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Guided Walking Holidays in Mayo & Connemara, Ireland

 

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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 offer of 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 and one rest day visiting the beautiful town of Villefranche.  We will stay in a combination of basic gites d’étape, chambres d’hôte and small hotels. As always, we will travel in a small group (no more than 12 guests). The cost of the trip will depend on the size of our group, but will include B&B each night and 5 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.

Provisional 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 this nation’s famed outdoor markets and her world-renowned cuisine, while enjoying six 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 each of the other six 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 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 – 16 km
Day Three – 12 km
Day Four – 18 km
Day Five – Rest day, for visits
Day Six – 24 km
Day Seven – 12 km
Day Eight – Departure

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. The exact price will be in function of the size of our group – 12 walkers maximum.

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, as a minimum number of walkers is required for the trip to progress.

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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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Daly’s Hotel Castlebar Must be Saved

Standing on the beautiful Mall, a treasure any town would desire, is the terribly dilapidated Daly’s Hotel Castlebar.

The Mall is Castlebar’s jewel, a lovely small park that was once the cricket ground of the then landlord of the town, Lord Lucan (Bingham). Boasting the County Council HQ, Library, Garda station, 1798 Memorial, John Moore’s grave, Wesleyan Church, Church of Ireland and a magnificent courthouse, this is the centre of power, past and present in the county town. On one side, sadly neglected, lies Daly’s Hotel (aka Imperial Hotel), one of the most important buildings in the entire country.

Daly's Hotel Castlebar
Following the establishment of its predecessor, the Mayo Tenants’ Defence Association in 1878, the Land League of Mayo was founded in Daly’s Hotel Castlebar, on August 16, 1879. James Daly became Vice-President, while Michael Davitt wrote the core objectives, namely to defend tenants’ rights and to bring about the conversion of tenants into owners of their land. Along with CS Parnell and others, both Davitt and Daly were then involved in the formation of the Irish National Land League, in Dublin, later that same year.

That one of the most important movements in Irish history can be traced back to a meeting held in Daly’s Hotel Castlebar is without question. The Land League and its demand for the “Three Fs” of fixity of tenure, far rent and freedom to sell would lead directly to the abolition of landlordism in Ireland and, eventually, to Irish independence. The origins of this State can be traced straight back to this abandoned building.

Daly's Hotel Castlebar memorial
When I came to live in Castlebar in the late 1990s, Daly’s (then called the Imperial Hotel) was past its prime but very much still alive. Friday evening drinks in the bar were a frequent occurrence and I even used the meeting rooms upstairs on multiple occasions. It was quaint and in need of some TLC, but there was no doubting the sense of hugely important history within its walls.

That this building has not yet been saved is a terrible shame and an indictment of the State’s apparent disinterest in our nation’s history. From time to time, there is talk of saving the military barracks in Castlebar and I’m all for that. But to save those buildings, legacies of a foreign imperial power that controlled our country for far too long, rather than Daly’s Hotel Castlebar, which represents the great and noble struggle of 19th Century Ireland, would be a huge mistake.

Saving Daly’s Hotel Castlebar

It’s 2017 and I call on the government and Mayo County Council to secure the future of this important building and to bring it back to life.

Ideas?

Rather than looking at the building as one unit (it will never become a hotel again), this building in a prime town centre location could be divided between the various services located on the Mall. Parts could be allocated to the Motor Tax Office, Courthouse, County Council itself, Library and maybe even the boxing club. Other sections could become low-rent business units and hot desks for start-ups under the management of the Local Enterprise Office and/or GMIT’s Innovation Hubs. One room should be retained as a museum to Davitt, Daly and the Land League.

Whatever can be done, must be done.

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Importance of Connecting with Nature

Are we and our kids spending too much time indoors? I think the answer is clear.

While today’s electronic devices bring many great advantages of connectivity and learning, they are contributing to a serious diminishing of our connection with the outdoors. There can be little doubt about the importance of connecting with nature, yet, as a society, we seem to be turning our backs. Taking a regular walk in nature is good for the heart, body and soul and it is vital that we pass this message on to the next generation.

As somebody who goes hiking often, I know there’s something powerful and uplifting in getting my hands dirty in the bogs, wet in the cold rivers, or simply feeling the roughness of mountain rocks on my palms. Watching a kestrel hover, as I did just yesterday, enjoying frolicking foxes playing through the fields, or listening to the roar of the red deer during the rut are important life experiences to my mind.

