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Travel: The charm of Cork

PUBLISHED: 12:19 17 February 2015 | UPDATED: 12:40 17 February 2015

Live traditional Irish music is a feature of the many pubs

Live traditional Irish music is a feature of the many pubs

Archant

European Capital of Culture in 2005 and in the top 10 Lonely Planet Best in Travel 2010, Cork offers visitors a rich and colourful tapestry of culture and history. Rebecca Underwood is charmed

The River Lee splits into two channelsThe River Lee splits into two channels

The intriguing city of Cork is surrounded by water. It sits on the banks of the majestic River Lee, which separates into two channels, leaving the historic centre of the city on an island. To the east the channels reunite and quays and docks lead the way into Lough Mahon at the high end of Cork Harbour, one of the world’s greatest natural havens.

In 606 AD, Cork was a monastic community, established by Saint Fin Barre. The monastery was located where the Church of Ireland’s imposing Cathedral of Saint Fin Barre, built in 1862, stands today. Sights around this exceptional site include a soaring Gothic bell tower.

The Red Abbey, considered a national monument, is another popular site to visit. It is thought to have been established in the 14th century and occupied by friars until the 1700s. During the siege of Cork in 1690, the abbey tower was used as a vantage point to stem the rebellion and break its links with the English crown. The abbey was destroyed by fire in 1799, but the tower remains intact and is the oldest structure in the city.

A great spot to go for lunch is the English Market, located on Prince’s Street and the tree-lined Grand Parade. Trading since 1788, it attracts hordes of visitors and locals alike. Even the Queen, who visited in 2011, was said to be impressed. Browse the stalls, crammed with traditional Irish fare as well as culinary delights from around the world. Find a perch at one of the stalls and sample a few slivers of blood sausage, known as drisheen, or order battlebord – a delicious dish of fresh buttered eggs and dried salted ling, or perhaps consider a selection of boiled pig’s feet, known as crubeens.

The English MarketThe English Market

Should you fancy an afternoon tipple, make your way to the Franciscan Well Brewery on North Mall, where a traditional warm Irish welcome awaits. Beers are brewed in-house and the shining copper tanks at the rear of the bar dispense the brew direct to the taps. Find yourself a table in the covered beer garden and you’re sure to be engaged in lively conversation with the regulars in no time.

If you are feeling energetic, head for the 18th-century Church of St Anne. Known locally as the church tower of Shandon, it perches on a hill in the Shandon area of the city overlooking the Lee. The building, which is noted for its eight bells, is a landmark and a symbol of the city. Visitors are welcome to climb to the first floor and ring the bells themselves.

Be sure to take a leisurely stroll along the Mardyke Riverside Walkway, which opened in 2006. The new Mardyke Bridge spans the river and is the ideal spot to admire the beauty of the area.

Blarney Castle is 15 minutes by road from the city. The home of the kings of Munster, it has its roots in the 10th century, although the oldest part now is the keep, dating to the 15th century. Legend has it that king Cormac McCarthy sent 4,000 men to support the forces of Robert the Bruce at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314 and in appreciation the Scots gave half the Stone of Scone to McCarthy and this was later incorporated into the battlements of the castle. Those who kiss the Blarney Stone (upside down, and hung on to by a helpful castle assistant) are said to be rewarded with the gift of eloquence.

Blarney CastleBlarney Castle

For a spot of tranquillity, take a wander around the castle’s gardens. The bog garden accessible by a wooden boardwalk features two calming waterfalls and a group of yew trees, said to be more than 600 years old. The Fern Garden is at the end of a grassy path lined with beautiful wild flowers. Its display of more than 80 types of fern includes the 204-inch high Dicksonia Antarctica, the tallest fern in Ireland. The Poison Garden has a collection of highly toxic plants including ricin, wolfsbane and mandrake – all safely displayed in large cage-like structures.

One of the best places to stay in the city is Hayfield Manor on Perrott Avenue. Accommodation is sumptuously furnished with tasteful antiques and plush fabrics. And for an exceptional dining experience, you won’t have far to go. Orchids, the hotel’s award-winning restaurant, offers an extensive menu of dishes presented in opulent surroundings, and the service is excellent.

Another fine restaurant is Les Gourmandises on Cook Street. Recipient of Ireland’s Restaurant Association’s 2012 award for best restaurant and best chef in Cork, this family-owned French eatery is highly praised by critics. Chef Patrick, who has worked for Michel Roux and Marco Pierre White, uses the best French and locally-sourced products to create his cuisine. I recommend the ballotine of braised ham, confit turnips with raisins and apple puree, which just has to be followed by the dark chocolate mousse, caramelised banana, poached pears and banana crisp cake, accompanied by a chilled glass of sweet dessert wine.

If you are partial to a late night drink some traditional Irish music, visit Sin è, which translates to That’s it – in reference to the funeral parlour next door!

St Anne's church - visitors can ring the eight bellsSt Anne's church - visitors can ring the eight bells

This lively and popular pub on Coburg Street opened in 1889 and has been hosting live Irish music for more than 50 years. The most popular musicians play on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday, and you can expect some spontaneous and energetic dancing – and, as so often happens in Ireland, you may just get the opportunity to join in.

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