In the heart of Ireland’s green and rural County Clare lies an amazing landscape of rock and stony outcroppings, a limestone weirdness that looks as if you have just stepped onto the moon. It’s called the Burren, from the Irish word boirreann, which means “a rocky place.” What an understatement.
This strange 260 sq. km (100-sq.-mile) region of naked carboniferous limestone once lay under a prehistoric tropical sea; over the next 300 million years, decaying shells and sediment hardened into rock, thrust to the surface, and lay exposed to pelting Irish rains and scouring winds. Today you can drive around and gaze over massive sheets of rock, jagged boulders, caves, and potholes, punctuated with tiny lakes and streams as well as ancient Stone Age burial monuments. Get out of your car to explore, though, and you’ll see that it’s not all just rocks: Something is always in bloom, even in winter, from fern and moss to orchids, rock roses, milkwort, wild thyme, geraniums, violets, and fuchsia. The Burren is also famous for its butterflies, which thrive on the rare flora. The pine marten, stoat, and badger, rare in the rest of Ireland, are common here.
A good place to begin your exploration is at the Burren Exposure on Galway Road 4km (2 1 / 2 miles) north of the Galway Bay village of Ballyvaughan. This 35-minute multimedia exhibition tells you all you need to know about the extraordinary natural wonders and historical legacy of the Burren. If you’re coming from the south or west, however, get your introduction in the historic village of Kilfenora at the Burren Centre, R476 , which has landscape models, displays on flora and fauna, and an audiovisual “walk through time.”
Drive along corkscrewing R480, between Corofin and Ballyvaughan, through the heart of the landscape, or bet-ter yet, hike a portion of the 26-mile Burren Way footpath, signposted from Ballyvaughan to Liscannor, near the Cliffs of Moher . A wide swath of the area bordered by Corofin, Lahinch, Lisdoonvarna, Ballyvaughn, and Boston has been designated the Burren National Park; it has no official entrance, so find a place to park and begin rambling around the lime-stone terraces and shale uplands. The area is particularly rich in archaeological remains from the Neolithic through the medieval periods—dolmens and wedge tombs (approx. 120), ring forts (500), round towers, ancient churches, high crosses, monasteries, and holy wells are all noteworthy. It’s an eerily different sort of place that the kids will remember forever.