Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Cardiff Baby - Day Three Part Two - Cardiff By The Sea

Apologies in advance if this is a long one!

So, we'd arrived in Cardiff and couldn't wait to see what the city had in store for us. I'll be honest, from preliminary web searches it hadn't looked like there was much to see and do in Cardiff apart from a big football stadium (which was closed while we were there) and a castle, so my expectations as we walked into the city centre again weren't particularly high. But, can I just say, I really loved Cardiff!

It actually reminded me of Belfast a little because the city centre is pretty compact and also seems to have enjoyed somewhat of a recent renaissance, much like our own wee city. As we walked through The Hayes, we saw modern art sculptures, a Big Screen and plenty of shops, bars, restaurants and cafés, so it really did remind me of home. Everyone was out enjoying the sunshine and the general atmosphere was relaxed and jubilant, in particular a pub full of rugby fans who were having a merry (and noisy!) old time.

I also saw a few Starbucks scattered around, which made me happy (can't be too far from my next hit of "the green drug"), and there was a Greggs that not only had vanilla slices (unlike in London) but indeed sold the Yorkshireman one so big he could have sailed it around Cardiff Bay, which made him happy. It also sold me a raspberry ripple cupcake (all entries are eligible for contention for "best cupcake") that was just the weirdest thing I've tasted in quite some time. It was like a jammy bun with oddly textured icing that tasted a bit like Haribo. Very hard to describe and, although not entirely unpleasant, it immediately came in at the bottom of my "best cupcake" list, sorry Greggs! If it's any consolation, the chicken and stuffing pasty I bought with it was much more successful though - yum!

After we had enjoyed eating our baked goods on a bench, watching the world go by, I declared my craving for something alcoholic to drink and so we set off in search of a bar. Bypassing the aforementioned noisy rugby fans, we headed down to Castle Street, which is funnily enough beside the walls of Cardiff Castle, and ended up in Revolution, one of a chain of vodka bars I had passed many times during my adventures on the mainland but had never actually tried.

On our way from the hotel we had seen many’s a sign for the local ale, which curiously enough was called Brains, so we decided to give it a go. Ordering "two pints of Brains, please" was an interesting experience and possibly one only recommended whilst in Wales! It was quite nice actually, despite the unappetising name. There was a cocktail masterclass going on in the back of Revolution whilst we were there, with some enthusiastic-sounding hen parties cheering one another on. It sounded like great craic actually and I wanted to join in with the frivolity, but instead I made do with a shot of flavoured vodka from the diverse menu that had been eyeing me up since we walked in. I went for a shot of the birthday cake flavour and it was indeed both delightfully sweet and delightfully alcoholic.

Suitably lubricated, we set off across the road to Cardiff Castle. I hadn't really been quite sure what to expect from the information and photos I'd seen of the Castle during my online research and whether it would be worth the admission price, but actually it was a really cool place to visit. It would be a great place to have a picnic actually - the grounds were lovely.

Using our well-honed museum-goers' tactics, we decided to "start at the top and work down", the highest point in this case being the top of the keep. There were quite a few steps in all, some very steep and others narrow and spiralled, but the view from the top was worth the exertion. The Yorkshireman got snap-happy with his camera as per usual whilst I just enjoyed the view and engaged in a spot of tourist-dodging (people can get quite pushy when they have a big camera around their neck!). After a while we decided to make way for the next batch of visitors trudging up the spiral staircase and made our way down to ground-level again.

It was at this point I realised that the keep of Cardiff Castle has an actual, honest-to-God moat around it! I cannot tell you how exciting this was to me. When you're a child playing with your bucket and spade on the beach and you decide to build a sandcastle, it's only really a success if you make a moat around it: the sense of achievement when you drag your little bucket of water back from the sea and finally fill up the moat is like nothing you will feel in adulthood, I'm convinced of it. Unless of course you're an adult like me who has no shame and continues to build sandcastles on the beach with an air of defiance regardless of your age. But anyway, I live in a country more full of crumbling old castles than most, and I had yet to see an actual, real-life castle with a moat… until now! They do really exist! What utter glee! I don't think the Yorkshireman quite shared my sense of thrill but he gamely humoured me, bless him.

