If the Celts were around today, they’d be proud of their land’s idyllic reputation; the conservation of its folklore in literature and film. Fortunately, the fictional representations of the Republic of Ireland don’t overwhelm its reality. Acres of pristine land are shrouded in velvety silence. Thatched cottages with ivy clinging to their walls sit cosily amidst patches of lush, green clover, and flower baskets dangle over cheery streets. If the country of leprechauns seems like a fairy tale, it’s also a dream that can come true.
An hour-and-a-half’s drive or train ride, from busy Dublin is Kilkenny, bisected by the River Nore and jellybean-hued, with houses, shops and restaurants painted white, brown, sky blue, bottle green, purple and coral pink. Kilkenny’s toytown appearance and medieval importance makes it a pleasant hybrid between city and village. From St. Canice’s Cathedral and the 12th-century Kilkenny Castle, to the Kilkenny Design Centre, there’s a landmark from every era.
With Kilkenny’s buffet of winsome eating places, it’s advisable to arrive by noon to to enjoy both lunch and afternoon tea. Anocht at the Kilkenny Design Centre is a café that appeals to both tourists content with mellow conversation, and Irishmen who don’t like the volume of their laughter policed. It’s more rugged sailor girl than blushing bride, with whitewashed brick walls and a stone exterior. The seafood chowder is like a welcoming hug, especially if you’ve endured a cold drizzle to get here. Other classics, like crabcakes with avocado and lime, and seaweed-cured organic salmon, are executed with as much finesse as the fashion and crafts inside the centre (Kilkenny Design Centre, www.kilkennydesign.com; open daily 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; entry free; Anocht, anocht-restaurant.ie; open Thu-Sat 5.30 p.m.-late).
Walk to the Kilkenny Book Centre and browse through the collection of Irish fiction and non-fiction. This is also the spot to pick up inexpensive souvenirs. If you’re ready for tea and nibbles, head over to Mocha’s Vintage Tearooms for traditional afternoon tea. The vibe is a mix of French urbanity and English countryside. But if you’re still full from lunch, stroll through the Rose Garden surrounding slightly touristy Kilkenny Castle instead. Built with Anglo-Norman stone in 1195, it served as the residence of the Butler family, who arrived in Ireland during the Norman invasion and lived here for nearly 600 years, starting in 1391 (Kilkenny Book Centre, 10 High Street, Gardens; open Mon-Sat 9 a.m.-6 p.m., Sun 1-5 p.m.; Mocha’s Vintage Tearooms, 4, The Arches, Gas House Lane; open Mon-Sat 8.30 a.m.- 5.30 p.m.; Kikenny Castle, www.kilkennycastle.ie; check website for timings; entry adults €8/Rs600, children 6-18 €4/Rs300).
Wandering along the river before sunset is a chance to see Kilkenny’s many beautiful bridges, from the historical John’s Bridge and Green’s Bridge to the new St. Francis Bridge, which opened this year, after a controversy about its traffic flow design was resolved. Once you’ve formed your own perceptions about it, walk over to the east side, where Billy Byrne’s and Biddy Early’s stand. The former’s menu is a non-traditional amalgam of European and Thai dishes, the latter is a nice pub with a sunlit verandah for summer nights, when sunset is as late as 10 p.m. The chefs and bartenders are always happy to chat. End the night with a pint of house cider before you retire, or drive on to the next village stop (Billy Byrne’s, www.billybyrnes.com; breakfast Mon-Sun 9.30 a.m.-noon, lunch noon- 4 p.m., evening menu Thu-Sun 6-9.30 p.m.; weekend brunch Sat-Sun noon-4 p.m.; Biddy Early’s, www.biddyearlyskilkenny.com; open Mon-Thu noon- 8 p.m., Fi-Sun noon-6 p.m.).
Adare is an hour and 45 minutes by road from Kilkenny. Whether you’ve made the journey the night before or in the
morning, a day is sufficient to see this “heritage town”—as it has been labelled by the Irish government. Also fondly called “Ireland’s prettiest village” by locals, Adare’s debonair cottages sport neatly-combed roofs and lawns. A stone plaque inAdare Park boasts its title as the “overall winner” of the National Tidy Towns Competition in 1976.
On a sunny day, Adare Park is a tranquil place to spend some recreational time. The walkways are immaculate, the shrubbery lush, and a little thatched gazebo echoes the architectural spirit of the rest of the village. A short walk away areAdare’s nicest restaurants. The Wild Geese Restaurant has old-fashioned dining rooms with fireplaces and bright coral walls. All ingredients are locally sourced; the kitchen’s strengths include classics like honey roast ham with celeriac remoulade and a warm mackerel salad with fennel, tomato and coriander dressing. Nearby 1826 Adare and The Blue Door are equally well-known for their rustic setting and use of local produce (The Wild Geese Restaurant, thewild-geese.com; open Tue-Sat; check website for timings; Sun formal lunch 12.30-3.30 p.m.; 1826 Adare, 1826adare.ie; Wed-Sat 6-9.30 p.m., Sun 4-9.30 p.m.; The Blue Door, www.bluedooradare.com; Mon-Fri 11 a.m.-9.30 p.m., Sat-Sun noon-9.30 p.m.).
