Highlights of Southern Ireland

the blarney house

I used to think the idea of Ireland being completely and richly green was probably a stereotype, but that didn’t last for long. That idea was dashed before my plane even landed. As I gazed out the window, as soon as the clouds dispersed the first thing I saw was emerald as far as the eye can see. It took my breath away from that very moment and I didn’t get it back until I left the country.

During my week spent in Ireland, I devoted most of my time to exploring the city of Cork where I was staying. In the Cork city centre, there are numerous attractions that should not be missed. These include the Shandon Tower and the English Market -- another Cork staple is the many traditional Irish pubs. Cork was satisfying to me in so many ways -- the history, the food and the culture was something I soaked in from every angle.

The Shandon Tower

The Shandon Tower, among the countless other churches scattered around Cork, was one of the most enriching historical sites I have visitied. The tower is well known as the Four Faced Liar, due to the fact that each four sides of the tower has a large clock on it, with each clock showing a different time. Connected to the Church of Saint Anne and built in 1722, the Shandon Tower is a bell tower that allows visitors to crawl up the ancient staircase to the top and, after ringing the church bells, overlook the whole city of Cork.

climbing up the shandon tower

The narrow stairways are eerie, and you have to hold on to a rope to prevent yourself from slipping on the large, ancient stone steps. I’m a small person -- only 5’2” -- and I felt cramped on the climb, making me realize how much smaller people as a whole used to be even just a couple hundred years ago. Even if the climb made me feel a bit nervous and uncomfortable, the stunning view from the top of the tower was well worth it. The Church of Saint Anne itself is also quite interesting to explore, with relics such as ancient bibles and fonts. The oldest bible I saw in the church was in a glass case and was written in 1647.

view of Cork from Shandon Tower

I could have spent my whole time in Cork eating at the English Market. Located right in the center of the city, the market has fresh meat, cheese, seafood, and countless vegetables and herbs. I am not someone who usually loves sausage (or really ever likes sausage, I should say), but I had a sausage in the English market that I still dream about -- I don’t know what sauce was used, but it was incredible, and the same can be said for many of the delicacies that can be found here. As well as in the English Market, many of the small restaurants and cafes have delicious traditional Irish food. My personal favorite was Guinness Beef Stew, which was to die for.

me with my first beer in Ireland

Speaking of Guinness, the pub scene in Cork is something that cannot be missed. A cultural fixture of Ireland is sitting down in the pub, listening to live traditional Irish music, and having a pint of beer. I did this almost every night in Cork, and visited many of the pubs in the city. My favorite happens to be considered one of the best pubs in the entire country, the Sin e. The Sin e is well known throughout Ireland and has had many famous visitors over the years, including Sting! It was also voted one of the best places in the world to spend St. Patrick’s Day! Another thing I loved about Sin e, and many other pubs in Cork was the atmosphere. Rather than having electric light bulbs, they had empty liquor bottles with long lit candles in the neck scattered throughout the bar, and ‘fairy lights’ which are what we would refer to as white Christmas lights. This creates a relaxing aura and, coupled with the traditional Irish music, there is no mistaking that you are in Ireland.

blarney castle at night

I did venture outside the city to Blarney (only about a 15 minute car ride from Cork) which houses one of the most famous landmarks in Ireland -- the Blarney Stone. The Blarney Stone is located at the top of Blarney Castle -- the legendary stone is supposedly able to give those who kiss it the gift of eloquence. Though to kiss it, you must climb to the top of the castle and lean upside down off the edge, which I must say is absolutely terrifying. But the Blarney Stone, world famous though it is, is just one small thing to see among the Blarney Castle and its 60 acres of gardens.

[caption id="attachment_102485" align="aligncenter" width="206"]me kissing the blarney stone Leah kissing the Blarney Stone.[/caption]

I think my time at Blarney held some of my favorite experiences in Ireland. I spent hours exploring as much as the gardens as I could discover, including a centuries old horse graveyard, the Blarney house, waterfalls and the poison gardens. The Blarney Castle gardens are easily one of the most beautiful places I have been, richly endowed with colors, scents and history. Even after wandering around for upwards of five hours, I could have spent much more time just exploring the thick green woodlands -- but I was ready to get to the castle and the stone. Though the castle itself was first built in 1314, it is still an incredible fortress that takes you back hundreds of years when wandering through the decayed halls.

I have to say that of all the places I’ve been, Ireland was one of my favorites. Though it is a very damp, rainy, and quite a cold country, the hospitality and beauty of its landmarks and people make it an incredibly heartwarming and exciting place to visit. I can’t wait to return someday and explore more of this incredible country.

For more information on the Sin e and other well known Cork pubs.

For more information on the Blarney Castle grounds.

Photos courtesy of: Leah Putz

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