The most confusing thing about Cardiff isn't the accent or the weather or the windy roads but the train station. Cardiff Central Station has six platforms, but for some reason they are numbered in pairs - one and two, three and four, six and seven - there is no platform five.
The situation has been made even stranger recently by the building of an additional short platform which is used for when the station is busy because of Millennium Stadium events. They have called this platform 0.
Be that as it may, once you get to Cardiff, you'll find there's plenty to discover.
The Historic Bit
Despite the Welsh Assembly being established only last year, Cardiff has been capital of Wales since Queen Elizabeth II made it so in 1955 and is still the most recent city to become a capital in Western Europe.
Like other cities, Cardiff has its own castle, built in 1090 on top of some Roman remains. To confuse the visitor even more, the bit that can be seen from the outside dates from the 19th Century. Inside the walls there are some older, more historic sites of interest.
Cardiff is famous for its arcades, not of the amusement type, rather those covered walkways that are all over the place and are now housing lots of interesting nik-naks and tourist tat.
If you're into your architecture, the Museum of Welsh Life at St Fagans, west of Cardiff, should not be missed. Its main feature consists of a small museum and a large house (the 'castle') around which tours are taken. However, it is also home to numerous Welsh historical buildings which have been saved from demolition and transported there. They include a tollgate, farmhouses, a chapel, a tannery, mills, terraced cottages, a miner's institute, a cockpit and an old parish church from Pontarddulais. The museum is very much alive with special events and costumed staff. The buildings are not sealed but rather people are encouraged to explore. It is an ideal location for a spring/summer stroll through the grounds, topped of by a picnic. A great family day out.
Cardiff is, of course, home to some of the UK's most famous citizens among them are:
Shirley Bassey - singer extraordinaire of many a James Bond tune.
Ryan Giggs - footballer born in the great city but who now plays for Manchester United.
Roald Dahl - fiction writer of Tales of the Unexpected and creator of spooky children's stories such as James and the Giant Peach and The BFG.
Aneurin Bevan - health service advocate (born just outside Cardiff).
RS Thomas - poet.
Colin Jackson - olympic hurdler and sprinter.
One of the most famous expeditions of all time set off from Cardiff's port, lead by the doomed Captain Robert Scott. In 1910, he sailed from the docks to the South Pole, a trip from which he never returned. There is a commemorative 'lighthouse' to Scott in the middle of Roath Park boating lake in honour of the great man and his team.
Wales is famous for its music, and Cardiff is by no means an exception.
Situated in the Hayes part of Cardiff's main shopping area, Spillers Records may well be the oldest surviving record store in the world. Established in 1894, the place has refused to sell out to anyone, its only slight concession to modern times being the fact that like many independents it is now part of the 'Chain With No Name'1. It's rumoured that this is where the Manic Street Preachers (known to their fans as The Manics) used to buy their records.
The store is quite small and very busy on Saturdays. If you want a good browse round, it's worth going during weekdays in the early afternoon, when you're fairly likely to bump into the odd skiving student, but not many other people.
The selection of CDs is pretty good, and along with the usual pop and rock scene, Spiller's cover such varied genres as dance, industrial, underground, and the like.
As it's part of 'The Chain with No Name' the prices are good, less than any of the major chains in the main part of Cardiff's shopping centre, and the staff are always very helpful - they may even point you to...
Born Shirley Veronica Bassey 8 January, 1937, Shirley Bassey was the youngest of seven children. Her father, Henry, was a ship's fireman and he reared his family in Tiger Bay, Cardiff.
The young Shirley started working in a meat packer's while singing in the local clubs and pubs. She soon turned professional, but then threatened to quit and become a waitress when work was not forthcoming - therefore robbing the world of one of its musical jewels - temporarily... The tide turned in her favour in 1955 when she sang at the Astor Club in London. The world was waking up to Shirley and she earned the name 'Bassey the Belter' after her forceful singing style. This is a name she never appreciated.
Things went from good to great for Shirley Bassey and she had chart appearances with several songs including 'Kiss me Honey, Honey, Kiss me'. However, internatonal stardom was just around the corner with 'Goldfinger' - the eponymous title track to the James Bond film. Since this moment, she has gone from strength to strength, appearing all over the world, recording more Bond songs and appearing as a regular at the Royal Palace in Monaco.
The Millennium may have been and gone but that one particular evening has left aftershocks for the people of Cardiff and an afterglow that warms their hearts at the mere mention of the word.
