Sunday, March 11, 2007

Friday 9th March - Coming back

I wasn't sure until I got up on Friday whether I'd be riding my bike to Athenry that day, or throwing it in the back of a bus (according to the bus driver on Thursday, you can do that). It all depended on the weather

I couldn't have asked for nicer weather. I woke up a couple of times during the night to the sounds of wind and rain, and it was still quite windy when I got up at six, but the sun rose to reveal hints of blue sky and a brief trip outside determined that the wind was blowing the right way, so at about 7:30 I got on the bike and left. It was a lovely ride, there was the occasional dark cloud and threat of rain but it held off and I rode 45 miles with lovely morning blue skies overhead and the most fantastic tailwind - I'm really glad I didn't take the bus.

I got to Athenry around midday, with plenty of time before the 15:18 train. Miraculously, it started raining as soon as I'd reached my destination (Something is not right with all this) so I ducked into a pub for a couple of hours before getting on the train for Dublin.

Dublin traffic was no more pleasant than it was on Monday, after my few quiet days on the west coast it was a shame to find myself swearing at other road users again, this time there was further to go on busier roads, and it really doesn't help that the only indication of a street name is a tiny little sign written in tiny little letters really high up, and you often have to stop and look behind you to find out the name of the side street you just passed. I found the B&B eventually, which was run by a sweet little old lady named Moira, who was very helpful with giving me directions for using the buses and for getting to the ferry port the next morning. (but what is it with the creepy Jesus-pictures in some of these B&B rooms? I'd really rather he didn't watch over me as I sleep...)

I got the bus into town in the evening, with the intention of trying to find some of the nicer bits of the city - but in the end it was too cold out and I was too tired and didn't feel like wandering around busy drunken Friday night streets trying to find nice places which I'd probably rather see in daylight anyway. I did see the giant needle thing at least. It was big and pointy.

I ate at 101 Talbot street which was quite nice. It's not been as weird eating out on my own as I thought it would be (I've only ever done that at sushi bars, which are kind of different) - I thought it might be a little strange not having anybody sitting opposite me but it wasn't really, I'd normally just get caught up in daydreaming, reading and/or just enjoying the food.

I slept really well at the B&B and had yet another early start to get to the 8:45 ferry. It's just as well Dgym didn't come on this trip, he'd be hating all the early mornings. The B&B was on the right side of town for the ferry port so it was nice not to have to go through the town centre again and the traffic was OK.

The bicycle procedure for the return journey was a little different. I went to the foot passenger terminal where I was given a boarding pass and then had to ride around to join the rest of the vehicles. They have a hand baggage policy in which you're only supposed to carry one bag onto the boat, the rest gets checked in or left in the car. They gave me the option of leaving the panniers on my bike rather than checking them in, which I decided I'd rather do than sit around waiting to reclaim them - it was nice not to have to wander around the ferry with two heavy bags. Again there was nothing to tie my bike to but it managed to stay upright. The crossing was fairly rough but thankfully short.

Ireland was great anyway. The scenery was beautiful, the people friendly, the weather highly changeable. I definitely want to visit County Clare again and see everything I couldn't see this time - the Aran islands (the Doolin->Aran ferry doesn't start up until April), the caves (Doolin cave was only open at weekends) and some more of the Burren region.

Lots more pictures of my Ireland trip

Thursday 8th March - Cliffs

I decided I had to see the Cliffs of Moher - they'd been quite influential in my choice of where to go in Ireland so it'd be silly to come that far and not see them. The weather was a bit better on Thursday and the wind had died down a bit so I decided to try cycling up there again. I didn't get far - my legs felt lethargic and tired and my bum hurt (maybe time for a new saddle) Given that I had a long ride the next day I decided to take it easy, turned round and went back to take the bus instead.

When I got on the bus I thought I'd better check that there was one coming back again. Apparently there wasn't. I started to get off the bus again but the driver talked me into going anyway. "What're you going to do otherwise - sit in your room and watch it rain?" he asked. Fair point. "It's only an hour's walk back". In this weather? He assured me that the weather was going to clear up again.

There was an American couple on the bus, also staying in Doolin, who were going to walk back, and they invited me to walk with them. When we got to the cliffs we agreed to meet at five for the walk back, and went our separate ways for the afternoon.

