The Beara Peninsula and Mizen Head:
The south-west coast of Ireland is a series of long peninsulas jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean. Each has its own character, some extra touristy like the Ring of Kerry, some trendy like Dingle and then there are the three southern ones, each far less visited and much wilder.
We had spent the night at the north-east corner of the Beara Peninsula in a one-star campsite on back road leading up into the mountains. We followed the advice of the owner and did not park on the grass and so avoided having to be towed out the next morning. Considering it rained all night, it was a good move. The camp was basic but very cosy, especially for those souls who were in tents - the camp kitchen had a log fire going and several campers spent their evening in there.
Just a short drive along the road, we saw a sign pointing to a track that said 'Stone Circle'. So we ventured in and found ourselves in a forest that could only be described as magical. Tall trees blocked out the light and the understory was in gloom. Thick, thick moss, spongy and deep, covered everything: the ground the rocks, the tree trunks, the bushes, the fence posts. It was simply extraordinary. But no stone circle in evidence. Through on the other side of the forest was a muddy pathway, obviously used by walkers and by the local farmer. This so-called farmland was rocky and wild, windswept and wet but high on the hill were hardy sheep. The search for the stone circle continued with a walk up the hill along the track. A farmer on a quad bike was calling out to the sheep and his dog in Gaelic. Presumably they understood him...
We turned back when it was obvious the stone circle was too far away and shortly the farmer and dog came down the track as well. Reaching us he stopped for a chat - well, when we could understand him we chatted; otherwise we nodded a lot and agreed with whatever he was saying. He was speaking English all right but with an accent so thick we could only catch the gist of his conversation. Friendly, though.
The Ring of Beara was slightly more successful than the Ring of Kerry. Rain and mist continued to spoil the vistas with cloud settling right down to the ocean at times. We could only see other cars by their headlights. The Atlantic was a mass of whitecaps blown up by the constant and very cold wind off the water. But at times it cleared up and we were rewarded by beautiful rocky and almost uninhabited country. Sometimes the rocks were high, sheer and completely smooth-faced: they were walls of slate turned up vertically by tectonic forces in the past. The small villages seemed to try and make up for the climate by painting their houses all different pastel and bright colours, looking cheery in the grey mist.
The next day we decided to 'do' one more of the peninsulas - this time to Mizen Head the most south-westerly point, the Land's End if you like, of Ireland. This time we started with a clear blue sky and though it clouded over, at least the rain left us alone for the most part. Again, another windswept and sparsely populated area - no green and gentle fields here either. The small inlets were calm refuges from the sea and were absurdly picturesque.
As a complete change from our days of meandering through the peninsulas' back roads off the beaten track, we came across a little village on the coast south of Skibbereen called Baltimore. Here was a colourful clutch of pubs and restaurants overlooking the little harbour. The wide pavement in front was packed with people (it was Sunday) and Irish music was being played by a small band outside the pub. Lunch was the biggest bowl of the tastiest Bantry Bay mussels and of course an Irish Cider. And the sun was shining ... perfect.