Photography, Travel

Arresting views at Glengesh Pass

An old Irish blessing, one perhaps you’ve heard, begins, “May the road rise up to meet you; may the wind always be at your back.” We let these lines guide us along our loose Irish itinerary.

At no time on our trek through Ireland did the road rise more than at Glengesh Pass.


Where I took that photo — a panorama, actually, on my iPhone — we’d gone only partway up. Click the photo to see it at full size.

Margaret had set our itinerary for the day and told me we would come upon this pass. But neither of us was prepared for the winding rural road into it, or how sweeping the view would be, or how compelled we would feel to stop to look.

Here’s a closer look at that hairpin curve. As I negotiated it, the road felt mighty narrow. I prayed I wouldn’t encounter a bus here; I’d encountered a couple on the way up to this point, and we barely squeaked by each other as we passed. But this car looks like it has plenty of room. Perhaps the road was widened at this curve, but not enough to allow a bus and a car to pass at the switchback’s tip. I watched a bus negotiate it, and it filled the space.

Glengesh Pass

The pass is on a winding 15-mile road that connects Ardara to Glencolmcille, and peaks at about 900 feet above sea level.

Glengesh Pass

Closer to that peak is a pulloff with this commanding view, back in the direction from which we’d come, down into Ardara.

Glengesh Pass

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Photography, Travel

A terraced cemetery in Ardara

Imagery © 2016 Data SIO, NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO Landsat. Map data © 2016 Google.

Margaret and I loosely followed the Irish coast as we worked our way south from Ireland’s northern tip. This frequently put us on the Wild Atlantic Way, a byway of sorts that traces the entire western Irish coast. When we figured out what it was, we decided to follow it wherever we could.

This led us directly to Ardara, a town of less than a thousand in County Donegal. (See the pinpoint on the map.) Cheerful and tidy just like every other small Irish town through which we passed, we decided to stop and look around.

We found the tourism office, where a friendly and helpful woman told us of all that Ardara had to offer. But the one thing she didn’t need to tell us about was the church — there’s no way you can miss it as you drive into town.

Church of the Holy Family, Ardara, Ireland

The Church of the Holy Family is surrounded by a tightly-packed cemetery. Both Margaret and I like cemeteries. Neither of us knows exactly why.

Church of the Holy Family, Ardara, Ireland

The property leads up a hill, which was terraced to provide level ground for more graves. We’d never seen anything like it, and we’ve walked through a lot of cemeteries.

Church of the Holy Family, Ardara, Ireland

Concrete stairs took us to the top. The view is commanding. On the left, a bay that lets out into the Atlantic…

Church of the Holy Family, Ardara, Ireland

…and on the right, Ardara itself.

Church of the Holy Family, Ardara, Ireland

What it it about being at the top of the hill that makes a man want to linger? I stood up here for quite some time, breathing the air and considering the views. I concluded nothing of merit, but I still felt better when I came down.

But I didn’t come down before I looked behind me. Some horses were grazing in a field below me. The road into Ardara wound through the countryside just beyond

Behind the Church of the Holy Family, Ardara, Ireland

The Church of the Holy Family was built in 1903. It’s not as grand as the cathedral in Letterkenny, but Letterkenny has more than 20 times the population. This is a fine and lovely house of worship for the people of Ardara.

Church of the Holy Family, Ardara, Ireland

The woman at the tourism office told us about a nearby waterfall and also about a deep scenic valley called Glengesh Pass. We drove around for a half hour on frighteningly narrow back roads but never found the waterfall. Glengesh Pass, however, was impossible to miss. I’ll share stunning photos from there in an upcoming post.

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Seven tips for driving in Ireland

We wanted to fully control our itinerary in Ireland. So no packaged tours for us: we decided what we wanted to see, no matter how far off the beaten path — or to go nowhere, if we felt like it. So we rented a car and drove it all over Ireland wherever our noses led us.

We’d do it again. But we learned some important stuff along the way.

1. Rent the smallest car you think will fit you and your stuff.

The roads are narrow and curvy. You will have an easier time maneuvering them in the smallest car you can get away with.

When we rented the car online before the trip, we asked for a mid-sized car. In Ireland, that’s a Toyota Corolla. But on the ground in Ireland, the rental agency didn’t honor our reservation. Starting over, our only choice was a tiny, dumpy-looking Nissan Note. We were over a barrel so we took it.

Among the rocks

I’m glad it happened, because as I’ll explain below, more than once a bigger car would have certainly resulted in a fender bender.

Our rental car

Along the way, Margaret met a group of four American women who had rented a minivan. Both side mirrors dangled forlornly from the front doors. They broke one in a parking lot trying to maneuver out of a tight space, and the other against a roadside stone wall trying to get out of the way of a large oncoming vehicle.

We had some stunning good luck in a couple very tight situations, but we returned our little car without a scratch.

