Monday, 14 November 2011

IRELAND: I LOST MY HEART TO A GALWAY GRILL

HORDE DAY'S NIGHT: A busy evening in Quay Street
IT was just before midday in Galway’s Eyre Square, and outside the Skeffington Arms an elderly English couple were enjoying a cuppa in the sunshine. At the next table a young fella in an Armagh GAA shirt who was still half-cut from the night before put down his pint of cider, nudged his pie-eyed pal and pointed to the husband and wife. “Imagine drinking tea at this time of the morning,” he slurred.
I don’t know where the two boyos had spent the previous evening — certainly not in their beds — but if there was an ounce of sense between them they’d have been in The Quays pub in Quay Street. Galway is party town, and The Quays is Party Central, a magnet for locals and visitors who appreciate the best in live bands. If you drop by when covers group Pyramid are playing, which is regularly, you’ll stay until closing time.
The Quays, at the heart of the vibrant Latin Quarter, isn’t the only music venue (check out the famed Roisin Dubh in Dominick Street), nor do you need a drink in your hand to be entertained, because the streets of Galway are the stage for Ireland’s best — and best-paid — buskers. If the piles of coins in their open guitar, banjo and didgeridoo cases are anything to go by, those medieval streets are paved with silver.
When it comes to traditional music, for which Galway is renowned, there simply aren’t enough hours in the diddly-aye day to sample the countless organised and spontaneous sessions that pack the pubs. The most popular places to spend an evening while the most talented musicians in the west of Ireland do their stuff are Tigh Coili (Mainguard Street/Shop Street), An Pucan (Forster Street), The Western Bar (Prospect Hill), Taaffe’s (Shop Street), The Spanish Arch Bar (Quay Street), The Crane (Sea Road) and Cookes Thatch Bar (Newcastle Road). Foreign visitors often ask how the publicans can afford to pay so many fiddlers, guitarists, flute and accordion players and singers, but the answer is simple — they provide the pints, the musicians provide the tunes.

HIGH NOTES: Buskers playing for shoppers
TAP CLASS: Dancing in the street
Don’t be surprised if an impromptu gig breaks out in the most unlikely of places. I was queueing for fish and chips outside Harry Fitz, opposite Taaffe’s, when three girls without instruments but with the voices of angels began singing the beautiful and haunting Isle of Inisfree (see www.youtube.com/watch?v=1xn7rjlOxfc to hear Orla Fallon’s version). Even the most boozed-up and boisterous members of that queue fell silent within seconds and passers-by gathered round to listen. The girls weren’t busking, they were simply doing what comes naturally in Galway, and that’s part of what makes the place so very special.
I didn’t get to enjoy my meal. Not that I wasn’t hungry — I was starving, as was my pal Aleks. But a pitiable little man standing nearby kept glancing at me every time I raised a chip or a piece of fish to my mouth. And then he came over. He wasn’t looking for money, which came as a surprise. You can’t walk 100 metres in Dublin or go to a cash machine without being hit upon, either by some unfortunate homeless person or those pests in the vests who ambush pedestrians and shove a direct debit form under their noses. But the little man outside Harry Fitz was different. He pointed to my snack box and, in broken English and with a breaking voice, asked if he could have whatever I left. I handed him the box, along with my bottle of water and €20 (he got €10 from Aleks), and he burst into tears and plastered the back of my hand with kisses. I was so overcome I had to walk away, leaving the little man to wolf down the first food he’d eaten in two days. It was a sobering moment in a prosperous city where the social life revolves around drinking.

