The Burren

As you travel north toward Ballyvaughan, the landscape becomes rockier and stranger. Instead of the seemingly ubiquitous Irish green, gray becomes the prevailing color. You're now in the heart of the Burren, a 300-square-km (116-square-mile) expanse that is one of Ireland's strangest landscapes. With dramatic ocean-edge frontier land, turloughs (disappearing lakes), underground rivers, and a smooth lunar landscape that's scarred with ancient portal tombs, the Burren and the Cliffs of Moher are collectively designated a UNESCO Global Geopark site. Locals speculate that Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien drew inspiration from the park's ruggedness when he imagined Middle Earth while working as an external examiner at nearby University College Galway.

The Burren is aptly named: it's an Anglicization of the Irish word bhoireann (a rocky place). Stretching off in all directions, as far as the eye can see, are vast, irregular slabs of fissured limestone, known as karst, with deep cracks harboring plant life that's as alien as the setting. Corkscrew Hill on the N67, a winding road carved into the landscape, offers the best overview of the Burren. Pull over onto one of its viewing areas to capture the rocky pavements and silver limestone hills framed by the cerulean Atlantic to the north.

Late spring is when plant life is most vibrant and it heralds the Burren in Bloom festival, with organized walks from mid-May to early June.

Human life on the barren landscape is equally fascinating, though almost paradoxical, because on first inspection it appears as though its terrain is too harsh to sustain life. However, locals harnessed the land and sea, and thrived. Their habits and customs stretching back thousands of years can be seen at the Burren Centre in Kilfenora.

Burial sites like the iconic Poulnabrone Dolmen or Roughan Hill's extensive network of homes, walls, and wedge tombs dating back more than 5,000 years identify a lifestyle that changed very slowly in the millennia that followed, up until the 17th century. Burren Park is fragile. Do not pick rare flowers, enter portal tombs, or toss cigarette butts on the roadside, as this leaves an indelible mark on this incredible landscape.

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