Fair warning: This article is rather long (10 mins reading time) and isn’t really about Connemara at all (it’s about maps). So if you have arrived here looking for Connemara travel inspiration, perhaps you may prefer this excellent piece by Different Shores instead.
Wow! What a day!!
In the morning we had driven down a single-track road, all the way to the end. At the little harbour, a local family were catching crabs and starfish from the decks of a moored fishing boat and, this being Ireland, our kids were immediately invited onboard to join them. (The local family confessed half an hour later that it wasn’t actually their boat, but trivialities such as ownership don’t appear to apply in Connemara).
Then we took a hike along the southern edge of Killary Harbour (Ireland’s only “fjord”) on the lookout for dolphins. Nobody cared too much that we didn’t see any: the spectacular views, abundance of rocks to climb and squishy bog to jump into more than made up for any delphine no-show.
After a quick (late) lunch in Leenaun, it was off to Glassilaun beach. By now, a strong westerly had picked up, bringing an unseasonal chill and squally showers with it. Swimming and sandcastles were out of the question, but we still managed a stroll across the silvery sands and a spot of clambering over the curious rock formations.
From the warmth of our minivan, however, we soon identified a more sheltered beach where we were finally able to squeeze into our wetsuits and have a dip in the wild Atlantic, overseen by a curious Connemara pony.
And now we are back in our hostel, and I’m tingling with that pleasant exhaustion felt after a physically strenuous but richly rewarding day out.
In the hostel’s common room / kitchen, two rows of sofas are facing each other across a jumble of coffee tables. In front of me, a well-deserved beer and a well-thumbed map of Connemara; to my right, my eldest son. He is playing chess with an intellectual-looking man from Israel; both are locked in thought, oblivious to their surroundings.
Next to the Israeli man – and directly opposite me – is a middle-aged couple from France with their young daughter.
They. Are. MISERABLE…
I’m feigning interest in the chess but actually I’m listening to them: arguing, apportioning blame, trying to understand where it is all going wrong. After a while I can’t bear it any longer. I choose my moment carefully and interrupt them, asking politely if there is anything that I – a French-speaking Irishman – could do to help them in their predicament. To my surprise they don’t tell me to “allez jouer dans le trafic” but open up immediately and unreservedly.
Ireland, they complain, is not what they expected. The accommodation has been too cramped and basic (possibly true, but they chose it), the weather is awful (absolutely true, but it’s Ireland – what did they expect?), and everything is too crowded.
Huh? Too crowded??
My mind flashes back to the remote fishing port, the deserted hike along the fjord, the empty beaches… An accusation of over-crowding is the last thing I expected them to say about Ireland. So I enquire further, asking them where they have visited. The Cliffs of Moher today, they say (jeez, that’s a long day-trip from Connemara!) and before that Dublin, then the Giant’s Causeway… all of them teeming with tourists.
I begin to understand them. They’ve even won my sympathy now. They are, after all, merely going where the slick brochures and tourist guidebooks are telling them they should go. There is a fine line here, an obvious danger that tourism authorities appear to blindly ignore: destinations such as Ireland are “sold” to foreign tourists on images of rugged coastlines, moody cliffs and windswept wilderness; a reality of queues for the toilets and overpriced cafés in ubiquitous “visitor experiences” must occasionally be too much to bear.
But I offered to help them, and so help them I shall. I lean forward from my slightly uncomfortable sofa and give the French tourists the best advice that I can possibly give to anyone in search of authentic landscapes, people and places:
Not tourist maps, not road maps – real topographic maps (a scale of 1:25,000 is optimal). Not electronic maps, not GPSr maps – paper maps which fold out into things of wondrous beauty, endless possibilities and gloriously unpronounceable placenames.
They don’t even need to be up-to-date maps; often older ones are more interesting and show sites that have been forgotten over time, patiently awaiting re-discovery.
