Friday, May 16, 2008

Welsh Wanderings: Cardiff

The Welsh capital, Cardiff, is a city that emerged into the Millennium with a symbolic red dragon roar. Known as Caerdydd in Welsh, while it is a "small" city by standards, Cardiff is the financial, industrial, commercial, and political heart of Wales.

While prehistoric man has always populated this south-east corner of Wales, Cardiff became organised as a settlement under the Roman occupation. Cardiff still takes its name from the Romans today - Caer Didi means "Fort of Didius," Didius being a Roman general.

While just about everyone invaded after the Romans waned in their power, Cardiff really started coming into its own after the Industrial Revolution. Cardiff's first dock was built in 1839, and soon it became the largest coal-exporting port in the world, with people from all nationalities coming to live and work.

The coal power and money long gone, Cardiff slipped into a bit of a decline, the dock trade slumping in the 1930s, and having suffered extensive WWII bomb damage. Since it was appointed the official capital of Wales in 1955, however, things have been rapidly improving.

Today, Cardiff is undergoing a massive redevelopment and modernisation of its dock area, and has become the fastest growing tourist destination in Great Britain. A long way from the days a traveller stopped to view its beautiful castle for a few hours before hurrying up to the Northern part of Wales.

The Late Arrival

After another long car ride from London (it would have been faster to take the train!), I arrived in Cardiff in the late evening hours. I think some, like myself, might be surprised at how large Cardiff actually is. While it may not be a huge city population wise, Cardiff is a sprawling city, and very much spread out. It's also a lovely city, though. As I drove in, I was greeted by floodlit churches, civic buildings and the famous Castle, which strangely merge well with the modern hotels and buildings that are springing up around town.

If you choose to stay overnight in Cardiff itself, you'll find a mixture of 4 and 5 star hotels in the city centre and down near the docks in Cardiff Bay. B&Bs and B&B-like hotels, on the other hand, can be found concentrated on Cathedral Street, which is about a 10 minute walk from Cardiff Castle. I randomly chose to stay at Briars Hotel (ring 44 (0)222 340 881 for enquiries) for my stay.

Located at 128 Cathedral Road, Briars Hotel is a 3 crown Welsh Tourist Board member hotel with a B&B feel. It is nestled among rows upon rows of terraced Victorian converted housing accommodation. This area has a nice look and feel to it, and is close enough to Cardiff for those wishing to save a little money to do so, as long as you don't mind a walk to get into town.

My double ensuite room at Briars Hotel was nicely decorated and comfortable, and well worth the £23.00 price for room and breakfast. The staff there seem friendly enough, however, they didn't seem to be very available. I never once saw the reception area manned, and I don't think the person who had to get out of bed to let me in at 11pm the night of my arrival was very impressed, despite my warning during reservation that I would be arriving late.

A Warm Welsh Welcome?

After a week of miserable heat, I was expecting a bright sunny day to greet me in the morning. Wales had something completely different in mind, and boy was I sorry I hadn't packed my rain-proof jacket. Not only was it pouring, but it was cold! Nevertheless, I ate a quick scrambled eggs on toast breakfast, and set out to make the best of the day.

The one nice thing about staying on Cathedral Street is that it runs parallel to Bute Park, which makes a nice diversion to walking down the streets into town. Bute Park is home to the Glamorgan County Cricket Ground, Sophia Gardens and the Welsh Institute of Sport, which are good places to dodge the rain if the need arises. At some point, you will need to cross the River Taff, which runs through the centre of the park.

Walking through Bute Park, the paths all lead to the breathtaking Cardiff Castle. The castle was originally a Roman fort. Around the 12th century, a Norman keep was added within the walls. The true delight of the castle, however, lies in the Victorian changes made by the 3rd Marquess of Bute in conjunction with architect William Burges.

You may explore the Norman keep and the grounds only for a reduced admission charge, but to miss the guided tour through the Castle, in my opinion, would be like watching the previews and leaving before the movie starts. Each room in Cardiff Castle has its own theme, which are created through excessive and very lavish details rich with symbolism.

The tour takes you through many rooms, including the Nursery, Banqueting Hall, and the Roof Garden. Get a good look while you are there, as photos are only permitted in a few rooms. I found my guide very knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and very accommodating to a few restless children who were part of the tour.

While you are at Cardiff Castle, you may take the tour, get some great views over the city from the top of the Keep, and explore the Roman remains, grounds, and various Welsh military displays. You will also find Tea Rooms and a gift shop on site. Admission including the guided tour is £4.80 for adults, and £2.40 for children and seniors. There are reduced admissions for those that just want to tour the grounds. Please note that the guided tour, Norman Keep, and other parts of the Castle are not handicap accessible. Others may find the stairs in the Castle itself and the Norman Keep difficult.

Outside the Castle, on the appropriately named Castle Street, you will find the Animal Wall, where lifelike stone creatures carefully watch people as they glide by. This is also where you can find a good place to catch the Guide Friday Cardiff tour, as I did. This is a great way to learn a good deal about Cardiff and stay out of the rain. The entire tour takes about 55 minutes, allows you to hop on and off all day, and offers live commentary from trained guides as you pass the sites.

