Limerick, you really are a lady
Limerick probably isn't the first Irish city that springs to mind when you're contemplating a weekend getaway. Dublin is usually the choice for that cosmopolitan, capital feel, Galway for culture and pints and Cork, well, Cork is where you go when you want to feel you're in another country entirely without the hassle of leaving the island. But Limerick? I haven't set foot in Limerick in years. In fact, I can admit to only being a visitor in that city twice in my life. The second time was as an artist working in the wonderful Belltable theatre. And the first time? Well, that was a memorable trip taken over 20 years ago with a good friend. Our second 'tourist' night out at nearby Bunratty Castle just happened to coincide with the visit of an entire British Airways trainee pilot team. We were young and single. Much fun was had by all. Need I say more?
This time it would be different though. I was bringing my Mammy. I wasn't sure what to expect.
We decided to head down by train because I needed to get a bit of work done and if you book on-line (Irish Rail) beforehand it works out really cheap, and it's very comfortable. When we arrived the sun was sweating the streets, and a friendly local taxi-driver threw our bags into the boot and proceeded to tell us about all the terrible things that had happened to Limerick in the past few centuries.
Was the competition for tourists so fierce that rival villages were sending locals to pose as taxi drivers and put the enthusiastic, newly arrived visitor off? Over the next couple of days we referred to our glum taxi-driver often as we enjoyed one of the best weekends away we've ever had in an Irish city. I suppose I can't really credit the people of Limerick with the fact that the weather was truly amazing for the few days we there. But it was a nice touch. It meant that when we were shown to our gorgeous "junior" suite at the Strand Hotel, we were able to 'ooh' and 'ahh' over the stunning view from the wide balcony and the ceiling-to-floor glass windows. We could see for miles around. Oh look, there's a castle. And a ruined abbey. And there's Thomond Park.
It's amazing how a really great view can turn the most adult of us back into feeling like kids again.But even better, right in front of us, in all its majestic might and glory, was the Shannon, longest river in the British Isles - or, as the politically correct say nowadays, in the North Atlantic Archipelago. We immediately set ourselves up on the comfy chairs on the balcony and de-stressed in front of the sparkling, sun-soaked river.
If you're the type that just likes to pamper yourself in a nice hotel, you couldn't do better than the Limerick Strand Hotel. Its location is central, with a lovely long river walk right beside it and the main bustle of the city just five minutes across the river. There's a wonderful Spa area with great pools and everything you could want to relax. And if you're too tired to go out, their restaurants have won a plethora of awards so you can get a fantastic meal on-site, as it were.
I tried to assure the Mammy that I hadn't planned it, but our visit just happened to coincide with a weekend of "politics and ideas" organised by the Limerick Spring. Sure, they're always having festivals in Limerick, I told her. We don't hear about them because they're keeping them to themselves. Not this one though. Gerry Stembridge, Leila Doolan, Paddy Cullivan, Stephen Donnelly TD, were just a few of the luminaries visiting Limerick that weekend and taking part in a whole range of events.
But first - shopping! We had been repeatedly told that we should not miss the Milk Market, in the centre of the city. This is an all-weather, all-year-round marketplace which has been there since the 1840s. We arrived there on Saturday morning and my first reaction was pea-green envy. Why on earth do we not have anything like this in Dublin?
The market sits under a huge tent where you can buy anything from pottery to jewellery to black pudding to fabulous Fifties style dresses. And the food? Oh, now I understood why the girl at the hotel had warned us not to have too much breakfast. Scampi, calamari, prawns, falafels, home-made soups, curries, you-name-it-they-had-it. The Mammy went into ceramic heaven and bought a whole load of pottery at bargain prices. I ate parsnip crisps and bought hand-made earrings. Afterwards we regenerated our batteries over Guinness at nearby Nancy's bar - a must for tourists and locals alike.
One of the best things about Limerick is that it's a proper city and yet everything is within walking distance. So, just past the wonderful Hunt Museum lies the newly renovated St John's Castle. We spent the afternoon investigating all the interactive parts of their stunning new exhibition. In case you're wondering, John is the bad king from Robin Hood; brother of Richard the Lionheart, he was called "John Lackland" because as the youngest son he didn't inherit any land. So they gave him Ireland. Then he became king and caused major mayhem and upset.
Climb up the to the top of the battlements and you have a bird's eye view of why Limerick and the land around it was so important to the English invaders. We lunched in The Locke - which had a wonderful view of the river. Saturday night was spent at one of the excellent debates organised by Limerick Spring - we heard the people of Limerick debate where the power lay in Ireland and Europe. "In the people, if only we would use it", was the answer. The following day, after a leisurely morning of more markets and a seafood lunch, we headed; sated, exhausted and delighted with ourselves, back to Colbert station, ready for the journey home. Limerick, we'll be back.
Carol Hunt sampled some of the many attractions of Limerick City from a central position in the Strand Hotel overlooking the magnificent Shannon river. Highlights include the Limerick Spring, the famous Milk Market, the medieval St John's Castle, the Hunt Museum and the wonderful and many pubs and restaurants of the city. And the view.
The Strand Hotel, Ennis Rd, Limerick.
Phone: (061) 421 800 www.strandhotellimerick .ie
Stay for three nights and enjoy the Summer Fun Family Package from only €165 per person sharing - children under 12 stay free.
Sunday Indo Living