CLAN-TASTIC: Coats of arms of the 14 Galway Tribes
Galway is known as the City of the Tribes, but this has nothing to do with the stag and hen parties who flock there every weekend. Rather, it refers to the 14 Anglo-Norman merchant families — the Athys, Blakes, Bodkins, Brownes, D’Arcys, Deanes, Ffonts, Ffrenches, Joyces, Kirwans, Lynches, Martins, Morrises and Skerrets — who ran the place between the mid-13th and late 16th centuries and still retained some influence into the 19th century.
The 14 bamboozling roundabouts that surround the city bear the tribes’ names, but much as those long-gone movers and shakers are held in esteem by the locals, mystified motorists from elsewhere curse them. If Oliver Cromwell’s murderous marauders had encountered such formidable obstacles, they’d have called it a day and gone home. As it was, they invaded this once walled city on the banks of the River Corrib in 1652 and wreaked havoc. In 1691, following the Battle of the Boyne, King Billy and his boys finished the job, and it was nearly 300 years before Galway struggled back to its feet. Today, the city stands proud, and the only invaders are tourists who are welcomed with open arms rather than boiling oil.
Described by WB Yeats as the Venice of the west, probably because it’s more often wet than dry (yet glorious when the sun shines), Galway is famed for its festivals, including the Arts Festival (www.galwayartsfestival.com) which takes place every July (next year from the 16th to 29th). This is the daddy of them all, a two-week test of stamina for performers, exhibitors and the 80,000 Irish and international visitors who fill the streets, galleries, theatres, pubs and cash registers from mid-morning to midnight. The Macnas procession that brings the festival to a close and the packed city to a halt is a wonder to behold as the most marvellously crafted giant puppet figures accompanied by youth and community groups in fancy dress, colourful floats, stilt walkers, dancers, bands and drummers parade from the Spanish Arch to the Fisheries Field. Fifty thousand people lined the streets this year to watch this loud and colourful spectacle.

MANE ATTRACTION: Big race action at Ballybrit track
HAT A GIRL: Glamorous Ladies Day at Galway Races
The Arts Festival is immediately followed by the annual Galway Races at Ballybrit (www.galwayraces.com), which next year will be held from July 30 to August 5. The meeting, immortalised in song, was attended this year by 150,000 racing fans who gambled around €33 million, begging the question, what recession? It also begs the question of why I don’t just host an annual bonfire party and toss tenners into the flames instead of handing them over to sniggering bookie Paddy Power, whose children I’m putting through college.
The Continental Christmas Market in Eyre Square (www.galwaychristmasmarket.ie) is a treat. Held for the first time last year, it was such a phenomenal success — 600,000 visitors, with 130,000 saying they came especially to Galway to do their shopping — that it’s back, from November 25 to December 18. More than 70 traders from throughout Ireland and Europe will set out stalls laden with festive goodies as the irresistible aromas of gluhwein, churros and chocolate, pretzels, apple dumplings, paella and Polish sausages hang over the square. I went to the first market and spent most of my time wandering from one fast food outlet to the next, more interested in stomach-fillers than stocking-fillers. Thanks to the German guy who was selling the big fat sizzling frankfurters, I lost my heart to a Galway grill.
The annual International Oyster Festival (www.galwayoysterfest.com) at the end of September coincides with the harvest and is the longest-running weekend celebration of all things seafood in Ireland. Established in 1954, it has grown into what the AA Travel Guide described as “one of Europe’s seven best festivals, on a par with Munich’s Oktoberfest” and the Sunday Times called “one of the 12 Greatest Shows on Earth”. In 1960, festival-goers consumed 3,000 oysters. Last year, they swallowed 100,000. I’ve no idea what the organisers do with all those empties, but I do know that when crushed to grit they’re a valuable source of calcium that helps ensure hens lay eggs with strong shells. I guess they’d also make nice earrings.

SHELL-SHUCK: Oyster opening at the annual festival
When they’re not slurping live molluscs (don’t fret, they’ve no central nervous system) washed down with Guinness, visitors can watch nimble-fingered competitors vying to become the national and world oyster opening champions, have their picture taken with the Oyster Pearl — a young woman chosen as the face of the festival (if there was a male equivalent he’d be Mister Mussel) — and dine at restaurants participating in the Seafood Dinearound. For those who like to dress up for a glamorous night out, the black tie Gala Ball and banquet on the Saturday is the hottest ticket in town. Mind you, everyone who visits Galway has a ball.
The evening before we headed home to Dublin, the little man I gave my snack box to spotted Aleks and I standing outside The Quays and, after some more hand kissing and the blessings of every saint in heaven, offered to sell us his sister for the night, “special price for my friends”. In the space of 24 hours he’d gone from pitiable to pimp. I gave him a mouthful — and this time it wasn’t fish and chips.

