Cardiff and that Wacky Castle

Well Monday morning brought more sunshine despite the fact BBC was forecasting rain. It was still quite windy and cool, but I’ll take the sun since I was off for a 2 ½ hour walking tour of Cardiff. I met my guide, Eugene, in the lobby of my hotel and we set off for the tour.

Owain Glyndwr Bar

As we walked, Eugene gave me a brief history of Cardiff and pointed out some of the spots I would have never found on my own. For example, not far from my hotel was a statute of a Welsh minister who was responsible for creating the National Health Service for the UK and just down the street from the statute was the Owain Glyndwr pub named after the Welsh leader who a fight for from English rule in the late Middle Ages. The bar dated to the mid 1800s as did numerous other nearby bars.

St. John the Baptist Church

Across from the pub we saw the St. John the Baptist City Parish Church dating to 1180, although parts of it have been rebuild and restored after Middle Ages plundering and weather took its toll and just down the street was the Cardiff Market.

Cardiff Market

Now the Cardiff Market was an interesting site not because of the market itself (which was nice and all), but because the market is located on the site of the County Gaol, where public hangings took place for over 300 years.

The last hanging on the site took place in 1813 before the gallows were moved out of town. The market took over the site in 1891 and continues to retain its Victorian architecture where many traditional Welsh foods are sold including the fabulous Welsh cakes. (More about those later.)

Making Welsh cakes

We walked through the market stopping to look at a cheese stall, ladies making Welsh cakes, and butchers selling Welsh lamb.

Entrance to Cardiff Market (the hanging site)
Principality Stadium
Principality Stadium from the water

Once we exited the market and walked past the site of the gallows, we continued down the street to the massive Millennium aka Principality Stadium where the Welsh National Rugby team plays as well as numerous international music acts. (Ed Sheeran recently played 3 sold out shows.) The stadium is the second largest retractible roof stadium (behind the Cowgirls stadium in Dallas) and seats in excess of 74,500 people. The interesting part about the stadium is that the city reclaimed land from the Taff River to build the stadium, which includes steel and concrete beams that buttress the river.

Victorian townhomes

The walk next took us past beautiful Victorian apartments and into Bute Park. Now the Bute family has virtually everything in this city named after them. The second Marquis de Bute was instrumental in developing much of the Cardiff area, including coal, shipping and construction industries in Wales despite the fact that the family was actually from Scotland and spent most of their time outside of Wales. In addition, the Bute family rebuilt Cardiff Castle and developed the land adjacent to Cardiff Castle into a glorious green space in the middle of Cardiff filled with ancient trees and gorgeous gardens. Bute Park is some 7 miles in length and stretches from Cardiff Castle all the way to Castell Coch (aka the Red Castle aka the Disneyland Castle) I visited on Sunday.

Bute Park (mini Stonehenge)

Anyway, we took a walk through the park past the mini stone henge (constructed for an event held in Wales to celebrate literature and the arts) and then moved on to the civic center area of the city where the Cardiff Law Courts, the police station, City Hall, various university buildings and the National Museum are situated. And and interesting tidbit … the buildings are all the same height because the third Marquis de Bute decreed that no building nearby could be higher than Cardiff Castle.

Cardiff Law Courts

Each of the buildings were lovely in their own right, but the building that attracted my attention was the Cardiff Law Courts. Not because I am a lawyer, but because there were numerous television cameras and photographers milling about. Turns out the lawyers were on a rotating strike for the day demanding higher wages (like just about everyone else in the UK).

WWI and WWII Memorial
The Third Marquis de Bute

Anyway, from the Civic Center, we moved on to Alexandra Gardens where we saw the WW I and WW II war memorial as well as a Falkland Islands War Memorial before walking past the City Hall to a Friary Gardens where a statute of the third Marquis de Bute stands.

High Street Arcade

Then it was on to a unique feature in Cardiff: the Arcades.  There are seven Victorian/Edwardian Arcades each generally a block or two long comprised of covered shopping areas which were constructed in the 19th century to protect the wealthy from the inclement weather while they shopped. Today, there is a lot of empty shops because of COVID, but the shops that are filled are small local business owners catering to the locals needs such as barbers, bakers, liquor stores, tea shops, and on and on.  And the best part was that the Arcades had retained their Victoria/Edwardian architecture right down to the lighting. Really quite cool.

City wall dating to 1451

So after the visit to the Arcades, we walked up the block and across the street to Cardiff Castle. On our route to the castle, we passed the remnants of the original walls of the city. And if you were just walking by, without a guide, you would surely miss it.