2. If you can’t drive a stickshift, be sure to specifically request an automatic from the rental company.

Most people in Ireland drive stick, so most rental cars are manually shifted. Fortunately, both Margaret and I enjoy shifting our own gears.

We saved a bundle renting a stick, by the way. The rental agencies have few automatics and they cost a lot more.

3. Be prepared for the driving to exhaust you, especially at first.

Driving in Ireland is very involved. You’re driving on the wrong side of the road, sitting on the wrong side of the car, shifting with the wrong hand. My brain worked overtime in overcoming the strong urge to return to the “proper” side of the road and even to return my body to the “proper” side of the lane, and also in having to think about driving moves that, back home, would be automatic. Fortunately, after a couple days it started to feel more natural.

I think it must be Irish statute that no road run straight for more than thirty meters. And except for the Interstate-like motorways, many highways and almost all rural roads are narrow with no shoulders. The road’s edge was often bordered by a stone wall — or a steep dropoff. I needed to be extra alert at all times.

On N59, County Galway

And especially on rural roads we noticed fewer signs preparing drivers for hazards. A whole series of tight curves can appear with little or no warning. And because bus tours are popular, many, many, many times we entered a blind curve to meet a bus going the other way, wheels over the center line. We moved left as far as we dared and hoped for the best. Thankfully, we always squeaked by, thanks to being in a tiny car.

One last surprise: outside of cities, sheep are everywhere. You may round a curve and suddenly have to brake hard for a sheep blithely grazing roadside grass, his hind end well into the roadway.

Rural Irish road, Co. Galway

4. Try not to drive in the large cities.

This isn’t to say you should limit driving to the country. We did fine in the smaller towns and villages. Some of that driving was a little tricky, such as where parked cars narrowed even a major highway to one lane and everybody has to take turns getting through. But with focus and patience, it was all doable.

But driving in Galway, one of Ireland’s larger cities, was hard. We picked up our rental car in Galway on the day we arrived in Ireland, after a long flight to Dublin and a train ride to Galway. We were tired. And then our first driving experience was on roads going every which way and all choked with traffic.

In Galway

I figured driving in Galway would be easier when I was better rested. So we went back one afternoon to explore the shopping district. Nope — it was the hardest driving of the trip, harder than the moment on the 1½ lane rural road where we passed a giant RV with less than an inch separating us.

In the city center, tightly packed cars moved fast on streets that ran at odd angles to each other. It was disorienting. I knew where we wanted to go, and like a true American I figured we could just drive right up to it. No dice. Not only could we not figure out how to navigate to it, even when we could see it in the distance there wasn’t any place to park within a mile of it. We ended up circling around for quite some time before finding a shopping mall’s garage. We gave up, parked inside, and walked from there.

And then getting out of town involved blind turns across oncoming traffic and a one-lane road that accepted two-way traffic where a big Audi sedan refused to back out of our way. Four-letter words may have passed by my lips in that standoff.

By the time we got out of town I needed a stiff drink and a long nap.

A bus connected our B&B’s town to Galway, running every 30 minutes. We should have taken it instead.

5. GPS is a godsend when you can get it, so take your smart phone —  you might get a good enough signal.

We discovered right away that Irish roads can be poorly signed. Major highways are generally signed well, but city streets and rural roads frequently aren’t signed at all. It often made paper maps and written directions useless.

So we got out our phones and tried the GPS. My iPhone is on Sprint. Before the trip, I signed up for a free addition to my plan that gives me unlimited free 2G data outside the US. It worked surprisingly well. I got a signal in even most of the remotest places that was good enough for GPS to keep working. Once in a while we were remote enough that my iPhone switched to general packet radio service (GPRS) and kept tracking and telling us where to turn. None of this cost me a cent.

The mobile signal was frequently too weak to find a destination, however. I took to using hotel or cafe wi-fi to punch it in and start navigation, and then going out to the car and starting the trip.

On the other hand, Margaret’s Android phone on a budget carrier had spotty coverage. Google Maps wouldn’t work half the time.

GPS was spot on 95% of the time. Sometimes it told us we’d reached our destination a little too early or a little too late, but we could see the destination so it didn’t matter. Once, however, while trying to find one of Margaret’s distant cousins in a remote part of County Galway, GPS took us five miles beyond and deposited us on this desolate one-lane road. “You have arrived at your destination,” indeed.

Among the rocks

Fortunately, everybody knows everybody in the boonies. We found a house; Margaret knocked on the door. The fellow who answered gave us great directions right to the house we had been looking for.

6. Share the driving.

Margaret kept calling out wonderful things she was seeing from the passenger’s seat, things I couldn’t look at because I was busy navigating a series of curves, or braking to avoid a sheep, or inching my way around a bus.

