I know a place where no cars go, to borrow the Arcade Fire lyric.
It runs between Waterford city and Dungarvan, a narrow earthy kingdom that, once found, stretches as far as the eye can see. The only engines here are the muscles in your legs, and the only road signs make occasional requests to dismount when approaching a tunnel or tell you how far you’ve come.
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The Comeragh Mountains and the beautiful wrinkle that hides Mahon Falls run along to your right as you head south through farmland and pasture, leaf litter lining the verges and cranky blackbirds darting across your eyeline. The alternate world you are in sometimes skirts near to the one you’re more used to, so a passing car might thrum into earshot or a sign offering refreshments at a family pub could appear.
The ground can fall away under you, so that you’re suddenly looking down on treetops and a river vale from a beautiful Victorian viaduct that has launched you into the air. Before you know it, you are underground, swallowed inside an old railway tunnel dripping with water.
It’s fairly safe to say that the Waterford Greenway has transformed this corner of the south-east. Once depressed towns such as Kilmacthomas (our point of embarkation today from the incredible converted famine workhouses there) are now getting a vital injection of revenue from this much-subscribed outdoor excursion, as are age-old local businesses such as O’Mahony’s country pub in Durrow that don’t know themselves. Families and daytrippers from across the country are flocking here to drink up the quiet simplicity of the route, either on two wheels or two feet.
Which brings us in more ways than one to Dungarvan itself, a cradle awaiting you with arms open and larder overflowing. The end point of the Greenway comes to a halt right on the mudflats by the Park Hotel, which is really very considerate of them. A wedding is in full swing when we arrive, and tempted as we are to crash it, we’re not sure combats and fleeces would allow us to blend in.
From pedal power to the soles of our feet hitting terra firma. Everything is walkable from the Park Hotel, and it feels like we just cross a road and find ourselves in the main square of Dungarvan. The town, by all appearances, is booming. Our weekend visit is our first ever experience here and to say we were impressed is a bit like saying the Greenway is a pleasant bicycle ride.
Everything is looked after. Fancy some of the best cuisine in the country? There’s Paul and Maire Flynn’s Tannery restaurant and cookery school, a dining experience on par with the very best in Cork or Dublin (where a lot of weekenders, we’re told, are flocking from). Prefer something more rustic, a hearty pub setting perhaps, on the water and serving fresh local seafood? The Moorings is your man. Tapas and fine bistro fare all prepared using local producers? There is a queue out the door for a table at 360 Cookhouse.
The town performs a similar trick with its pubs, offering everything from oak-aged inns such as Merry’s, where conversation and an intimate atmosphere are the order of the day, to the newly renovated Old Bank, a smooth and silky cocktail joint that we feel decidedly underdressed in.
Your legs and lungs revived after a day in the saddle and an evening strolling from food to drink to more food, the following day you are set up to explore the contained coastline of this stretch of the county. Just to the south is the headland of An Rinn, the Waterford Gaeltacht that juts out like Dungarvan’s lower mandible, where the wind and the sea bring the drama and the folds of the terrain hide all sorts of things.
Among them is Eamon Terry, whose face bears the concentrated expression of 45 years frowning over the fine details of glass and crystal cutting. He takes us through his process at Criostal na Rinne, the small unassuming family-run workshop from which he makes and distributes exquisite glassware, whether that entails White House shamrock bowls or whiskey decanters for New York high-flyers. People like Eamon fascinate me. The single-mindedness and integrity of their purpose is so compelling to witness, and that’s before you consider the hard-won mastery of their craft.
Helvick sits at the tip of the peninsula, under clifftop trees where a kestrel rides the updrafts. It is here we find the Sólás na Mara seaweed baths, tucked in by the pier and looking back on Dungarvan and its Comeragh frame in the very far distance.
A private bathing suite with two bathtubs greets us. Once immersed in the hot seawater, a bucket of local bladderwrack is added and the natural gels that are secreted start to work their way through the tub. A list of health benefits is provided but they need say no more. The only thing that can top this off is a chunk of that hearty-looking carrot cake in the café cabinet and a coffee while we enjoy the sea view.
All that way away, Dungarvan appears to be twinkling in the early evening dusk like the far shore of a great sea. And yet it seems to take us just ten minutes to drive all the way back there, something neither of us can quite figure out. Mind you, the 22km of Greenway we’d cycled the previous day didn’t feel like a cross-county expedition either, more a rural safari that rolled along at its own unique pace.
And perhaps that is what has been so engaging about Dungarvan and its surrounds since we arrived. There is a sense here of a unique setting inviting you in to be part of what it has struck upon. Even the newly arrived London barman in the Old Bank claims to already feel as much a part of the town as the 12th-Century castle on the quay.
We wind our way out of the town the next morning en route to Cappoquin and the Blackwater road that takes us to Lismore and its Devonshire throne. Another path out of this find of a town that places you in a new world, just like the peninsula of An Rinn, just like the rustic tranquillity of the Greenway. All roads lead to Dungarvan.
* Dungarvan Aglow runs for six weeks until January 6, and features a huge programme of light installations, events, markets and activities for all the family.
* Rooms at the Park Hotel Dungarvan and Lawlors Hotel start at €109 bed and breakfast per person sharing. Christmas packages are also available. For more information or to book, please go to www.parkhoteldungarvan.com or www.lawlorshotel.com
* The Greenway Man operates out of Durrow and is able to shuttle bikes for all ages and levels of fitness to whatever point along the entire Greenway you wish to start from.
* For more information, call 086 8351233 or you can go to www.thegreenwayman.com
NB: This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent
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