We left Galway city with bad weather approaching - rain and a bit of wind, "perfect" weather to be heading into the unknown territory of the Connemara region (and when I say "perfect" weather, it was - for a fully adventurous and mysterious time spent there). An area in County Galway that feels like another part of the Earth: rugged terrain, violently jutting-out rock and ground covered by soft and wet grass, moss, and green and brown stuff going on for what seems forever. A small mountain range surrounded by a river and a lake, Connemara is constantly damp, cold, and wind-whipped. I tried taking a few pictures from the car as we drove, however the weather was so bad, not one photo came clear (sorry!) Our first destination was the Cong Abbey, but on our way to the abbey, we drove by Ashford Castle and decided to stop in for a photo opp. The castle overlooks a small lake, and with the storm above us, this castle stood like a fortress while we were being hit with rain and wind from every direction. Now converted into a luxury hotel, this multi-century aged castle was a great sneak-in spot. We then continued on the road towards the Cong Abbey - Cong being a larger town listed on the map turned out to be a small village with a beautiful, ancient abbey whose cemetery is still being used today. With families being buried together going back over two centuries, this old abbey looked like something right out of a movie set. With the rain and the eerie emptiness of the village around us, we quickly felt the true serenity and spirituality of this place.
Next stop was the Kylemore Abbey - originally built as a Victorian manor and then through various circumstances turned over to Benedictine nuns, this beautiful and elaborate manor reminded me a bit of the TV series, Downton Abbey. Gorgeous dining hall, the kitchen at the other end of the house in true upstairs/downstairs fashion and a winding staircase, this house of the super wealthy was true decadence in its time. The weather got worse as we approached Kylemore, and our trip to the gardens was cut short due to the extreme weather knocking us off our feet (good, old Irish winter weather!) Nevertheless, the abbey was still spectacular to see.
After a day of beating down the weather, we headed to Ballynahinch Castle at the other end of Connemara where we were to be residing for the evening. We could not have been happier with our choice of accommodations - a true, classic manor with old-style fashion and old-style service, we were pampered with constant attention to detail on the most basic level. I'm not talking about some nouveau trendy hotel, this was something truly special. President Ford and wife Betty were guests at this fisherman's lodging, and daily hikes and walks on the lush grounds were just some of the highlights. Dinner served was all local flora and fauna, and everything was prepared to perfection. With a piano in the parlor, I was playing Christmas carols after dinner with the other guests singing along, sitting by a warm fire and drinking hot totties and warm ports. It was a perfect end to a perfectly adventurous winter day (including sheep joining us on our drive!)