan-fried sea bass or a roast fillet of monkfish. McDonaghs (www.mcdonaghs.net) on Quay Street in Galway serves award-winning fish and chips in paper bags and offers à la carte dining next door.

The only thing the locals try to avoid is the rain, with varying degrees of success. When visiting, a rain jacket is the most important item to pack. Forget about your leather-soled shoes or light summer jacket: this is not a sun destination. Neighbouring Salthill, which merges with Galway, catered to the domestic tourism market of the 1980s and had an abundance of chippers, casinos and amusement parks. Some of them made way for the construction of apartments, and the casinos left behind today are dark, soulless stains on what otherwise is a quaint, family-orientated part of town.

Connemara, to the west of the city, is one of Ireland's most picturesque areas and has some of the region's best walking trails, over peaks, through valleys and across bogs. They say that if you take a photo of the same spot every day for a year, you'll get a different photograph every time because of the dramatic light, wild landscapes and ever-changing weather. John Ford filmed The Quiet Man in and around Cong Castle, which is well worth a visit.

A trip to the west of Ireland is not complete without a night on the Aran Islands. Weather permitting, hiring a bike is the best way to see Inishmore, the main island, and the mystical World Heritage Site of Dun Aonghasa, a prehistoric stone fort on the edge of a 100m cliff. Coole Park, just a short drive from Galway, is where William Butler Yeats failed numerous times to woo Maud Gonne but found inspiration for his poem The Wild Swans at Coole. He could not have put it better:

"The trees are in their autumn beauty, The woodland paths are dry, Under the October twilight the water Mirrors a still sky ...". eharnan@thenational.ae