Our day in Cardiff
First of all: thanks to everyone who’s been leaving comments! It’s really nice to hear from people back home while traveling, and it’s also nice to know that people are reading (and, I hope, enjoying) what I’m writing.
Well, after a bit of a rest at our hotel last night, we headed out for supper. We were a bit hungry, and we needed to try to get onto local time, so a meal was definitely in order. We ended up an an Irish pub (yeah, in Wales) and had a decent-but-not-amazing meal. Then we decided to explore a bit.
Turns out that central Cardiff is a very pedestrian-friendly area. Lots of “arcades”…almost like enclosed pedestrian walkways/sidewalks lined with shops. Most of the shops were closed, though…it turns out that almost everything in the city shuts down around 5:30. There were loads of pubs, though, and they were certainly all open! We inevitably ended up at Cardiff Castle, which is impossible to miss if you spend any time in the city at all. It was just down the street from our hotel, and a great landmark. But it, too, was closed for the night.
Next to the castle, though, we found Bute Park…a large and very beautiful park area that we could wander through. It was, kind of surprisingly, full of what I kept describing as “hippies”….people who appeared to be mostly in their teens and early 20s, sitting around in circles on the lawn, smoking (some tobacco, some not), drinking beer, playing guitar, and generally just chilling. I can see why…the park is a beautiful place to just sit and relax. For reasons I have not been able to discover, the park even contains a stone circle…unfortunately somewhat spoiled by the empty beer boxes littering the area (but only that area…nowhere else).
Stone circle and hippies in Bute Park
As nice as that was, we were both really over-tired from the very long day of traveling and jet lag. We headed back to the hotel, stopping at a Sainsbury’s on the way to buy some chocolate milk and ice cream, and called it a night. A very humid and uncomfortable night. (We had open windows and an oscillating fan, but no air conditioning.)
Morning came early. We both fell asleep fast and hard…Pamela was out like a light in 30 seconds (at around 9:00). I didn’t sleep really well though…woke up at least four or five times (the night life never stops here…no matter when I woke up, I heard people carousing outside our hotel). And then when it was time to get up, I didn’t want to. But we made it to the Grosvenor room in the hotel in time for the surprisingly good (and free) breakfast: cereal, toast, tea, pain au chocolat…and we didn’t even have any of the free hot breakfast that we could have gotten (which looked substantial, and British: it included, if memory serves, fried bread, sausage, bacon, beans, egg, and a couple other things).
So here’s some probably-not-useful hotel advice for you: if you need a hotel in Cardiff, try the Sandringham. Cheap (£60 for a twin room), free wifi, a great free breakfast, and very friendly staff.
We checked out of the hotel, dropped off our bags at the front desk, and headed out for our day exploring Cardiff.
We wanted to go down to Cardiff Bay today. Our chat with the waitress at breakfast had suggested two options: either take the hop-on-hop-off sightseeing bus tour, or take the water taxi. Since the weather was beautiful again (borderline hot), we thought the water taxi sounded like a good idea…but when we got there, we found that the first taxi left at 11:00, which was too late for us. So we took the sightseeing bus tour instead, and rode to Cardiff Bay in the open top of a double-decker bus. Which seemed like a good British thing to do! Some of the bridges we went under made us duck reflexively, though…seemed like an awfully tight fit! The “Do not stand” warnings were definitely good advice!
A shot from the tour bus
The bus has several stops, but the one where we actually got off was the Millenium Centre, by Cardiff Bay. This seems to be mostly a theatre for the performing arts, with some conference rooms and whatnot in there as well. It’s a very nice building, inside and out, but the real reason we went there is because it’s a central location in the TV show Torchwood, and, to a lesser extent, the more well-known Doctor Who…and Pamela and I watch both of them. (To be honest, that’s the reason we thought about visiting Cardiff in the first place.) So we took some pictures and geeked out a bit, visited the gift shop (I bought a Welsh phrasebook and Welsh/English dictionary) and then went to see what else there was to do in the Cardiff Bay area.
Me at the Millennium Centre
The first thing that came up was a cruise around Cardiff Bay. A 20-minute guided tour cruise for £3 seemed like a great expenditure for a couple of hot tourists. It was, indeed, a nice cruise, and worth the money. Learned about most of the buildings and whatnot in the area, including the BBC Wales studios where a few BBC shows are filmed; notably Doctor Who, Torchwood, and Upstairs Downstairs. Next to that is the new Doctor Who Experience building…not opening until the summer, or we definitely would have checked it out. We also learned that the bay itself is somewhat man-made: it used to be open to the sea and rose and fell with the tide, but now a “barrage” (basically a dike) has closed it off, and it’s full or freshwater from the two rivers that empty into it.