And then Margaret asked if she could drive one day. And happily I was the one calling out the passing scenery.

Rosses Point

Such scenery! And I arrived at our destinations less tired. So whenever she said she wanted to drive, I handed her the keys with a smile.

7. But do drive in Ireland.

It sounded dreadful to both Margaret and me to be cooped up on a tour bus with strangers, not being able to decide for ourselves where we wanted to go and how long we wanted to stay there. And no tour bus would ever take us to the remote island in western Galway where Margaret’s distant cousin lived. Renting a car gave us freedom.

More than once, we just pulled over for an unscheduled stop to explore a town or photograph a vista.

Rural Irish road, Co. Galway

Oh! but the views! While we lingered near this hairpin turn, several tour buses crept by, their passengers gawking out the window for as long as they could before the bus swept them away.

Glengesh Pass

We, on the other hand, stayed here for as long as we wanted. That, my friends, is vacation.

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Film Photography

What’s the best compact 35mm film camera to take on vacation?

As I get ready to visit Ireland with Margaret later this year, I’ve been trying to decide which film camera to take with me.

I’d love to shoot nothing but film over there, but ay yi yi the cost of processing the film when I get back! So I’ll pack my digital Canon PowerShot S95. This capable camera slips into any pocket and will let me shoot as much as I want. I just have to charge the battery each night at the hotel.

But I still plan to take one 35mm film camera and a few rolls of black-and-white film. The question is, which one? Frankly, I’d be happiest shooting one of my SLRs, but I want to travel light. This calls for one of my compact cameras. I have a bunch to choose from.

Olympus XA
The Olympus XA: a very nice compact camera

Vacation photography typically involves group family shots and portraits, as well as landscapes and streetscapes. Fortunately, compact 35mm cameras are made for just these kinds of photos. If you know going in that you want to shoot something other than that, such as closeups of local wildflowers or cinematic landscapes, consider taking gear that can do that. Most compact cameras can’t.

Which compact film camera you take on vacation depends on what is important to you.

Size — How small it needs to be depends on how you’ll carry it. Do you want it to slip into your pants pocket? Are you willing to carry it by its strap? Will you carry it in a backpack or purse? I want to slip mine into a jeans pocket, so the smaller the better, and it’s best if its lens is flush with the camera face.

Focus type — Decide whether to bias toward speed and ease, or toward control. If you think you’ll shoot almost exclusively group shots and landscapes, go for speed and choose an autofocus or fixed-focus camera. But if you think you’ll want to tightly control focus, such as for close work, consider a rangefinder camera. You’ll need to focus each shot, which slows you down — but that control will be there when you really need it. A middle-ground choice might be a zone-focusing camera. They generally offer three or four focusing zones. Many of them offer a focus setting that’s good for most shots; just leave it there unless you want to shoot something close up or far away. I shy away from zone-focusing cameras because all too often I forget to set focus at all.

Battery — A camera that doesn’t need a battery is ideal, but fairly rare. Next best: a camera that takes easy-to-buy AA or AAA batteries. But regardless of the battery the camera uses, if you drop in a fresh one before you go, it should easily last the trip.

Lens — Most compact cameras offer either a fixed lens of about 35mm or a zoom lens with about 35mm at its wide end. I think 35mm is just right for vacation photography. Compared to “standard” 50mm, 35mm widens the view up just enough to be useful for landscapes, without being so wide that it’s not useful for closer work. For me, zoom isn’t important; I don’t mind backing up or walking closer to my subject. My experience is that fixed lenses tend to be of better quality.

Annoyances — You want this camera to work fluidly in your hands. Why spend your trip frustrated with your gear? What’s annoying is personal, but here are some things that you might find annoying: a built-in flash that you can’t turn off, a mushy or awkwardly placed shutter button, a tiny viewfinder, no built-in flash, or a protruding lens that makes it hard to pocket the camera.

Cameras have a few other measures I don’t think matter too much in this case, such as range of shutter speeds, or range of film ISOs accepted. Pretty much all compact cameras offer a useful range of shutter speeds and accept the most common film speeds, such as 100, 200 and 400.

I own a number of interesting compact cameras, so the choice has been challenging. I used these criteria to narrow it down. More than anything else, I need a camera I can slip into my jeans pocket, which narrows the field way down. I want the best lens I can get, and I prefer autofocus.

So I went straight to my Olympus Stylus. I dropped some T-Max 400 into it for an audition. And I discovered a fatal flaw: every time you open the lens cover, the flash goes into Auto mode. I almost never want the flash to fire. I will never remember to turn it off every time I open it.

So now I’m auditioning my Olympus XA, even though it is a rangefinder. I don’t mind rangefinder focusing. The XA lacks a built-in flash, but that’s also not a problem for me. I have an external flash for it, but I think I’ll just leave it at home.

What compact film camera do you think you’d take on a long vacation?