Monday, December 18, 2017
Travel

Attractions and growing culinary scene help the Irish city of Waterford reinvent itself

WATERFORD, IRELAND

Name Ireland's most famous product.

The other one.

Yes, Guinness beer goes back to 1759 with Arthur Guinness heading to Dublin sweatily clutching the 100 pounds inherited from his godfather, Archbishop Price.

But I'm talking about the company that William and George Penrose set up 24 years later in 1783 in the town of Waterford on a plot of land adjacent to Merchants' Quay: Waterford Crystal, whose wares have been the object of desire for generations of brides, the sonorous "piiiiiing" of elegant dinner table attention-calling (but watch it with the spoon tap, this stemware is expensive).

In 2005 Waterford shuttered its factory in Dungarvan; in 2009 it closed the main plant in Kilbarry, Waterford City. Last year the Fiskars Corp. (scissors, etc.) bought the kit and caboodle. These days the bulk of Waterford crystal is produced in Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Germany.

What has this meant for the city of Waterford?

Self-reinvention.

On the culinary front

They call it the oldest city in Ireland, a historic Viking port and Norman beachhead town two hours south of Dublin. By bus, train or car (wrong side of the road, duly warned), it makes for a dreamy weekend add-on to an Ireland trip, largely on the strength of its rugged ancient coastline, its historic treasures and — for me personally, most important — its emerging culinary scene.

I sat down not long ago with Louise Buggy, restaurateur and wife of Cormac Cronin, together owners of Bodega Restaurant and Burzza in Waterford. Bodega routinely makes lists of the best restaurants in the region; Burzza is a more casual pizza-burger concept.

"For a while as a region we forgot what we were good at. We have fabulous land, surrounded by the sea," she told me.

Buggy, along with a number of local restaurateurs, have started a restaurant association with collaborative dine-arounds, including Taste Waterford. Harnessing the good work of regional businesses like Metalman Brewing and Blackwater Distillery, Ballybeg Greens and the Dunmore East Fish Shop, they have focused on celebrating the riches of nearby land and sea.

For anyone who has participated in the age-old Irish cuisine snark, it has been an uphill battle.

"The way people are eating is changing," Buggy said over coffee at the Granville Hotel. "During the Celtic Tiger boom people were eating out and spending more money. But recently there's been a huge interest in provenance and sourcing local."

Treasures galore

Our first day in town we spent a little time touring the Viking Triangle. First, a zippy guided walk through the House of Waterford Crystal, with some master craftsmen still on call to populate the blowing and mold rooms as well as the hand marking, cutting department, sculpting and engraving. For gentlemen who may not be overly flutterpated by crystal, realize that some of the biggest sports trophies in the world have been rendered by Waterford, duplicates in residence.

Walking a couple of blocks, we checked out the rest of what Michael Walsh, Waterford City and County Council chief executive, has been working on for the past seven years. He has had a vision for the city, rebranding it with the tagline "Waterford, Where Ireland Begins," gussying up a constellation of attractions anchored by thousand-year-old Viking walls and the 12th century landmark Reginald's Tower, the first in a trio of museums that make up the Waterford Treasures. The tower houses things like a full set of weapons from a Viking warrior's grave, the only set to survive in Ireland.

The Reg Bar is adjacent, a rooftop charmer overlooking the quay where Ragnall the Viking (Reginald is his Anglified name) invaded Waterford in 914 A.D., as well as a hand-carved re-created Viking longboat, a project of a local youth group a few years back. At the Reg, you can sample local craft beers or an array of whiskeys (of note: the single pot still 12-year-old Redbreast), then follow with something more rib-sticking like steamed South Coast mussels or local Harty oysters with house-made brown bread and a pint of Guinness, a repast augmented by live music every night.

Next up was Waterford's Medieval Museum, definitely the place to spend the lion's share of your time. It's just a few years old, a new museum wrapped around a medieval structure built in 1270, with expertly displayed and explicated insane treasures like the 4 ½-yard cowhide Great Charter Roll dating to 1372 as well as a collection of 15th century cloth-of-gold liturgical vestments that give Cher and Lady Gaga something to fret over.

Intricate and awe-inspiring, they lay buried underground for more than 120 years, unearthed and now lit so beautifully it's as if museumgoers are witnessing some kind of real-time clothing delivery from on high. Our tour guide, Derek McGrath, walked us past Edward IV's sword, Henry VIII's red velvet "Cap of Maintenance" from 1536 (the only existing clothing from that king, you'd definitely recognize the hat) and so many other treasures (the Great Parchment Book) that I got treasure fatigue.

The nearby Bishop's Palace Museum is a 250-year-old Georgian structure containing artifacts dating from 17th century Waterford to the 1970s (including a lock of Napoleon's hair and the oldest surviving piece of Waterford crystal, a fancy Penrose decanter made in 1789). Be forewarned: Bishop's Palace has period-costumed re-enactors sharing the history of Waterford. As with pirate dinner theaters and Medieval Times, re-enactors cause rash and dry mouth in some visitors, but it's a stunning building, built by Bishop Este in 1741, filled with opulent giltwood mirrors and Waterford crystal chandeliers.

We scooted through 1,000 years in about four hours, emerging with a clear sense that Waterford was once a more important city than Dublin. These days, with a population of 96,000, Waterford is the largest city in the country's southeast. With a slightly gritty waterfront where freighters offload cargo, and a historic bias toward workaday pubs over touristy cafes, it feels like a city at the cusp of its next phase.

There's a "rails to trails" Deise Greenway poised to open any day, connecting cyclists 45 kilometers from Waterford to Dungarvan, and projects in the works like the refurbishment of the 70-acre Mount Congreve Estate & Gardens. But from the couple of days we spent exploring the greater Waterford area, some of the biggest draws can be found right on the dinner table.

Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.

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