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Guided Walking Holidays in Mayo & Connemara, Ireland

 

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Tales from the GR36 Walking Route in the South of France

Tales from the GR36 Walking Route in the South of France

Marie d’Arles

“Je suis ravie de rencontrer quelqu’un”.

Marie d’Arles smiled out from beneath her poncho. Despite her petite frame, she was no lightweight. Marie was undertaking the full 752 km Via Podiensis, all the way from Le Puy to St. Jean Pied de Port, at, as she put it, “20 km par jour”.

It’s early autumn and the glorious walking tracks of France are empty. These extraordinary routes are not like our local walking loops, where the vast majority of people are out for a one-hour stroll. These are great linear pathways, where the only hikers are either enjoying a walking tour for pure pleasure or are dedicated to the impressive goal of one day reaching Santiago de Compostela.

We had a nice chat, me explaining to her how I lived for four years just up the road from her beautiful hometown of Arles. We joked about the local festivals I spent years attending, but this wasn’t a day for standing around too long. As we parted, I glanced over my shoulder at her, jealous of the mammoth undertaking she was clearly enjoying.

The poncho-wearing weather had curtailed our meeting. Constant rain accompanied us that day. Not that it could dampen the spirits of those who trod these gorgeous tracks. Any Irish person indifferent to the charms of km after km of oak-dominated native, mixed and healthy woodland would need a zap of the nearest defibrillator.

~

The Squirrel

It was l’écureuil that welcomed me back to the big river, by pausing half way up his tree so we could have a good look at each other. This typical red squirrel behaviour afforded me the chance to note how dark his coat appeared, compared to that of his Irish cousins.

Discover our 2018 guided walking holiday to France.

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The Sunflowers

Les tournesols stood like sentinels to a lost leader. Drooping, blackening, falling, rotting; they looked like they were waiting for a harvester who had forgotten to come. In fact, sunflowers go brown / black before being harvested, although whoever had the job of gathering the seeds here was clearly a little late. The birds had already eaten half of them.

tales from the gr36 walking route sunflower

Sunflowers

The sweet corn just across the narrow little-used road and the vines further along looked the same, as if they too had been neglected. The once luscious red grapes looked like they were definitely past their “best harvest” date.

tales from the gr36 walking route sweet corn

Sweet corn

Rural de-population is a huge issue in France, certainly even more so than here in Ireland. Today’s youth equates “la France profonde” with the older generations living in tiny villages with few services or none.

Register your interest in joining our walking week here.

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The Raptors

The southern French raptor population is in a far more healthy state than its Irish cousins. While at home a sighting is still a special occurrence, immediately followed by a crushing fear that some other less benign observer may have laid eyes (and crosshairs) on the magnificent bird, in the south of France these beauties are commonplace.

Today, we were restricted to enjoying their evocative calls from deep within the oak forest. With rain falling, no self-respecting buzzard, kestrel or kite would bother to open his wings and rise out of the branches. Still, even their sound is a treat and reminds me that there are plenty more magnificent creatures on this earth than us humans.

“Ni le ciel ni la terre ne nous appartient.”

Neither the sky nor the earth belongs to us.

Here’s a nice webpage about birds of prey in France (English language).

Tales from the GR36 walking route

If these simple little tales from the GR36 walking route inspire you, or you’d like to create your own, then why not join our small group walking holiday to this wonderful part of France from September 2 – 9, 2018.

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11 Great West of Ireland Pubs

Naturally, my bias ensures that 5 of these 11 great West of Ireland pubs are located in Mayo, but what else would you expect?

The Irish pub can be such an alien concept to continental Europeans, especially the southern French I know best, that I always have to make it my business to at least get them in the door to experience what it is all about. I’ve seen reactions vary from wide-eyed wonder, delight and glee, to disbelief, shock and discomfort at the crowds and noise. Watching what happens when people don’t find a place to sit down is always a source of amusement. Some don’t know how to react and beat a hasty retreat (needing to be gently, sometimes forcibly, coaxed back in), while others just dive in and enjoy the experience. It takes all sorts, as they say!

