Travel Ireland

Thursday 27 July 2017

Cork: Bobbing on the banks of the River Lee

The bells: Nick, above, enjoys the sights of Cobh, with the famous cathedral in the background.
The bells: Nick, above, enjoys the sights of Cobh, with the famous cathedral in the background.
Night falls: Cork is a compact city, with lots of things to keep the visitor entertained.
Two François Langur monkeys at Fota Wildlife Park. They are among the world's rarest monkeys, and are found in northeast Vietnam and in two Chinese provinces. They arrived at Fota just a few weeks ago.
Nick Webb

Nick Webb

Nick Webb visits Cork for for a combination pig-out and walk-it-off weekend in the "real capital" of Ireland.

It's something of a surprise that Cork people aren't much, much fatter. Because the food is out of this world.

On our first night in the city, my wife Rebecca and I ate in Kate Lawlor's epic No.5 Fenn's Quay, which was simply yum. The RAI Cork Restaurant of the Year is based on using local ingredients sprinkled with a pile of magic sparkles.

Working off the theory that you should always eat something that scares you slightly, I had the chicken liver brulee with crozier blue cheese ice cream and red onion compote. Blue cheese ice cream? Seriously? But boy, does it work. The O'Mahony's feather blade of beef with Ballyhoura mushroom duxelle with celeriac puree and vegetable crisps was jolly good indeed and was followed by some very tasty local cheese. And some gargle.

We stayed for two nights in the River Lee Hotel. Bernie Gallagher isn't one of the richest women in the country for nothing. She knows how to do hotels, and do them well. The River Lee Hotel - which was one of the first post-crash property deals when Bernie and John Gallagher picked it up from Owen O'Callaghan in 2013 - is a smashing place. It's about 10 minutes' walk from the centre of Cork. Breakfast is spot on. One day, I had three different types of egg. There's even a secret hideaway on the top floor with Sky Sports and bottomless bowls of crisps and nuts. The bar looks pretty good, too.

On the first day we headed east. Cobh is about a half-an-hour drive out of Cork. The brightly coloured houses facing down to the sea are one of the prettiest man-made sights on the south coast. It is said that the houses were painted different colours so that returning fisherman could identify their own houses from the sea.

We parked up in the cathedral car park and ambled down to Spike Island Tours, where we met our guide and the Emly Historical Society, who were on their first ever road trip. The ferry to Spike takes a detour around Haulbowline Island and the Navy base. There's a treacherous sandbank to be avoided. With the 27 members of the Society we walked Spike Island as our guide - ex-Army and a hive of information - talked us through the history.

All I knew about Spike was that it had been used to house joyriders in the early 1980s and that they'd burnt the place down. There's a bit more. Monks, Vikings, the British, Irish Army and then the prison service. The last prisoner left just over a decade ago. Martin Cahill - The General - is said to have plastered a ceiling outside one of the cells.

Night falls: Cork is a compact city, with lots of things to keep the visitor entertained.
Night falls: Cork is a compact city, with lots of things to keep the visitor entertained.

He wasn't awfully good at plastering.

The Spike Island tour is fascinating, ranging from tales of attempted escapes on secretly built rafts to tragic shootings and Class-A prisoners. There's also a coffee shop. The Council is in the process of spending €5m to upgrade and restore the island. Maybe a pub wouldn't go amiss. The tour takes about two and a half hours, including a breather.

On the return from Spike, we had sandwiches and pop in The Quays, a pub with a smashing sea-front spot. It was one of those days when the late summer sun decided to give it socks. After lunch we met up with Aideen to do the Titanic Trail Walking Tour, which was a terrifically well-presented piece of history as we walked from site to site.

The Titanic arrived outside Cork harbour for about an hour and a half on April 11, 1912. One hundred and twenty three passengers sailed out from Cobh to join the liner. The jetty is in terrible shape but the other Titanic spots - including the Titanic Experience museum in the old White Star Line offices - are well worth seeing. Cobh Cathedral is quite the construction, with a 300ft steeple poking up into the sky. It has one of the largest sound systems in the Irish church network - a stonking 49-bell carillon. When Laurel and Hardy visited the town in 1953, the carillon played their Cuckoo Waltz theme tune as their liner left.

We hurtled back into Cork for a bit of a wander.

There seem to be more decent looking bars and restaurants in one square mile than any city deserves. Especially one where I don't live! We grabbed a table in the uber-slick Market Lane on Oliver Plunkett St. It may be one of the coolest people-spotting places in Cork, and the food is terrific too. It's bang next door to the Elbow Lane craft brewery, so it would have been rude not to have a glug of Elbow Lane's Wisdom Ale.

Two François Langur monkeys at Fota Wildlife Park. They are among the world's rarest monkeys, and are found in northeast Vietnam and in two Chinese provinces. They arrived at Fota just a few weeks ago.
Two François Langur monkeys at Fota Wildlife Park. They are among the world's rarest monkeys, and are found in northeast Vietnam and in two Chinese provinces. They arrived at Fota just a few weeks ago.

It works. Some of the best crispy sesame calamari ever was followed by braised ox cheek in more of the Wisdom Ale, with thyme and chive dumplings, baby turnips and heritage carrots, which went down rather well with a Toma Tempranillo.

My colleague Brendan O'Connor furnished us with a list of the finest pubs Cork has to offer - ranging from Coughlans on Douglas Street, Callinans by Parliament Bridge, Arthur Mayne and Electric down by the river at the end of South Mall. Hi B off Patrick Street is also something of a Cork institution. Crane Lane is the place to go later. Much later.

On the theme of bells ringing in your ears, the Blackrock observatory and bell ringing at the picturesque 18th century church of St. Anne's is worth a visit - although it's a working church so plan times carefully. Nerves of steel are needed to drive in some of the area's backstreets.

It's hard to go to Cork and not visit the wildlife park at Fota. The new Asian park opened up over the summer. It's well worth taking the train around the 75-acre park. The highlight for most is the cheetah feeding time, when the turbo-charged felines chase after chopped-up bits of rabbit that are pulled along on a zip wire. It's definitely worth seeing. And if you're lucky, there'll be a bit of blood and guts.

I was kind of keen on the capybara, which is the world's largest rodent. It's as if a hamster was hit with a giant growth ray. Across the field is Fota House, which has a jolly nice little coffee shop.

Cork is a compact city, with piles to do on a weekend - which is lucky, as the English Market is closed on Sundays. There's animals ripping each other to shreds, iceberg-bound ships, quirky science and more festivals and off-beat events than you could shake a stick at.

Add to that some world-class eating and a dangerous amount of terrific pubs and you've got the ingredients of a blooming excellent autumn city break.

Getting there

Rates at the River Lee Hotel (doylecollection.com) start from €90pp.

Nick recommends taking in the atmosphere of the Terrace on the Weir and sampling the 'Taste of Cork' sharing platter, with a selection of delicious local cheeses and meats, rustic bread and date chutney, all washed down with a pint of Franciscan Well Craft Beer, brewed less than half a mile further down the River Lee.

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