After the cruise ended, we wandered around a bit, and ended up at a small Norwegian church where Roald Dahl’s children were baptized. So there’s a bit of random trivia. (The area where the Millennium Centre is located is called Roald Dahl Plas, so they’re kinda proud of him.) We then wandered back to where we started and went the other way, to an area called Mermaid Quay, which is full of (mostly) restaurants and (not nearly as many) shops, for lunch. We ate on the patio at a Latin place called Las Iguanas, where we had a great multi-cultural experience: Two Canadians in a South American restaurant in Wales with a Russian waiter. That meal was from everywhere.
After that, we figured we had basically exhausted the potential of Cardiff Bay, so we caught the sightseeing bus back to Cardiff Castle (where we had gotten on) and decided what to do with the rest of our day. Step 1 was to hit a local gift shop…one of the few places that we had seen that was very clearly catering to tourists. Didn’t really see much we liked, but it was neat to wander around. Then we decided we needed a rest, and went looking for somewhere to sit down and have a cold drink or some ice cream or something.
This ended up entailing a lot more walking, because despite the bevy of options available, we didn’t really see anything that jumped out at us. We ended up, eventually, at a local mall, where we found an extremely…cute? charming? coffee and muffin shop with an enormous amount of personality. I had a chocolate milkshake (very thin, almost chocolate milk) and Pamela had a smoothie and muffin. We ate in the otherwise-empty second floor of the shop, and just sat and relaxed and looked at our pictures and took advantage of the free wifi.
Nice as that was, it wasn’t really an appropriate way to spend the five hours or so that we had left before our train left. So, even though we were kind of tired, we agreed to go see Cardiff Castle: I thought it would be a shame to leave Cardiff without seeing it, Pamela didn’t have strong opinions either way, our sightseeing bus tour gave us a 10% discount, and what else were we going to do?
Entrance to Cardiff Castle
The castle was kind of interesting, albeit not totally thrilling. We had the self-guided audio tour, which gave us a lot of information about the place. The castle is kind of weird: if I recall the history correctly, it was originally built by the Romans, then fell into disrepair and ruin when the Romans left…then the Normans built a new castle on the same spot, then that sort of fell apart…then later on some Victorians did a bit of repairs and rebuilding, and then fairly recently (like, in the 1920s or so), a local rich bloke built the whole thing up again, in the way he thought an old castle should look like. So the architecture is all over the place, and you can see different building styles and architectural styles everywhere you look. It’s all mismatched, and successive owners seemed to alternate between tearing stuff down and restoring the stuff that the last guy tore down. It’s now authentically nothing at all, except itself. If it’s possible to have a fake 2000-year-old castle, this is it.
The keep at Cardiff Castle
The exterior and courtyards are a little dull, because all the buildings that the walls used to enclose were torn down (by a gardener with the unlikely and remarkable name of Lancelot Capability Brown). But we were allowed into the interiors of some of the apartments in The House (the residences built kind of into one wall), and they were gorgeous! The tunnels in the walls were also used as air raid shelters during the war, and you can apparently get into them (the “War Tunnels”) and look around, but it wasnt obvious how and we were tired and didn’t bother finidng out. Instead we went to the cafe and gift shop, relaxed a bit, bought some souvenirs, and went looking for supper.
Inside the Cardiff Castle apartments
Supper ended up being an Italian restaurant. British food isn’t exactly compelling, and we’ll probably end up eating in enough pubs over the course of this trip, so we’re not going to feel bad about skipping the local cuisine!
And that pretty much took us to the end of the day! We went back to the hotel to pick up our luggage, walked to the train station, tried and failed to find a place to buy some aloe vera to deal with the (mild) sunburn I had acquired, and caught our train back to London. As I’m writing this, we’ve just passed Swindon and are tearing back to London at about 200 km/h. When we get there, we’ll look for our hotel, and I’ll try to find somewhere with wifi to post this. I don’t think our London hotel has wifi (in fact, I don’t think it’s very good at all, unfortunately), so updates and email might be spotty for the next couple of days. We’ll see.
But Pamela and I agree that our day in Cardiff today was excellent. We had a great hotel, the weather was fantastic (and a little less humid than yesterday), the city is very pedestrian-friendly and easy to navigate, the residents are super friendly and charmingly Welsh, and we managed to keep ourselves busy, not get too tired, and still feel that we hadn’t really missed out on anything important. Cardiff feels like a very chill city: it’s got a very relaxed atmosphere, and nobody ever seemed stressed out or in a hurry. A few people we had talked to (including the customs agent at Heathrow) seemed to think we were wasting our time by visiting Cardiff; we disagree completely. It was, as the locals would put it, lovely!
Cardiff Central train station