Kilkenny: Modern treats and the mysterious east on a stellar city break
Ireland's Ancient East
Ireland's west has stunning scenery, but the east is no poor relation - and beats it hands down for history.
Ireland's Atlantic coast was an easy sell.
Who doesn't dream of that rare sunny day hanging out in Dingle, looking out at the crashing waves from the Cliffs of Moher, or soaking up the atmosphere of Galway City?
The marketing of the Wild Atlantic Way - stretching 1,600 miles from Donegal's Inishowen Peninsula to Cork's gourmet capital of Kinsale - has been a hit, with foreigners and locals alike taking in stages along the dramatic coastal route.
Ireland's east (aside from Dublin) has been the forgotten cousin, until now.
Ireland's Ancient East is doing what the Atlantic Way did for the west: putting Ireland's inland towns and villages on the tourist map.
And there's more to the region than first meets the eye: the Stone Age passage tombs of Newgrange that make the pyramids look modern; history coming to life at the Battle of the Boyne site; or Norman castles and round towers build to keep the Vikings at a safe distance.
The Ancient East takes in 17 counties, stretching from Co Louth to Cork City, and I took in just a small portion of it in one of our most historic cities, Kilkenny.
With the sun blazing, the Dubs in town and the Cat Laughs comedy festival in full swing recently, I felt as old as some of the monuments in a city thronged with youngsters having a good time.
Kilkenny's chock-a-block with Medieval buildings, but to get your bearings, join one of local historian Pat Tynan's tours (kilkennywalkingtours.ie).
A tenner for adults will get you a 70-minute stroll of the Medieval Mile, and it's a fun way to learn about days of old. Witch burnings, Medieval miscreants being caged and swivelled around by passers-by, cholera and ghostly sightings - it was all go in the small city back in the day. Stop off for a lunchtime pint later in Kyteler's Inn (below, established in 1324), which Pat revealed is reputed to be haunted by Dame Alice Kyteler, whose four husbands all met unfortunate ends, resulting in her being convicted of witchcraft.
The tour gives you an appetite for the past, and it's in abundance in these parts. The Norman-built Kilkenny Castle (top), which dominates the area, is a must-see, as is the lesser known Rothe House on Parliament Street, the only 17th Century merchant's house of its kind in Ireland.
Across from the castle, Kilkenny Design - built in the 1780s as castle stables - is as much a beautiful tourism go-to spot as shopping area.
The foodhall is renowned among locals, with the artisan soups and baked goods selling like, well, hot cakes - and the Anocht restaurant is a popular spot for dinner (or even a wedding) with a castle view.
Religious history is much in evidence too, with the medieval St Canice's Cathedral an emblem of the city, while Jerpoint Abbey outside the city is well preserved, and provides a beautiful glimpse into the lives of the Cistercian monks who lived here from the 12th Century.
In the heart of the city, don't miss the Black Abbey, with its knights' tombstones and stunning stained-glass windows just a few minutes' walk from the hustle and bustle of Parliament Street. And the good old monks also gave the city the tradition of brewing beer (it was safer than drinking water back in the day), inspiring later generations to brew Smithwicks.
In the centre of town, take the Smithwick's Experience tour (€11.70 for adults online on smithwicksexperience.com), with a free pint at the end of a audiovisual tour that's nicely put together.
The great thing about Kilkenny is that most sites are so walkable - I was based in the Hibernian Hotel, near the castle, and central to all the attractions. The bar is fabulous - during the sweltering weekend I was there, the windows were open to the street life and it was a friendly mix of locals and tourists. In my view, one of the prettiest and classiest hotel bars anywhere on this island.
With pubs outnumbering churches by around 20 to one, you won't go thirsty in this town. I liked the 'local' Harp bar - the kind of friendly hostelry that I'd recommend to any tourist - as well as the also friendly Shem's on John Street and bustling High Street's Marble City or Playwright bars.
But the choice is endless after dark in the pub, food and entertainment stakes. In recent years, Kilkenny has upped its food game, and Campagne (campagne.ie) stands out. Michelin stars are hard to come by, let alone in Dublin, but the little city has its very own here. And the prices are a steal by such high standards.
A three-course lunch will set you back €33, and it's a feast for the eyes, as well as the palate. The crab bisque starter is rich and hearty, while the glazed Parmesan mousse is a mini work of art. I'd normally avoid bland chicken as a main, but here, the free-range chicken, caramelised shallot, paris mushrooms, crushed celeriac and porcini sauce is rich on taste, and the desserts are lovingly prepared little pieces of art.
For a casual dinner, La Rivista (larivista.ie) has a prime spot on Parliament Street.
It's bistro style, but there's a good range of pizzas for a cheaper night out, and it's got a good selection of locally brewed craft beers. To top it off, I took in a show at the Cat Laughs. Book in advance for next year. Tickets, while good value (some events are free too) are snapped up quickly, and I managed to catch good TV favourites like Countdown's David O'Doherty, rising Irish comedian Chris Kent, Mock the Week's Tiff Stevenson and Comedy Central's Nish Kumar. Keep an eye out for the next line-up on thecatlaughs.com.
And while the kids will love the history, check out the Castlecomer Discovery Park, just outside the city. I hadn't heard of it, but it's an amazing day out for the family. Boating, treetop walking and orienteering, the must-do here is the massive zipline (above) over the historic forest.
My teenage son gave it a go, and loved it. It's a bustling spot, very popular with locals, and a must-stop along your Ancient East route. Check out what's available on discoverypark.ie, and let the adventure begin.
Where to stay: Mark stayed at the Hibernian Hotel, in the heart of the city. Midweek offers available from €65pps, or €64pps per night. minimum two-night stay with dinner. For more information, see kilkennyhibernianhotel.com.
3 Ancient East Adventure Ideas
1. Unlock the myths and secrets of ancient, pastoral lands
Duration: 3 days, 274km, 170 miles, two stories
Route: Meath to Louth via Cavan
Features: Brú na Bóinne, Hill of Slane, Loughcrew Cairns, Cavan Burren Geopark
Highlights: 5,000 years of history, including Newgrange, built for the winter solstice, right up to the Cavan Burren.
2. Tragedy, triumph and tales of endurance
Duration: 5 days, 469km, 291 miles, four stories
Route: Louth, Kildare, Wicklow, Wexford, Kilkenny, Laois
Features: Powerscourt House and Gardens, Wicklow Gaol, Dunbrody Famine Ship, Kilkenny City Medieval Mile, Rock of Dunamase
Highlights: Learn about the families who fled the Famine, the garden architects who broke new ground and the lives of the landed ladies.
3. Glide over glistening waters to the centre of Ireland
Duration: 3 days, 287km, three stories
Route: Longford, Tipperary, Westmeath, Offaly
Features: A journey to the river that divides east and west, taking in the historical sites
Highlights: Visit the beautiful Clonmacnoise monastic settlement, learn about the history of Birr Castle and explore the Tullamore Dew centre.
4. Time travel to the turbulent middle ages
Duration: 5 days, 436km, one story
Route: Longford, Cavan, Monaghan, Louth, Meath, Kildare, Carlow, Kilkenny
Features: For a longer journey, revisit the bloody past of the Normans, and see the monuments left behind
Highlights: Visit Longford's Grand Motte and Bailey, and with its views around nine counties and five lakes, you can see why the Normans made it a base. Another must-stop is the lively coastal town of Carlingford and King John's Castle. See irelandsancienteast.com for more itineraries.