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Cast on for blue skies over Cork

Visitors no longer shoot through the gateway to south-west Ireland, now basking in European Capital of Culture glory. Renata Rubnikowicz samples the highlights

This is a new moment in terms of the way people see Cork," says Thomas McCarthy, assistant director of Cork 2005, about the city's reign as European Capital of Culture. In the past, he says, it has "relentlessly and determinedly been a city of trade". Indeed, by the 1620s Cork was trading with Livorno in Tuscan wine and olives and was later renowned for exporting butter all over the world.

Eating lunch in the excellent Farmgate Cafe looking down on the centuries-old English Market, I can see the present-day expression of Corkonians' passionate involvement with food. I see the descendants of those 17th-century traders shopping as eagerly for focaccia and pate as for soda bread and pigs' tails. Passing up the chance to try the traditional tripe and drisheen (a blood sausage), I wonder how a city so obviously keen on meat could support one of Ireland's best vegetarian restaurants, the Cafe Paradiso.

But food is not culture and Cork has long been a gateway to south-west Ireland, a place where people land and make straight for Blarney or the beaches outside the city. "You could go through Cork without seeing anything, yet the city is absolutely haunted with beautiful things," says Mr McCarthy, who is hiding his light, too, describing himself as a librarian when he is also a celebrated poet.

It does seem as if the scores of events of Cork's year-long festival have only recently come out on to the streets to grab at the sleeves of passers-by. Throughout the rest of the year, the city will swarm with children's events, folk, jazz and film festivals, more than 800 boats taking part in the Ocean to City race, road bowling and the Relocation season, in which three European theatre companies will join local company Corcadorca in open-air drama expected to draw thousands. More traditional art has not been overlooked, with painting and architecture well represented. The city welcomes the metallic exploded shapes of Daniel Libeskind's Eighteen Turns pavilion, while the Crawford Art Gallery is showing Airgead"ir: four centuries of Cork gold and silver alongside its permanent gallery of Canova casts. To round it off, there will be a shopping festival from mid-November. "After all," says Mr McCarthy, "Cork has been a great shopping city since the 15th century."

As I leave, he enrols me in Iris, a Daghda Dance Company event. I become a performer by wearing a ring, and have to communicate with anyone I see wearing a similar ring as I wander round the city. Over the year there will be thousands of us, spreading out worldwide. Another unusual "dance" project is The Knitting Map. Cameras record the weather, traffic and movement of people in the city, which are translated by computer into knitting patterns. Volunteers then knit the pattern of each day; 1,800 knitters have already been recruited to take part over the year, at a rate of 25 a day. On wandering into the crypt of St Luke's to see the work, I am invited to pick up some needles and join in. "We offer tea, coffee, biscuits, scones and companionship," says project manager Kate O'Brien.

"Everyone says Cork is the village that forgot it's a city."

Already the colours are getting brighter, with sunshine yellow replacing some of the misty greys and violets of January. Knit-ins have drummed up support from some unlikely quarters, such as junior school children, asylum seekers and bikers from Cork's tough north side, who carry knitters on their Harleys. "We are changing the perception of knitting," says Ms O'Brien. "It can be unusual, you can make great friendships and make yourself something really odd at the end of it."

With so much happening, I have to remind myself to visit the traditional local attractions, such as the atmospheric Cork City Gaol where I swear I see the ghost of a prisoner, and the Queenstown Story down at Cobh, Cork's natural harbour and the world's second deepest after Sydney, from which the Titanic, the Lusitania and millions of emigrants set off.

Later, Toni Collins, a Cork native, shows me another hidden side to the city. "Cork is a city of spires, rivers - 30 of them - and bridges," she says. "See how Patrick's Street winds this way and that. It's following the river underneath." Cork's rivers began to be covered over in the 1770s and until recently used to flood regularly. You can still see high steps leading up to front doors on some old buildings.

We wander past the Imperial Hotel, where Churchill and Michael Collins stayed and Dickens was lodging when he was inspired by a local jilted bride near Havisham House. Corkonians rival Dubliners when it comes to place names. Dublin has the Halfpenny Bridge; Cork the Bypass Bridge, so called because the lord mayor was rushed to hospital for a heart operation during the opening ceremony. Opposite the oldest brewery in Ireland, we duck into An Spailpin Fanac, a traditional music pub on South Main Street, and are offered coffee, even though the barman hasn't opened up yet.

"Belfast was, Dublin is, Cork will be," says Toni Collins, quoting an old saying. Yet with this year's festivities, and despite the number of centuries that have passed since Cork's patron St Fin Barre founded its first cathedral in the 7th century, it looks as though Cork's time in the sun has come.

Cork European Capital of Culture 2005: For more information about holidays in Ireland, freephone 0800 0397000; or

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