STAY IN GALWAY
Look no further than the 4-star Radisson Blu Hotel & Spa (call 091 538300 or see www.radissonblu.ie/hotel-galway) if you value comfort, top-class service and all the facilities you’d expect from a respected worldwide chain yet at unexpectedly affordable prices. And, joy of joys, there’s free wifi in the rooms, which is something I always look for when choosing a hotel — if it charges for guests to go online, I go elsewhere.
The 282-room Radisson, which also offers adjacent serviced apartments, is tucked out of the way in a quiet location in Lough Atalia Road just three minutes’ walk from the train and bus stations, making it an ideal base from which to explore the city. That’s if you can drag yourself out of bed — they’re the most comfortable I’ve ever slept in. As for the breakfasts, you’d have to travel far and wide to find a more impressive, extensive selection of hot and cold dishes with which to start the day. Go up to the buffet more than twice and the only travelling you’ll be doing is back to your room for an early siesta.

BLU-MING LOVELY: Galway's fab Radisson Blu Hotel
One of the big attractions of the spacious and light-filled Marinas Restaurant, where those knockout breakfasts are served and which overlooks Lough Atalia, is the Scandinavian-style buffet option. Offering a wide selection of cold meats, smoked fish, salads, vegetables and freshly-baked breads, it’s a favourite with local people in the know who enjoy a less formal dining experience ahead of, say, a night at the theatre. The extensive a la carte menu is big on seafood, but the succulent rack of lamb and the char-grilled fillet of beef are fabulous too. Vegetarians are well catered for, and there’s a good selection of wheat-free and weight-watching dishes, too. The Atrium Lounge serves bar food from 3 to 10pm daily, and a resident pianist keeps guests entertained on Thursday through Saturday evenings. If you’re there in summer there’s the added bonus of enjoying a drink on the veranda and watching the sun go down on Galway Bay, as the song goes, while the tune tinkles in the background. It never fails to move visiting exiles and Irish-Americans to tears.
The very thought of even stepping inside a gym moves me to tears, but hardier — and healthier — guests will find all the exercise equipment they need to keep their hearts pumping in the hotel’s leisure centre. A lot less energetic, and therefore right up my street, is the Spirit One Spa (www.spiritonespa.com) with its wide range of facials and energising head to toe treatments for women and men. Equally enticing if you’re wheezy or have skin discomforts is the Salt Spa, where the watchwords are inhale, exhale, recover. Breathing constantly clean salt air is of proven benefit to those suffering from asthma, bronchitis, hay fever, eczema, psoriasis, sinusitis and allergies. It even helps to alleviate snoring, so lads, don’t be surprised to find an envelope containing a gift voucher under the Christmas tree.

EAT IN GALWAY
Visitors to Galway are spoiled for choice when it comes to fine restaurants, but Aniar (www.aniarrestaurant.ie) in Lower Dominick Street merits a special nod, not only for its exciting terroir-based cuisine but because it has the decency to offer more than 20 wines by the glass from its list of 40 from small artisan producers. The head chef is Enda McEvoy, who probably gets locked in a cupboard every night by husband and wife owners JP McMahon and Drigin Gaffey in case other restaurateurs try to lure him away. McEvoy, who recently spent an inspiring stint in Copenhagen at Nama, the San Pellegrino World’s No.1 Restaurant this year and last, wields not a wooden spoon but a magic wand. With a reputation like that, it’s no wonder it’s wise to make a reservation. McMahon and Gaffey also own the Cava Spanish Restaurant (www.cavarestaurant.ie) next door, and it’s no exaggeration to say it serves the best tapas on the island of Ireland.
Other restaurants of note are Da Tang Noodle House in Middle Street, The Malt House in Olde Malt Mall, High Street, Kirwan’s Lane Restaurant and Goya’s, both in Kirwan’s Lane, McDonagh’s in Quay Street and Ard Bia in Long Walk, Spanish Arch.
˜For further information on visiting Galway, see www.discoverireland.ie