Having recovered from my moat-related excitement, we ventured into the Castle Apartments. I'm not generally a fan of wandering around posh houses to be honest ("look at all this luxury you can't afford!"), but this one was pretty stunning. I'm sure the Yorkshireman will upload some of his photos sometime soon but in the meantime I shall just say it was very ornate. I especially loved the library, with its very old books on the shelves and the fireplace incorporating different languages.

Next we ventured up on to the Castle walls for a bit of a walk. The views were pretty and it was fun to peek out every now and then at unsuspecting passersby, just going about their business, oblivious to being stared at from up high. That's the funny thing about Cardiff - the Castle really is right in the heart of the city centre, so you look out from this centuries old historical landmark and see the cars driving past and the high street stores and bars across the road. Peculiar, but I like how well the growing city has incorporated itself into the Castle's surrounds.

At the far end of the walls, we found an unlabelled staircase. Not being the sort of people to pass up the opportunity for some adventure, we headed down inside and realised we had found our way into the tunnels. The tunnels were used in World War II as an air raid shelter and there are some authentic items from the period down there, for instance a little canteen set up where people could buy food and drink during an air strike, some bunk beds where people would sleep, and a few "are you my mummy?" type gasmasks sitting around. They were also playing a Winston Churchill speech and Vera Lynn's We'll Meet Again over some quite tinny-sounding speakers. Combined with the long, dark, echoey corridors, the disembodied voices made the whole experience a little chilling but it was also pretty damn cool.

Having emerged from the tunnels to find that afternoon had now become evening, we decided to head back through the city centre to our hotel. After all, there was free usage of a spa awaiting us!

It was a nice little spa actually - the pool was a decent enough size for a spa and the jacuzzi, steam room and sauna were very gratefully received by our well-travelled bodies. There was a moment in the jacuzzi, as the jets and bubbles worked their magic on my stiff back and shoulders, where I sighed a deep sigh of relaxation and thought, yep, I could really get used to this. I have since decided that should budget and practicalities allow, all future hotels I book shall have a spa, which seems strange bearing in mind I can't stand massages and have no interest whatsoever in paying about £50 for a "treatment", but there you have it.

Eventually the Yorkshireman successfully lured me out of the spa with the promise of drinks and dinner. We showered and changed in our lovely hotel room whilst watching the start of a film called No Reservations starring Catherine Zeta Jones, which was entertaining enough in spite of its plot being so blatently transparent from early on. We also heard around this point the sad news about Amy Winehouse, which was quite shocking even though, given the history of her short life, it perhaps shouldn't have been. Such a shame - I really loved her music and it sounds like she might just have been on the point of finding some real happiness in her life.

But anyways, on with brighter things as we headed down to the hotel bar for a pre-dinner drink. I fancied a cocktail and was given the option to "double up" for a pound or two extra. I thought that maybe meant adding extra shots of alcohol in them, but no, two piña coladas promptly arrived at our little booth (both for me), and very tasty they were too!

And then it was off into the lovely sunny evening in Cardiff. We walked down past a little river and saw a family of ducks (cue more photography from the Yorkshireman), before we finally reached the Millennium Centre down by Cardiff Bay. It's a lovely little area down by the waterside and, of course, we had to locate the secret entrance to the Torchwood Hub in Roald Dahl Plass before we could have dinner (hint: it's in front of the water tower).

I then saw a carousel and demanded that the Yorkshireman accompany me on a fun-filled ride around in circles on a wooden horse (see "no shame" above). He was less than enthusiastic but I had a whale of a time! And is always the way with these things, it had been empty before we went on, with everyone looking at it and deciding no, they were too old or too cool, but as soon as we stepped up to the plate, it started a trend. It was like the Big Piano incident at FAO Schwarz all over again. By the time we were disembarking a queue was already forming at the ticket booth. You're welcome, carousel man!

As for the Yorkshireman and I, we located a little restaurant called Signor Valentino in the Mermaid Quay complex, which had outdoor seating overlooking the bay, and enjoyed some comforting Italian food and red wine as we watched the sun set on our lovely day in the very charming city of Cardiff. A lovely day turned into a lovely night, spent with my favourite person in the world - what more can a girl ask for?

Later, tired from a good three days of adventures, we walked back to the hotel, drunk on life (and in my case a steady intake of alcohol throughout the day) and ready for a good night's sleep in that big, comfortable bed. It would, very sadly, soon be time to go home.

To be continued…

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