Ireland is home to the kind of beauty that instantly makes you a believer. Take a 4-day train journey through the rustic country to forge a deeper connection with yourself and everything around you – people, nature, food, culture, and more
Many love trains but never end up taking them as they’re always in a hurry to reach where they can start their vacation. But, why just get somewhere when you can make the journey as glorious as the destination?
In this age of all things instant, trains give you that perfect opportunity to experience the simple pleasures of going slow which involves taking the time to breathe, unplug and pay attention to the little, simple joys of life that aren’t necessarily the most popular attractions.
It’s more about a prolonged and in-depth travel experience, embracing everything around you. Moreover, there are few experiences like lying in a cosy bed, gazing at the changing landscape in tranquility, with the train gently rocking you to sleep. Though you may like the idea of reaching a destination in hours rather than days, there’s nothing that can quite match the thrill of rail travel. The rhythm of the wheels, the guard’s piercing whistle, the sound of horn as the train approaches and departs a station, view from the window seat, chatting with fellow passengers; all this come together to create a certain magic onboard a train. Besides, train journeys reveal a country as flights can never do.
For most of my trips, I have had a never-ending list of must-visit sites. Honestly, this is often a result of the fear of missing out! However, this time around, I decide to drop the pressure of packing my itinerary with too many activities, only to be able savour the country of Ireland in a slow lane. Letting go of the compulsion to do “everything” is quite liberating!
I am on the longest train in Ireland (252 metres), midnight-blue Belmond Grand Hibernian, departing from Dublin. The plan is to spend four nights aboard the train, disembarking each day to explore some of the most storied towns of the charming Irish countryside.
Each elegant carrier of the train is named after an Irish county and every cabin boasts of warm, soothing furnishings that echo elements of ancient Irish folklore and classic Georgian architecture. With a little, cosy cabin to myself, I am all set to unlock the poetic spirit of the Emerald Isle (nicknamed so for its rolling green hills) in a very leisurely fashion.
On my desk, I find a note quoting Ireland’s literary giant William Butler Yeats. It says “There are no strangers here; only friends you haven’t yet met.”
I am already eager to discover more about my fellow travellers and build some lasting bonds over the next few days. As we indulge in sumptuous Irish Afternoon tea, the train weaves itself through the lush landscapes of Cork. With acres of green and yellow patchwork fields, Irish scenery is so mesmerisingly beautiful that it’s often difficult to make eye contact while having a conversation with the person sitting across the table. I find myself looking through the window at all times. Evenings onboard the train are all about relaxing in the observation car Kildare which is not unlike stepping into a traditional Dublin saloon.
With very limited WiFi access and screen time, I am a lot more mindful and happy, having meaningful conversations with my travel companions, losing myself in the blissful tunes played by live Irish musicians and listening to the animated story telling by local tale tellers.
Thousands of ancient castles – both ruined and regal – are sprinkled across the nation, and each evoke curiosity in a unique way. One of them is the impressive 15th-century Blarney Castle. According to Irish folklore, anyone who kisses the Blarney stone receives the ability to speak with eloquence, or “The Gift of the Gab.”
The stone is set in the wall below the battlements and, to kiss it, you must climb the spiral staircase to reach the top and lean backwards from the parapet walk, grasping an iron railing. The fortress and its surroundings boast of rare trees and a certain aura of magic and mystique with delights like Wishing Steps, Witch’s Kitchen and Druid’s Cave telling a story of centuries past.
Our journey continues west through emerald hills to Killarney on the shores of Lough Leane. Ireland has a surprisingly varied scenery and one of the finest examples is Killarney National Park, a jewel of the country’s south-west region. With acres of green wilderness, lush mountains, aboriginal forests, walkways, reflective lakes, rivers, islands, well-preserved castles, stately homes and the greatest population of wild red deer, Killarney is nothing short of a dream for a nature lover.
You can easily spend an entire day admiring its UNESCO World Heritage sites and vistas that beg to be photographed. A jaunting car, Ireland’s most traditional mode of transport, takes us through the park to the scenic 15th century Ross castle, and it’s almost like stepping back in time.
While taking in Ireland’s fifty shades of green and letting mind wander as rolling pastures glide by, one must not forget to savour hearty Irish meals. Afterall, good food is one of the greatest joys of life!
There is an old motto that says “Eat breakfast like a King, lunch like a prince and dine like a pauper” meaning it is wise to start the day with a large breakfast. It truly applies to full Irish breakfast.
Think meat (bacon, sausages and black and white puddings), eggs, vegetables and potato – all fried in creamery butter – served with a generous helping of homemade Irish soda or brown bread, and washed down with a strong cup of breakfast tea and a glass of orange juice. After a filling first meal, I am energised and looking forward to witnessing the mighty Cliffs of Moher on the Wild Atlantic Way. Rising slowly from Doolin, this geographical wonder ascends to over 700 feet stretching south for nearly 8 km to Hag’s Head in County Clare.