Rather than create something transient for the Millennium like a dome or a big wheel (like in London), Cardiff took the opportunity to upgrade the national stadium into one of the most futuristic-looking buildings in the country. What was created was the first retractable roof stadium in the UK - an ideal setting for the final of the Rugby World Cup and the ideal auditorium to let the Welsh voices cheer and sing on their football and rugby playing heroes. The stadium is one of only two in the world with a removable pitch, the turf resting on removable square pallets.
What has truly entrenched the Millennium in the mind of the Cardiffians is the spectacular success of the Manic Millennium gig held in the magnificent new stadium.
The night got off to a slightly shaky start as Gate 7 opened 20 minutes late but the mood soon lightened as everyone poured into the warmth (thanks to that retractable roof). The mood was very cheerful all round apart from slight bout of impatience as Charlotte Church2 graced the video wall to say how much she loved the Manic Street Preachers.
Shack and Feeder played their support sets to warm up the crowd, followed by the Super Furry Animals. These three bands received some complimentary cheering but it was nothing compared to the wall of sound that hit when the Manics opened their first set with 'You Stole the Sun From my Heart'. Their second set after midnight was just as impressive and by the time they finished on 'A Design For Life', the crowd was roaring. To finish the concert with the biggest bang, Nicky Wire leapt down from the stage and smashed his bass guitar to smithereens. A truly spectacular evening.
We all know that the Welsh are phenomenal at rugby, but what about the city's unsung heroes, Cardiff City Football Club?
Cardiff City, or The Bluebirds as they are also known, are a football team that must hold a world record for the number of times the phrase 'Sleeping Giants' has been used when referring to them.
They are a team which hover around the second division of the Nationwide Football League. The Bluebirds are renowned for having a blinding season followed by a few dire years where nothing goes right - a phenomenon they share with the hapless Chicago Cubs.
Whatever the current situation of Cardiff City, one cannot refute their glorious past. In 1927 they won the FA Cup by beating Arsenal and, therefore, they are the only team to have ever taken the cup out of England.
Cardiff, like the rest of the UK, has had a rough ride on the PR roller coaster as far as food is concerned, but, as in any sprawling metropolis, there are some corners which provide that perfect platter at the right price.
La Gondola is situated near the end of Clifton Street, Adamsdown, just off the Newport Road. This café sits in amongst the typical local inner-city high street excitement of second-hand stores, fast food outlets, and a ramshackle branch of Woolworths. Despite its dazzling bright yellow canopy there is nothing on the outside of the café that would make you think of doing anything other than throwing together the words 'greasy', 'café' and 'spoon'3. From its appearance one would probably assume that the food is also thrown together in the same careless, random manner.
Luckily, that's not the case. La Gondola is one of those rare examples of a cracking little inner-city café waiting to be discovered and cherished by those few that know of it - although, it has to be said, the place is often fairly busy.
The portions are huge, not just eye-bulgingly big, but the sort of thing where you might begin to worry whether the spindly table legs are going to cope for any length of time (or, for that matter, your own legs when you try to leave). Even though the café is run by a very friendly Italian chap called Tony, it's still in Wales, hence most dishes also come with a huge side of chips as well. A typical meal is ridiculously cheap and that includes the Sunday Roast, which is the best in the area.
Put simply, La Gondola is a great place to grab a bite to eat in Cardiff. It may not look like much, but like so many things, it's what's on the inside that counts.
If you're in a hurry and want quick food, of the greasy spoon variety, then head for the indoor market - the cafés there provide all-day breakfasts, faggots4, peas, chips and beans. Not the best quality, but the atmosphere is great.
After escaping the train station, and having hauled yourself through the historic bit of Cardfiff and then browsed through the shops, you'll want a pint or other alcoholic refreshment.
The Scrum is the first pub you come to in the town centre as you approach from Colum Road. It has a sports theme, and is quite modern. The street-facing wall is basically all window, and there is half a VW Beetle under the stairs, in which you can sit and watch whatever sporting event is on at the time. Upstairs, which is a kind of balcony, there are some booths which have individual TVs in them. When a major event is on, you have to book these. The happy hour lasts for about three hours but, unfortunately they don't serve Guinness, so you'll have to make do with a pint of John Smiths.
