Hiking in Sligo leads to a queen’s ancient tomb, a sea of rhododendrons, and a chat between a cabbie and a grave digger in the shadow of Benbulben.
As the train crossed the country to the western sea, the landscape turned upwards with enormous, rocky ridges pushing through the green hillside. The trip from Dublin to Sligo surprised me with a steady change of scenery outside the window. The tracks in the city sunk slightly below street level before following the wooded parklands of the Grand Canal to Maynooth. A few miles later, they opened to green fields, then coastal mountains.
I marched from the train station to the Tourist Office in the town centre where the woman behind the desk described her favorite hikes. “Knocknarea is lovely. My boyfriend and I were there bank holiday weekend. It’s a longish walk from Strandhill, but you can take a seaweed bath when your finished.”
“Seaweed bath?” I took notice. Plans for the day were coming together. I was handed the Sligo to Strandhill bus schedule, a brochure on the seaweed baths, a list of eateries in town, and the names and numbers of the taxi services in town (in case I didn’t want to wait for the bus… or maybe to rescue me if I didn’t have the stamina to finish the hike).
Climbing to the Queen’s Tomb
I met my bus across the street from the train station, climbed aboard, and arrived at the car park in Strandhill about twenty minutes later. With the summit of Knocknarea in sight, I followed the directions to the top of the town and onwards along the road to Knocknarea.
The flat-topped mountain with a large mound of stones at the top was visible, but as the road wrapped around the hill, I worried a wrong turn would send me off course. Just as I began feeling winded and thinking the worst, a signpost pointed to a parking lot.
I walked the gravel path, and the entire field of sheep to my right ignored both me and the dark clouds collecting near the top of the mountain. Within moments of noticing it, I stepped into the growing cloud.
There wasn’t much to see beyond the stones at my feet, so I walked up, up, up until the path leveled and a sheep-sized rock appeared through the haze ahead of me. A few feet later a high mound of stones took shape. The thirty foot tall cairn supposedly held the tomb of Medb (Maeve), the warrior queen of Connaught.
I slowly walked around the enormous “grave marker.” At the halfway point, I heard voices coming from the other side of the fog. They were probably North American, probably in their twenties, and probably not expecting to meet another “Yank.” A dozen steps later, I was chatting with a couple from upstate New York who were traveling with their young son. They set aside an entire month to tour Ireland and were relying on the advice of locals over travel books. Hence their arrival at the Queen’s tomb.
As their son climbed through the fog on the larger stones near the cairn, they told me about their walk from a day earlier. “We loved the Gortarowey walk. It’s on the north side of Benbulbin.”
Before they disappeared into the fog again, I wrote “Ger-ta-row-way” and “Ben-bul-bus” on a scrap of paper and pushed it deep inside my pocket. When I finished my lap around the cairn, the mist turned to proper rain, and it was time to begin my decent. I recognized the lumpy, sheep-sized stone and followed the trail downwards.
Soaking in Seaweed
The trip was swift as gravity did its part. About halfway to Strandhill, the rain and fog dried up, and only a cloud at the top of the mountain remained. Once in town, I poked my head into two of the coffee shops facing the ocean. I chose the one with the best desserts.
After a slice of tart with freshly whipped cream and a pot of tea, I walked a few feet to the seaweed bath where the lad behind the counter offered a tour. Walking passed the displays of organic seaweed spa products, he opened the door to a private room with tile walls and a large claw-foot tub beside a glass enclosed shower/steam room.
“You start with ten minutes of steam to open your pores, then you slide into the tub and soak.” The green and brown seaweed floating in the hot sea water was harvested that morning; and although the place looked like a modern spa, the tradition reached back more than one-hundred years when most seaside towns boasted the healing benefits of their bath houses. I couldn’t resist this combination of luxury and history.
