At the onset, hearing someone describe the Burren does not make it sound like a must-see destination in Ireland. It's essentially a coastline of rock. A whole lotta' rock. About 250 square kilometers of rock to be exact, and the Irish name for it is "Boireann" which means "rocky area" -- brilliant. But in person, and on a beautiful day, the Burren is absolutely a must-see destination in Ireland and a whole lot more than just a stony coastline.
To start, it is living history. The Burren is one of the largest limestone deposits in all of Europe. I don't have the geological knowledge to explain its creation in depth but my basic understanding is this: when the area was once flooded by water (a long, long time ago), the pressure of said water compressed lots and lots of sediments together to form the swaths of limestone. As the water receded and after a series of ice ages, the previously submerged limestone formations were now left above ground. The resulting process of karsification (the dissolution of water soluble rock such as limestone) is what has given the surface of the Burren its swiss-cheese like appearance which began after the last ice age about 10,000 years ago.
All of this summed up means walking through the Burren is a walk through incredibly ancient land. It's the kind of land where you really, really wish Mother Nature had a verbal way of communication because man, what stories that ground would be able to tell! The rock itself is incredibly unique. Some parts are like walking on a solid sponge: porous and irregularly shaped. Other parts are razor thin and sharp along their exposed edges but still incredibly strong, and some surfaces are perfectly smooth, rounded over by centuries of wear and tear.
For outdoor enthusiasts, the Burren is also a fantastic climbing haven which is what inspired this post and what I was doing over the weekend. It's trad climbing only as the rock is protected under government jurisdiction. To help preserve the site, they have made it forbidden to drill any anchors into the crag walls. But, if you have the gear, or a friend who has the gear, then it is a must-climb location as routes abound on the limestone walls. Be forewarned, the weather can be a two-second-fiddle-bomb. There was more than one climber over the weekend who started their route in sunlight and shortsleeves and found themselves topping out in the wind and rain. For our trip, we lucked out. Mother Nature's indecisiveness wore off about one o'clock and settled on a gentle breeze and a bright sun.
Which brings me to my final point: the Burren is just a beautiful place to go. One of the crags I had the chance to climb was down below the roadway and right on the water's edge. Walking over the cracked rock surface, we paralleled the water for a about a quarter of a mile before clambering down metal ledges that had been inserted into the rock as steps and dropping on the the edge of the coast. Directly in front was the eastern edge of the Atlantic, and the coastline of the Aran Islands a few miles out. Incoming waves sent sprays of water fifteen, maybe twenty feet into the air on a good crash. To the North, all the seaside houses of Galway bay were visible.. And to the South were these massive limestone cliffs that loomed over the water's edge and stretched all the way down to the horizon line where they became the famous Cliffs of Moher.
I have never been much of an ocean person, but this was absolutely incredible. It created a different kind of peacefulness than say walking alone through the middle of a deep, pine forest, but it was peaceful all the same. It was the quintessential coastal image. Seagulls were calling, the sea air was on every swell of breeze, the sunlight illuminated the rocks in a pale gold, and the sound of waves crashing provided a somewhat intimidating but comforting white noise in the background.
This weekend also helped reinforce a concept I have been finding during my (limited) travel experiences. And that is that often the best parts of a culture, the real, genuine parts of a culture, are found off the beaten path. It is easy to default to the established and well known tourist places and they are often certainly worth the visit -- otherwise, they wouldn't been established and well known tourist places. But the coastline crag wasn't near where the tour bus of people that passed by during our trip stopped; it was down a rock ledge with tiny steps and a weathered rope for support that isn't visible from the road. Dolan's pub, which I have been told has some of the best trad music sessions in Limerick, isn't on the main street in town, it's seven blocks south along the river and out of the way. The castle I found in the woods isn't visible from the main campus, it was over a mile down a dirt trail.
I know I will continue to wander off the beaten path a little when traveling somewhere new in hopes of finding that hidden gem of a shop, or that rarely seen view, and I hope you get the chance to as well!
**** P.S. LOTS more pictures from the weekend coming soon, so be sure to check back! Cheers! *****