Beara Peninsula, Ireland -- "Wild" is the operative word, here. The landscape is wild, the weather is wild, the history is wild.
You'll need an Ordinance Survey map of the area, good rain gear, a sense of adventure and a willingness to put one foot in front of the other for several hours, and you'll have memories to savour until you can go back again.
Although much of the Beara Way follows the cycling paths, it's easy to find the off-road sections for hiking. Then it's a simple matter of manoeuvring the obstacle courses (bogs, steep ascents, overflowing streams) and progressing from one yellow marker to another.
After an hour of hiking, we loosen up. The kinks and small aches are gone. Mind, body and spirit seem to float on a different plane, and whenever we stop there's another breathtaking panorama of sea and hill and sky.
The powdery baby blue of distant mountains fades into the numinous bluish air. Myriad shades of purplish-grey, burnt umber and olive suggest spirits rising up out of the peat bog. And just in case you forget you are walking in the world of folk tales and pagan superstitions, there's always a Bronze Age stone circle, ring fort or wedge grave just ahead.
Or perhaps a fulachta fiadh, Ireland's Bronze Age version of a community bake oven, communal bathing site or textile dyeing operation, depending on which archaeological research you believe.
Some people say it rains in Ireland twice a week from Monday to Wednesday and from Thursday to Sunday. The Beara Peninsula is no exception, but its weather tends to be a little more dramatic. This is the first land mass the weather systems hit after crossing the Atlantic, and sometimes they go into convulsions. The weather can change literally every 10 or 15 minutes.
If it's sunny when you wake up, be sure to pack your rain gear. If it's raining, better not forget your sunscreen. One morning that seemed to be offering more than its usual helping of spring sunshine prompted us to ask a local farmer if the forecast for the rest of the week was more of the same.
"We take what we get," he replied.
And we've learned to do the same, comforted by the fact that the air is always full of that particularly Irish spongy softness. The balmy effects of the Gulf Stream on the Cork coast allow palm trees to flourish and a profusion of wild fuchsia to fill hedgerows. And in the early morning, the scent from huge rosemary bushes in our cottage garden greets us as we begin our day's walk.
The beautiful little "painted" villages of Eyeries and Allihies from a distance resemble an old beaded necklace and up close sparkle in the bright sunlight. As the sun flits in and out of high cloud, a constant energetic interplay of light and shadow creates a dreamlike chiaroscuro that we regret cannot be captured in photos.
Ireland has a wild history, and walking on the Beara invokes ghosts from the past. Cattle graze in the ruins of Dunboy Castle, where the O'Sullivans were defeated by the Crown in 1602. I imagine my ancestor Mary Ryan's people joining the thousand followers of Donal Cam O'Sullivan, the last of the Gaelic chieftains, as they began their 300-mile March to Leitrim to meet the O'Rourkes. We complain about getting soaked stepping into a bog hole in our waterproof hiking boots; they likely walked barefoot.
We have lunch in the shelter of a famine house, feeling slightly guilty that we have hot tea, sandwiches, fruit and granola bars. The previous day we visited Cobh, where thousands embarked for North America in the infamous coffin ships. Earlier in the week we listened to stories of people dying in the ditches during the great famine, when the Beara lost three-quarters of its population.
It's April, and we have the hills to ourselves apart from the animals and old rusting cars and tractors. The copper mines on Hungry Hill near Castletownbere and above the village of Allihies are abandoned. But the signt of newborn lambs still covered in blood and calves born the previous evening being chased through the village remind us of the life in these dark and brooding hills.