Cork city does not easily unfold its secret delights. There are no imposing castles or important Georgian squares, and few monuments. Instead, Cork is a city of twisted lanes and steep stone steps, arched stone bridges and lofty spires, river quays and buildings remarkable for their architectural detail. The dominant feature everywhere is the interplay of town and water.

Most visitors to Ireland do not linger long in Cork, sandwiching a day or so in the city between the battlements of Blarney Castle and the crystal factories of Waterford. But Ireland's second largest city has much to offer. Entrancing in its own right, it is also the country's gourmet capital and has been an important seaport for a millennium with a tortured history that mirrors the travails of the Irish.

Cork is the gateway to southwest Ireland, boasting some of the country's most beautiful scenery and incorporating its most popular tourist region. And this is Cork's 800th year as a chartered city -- though it was already 600 years old when Prince John presented the charter on behalf of his father, King Henry II of England.See CORK, G4, Col. 1 CORK, From G1

County Cork is the largest county in Ireland, and scenically one of the most diverse, with seascapes, mountains and fertile river valleys. The coastal road stretching westward from Cork city winds past charming little harbors filled with yachts and fishing curraghs, and through villages and countryside dotted with ancient monuments and ruined castles. West Cork merges into County Kerry along the wild and beautiful Dingle Peninsula, and Cork city can be a jumping-off point for touring the famous sights of County Kerry: the spectacular Ring of Kerry (a 100-mile drive hugging the coast of the Iveragh Peninsula) and the fabled Lakes of Killarney.

The city itself lies at the mouth of the River Lee, off the south central coast of County Cork. The main part of the central city -- including the old medieval city -- is enfolded in the looping embrace of the twin channels of the river. Dominated to the north and south by steep hills (Patrick's Hill, especially, belongs in San Francisco) with narrow, stepped lanes, Cork spreads langorously along the river in a higgledy-piggledy fashion that can make you think you are traveling in circles.

Visitors walking the streets who think they have put the River Lee to their backs will turn a corner and be confused, for there it is again. That's because the city is bisected by two channels, North and South, of the River Lee; they converse at Custom House Quay and form a single channel that flows some 12 miles downstream to the expanse of Cork Harbor. (The industrial part of Cork, stretching along this section, has absorbed some heavy blows in the past year, with the closing of two of the city's major industrial employers, Dunlop Tires and the Ford Motor Co. Henry Ford's grandfather was born in Ballinascarthy, a village in County Cork, and the auto plant was the first Ford factory to open outside the United States, in 1917.)

The seemingly random meandering of the city's streets has a rational explanation. Cork -- from the word corcach, meaning marsh in the ancient Irish tongue -- was in fact built on a marshland at the mouth of the River Lee and criss-crossed like Venice with canals instead of streets. Although most were covered over in the 18th century, the streets still follow the course of those underlying canals and riverlets, giving the city its curious wandering nature.

Cork calls out for walking, both in its size and its design. A good way to begin is by picking up a Tourist Trail booklet at the Tourist Information Office on Grand Parade. It outlines two walks, one covering the city center area built since 1750 and the other taking you through the old medieval city from the south to the north hill. The trails are sign-posted and the routes are outlined in the booklet. Each walk can be covered in a minimum of 1 1/2 hours, but that allows little time for lingering. For most visitors, the sign-posted walks are merely appetizers for independent browsing later, where casual meandering will delight the observant.

Small details on shops and houses entice the eye at every turn, like the little drinking trough for dogs on the facade of the Old Bridge Restaurant at the top of Patrick Street, Cork's main thoroughfare. (The trough is labeled "madrai," which is Irish for dogs.) There are Irish inscriptions on little lanes, such curious artifacts as a 1606 marriage plaque embedded in the walls of The Raven Bar at the intersection of Liberty Street and Paradise Place. Nearby, Tanners Lane, barely 30 inches wide, recalls Cork's medieval trades.

At the head of Patrick Street is a statue of Father Theobold Mathew, a 19th-century apostle of temperance. The "Statcha," as it is universally known in Cork, is the city's favorite meeting place. Father Mathew stands with his hand outstretched in a gesture that local wags have long interpreted to mean "I've been drinking since I was this high."

St. Anne's, or Shandon, Church is the great folk symbol of the city of Cork. It was built between 1722 and 1749, and its sandstone and limestone tower topped with a golden salmon houses the famed Bells of Shandon. The tower is affectionately referred to locally as "The Four-Faced Liar" because none of the four clock faces on its various sides ever agree about the correct time.

Visitors may climb the tower and peal the bells themselves (musical direction for familiar melodies are posted on the wall) to entertain the entire city.

Besides Shandon, other interesting Cork highlights are the bow-fronted houses along the Grand Parade, allegedly built with blood money that a barber received for betraying Sir Henry Hayes after he abducted the daughter of a wealthy Cork businessman. St. Finbarre's Cathedral, whose triple spires dominate the city, is worth a visit, as is St. Finbar's Church, one of the oldest churches in Cork and famous for Hogan's sculpture, "Dead Christ," in Carrara marble.

