After a fairly drab ride into the city from the only road that crossed the River Lee into Cork (the River Lee splits into two channels on the western edge of the city, making the City Center an island between the two channels that join back up again when met with the eastern edge), Kyle and I were at first not too impressed with what we saw. This was of course because we hadn’t really even ventured into the city, rather we had our morning coffee at the river on the eastern edge. We also had no expectations whatsoever for what we would find there – the beauty of this trip is that it is completely unplanned or planned on the fly so we know very little of what awaits us in whatever we decide to do. My only preconception of Cork was that my ancestors were from Cork County and therefore I must pay it a visit. Little did I know that I would find one of my most favorite cities in this world, not just in Ireland.
Cork City has been called the Cultural Capital of Europe and in some years has been listed as one of the top ten places to visit there – with good reason. As we cycled into the city center, we discovered a pedestrian-owned city, vibrant, colorful and alive with sound, good cheer, and a slew of people actively engaged in many an activity whether it was making the streets come alive with jazzy music, shopping in a sea of colorful retail stores, or lazying about in the public park. Of course, we didn’t even get a true taste of the city until our wonderful host and guide showed up from Warm Showers – Eimear. Warm and full of chatter, Eimear approached us with an ice cream cone in hand and a wonderful enthusiasm for life. A freelance journalist, musician, music teacher, and community advocate, Eimear leads a full and busy, if not the traditional (buy a home by the time you are 28) life. We loved her instantly. Hot and sticky (we had forgone the 2 euro per shower option at the campsite), we followed our new friend, pushing our loaded bikes up hill to her residence, squeezing them into her front door, through the kitchen, into her enclosed back courtyard. The first thing I did was pop into the shower – warm water has never felt so good! Leaving her house, we looked out onto a breathtaking view of the city (how can you not have a view when you are on top of a hill?). Back in the city center, we ducked into a supermarket and then the English Market to find food for dinner. Everywhere we went, we were running into people Eimear hadn’t seen in a long time, giving meaning behind her comments that one of the wonderful aspects of Cork is that it is one of those cities that is large enough that there is always something to do, but small enough that you know everyone – at least within 2 or 3 degrees of separation. After just a few of these chance encounters, the city was beginning to feel quite homey.
Before dinner, Eimear volunteered to “wander” with us about the city. We took that to mean a meandering walk with no direction or purpose. What we imagine was at least 3 or 4 miles later, we realized wandering meant a full-fledged tour (see slider). We weren’t complaining! We literally circled the city, exploring alleys, parks, bridges, neighborhoods, colleges, pubs, markets and more, taking in the quirky character of a city that is made to be explored, really explored. I mean, I thought the City Museum in St. Louis, MO, was cool with all of its tunnels, hidden passageways, mosaics, and secret treasures, but this adventure was at the city scale! Eimear nailed it when she said Cork was an organic city – what I am realizing more and more as I learn about the various city plans and planned developments that have been put in place in the 20th century is that the unplanned developments are by far the most exciting and intriguing. St. Louis also has that feel – locals know of the “hidden gems” and hundreds of potential discoveries. You just never know what you are going to find behind that bend or on that side street. Still, that isn’t to say there has been no planning in Cork – far from it! In the last ten years a surge of planning has occurred throughout all of Ireland’s major cities, with funds from the EU being put in place to develop pedestrian and bicycle-oriented cities. In many of the cities we’ve visited, a new bike share or rental program has sprung up in just the last year. Car lanes have been eliminated and a pedestrian walkway put in their place. Cork had a wealth of these projects giving the city even more life and flavor.
After our jaunt around the city, we cooked up a mighty fine salmon dinner (fresh from the market), swapping observations about our two countries. Eimear shared her frustration with student loans limiting her ability to travel while acknowledging that her debt was nothing compared to what students face upon graduation in the US. Her feeling on US mass incarceration was that it was downright “sinister”. However, in many things Ireland parallels the US. At the time of the US recession, Ireland was experiencing one as well. Our housing market collapsed due to predatory lending and sub-prime mortgages and so did Ireland’s. In the end we agreed that most problems throughout the world were in fact systemic – people, places and the resulting culture is rather wonderful.
As we cleared away our plates, the world map that decorates the table was exposed, prompting our next topic of conversation – travel. Excited about our blog and its theme (urban planning), Eimear urged us to not only visit the worthwhile but already well-visited cities and countries of Europe, but to consider getting off the beaten path more into Eastern Europe. We had already discussed it several times, but her glowing report of a place really very different and rather sublime pushed us over the fence. We don’t know how long it will be before we get there, but it looks like our path will be southeastward (after we visit The Netherlands of course).
Thank you again Eimear for a lovely time out and about Cork and for being rather inspiring yourself!