Wales's pedestrian-friendly, compact, accessible capital boasts a climate similar to that of Vancouver with a propensity for drizzle, yet I return from two weeks of dry March weather free to explore and witness a dazzling core re-generation undertaken in the past decade that makes Cardiff a required European visit. The innovative architecture includes a 74,330 seat
Millennium Stadium, equipped with a slick retractable roof and a nearby harbour with unattractive mud flats and massive coal storage (Wales was once the world's largest producer) transformed into an inviting artificial lake created by a massive barrage system that allows sailboats and spawning salmon in and out through a short canal and elevator system connected to the rejuvenated Taff River.
Over £1.3 billion of National Lottery money has been invested and along the harbour, sits avant-garde, stunning structural designs such as the new
Senedd Parliament Building, the
Millennium Centre, housing Welsh performing arts, modern restaurants to suit cosmopolitan tastes, a new swimming pool and bike path and even a temporary hockey rink to house the Devils, a professional team that
Cardiff seeks to link to the NHL's Devils in New Jersey. The Senned's wave-like roof juts stridently into the sky, and its glass walls afford a clear view inside the building from 50 metres away while reflecting the waters of Cardiff Bay.
Mermaid Quay is a jumble of shops, bars and restaurants. I dine at the Terra Nova, a smart, sophisticated bar, popular with both locals and tourists. With elegant glass fronts and stylish balconies, it's the perfect place to view the bay. Terra Nova was the name of the ship on which
Captain Scott set sail for Antarctica from Cardiff.
To the east is the gleaming white Norwegian Church, an old seaman's mission in which the Cardiff born author,
Roald Dahl, was christened. It's now been converted into a little café and art gallery.
The Millennium Centre, shaped like a Welsh armadillo, all glass and slate, is dominated by a huge dome coated in copper oxide producing a bronze colour with two poetic lines inscribed above the front door. The Welsh: "Creu Gwir fel gwydr o ffwrnais awen" or "Creating truth like glass from the furnace of creation" and the English "In these stones, horizons sing." The huge letters form the windows of the upper floors and are impressively lit up at night when celebrating the performing arts, including Welsh opera and this month's Swan Lake ballet.
During rugby matches, large pubs such as Walkabouts on St. Mary St. fill, patrons tightly wedged side by side well into the early morning hours when many traditionally migrate to nearby "Chippy Lane" at 2 a.m. for an order of fries at either Tony's Fish & Chips Bar or Dorothy's and then head home throughout Wales or back to London, a short train ride away.
Later, I tour the massive £121 million stadium, sit in Her Majesty, the Queen's royal chair, hold the small, silver
Invesco Trophy and watch two resident Harris hawks chase intruding birds from out of the rafters. Unlike rugby, it's bloodless; the hawks are slower, yet get the job done. Since opening in June 1999, Millennium Stadium, with the first fully-retractable roof in the UK, has averaged over 1.3 million visitors per year. It's a multi-purpose, multi-faceted event venue and will play its part in the London 2012 Olympics as a host venue for football. Inside, I literally watch grass grow as half of the natural grass turf is systematically heated by a large series of lights that promote growth. Incredibly, the pitch is laid on top of some 7,412 inter-connected pallets which can be moved for storage to allow the stadium to be used for concerts, exhibitions and other events.
For Cardiff, population of 320,000, the largest city in Wales, change has been dramatic, launching it into the European big leagues and making it now one of the top 5 UK shopping destinations. The £750 million St. David's (Wales' patron saint) Shopping Centre, Phase II has just been completed, and runs 240 m long through the centre of town adjacent to a wide pedestrian walkway that links to several of Cardiff's Victorian and Edwardian shopping arcades, stuffed full of the quirky and the unusual. Snug coffee shops sit next to esoteric club clothing boutiques and chic high end fashion stores. There's a shop that sells nothing but buttons next to one that sells nothing but violins. And they're next to a surf shop and a Welsh cheese shop. I stop to savour a hot coffee and Welsh cakes which might become addictive.
I saunter through
St David's Grand Arcade, topped with a glass atrium roof and anchored at each end by
John Lewis, the largest department store outside of London, home to hundreds of designer names in fashion, beauty and house wares. arris haewks cjhase
Mike Price, my guide, informs me that Cardiff is one of the cheapest places for students to live. "It's small and friendly and easy to get around, but big enough to offer all of the best bits of living in a major city." Mike adds, "With three major higher education institutions, Cardiff is ideal for students. And Millennium Centre attracts the biggest and best bands and shows. It's young, it's cool."
With its rapid transformation, Cardiff has been bestowed with many accolades. Frommer's Guide ranks it as one of the 13 must-see global destinations. Lonely Planet describes it as the "epitome of cool." Millennium Stadium has been voted one of the seven sporting wonders of the world.
Cardiff University is one of the UK's top Universities for Bioscience with over 10,000 students, 2,500 post-graduates, 500 doctorates, 450 research projects and an annual income of around £50 million.
Professor Sir Martin Evans is the current Nobel Prize winner for Medicine. And, don't forget that the £1.8 billion Bay development is Europe's largest waterfront regeneration.
It's no surprise that Cardiff is also home to the largest concentration of media related employment in the UK outside of London. The world famous BBC
Dr Who is filmed and produced here and I serendipitously encounter their camera crew at work in the
Temple of Peace, located nearby buildings which make up the Civic Centre and include Cardiff University and the
Welsh National War Memorial which is a beautiful and surprisingly quiet place to sit and relax right in the city centre along with the National Museum and City Hall close to the stadium which, if you are need of some history, is located close to
Cardiff Castle in the centre of town, initiated by Romans in 55 AD but ultimately refurbished by the
3rd Marquis of Bute, one of the richest men on the globe. Despite a slight drizzle, I climbed to the top of the 12th century Norman keep, a little castle in the middle, for great views of the city.
National Gallery and Museum of Wales, I sample some of the highlights: Roman relics, Celtic crosses, and Bronze Age gold. I admire at the Caergwle Bowl, a gold votive container in the shape of a boat that's more than 3,000 years old.
Sadly, the main draw, the
Davies Collection, the largest collection of Impressionist and Post Impressionist paintings outside Paris is on tour. Here, Cezanne sits next to Renoir and Rodin, opposite Monet, near Pissarro, over by Manet. Van Gogh's stunning Rain at Anvers - angry slashes of rain run right across what is otherwise a beautiful landscape, painted weeks before his suicide.
What makes Cardiff exceptionally exciting is that as one of Europe's youngest capital cities, it remains intent on evolving yet manages to maintain its past with the castle located in its core. Accommodations are reasonable and comfortable. If you visit the U.K., ensure a few days spent in this attractive capital.
Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.
If you go
How to get there
Trains from Paddington Station, London are 15 and 45 minutes past each hour; the journey takes two hours; Cardiff's train station is a short walk to the Radisson BLU Hotel.
Where to stay
The Radisson BLU Hotel Meridian Gate, Bute Terrace, Cardiff, Tel: 44-2920 454 777
The Parc Thistle Hotel:
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