Weekend Break: Galway

29th May 2013
Pól Ó Conghaile

Why has Galway got such X-factor?

I give this a lot of thought on the train journey, but once I step out of Ceannt Station and onto Eyre Square, things start to crystallise. It’s because Galway is as much a feeling as a physical place.

It’s at once a city and a state-of-mind.

Just say the word – Galway – and feel your fingers tingle. No other Irish city evokes quite the same excitement, goodwill and nostalgia at the mere mention of its name. It’s a college town and a cultural crossroads, a foodie hub and bo-ho hangout where you’re guaranteed to meet a busker with balloons tied to his head.

Walking through Eyre Square, I soak up the atmosphere by osmosis. Tourists shoot selfies by the rusty-red sails of abstract Galway hooker. Locals look 20% more relaxed than normal folk. People are optimistically eating outside.

It’s 11.30am on a Friday, and I’m already cracking the weekend open.

The big breakfast…

McCambridge's, Galway

Not long ago, the first floor of McCambridge’s deli (38-39 Shop Street) was a store room. Before that, as one Galway local tells me, it was “Old Mr McCambridge’s sitting room”. Pop upstairs these days, and you’ll find one of the best and airiest casual restaurants in the city.

This is the domain of head chef Heather Flaherty, a local legend for her Sunday brunch among other treats – served from 10am to 4.30pm. You can get anything from a bowl of Kilbeggan organic porridge with Bailey’s and hazelnuts (€6.95) to an Irish artisanal fry from €9.95 here… not a bad for a chef from Saskatchewan!

McCambridge’s itself is a culinary crossroads, selling everything from Burren Smokehouse salmon to Kelly’s pudding from Newport. If the queue is too long (it can curl down the staircase), grab soup and a sambo and sit out in the Square.

The cultural fix…

Galway2 Museum Arch

Visitors to Galway in times past may remember a strangely loveable statue of Pádraic Ó Conaire that sat in Eyre Square. Unveiled in 1935, this piece of street furniture witnessed countless photos and (apparently) a raft of marriage proposals before it was unceremoniously decapitated by vandals in 1999.

“The presiding judge at the court case equalled this crime to the Mona Lisa being taken from the Louvre in Paris,” according to the display notes at Galway City Museum (Spanish Arch; free).

It’s there that the statue is kept in safekeeping today, depicting Ó Conaire in modest pose with his toes crossed and hat worn backwards. Pop in to say hello, and you’ll not only learn about the city’s history, but catch some of the best views of the Spanish Arch and River Corrib from the corner windows upstairs.

The Corrib River Cruise…

lough corrib, galway, lisloughrey

Keith Richards was somewhere around Oughterard, on the edge Lough Corrib, when the craving began to take hold.

Luckily, this was a craving for snuff, and nothing stronger. But the nature of cravings is that they must be satisfied, and so the guitarist – who was enjoying a lake cruise with Ronnie Wood at the time – asked the captain where snuff might be found.

A nearby pub was suggested – the kind of place that sells anything “from sheep dip to gun cartridges” as the story goes. So the boat was tied up, and off they went.

When Richards and Wood pitched up, they spotted the pub’s owner inside, poring over the racing pages with a magnifying glass. And he spotted them back.

“There’s a pair of tramps at the door,” he shouted. “Tell them to go away.”

The owner’s son appeared, opened the door, and stopped in his tracks.

“Dad, it’s the Rolling Stones!”

“Jaysusm” his father replied. “Tell them to come in so.”

My first stop on this visit is a cruise on the lake(snuff-free, thankfully) on the Corrib Princess (€15pp). I hear the story of Keith Richards and Co. as we wind past Ashford Castle and Lisloughrey Quay, easing out for an hour or so onto the surface of the Republic’s second-largest lake. The picture above is the view over the lake from the Lodge at Ashford Castle.

Festivals & Fun…

Quay Street, Galway

With buskers fiddling, strumming and piping at 2o-yard intervals, the Saturday market in full flow and tourists streaming along the bo-ho catwalk from Quay Street to Shop Street, every weekend feels like a festival in Galway.

