There are several ways to walk from Doolin to Fanore on the Wild Atlantic Way. I think we picked the longest, toughest, wettest, and most rewarding.
Or maybe it picked us.
Our walk takes us up near the top of Slieve Elva – the highest point in the Burren – with misty views, from the Cliffs of Moher to the ghostly Aran Islands to Galway Bay and the vaguest wisp of Connemara beyond.
Stepping out from Doolin, the music still in our heads and a light step to our feet, we revel in the New England-like spring breezes that make the fields of high grass dance beside us and the warming sun that darts in and out from behind wispy white clouds.
Behind us, the northern end of the Cliffs of Moher is clearly visible, another landscape entirely from this lush green grazing land we now traverse.
The road gently rises up before us, away from the Atlantic, which makes me question our route but all the signs, and Google maps, and our own hard maps say this is the way.
Leaving Doolin, our path is a stroll down country roads:
But no, the ruler-straight country roads soon round the hills, turn back on themselves, and chase the rolling contours up and down. More or less, we are heading for Fanore with barely more than overly curious cows and indifferent sheep, lichen-covered rock walls, and the occasional sedan for company. And this suits us.
Soon enough, off in the distance mist, we spot Ballinalacken Castle with its jagged top and use it as our cold and lightless lodestar. We circle it far to the east and curve our way north until our footing is sure and the road to Fanore is clearly before us.
By mid-day, the contours take an upward bend and the plush green fields begin to mix with rock. And more rock. And less green pasture. And more scraggly trees, bent away from the coast, sculpted by wind.
The sky, as if it knows we are climbing into ancient lands, grows darker and colder. The wind grows more fierce and I’m actually hanging on to my little Rose as the blasts push her across the road. It begins to rain, not so fiercely — not as fierce as the winds that propel it sideways.
Rising up in the Burren, but still far from the limestone moonscapes:
We are accompanied by a Celtic symphony of mournful scrabbled ancient tunes as the wind courses through the grasses and scrub, the few bare trees and telephone wires, and most curiously, the haunting keening of open pipes used to build cattle and sheep pens up in these hills. Nature’s own uilleann pipes.
These fields of stone are crisscrossed by stone fences and dotted with the stone foundations of ancient forts, houses, churches, and the occasional gnarled and twisted tree. Men and women spent their lives gathering those stones for homes and fences and still the fields hold enough rock to do it all over again for two centuries more.
The back-breaking gathering and stacking on these hills began as many as 6,000 years ago, the literature says. A man’s wall is respected as more than the boundaries of his home and fields. Evidence of some of these ancient boundaries remains, long ages after their authors perished or shipped off to the New World where more stone awaited them.
A kind of immortality is lent to these anonymous wall builders. Their work shall stand a few centuries more. Even the more-modern walls, as documented in the 1842 Ordnance Survey maps, are “largely unchanged” today, I’m told.
Resilient patches of grass wrap around all the rock, yielding enough food for the hardiest of sheep. We pause and I feel spirits in the mist, broken souls who struggled to carve lives from an unforgiving land, yielding little more than a harvest of stone.
Were these my forebearers, I wonder? The ones who left this country — stone carvers by trade — left this rock-hard and windy-cold life, and found only more stone to move, in Scotland then for English bosses in New England.
It feels like sacred ground, here, on top of this world. And we tread so lightly feeling reverence and awe as if we were standing before the landscape of Old Master like Constable and Rembrandt, and van Ruysdael.
This whole day, ever stronger winds from the east have pushed us and pulled us, always depending on how the road turns. And now, this rain joins in the merriment in the shadow of Slieve Elva. My hands are cold, I’m wet. I stop taking pictures and walk resolutely on.
The thought of warm stew and cold beer in Fanore’s only pub, O’Donohue’s, only a couple of hours away, keeps us walking steadily over these hills along loose shale lanes.
Soon enough, we spot the white houses of Fanore, well below and many fields away from our path. It looks like a toy ceramic bisque village, something you’d set up on Christmas with little trains running in a loop around shops and homes. It is a white necklace of houses between the dark gray Atlantic and green pastures to the east, rising up to the Burren above us.
We pass some time trying to imagine which of these buildings is O’Donohue’s and which is the gatehouse where we will sleep tonight. The downward-sloping road takes past Fanore — did I miss a sign again? –before it curls back down and around. We imagine catching a whiff of O’Donohue’s famous stew and fish and chips. We chew on grainy and dry health bars to quiet our stomachs.
The mountain road soon hits the coastal road and we begin walking back toward the village. as the rain intensifies unaided by wind at sea level.
There it is, just up ahead, O’Donohue’s pub, which opened in 1911 and has enjoyed a long tenure and fine reputation through war and famine and times of disease and prosperity.
And it is closed.
Apparently, it is still operating on winter hours and weekends only while awaiting the tipping point of a tourism revival.
Across the street at Siopa Fan Oir, Fanore’s convenience store and tackle shop, the proprietor Catherine tells us so, as the rain pours down ever more heavily.
Siopa Fan Oir is not only the only store open in Fanore. It was the only store. Much as O’Donohue’s is the only pub.
And as I discover, we still have a good 40 minutes of walking to reach our B&B for the night.
“Where are you staying?” Catherine asks me, while Rose gathers soup, fruit, vegetables, and the fixings for a home-cooked meal.
“Connole’s Gatehouse,” I say while scanning the Irish newspapers racked in the front of the shop.
Catherine is on the phone in a flash. “Amy? I have two drowned rats here who say they’re staying with you tonight.”
She talks a bit in a low voice, then hangs up.
“Amy will be passing by in 10 minutes. She’s picking up the kids from school. She’ll give you a lift.”
And she did.
As we waited, other school moms stop in and raise the same question: “Will the kids be having football practice in the rain?”
They are all pretty much against it, even though all the kids are in uniforms and cleats, including Amy who arrives with her two young footballers in tow. She helps us toss our wet gear into the back of her SUV and were off, after reverent farewells to our angel Catherine.
Amy’s gatehouse cottage is warm, cozy, and the hot shower feels like a small, end-of-a-long-day miracle.
By the time I’m dry and changed, Rose has whipped up a nice meal.
I wrap both hands around the warm bowl of squash soup – and fall asleep. The bowl tips and half my soup hits the floor. Nothing like a hot liquid on the leg to wake you right up again.
I slurp up what is left in the bowl, munch on a little cheese and crackers, down a cookie or two, and hit the sack.
Tomorrow promises another glorious hike.
And more challenging.
Ireland and The Burren Way Series:
Living it up in Galway before hiking the Burren Way
Day 1: The Burren Way: Hag’s Head to Doolin and not fiddlin’ around
Day 2: Doolin to Fanore, flirting with the edges of the Burren
Day 3: Fanore to Ballyvaughan, up and over the Burren
Day 4: Ballyvaughan to Carran, and not walking the Burren
Day 5: Carran to Corofin “Turn right at the castle”
Sunday morning and Ennis slowly stirs awake
3 thoughts on “Day 2, The Burren Way: Doolin to Fanore, flirting with the edges of The Burren”
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