Emmanuel Tresmontant - 2009-12-10
Forty minutes from Bristol, the young capital of Wales (established as such as recently as 1955) appeals as much by its energy as by its scenery and Victorian architecture. From 15 September to 6 October 2007, its legendary Millennium Stadium will host 4 Rugby World Cup matches. See map of Cardiff
Cardiff, at the beginning of the 20th century was the world's main coal port (10.5 million tons exported in 1913). Coal from the south of Wales was brought by rail to the Bluetown docks located 1 mile from town centre, then shipped worldwide. While this mining past is well and truly over, Cardiff has nevertheless kept deep down inside the sense of hospitality and solidarity of its ancestors. It should not be forgotten that the great Welsh rugby players of the 1970s, whether Gareth Edwards, Mervyn Davies or Phil Bennet, were all sons of miners and dockers, like a fair share of their fans.
This feeling of belonging to a tightly knit and enduring people has continued to the present day through choir singing and, above all, thanks to Cymraeg, the language of Celtic origin that is still very much alive. Wales is a superb country the size of Texas, with a population of 3 million and whose language and culture date back long before the creation of the United Kingdom. While the scenery along the 187 mile coast is bewitchingly romantic with cliffs, dolmens and castles (it's a unique coast national park: the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park), Wales also brings to mind its famous voices and characters born around Cardiff: Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Antony Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, Catherine Zeta Jones…
Cardiff is a human-size town that can be visited in 2 or 3 days. I advise you to check in at the St David’s Hotel located in Cardiff Bay. This historic site with its freshwater lake has been superbly restored over the past decade. Here futuristic architecture mingles with the former docks which today house many trendy bars and restaurants, a concert hall built solely with Welsh materials (the Wales Millennium Center) and the Parliament. A fine promenade connects the two ends of the site in 20 minutes: St David’s Hotel and the charming Norwegian Church (where the writer Roald Dahl was baptised and which today houses an art gallery and tearoom).
To the south of Cardiff Bay, don't fail to visit Penarth, a pretty little seaside town where the ocean wind dissipates any smell of fish and chips. There are huge shingle beaches here and the 19th century pier has Visconti-like charm on emerging from the morning mist. The painter Sisley stayed here, as can be seen from his splendid paintings displayed atthe National Museum Cardiff (which also houses a remarkable collection of Impressionist paintings from Renoir to Cézanne). To reach Penarth, you can catch a boat from Cardiff Bay to Penarth marina.
Five minutes from the hotel, the very busy Cardiff town centre boasts a large landscaped park with peacocks and a rather amazing castle built between 1869 and 1873 by the third marquis of Butte (1847-1900), the then owner of the dockers, which made him the richest man in the country. Using the ruins of a 12th century castle, the marquis commissioned architect William Burgess (1827-1881) to construct a gigantic building worthy of future Hollywood decors. Seen from the outside, the castle is a mixture of a Medieval fortress and a Victorian manor.
Inside, Burgess, who sometimes found his ideas while smoking opium, let his imagination run wild by creating a series of sumptuous halls featuring in turn Arabic, Gothic, Greek and Renaissance styles... The imposing Clock Tower was, for its part, built to be the marquis's bachelor pad with its winter smoking room, library, bedroom and Roman bathroom decorated with 60 different marbles! It's a building with both odd and bewitching luxury which gave birth to an architectural style famous at the beginning of the 20th century: Burgesian Gothic that is to be found in some English villas on the Côte-d’Azur.
A stroll through the heart of historic Cardiff
On leaving the peaceful Cardiff Castle park, you'll come across the two main town-centre shopping streets. First, the pedestrianised Queen Street running east to west, with the usual chain stores like Marks & Spencer, GAP, and Laura Ashley. Then, St Mary Street, which cuts through the town from north to south and which, although quite busy with traffic, allows you to glimpse some fine, brightly painted Victorian facades like that of the very traditional pub The Cottage, one of the most beautiful in Cardiff. The town centre is above all worth a visit for its six Victorian or Edwardian shopping arcades with their elegant glass roofs and mouldings recalling bygone days. Queens Arcade and Castle Arcade (connecting Castle Street to High Street) are among the most beautiful, while Royal Arcade, built in 1856, is the oldest.
Built in cast iron and glass in 1891, Central Market is a symbolic venue of the popular Cardiff. By climbing to the higher gallery, you'll have a magnificent view over the ground floor stalls (don't miss the fish stall renowned throughout the country) and old central office topped by a clock. Snacks can be had here any time of day here and you'll find all kinds of books, CDs or collector's records. The barber's shop with its hundreds of razors hanging on the walls and leather chairs has not changed since a certain James Joyce came here for his moustache to be shaved off!
One of the most interesting Victorian buildings in the town centre is perhaps the Old Library located between Working Street and Trinity Street: its facade features a bust of Athena, goddess of wisdom, and statues personifying Calligraphy, Literature, Printing, Rhetoric and Study, topped by the Welsh motto (not so outdated as that) Ny bydd ddoeth ny ddarlleno (Anyone who doesn't read won't be wise).
Millennium Stadium: Cardiff's living symbol!
