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Cork is a city I had long fancied visiting without really knowing why and I was lucky enough to visit for a weekend break last December. Booking the flights and the accommodation was the only preparation we did so when we arrived in the city we had little idea of what we wanted to do and see.
Arriving late Friday afternoon and departing again Sunday lunchtime did not leave us with a great deal of time but we managed to cram in plenty of activity and found that there is still plenty left for another visit.
Join in my mini-tour of Cork….
Cork, like Britain, is pretty cold in December and so you will need to wrap up warm and be prepared to make regular stops for hot drinks or a pint – whichever you find warms you best.
You will also need a pair of comfortable shoes; Cork has excellent public transport but in the city you may as well walk: although the centre is compact, there are a few hills.
It takes a little while to get your bearings in Cork; the city started life as an island in the swampy River Lee and today the river flows in two channels through the centre of the city. As a result you find that you are constantly crossing bridges and some of the main streets are even built over smaller sub-channels. On the north side, the streets start to climb the hill and if you are in bed and breakfast accommodation, you may find yourself climbing up several times a day as most of these establishments are in Victorian townhouses. The more affluent visitors will be pleased to know that the higher end hotels tend to be in the city centre which is flat.
Two distinctive churches make good reference points if you are struggling to get your bearings – and are also worth visiting. St Finn Barre’s Cathedral is named for the seventh century St Finbarr who started a monastery on the site where the cathedral now stands. This French Gothic style cathedral is very striking with its three spires and its rose window; to see it looking particularly splendid, see it lit up at night – a worthy rival to Notre Dame!
The other church is St Anne’s of Shandon and it stands to the north of the centre halfway up the hill. Its is constructed of two types of stone – and the red and gray colours of the church are said to be the inspiration for the colours of Cork’s rugby strip. While it is a beautiful church, most visitors go there to play the bells; for a small charge you can climb the tower and catch magnificent views across the city but first you must stop at the first floor where the bell ropes are. Each rope is numbered and there are cards for a wide variety of songs and hymns. The easiest way to do it is to get someone else to shout the numbers out as you pull the ropes; I murdered “Don’t Cry for me Argentina”.
Just opposite the pub is one of those traditional little Irish pubs tiny windows and bright paintwork and a chatty publican of course! He asked if we had been into the church and rung the bells and was full of interesting tips about what we should see and do. We made ourselves comfortable in a window seat and enjoyed a pint of Beamish, the delicious stout that is made in Cork.
We spent a short while strolling the streets in this part of town; they are the traditional Irish type with low doorways and narrow alleyways between the houses. Many of them are being restored and it is nice to see that, in spite of being very small, they are still popular.
Back in town we stumbled across the “Old English Market”, a covered food market of the kind that is missing from most British cities. We are both foodies and could spend hours wandering around food markets but this one in Cork is something else. It has fish, meat, fruit and vegetables as well as speciality shops selling things like imported Polish foods, Caribbean produce and Indian spices. We came away with venison salami, a huge Limoncello cake and another hot pepper sauce for my partner’s massive collection.
Cork has all the major chain stores you would expect of Ireland’s second city (that is in all Ireland – it is third behind Dublin and Belfast) but ii also has some interesting independent stores. We found a Polish grocery store (we bought dried fish), a dedicated crime-fiction bookshop, a great shop selling the wittiest souvenirs I have ever seen (I couldn’t resist a “Peoples Republic of Cork” t-shirt) and lots of shops selling traditional Irish musical instruments.
To be honest we did a great deal of walking and did not really venture into many places other than shops and pubs. However Cork is the sort of city that can be really enjoyed in this way. Following the river makes an excellent walk and you get to see plenty of interesting buildings on the way. We also saw a seal which is apparently a real rarity in Cork; it caused quite a crowd to assemble on one of the bridges but, alas, it was camera shy and by the time we had got out the camera, it had gone.
If we’d had more time we would have found plenty of things to occupy us. We could have visited the Old City Gaol that gives visitors a glimpse into prison life in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries or we could have visited the Crawford Municipal Gallery that has permanent and temporary exhibitions of domestic and international art.
We ventured as far as the Botanic Gardens at the University but there are other parks and wildlife reserves close to the city too. If visiting in winter try to check with tourist information before you make your plans because some attractions do have limited opening hours outside of the peak season.
Corkonians are regarded as the most talkative and friendly of Irish people and we certainly felt very welcome everywhere we went. People wanted to know where we were from and always had something to say about their home city. For a small city Cork certainly has more than its fair share of places to eat and drink and I was amazed at the diversity. Over the two days we ate pizza, had a curry, drank sherry at a pretty authentic tapas bar enjoyed more Guinness than is decent in all kinds of pubs from the traditional to the very modern. Of course, the traditional are the best and we particularly liked the snug in Dan Lowery’s, a small pub next to the theatre.
It is easy to find pubs playing live music, both modern and traditional; we enjoyed a U2 tribute band with a very memorable front man we referred to as “Oh-no”.
The only slightly negative thing I would say about Cork - and Ireland in general - is that eating out is expensive in Ireland, much more so than in the UK.
One thing you cannot fail to notice is the large number of non-Irish people living and working in Cork; the Polish community, especially, is very large and they have been welcomed warmly by their Irish hosts. I was struck by how cosmopolitan Cork is, very different from my expectations. I have to say that I found Cork to be very European in outlook and style. As someone who is a confirmed Europhile, I felt quite envious of the way the Irish have modernised and become very European without losing their traditional character; if only some of the narrow minded English who fear “Europe” so much would look at Ireland and see what is possible.
Another thing I really liked about Cork was that, although there were plenty of reminders that Christmas was just ten days away, everything was so tasteful and understated. The shops had simple and stylish window displays and people seemed to be enjoying browsing the small craft market at leisure rather than getting hot under the collar, losing their temper with the kids and hauling around twenty bags of shopping, and there weren't any of the massive queues that so depress me at home in December. It was all so civilised.
Cork is an exciting city with much to offer in terms of history, culture and shopping – the perfect place for a short break. For a longer trip the coast and the countryside also have plenty to occupy visitors with nearby Kinsale and its castle and the town of Cobh from whence the Titanic left on its doomed voyage and where a visitor centre tells the story.
Recommended for people of all ages.
In order to see at least a few sights and to enjoy Cork’s warm hospitality I would suggest even a short visit needs at least three full days. I have only given an overview of Cork here and intend to review some of the attractions in more detail in the future.