09 November 2012

Galway, Sunny-Side Up

Six young Irishmen in Galway pile on top of one another, swinging and grabbing at each other, red-faced and hyped up.  That sentence would mean a whole other thing after nightfall.  But on an afternoon in South Park, outside the pub-ccentric city center, it is just the scene of a rugby practice.  Galway by day. "Vibrant" is a word that gets used a lot to describe cities, but Galway really embodies the word most fully to me.  The vibration of string instruments in its streets, the energy of the student population, the ebb and flow of the water in its bay, the brightness of the green and blue backdrop - all a version of vibrancy, all the epitome of Galway.
It would be so easy for daytime Galway to feel like a hangover.  Most places that play as hard as it does just don't rise with the same vigor as they fall.  Sleepy mornings and empty beer bottles would seem fitting after evening trad sessions and nighttime brawls.  But that's just not how Galway rolls.  Bright and early, the pubs open, new kegs are rolled in on dollies by white-coated delivery men.  The jewel-toned pub exteriors with names like Foley's and Gallaghers and The Old Hen painted in gold look as brilliant in the sunlight as they do under streetlights.  Irish breakfasts and pots of tea are the order of the morning.  The smell of toast fills the air, calling you down through your hotel window.
Secondhand shops and record stores, crafts shops selling authentic woolen products from the nearby Aran islands, bakeries, cafes are all opening up.  This is daytime Galway, a plethora of charming places that close before sunset.  There's maybe a sliver of time when day Galway and night Galway coexist, like those evenings you can spot the moon before the sun has gone down.  But mostly, they're flipsides, and if your experience of the city is purely vampiric you may never know places like Sheridans Cheesemongers, Griffin's bakery or Goya's cafe exist.  At Goya's, savory pies in the window, like steak and kidney, lured us in; the carrot soup with buttered brown bread and chicken liver pate won us over (especially Merlin, who declared it the best pate of the trip).  The spot, tucked away on Kirwan's Lane, is one of many bright, wonderful cafes open only for lunch and afternoon tea, places that vanish before nightfall. 
During the day, that smell of toast, of pies, of scones may pull you down streets and have you sniffing out their sources around corners.   Perhaps the smell of fish and chips will lure you down to McDonagh's at the end of Quay Street.  And that's when you'll collide with the unmistakable whiff of salty sea air and meet Galway city's other half, its harbor.  Testament to the pleasures within the city, it's almost easy to forget Galway is set on a bay of the same name.  A perfect line up of old houses rise up from the eastern side of the central inlet. They are mostly white with some light blue and yellow and one painted red like a motivational poster about uniqueness. 
Galway's Bay can feel postcard-cheery one minute and mysterious the next, depending on the weather and the mood.  It's always that way with seasides, I guess.  There's the promise of the voyage and the homecoming, and also everything washed up and left behind.  Brilliantly green moss covers most everything.  The stones have a sense of age rivaled only by the ocean floor.  Arriving at the harbor in just a few steps from all the action of central Galway is a lot like hopping onto the silent car after a mad dash through the train station, then watching the world blur by in streaks of color.  A breather just as exhilarating as the rush.
To keep the train station thing going, the harbor is also where you find Galway's hookers.  (Ha!) Turns out, a "Galway hooker" is a type of boat different than the ones above; they're traditional racing boats with a semi-unfortunate name.  In a description we read, they were described as "small, tough and highly maneuverable," which only made me giggle more.  Anyway, if you google "Galway" and the search bar guesses your next word is "hooker," this is why.  Don't be alarmed. There's nothing fishy going on in Galway Bay.  Well, there is, actually.  Seafood, which it's chock full of.  There's a mix of farming and collecting these days, both methods producing enough fish and shellfish to export in huge numbers out to France, Spain and the UK with enough leftover to enjoy at home.
A place famous for its drinking options, Galway really doesn't get enough credit for its food.  It is absurdly easy to eat extremely well around the city, proof that the residents' great taste and high standards don't stop just at trad music.  Of course, the awesome local oysters are widely available.  (This is probably the only place in the world I'd ordered raw oysters at a dive bar).  But you also have a plethora of other local seafood and produce being crafted into some seriously great meals.  At Ard Bia at Nimmo's, in an old stone building with big windows looking out at the bay, we waited out a rainy spell over seafood chowder with mussels, smoked cod, sea trout and clams.  It was atmosphere in a bowl.
We walked along The Prom, the promenade between Galway's harbor and the suburb of Salt Hill.  There were joggers and people walking dogs.  A man taught his daughter how to cast a line, that rugby team practiced.  A road led out to a lighthouse with the Aran islands visible in the distance behind it.  We walked along until a sign told us further access was prohibited - and we wondered how many signs in how many other countries told us not to trespass, but we couldn't understand.  Some city's have momentum because of crowds or traffic or a beat that everyone drums to.  Galway has a different momentum, one that is self defined but still constant.  There are so many options and outlets, watering holes, strolls and speeds to choose from that you keep on going.  You bounce from one to the next.  Sometimes to a soundtrack of trad music, sometimes to the lapping of the sea.

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