Imagine the craic to be had when the festivals themselves crank up, then. Summer kicks off with the Galway Sea Festival (May 29 – June 2), rolling on with the Galway Film Fleadh (July 8-13), the Galway Arts Festival (July 14-27) and reaching a crescendo with the Galway Races (July 28 – Aug 3).

It’s a heady schedule by anyone’s standards, and come the end of the Galway Races, even Galwegians have been known to require a night or two off, retreating into their shells to remark on how the evenings are “drawing in”.

Even if you don’t fancy a festival, there’s always a buzz in the City of the Tribes. I love strolling through the market by St. Nicholas’s Church on Saturday, catching the bang of cheese coming out of Sheridan’s. Or doing as Galwegians generally don’t, and walking down the old Long Walk… the quayside immortalised in Steve Earle’s ‘Galway Girl’.

“Everybody does things tomorrow here,” a guide once told me.

Out of town…

connemara, winter walks

Of course, Galway is as much a city as a staging post for Connemara. For every star God put in the sky, it’s said, He laid a million stones in this wild landscape – and those stones come together to form some of the best coastal routes, mountain ranges and hidden beaches in the country.

Think of Dog’s Bay on the Ballyconneely Peninsula, the Sky Road’s heavenly views over the Atlantic, or the creamy bowls of chowder bubbling away in O’Dowd’s (odowdsseafoodbar.com), a beautiful old pub in Roundstone.

The rooms…

The g hotel, Galway, lobby

The bad news? Galway boasts some of the most expensive hotel rooms in the country. However if you book ahead, or travel midweek, deals can certainly be had.

Galway has a good spread of four-star hotels, for example, from the centrally-located House Hotel (2 nights with cocktails from €99pp) to the Clayton Hotel in Ballybrit (2B&B+1D from €119pps).

For a splurge, don’t look past the g Hotel (2B&B+1D from €180pp). With interiors by milliner Philip Treacy, this space could be at home on South Beach, not to mind Lough Atalia. Sure, it’s a bit cheeky to describe the location as “in the heart of Galway” (it cost us €7 in a taxi at night), but I’ve always found quality in the style and service.

Going to press, 7 Cross Street, a boutique townhouse in the Latin Quarter, had weekend B&B rates from €79 per room and the Salthill Hotel had a three night break for the price of two from €139pps. The offer is available Sunday to Thursday to May 31.

The food…

aniar, galway

Galway has been shortlisted as one of the Restaurant Association of Ireland’s Top 10 Foodie Towns, so get ready to eat yourself to a standstill – from casual munchies at its bars and cafes to Michelin Star fare at Aniar.

Speaking of Aniar, all eyes are on Enda McEvoy’s new venture in the city – reportedly titled ‘Loam’, after the type of soil – which is all systems go to launch this year… although the chef himself hasn’t given a date. McEvoy, who worked in Noma, won Aniar its Michelin Star, so there’s lots to be excited about here.

This visit also reaffirms for me how well Galway does lunch. Casual restaurants like Kai, Dela and Ard Bia at Nimmo’s serve ridiculously tasty and creative dishes in the €9-€12 price bracket, opening up the possibility of all kinds of gastro bliss in the early afternoon.

Forget cheese and ham sambos. The specials on offer during my visit to Ard Bia included Connemara mussels in fennel, white wine and crème fraiche (€12), and Colleran’s lamb and pistachio kofta with bulgar wheat salad (€12).

Other new and noteworthy additions include Espresso 44 on Shop Street, and the welcome return of Cava on Middle Street. If you fancy your craft beers, check out The Oslo in Salthill, the “mother ship” for the Galway Bay Brewery. It does craft on draft from just €4 on Wednesdays.

Finally, if your foraging hasn’t gotten you further than a few pints outside Tigh Neachtáin’s, you could do a lot worse than join the queues at McDonagh’s for a cod and chips. It’ll remind you that this is a maritime city.

Travel Tips…

For more ideas on things to see and do in Galway, see galway.com, discoverireland.ie/galway or tweet @galwaygaillimh. If you book in advance with Irish Rail, tickets start from €9.99 each way.

Key words: Weekend break in Galway