Cardiff: Bay city rolling

Naomi Tolley enjoyed a whirlwind visit to Europe's youngest capital city.


On the waterfront: Cardiff has managed to shed its industrial image and has given over its bay to a host of modern, trendy hot-spots

On the waterfront: Cardiff has managed to shed its industrial image and has given over its bay to a host of modern, trendy hot-spots

It's part of the United Kingdom but going to Caerdydd, pronounced Cayer-deeth and known as Wales to the English - feels like you should have to show your passport.

Perhaps crossing the Severn Bridge does it; like leaving one land for another - crossing a boundary - and paying a toll for the privilege to do so.

Or maybe it's the signs where Welsh comes before English, telling drivers to 'araf' (slow) around bends.

There's something about Cardiff that draws tens of thousands of people down a stretch of road off the M4, weekend in, weekend out.

Perhaps it's the magic of seeing Cardiff bay, the city's hotspot, in moonlight, and devouring a hearty fish supper and walking it off later along the waterfront. Or passing (or not) lively pubs and clubs along St. Mary and Church streets.

Or experiencing the electric atmosphere during rugby days, the country's national sport so revered by the locals.

We turn off towards the city at junction 29. It's not a pretty route by any means and this may leave many a tourist at a loss as to why anyone would stay here or head South to the sea.

Getting there

Drive there: Take the M5 and then M4
Where to stay: The Hilton Cardiff, Kingsway, Cardiff, www.hilton.co.uk/cardiff, 0292 0646300
Where to eat: Ffresh Bar and Restaurant, The Millennium Centre, 029 20636465
What to do: White Water Rafting www.ciww.com
More info: www.whycardiff.com

Yet, heading to the 'motherland', as so many Welsh friends like to call it, is a voyage to a land defined by die-hard traditions such as the simple yet emotive love spoons. These ornate wooden utensils are found everywhere.

Traditionally young lovers would give one to their amour and the Welsh are so sentimental about this that they have various ornate examples on display at the Welsh Folk Museum.

And there's daffodils, the national emblem cruelly dubbed as "vulgar" by Welsh style guru Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen. But these simple blooms look far from vulgar at the Green Flag awarded Victoria park which comes alive with crocuses, daffodils and flowerbeds during summer.

The city has more green space per person than any other in the UK with a vast green swathe stretching into the heart of Cardiff: Bute Park, on the banks of the River Taff, sits right in the city centre, reaching from the walls of Cardiff castle to the edge of the city; and Roath Park lies north, home to a 30-acre fishing and boating lake.

On top of all of this, Cardiff has been designated the world's first Fair Trade Capital, encouraging ethical trading and fair prices for producers in Third World countries.

This eco theme also winds its way into the fabric of what Cardiff does best - shop.

It's a buyer's, moocher's, and vintage hunter's paradise with quirky boutiques like A Vintage Affair tucked away in Victorian corners of the city as well as antique stores, and flea markets, all promoting sustainable fashion and living.

Just outside of the city centre in Canton, Fair Do's - Siopa Teg, is renowned as one of the best Fair Trade shops in Wales, selling clothing, greetings cards, foods, snacks, beverages, and just about anything else you could want.

Saturday afternoon is quite unlike any other city - it's completely deserted. You'd be forgiven for thinking there had been a mass exodus - there probably had been - to the pub.

The walk to the sea, to Cardiff Bay, takes no more than 15 minutes but you can get a train or a bus here from the centre. This is home to the Millennium Centre, a hive of activity centres around The Arts; The Welsh Assembly Headquarters; and the Norweigian Church Arts Centre.

It's where culture meets mainstream and class collides with tack - as merry-go-rounds complete with horses called Nia, Bryn and Meredith who bounce up and down alongside £1 slot machines and ice-cream vans park outside chain restaurants like Pizza Express.

The Taff Trail, a route which takes cyclists and walkers through South Wales, passes through here. Across the River Taff lies the state-of -the-art Cardiff Bay Water Activity Centre.

We based ourselves at The Hilton overlooking the Castle and the hills and wound up our stay with lunch at a new addition to the dining scene, Ffresh at the Millennium Centre. The menu is steeped in Welsh tradition using local suppliers and a must-do for any visitor keen on experiencing 'true' Welsh cuisine.

Returning home across the Severn Bridge, we leave the 'motherland' behind us, to a place where the signs are all in English and daffodils aren't strung to lampposts or love spoons sold in every other shop.

I miss it: that patriotism; the sense of belonging; the sound of goose-bump-inducing rugby chants rising from pubs and bars.

And I feel glad, reassured and privileged that Wales isn't abroad but just a short hop up the M4, making it easy weekend jaunt.

    Last updated: 5:02pm, June 14 2011