Bar Burges is a new pub, and is open from Thursday to Saturday, but is open until one in the morning on all of these nights. The downstairs is basically a big room with a square bar in the middle - it's quite noisy down there. Climb the grand staircase, however, and there's a nice quiet bit. It has its own miniature bar, with a seated area with arcade games and a gaming area, which is basically a couple of pool tables. It plays MTV all the time, unless there's a major sporting event on (basically rugby). Again, this place doesn't sell Guinness.
In the early days, The Woodville, or Woodies, was good for cheap booze, which is just about all a student could ask for. It's on two levels - street level, and a basement, which opens out into a 'beer garden'. Not many gardens, beer or not, however, have concrete lawns. But never mind. This pub is a favourite, particularly for its cheap booze, but it's often crowded and it doesn't serve Guinness.
The Macintosh is a marvel in Cardiff - it serves Guinness and has comfortable seats. Guinness here is more expensive than the Student Union bars and clubs, but it isn't watered down. There's a great atmosphere in this pub, which has two distinct sections - a bar and a lounge. Distinguishing between the two is hard because there is no sign indicating the fact. However, one bit, the smallest bit, is your traditional seats, beer and jukebox bar. The other, larger bit, has two projection TVs and therefore is always packed whenever there's a big football game on.
The Tafarn or 'Taf' is the Student Union pub, and it therefore has a good atmosphere. The whole thing (from the inside at least) is made to look like a traditional Olde English tavern, hence the name.
Mulligans is an Irish pub, and therefore serves Guinness. It's usually quite full, but it's a nice enough building, and if it was less busy, it would be quite pleasant to sit in and enjoy a quiet pint of the black stuff.
O'Neill's is another Irish pub, and also therefore serves Guinness and they draw a shamrock in the head. This pub has the accolade of being the first pub most students in Cardiff go to. It has a Craic-ometer5 too.
This pub is a little weird. It is quite small and its toilet is a long way back and up some stairs. Good beer though.
The Firedrake and Firkin
This one's quite grand, its second floor is a kind of balcony thing, and the bar is massive. It's a great place for a fairly large group of people, but otherwise it can be a bit noisy.
The Prince of Wales
The Prince of Wales is a chain pub, and therefore has no music. It has two floors which makes the pub itself rather large - there is some contention as to whether or not it's the largest pub in the UK. It's a great place if you want to eat out, since it has a nice large menu. Go here if you are a family or you could try lunch at the legendary Canal Boat...
The Canal Boat
The Canal Boat, for some reason, seems to be a favourite of everyone. The drinks aren't spectacularly cheap, it doesn't have any games other than the standard fruit machines and decade-old arcade machine fare, but the people that run it are great, and there are lock-ins. The food served here is very good, particularly the Irish stew.
Beer has been brewed at the Old Brewery from 1713, although the brewery premises take up a larger area than before, and the last of the 1713 buildings were pulled down in 1919. Some remains of the 18th Century wall can be seen near the well just below the electrician's shop. The brewery was taken over by the Brain family in the latter half of the 19th Century and it was during this time that the company experienced its golden era. In 1882 beer from the brewery was supplied to 11 public houses. By 1900 over 80 public houses were owned or leased by the company and year after year saw the production of their beer increase in production ten-fold. In 1887 the company expanded to become the largest brewery in Wales and still produces fine beers today.
The company produces some of the finest beverages in Wales including:
- Brains Bitter
- Brains SA
- Brains Dark
- Buckleys Best Bitter
- Reverend James
- Buckleys IPA
- Arms Park Ale
- Smooth Brains Bitter
- Smooth Brains Dark
- Smooth Buckleys Best Bitter
- Smooth Buckleys IPA
- Smooth Buckleys Dark
- Dylans Smooth
The brewery runs tours and tastings and is a favourite among tourists and locals alike.
A Bit of Singing and Dancing
If you're looking a little bit more than a quiet drink, Cardiff won't let you down. A high concentration of pubs are found either on or just off St Mary's Street/High Street which leads up to the Castle. At the lower end of this street there are a number of late night boozers including Sam's, The Walkabout, The Prince of Wales, The Square, Mulligan's and The Philharmonic. This area can be very busy but it's a great place to start.
If you want to avoid students, then avoid the Union (obviously), and the Canal Boat, although the 'Boat' is pulling in more and more non-students now. Also, it's not a good idea to visit the clubs on nights such as Tuesday and Thursday, which are generally student nights (ie the drinks are cheaper).
If you're into dance and disco, then go to Zeus, Evolution, Reds, or Berlins. If, however, you prefer metal or punk then Metro's 'Clwb Ifor Bach'6 is the place to start.