The largest of the 32 Irish counties, and one of the most diverse, Cork offers a brief course in all things Irish. It has lively small cities, quiet country villages, rocky hills, picturesque beaches, and long stretches of flat, green farmland. Here, modern tourism (this is where you find the Blarney Castle, after all) meets workaday Irish life, and somehow they manage to exist peacefully, side by side.

Cork has had a long and rebellious history, which has been for centuries tied intrinsically to Ireland's struggle for independence. It was founded by St. Finbarre in the 6th century, when he built a monastery on a swampy estuary of the River Lee. He gave the place the rather generic Gaelic name of Corcaigh -- which, unromantically, means "marsh." Over the next 600 years, the little piece of swamp would ultimately become the crown in the Kingdom of South Munster, but by the end of the 12th century, the English had asserted their ownership of the region. Over the following centuries, Cork would change hands many times as the English and the Irish struggled for control. It resisted Cromwell's forces, only to lose to William of Orange.

Once firmly under English control, Cork thrived until the 18th century, when it was battered by the potato famine, which drained the region of its wealth and, ultimately, of its population.

British troops in Cork -- nicknamed the "Black and Tans" for the color of their uniforms -- were among the most repressive in Ireland. The county earned its nickname, "Rebel Cork," because it was a center of the 19th-century Fenian movement, and also played an active part in Ireland's 20th-century battle for independence. Most of Cork City, including the library, the City Hall, and most of the buildings on St. Patrick Street, were burned to the ground during the British occupation and the subsequent brutal civil war of the 1920s. The fighting here was long and ugly. Thomas MacCurtain, a mayor of Cork City, was killed by British forces in 1920. His successor, Terence MacSwiney, died in a London prison after a hunger strike lasting 75 days.

It would not be until the end of the twentieth century that Cork would find its own true personality. It's now an affluent, foodie region of the country with a lovely stretch of coast and a laid-back personality. Its tough days seem long behind it.

The county's eponymous capital, Cork, is a university town, which keeps the population young and the arts scene ever evolving, and this also ensures that it has affordable restaurants and buzzing pubs and bars.

Colorful Kinsale, a pretty harbor town directly south of Cork City, has an outstanding gourmet restaurant scene and is well worth an overnight stay.

Slightly off the tourist trail, West Cork is the county's most remote and wild region, with strikingly rugged coastal landscapes where long sandy beaches stretch out beneath sheer cliffs.