We had a couple tours booked in advance of our arrival in Galway, Ireland last year: the Aran Islands and the Cliffs of Moher. That left us with two other days to wander the city and be open to discoveries. It’s our formula for travel, especially European travel where there are so many historical and beautiful sites to see. Tours are a great way to check the boxes, make sure you squeeze in what you came to see, but they can be a double-edged sword: while some tours have provided some of my most treasured memories, others have left me not only exhausted after a long day of crowds and bus rides, but also feeling a little fraudulent, that while I technically saw something in person, took the pictures, checked the box, I hadn’t really experienced it as perhaps it had been intended.
Galway is a lively and gritty city. We’d arrived on the heels of stops in Norway and Denmark, different from Galway in so many ways—the clean and reserved Scandinavian cities a contrast to Galway, it’s hard-lived faces so reminiscent of the faces I see every day in Boston.
To get a true sense of vintage Ireland, in all its green glory, we headed to the Aran Islands, jutting from Galway Bay, about a 45-minute ferry ride from the mainland. Inishmore, the largest of the islands, was our destination. Although we did this day trip as a tour, really the package only consists of the bus ride to the ferry and back. Once on shore, my wife and I rented bikes and headed off on our own, with about six hours to explore. The island has a population of 845 (not counting tourists!) with a size of about twelve square miles. Although I had my travel book in my backpack, I rarely stopped to take it out that day, so caught up in just taking in the island’s mighty beauty, its breathtaking scenery. I’d be lying if I said my eyes never welled with tears that day.
We pedaled slowly. Other cyclists passed us all day long. My head swiveled: green, lush, rocky, and rural, as far as the eyes could see. Beyond it, the blue and infinite expanse of Galway Bay. I left the guidebook on my back, but paused far too often to take photos that of course would never do justice to what I was trying to take in. Inishmore offers us a glimpse into old Ireland, what the country might have looked like when our ancestors lived on its mainland. The green landscape is dotted with simple, one-room homes, low stones walls crisscrossing all of it in haphazard abandon. I couldn’t stop photographing it.
My wife stopped to say hello to mules and goats curiously poking their heads over the walls, maybe hoping for a treat. One horse, white and striking, eyed us and edged closer. I regretted tossing an apple core away a few minutes before. I put my feet on the pavement, rested, and spent a few minutes with the horse. We weren’t in a hurry. Occasionally, a van would pass us, grumbling and sputtering, eight or ten tourists lining its rows and looking out the dirty windows. The driver kept glancing in the rear-view mirror, talking. I couldn’t imagine experiencing the island this way.
The farthest point of the expedition took us to the base of Dún Aonghasa, the prehistoric fort atop dramatic cliffs rising from frothing surf. We parked the bikes and hiked the rest of the way, panting and awestruck at the peak, my camera working hard, fruitlessly trying to preserve this day.
On the return bike ride, we meandered along winding roads running parallel to the sea. We stopped for more pictures, or just to look around and take in the afternoon light and the silence. We watched seals frolic in the surf, one lying on its back with its head and tail arched in a prominent U. I couldn’t shake the thought that we were standing on the last unspoiled place in the world.
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The Cliffs of Moher tour was a couple days later. Another bus ride, the driver giving us all the history we could handle during the drive through the Burren, cracking jokes in his western Irish accent. We have a photo of the Cliffs that my wife had taken years before, on an earlier trip from before we’d met. For me, this visit had felt long overdue, that I didn’t deserve that bedroom photo because I’d never been.
A car accident up ahead had stopped traffic. Roads in Ireland are narrow and winding and sometimes treacherous. We heard no one was hurt. I wondered how we would get by in this massive bus, but the question was moot because no one was getting past. It took two hours to clear, and the driver made the decision to forego a stop for lunch in the fishing village of Kinvara and instead head straight for the Cliffs. It was fine with me. The day was already starting to feel long.
The Cliffs, of course, are beautiful, a long stretch of dramatic rock punching out of the wild sea, the shear face of it rippling into the hazy distance as though water-damaged.
And yet, after the Aran Islands and their sweeping, almost spiritual beauty, the Cliffs felt a bit too congested and touristy. Think of the difference between being on safari and seeing wild elephants roaming, versus shouldering for position at a crowded zoo exhibit.
I took some great pictures of the Cliffs, but each was a strategic manipulation as I searched for the right angle, the best spot, to capture the majesty of the Cliffs while cropping out as many tourists as I could. We walked some of the dirt path crowing the Cliffs, searching for a quiet place to stop to take in the view. “Can you imagine if we were here by ourselves?” I said at one point. You really had to search out a quiet place, stop, breathe, put the blinders on, and then, finally, begin to feel their majesty and what they must have meant to Ireland’s ghosts.
Back in Galway, we had dinner and Smithwick’s ale, tired and spent. We’d checked the boxes we’d wanted to check, and were glad to have the next day, our final day in Europe before flying back to the U.S., to wander without an agenda.
The Galway Arts Festival happened to be taking place the weekend we were there. We’d known nothing about it in advance, but over the four days we were there kept seeing signs, ads, and brochures promoting the festival. On our final day, the sky a little gray and low, we made our way to the box office in the center of town and looked at the day’s schedule.
Almost arbitrarily, we bought tickets to How to Catch a Star, a short play featuring puppetry and based on a children’s book by Oliver Jeffers popular in the U.K.
Our apprehension that we were probably too old for this show, that the auditorium would be full of rowdy and restless kids, that we should have picked a poetry reading or concert, dissolved as soon as the show began. There were no words, no dialogue, no speaking parts, just quiet background music to accompany the puppet on stage, a lonely boy gazing at the stars, longing for friendship. The audience, many children, of course, sat silently. We were all equally captivated. For the second time in four days, my eyes welled.
Tours can be hit or miss, sometimes necessary to quickly and conveniently check certain travel boxes but sacrificing the act of discovery that is, of course, the essence of travel.
While I’ll always sign up for tours after doing my research and weighing the pros and cons—what sites are worth getting to on my own versus the convenience of the tour—I also make sure not to over-book. Let the adventure breathe, be open to the unscheduled moments that so often end up being the ones you’ll treasure forever—the stars that, with no effort at all, you managed to catch.