Whether you’ve walked out of the park or a restaurant, Adare is small enough such that you’re never too far from the Trinitarian Abbey. Many Trinitarian institutions existed in England and Scotland, but this church is the only one of its kind in Ireland. The place has an enigmatic history—all that is known about it is that it was built before 1272. Edwin Richard Wyndham Quin, the man who enabled the church’s expansion in 1852 must have foreseen Adare’s status as an emblematic “19th-century estate village”. The building is among Adare’s most intriguing sites (www.adareparish.ie; open daily 8 a.m.-6 p.m.).
After a dignified sojourn at the Abbey, loosen up at one of the pubs in the town centre. Bill Chawke’s is large and filled with families. It upholds the reputation of Irish pub grub; from the daily special soup to the fish n’ chips, everything is more than satisfactory. Diagonally across from Chawke’s, Aunty Lena’s brags about being the “last watering hole until Dublin.” A cold pint of Guinness here is a good excuse to groggily disappear into a neighbourhood B&B, such as Adare Country House. Otherwise, press on to the village of Cong (Bill Chawke’s, billchawke.com; open Mon-Thu 9 a.m.-11.30 p.m., Fri-Sat 9 a.m-12.30 a.m., Sun 9 a.m.-11 p.m.; Aunty Lena’s, auntylenas.com; open Mon-Thu 9 a.m.-11.30 p.m., Fri-Sat 9 a.m-12.30am, Sun 9 a.m.-11 p.m).
The 2.5-hour drive from Adare to Cong is one of the most attractive in the country. Travelling early evening or morning gives you the perfect opportunity to photograph the smooth, meandering roads and sheep grazing in the knolls nearby. Towering trees and gentle waterfalls offer a meditative welcome as you drive over bridges and into the village. On Cong’s spotless streets are pubs and teahouses where diners babble intimately over pints and porcelain cups. There’s something so incredibly pure about Cong—it feels like even the air is cleansed daily.
Sunlight streams into homely cafés as patrons dig into fresh salmon and salad. At Puddleducks, one such sanctuary, easy-going lunches are the norm and it’s difficult to get up from the wooden chairs once you have sunk in. It is known for its baked treats like lemon drizzle cake and rhubarb pies made using family recipes. Outside is a tree-fringed utopic lake full of ducks and seagulls (congfoodvillage.com; open daily 10 a.m.-6 p.m.).
Silence is the common thread between Cong’s main tourist sites: the solemn Cong Abbey, the magnificent Ashford Castle, and the Quiet Man Museum. The small museum is dedicated to the 1952 film of the same name, which was shot in the quaint village and became a point of local pride. It replicates the movie’s ‘White-o-Mornin’ Cottage and the reproduction of the set’s furnishings and artefacts make for a nice dose of Old Hollywood. A two-minute walk away is Cong Abbey, which has an attached cemetery and serene woods that lead to the Monk’s Fishing House. The latter is a fascinating stone structure on the River Cong, and was used by medieval monks to catch fresh produce for the monastery kitchen. River fish were a staple of the 15th and 16th centuries, and the Fishing House made them easier to catch (The Quiet Man Museum, Circular Road; open 1 Apr-31 Oct daily 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; 1 Nov-31 March on request; entry €5/ Rs375; Cong Abbey, Abbey St, Cong South; open daily 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; entry free).
A leisurely walk in the woods takes a turn towards luxury as you approach Ashford Castle. Expanded over the years and recently converted into a heritage hotel, the castle is an imposing presence over a sprawling golf course. Lough Corrib, the lake beside it, adds to its spectacular scale. Tourists can visit for a small fee, or eat at one of the prized restaurants. Cullen’s At The Cottage, on the outer grounds, is a thatched dining room with outdoor seating and intimate tables indoors. Only the freshest seafood—haddock, squid or scallops—arrive at your table. It’s the perfect spot to end your love-affair with Ireland (www.ashfordcastle.com; estate grounds and gardens are accessible to non-residents; entry adults €5/Rs375, children €3.50/ Rs260; Cullens At The Cottage; open daily; lunch 1-5 p.m., dinner 6-9.30 p.m).
Vritti Bansal is a writer and editor who lives between Dublin and Delhi. She has previously led the Food & Drink sections for Time Out Delhi and India Today Group Digital, and now runs a food website called Binge.