Travel: Culture and history within walking distance in medieval Kilkenny
From its historic buildings and famous castle to its winding and bustling streets, Suzanne McGonagle and her family travelled to Kilkenny for a two-day visit to find out what the medieval city had to offer...
HOLIDAYING at home has become quite the norm, hasn't it? While jaunts abroad may have been more my thing pre-Covid, with foreign travel out for most of us this year again the staycation was back on our holiday agenda.
So what better time to pack up the car (yes, far too many clothes as usual) and discover more of what is on our doorstep, or just a car journey away.
Without a wonky airport trolley, dolphin lilo or the dreaded passport control queue in sight, my husband and three sons headed off to Kilkenny for a two-night break.
From our home in Co Down, stopping off at the Applegreen at Lusk for some refreshments (and, more importantly, to charge the electric car), within three hours we were creeking our necks at every roundabout into the medieval city for the first sight of our home for the trip.
Nestled in mature gardens, the four-star Hotel Kilkenny is located just outside the city.
Amid the continuing coronavirus restrictions, with masks on we entered the hotel and the first impressions were that of a tastefully decorated lobby, bustling vibes and greetings from a courteous, smartly suited receptionist, who was extremely helpful and welcoming.
A straight-forward check-in and a reminder that dining and pool bookings had to be made in advance (already done the week previous – tick), we took the short walk to our room on the first floor.
Although a bit small for a family of five, it was bright and clean with a view of the swimming pool complex where we soon visited.
After purchasing the obligatory swimming caps (you can also bring your own), we enjoyed our one-hour slot in the 20-metre pool. It felt safe and clean especially under the current circumstances. There's also a jacuzzi, steam room, sauna and gym to enjoy, but a family orientated pool session was all we undertook.
With a Euro football final pending on the night we arrived, it was a quick shower, change and down to our 8pm reservation in the Pure Bar – admittedly chosen to appease my football fanatic boys – who were able to see the match on the screens while downing their fizzy pop.
As England played Italy (and we all know how that ended), we feasted on a wonderful three-course meal that all five of us devoured.
Crispy chicken gyoza and Japanese style tempura prawns were among the delicious starters we tucked into, followed by 10oz dry-aged Irish sirloin steaks for my husband and eldest boy, a gourmet beef burger for me and our younger two sons opting from the kids menu on offer.
And as the dreaded penalty kicks unfolded and my sons shuttled their seats closer to the nearest television, warm chocolate brownies and sticky toffee puddings were served and quickly consumed with the waist bands getting tighter with every mouthful and penalty taken.
With great service, fantastic food and an easy-going atmosphere, it wasn't long before we were tucked up in bed having enjoyed our first day in Kilkenny, albeit not straying far from our hotel.
The following morning, we dined in the Taste restaurant for breakfast, where amid these Covid-times, long gone is the self-service buffet option.
Instead, food is cooked to order and brought to the table with a mix of continental offerings, as well as the obligatory hotel hot breakfast on offer – enough choices to please most palates.
Researching the city before we arrived, I had read that one of the most popular things to do in Kilkenny was walk along the Medieval Mile – a scenic discovery trail linking many of the top sights in the city.
Keen to work off the excess calories consumed in the space of 12 hours, we set off from the hotel into the city and found numerous narrow, winding streets where old-world charm meets a bustling, vibrant atmosphere.
There's lots of quirky shops, outside terrace restaurants and coffee shops and one of my favourite finds of the trip – a colourful sky of umbrellas as we walked off the high street – a perfect spot to capture a photograph for any Instagram fans like myself.
No visit to the city is complete without seeing Kilkenny Castle, or so we were told.
With admission charges to numerous heritage sites currently being waived by the Irish government as part of its recovery phase out of the pandemic, we were able to visit the castle for free – but be warned: it is essential to pre-book in advance of your visit with no walk-in tickets available.
Founded soon after the Norman conquest of Ireland, Kilkenny Castle was originally constructed by the famous Norman knight the Second Earl of Pembroke, Richard de Clare – known as 'Strongbow'. It later became the main Irish residence of the powerful Butler family for almost 600 years.
The castle has been rebuilt, extended and adapted over a period of 800 years. Famously, in 1967 it was sold to the Irish State for just '50, and since then has undergone ambitious restoration works.
With a reduced capacity allowed inside, we were able to make our way round the site without meeting too many other visitors, stopping to view the library, drawing room, nursery and bedrooms decorated in 1830s splendour.
The stunning picture gallery, situated in the east wing of the castle, features the Butler family's impressive collection of paintings.
With the tea room still closed, we exited the castle to find refreshments and a welcome picnic table before taking in the enormity of the 50 acres of rolling parkland with mature trees around the castle. There's also a man-made lake and an abundance of wildlife as well as a kids playground, where we stopped off to allow the youngest child to play.
Staying along the historical lines, we walked through the heart of the city along the Medieval Mile linking the castle to the 13th century St Canice's Cathedral, the second longest cathedral in Ireland.
Interestingly, each stone in the gothic cathedral tells a story, with characters from knights to shoemakers memorialised in the largest collection of burial monuments in Ireland.
There's also numerous magnificent stained-glass windows from artists such as Harry Clarke and brass work by legendary sculptor Oisín Kelly, which seals the 12th century baptismal font.
Feeling fit (and brave), we climbed the 30 metres to the top of St Canice's Round Tower, which was built to protect both people and treasures.
Be warned, the stunning views of the city are only reachable by ladder, so it's strictly for the mobile and those with a good head for heights.
One of only two round towers that people can climb in Ireland, once at the top we caught our breath before capturing a few snapshots of the city and savouring the view that was totally worth the climb.
An easy city to navigate on foot, Kilkenny is a wonderful place to explore. We enjoyed meandering through the streets, with lots of little nooks and crannies offering something for everyone: history, shopping, leisure or just enjoying a coffee while watching the world go by.
Hotel Kilkenny is the ideal base from which to explore the culture and history of the medieval city, there's easy access to the Kilkenny Castle, it's not far from the picturesque River Nore and the Medieval Mile it is a definite must-see.
As trips abroad are generally off the cards for many of us, Kilkenny is an idea choice for a fun and quirky staycation – it is an opportunity for people to re-experience Ireland's hospitality and tourism industry.
Perhaps Covid-19 will be a game-changer for cities such as Kilkenny, opening up people's eyes to the superb hospitality, history and culture as well as the beauty here on our doorstep.
:: Suzanne McGonagle stayed at the four-star Hotel Kilkenny. Families can enjoy a choice of a two-night or three-night summer break with two children under 12 staying for free.
:: The summer staycation package includes accommodation in a spacious deluxe bedroom, full Irish breakfast each morning, dinner on one evening in Pure Bar, plus full free access to the family swimming facilities from €420 for a two-night break and from €590 for a three-night stay. Also from €184.00 for two people for a one-night break and €288 for two nights.
:: For further information, please visit Hotelkilkenny.ie