For me, the staggering height of the rock face and the magnificent views are awe inspiring and humbling. They make me feel alive yet small. I realise I am just a miniscule part of a mammoth world. To make the most of the magic, I take a trek across the clifftop while watching the wildflowers dotting the grass around my feet and feeling the crisp air filled with invigorating freshness of the sea spray. This is also a great spot for bird watching. Think countless puffins, razorbills, kittiwakes, hawks, seagulls, guillemots, fulmars, shags, and coughs. On a calm day, keep an eye out for any ripples in the water – friendly dolphins and basking sharks are a common sight.
It’s wonderful how trains and train stations fill you with nostalgia and memories of farway sojourns. We are in Galway, a small but charming harbour city on Ireland’s west coast. The train literally drops us in the heart of the city, bang in delightful Eyre Square. Galway lives and breathes music. Here, streets and squares are buzzing with buskers and several chic cafes play trad tunes day and night.
We learn how to play the Bodhran, the traditional Celtic frame drum and leap to our feet, grasping a few steps of Irish Ceili dancing.
Standing at the late 16th century Spanish Arch and staring at the vast Atlantic Ocean in silence, it’s not tough to visualise Galway in its medieval heyday. We are sauntering the town’s cobblestone streets, appreciating ancient architecture and snapping rows of colourful buildings at Galway Bay. One of the must visit sites is The Collegiate Church of St. Nicholas, the largest medieval parish church in Ireland. Founded in 1320, Christopher Columbus likely prayed here during a visit to Galway in 1477. When in Galway, make sure to have a meal at one of its incredible cafés, bistros or fine-dining restaurants that are kicking the culinary ball right out of the park. Sample the very best of local ingredients, innovative cooking techniques and incredible flavours. We enjoyed a hearty lunch at Ard Bia, a rustic chic joint that dishes out Irish delicacies with global pizzazz.
Next, we get off at the Georgian town of Westport to take a scenic drive through County Mayo. The region is home to cute-as-a-button villages and the oldest known field systems in the world, over five-and-a-half millennia old. We spend quality time appreciating the Neolithic landscape that tells a story of the everyday lives of the farming population, their organised society, spiritual beliefs, and struggle against a changing environment. With very few tourists, Mayo offers untapped opportunities for exploration and musters up many wow moment.
We halt at the sheep farm of Joe and Mary Ann Joyce, on the shores of Lough Na Fooey in Connemara. Nestled between the Maumturk and Partry mountains, the farm is a beautiful sight in itself. Around 700 years ago, the rugged landscape of this area attracted a Welshman of Norman origins called Thomas Joyce who married a local girl and settled here. Joe is the third generation of his family to farm sheep in the Joyce Country area. Despite technological advances in farming, a replacement for a skilled sheepdog is yet to be found. For many years, dogs have been bred to develop the requisite traits of intelligence, stamina and obedience with the finest example being the Border Collie.
Sheepdogs are used when handling flocks of sheep, as they offer the safest and most efficient means of carefully moving sheep from one location to another. The skill of the handler is to move the sheep steadily so as to cause no distress. Watching the Border Collie sheepdogs herding Connemara Blackface sheep is a exhilerating experience and says a lot about the art of communication.
It’s my third day of living on the train, and by now, I exactly know what that little note on my desk meant. I have managed to strike a connection with most fellow travellers and crew members and every bond is different from the other. While some have become my dearest friends, others have become fun drinking and dancing pals. Regardless of the amount of time we’ve known one another, there are certain shared experiences – exchanging personal philosophies and thoughts while exploring a town together or bonding over similar interests and a glass of wine at a local pub – that have formed an irrevocable bond between us. From the witty and warm crew and dining staff, I learnt a lot about the state of their country, their lives on the railroad and more. Travel truly turns strangers into lifelong friends, people you end up sharing secrets, fears, and hopes with.
As the remarkable train journey comes to an end, snapshots of the last few days come rushing into my head. I realise that taking a long-distance train journey might not be the fastest mode of transportation, but it’s definitely the most rejuvenating.
What started as just another trip has turned into a love affair with the dramatic landscapes of Ireland. While staying away from calling, texting, chatting or emailing, I could read lot of books, write travelogues and take umpteen pictures from my camera. I connected with people instead of things and most importantly intensified my relationship with myself.
Connecting with people is certainly the important part of slow travel. After all, walking away without any attachment would be nothing more than purely looking at “must-see” places. The people you meet during a journey only make it memorable and worth talking about.