Wednesday 22 March 2017

Cork: Second city worth a second look

Short breaks in Ireland

Sarah Caden

Compact Cork is a city for walkers.
Compact Cork is a city for walkers.
76 on the Mall, Imperial Hotel, Cork
Fishmonger Pat O'Connell and Queen Elizabeth in the English market
Out for a drink in Cork. Photo: Fáilte Ireland

Sarah Caden returns to Cork as a visitor, and is surprised at how well it works as a city break.

I'd been to Cork before.

Most of us have been to Cork before. I've been there a lot, though. As a child, as a teenager en route to West Cork. In my mid-20s, it was where the relationship began with my now husband. What with him being a Corkonian and all, it's where we go now to spend time in the summer and take the kids to see grandparents and cousins.

Cork is a home from home, to an extent, though a weekend break there in the summer felt like a re- introduction to the second city.

What made it unusual was that we stayed in the city. In a hotel. The two daughters found this wildly exciting, but it was good for the adults too. It felt like a city break somewhere far flung, and if we'd taken a few hours of a flight there we'd have come home raving about the place. Even the man who grew up in Cork's suburbs felt the same.

On this close-to-home city break, we stayed at the Imperial Hotel on the wide and old-school shabby- grand South Mall. The older daughter had always been looking to get across the threshold as it's her grandmother's favourite location for a tasty bite, and her nine-year-old cousin, older by a year and therefore her trailblazer, loves nothing more than a scone in the Imperial.

76 on the Mall, Imperial Hotel, Cork
76 on the Mall, Imperial Hotel, Cork

Read more: Inside the Imperial Hotel's million-euro upgrade

The hotel has that gilt-and- burgundy velvet interior that speaks of classic comfort and everyone felt at home straight away.

It also happens to be around the corner from Penneys, which meant that father and elder daughter could take a twosome excursion with a tenner and come back to me and the younger one, watching telly in bed, laden with treats. You just don't get that on a city break in Istanbul, and I know which is more relaxing.

The Imperial, being bang in the middle of town, is also a stone's throw from the famous English Market, where we explained - to the kids' horror - buttered eggs and tripe and drisheen before mid-morning coffee and cake in Kay Harte's award-winning Farmgate.

A trip to Fitzgerald Park, opposite UCC, gave the girls the opportunity to catch up with their cousins. The playground has been overhauled in recent years and has - all parents breathe a sigh of relief - toilets nearby.

There are nice log benches for the adults, the park itself has had a botanical overhaul that is modern and peaceful and the coffee shop is a most welcome addition. As we left, there was a string quartet tuning up for an evening performance on the lawn and the two girls pirouetted across the grass to their fits and starts of summery melodies.

Fishmonger Pat O'Connell and Queen Elizabeth in the English market
Fishmonger Pat O'Connell and Queen Elizabeth in the English market

Back in town, we spent a happy hour in the Huguenot Quarter, a little warren of side streets off Patrick Street, full of charming little shops and cafes.

Pinocchio's is a relatively small toy shop but is full to bursting with slightly offbeat treasures from big dolls' houses and vehicles to little fairy gliders for a euro and pocket money finds. It's like a shop you'd find in Germany or, compliment of compliments, Scandinavia. Directly opposite is the bonus of a "ye olde sweet shoppe", where edible paper money was bought for eating later with the babysitter.

Before we headed out for the night, we wanted the children well fed, so we gave The Meatball Place on Carey's Lane a whirl. The couple who own it brought the meatballs-in-all-forms idea back from Australia and our girls nearly ate the plates, so thrilled were they with their spaghetti and meatballs.

Thanks to the lovely hotel- supplied babysitter, we headed out with barely a backward glance to enjoy a barbecue at Holy Smoke, run by Jamie Oliver's protege John Relihan. We were out with old friends, and we're far from the first flush ourselves, but you wouldn't be going there on a first date, deliciously messy as it is.

Shopping in Cork. Photo: Fáilte Ireland
Shopping in Cork. Photo: Fáilte Ireland

You can find far more proper pubs in Cork than you can in Dublin. We had a pre-dinner drink in the Oval and two post-dinner pints in Callanan's on George's Quay. This is no newly gussied-up place pretending to be old, and in the small back snug you sit on kegs that have been fitted with cushions for a degree of comfort.

Cork brewery Franciscan Well's Rebel Red and the German-style wheat beer Friar Weisse are easily found in most Cork pubs, but a true Corkonian will tell you that the only craft beer you need is Beamish.

A hangover-day Lunch was had at O'Flynn's Gourmet Sausages on Winthrop Street. The O'Flynns have a sausage stall in the English Market where they fry sausages on a hotplate with onions to put in bread rolls and feed to the queues of people. They also have this small cafe-restaurant where they serve up every sausage variation you can think of, from the breakfast sausages in a bap with ketchup for our two girls through the slightly Mexican affair I ate to the mix-up of chorizo, potato and onions my husband devoured.

Out for a drink in Cork. Photo: Fáilte Ireland
Out for a drink in Cork. Photo: Fáilte Ireland

That night, dinner in the hotel with the in-laws was delightful, with all generations served.

On the morning of our check-out from the Imperial we stood in the lobby, the children lamenting our departure, when the older one dropped her new water bottle from Penneys on the marble floor. It cracked and water pooled everywhere. Chris, the manager, rushed over. Water was mopped, tears were mopped, the excursion with Dad to Penneys was related as if they'd gone to Antarctica together.

Chris asked if we'd had breakfast. We hadn't - we'd been too lazy in our adjoining rooms to stir. He sent us into Lafayette's coffee dock, with its Byzantine-inspired glamour, for coffee and, of course, those fresh scones.

Then, midway through our continental treat, he appeared again with a replacement water bottle for the elder girl and, better, one for her little sister too.

Sure it was only up the road to Penneys, he said.

Only up the road, maybe, but it felt like they'd gone so much farther - as could be said of our city break in Cork. It was only a weekend in that city at the other end of the motorway, but it felt like we'd really been away.

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