Alex and I actually had no clue what to expect out of Cork - I booked two nights there knowing that it was Ireland’s second-largest city, but beyond that we hadn’t done any research. By the time we got to our hostel, we were so exhausted from our unexpectedly active week of driving and hiking that we decided to just sleep in and take a day off from activities. As it turned out, Cork was the perfect place to do that.
The city isn’t what I would call small - with over 100,000 people, it’s huge by Irish standards - but since we’re still used to Chicago, it felt very compact. Cork is also not a particularly beautiful city: large cities in Ireland really just aren’t. Both Dublin and Cork are a bit gray and gritty, and while it lends a certain character, it’s not quite as charming as the small towns we’ve been visiting all week. That being said, there are still areas of the city where all the buildings are painted varying bright colors and you still get that small-town feel.
One thing we really enjoyed about Cork was how normal it felt. Ireland is a popular travel destination, which is great, but the pervasiveness of the tourism industry here can sometimes make me feel awkwardly self-conscious. It’s not so much that I want to be identified as a local - that’s just not gonna be possible in most of the places we go - but more that in our short time here we’ve discovered that the stereotype of the obnoxious American traveler is very rooted in reality, and we hate being lumped in with that because we try our best to be respectful and low-key. Cork, on the other hand, did not seem to revolve around tourism at all. We heard more Irish accents than German or American ones in the pubs (always a good sign) and not a single restaurant employee asked us to review them on TripAdvisor. It felt a lot like the non-Michigan Ave parts of Chicago - yes, there are tourists, but it’s not overwhelming. I know there are going to be a million places we visit on this trip that are more touristy than Ireland and I’m sure I’ll eventually get used to that awkward feeling, but for now it was nice to kind of go unnoticed in Cork. Also, the food scene reminded us a lot of some of the West Loop restaurants back home: mood lighting, indie music, good wine lists and interesting ethnic influences. Perhaps we just liked being in a place that reminded us of home, but whatever the reason, Cork really resonated with us.
As awesome as Cork was, Alex and I knew we had to get in some last historical, small-town type experiences before leaving the country. On our way from Cork to Kilkenny, we stopped at a medieval castle, the Rock of Cashel, which had us feeling like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. There were all of these ancient sarcophagi with Old English writing on them that reminded me of the Knights Templar, and the graveyard was full of crumbling tombstones and mossy Celtic crosses. It felt like all my favorite fantasy novels were coming to life, and it was totally magical.
Our last day was spent in a tiny medieval town called Kilkenny, where a huge percentage of the buildings are extremely old and we ate dinner in a pub that’s been open since 1324. We climbed a very cramped, very narrow medieval tower attached to an old cathedral, and were rewarded for our efforts with incredible views of Kilkenny Town and the lands beyond - ruins and farms as far as the eye could see. The town itself was tiny (only a couple blocks in the city centre) and extremely friendly, and we were able to cap our trip off with one final full Irish breakfast before heading to the Dublin ferry port.
As I type this I’m somewhere in the Irish Sea, sitting on the ferry from Dublin to Holyhead and reminiscing on our time in Ireland. This was actually the first time Alex and I have traveled out of the country together, and I’m encouraged by how things are going so far. I never had any doubts about our ability to get by in foreign countries or challenging situations, but we’ve been able to take everything in stride really well so far, and it seems like it’s getting easier to pack and unpack our backpacks in new places every few nights. I know there will be hard times ahead and it’s not always going to be as easy as we had it in Ireland, but we are learning a lot about ourselves and each other already, and I feel so confident in our ability to travel together and enjoy this year of backpacking around the world.
It’s crazy to think that we’re already done with our first country. These ten days have completely flown by and I just hope time slows down soon, because otherwise this year will be over in the blink of an eye.