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County Town: Carlow
Population: 50,349
Area: 896 sq km
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It may be one of the smallest counties in Ireland, but Carlow welcomes visitors with a glorious array of attractions. Towering mountains, ancient woods, peaceful rivers, green valleys and acres of rolling countryside create an unforgettable setting for some of the most charming towns and villages in the country. These spectacular landscapes lend themselves ideally to a wide range of outdoor sports, notably walking, cycling, golf, climbing, hang-gliding, fishing and rowing. Cruises along the waterways are popular too. Conveniently, Carlow, an inland county in the "sunny south east", is one of the warmest spots on the island. This undoubtedly aids the local passion for gardening: Carlow is widely known as the "floral county", hosting an annual nine-day Floral Festival Trail to celebrate nature. The festival invites visitors to follow a Garden Trail of parks, woodlands and gardens great and small. Chief among them is "the most romantic garden in Ireland" at the 16th Century Altamont House near Tullow, where flowering plants and shrubs, trees, pathways, a lake and a riverside together create a delightful 100-acre wonderland that recalls times gone by. History is very much a part of the county scene, with an abundance of atmospheric old houses, castles, abbeys, monuments, ruins and small museums. Some of the more famous sights include the 5,000-year-old Browne's Hill dolmen (complete with Europe's biggest capstone), the 8th Century stone fort at Rathgall, the Norman castle tower and 14th Century bridge at Leighlinbridge, and the magnificent 17th Century Huntington Castle, built from granite at Clonegal. The annual Fenagh Steam Rally, meanwhile, is famous throughout Ireland. Contemporary interests are also fully catered for across Carlow, which offers a variety of award-winning restaurants and pubs. The town of Carlow is a major retail centre, with a mix of high-street stores and small, independent shops.

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