“DID the donkey wake ye?” asks Marie, proprietor of Ard Álainn B&B, as she places a full Irish breakfast in front of me.
It’s Sunday morning and, should you turn up in the city during one of the biggest hurling matches of the summer (Kilkenny v Tipp) you might find yourself staying a night out in the pastured surrounds of the Kilkenny countryside.
Luckily the donkey didn’t rouse me, nor the cows, hens or cock out in the field – only the smell of a good cooked breakfast did.
The previous evening, we’d arrived at the Marble City – recently voted the ninth friendliest city in the world – to something of a biblical scene – like a tipsy Palm Sunday – with a sea of blue and yellow shirts and flags as supporters poured out boisterously from Nowlan Park on to the streets as we wove the car carefully along John Street to the River Court Hotel to where the family were staying ahead of our Kelly Gathering.
As the hot sun set over the city, locals toasted their victory alongside Tipperary fans at the hotel’s garden. The River Court is snaked by the River Nore while Kilkenny Castle looms grandly above the far bank.
A barbeque was in full swing and the weather was fine. It was forecast to be the hottest weekend in the county for six years, and, with a gourmet burger in one hand and a beer in the other, the early signs for the trip were pretty good.
The Kytelers Inn was packed that night too. While a trio of trad musicians belted out the tunes, a local at the three-floored pub told me we were standing in the oldest pub in the city, one of 96 in total. It felt like I’d already had an authentic Irish experience, and it was only the first night.
Another gloriously sunny day followed on Sunday.We met up with our Kilkenny relatives to fulfil part one of Gathering duties. After a glut of food, tea and generous hospitality it was time to check in to the Kilkenny Ormonde Hotel.
Located centrally, up the slope from Patrick Street and around the corner from the High Street and the nearby Town Hall, the Ormonde proved to be a faultless display of class, service and board.
I was staying in a superior room, and it lived up to its billing being spacious and airy with a contemporary feel with its purple and white colour scheme and its huge bathroom.
The Irish breakfast from the buffet was also superb. I feel qualified to say that, having had about six of them during the four-day trip.
After a refreshing swim and sauna at the hotel, I meet up with the clan again to sample a few local watering holes. These included Cleere’s Bar and Theatre, one of a string of pubs on Parliament Street and sure to be a busy spot during this month’s Kilkenny Arts Festival.
Later we tried the Hole in the Wall, a small pub which opens whenever the owner is around. Unfortunately, he wasn’t on this particular Sunday evening, but even that experience had its own unique charm.
By day three, it was high time to see some culture.
Even in the sweltering heat, Kilkenny feels compact enough to walk across while taking in spots of historical significance.
We started at the regal Kilkenny Castle, before working our way down through Rothe House – a merchant’s townhouse – and its gardens, before heading down through Irishtown to visit the beautiful St Canice’s Cathedral.
I then scaled the 121 steps of St Canice’s Round Tower, enjoying the panoramic views from the top of the pile, as my (unnamed) relative sat at the bottom smoking fags. A wave sufficed for them.
The great discovery about this medieval city for me was that its history can be experienced just by strolling around on foot (or by bicycle) without having to fall into the tourist traps. An example of this was the slips, narrow medieval corridors which connect roads around High Street.
The Butter slip, linking High Street to St Kieran’s Street, was where stall vendors used to dish out lards in the 17th Century.
While the aforementioned hole in the wall, also just off the high street and under a rickety walkway, was where the poor and hungry of ye olde city would be handed out bread. Fittingly, it’s now a café during daylight hours, and, feeling pretty peckish ourselves, we stopped in for a bite.
Café TBA, only open a month, was a quaint and charming lunch spot with its mismatched china, banquet style upstairs room and plenty of locals enjoying their toasted sandwich specials, which are called the Archer and the Duke.
Later, strictly in the name of research,we tried out a fine-dining spot with a meal at Zuni restaurant on Patrick Street, following another local recommendation.
Manager Shane gallantly served up a pork belly special with a port wine jus sauce, while my companion had the warm chicken chilli salad, followed by a swirly lemon meringue baked alaska. The ample dessert had an ice cream centre served on a slate biscuit base and was a real treat.
Zuni’s is also a boutique hotel and during lunchtime its café offers a tapas menu, which chimed well with the range of what the city offers to its tourists today.
Indeed there are countless independent cafés and boutique shops across what feels like a continental and modern city that is mercifully free from too many chain stores.
It’s a place where Turkish barbers are found alongside true Irish charms like the Design Centre, and there are few boarded-up shops, which suggests, at least on the glossy tourist-covered surface, the city has resisted the worst of the recession.
In the end, the Kelly family Gathering went off without a hitch as we basked in the country’s hottest day in seven years.
Afterwards, having had my tourist fill, I joined up with American and Irish cousins for a final evening out, which was spent soaking up one last time the warmth of the air, the people and the city in general while reflecting on how much craic we’d had and how we’d like to come again soon.
What to do
Visit the Kilkenny Arts Festival
August 9-18 at venues across the city.
Have a go at hurling
The hurling tour leaves from Lanigan’s Bar at 12pm & 2.30pm each day. Trips include a tour of Nowlan Park (home to the Cats) and the chance to try out what is billed as the oldest and the fasted field sport in the world.
Trips finish in Legend’s Hurling Bar where Lamb Stew is served. Prices: Adults €20pp, Children under 10 €15pp. See www.thekilkennyway.com
Take a bicycle tour
The Ormonde Hotel books two-hour guided city tours at €17.50 for adults and €10 for under 16s; a full day’s hire costs €15/€10, while bike ‘n’ hike and picnic combos are available. See www.kilkennycyclingtours.com
Take the Smithwick’s brewery tour (while you still can)
Ireland’s oldest live brewery – on Parliament Street – is set to shut at the end of the year. See the Brew house where Smithwick’s is made and visit the on-site St Francis Abbey, which dates back to the 13th century.
In the summer (May-October), tours operate from Tuesday to Saturday (closed Sunday and Monday): noon, 1pm, 3pm and 3.30pm. The tour costs €10 and includes a complimentary tasting in the brewery’s Cellar Bar. www.smithwicks.ie
Where to stay
The Kilkenny Ormonde Hotel
Rooms in summer start from €37.50 pps or €45 including a delicious breakfast
Ard Alainn Bed & Breakfast
The breakfast was grand, as was the cosy room and views of the countryside. I never saw that donkey though. €30pps.
Where to eat
26 Patrick Street
Mains cost around €12.
Kilkenny River Court Hotel
The Bridge, John Street
The barbeque cost €10 for a gourmet burger with potatoes and salad.
TBA Café at Hole in the Wall
17 High Street
The 20 vegetable and lentil soup and Archer sandwich (with Parma ham, cheddar, sun dried tomatoes and red onion marmalade) combo cost €8.95. The Duke – a vegetarian option with crisps – cost €5.15.
Where to drink
Cleere’s Bar and Theatre
28 Parliament Street
St Kieran’s Street
Langton House Hotel
69 John Street
Hole in the Wall
17 High Street
Matt The Millers
1 John Street Lower
A lively young crowd was there on Monday night when, I’m told, many of the bar staff from many of the city’s 96 pubs and bars can be found enjoying a couple of nights off after the weekend.