Of course, many foreign guests also need to be gently informed that it’s expected of them that they buy a drink … Yes, the clichés are true : (Southern) French groups will sit in a pub and barely buy one drink among them, let alone one each, unless “instructed” to do so.

So here is a selection of 11 of the finest establishments from around the province of Connacht. They’re in no particular order, not even alphabetic!

11 Great West of Ireland Pubs

1. McDonnell’s, Belmullet (Béal an Mhuirthead)

Certainly among the best small town pubs in the province, this is just a legendary place and one where you’ll feel comfortable at all times of the day or night. Sit up at the bar. As they say of The Lobster Pot, “you can get in, but you can’t get out”! Here they are on Facebook.

West of Ireland pubs

Inside McDonnell’s, Belmullet

2. Úna’s, Blacksod (An Fód Dubh)

A few years back, this place was on its last legs. It was always totally down-to-earth (still is), but now it’s buzzing and full of far-end-of-earth life. This quintessential isolated, coastal West of Ireland pub is 25km beyond Belmullet (Béal an Mhuirthead). Visit their Facebook page.

great west of ireland pubs una's

Úna’s, An Fód Dubh

3. JJ Harlow’s, Roscommon Town

A beautiful pub, filled with the ordinary, lovely, decent people of Roscommon. Visit their Facebook page.

west of ireland pub

JJ Harlow’s in Roscommon Town

4. Seán’s, Athlone

Reputedly the oldest pub in Ireland, you’ll get a crick in your neck from looking at all the stuff on the walls and ceiling. When my late father had a boat on the Shannon, he used to record the number of paces from his mooring spot to Seán’s in his “captain’s log”. A really brilliant pub. Here’s Seán’s Facebook page.

West of Ireland pubs

Seán’s, Connacht side of the River Shannon, Athlone

5. Tigh Neachtain, Galway City

Possibly the most beautiful city pub in all of Ireland, this is where the heart of Galway city beats strongest. Its range of Irish craft beers is very impressive indeed.  A truly wonderful pub full of character, they are on Facebook.

Galway pub

Tigh Neachtain, Galway City

6. Matt Molloy’s, Westport

Some might frown at all the tourists, but this is just a fantastic pub, especially when there’s a proper trad music session going on, which is virtually every night. Perhaps the most famous of all West of Ireland pubs. Visit their Facebook Page.

great west of ireland pubs molloy

Matt Molloy’s, Westport (pic source www.jar.ie)

7. The Beach Bar, Co. Sligo

A pure legend of a place, down by the sea. I could tell you where it is, but I’d have to sh**t you. Find them on Facebook.

great west of ireland pubs beach bar

The Beach Bar, Co. Sligo (their own pic)

8. Tí Joe Watty, Inis Mór

Located a little outside the main village of Cill Rónáin, Watty’s is well worth the short stroll. While not necessarily the most attractive pub, there’s always a great atmosphere in this place. As well as islanders, you’ll meet revellers from all corners of the globe in this spot. Tí Jo Watty is on Facebook.

great west of ireland pubs wattys

Tí Watty, Inis Mór

9. John McHale, Castlebar

Castlebar’s finest pub is old, unique and very relaxing. Johnny’s is on Facebook.

great west of ireland pubs john mchale

Johnny’s, Castlebar

10. Lynott, Achill Island

In this day and age, with drink-driving a serious no-no (thankfully), it’s a wonder this remarkable tiny middle-of-nowhere pub manages to stay open. The fact that it’s a Mayo institution helps. This ridiculously small pub is located between Cashel and Bunnacurry, on the lhs as you drive west. Blink and you’ll miss it.  I don’t think Lynott’s has any online presence.

great west of ireland pubs lynott

Lynott’s on Achill (pic Matt Smyth on Flickr)

11. Anderson’s Thatch, near Carrick on Shannon

It is remarkable and wonderful that this small rural, north Roscommon pub has survived. It’s beautiful from the outside and beautiful on the inside. As with Lynott’s above, just make sure you have a designated driver. Here’s the pub’s Facebook Page.

great west of ireland pubs andersons

Anderson’s, between Carrick on Shannon and Elphin

Great West of Ireland Pubs

Of course, there are many other great West of Ireland pubs and I’m not even claiming these 11 are the finest. And lists like these cause arguments in, er, pubs … But great examples these are, for sure. Which other ones would you suggest? If you have pubs to propose, please include photos with your suggestions.