I stood in the steam room until I thought my lungs would burst, and stepped over to the tub. As I submerged myself into slightly slimy water, I opted to scoop the long strands of seaweed with my arms and lay them across my chest rather than sit on the pile of leafy Atlantic greens. Once I recovered from the peculiarity of the scene, I quickly began to relax. Apparently, that was the treatment’s “detoxifying” characteristics taking affect. I just called it peaceful.
Walking Sligo’s City Centre
I emerged from my bath to sunshine, and the bus returned me back to Sligo. Hunger was setting in, so I referred to the printout of restaurants. Upon my request, the woman in the tourist office placed a star beside the places with old-fashioned decors. She had given Hargadon’s a star AND a circle; and upon stepping inside, I understood why.
The area near the front door still held the remnants of an old-fashioned grocery. Dark, distressed wood lined the floors and walls, and most of the seating was arranged in dimly lit, wood booths.
After a meal and a pint, I walked the main street and admired the historic shopfronts. Even the chain grocery store had an old-style sign out front. From the bridge over the river, I watched a group of eight kayakers train in the fast-moving rapids. They heaved their paddles from one side to the other using all their strength to thrust upstream. The river pushed back and all the kayaks stayed in one spot until the paddlers relented and were pushed to the calmer waters below.
From the bridge, I could see the distinct statue of the poet Yeats placed in front of the Ulster Bank. A tourist snapped photos and was almost clipped by a passing car when he backed into the street with his camera pressed against his face. I rolled my eyes, but when I reached the almost cartoonish artwork, I too couldn’t resist pulling out my camera.
The sky was pure robin’s egg blue… cliche in some parts of the world, but a moderately rare occurrence in Ireland. As I walked by the ruined abbey, I thought about the hike mentioned by the couple from New York. It was only seven o’clock and with it being mid-summer, there were still several hours of daylight remaining. I dialed the number for one of the taxi services and asked about getting a lift to the trailhead.
“Not a bother,” said the voice on the phone, “I’m at the top of the street. I’ll be to you in two minutes.”
The driver and I did not engage in the formalities of exchanging first names. Instead we dove directly into comparing notes on our favorite destinations. He was impressed I walked from Strandhill to the top of Knocknarea and back. I was likewise surprised he had visited Milwaukee Irish Fest and could still name all the landmarks visible from the lakefront.
A few minutes down the road, he asked, “Have you seen Yeats’ grave?”
“No, I can’t say I have.” I wasn’t entirely telling the truth; but more than fifteen years had passed, so I figured that first visit was disqualified.
“It’s right here if you want to stop,” he said as the cab rolled into the carpark. He pointed toward the church, “it’s beside the front door.”
The church was surrounded by tombstones and as I reached the front, six men were digging a grave just a few plots from Yeats. They ignored me, but I felt a bit gauche snapping pics for my scrapbook while they were preparing to bury a neighbor. I walked around the back of the church and looked out at the mountains; it’s no surprise Yeats chose this spot to spend eternity.
When I returned to the taxi, the driver was chatting with one of the grave diggers. The two were narrowing down precisely which townland the deceased hailed from. The cabbie finished, “I wouldn’t know the man, but I know the family.”
Walking in the Shadow of Benbulbin
The cabbie returned us to the road for a few minutes before veering toward the Gortarowey carpark. He told me, “Just ring me when you’re coming down; I’ll collect you.”
With a quick “thank you,” I passed through the gate and walked the old forestry road. A derelict home came into view and through a clearing in the trees directly behind the house, a perfect view of the rocky outcropping known as Benbulbin appeared.
I walked up the hill a bit farther, and two photographers were jockeying for position. That night happened to be the holy grail of Sligo photography – the sky was perfect, the purple rhododendrons where in full bloom, and the setting sun slowly illuminated everything in sight. The chance of all three happening at the same time was a rare event.
Every ten feet I stopped to take in a new arrangement of brilliant color: green rushes, purple rhododendron, emerald beech trees, jade grasses, chocolate brown rocks, and that powder blue sky with a scattering of clouds. In all my travels, capturing Sligo on that particular evening stands out as the most breathtaking.