City of the Tribes worth invading

KEITH RICHARDS was somewhere around Oughterard, on the edge of Lough Corrib, when the craving began to take hold.

City of the Tribes worth invading

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!”

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

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Galway is that kind of place. It’s thick with those kinds of stories. From craggy Connemara to the bright lights of the city, from Coole Park’s autograph tree to Clifden’s Sky Road, celebs and civilians alike flick switches when they come here. Everyone loosens up.

My first stop on this visit is a cruise on the Corrib (snuff-free, thankfully), where 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.

WHAT TO DO

Of course, lake cruises are the gentlest of introductions to Galway. Festival season is shortly to get underway here, with the Galway Film Fleadh (July 9-14) leading straight into the Galway Arts Festival (galwayartsfestival.com; July 15-28), which makes way for the colour and energy of the Galway Races (galwayraces.com; July 29-August 4).

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.

From Spanish Arch, you might drop into Galway City Museum (galwaycitymuseum.ie) for a look at a Galway Hooker, the area’s traditional workboat, or the statue of Pádraig Ó Conaire, kept here since his head was sawn off by a stag party in 2003.

OUT OF TOWN

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 bad news? Galway boasts the second-most expensive hotel rooms in the country. Prices average €100 per night here (trailing Killarney by all of a euro) — though 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 (thehousehotel.ie; two nights with cocktails from €99pp) to the tidy Clayton Hotel in Ballybrit (claytonhotelgalway.com; 2B&B+1D from €119pps).

For a splurge, don’t look past the g Hotel (theghotel.ie; 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.

Out of town, meanwhile, Cong’s Lisloughrey Lodge (lisloughreylodge.com) is staging a second coming of late. Tacking 50 spacious rooms onto a former Guinness fishing lodge, the hotel combines a stunning Lough Corrib location with a creative kids’ programme and a restaurant (Wilde’s) edging its way onto the national radar. On our visit, chef Jonathan Keane’s execution didn’t quite live up to the enthusiasm of dishes like lamb braised in Coca-Cola, or a lollipop of chicken liver pate, but I’m keen to give it another try.

THE FOOD

After years in the shadow of Dublin and Cork, Galway is finally getting some recognition on the foodie front. Its trump card is Aniar (anniarrestaurant.ie), the terroir-based restaurant that won the city its first ever Michelin Star last year. Chef Enda McEvoy moved on recently, but it remains the kind of place you could base an entire city-break around.

Two other tips are the rustic rooms and zingy lunch plates at Kai (kaicaferestaurant.com), and nearby Massimo’s (eatgastropub.com). The pub may not look promising, but inside you’ll find chef JP McMahon pouring love into the kitchen. Pound for pound, the ex-Cava man is probably serving up some of the best pub food in the country.

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

ANYTHING TO ADD

I wouldn’t have thought Galway had room for another festival, but it’s managed to squeeze yet another one in over the June bank holiday weekend.

The Galway Sea Festival (galwayseafestival.com; May 31-June 3) picks up where the Volvo Ocean Race left off, mounting a programme awash with beach safaris, currach races, paddle-boarding, seafood trails, parades of sail and sandcastle competitions.

I guess the old proverb is true: Rolling stones gather no moss.

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