There appeared to be a lot of work going on at the cliffs in the name of sustainable tourism - increased visitor numbers over the years have accelerated the erosion of the cliffs, so there has been a need to keep things in check. There are some very new-looking paved walkways along the cliff edges and it looked like more were under construction. The visitor centre itself was built into the hillside, with a turf roof.

Ever since Dgym and I got the natural building idea into our little heads, we've been wondering exactly how one mows a turf roof. Presumably that does become a problem after a while, and I just don't think a lawnmower would be very practical. We eventually came up with the idea of a keeping a roof goat. I thought about asking, but (a) they would have thought I was weird (b) it's such a new building they might not have encountered or considered this problem. Damn, now I wish I had asked.

You can't walk that far along the cliffs on the new walkways, there was a muddy footpath going a lot further in one direction but it was blocked off and looked a bit dangerous anyway. The other direction led up to O'Brien's tower, which was quite high up and extremely windy. As for the cliffs themselves, they are big and rocky and everything that cliffs should be.

Having walked every path I could and still with a couple of hours to spare before we were due to walk back, I came back to the visitor centre and browsed tacky souvenirs for a bit before caving in and buying a ticket to the Atlantic Edge exhibition, which turned out to be quite interesting and I suppose worth the 4 euros. Lots of interesting exhibits about the different layers that make up the cliffs, what Ireland looked like squillions of years ago. (not very much like Ireland) and the network of rivers that run beneath the Burren.

By the time I got out, it was nearly time to go back but the sun had come out and there was just enough time to go back up and get a better look at the cliffs.

As it turns out, I didn't even need to go outside at all. As I walked throught the visitor centre, I suddenly became aware of a cross-looking lady with a camera on my right, and a lightbox image of the cliffs on my left - I had inadvertently walked into her oh-so-authentic photograph. Oops!

The walk back was lovely - the skies had cleared and the sun was starting to set. It's always interesting to talk to fellow travellers - this American couple were on their spring break and had been to London and Scotland first before coming to Ireland, where they were on their first day, and after Ireland they were heading to the south of Italy, where I am sure they will encounter much nicer weather than they've seen so far. They seemed to be really impressed with everything they'd seen so far, although apparently it rained a lot in London (hmm, I am sure I've heard that before) It was nice to have some company anyway, and talk about our respective travels, both past and future.

Wednesday March 7th - Windy

I've had a suspicion from the start of this whole thing that going cycling on the west coast of Ireland in March was probably a bit of a silly thing to do, especially when I was advised not to camp due to soggy ground and gale force winds - but I'm not so easily put off doing silly things so I went and did it anyway (the cycling, not the camping). Today looked a bit rainy and miserable from the start - so I put off going out on the bike until the afternoon, when it was still a bit miserable and quite windy, but I didn't want to waste one of two days here so set off anyway, in the direction of the Cliffs of Moher.

I rode out of Doolin, and the road soon started to take an upward turn. At one point it got steep enough that I had to get off and push (note: if a road is that hard to get up, it's probably pretty scary coming down) The wind picked up quite quickly as I ascended, fortunately it was behind me - if it'd been against me, I probably would have turned back. When I reached the top of the hill, there was a right turn and the nice tailwind turned into a rather scary sidewind. I could still just about keep the bike from being blown off the road, but barely. I carried on like this for a mile or two, looking out for the cliffs, until the rain started stinging my face and I realised how loudly the wind was howling, and how insane it really was to be up here, and that it was unlikely I'd see much of the cliffs anyway from the road, especially with stinging rain in my eyes... so I turned around.

The trip back was just as much fun, except I had to try extra hard to control the bike so it wouldn't get blown into the oncoming traffic (not that there was much, you'd have to be insane to go out in that weather). Going down hill, the wind was straight into my face and the rain was stinging like hell, so I pulled my buff over my face and put the sunglasses on. I'm pretty well equipped for bad weather - double layered trousers with magic wicking stuff, leg warmers, heavy duty raincoat, waterproof windproof gloves, buff, awesome hat... but eye protection is still a problem. My sunglasses are OK but dark lenses aren't always a good thing, and in the cold they mist up as badly as dgym's car. So, if any of you are wondering what to get me for my birthday, here's an idea: sunglasses with interchangeable lenses and little windscreen wipers on the inside.

Naturally the weather brightened up once I'd got back and changed into dry stuff.

