Thursday, June 16, 2011

Visiting Athlone

If we didn't know our friends, we might never have seen Athlone, and I'm so glad we have! It's beautiful and while it's small, it's smack bang in the middle of the country, so it's an awesome base to see the country from. We've managed, even without a car - although a car would have made a few other places more accessible. We leave tomorrow for Dublin, so I thought I'd fill in what's been keeping us busy -

Athlone Castle - Which is currently closed for renovations but I've been assured it's reopening next year. In the meantime, it provides awesome photographic opportunities. As far as castles go, it's not fairytale-epic, but it suited us fine as the first castle we've ever seen. It's also right in the centre of town and across the road from our next stop.

St Peters - A smaller scale replica of the Roman Cathedral, this church is stunning.

The Strand - On our second day (the first we slept until 3pm and only took a short walk to a hotel pub in the rainy afternoon) the sun came out and showed us Athlone in all her glory. We got our photos of the castle and St Peters, on the old-town side of the bridge that crosses the Shannon River. If you cross the bridge, you end up in new Athlone, which is not as picturesque but is where you will find a couple of small shopping centres and a few restaurants.

We walked all the way down the main street until it was no longer a main street anymore and then we kept on walking, getting a feel for the town away from the big landmarks. We bent back towards home and checked out the main shopping centre, Golden Island, which by our standards is tiny, and then found ourselves on The Strand, the undeniable highlight of the walk.

The Strand is a walkway along the Shannon River, dotted with mature trees and park benches. It's where we found what would be the first of hundreds of swans we've seen throughout the week. While we do have swans at home, they're a little more of a rarity. It's just really a beautiful stretch of riverside to amble away an afternoon.

The Viking Boat - For €10 you can climb onboard a board fashioned like a Viking boat, with Viking Mike and his crew member George. It sounds cheesy, and I suppose if you spend €5 on a helmet, shield and sword it would be, but it was also the best thing we did in Athlone, without leaving the town itself. The trip lasts just over an hour and takes you down the river to Lough Ree. The river stretches the majority of the way across the country and Lough Ree is the first of many lakes along the way.

With full commentary about the history of the area, you have an hours worth of photo opportunities - bird life amongst the reeds, horses and cattle grazing and the most amazing countryside - it takes your breath away. The boat turns around once it reaches a series of islands in the lake. Once used by monks, they were pillaged by vikings, hence the theme of the trip. With free tea and coffee on board and the charisma only an irish accent can provide, this was a €10 I'd happily spend again.

Midlands Tours/Clonmacnoise -While tour guide Geoff proved vague and disinterested during our three phonecalls to him, it was understandable once we met him. Recession and all, he runs his company single handedly, at times having answered our calls mid-tour. One of the side effects of the recession, and a guilt-inducing bonus for us - with no other tours that morning, he was happy to take the two of us out at his normal group rate of €20 each for a 3 hour tour.

He drove us out of Athlone and into the depths of the countryside, pointing out the bogs and the skeletons of half-finished houses abandoned mid-recession. We stopped in Shannonbridge for photos of the castle there and then despite the time of 10.30am, stopped in at Kileens, a pub in the town. It was worth the stop, with every surface of the pub covered in business cards, newspaper clippings and memorabilia.

The second stop was Clonmacnoise, an early Christian site that features the ruins of a Cathedral, two bell towers and several churches. The €6 entry fee wasn't included in our tour, but as we arrived a free guided tour was starting with one of the Clonmacnoise guides so we joined in, making the entry fee worthwhile. Clonmacnoise is considered a must-see if you're in the area but I don't think we would have been able to make the most of it without the free tour inside.

With a quick third stop at Ballinahown Craft Village to see the bog wood carvings, we were dropped off again right outside our door. Despite our initial misgivings with Geoffs enthusiasm, the tour proved well worth it.

Seans Bar - The oldest pub in Ireland, with a Guiness World Records certificate to prove it, Seans bar is a must, conveniently located directly behind the castle. Currently being investigated for the position of oldest pub in Europe, Seans bar is filled with the atmosphere and energy of a thousand years. The obligatory Guiness, which Courtney thankfully drank (Sorry ireland, I'm just not a fan) was the best Courts had tried in Ireland so far, and still yet to be beaten. The inside of the bar is a typical irish drinking pub - right down to the sawdust on the floor. When you emerge from the dim lighting into the garden bar out back though, you can imagine the awesome parties those walls have seen. Although we went during the afternoon, there is live music every night from 10.30pm.