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Kilkenny City: 48km (30 miles) N of Waterford, 81km (50 miles) NW of Wexford, 121km (75 miles) SW of Dublin, 137km (85 miles) SE of Shannon Airport, 148km (92 miles) NE of Cork, 61km (38 miles) NE of Cashel

With its remarkable collection of well-preserved castles, churches, monastic sites, and winding narrow lanes, lovely Kilkenny City is a graceful medieval town. It's also a national hub for crafts and design, and its streets are dotted with shops selling pottery, woodwork, paintings, and jewelry. Its lively pub-and-entertainment circuit, including much-loved comedy festivals, makes this a top weekend getaway for the Irish. Its many charms make it popular with travelers, too, so it's not untouched by tourism, but it's not as overrun as Kerry, for example. In the off season, it reverts to its normal, sleepy self (with a pop. of just 11,000) and you can wander the streets in peace.

Like so many Irish towns, Kilkenny stands on the site of an old monastery from which it takes its name. A priory was founded here in the 6th century by St. Canice; in Gaelic, Cill Choinnigh means "Canice's Church." As the monastery grew, the town sprang up around it and prospered. It owes its appearance to its success in the Middle Ages. Then it was a prosperous walled city, and it served as an important governmental center during the 14th century. Much of its medieval architecture has been skillfully preserved, and the basic town plan has not changed much in the last 600 years.

The oldest house in town may well be Kyteler's Inn on St. Kieran Street. It was once the home of Dame Alice Kyteler, a wealthy woman accused of witchcraft in 1324. Facing execution, she escaped and disappeared into the countryside, never to be seen again, but her maid Petronilla was burned at the stake. Her home is now a pub and restaurant, decorated with effigies of witches.

Another building that stands out on the streetscape is the Tholsel, on High Street, with its curious clock tower and front arcade. It was originally (in 1761) a tollhouse or exchange. Later, it was a town meeting place where milk and sugar candy were sold, and dances, bazaars, and political meetings were held. Today, completely restored, it houses municipal archives.

The surrounding County Kilkenny countryside is dotted with rich river valleys, green pastures, hills, and picture-postcard villages. If you like monastic sites, take time to see the Jerpoint Abbey, on the River Nore just southwest of Thomaston on N9. It's an extraordinary Cistercian ruin that still has many elaborate medieval carvings on its walls; some even have traces of the original pigment. Also on the Nore is the picturesque village of Inistioge, about 24km (15 miles) southeast of Kilkenny City, with a tree-lined square and stone bridge with nine low arches spanning the river.

Abbey lovers will want to continue on to the tongue-twister town of Graiguenamanagh (its name means "village of the monks"), which holds the Duiske Abbey. Surrounded by peaceful views of Brandon Hill and the Blackstairs Mountains, Graiguenamanagh is at a bend of the River Barrow, about 32km (20 miles) southeast of Kilkenny City.

Kells, about 10km (6 1/4 miles) south of Kilkenny City (and not to be confused with the town of the same name in County Meath), is the only completely walled medieval town in Ireland. The thick city walls, seven towers, and some of the monastic buildings have all been well preserved.