Frank Coughlan checks into the beating heart of Kilkenny City
The great thing about a town (oops, sorry, a city) like Kilkenny is that it sets the mood for you. Especially if you happen to visit on the weekend when spring announces its arrival with the swagger of a supermodel sashaying down a Paris catwalk. This medieval city charms even on a sullen, grey day - but for us the sun shone not only with brilliance, but a suggestion of warmth too. We were blessed. And in the mood.
Kilkenny is compact, its streets narrow, a confusion of nooks and crannies. But like many places, it stretches its legs this way and that into clustered suburbs. Some nice hotels lurk out there too, but to get the best of it, my insider tip is to book a hotel sitting in the shadows of the historic old walls. That will take you to places like the Hotel Pembroke (pictured below). Hollowed out of an old building, it boasts a thoroughly modern and chic interior. Our bright and airy room looked towards the majestic Kilkenny Castle (top), well within reach of a decent archer. The bustling High Street, a must-browse, was two minutes away, too. Few boarded up shopfronts here... and a refreshing absence of generic chains to spoil the view.
Ristorante Rinuccini, Kilkenny
Opposite the castle stands the city's famed Ristorante Rinuccini (pictured above), its entrance a tiled mosaic of awards and commendations. We managed to reserve a table there on the Friday night, and my haddock - catch of the day out of Kilmore Quay (€20) - was the culinary highlight of the weekend. Deborah had the vegetarian option, and she did allow me taste one side order; deep fried broccoli in an egg Parmesan batter. Only a taste, mind. If there was space outside, I'd have put up a plaque of my own.
There are plenty of ways to spend money here - the excellent Kilkenny Design Store (kilkennydesign.com), for one - but the linear Nore Walk, which starts in the shade of the castle's high wall and takes you two-hours along the riverbank towards lovely Bennetbridge, is the best way imaginable not to spend any money at all. If you'd like to cycle out and tramp back, try Kilkenny Cycle Tours (kilkennycyclingtours.com). Good value all round.
On the Saturday, we dined in the Pembroke's Statham Restaurant with family (that branch lucky enough to have put down enduring roots in the city). Time flew while conversation and wine flowed. It was a night to savour, and while a 10oz rib eye (€24.95) was reluctantly sent back as overdone, the response of both waitress and kitchen in rectifying the situation was the definition of professionalism. So hardly a gripe at all.
Kilkenny's Pembroke Hotel
The best way to locate Kilkenny City is to seek out the Liam McCarthy Cup on Google Maps. It seems to reside there most of the time, after all. Other than that, it's an effortless 90-minute cruise-control drive down the M9 from Dublin and is well-served by bus and rail (buseireann.ie, irishrail.ie). No excuses, really.
Ristorante Rinuccini (rinuccini.com) has teamed up with Kilkenny's four-star Pembroke Hotel (pembrokekilkenny.com) to create a special two-night dining break (including fine buffet breakfasts too) from €295pp. You can book the package through either. For more to see and do in city and county, see visitkilkenny.ie.