CORK, IRELAND — There are some signs you just have to follow.
Like when you’re rolling through a misty Galway morning and pass by a weathered wooden arrow pointing the way to Moran’s Oyster Cottage. You don’t tempt fate. You go.
Since the 18th century — when the ink on the American constitution was barely dry — this family-owned joint has be serving up salty, glistening, crisp little bivalves on the halfshell while the tide of the Kilcolgan estuary flows just feet from the front door. Despite the light drizzle, we found a light-filled “snug” by the window to enjoy the view, a dozen oysters and a couple frothy pints. If you’re looking for local, you can’t get much better than fresh seafood caught within yards of a your plate.
Fortified, we made our way back to the M18 and cruised south through County Limerick, distracted by greystone castles here and there. From battle-tested fortifications to summer homes for those with way too much Georgian money, Ireland’s castles, towers and monasteries are a constant reminder of the Irish people’s favorite pastime: nostalgia.
Despite the fact that hardly any of these monuments were open to visitors in the pre-tourist shoulder season, it was hard to resist exploring the grounds of these ancient ruins and stately homes. Without hordes of tourists to compete with, we sometimes got lucky in finding an unlocked door, a half-open gate to let ourselves into walled gardens or great rooms. If only the siege troops centuries before knew how easy it was for us to penetrate the stone walls.
Distractions aside, we rolled into Cork — the Republic’s second city — as the cathedral bells rang and the sun melted somewhere over the Irish Sea. This compact city consists of winding residential streets on a hill above the River Lee, with the city center tucked away on a wide island around which the slow river flows. With only one night to explore, we stashed the car and made our way down to the city below.
Known especially for its culinary delights, Cork is Ireland’s foodie haven. We explored the rows of pubs before settling into a little bistro for a delicious meal of Irish stew, local produce and a slice of cheesecake as thick as those castle walls.
After dinner we stumbled upon one of the coolest pubs I’ve ever found. The Woodford was carved out of an old brick shipping office. Inside candlelight juxtaposes with eerie green neon lights and open fireplaces. We cuddled into a corner snug and downed Bushmill’s while the two-piece band played an eclectic mix of blues, pop and local favorites. Literally the perfect place for a relaxed Friday night.
The next morning we woke up with a powerful hunger and made our way down to the English Market, the epicenter of Cork’s foodie soul. A massive Victorian labyrinth of open halls, food stalls, small shops and open arcades filled with bistro tables, the place was overkill for every sense.
The sight of glimmering fish from the cold Irish Sea and blood-red cuts of every meat imaginable. The taste of exotic olives from the Middle East. The sound of a working city preparing for the day. The touch of fresh produce, sourced from the island itself. And the smell, god, the smell of fresh baked bread, the ocean, the field. Truly amazing, if only we called Cork home, we would never want for anything again.
The draw of Cork is strong; and 24 hours are not enough to sample its many many pleasures. But the call of Ireland’s most famous day and the capital of Dublin were stronger and we made our way northeast along the coast, shamrocks in our eyes.