Guide Friday tours run from April to October, and you can begin anywhere in the city, including the train stations, the Civic Centre, and down in the Bay. You may also produce your ticket and receive discounts all over town, including a 10% reduction of admission to Cardiff Castle, and 20% reduction with Cardiff Cats boat tours for a boat trip. Tickets cost £7.00 for adults, £5.50 for seniors and children over 12 and older, £2.50 for children under 12, or £16.50 for a family, which includes 2 adults and up to 4 children. Children under five ride free.

Civic Centre

The Civic Centre is a defined area in the Northern part of the city which is a well thought-out complex of civic buildings. Each building in this area is required to be built in the white Portland stone that you will see in abundance here. The key buildings of note here are the City Hall, domed and topped with the Welsh dragon. Around the City Hall, you'll find a smattering of statues dedicated to Welsh heroes.

The other building of note in the Civic Centre area is the esteemed National Museum of Wales. The museum has world-class collections, ranging from natural history to painting. It is well known for its "Evolution of Wales" exhibit, which offers a look of the history of Wales. The museum is also noted for having the largest Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting collection in the world outside of France. Admission cost is £4.50 for adults, £2.50 for seniors and students, and free for children under 19.

Many of the other buildings in the Civic Centre are part of the University of Wales. In the centre of all these buildings you will find the lovely Cathays Park, which has lovely formal gardens and a large war memorial.

Time to Eat and Shop

If your stomach is rumbling after a morning in the Castle, the National Museum, or after a quick tour of the city, the best place to head is the lively city centre. I think you'll find that this is the "living" part of the city, at least for the moment. The city centre is full of great places to eat, spend the evening, and spend your money, as there are many covered shopping arcades and streets full of stores.

If you're looking for a bite to eat, I can recommend a restaurant called the Celtic Cauldron. It's quite conveniently located in an arcade directly on the other side of Castle Street from Cardiff Castle. You will find that it offers numerous Welsh specialities such as Welsh Rarebit, Glamorganshire Sausage, and Laverbread, as well as a good deal of vegetarian and wholefoods. I had the French Onion Soup and the Laverbread, which is made primarily from seaweed and oatmeal. I assure you it's quite delicious...I was very happily surprised! A meal here should cost you no more than £10.00 per person.

Cardiff Bay

The bay area of Cardiff is a good 25-30 minute walk from the City Centre, and is a hub of frenzied of the largest such projects in the world. Overall, the work is not finished, and it might be interesting to pass through the area on a tour, or walk in the area on a sunny day, but overall it will be much better from a tourist's perspective 2 or 3 years from now!

Still a busy commercial port, the area is becoming somewhat unrecognisable to those used to the notorious "Tiger Bay" of old. This is probably a good thing, as Tiger Bay had a poor reputation for being crime and poverty ridden. Pains are being taken, however, to preserve some of the historical buildings and feel of the old docks.

One of the key sights in this area for the tourist is Techniquest, a fun and state-of-the-art science and technology museum. If you are bringing kids with you, or are a kid at heart, this is not to be missed. Tickets cost £5.50 for adults, £3.80 for children aged 5 through 16, and £15.75 for a family ticket consisting of 2 adults and up to 3 children. The first Guide Friday guide told me in privatethat Techniquest is where he spends his days off!

Modern and sleek buildings are being erected as fast as possible in Cardiff Bay. This area will be the site of the new National Assembly of Wales building, which is currently under construction. If you fancy a movie, the modern and shiny Atlantic Wharf building houses a massive movie theatre, a bowling alley and some restaurants. If you have a lot of money to blow, the impressive and very hip St. David's Hotel is *the* place to stay in Cardiff - Wales' first 5-star hotel.

Key to this entire project was the construction of the Cardiff Bay Barrage, a barrier across the Taff and Ely rivers which has created a massive freshwater lake with eight miles of waterfront. Word is that soon you will be able to walk atop the barrage from one end to the other.

Get Out of Town

Cardiff is surrounded by a good deal of things to see and do. In the next issue, a subsequent article will focus on things outside of the immediate city area, and offer an introduction to the beautiful Vale of Glamorgan, an area just West of Cardiff known as the "Garden of Wales."

Marks out of 10 for Cardiff overall: 6

Top Tips!

If you're going to be in Cardiff for a few days, you may want to purchase the Cardiff Card, which gives you free entry into various museums, castles, etc., discounts at restaurants, shops and entertainment around town, and free unrestricted use of local train and bus services. Cost of the Cardiff Card is £12.00 for adults and £6.00 for children, and is valid for 48 hours. You can purchase the Card at the Tourist Information Centre, post office, stations and shops around town.
For more information on Cardiff and Cardiff Bay, check out these web sites:

To get to Southern Wales from England, you have to take the Severn River Bridge from Bristol. Be sure to have cash with you, as the toll going westward is £4.20. Happily, there's no toll going eastward!

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