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Guided Walking Holiday in the South of France

Guided Walking Holiday in the South of France

Once her official character was demasked, Michèle was a hoot. In her capacity as receptionist and ticket seller at la Chapelle des Pénitents Noirs, she was as detached as any other French heritage site employee. She had no change, you see. She needed her colleague to skip across the road to get some, along with two coffees while she was at it.

Vous en voulez un aussi, monsieur ?

I declined the coffee, but with the offer and as the other lady vacated the building, out popped the real Michèle. We joked about the town, the hoteliers who don’t answer enquiries by email, the chambres d’hôte which claim to remain open all year but which, in reality, hibernate from September 30th.

As I left this wonderful old church, Michèle pleaded down the street after me to go and tell the local Tourist Office about these issues. After all, this was not good for the image of her town. I assured her I would, but didn’t.

There’s little resemblance between the French people that mass tourists meet on the streets of Paris or the Côte d’Azur (if they meet any at all) and the rural southerners you meet while out walking in the Midi. The southern rural French person is warm and inquisitive. They’re interested. And for that, they are interesting themselves. Walking in this part of France is a real treat. Not only does the south of this wonderful country have spectacular scenery, full of broadleaf forest cover, vineyards, sunflowers and more, but the people make the trip special.

guided walking holiday in the south of france
As we left Villefranche, to climb towards Monteil on a 23km long day, we met Yves building a stone wall perimeter to a new primary school, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. We discussed the state of our economies which, he mused, paled into insignificance compared to that of Spain, the homeland of his beautiful wife. We could have stayed chatting to this total stranger for an hour, but had to push on. He didn’t mention having to get back to work …

Back in Limogne, the almost impossible to contact local taxi driver (I had sent multiple texts and emails, to no avail), when eventually I got to speak to him, declared himself unable to take us the few km we needed to hurdle. When I told a local our story, he offered to being us in his own car. We had a great chat along the way.

guided walking holiday in the south of france najac
Then there was the evening we forgot to get food for the following day’s lunch. Arriving in a tiny village, luckily for us the market had pitched up on the square. Lunch consisted of a glass of rosé, a handful of Muscat grapes, two apples and some cheese. All accompanied by un café. We were the talk of the town that day, with locals asking about where we had come from, where our destination was and the state of the Irish economy.

guided walking holiday in the south of france concots

Guided Walking Holiday in the South of France

Our one-week guided walking holiday in the south of France in September 2018 consists of five days on stunning forest tracks, one ‘link day’ mostly on small rural roads, one rest day visiting the beautiful town of Villefranche and one ramble through vineyards. We will stay in a combination of basic gites d’étape, chambres d’hôte and small hôtels. As always, we will travel in a small group (no more than 12 guests). The cost of the trip will include B&B each night (sharing), 3 dinners and 2 packed lunches. Flights are not included and guests are reminded that you must be covered by your personal travel insurance and ensure that you have an up-to-date European Health Insurance Card (aka E111).

If you’d like to join us in France, or learn more, please get in touch by email to info[at]tourismpurewalking.com or call me on 086-8318748.

Dates : September 2 to 9, 2018

On this guided walking holiday in the south of France, we will be traversing the southern départements of Lot and Aveyron, a wonderful rural area far from the madding crowds and brim full of traditional French culture. Come not just for the walking, but for the sights, food and wine!