Then there’s the extra special treat of strolling among trees. More than simply walking, being within a forest brings great joy, peace and perspective. It brings disconnection from the humdrum of the daily chore and replaces it with the importance of connecting with nature. There’s something wondrous about being a little short-lived human among giant trees, much bigger and older than you will ever achieve. It’s in some way liberating.

Importance of Connecting with Nature

Do you know the difference between Whitethorn and Blackthorn?

Get down to the sea on a windy winter’s day and feel the power of nature blow the cobwebs off your face, to the soundtrack of crashing waves. Visit a tranquil lake on a balmy summer’s afternoon and absorb the cacophony of bird and insect life, all under the whiff of blossoming wildflowers.

Ultimately, our disconnection with nature doesn’t just mean we’ve lost touch with the outdoors and our fellow inhabitants of Planet Earth. It also leads to ignorance and disinterest. Why should we care about habitat loss and species extinction if we no longer have a connection?

Importance of Connecting with Nature – Two Pieces of Research

Study 1

A few years ago, Travelodge, the well known British budget hotel chain, carried out some research into British people’s attitude towards and knowledge of their countryside. Its results included :

* 53% of respondents thought there was nothing to do or see in the countryside
* 10% could not identify a sheep
* 83% could not identify a bluebell
* 32% could not identify a pheasant.

Study 2

The University of Michigan carried out interesting research into the cognitive benefits of interacting with nature a few years ago.

In it, the authors state that “Nature, which is filled with intriguing stimuli, modestly grabs attention in a bottom-up fashion”. I couldn’t agree more.

The authors carried out two experiments with students, which “show that walking in nature or viewing pictures of nature can improve [certain] attention abilities.”

Interacting with environments rich with inherently fascinating stimuli (they give the example of sunsets), allows some attention mechanisms to replenish. After such an interaction with nature, one is able to perform better on tasks that depend on so-called directed-attention abilities.

Directed attention can be described as the “ability to concentrate in the face of distractions”.

In the first experiment, participants had their mood assessed. They were then randomly assigned to take a walk, either in a nearby arboretum or downtown area. The former was tree lined and secluded from traffic and people. The latter was on a traffic heavy street, lined with buildings.

Performance in the test was much improved among those who walked in nature, but not with those who walked in the urban area.The season in which students were tested had no impact – researchers found that mood improved after walking in nature, compared to urban.

The second experiment showed pictures to students of nature and of urbania. Participants rated viewing those of nature as significantly more refreshing.

The researchers, in concluding, stated that “these experiments demonstrate the restorative value of nature as a vehicle to improve cognitive functioning.” Indeed, they add that “To consider the availability of nature as merely an amenity fails to recognise the vital importance of nature in effective cognitive functioning.”

Therein lies both the problem and the challenge.

Recognising the importance of connecting with nature brings joy and loads of energy. Seeing how ‘nature’ and ‘us’ are so deeply interconnected can lead to only one conclusion. We are nature. There is no ‘them’ and ‘us’. There is no separation. We must understand that we humans are part of life on this planet, just like the beetles, bats and birds.

Here in Ireland, we’re particularly disconnected from nature. I’m not sure why, since we’re still very much a rural population. We could blame 800 years of oppression, the loss of ownership of the land and its eventual recovery. When we regained ownership of our land, did we then see it purely as a means of economic gain, where its other facets, such as biodiversity, were to be ignored or destroyed? Why don’t we teach nature in our schools? Why don’t Irish people know anything about wild berries, tree species, mushrooms and foraging? Why don’t we protect our fellow creatures, like birds of prey, badgers and freshwater pearls? Why don’t we destroy non-native invasives, like rhododendron, gunnera and japanese knotweed?

Importance of Connecting with Nature – Resources

The most obvious and useful resources to reconnect with nature are your feet, public transport, bike or car. Just get out there, find a nice spot like a forest, bog, local park or beach and go walk. Even better, do dawdle. Just hang out and connect with what’s around you. Or discover one of our National Parks. Other than that, join some organised events run by organisations like Birdwatch Ireland and many others.

Recognise the importance of connecting with nature for you and your family, then get outdoors, dirty, wet and enjoy!

If you live anywhere near Castlebar, here are two accessible walking options, not requiring any special hiking equipment : Bellacorick Bog Loop Walk and Croaghmoyle Booster Station Walk.

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