Maps are how we had planned our day in Connemara; indeed, maps are how we plan many days out in Ireland, Scotland and just about everywhere else. We had found the fishing port using our topographic map of this part of Connemara, planned our hike using the map, discovered the beach using the map and – crucially – identified a more sheltered beach using the map once we had ascertained the wind direction.
I ceremoniously pick up my 1:50,000 Ordnance Survey “Discovery Series” No.37 (note to cartographers: maps need catchier names…) and hand it to them. I take them through the basic principles – grab a map; pick a place; go there – and we discuss it together for a while. Then we say our goodbyes… and I never see them again. Did they take my advice? I simply don’t know, but if they did, their Irish holiday would undoubtedly have improved. Well, I suppose it couldn’t get any worse…
Using maps to plan holiday days out is something that has been shaping our tourism experiences for years. Before my encounter with the French family, however, I had never consciously realised its usefulness it as a family-friendly way of discovering authentic destinations. Some examples?
That time we discovered a prehistoric site in Småland, Sweden? I found it on a map.
That time we explored an abandoned village on Achill Island, Ireland? It was right there on the map, just a few kilometres from our cottage.
That time Child #1 and I hiked high up into the mountains of the Isle of Arran, Scotland on the lookout for golden eagles? I had scouted likely locations using a map. (For the record, we spotted two; Child #1 still recounts it as the “best hike ever”).
And that time we were amazed by a unique church on its own island off the coast of Angelsey, Wales? Oddities like this practically jump out at you when looking at a map.
Even at home in Luxembourg, maps continue to delight and surprise me. A few years ago, I noticed “Ruines Romaines” marked on an old hiking map. I checked several other more recent maps of the same region but none mentioned it, not one. So I went there… and indeed found the forgotten remains of Roman-era buildings in a dense, neglected forest. What a find! I wonder how many people know about it?
Granted, maps are not universally useful in travel planning. 18th century cartographers of the almost-featureless plains of Champagne found so few points of reference that lonely trees were mapped as distinguishing landmarks (1). This does not automatically imply that Champagne is a boring place to visit (as any aficionado of sparkling fermented grape juice will attest to) but it is, admittedly, unlikely that any topographic map will help the curious tourist there.
But for locations like Ireland and Scotland with their magnificently varied topography and ancient historical curiosities, maps are key to unlocking hidden secrets. Moreover, they are perhaps particularly relevant for travelling families since the destinations that maps reveal are:
- almost always free;
- almost certainly uncrowded; and,
- perfect for giving children a sense of space, freedom and the thrill of authentic exploration – sensations they simply will not get from even the very best “visitor attraction”.
I tend to use “authentic” a lot in my writing, but this really does appear to be the buzzword in tourism at the moment. In the very week I am writing this article, Airbnb have launched their “Trips” initiative to give tourists “an alternative to aggregated tourist lists that funnel people to the same places” (2), whilst Booking.com report that they are “seeing evidence all round of an ever-growing appetite to embrace undiscovered environments in an authentic way” (3). Many people believe that traditional maps are dead, replaced by smartphone technology, but the irony is that what maps offer would appear to be the very essence of the authentic tourism experience that Airbnb, Booking.com and others are striving to capture, package and market. Regardless of whether their efforts succeed or not, maps will continue to shape my family’s tourism experiences for many years to come.
I wonder if the French family are doing the same?
Daisy the bus visited Connemara in July 2015
Ireland map credit: Ordnance Survey Ireland, taken from the 1:50,000 “Discovery Series” No.37
(c) 2016 Jonathan Orr
(1) Robb, G., 2007. The Discovery of France. Picador. A great read, by the way.
(2) Airbnb: Airbnb Expands Beyond the Home with the Launch of Trips. Available at: https://press.atairbnb.com/airbnb-expands-beyond-the-home-with-the-launch-of-trips/
(3) Booking.com: 8 Big Travel Predictions for 2017. Available at: https://globalnews.booking.com/8-big-travel-predictions-for-2017/