Despite being so close to home, Ireland is one of those places I have never quite got around to visiting, so the Galway Arts Festival seemed like the perfect excuse to take a trip to the republic.
Two weeks of theatre, dance, comedy, music, parades, and with a chance to sample the west coast of Ireland struck me as an ideal way to spend a long July weekend.
Arriving in Galway City, I was immediately struck by the fact that it is at once breezily modern while retaining its medieval charm. Its cobbled streets, many originally laid out in the 13th century when the town was founded, ancient stone buildings and traditional Irish pubs give it real character, while its modern offices, department stores, restaurants and shops ensure it also has a strong modern feel.
My base for the visit was the four-star Clayton Hotel on the outskirts of Galway, close to the airport. The rooms were spacious, with probably the largest bed I have ever slept in — half as big again as a king-sized double.
The rooms also had sliding doors opening on to the balcony, which seemed, in July, like a bonus until one of my travelling companions popped into my room through the door and I realised that it was a communal balcony for all the rooms on that floor. Definitely a wake-up call to keep the door locked and the curtains closed while dressing.
Even so, the hotel was a pleasant place to stay, with friendly and helpful staff, and a buffet breakfast offering a huge selection of cooked dishes, cheeses, fruits, breads and — for non-kosher diners — cold meats.
Its disadvantage, however — particularly for anyone attending the festival — is that it is located on the outskirts of the city. Going to the town centre was a 10-minute taxi journey, a bus ride or about an hour’s walk. The lesson for us was book early for one of the city-centre hotels or guest houses which, inevitably, fill up for the festival.
On our first evening in the city, we had dinner at the Artisan restaurant in the city centre, which serves modern — and modern Irish — cuisine, using only local ingredients and organic produce. As a vegetarian, I had plenty to choose from.
After dinner, we headed to the Black Box Theatre for our first Arts Festival event — a dance performance by Mexican choreographer Tania Pérez-Salas’s 10-strong troupe of male and female dancers.
Set to music by Vivaldi, Bach and Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, it was split into three mesmerising acts, the last of which was the most captivating with the dancers performing in water.
Following the show, we decided it would be churlish not to experience Galway’s nightlife, so we set off to sample some of the numerous pubs and bars that stud the city.
All were rammed with partying locals and visitors, as was the city centre in general, confirming what I had been told about Galway’s reputation as a “party city”.
To fully partake, however, you need deep pockets — drinks here are extremely expensive, sometimes even pricier than in many London bars.
That may have been, in some ways, a good thing, since, the next morning, with more performances to take in and more of Galway to explore, there would have been no time to recover from any excesses.
Back in town after breakfast, our first stop was Festival Big Top — a huge marquee set up for the Arts Festival — to see Circa, an Australian act. Although billed as a circus, Circa is far more than that, combining dance, improvisation and acrobatics, all set to music, including a smattering of Leonard Cohen songs.
The most spectacular part is when the performers are all on stage together, lifting one another up and throwing them around for someone else to catch, or twirling them around in the air. Those of us lucky enough to be in the audience were captivated by the originality and vitality.
My afternoon was spent strolling along the waterfront of Galway Bay and wandering around Galway’s city centre taking in the shops. The main shopping area is on Quay Street and the roads off it, where, as well as a number of department stores and high street chains, there are also numerous independent boutiques, craft, jewellery and antique shops, but prices, generally, are higher than in London.
There is also a market on Church Lane, just off the main shopping street. For those keen to buy local items, there is plenty to choose from, including traditional local crafts such as Claddagh rings.
That night’s dinner was at the Martine’s Quay Street Wine Bar and Restaurant, which has a great selection of dishes, and enough variety to suit even the fussiest eaters.
After dinner, it was time for the annual Macnas Festival Parade when hundreds of people line the streets — most drinking pints of Guinness out of plastic cups — to watch the performers parade past.
The theme of last year’s parade was a “Apocolopolis”, and featured characters such as King Du Washawanna and his wife Queen Free and the sinister Colonel Chuckle and his army of scary clowns. Accompanying the colourful group were drummers and flashing lights. Props ranged from supermarket trolleys to elaborate masks.
After the last float had gone, we headed to the Living Room Bar — much the same as Living Room bars in the UK — for our last night out in Galway.
Next day, before heading to the airport, we caught a lunchtime stand-up performance at the Laughter Loft — AKA the Kings Head pub on Galway’s High Street — by Irish comedians, Bob Hennigan and Emmet O’Malley.
Both were extremely funny and well received by the audience, which was probably fortunate, given that the size of the pub meant spectators were within touching distance of the performers on stage.
Our little group had seats a few rows back, but it is worth bearing in mind if you are considering a visit to the Galway Festival that few of the venues have numbered seats, so if you want decent seats, or to get a number of seats together, you do have to arrive early. With such a huge variety of performances, the festival has plenty to offer audiences of all ages, and running over two weeks, you have the option of a weekend-sized nibble, or a fortnight culturefest.
And between the performances, Galway is a bustling, historic city, great for leisurely strolls, people-watching from its many cafés and bars, and lively nights out, and a perfect place from which to strike out into the spectacular Irish countryside and coast which surrounds it.
The 2009 Galway Arts Festival will be held from July 13 to 26. The line-up will be announced in June 2009. Information on the festival at: www.galwayartsfestival.com; 00353 91 509 700; email@example.com. Aer Arann (www.aerarann.com; 0870 876 7676) has flights from Luton to Galway from £42 one-way; from Manchester to Galway from £32 one-way. Aer Arann also flies to Galway from Edinburgh and Cardiff. The Clayton Hotel (www.clayton.ie; 00353 91 721 900 or firstname.lastname@example.org) offers double rooms from €129 (£116)