Tuesday March 6th - it's further than you think

Dublin didn't make the best of impressions on me - perhaps I was there at the wrong time on the wrong roads but the traffic was absolutely horrible, worse than London - it was almost impossible to join or cross a stream of traffic and the whole thing seemed to be a giant network of one way systems.

It's a bit strange being in Ireland, it's sort of foreign but then again it's not really. They speak the same language, but it sounds a bit funny and I often can't understand it. They drive on the left, use the same power sockets, have the same magazines on the shelves (but different newspapers). The station announcements are in an English accents and the train toilets smell the same. They drink lots of tea (with milk) and watch Eastenders - but they use Euros and kilometres and everything's just a bit different. It's easy to forget you're cycling in a foreign country - you're on the left hand side of the road, you can understand the signs... and then you ride past a green post office.

To take a bike on the train in Ireland you need to buy a separate ticket for the bike. I'm not sure what the rule is for pricing, but my bike ticket cost 16euro, compared to my passenger ticket at 37euro. I wasn't able to take my bike on the first train out as it wasn't a full service and didn't have any room for it - however, the next one had a guards van which could take it.

I knew it would be a long way from Athenry to Doolin, 30-40 miles according to my map. Athenry (which, as I had to be corrected at least twice, is pronounced Athen-rye) is the closest functioning railway station to Doolin, although they are currently in the process of restoring a previously closed line (take note, England!) which would mean only about twenty miles to the nearest. I believe that's due to reopen in 2008.

The first twenty miles were fine, the land was reasonably flat (north Germany flat) and the scenery was pretty - lots of fields bordered by dry stone walls, and the occasional ruin. There are lots of sheep and cows here, and the calves and lambs are out now. The cows here are lovely, and Spain has some tough competition on that front. Kinvara was particularly pretty with a lovely castle on the water.

I had a rather scary encounter with a horse which was very spooked by me and / or my bike, and its rider was having quite a bit of trouble controlling it. It got quite close, making that scary toothy horsey face that they make and trying to rear up at me. There were a couple of rather excitable dogs too - the first one I could see was trying to chase after every car that passed, so being perhaps a little paranoid after Portugal I got off and started walking. It padded over and started sniffing me, it was quite friendly and let me walk off after a while. The second was a yappy little thing that wouldn't stop barking at me, even with its owner calling.

After entering County Clare, the landscape got a little more hilly and I was
starting to feel the effects of my two hours' sleep (or more accurately, the effects of my lack of six hours sleep). I was riding along a fairly major road (an 'N' road) but you'd hardly think it was to look at it. Single carriageway, surface not very well kept and about as many cars as your average English 'B' road on a Sunday afternoon.

The weather was occasionally sunny, occasionally rainy and windy, and at some point I lost the cleat from my right shoe, so I could only clip in on one side. I reached Ballyvaughan, still about fifteen miles from Doolin, and left the coast to take the inland road to Lisdoonvarna. Supposedly it was 16km but I think they have rather strange kilometres around here, because it was the longest 16km I've ever ridden. It was getting dark as I set out along that road - I was hoping to make it to Doolin before sunset but it wasn't going to happen.

There was one big hill to get over before Lisdoonvarna, and it was one of those big looming ones. The road wound up it quite gently, like one of those nice mountain roads in France or Spain, but it was still hard work. I got off and walked a couple of times - it doesn't feel like so much of a cop-out to do that any more, walking a loaded touring bike is every bit as hard as riding it, if not harder, and it gives the cycling muscles a break and the walking muscles a bit of a work out. I reached the top and was hoping for a nice fast downhill to Lisdoonvarna but that didn't come for quite some time and there were several more kilometres of gentle ups and downs before the road went down.

I was really hungry and really tired but the worst of the hills was over and 7km is only about four miles, that's like cycling into town and back. So I carried on, always looking out for that gentle orange glow on the horizon that meant civilization - and eventually I arrived at Doolin, wet tired and hungry. My B&B was easy to find, and the room was nice. I dumped my stuff, got changed and walked 2 minutes to the nearest pub for some nice soup followed by roast pork & vegetables. mmmmm...

Monday March 5th - Bike Hippy

This trip is a little different to the previous ones. First of all, it's just me. It's my first cycle trip alone, in fact I'm pretty sure it's my first holiday alone.