Walking will be mostly on lovely off-road tracks through magnificent oak-dominated forests, stretching across the hills to the blue skied horizon. We will walk “entre deux rivières” from the banks of the River Lot to those of the River Aveyron, rising up onto the so-called Causse that stands between the valleys. Le Causse is a rich limestone landscape – think of our Burren, but still covered in its soil carpet and enormous forests. While one day is almost entirely on-road, these are tiny roadways that see very little traffic as they sinew from one small hamlet to the next.

guided walking holiday in the south of france track
Highlights of our week include the gorgeous little towns of St Cirq and Najac, both among the select range of “Les plus beaux villages de France” and the former the initial winner of “France’s favourite village” in 2012. The larger town of Villefranche is great too, boasting numerous excellent visits, including France’s largest cloister at La Chartreuse, splendid churches, its arched town square and medieval architecture throughout.

We will experience one of this nation’s famed outdoor markets and her world-renowned cuisine, while enjoying seven days of the best of walking in France. With one day’s rest in Villefranche for visiting and relaxing, the pace is nice and easy throughout the week. We walk between 12 and 24 km over most of the other days, with inclines few and far between. Most of all, we will take our time to discover this wonderful place and her people.

guided walking holiday in the south of france bouzies
Accommodation is in twin rooms (sometimes triple) and, due to the fabulously rural nature of the areas in which we will walk, quite varied. We walk from basic hôtel, to simple gîtes d’étape, to comfortable chambres d’hôte to gastronomic hôtel. Indeed, the variety is part and parcel of the experience of walking in France.

Guided Walking Holiday in the South of France 2018 – Provisional Programme (subject to change, depending on flight times, etc.)

Day One – Arrival & 16 km walk
Day Two – 17 km
Day Three – 12 km
Day Four – 19 km
Day Five – Rest day, for visits
Day Six – 24 km
Day Seven – 15 km
Day Eight – 9 km, before departure

Please note that walking distances are approximate, in function of flight times and other factors.

Luggage transfer is provided on each day, so we will only carry a rucksack with our requirements for the day’s walk.

Bookings

The trip is on the basis of per person sharing and excludes flights.

Please feel free to ask any questions you may have. Get in touch, on 086-8318748 or by email to info [at] tourismpurewalking.com to express your interest and receive the detailed brochure.

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Achill Island Promontory Fort at Dun Bunnafahy

Achill Island Promontory Fort at Bun na Faiche (Dun Bunnafahy)

A quick overview of my coastal Discovery Series maps of the County Mayo coastline * reveals 54 marked promontory forts. Doubtless, this is fewer than there are actually are, as I doubt if they’ve all been recorded or transmitted to the mapping authority. One excellent example is the Achill Island promontory fort of Dun Bunnafahy (Dún Bun na Faiche, the fort at the bottom of the field), situated just south of the Wild Atlantic Way discovery point carpark at Ashleam Bay near Dooega.

Promontory Forts date from the Iron Age and are mostly found in Ireland, Cornwall, Orkney Islands, Isle of Man and Brittany. Not really ‘forts’, in the military sense, they are more likely to have been defensive structures, perhaps farmsteads, which made use of more or less narrow slivers of land jutting out into the sea. In that way, they were naturally protected on three sides by sea cliffs, meaning only one side needed to be reinforced with a defensive wall and ditch combination. MacAlister (1928) described them as ‘sites where a ditch and bank complex was constructed across the narrow isthmus of a natural headland’.

Achill Island Promontory Fort side view

Dún Bun na Faiche

At this Achill Island promontory fort, the ditch and wall remain clearly evident, with the latter reaching a height of approx 6 metres from the bottom of the ditch. At the centre of the ditch, there appears to be a type of leveling off, as if a less deep entry passage.

Achill Island Promontory Fort view of wall

View of defensive wall

Within the wall, immediately above this ‘bridge’, there are a number of standing stones still extant. Archaeologists consider these to mark the location of a cist. Indeed, it was suggested by Westropp (1914) that perhaps a child sacrifice may have been offered at the building of such a ‘fort’. I would have thought they’re more likely to be some kind of defended entry passage through the wall, not unlike what is seen at caiseals.

