What’s so Kooky about Cork?

– By Madeleine Wilson

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Dublin’s cool little sister? We think so. In fact locals seem to know so, claiming Cork was the ‘only good thing to come out of Dublin’ – cheeky! But that’s Cork for you; rebellious and determined to do everything its own way.

The result has been a rather charming and colourful city, often compared to Venice due to its watery location straddled by the river Lee and donning its fair share of bridges. Since its Capital of Culture status in 2005 art galleries have flourished and it has a lively list of music and food festivals. In summer, you can enjoy the labours of microbreweries in beer gardens and in winter, roaring fireplaces are stoked and some Irish trad music promises cosy Cork nightlife.

Cork is just an hour’s flight from London with a nippy airport to city centre connection time of 15 minutes. And let’s not forget those cheeky cheap flights provided by Ryanair and our Cork hostels making it economical both in time and money. So, if you are ruled by your stomach, partial to a boat trip, enjoy toe-tapping live music or like your culture with an alternative twist, you can expect a kooky weekend break in Cork.

Cheap eats

One of the best things to do in Cork is work up an appetite. For a city whose industry has, since the 18th century, centred around brewing, butter-making and distilling, Cork will certainly tantalise all you foodies. Look out for freshly baked bread, Irish Stew, Sherkin oysters and steaming chowders.

  • The marvellous English Market (Princes Street) dates back to 1610 and, as a covered market, is a useful spot for a rainy day. Feast your stomachs or just your eyes on freshly pulled seafood, traditional Irish soda bread and blood-dripping pig parts. To gorge, head to the Farmgate Cafe upstairs dishing up breakfast and lunch from €4-€17. Try some drisheen, a sort of blood sausage and a local speciality,
  • In preparation for a forthcoming trip to the dentist, visit Exchange Toffee Works (37a John Redmond Street), Cork’s oldest sweetie shop. Clinking apothecary-like bottles and vats of sweet-treat goodness, here you can pick up their local clove rock speciality en route to St Anne’s Church.
  • If you don’t like following the sheep on your travels, forget the Dublin Guiness factory tours. In Cork, Beamish is favoured local stout and the Beamish Brewery is just a short walk from the market. They offer tours rounded off with the chance to pull your own pint – somehow, the personal touch makes it taste even better.
  • Time for tea? There’s no need to stop shopping at Fellini’s Tea House (French Church Street) with granny-like trinkets and vintage bits and bobs adorning the walls while you sip a cuppa and chomp on homemade cake off lacy tablecloths.

Where to drink

Most of you (whether you know it or not) will be looking for a bit of ‘craic’ on your night out in Cork. Meaning, some fun times and lively conversation.

If your night begins with aimless wandering, head for Barrack Street. It’s up to you whether you take up the Barrack Street challenge: consuming a pint in every bar starting with Nancy Spain’s until you reach the brewery.

  • There is a studenty vibe at the An Realt Dearg (125 Barrack Street) – which explains the name, The Red Star, those rebellious tykes! –  Here, there is plenty of toe-tapping live trad music as well as folk and blues with a beer garden of sorts for summer and a roaring fire in winter.
  • The candlelit tables are dark and atmospheric at the Mutton Lane Inn (3 Mutton Lane) but they don’t remain so for long. The place pulls quite a crowd later in the evening with traditional Irish live music sessions on Mondays.
  • In summer months, the garden at the Franciscan Brewery (14 North Mall, Shandon) is a good spot to enjoy one of their own brews.
  • For something more upmarket, head to The Bodega (Cornermarket Street). Housed in the St Peter’s Market building, they are best known as a decadent Cork nightlife venue, free before 11:30pm. But the interior is pretty spectacular for breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner with prices ranging from €7 for an Eggs Benedict to €15 for a main course at dinner.
  • Watch out for the annual Cork Jazz Festival held in October (26-29 October 2012) which includes plenty of free events all around the city.

To the shops

For quirky boutiques stroll around the Huguenot Quarter where you’ll find plenty of nice refuelling lunch spots. Take a peek inside Brown Thomas (18-21 Patrick Street), Cork’s upmarket department store.