Secondly, I have rooms pre-booked for the whole trip. I will be based in Doolin and exploring the Burren region from there. It does restrict my flexibility a little, but also means lots of good things:
* No need to bring camping gear, so only two panniers this time.
* No stress of trying to find a room every night, finding everywhere's too full or too expensive.
* I can leave lots of stuff in the room and travel much lighter during the day
* More room to bring lots of non-essential stuff like knitting bag and a big fat book.

Thirdly, it will finally mean I've been to a country that Dgym hasn't. :-) (although he's still got India and Canada on me)

It's a long journey from Guildford to Doolin so I decided to break it up with a stopover in Dublin on both the outward and return trips. The SailRail ticket I got was from any UK station to Dublin at £26 one way - pretty good, and only about a fiver more than the ferry ticket alone (the rail ticket to Holyhead alone would probably run into triple figures). The train part of the journey was fine - up to London, a short ride across town to Euston station, and then the Virgin train up to Llandudno Junction. The Virgin train was pretty nice, the quiet zone was right next to the bike compartment, and they provide plug sockets for laptops, which you don't see very often. The Arriva train from Llandudno to Holyhead was horrible by comparison and smelled of wee.

I'd left behind a lovely sunny day in the South East but arrived in Holyhead to rain and howling winds. On our travels we've found many places to be not quite as you might imagine - we roasted in Poland, froze in Portugal and the rain in Spain definitely fell mainly in the mountains. Wales didn't let me down though - it was rainy and full of sheep, most of which were trying to shelter from the rain behind dry stone walls. The coastline was quite pretty though, and the landscape looked quite interesting and rocky between Llandudno and Bangor.

Given the weather conditions I was pleased to find that Holyhead ferry terminal and station are on the same site so no windy, rainy ride across town was necessary. I was less pleased to find that my intended 17:15 ferry had been cancelled due to the bad weather, and the next one would leave at 02:40. Hooray - a ten hour wait followed by a three hour ferry, which would get me into Dublin at about 6am. The staff at the ferry port were rather surly and unhelpful about the whole thing, fair enough it's not their fault and I don't think they're obliged to do anything if it's just weather problems, but a disinterested shrug just isn't very reassuring when you're stranded several hundred miles from home in a cold ferry terminal on a rainy windy evening. After much fretting and swearing and calling up the B&B to cancel my room and wishing Dgym was there to share the pain, I decided it wasn't all that bad, at least I had two full laptop batteries and lots of warm clothes (awesome hat included).

The ferry terminal was really cold overnight, no heating, cold metal benches everywhere and some nutter kept playing a harmonica. I started to really wish I'd brought the sleeping bag, and ended up wearing pretty much every item of clothing I had on me (including the awesome hat, no matter how silly I look in it) - but the warm clothes really weren't warm enough, especially after I'd gone out for a curry and ended up a bit damp. Got talking to a group of young Irish mums sitting opposite me, whose kids were running all over the place (in a good way, they were quite sweet) - they'd been to London to party because "Ireland doesn't have any good raves" (which can only be a plus for Ireland). They asked lots of questions about my laptop and bike and seemed a bit surprised that I wouldn't choose a bigger laptop and / or ride a newer bicycle (apparently five years is really old for a bicycle... bah, tell that to Dawes) During the course of the evening I was offered £100 for my laptop by one of the mums, and £1 for my bicycle by Harmonica Bloke. I politedly declined both offers but if I didn't love my bike as much as I do, I'd have offered it in exchange for one harmonica.

I was really cold and tired and bored and fed up by the time they finally loaded us onto the ferry. The bike procedure was a bit different from most other ferry routes , in that I don't think they really had one. I was loaded on as a foot passenger rather than a vehicle, and taken out to the ferry (which was a mile away) on a special van which also carried a disabled bloke on a mobility scooter, and dumped us on the car deck. He could take his scooter up in the lift but nobody really knew what I was supposed to do with my bike until one of the crew came along and pointed at an unoccupied corner behind a skip. There was nothing to secure the bike to so I had to just prop it up against the wall and pray it wouldn't fall over or get bashed around.

Fortunately the ferry was quite quiet so I could nod off for a while on a couple of tub chairs in the lounge, clutching my laptop and other valuables. We got to Dublin three hours later, by some miracle my bike hadn't fallen over and I rode off into another new country.