Monday 23 October 2017

A boutique Kilkenny weekend

Kilkenny Castle
Kilkenny Castle
Liadan Hynes

Liadan Hynes

'YOU'RE not driving, Miss Daisy," my mother tartly informed me, as we set off on our trip to Kilkenny, and I patronisingly assured her that I am a very safe driver. She then launched into an explanation of fifth gear, in case I wasn't familiar with the concept. Opening mutual control-freak salvos aside, our recent trip to Kilkenny went without a hitch.

Having travelled with Ryanair the week before, I packed with particular abandon; for our two-night stay, I brought three pairs of jeans, five pairs of shoes, and a veritable pharmacy of beauty products. One of the nicest things about travelling in Ireland is not having to worry over every single item.

The new road meant we made it down in only an hour and a half, and that on the Friday of a bank holiday weekend, in a Ford Fiesta.

We were staying in The Pembroke Hotel -- a mere hop, skip and jump from the river and the centre of town -- and our lovely twin room overlooked the castle.

We were starving, and headed straight to the hotel restaurant. The Pembroke is a boutique hotel in the best possible sense of the word. No obnoxiously trendy decor schemes, and it has particularly helpful staff.

I had a smoked chicken and mushroom vol au vent to start, it was absolutely delicious. The mother had the Caeser salad, also lovely, as were our mains, pasta with a simple tomato sauce, and chicken supreme.

After dinner, we sashayed into the hotel bar, intending to stay for one drink before a wander into town. So good was the atmosphere, we ended up staying all night. We were lucky enough to catch a group -- a mixture of guitars, accordion, tin whistles -- who play there once a month. They played everything from Bob Dylan to Johnny Cash to traditional Irish tunes, and, most entertainingly, a few of their own numbers, one about brown envelopes and one about Dolly Parton's bits.

The next day, post breakfast, we decided to take a stroll into town. Almost opposite our hotel was Shutterbug, a renowned vintage store I had been dying to visit for ages. It didn't disappoint. Particularly nice were the leather skirts and really reasonably priced jewellery. Owner Blanaid Hennessy also works in interiors, her hessian- covered armchairs, done to order, are really beautiful.

We couldn't believe how many boutique shops Kilkenny has. A stroll down High Steet saw us stopping every two seconds.

We're wedding people at the moment, so everything is judged through the filter of how can it help us with our big day.

Murphy's had nice non-mother-of-the-bride, mother-of-the bride stuff. Good's, essentially a small department store, has a great underwear department. Lola Rose has a beautiful selection of labels including Red Valentino. It was such a relaxing way to shop that we agreed we'd actually make a return trip for the stores alone.

Having worked up an appetite, we decided to head to the Kilkenny Design centre for lunch, quickly stopping into Castle Arch Pottery behind the Design Centre beforehand. Lunch was delicious, although you would want to be staying for a leisurely one -- my salmon fillet and two salads; one leaves, one carrot, came to almost €15, pricey for a cafe.

After lunch, we decided to visit the castle. The restoration is incredible, they took whatever original pieces remained -- bits of wallpaper found under layers of newer paper, the occasional wooden feature -- and painstakingly copied them. Even contemporary photographs were used to copy the original carpets.

There's a guide in almost every room who will happily chat about the castle's history.

The grounds are lovely to ramble around, and there's a playground for children. It's the perfect spot for a picnic -- if you had the weather.

We'd had numerous pub recommendations, Tynan's on the river, and Ryan's pub, getting the most votes. But our best find came the next morning when we took a final stroll around the town. The father had mentioned a pub he recalled from a previous visit. Down an alleyway was all we had to go on. We asked around with no luck, until we came across a man in a pinstripe suit and a trilby sweeping out a small lane on High Street.

"You're not meant to find this place," he told us smilingly, before inviting us down the alleyway to his pub. He was Dr Michael Conway, a local cardiologist, and owner of said pub. The Hole in the Wall is a tiny pub, part of a Tudor mansion. The bar, with flagstone floors and a wooden sleep counter, probably seats about five. Upstairs is a venue. Events coming up over the next few months include Japan week, various soprano concerts, a German beer and culinary festival, acting workshops and wine-tasting.

The weather was lovely so we decided to head out of town for a walk. Jenkinstown Wood is a 15-minute drive from the centre of town, and offers several lovely woodland rambles -- the bluebells were out. After that, we drove out to Inistioge, the village where Circle of Friends was filmed. It's just as picturesque as you would imagine, and we lunched at the riverside Old Schoolhouse Cafe, basic food but tasty -- baked potato and beans, and cream and berry pie. Woodstock Gardens is just up the hill and also worth a look.

It's a cliche to say you'll definitely be back -- as it happens, I was already signed up for a return visit to Kilkenny within the month for a friend's wedding.

But what was a future one-night stay is now turning into a long weekend, so much did we enjoy our trip.

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