Achill Island Promontory Fort

* Marked Promontory Forts of Mayo by OSI Discovery Sheets, excluding duplication (northeast to southwest) :

Sheet 24 – 1

Sheet 23 – 6

Sheet 22 – 30

Sheet 30 – 15

Sheet 31 – 0

Sheet 37 – 2

Total = 54

By the way, if you like this sort of thing, then you might also enjoy reading about Lios na Gaoithe ringfort. And here is a website that discusses Irish promontory forts in general.

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Spring Wildflowers of Mayo

Perhaps the most lovely thing about getting out for a walk at this particular time of year is the renewed colour all around as the spring wildflowers of Mayo come out and begin to dominate our forests, hedges and fields. But nor do you have to go far – simply enjoy those in your uncut garden or hedge.

The white of Wild Garlic carpets the forest floor, which it shares with the beautiful drooping Bluebell. Get down on your hands and knees and breathe in the powerful aroma of the Wild Garlic – one of the great experiences of Ireland’s springtime.

The bright cream Primrose is visible in tight bunches along the hedgerow, while the especially excellent Marsh Marigold stands bright yellow along the damp water’s edge, often with its feet wet.

The small white flowers of Wild Strawberry is a hedge neighbour for the discreet blue-purple Dog-Violet. We hope we’ll see the fruit of the Wild Strawberry later in the summer, while the Violet will soon fade away.

Some green is supplied by the carpet-forming Opposite-Leaved Golden Saxifrage on stream banks, along with Lords and Ladies in the hedges and the fabulous tall and erect shoots of Yellow Iris on damp ground, although neither of these is yet in bloom.

In the unmowed garden, Daisies, Dandelions and Cuckooflower already dominate the grass. Herb Robert trails along the borders, while if you go exploring a little, you might find glorious Early Purple Orchids in nearby fields.

So get out and enjoy the outdoors, ever more interesting with the arrival of spring wildflowers. For all you need to know about Ireland’s wildflowers, visit Zoe Devlin’s superb website, at http://www.wildflowersofireland.net/ and don’t leave home without the Collins “Complete Irish Wildlife” book, with its introduction by Derek Mooney. The latter also contains Ireland’s mammals, trees, birds, insects, etc.

Spring Wildflowers of Mayo – what to see

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Croaghmoyle Booster Station Walk

Although not particularly impressive, this Croaghmoyle booster station walk is a pleasant 8km stroll near Castlebar that includes an easy climb on tarmac. I do it a few times each year in spring, just to get some km into the legs before hiking season.

The track/roadway up to the TV booster station begins along the road out of Castlebar towards Glenisland. There is ample room here to park 6 cars. From there, we head through mostly unlovely conifer plantations towards the upland bogs beyond (although, thankfully, some of the trees along this lower section are larch).

Along the way, we encounter a typical West of Ireland scene. A small stream cuts through one little area of level land, walled out into tiny fields by past dwellers. A ruined cottage, now virtually swallowed up by the plantation, stands to one side where, once, a family eked out an existence from this little oasis of almost fertile ground.

From this miniature ‘valley’ begins the long slog to the booster station. Strangely, the road surface improves from here, becoming to all intents a proper roadway all the way to the top.

Croaghmoyle Booster Station walk

View from Croaghmoyle

At various points along this walk, we can enjoy nice views westwards towards the Nephin Begs, Corraun, Clare Island, Inisturk and Croagh Patrick, with Clew Bay in the centre of this fine arc. By the time we get to the top, however, we need to jump up onto the bog itself to regain such views, as the road is somewhat sunken beneath the level of the surrounding turf. The sort-of-conical summit of Birreencorragh to the NW grabs my attention, reminding me that it’s been a while since I last climbed her.

Pushing a  short distance beyond the booster station and out onto the bog proper brings us to the trig pillar, with views of Nephin mountain now joining the others already enjoyed.

As I turn for home, the unmistakable sound of a calling Red Grouse accompanies me, reminding me that this is, after all, West of Ireland upland bog, booster station or not …

Croaghmoyle Booster Station Walk

Length (total) 8 km; Climb 400m; Time 2 hours.

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