Sunday 21 December 2014

Cafe society on the trip to Tipp

Kim Bielenberg finds an air of horsey prosperity and picks up some German
 along the way to Tipperary

Published 23/07/2014 | 02:30

Kim Bielenberg makes his way to Cahir.
Kim Bielenberg makes his way to Cahir.
Kim Bielenberg gets a taste of Tipp’s finest bread from Nuala in Hickeys Bakery
Kim Bielenberg shows off his heavy load.

After travelling west from Waterford City, I crossed the Tipperary border and arrived in Clonmel. Riding though the streets of one of Ireland's biggest inland towns on a sunny Friday afternoon, there is little sense of being in a country struggling to come out of recession.

The centre of the town is bustling and there seems to be fewer empty shops than in most country towns on my travels. Or perhaps one does not notice the empty spaces if there are people out on the street, cheered by good weather.

There is an air of horsey prosperity that wafts in from nearby stud farms such as Coolmore.

I dismount at Hickeys bakery and cafe near the Westgate, a castellated building decorated with medieval crests that gives the end of O'Connell Street in the centre of the town a slight atmosphere of a fairytale, or a pantomime stage set.

The Westgate, which was rebuilt in the 19th century, used to divide the population of the town between the Normans on one side and the Irish on the other. The far side of the gate is still called Irishtown.

Nuala Hickey runs the bakery that has been in her family for over a century, and her coffee shop is packed with people in the afternoon.

The writer William Trevor was once effusive about this place: "The coffee is as good as the brack. You'll feel lazy and want to stay."

Like Trevor, I do feel lazy, and wanted to linger rather than venture out onto the open road on my bike ride to Cahir.

Nuala tells me: "The bakery has gone through four generations and I started here when I was very young."

On her days off from school she used to grease tins in preparation for the baking process, which still goes on all night.

"I like to stick to the old ways of baking, and we don't use any preservatives."

The cafe is stacked with barm bracks, sourdough loaves, drizzle cakes and buns. She also bakes grinder, the distinctive crispy turnover bread popular in Clonmel and Carrick-on-Suir.

"Like every business, we have been affected by the recession," she says. "We have just had to reinvent ourselves and make sure that we offer good value. Young people want different types of bread like sourdough, honey spelt and rye."

My stop for the night is the Raheen House Hotel, close to the centre of town on the Banks of the River Suir. The Georgian house is set in three acres of luxuriant gardens.

The price, €60, seems like a bargain, and is a fraction of what is charged in comparable, more pretentious establishments.

I have been in cramped bed and breakfasts with watery coffee and tepid showers that cost much more.

When I am shown to my room, I am pleasantly surprised to find that it has French windows opening onto a garden terrace, but there will be little time to stay around.

When I get there, the place is half empty, but preparations are being made for a comedy show in an adjoining ballroom.

I arrive late to see Petra Kindler, a German living in the south-east, trying gallantly to explode the stereotype that people with her nationality are not only brilliant at football, but also have a sense of humour.

When she is not being a comedian, Petra translates works of Irish literature, including novels by Sebastian Barry, into German.

At the end of her show, the comedian pinpoints the one term that she wants to avoid translating into German - 'hen party'. We soon see why. She unfurls a banner that reaches from one side of the hall to the other with the German word emblazoned on it:
'Junggesellinnenabschied'.

The following morning, when I wake up, there is torrential rain and much of the country has been hit by thunderstorms. I set off, cycling along banks of the River Suir.

In years gone by, when there was heavy rain, many residents along this stretch lived in fear of regular flash floods that engulfed their homes.

A local man showed me where the river used to burst its banks and lap up to the houses. Now, with the construction of elaborate flood defences, including new walls running along the Suir, riverbank residents can sleep easier in their beds.

Residents find it odd to look at the news and see chronic floods elsewhere, but not in their native town.

Riding through town, I pass the old Bulmers cider factory on Dowd's Lane. Production has moved to a vast plant on the edge of town, and apples are picked from Bulmers' own orchards.

Pedalling out of town at a pace that would never be described as furious, I take a route known as the 'Bianconi Drive', named after the Italian who settled in Tipperary during the Napoleonic wars and became the Michael O'Leary of his day (although perhaps he did not swear so much).

He started out with a horse carriage service taking passengers from Clonmel to Cahir, and it developed into the most sophisticated public transport network in the country.

As I head out into the country, with the Galtee mountains in front of me, I imagine that Bianconi's horses trotted faster than my bike. They would not have got away with stopping to walk the hills and gaze out.

So far, on my trip, I have had no near misses, but on a fast national route, with juggernauts grinding by, I rarely feel entirely safe.

Most of the time, I can amble along in the hard shoulder, but then all of a sudden it stops, and the gap between the bike and the trucks is unmercifully narrow

The trip out of Clonmel starts with a slow climb, but then after several stops, a few glugs of water, and some extended walks, I reach the top of the hill, and it's downhill all the way to Cahir.

Irish Independent

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