Cardiff (Caerdydd) is the capital of Wales. A city of approximately 850,000, it is going through quite a renaissance and is visited by over 18 million people annually. The city is billed as a “city of arcades”, and at this time of the year all of those arcades are in full Christmas glory. Walking in the centre of town, we went from arcade to arcade filled with unusual and tempting stores.
The decorations definitely lightened the gloom of the gray rainy skies.
By the time we headed to Cardiff Bay it was getting dark, as it does at 4:00 in November. Before the Second World War, Cardiff was the biggest coal port in the world. But of course its importance as an industrial centre made it a prime target during the war. 2100 bombs fell on Cardiff and decimated the port and many civilian areas of the city.
The bay has undergone massive renovation in the last few years. The focal point is the new Millennium Arts Centre, a startling and massive arts complex dedicated to theatre, dance, opera and music. There was nothing on that we particularly wanted to see that day, although we were very tempted by Deffro’r Gwanwyn, the Welsh version of Spring Awakening. But it was amazing just to see the building, especially lit up in the dark of the night.
While walking among the shops and pubs by the bay, a lovely young Welsh woman came over to offer us freshly baked Welsh cakes, made down the street at “Fabulous Welshcakes” Now, I have made Welsh cakes every March 1st (St. David’s Day) for the last 28 years but I have never had them “in situ” so to speak. So I was thrilled. She invited us back to the store for more cakes and “Bubbly” – Welsh cakes and bubbly!! Who could refuse that?
For those who haven’t had a Welsh cake, it is a kind of tea cake, with currents, cooked on a griddle and always best fresh. I had tried some earlier in the day from a bakery at the market, but they were several hours old and by Tim’s estimation not as good as mine. These fresh ones, however, were very good and of course went beautifully with the bubbly. I am fairly proprietorial about my Welsh cake recipe, but I will give it to you as long as you promise to make them to share!
Warmed by cake and bubbly, we worked our way to a much less touristy part of town, Canton, where we ensconced ourselves at the “Chapter Arts Centre”. This fabulous arts complex was started almost 40 years ago, when a group of artists purchased an old school from the city. It is a thriving arts community with 3 theatres, 2 cinemas, a gallery, studios, 2 bars, a cafe, over 60 cultural workspaces. The night we went it was filled with people and was clearly an exciting place for artists from all disciplines to meet and work together. We saw “Resistance”, a movie set in Wales during the Second World War. It is posited on the idea that Germany has invaded Wales and all of the men from one village have disappeared underground. It is a story about how the women cope, and don’t cope, with the invasion. A good story and a great vision of the Welsh countryside, if you have a chance to see it. You might want to make a plate of Welsh cakes to eat while you watch.
The next day we walked through the park to the National Museum where we began to understand the history of Wales as a series of constant invasions. Roman, Norman, English – it is a country always under siege of one kind of another.
One of the reasons we wanted to stop in Cardiff was to go to the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. Students from the Masters in Musical Theatre program were doing a production of “Merrily We Roll Along”, a musical by Stephen Sondheim that we love, but have never seen. “Merrily” is famous for closing after a 2 week run on Broadway in 1981. Kind of a cult classic amongst those who know it, Sondheim has been re-working it and we were interested to see it live.
The RWCMD is housed in a brand new, huge, arts complex beside the park in the centre of town. We arrived early so that we could sit in the café with a glass of wine and listen to some jazz. Students from the music department were performing as part of their course work, and we were treated to standards, bee-bop and contemporary jazz as 6 different student groups performed. Great to be reminded of just how hard jazz is, and to see these young students keeping it alive.
“Merrily” was great. The students were very accomplished and passionate about their work. It is a school I would definitely recommend to anyone considering a career in musical theatre. And it was great to see how “Merrily” actually works. We both cried through “Not a Day Goes By” . If you don’t know it, you can listen to Bernadette Peters singing it.
We devoted our last morning to the castle in the centre of town. Cardiff Castle dominates the city and its history. Fortifications were built here by the Romans in 55 AD, the Normans in 1081, and subsequent English builders continued to make it a defensive barricade to protect their interests and keep out the rebellious Welsh.
In the 19th century the 2ndMarquess of Bute turned it into a Victorian extravaganza.
Bute is said to be the “father of modern Cardiff”, building docks and railways to export Welsh coal. He amassed a huge fortune on the backs of the Welsh coal miners and set about building a lavish castle. Working with the designer “Capability” Brown, he had the grounds of the Norman/Roman fort excavated and re-built, creating gardens and vistas for his castle.
The banqueting area is still in occasional use by the Royals (and apparently can be rented by mere mortals for £500 per hour).
During the war, the Bute family built air raid shelters under the embankments. It was the safest shelter in the city and housed 1800 people during the raids.
In 1947, the Bute family gave the castle to the people of Wales. It only took 2000 years.