When you visit Galway people are right to sometimes ask you, which one? There’s traditional Galway, which is filled with music sessions and expertly poured Guinness as well as the odd American tourist trying out their first Aran sweater.
Then there’s artistic Galway, with enough theater and film festivals to keep you busy all summer. There’s Galway as a foodie destination, which I have to tell you, between its restaurants, organic produce, bread and cheese makers and freshly caught seafood, will be one of the culinary experiences of your life.
Finally there’s student Galway, which thanks to the nearby university and training colleges makes the city often feel like the exclusive preserve of the young.
But there’s so much more to the city than what you can glean from your first impressions. For visiting Europeans on stag and hen weekend benders (and there are more of them these days than ever before) the city can look like a brisk walk from the hotel to the pub to the club.
That’s a shame because as they make their way through the thronging main streets dressed like characters from a movie, they’ll walk right past a tin whistle player who has the power to pull your heart right out of your chest.
Anyone who thinks that Galway will ever lose its uniquely Irish character to the tourist hoards hasn’t been paying attention to what’s also happening on the streets.
Thanks to local theater companies with worldwide reputations like Druid and Macnas, the streets of Galway can erupt with announced and unannounced performances that have the power to take your breath away.
Scaresome 20-foot tall and all too lifelike velociraptors powered by skilled puppet masters can swoop through the streets and put the heart across adults and children, before delighting them. This is the kind of moment you will only find here.
Druid offers altogether more absorbing adult drama like the works of master Irish playwright Tom Murphy, with a schedule this summer that will include one of his most accomplished plays Bailegangaire and the world premiere of his new play Bridget, a prequel to the former play that’s set 30 years earlier.
If you want to get to grips with the private preoccupations of city and the nation, there’s nowhere else you need to be this summer. (Next month sees the debut of Brian Martin’s play Be Infants In Evil, about a parish priest contending with a rapidly changing Ireland).
Galway Arts Festival, founded in 1978, is adding more banner names and selling out faster each year than at any time in its history. This year for the first time in over a decade the Waterboys, one of the great Celtic bands, return to one of their spiritual homes for a one night only concert on July 20.
Meanwhile, high queen of Ireland (and canny social commentator) drag queen Panti brings her rollicking show to the festival. Resisting any attempt to become a national treasure, the new show promises to reconsider the now infamous Panti-gate episode that saw her marching here in Sunnyside in New York’s only all-inclusive St. Patrick’s Day parade. But this time she’s playing it for laughs, not politics.
Dramatist Enda Walsh’s new play sees more disposed rustics in the fashions of the 1970s tear it up in Ballyturk, an already sold-out show featuring Cillian Murphy and the gifted comedic actor Mikel Murfi. Expect a thwarted quest for an elusive patrimony and some madcap exploits that end badly.
Stranger and more unsettling work can be found in three plays by Samuel Beckett directed by his longtime friend and collaborator Walter Asmus and produced by the Royal Court (the production is scheduled to travel here to the U.S. courtesy of a co-production involving the Irish Arts Center).
Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby rank among the most absorbing and affecting theatrical pieces you will ever see. With their themes of isolation, regret, mortality and loss they’re not the most cheering of works, but they are unmistakably Irish.
Finding a base for all this high culture is easy in a city that offers top class hotels and fine dining. But for my money, with its combination of location (just off the very central Eyre Square) and value, the Radisson Blu Hotel and Spa should be your first choice.
A literal oasis (thanks to its indoor pool and outdoor Jacuzzi, salt spa and fitness center) you’ll enter a world of complete relaxation, which will work its magic from the moment you arrive. Check-ins are fast in the airy and bright lobby that features two fast running glass elevators to spirit you away to your room.
With a choice of guest rooms, family rooms, executive rooms, business class rooms and apartments and penthouse suites (which offer private kitchen, dining room, lounge, office, bedroom and a spacious bathroom) you’ll be spoiled for choice.
With room for up to 1,000 delegates, the Radisson Blu is one of the top conference and event facilities in the city (weddings are also a specialty). But it’s the attentive staff and the little touches like the daily papers delivered direct to your door with coffee and chocolates that really make a flying visit begin to feel like a vacation.
The Radisson Blu offers meals around the clock (you can call when you want room service) but standouts include breakfast where you can have a full Irish, or opt for fruit, croissants, scones and every kind of cereal. In fact their breakfast options are so varied and substantial you might not have room for anything for most of the rest of the day.
Lunch and dinner are of course available, with a seasonal a la carte menu that includes chef’s suggestions. Organic dining is a feature, especially welcome when it comes to salmon dishes and fresh produce.
And the desserts are heavenly. Don’t miss the sticky toffee pudding served with caramel sauce, vanilla ice cream and orange powder.
Being a worldwide chain, the Radisson makes business travelers especially comfortable, offering wife throughout the hotel (there are even extra desktops for those tech emergencies).
But in the end it’s the friendly staff, the attentiveness to detail (which in this finely hotel was the most professional I have ever experienced) and the sheer comfort of the rooms with their outstanding views of the city and the Corrib that made all the difference.
Galway, like Ireland, is on its way back from the shock of recession and austerity and its venues like the Radisson, coupled with the cultural vitality of the local arts scene and the traditional music that tumbles out of every pub along the main streets that assures you it won’t be long before the city bounce back from the difficulties of recent years.
There’s food for thought and fine dining for the palette in this incomparable city town, so what are you waiting for? To learn more about the Galway International Arts Festival visit www.giaf.ie. To make a booking at the Radisson Blu Galway visit www.radissonhotelgalway.com.