Like the rest of Ireland, Cork is a bursting-at-the-seams success story that's giving rise to a yearlong party. Cork's designation as the European Capital of Culture for 2005 should prompt more visitors to take a look at this energetic port city of commerce that dates to the 7th century but is now thoroughly modern. For the rest of the year, it will be crawling with cultural events.
Capital of what? Go on, ye.
Cork, how you've changed
Makeovers are now transforming nearly everything that was once sad-faced here: the overburdened airport, the miserable bus station, the neglected docklands and nooks throughout this mother of all quilted-together Irish villages.
You call this progress?
Yes. A carnival-like modernity does a curious dance with the city's eccentricities in a maze of ancient back streets. The once-fetid Lee River has become clean enough that dumbfounded pub-goers recently confronted a pod of killer whales nosing outside their favorite bar.
Meet a fishmonger
One of downtown's most festive places is the English Market, an arcade of bawling mongers of fish, meat and vegetables, interspersed with stalls of a younger and hipper generation selling local farmhouse cheeses, imported olives and ambrosial breads. The unique market's origins can be traced to the reign of James I in 1610. The present building dates from 1786.
Are the natives friendly?
Not only friendly, but loud. Cork's greatest riches are spoken rather than eaten. Head-spinning conversation can erupt anytime. The town's contingent of taxi drivers is salted with wild comedians.
A cozy local pub called the Hi-B, on Oliver Plunkett Street, is run by a man who waves imaginary batons in the air as he blasts arias at whoever dares enter. A classic Cork eccentric, Brian O'Donnell one day espied a patron with a loud tie and loud voice. So he grabbed a pair of scissors and cut the offending tie in half, then shoved the severed bit in the guffawing customer's pocket. "Now ye have a hankie to match," O'Donnell said with a cackle.
If you stay
For red brick and ivy, try the Ambassador Hotel, a quiet and recently refurbished Victorian with commanding views (011-353-21-455-1996, http://www.ambassadorhotel.ie ). Doubles from $200. For those with the dosh, Cork's Hayfield Manor is an oasis of Old World civility (011-353-21-431-6839, http://www.hayfieldmanor.ie ). Doubles from $510. And no better B&B hospitality can be found than in Shaun and Breda Higgins' Military Hill terrace house (011-353-21-450-0113). Doubles start at $43.
Where to find a feast
The Ivory Tower is the high-end choice. Run by an imaginative Arizonan-gone-Irish celebrity chef, Seamus O'Connell, it is considered Cork's supreme dining experience (011-353-21-427-4665). Dinners start at about $32. Café Paradiso on Lancaster Quay has a vegetarian menu, with dinners running about $50. The Farmgate, meanwhile, offers great atmosphere above the English Market. Lunch only, prices moderate. Pub crawling? Try the Long Valley tavern on Winthrop, rich in local atmosphere.
If you're hungry for more
For a probing and witty look at Irish life, try the stories of Frank O'Connor. The renowned Cork-born author wrote plays and essays but is best known for such compilations as "O'Connor's Collected Stories" or his most widely read work, "Guests of the Nation." Also, check out the works of O'Connor's onetime teacher, Daniel Corkery: "Hidden Ireland" and "Nightfall: And Other Stories." For basic travel information and where to stay and eat, see goireland.com. And the website http://www.cork-guide.ie lists entertainment options in the city and county.
POSTCARD FROM IRELAND