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.
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 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 at the 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.