In Cardiff, rugby is a religion in which girls and boys are initiated at the earliest age. Any religion has its share of legend: in this case it's the heroic Welsh team of the 1970s captained by Gareth Edwards, whose tries scored against England appear among rugby history's finest. And its temple: all rugby fans worldwide have come at least once in their lifetime on a pilgrimage to Cardiff Arms Park, renamed Millennium Stadium. Welsh choirs are so powerful here that they can bring a tear to your eye, even if you support their opponents! Unlike most other British stadiums, Millennium Stadium is located a few minutes from town centre very close to the station, making it easy to access. During matches, Cardiff therefore vibrates to the famous 'Bread of Heaven' which, for years on end has been taught to generations of Welsh children... Millennium Stadium can be visited on request, from the players' changing rooms by the side of the pitch to the VIP stands. Historic matches can also be watched on a large screen in a projection room.
St Fagans & Museum of Welsh Life
Six miles to the west of Cardiff, the picturesque village of St Fagans presents traditional architecture in a lush green valley. On the way you can admire the fine black and russet Welsh cows grazing here that give such tasty meat. Don't fail to visit the Museum of Welsh Life, an open air ecomuseum where authentic buildings have been grouped representing all the old Wales: cottages, farms, a chapel, a bakery, a school, a mill, a tannery a village grocer's, a vegetable plot and unusual buildings like a cock-fighting ring and a pigsty in the form or a stone hut. Children love this place which recreates the setting of the life of Welsh factory workers and farmers with a wealth of details. You'll also see exhibitions of traditional crafts here like the famous carved wood love spoons which men offered to their fiancées.
Castle Welsh Crafts
Located just opposite Cardiff Castle, this shop sells traditional Welsh craft gifts. You'll see the largest spoon in the world hanging from the ceiling and showing the dragon, the Welsh national emblem!
1-3 Castle Street, Cardiff CF10 1BS
Tel: 029 20343038
This pleasant secondhand bookshop is located in one of the finest town-centre arcades: Castle Arcade. Old books, cartoons, CDs, posters and postcards. Looking rather like a 1970s hippy, the owner is nevertheless a real book buff!
39-43 Castle Arcade, Cardiff CF10 1BU
Tel: 029 20382814
This is the cheese shop in Cardiff! Apart from famous French cheeses that no longer need presenting (Beaufort, Comté, Roquefort, Brie, Reblochon, etc.), you'll find a fine selection of typical Welsh cheeses like Caerphilly (a crumbly, white cheese with a slightly salty taste that is not aged for long. It was a staple of the diet of local miners) or Caernarfon (similar to old Cheddar) which comes from one of the most beautiful towns in Wales. The Welsh national dish, it should be remembered, is cawl, a kind of lamb broth served with a large chunk of cheese.
25 Castle Arcade, Cardiff CF10 1BU
Tel: 029 20644888
Telynau Vining Harps
This interesting shop sells a good selection of instruments crafted solely here, in Cardiff, like the harp with three rows of strings that gave birth to traditional Welsh music. Marvels of all sizes whose sound enflames the soul.
8-10 High Street Arcade, Cardiff CF10 1BB
Tel: 029 20221199
This town-centre boutique is one of Cardiff's oldest! You'll find here in particular one of the most essential items to be carried by a rugby fan in all his travels: the whisky flask! When it's cold at Arms Park and when you're tired of having shouted for 40 minutes, it's quite comforting to have such a flask in your pocket! The flasks sold here by David and Margaret Hughes-Lewis are all produced in Great Britain, in silvered metal and half covered with real leather: beautiful objects for life!
33, St Mary Street, Cardiff CF10 1AB
Tel: 029 20226875
A selection of Cardiff's most beautiful pubs where you can drink the locally brewed beer, the famous Brains, a slightly bitter brown ale:
The City Arms
This pub is located opposite Millennium Stadium. During matches, all those who have not managed to get tickets rush here on account of the 6 wall-mounted TVs.
10-11 Quay Street, Cardiff CF10 1EA
Tel: 029 20225258
The Goat Major
Located in the heart of Cardiff on the very busy High Street, this peaceful pub, which is said to be the 'best in town' by locals, stands apart by its lack of a TV. Try one of the nourishing local specialities like Welsh rarebit on toast, traditional lamb cawl, Welsh faggots or Welsh cake.
33 High Street, Cardiff CF10 1PU
Tel: 029 20337161
Located in one of Cardiff's busiest streets, this very pretty pub has a most beautiful Victorian facade The inside is spacious and clean with a superb period floor. Supporters come to watch matches on a giant screen. Good Welsh specialities.
25 St Mary Street, Cardiff CF10 1AA.
Tel: 029 20337195.
Yard Bar & Kitchen
This is the hippest pub in town, located close to Brain's Brewery. Ultra-contemporary design mixing steel, wood and brick with, on the ceiling, pipes bringing beer from the brewery to the counter.
42-43 St Mary Street, Cardiff CF10 1AD.
Tel: 029 20402060
General tourist information:
The St David’s Hotel & Spa
Located close to the former docks at the western tip of Cardiff Bay, this contemporary hotel with 132 bedrooms and 12 suites belongs to the international chain founded by the Italian businessman Rocco Forte in 1996. With its opening roof, large panoramic windows, elegant facade and spirally designed interior, this sparklingly white building designed to capture daylight is one of the symbols of the architectural renewal of Cardiff. The ultra-modern spa overlooking the waterfront will appeal to those looking for a mud and seaweed massage and also to those wishing simply to admire the horizon from inside their jacuzzi! In the evening, after a cocktail prepared by the barman Massimiliano Sercecchi, exquisite cuisine by the Austrian chef Georg Fuchs is served in a spacious dining room with understated decor. Copious self-service breakfast and hairdresser's open all day long.