Athlone entices with its ancient history and modern charms

by Aengus O'Hanlon

ATHLONE is a place worth invading. The Vikings, the Anglo-Normans, the Williamites, and more recently, tourists have come to the ancient town expecting much and leaving happy, sometimes not leaving at all. And with good reason.
Sitting on the banks of the mighty Shannon, just south of beautiful Lough Ree, Athlone is an ancient and unique destination.
Unique because the town is split in two not just by the river, but also by the map… twice.
The western town, with its impressive skyline dominated by Athlone Castle and the imposing twin towers of Saint Peter and Paul’s Church, is in County Roscommon and as such in Connacht, while the larger, eastern town is in the Leinster county of Westmeath.
So if you’re looking for a fun-filled weekend away right at the very heart of Ireland, or the perfect base from which to explore the midlands, look no further.
With plenty to do and see, and no shortage of wonderful old pubs and excellent, affordable restaurants, this is a town with a lot to offer. We stayed at the Radisson Blu, right on the river, with stunning views across the water to the old town.
With its friendly staff, nice pool and excellent bars and restaurant, you could say it’s a metaphor for the entire region.
Their family suites are as good as The Gazette has ever experienced. Too often in our experience, “family rooms” can mean nothing more than a glorified dormitory, with about as much privacy for mum and dad as you could expect in a small car.
Not here. The rooms are spacious, and a bit like the town, neatly split into two distinct parts, giving the kids a mirage of independence which includes their own beds, river views, TV and play area, while parents can pretend to be grown ups in peace in the adjoining double room.
With the kids – and us adults – immediately delighted with our welcome to Athlone, it set the tone for the weekend, and sure enough, a brilliant few days it was.
A quick dip in the hotel’s pool before a sumptuous dinner in Elements Bistro was followed by a relaxing drink at the Quayside bar and Lounge, where you can unwind on the open terrace overlooking the river.
Athlone is all about the Shannon. And there’s no better way to explore the river and nearby Lake of the Kings, than with Viking Mike on his 21 metre replica Viking longboat. Departing from the quayside at Athlone Castle daily, Viking Ship Cruises, which sail up the Shannon and into Lough Ree or down river to the historic monastic site of Clonmacnoise, are an absolute must.
Mike and his staff know the area and its colourful past like the back of their well worn hands, and the big man and his staff’s hospitality knows no end.
You learn a lot about the history of the river and surrounding townlands during the 75 minute cruise, and the vessel, a National History Ship dating back to 1923, is equipped with a cafe, bar and even wifi.
Back in the town, a trip to the Luan Gallery on the West side of the river will keep the culture vultures more than happy, and they should also make the quick dash across the road to take in the celebrated stained glass windows of St Peter and Paul’s.
A minute’s walk away is Athlone Castle with its innovative visitor centre, where the town’s history, people, and many battles are explored and brought to life in a series of very impressive audiovisual exhibitions.
Child-friendly multimedia displays and interactive games guide spellbound visitors through the castle; while the Great Seige of Athlone is relived in a 360 degree climatic experience that transports viewers back in time. And, if you like dressing up in historic costumes, you’re in luck!
The more active adventurers can hop on their bikes and go for a spin along the Old
Rail Train Greenway, a scenic 42km dedicated cycle path that follows the old Midland Great Western Railway east before snaking along the Royal Canal into Mullingar.
With lots of entry and exit points along the route, you can hop on and off to explore the quaint little villages and attractions along the way.
After all the exploring, you’ll no doubt need a drink.
And there’s no place like Athlone for pubs.
Possibly the king of them all (and The Gazette is no stranger to good pubs so has some authority on the matter) is Sean’s Bar.
The archaeological dating on the pub’s walls have indicated that people have been enjoying a sup here since 900 A.D. – and it’s even listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest bar in Europe, which most people agree would also make it the oldest in the world.
What isn’t up for debate, however, is the quality of the pint, or the wonderful, magical atmosphere that hits you as soon as you cross its door.
Tourists, locals and stag parties mingle happily, while the back of the pub stretches all the way to the riverbank.
Another fine old Athlone boozer that simply has to be enjoyed is Gertie Browne’s on Custume Street, just across the bridge back on the east side of town.
The pub dates back over 1,000 years and was once a carriage house as well as a tavern.
Gerties serves up some truly excellent pub grub, but if you fancy a break from the pubs, La Cucina is a gem of a restaurant just across the road.
Touted as the best restaurant in the midlands by TripAdvisor, this lovely little family eatery certainly lives up to its reputation, and like everywhere else in Athlone, the service came with a smile.
We will be back.

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