Cardiff Castle exterior walls
Inside Cardiff Castle

Anyway, about the castle. Cardiff Castle and its predecessors have occupied the site since the 3rd century when the Romans invaded and constructed a wall on the site (a portion of which is still visible today). Over the years, the castle has been rebuilt, plundered and rebuilt again thanks to the Norman conquest, the UK Civil War and on and on. The castle finally took its present form when the second Marquis de Bute started a reconstruction project transforming the structure into an opulent Victorian Gothic home. And because I was planning to visit the castle in more depth tomorrow, we did not go inside and just wandered the castle grounds. (So more about the castle interior later.)

Welsh cakes

Now with the tour over, I wandered back through the Cardiff market and found the stall where the ladies were making Welsh cakes. My guide told me that this stall is particularly well known and serves up thousands of cakes a day ranging from traditional (usually with raisins or currents) to flavoured varieties. And after tasting these little treasures, I can see why. The cakes look a bit like a scone, only flatter and taste a bit like shortbread. I purchased two lemon flavored cakes and could not eat them fast enough… (insert angels singing). These little danger bombs pack a flavour punch and I’m sure a heaping of calories, but damn they are good.

Taff River boat launch for trip to Mermaid Quay

After the decadent treat, I decided to take the harbour boat over the Mermaid Quay, an area of Cardiff that used to be filled with boats hauling coal to overseas destinations. However, the harbor has been transformed and is now the site of the Wales parliament as well as numerous shops and restaurants.

Mermaid Quay in Cardiff
Captain Robert Falcon Scot memorial

The short little boat ride only took twenty minutes, but it was like traveling to a different city. The area was entirely modern and filled with lots of open spaces. I put on my headphones and pulled up a walking tour of the area and spent the next hour wandering around the sites first taking in the statute dedicated to coal miners and then a statute dedicated to Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s failed attempt to be the first to step on the shores of the Antarctic during the years 1910-1913. (Ironically, his vessel was named the SS Terra Nova and the ship I took to the Antarctic was the Ocean Nova.)

Norwegian Church
Welsh Parliament Buildings

Next up was the 19th century Norwegian Church constructed for the many Norwegians who were working on the docks and the ships. It was then on to a memorial to all the ships lost at sea followed by the ecco friendly parliament buildings, the uniquely designed Millennium Civic Center for the performing arts, a restored row of 19th century townhomes, the shops that make up Mermaid Quay and multiple restored buildings that were at one time part of the vibrant dock scene in Cardiff.

Welsh rarebit

Once my little walking tour was over, I took the boat back to downtown Cardiff and popped in to the Blue Bell pub, which opened in 1813! My guide had recommended the place for Welsh Rarebit, which is toasted buns topped with a Welsh cheese spread. So I sat down, ordered the Welsh Rarebit and proceeded to be massively underwhelmed. How can anyone screw up bread and cheese? But to say that this lacked flavor would be an understatement. NOT. A. FAN. I didn’t want to be rude so I finished the two pieces lackluster bread and cheese drank my beer and headed back to my hotel. So if you are scoring, that is 1 for Wales on the Welsh cakes and 0 for Wales on the Welsh Rarebit.

At this point, I was done in and headed back to my hotel where I promptly fell asleep and did not wake up until 1:00 a.m. Yikes. So much for dinner.

Fireplace in the smoking room
Devil outside the smoking room
Childrens’ nursery (check out the heads on a stick)
Fireplace in great hall
Fireplace in tower room
Marquis de Bute’s bedroom

I was up early the next morning and took a one hour ride on the Hop on Hop Off Bus to see the city from the top of a bus, before heading back to Cardiff Castle for a tour of the various rooms. To say the castle from the inside was something else is an understatement. The rooms had been designed in an over the top combination of medieval and Victorian. There was a cigar room (including a devil on the ceiling outside the room to scare off the women), an Arabian room, a nursery (that would have scared the bejesus out of most kids), a tower room used by the Mrs. and on and on. The overriding theme in each room was an over the top, garishly decorated fireplace. And while the tour was interesting, and the guides terrific, I was quite frankly glad to get out of there. Those rooms scared me!

After the tour, I wandered down the stairs to take a look at the remains of the Roman walls still visible underground and on the lower part of the outer walls of the castle. In an effort to pay homage to the Roman history, the Welsh had commissioned a bronze mural depicting various scenes from Roman life. It was quite a remarkable piece of art.

3rd remains of Roman wall
Bronze mural of Roman times in Cardiff Castle

So with my morning touring done, I headed back to the hotel. The weather was cold and dreary and I figured I had pretty much seen all the main sites of Cardiff. Tomorrow it is off to Scotland!