Wandering Through Wales

After one last English breakfast, we departed the Park PlazaWestminster Bridge to head to Paddington Station. At Paddington, we boarded a First Great Western train, and admired the scenery for the quiet and remarkably smooth ride. Nice touches: In the first-class cars, tea, coffee and snacks are complimentary, and everything from sandwiches to full meals is available for purchase onboard. (The first-class tickets also give the bearer access to a lovely little lounge in Paddington station, with more coffee/tea/snacks as well as newspapers and Internet access.)

As soon as we crossed into Wales, all of the signs became bilingual. Much like Canada (especially Montreal), Wales is very proud of its heritage, and all signs and menus and other public wording must be in Welsh as well as English. (It’s a great way to pick up a few words in a new language. For example, “lift” is “lifft,” and “balcony” is “balconi.” I’m learning new words every day!)

We disembarked in Cardiff and were promptly picked up by our guide, who drove us over to the Wales Millennium Centre for lunch. Ffresh (yes, with two “f”s and a period) is a funky little restaurant right in the Centre that serves locally sourced cuisine courtesy of Head Chef Kurt Fleming. (The duck confit was quite tasty.) For bespoke tastes, the menu says that they will make any dish for which they have the ingredients upon request. (I thought about asking for something with Spam just to see their reaction, but decided against it.) The kitchen is open, so diners can watch their meals being prepared if they get tired of people-watching through the huge windows that look out over the plaza.

After lunch, Hazel Robinson took us on a tour of the Millennium Centre, which is all of five years old and has already become a cultural hub of Cardiff. Outside, two poems—one in Welsh, one in English—are carved into the façade of the building. Inside, the lobby and quite a few other areas are open to the public to explore, and performances are frequently held on a smaller stage to the far right of the lobby. The design is hip, post-modern and thoroughly Welsh, with wood from different kinds of local trees and sculptures representing different facets of the country—all by local artists, of course. Inside, various theaters (pardon me, theatres) and studios play host to the Welsh National Opera, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, National Dance Company Wales and other groups. The Donald Gordon Theatre is, according to Hazel, the second-largest stage in Europe (behind Covent Garden in London), and is currently setting up for a run of the musical "Hairspray." The space is ideal for music, she continued, because the walls and chairs are designed to maximize sound, using brick, wood and cloth to bounce or muffle the sound as needed.

Post-tour, we stepped outside into the rain (traditional British weather for March had caught up with us) and walked around the Bay, which was the hub of British industry for over a century. (Today, the area is well-known as the setting for the TV series "Torchwood.") For a lovely spot of color on a gloomy, grey day, a gorgeous carousel has been set up by the water.

We then made our way over to the 2,000-year-old Cardiff Castle, which has managed to remain standing (in some form or another) through eons of history. With less than an hour to explore, we only got to see the Keep (one of the oldest parts of the castle on top of a steep mound—and offering some of the best views of the city to those willing to take on the old stone staircases) and an exhibit on Wales’ military history. (Did you know that the Welsh military always has a goat serving as a lance-corporal? I couldn’t make this up if I tried.) The Castle has a magnificent sense of different eras of history about it, from crumbling walls to a restored and preserved mansion. Encourage your history-buff clients to dedicate several hours to the Castle if they go. Also encourage them to stop off in one of the shops across the street from the Castle and pick up some traditional Welsh artwork like lovespoons. (They’re spoons carved with hearts, and are absolutely adorable.)

From there, we drove half-an-hour out of the city to the Celtic Manor Resort, a five-star golf-and-spa center high on a hill looking over the countryside. We’ll be touring the property tomorrow (and indulging in the spa—can’t wait!), so more about that to come…