  • Whether you are in the market for buttons or not, it is still pretty impressive to visit the Cork Button Factory (4 Pope’s Quay, open Mon-Fri) – expect floor to ceiling fasteners organised by colour a style.
  • If there are more of you craftsters reading this, try yarn shops Vibes & Scribes (21 Lavitt’s Quay) or Youghal Knits (23 Princes Street) both cosy and welcoming.
  • Mercury Goes Retrograde (19c Drawbridge Street) and Peacock & Ruby (12-14 Market Parade on Patrick Street) will satisfy vintage shoppers.
  • Kuyichi (19 Opera Lane) is a driving force behind the use of organic cotton in fashion, particularly denim. The shop, housed in a charming 18th century building, sells to both men and women with well-made and snug casuals of plaid shirts, chunky knits and of course, jeans.

Six fun things to do in & around Cork…

1. Kayaking

It’s how everybody used to get around from house to pub once upon a time – well not quite, they probably used rowing boats. Kayaking along the river Lee is a great way to see the city from a different perspective. Otters and seals are common sights and a half day, 3hr trip costs about €50 per person.

Alternatively, try a Dolphin Discovery Tour where seafarers have the opportunity to spot common and bottle-nosed dolphins. Tours depart daily (March-November) at 10am and last about 3hrs, €40 adults.

2. Bantry House

What sets this place apart from your average country house outing is the location. Just over an hour’s drive from Cork city, this gentile residence has spectacular views overlooking Bantry Bay and Whiddy Island.

The furnishings are deemed ‘the Wallace Collection of Ireland’ with reputed Marie Antoinette pieces here and tapestries heralding from the workshops of Gobelins there – a visual feast. Outdoors, the Earl of Bantry and his wife’s humble sketches and notes, inspired by their travels to the continent, were used to create a grand palazzo-style garden. Round off your visit with a visit to the tearoom.

Find opening times and directions: www.bantryhouse.com

The best way to experience Bantry House is during the Masters of Tradition Festival in August (15-19 August 2012). Performances are typically held in the intimate library and world-famous musicians entertain with traditional Irish music. Visitors can buy single event tickets (from €5-€30) or festival passes (from €100)

3. The City Gaol

While your initial reaction to the Cork City Gaol might be ‘”how lovely!” you’ll need look beyond the castle-like building and the charming surrounding gardens – this was once where they kept the naughty people!

The architecture is some of Ireland’s finest and an afternoon here will fill in any holes in your 19th-century Irish history from pre-famine to the foundation of the State. Queasy waxworks, original graffiti on the cell walls and audio visuals bring to life the day-to-day experience of an inmate here.

Convent Avenue, Sunday’s Wells, adults €8, students €7, open daily

4. Spike Island Tour

Coined as Ireland’s Alcatraz, what makes a tour of Spike Island worthwhile is your fantastic guide, Michael Martin. A fort, a prison and most recently a youth correctional facility, Michael will spin you a fantastic yarn. He offers fascinating insight into the political role of the island, tales of prisoner’s escaping and an opportunity to see the big gun that remains pointed towards the mouth of the harbour.

You will spend between 75 and 90 minutes on the island and the boat, tide dependant, will take between 10 and 25 minutes each way. Boats leave Kennedy Pier in Cobh daily at 2pm and you can buy tickets on the day from the booth.

€14.50, boats leave from Kennedy Pier in Cobh daily at 2 p.m.

5. Blarney Stone

Kooky or cliché? Each to his own when it comes to plonking a snog on the stone. For those in the dark about this oddball tradition, today, travellers visit the 15th-century Blarney Castle and climb the steps to bend precariously over the battlements and kiss a rock.

They are all after the gift of the gab, which the stone is said to provide for all that layeth a kiss upon it. In fact, it was Queen Elizabeth I who coined the phrase ‘to talk blarney’ after a frustrating conversation with Lord Blarney.

6. St Anne’s Church

A pretty church and 300-year old steeple to clamber for a fine 360° view of Cork is one thing. But how many churches let you ring the bells! First-timers (that’s most of us) won’t have a clue how to play a ditty on these infamous Shandan bells, but a series of cards illustrate how to pull on the bell ropes to play a merry tune.

Church Street, €5, June-September Mon-Sat 10-17:00 and Sunday 11:30-16:30

Cheap flight: check. Cheap tips from HostelBookers blog: check. Cheap Cork hostel?

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Thanks to zopdeep, infomatique, LWY, mmcdonnell, Jule_Berlin and brosner for the images off Flickr. Please note, all images were suitable for use at time of publication according to the Creative Commons License.

Have we forgotten anything? Add your kooky things to do in Cork below…

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