Places to visit in Europe

Aillwee Cave

One of the largest accessible caves in Ireland, Aillwee contains showcase examples of columns, stalactites, straws, stalagmites and flowstones, as well as underground rivers and thunderous waterfalls.

It started to form millions of years ago when streams began sinking underground, creating channels in the limestone. During the last Ice Age, torrents of water were released which gouged out the wide passageways we can see today. Situated in The Burren, a world heritage site, there are many kilometres of charted and uncharted caves in the limestone plateaux which are highly dangerous for inexperienced potholers. Aillwee Cave is the only cave in the Burren which can be safely visited, and then only under the supervision of an expert guide. The cave is host to a whole variety of flora and fauna and may be roughly divided into 3 sections. The entrance to the cave offers protection and shade to plants and insects. Further in, fungi and moss may be found, whilst the back of the cave, which maintains a constant temperature of 10°C, is home to a collection of bacteria. This "safe haven" was also a refuge for the now extinct brown bear (ursus arctos) which used to roam the Irish countryside. Bones of hibernating bears were found together with a series of shallow pits bearing traces of claw and pug marks, an area which has been dubbed "Bear Haven". Before the cave was opened, the entrance was occupied by a group of polecats and gave off a very unpleasant smell! Inside, the cave is coloured red, orange, grey and black due to impurities leaking out from the rocks above.

Aillwee Cave offers an opportunity to learn not just about caving, but also about flora and fauna. An information booklet in English, German, Spanish and French is available. The Burren Tour Planner, which may be requested by telephone, gives details of a day-long tour of the area. It should be noted that the entrance to the cave has been made from environmentally-friendly products and has won a number of architectural awards. A climb to the top of the terraced hill above the cave gives views of Galway Bay with the Martello tower in the foreground. The area is rich in archaeological treasures: Ballyallaban stone forts, a Gleninsheen early bronze wedge tomb, and one of Ireland's most visited monuments, the 6,000-year old portal tomb at Poulnabrone.

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