Cork's post-medieval prosperity was built on wool, cattle and the export of butter (stop by the old Butter Exchange near Shandon). The city's agricultural heritage is reflected in the English Market, a vast, covered arcade on Prince's Street with shops selling meat, fish, produce, flowers and other goods. The market, built in 1788, was partially destroyed by fire in 1980, but has been rebuilt. It is a marvelous place to listen to the unmistakable Cork accent and soak up the color and innate friendliness of the city.

Cork's fascinating history can be traced at the Cork City Museum in Fitzgerald's Park, in the southern part of the city.

According to legend, St. Finbar (or FinnBarre or Finbarr -- take your choice; all are derived from Fionn Bair, or Fair-Headed in ancient Irish) was a holy man who established a monastic center on the marshy mouth of the River Lee in the 7th century. (Finbar may never have existed, but it is not wise to suggest this possibility in Cork.)

The settlement remained until the coming of the Vikings in the middle of the 9th century. After spending their passion for looting and marauding, the Vikings eventually settled down to trade, introducing the concept of towns to the country, an alien idea to the Irish clans. (The Vikings built wooden towns scattered along the southern coast.)

In the 12th century, Dermot Mac Murrough got more help than he bargained for when he beseeched Henry II of England to settle a domestic problem (Dermot's wife had run away with a rival prince). Henry sent a contingent of Welsh-Norman knights to Cork, to Dermot's assistance, then promptly annexed his lands in the name of the crown, setting in motion the Norman/English domination that would color Ireland's history for the next eight centuries. Prince John arrived as Lord of Ireland in 1185, bearing the city's charter.

In the 13th century, sturdy walls were erected to enclose the medieval city, which stretched for nearly a half mile between the two channels of the River Lee. Miscreants who stole a loaf of bread were scourged from one end of the central street to the other. (The old walls are gone now, but their foundations are visible in excavations along Christ Church Lane.)

During the Elizabethan wars of the 16th century, the rebellious Fitzgeralds, one of Cork's leading families, saw their lands confiscated by the British and divided among such luminaries as Sir Walter Raleigh and the poet Edmund Spenser.

In 1602, one of the most crucial events in Irish history occurred at Kinsale, 18 miles southwest of Cork, on the coast. In the Battle of Kinsale, the northern chieftains -- led by O'Neill and O'Donnell with the help of the Spanish Armada -- were defeated by Crown forces. This battle established English domination over Ireland, sounded the death knell for the Irish clan system and set off the Flight of the Earls to the European Continent.

When Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, Cork refused for five days to acknowledge her appointed successor, James Stuart of Scotland, thus earning the nickname "The Rebel City." Oliver Cromwell spent Christmas in Cork in 1659, ordering all the city's bells to be melted down to make guns and ammunition for his conquest of Ireland.

The Siege of Cork in 1690 by the Duke of Marlborough, for William of Orange in his battle with James II, destroyed the city walls and many of Cork's buildings. The city was partially burned again in the Irish Civil War of 1920.

Today many interesting excursions can be made from Cork city.

Blarney Castle is six miles northwest of the city, in the village of Blarney. According to legend, Lord Blarney (Dermot McCarthy) -- renowned for his fair words and soft speech -- so exasperated Queen Elizabeth I by procrastinating in carrying out her orders that she one day finally exclaimed, "This is all Blarney!" -- giving the English language a new word. The famous Blarney Stone is embedded in the battlements of the ruined castle, and every year thousands of visitors are held by the legs as they dangle over the side to kiss the stone in exchange for the promised gift of eloquence.

To the east of Cork lies Blackrock Castle at Mahony's Point on a peninsula in the River Lee, and the magnificent Fota Estate, on Fota Island in Cork Harbor. The centerpiece of Fota is Fota House, a fine example of Regency architecture, built in 1820. It contains an important collection of 18th- and 19th-century Irish furniture, but is best known for its extensive collection of Irish landscape paintings from 1750-1870, the most important such collection outside the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin. Fota, purchased from private owners by University College of Cork in 1975, also has an arboretum, lovely gardens and a wildlife park. It is open daily from April through September, and Sundays only the rest of the year.

To the southeast of Cork, past Cork Harbor, lies the port city of Cobh, where many Irish immigrants departed for America. Cobh was formerly a port of call for transatlantic ocean liners -- it was the last port for the Titanic before it struck an iceberg and sank in mid-ocean; and the survivors of the Lusitania, torpedoed by a German sub off Kinsale in 1918, were brought to Cobh.

Kinsale is now a yachting center famous for its many gourmet restaurants and definitely worth a visit. There's a self-guided walking tour, and a stop at Charles Fort, built in 1670, is highly recommended.

The festivities planned in honor of the Cork 800 this year will be focusing visitor attention on the city as never before. Especially for independent travelers, Cork and its surrounding countryside promise an Irish vacation far beyond the traditional tourist itinerary.