Threatened by warnings of severe weather conditions for the end of December, we forgo the car in favour of the train. Once we reach Paddington we realise that we (I, actually) have got the train time wrong. So the three of us – I, my other half and our hyperactive and hyper-impatient 4-and-¾ year old – find ourselves two hours too early for the train to Cardiff. The capital of Wales, also the city where my other half studied, appeals to us as an exciting destination for a short, easy-to-reach and well-deserved post-Christmas ante-return-to-work/school break.
The good news was that we are “stranded” on the station that gave the name to the most famous bear in children’s literature and my little one – still impressed with the recent cinema version – entertains herself and us by remembering the story. We also visit the souvenir shop dedicated to the famous marmalade-sandwich-eater from Peru. It’s shockingly overpriced and – to my big surprise – we not only manage to leave the shop without spending a penny but also without a tantrum. Instead we head to WHSmith and buy yet another batch of ever-repeating and double stickers for her album of the most successful and commercially exploited Disney animation of all times – Frozen. The stickers turn into a good entertainment for the train journey; although slightly messy with pieces of ripped packages flying just about everywhere.
The train is smoothly oozing through the sleepy countryside. The sharp rays of low winter sun are striking powerfully against the windows, prompting passengers to look for their sunglasses or turn away. And with a lacy layer of translucent frost covering the quiet fields and meadows, it feels like we are travelling through a watercolour painting.
Less than two and a half hours later we reach our destination. It’s my second visit to Cardiff but the only thing I remember from the first time, in the summer of 1997, is meeting some of my H’s Uni friends and going to a party in a garage somewhere in the outskirts of the town.

Every sign is bilingual
Every sign is bilingual

We are staying in the Best Western Plus Maldron, conveniently located just a 4-5 minute walk from the station and at the beginning of St Mary Street, one of the main streets in Cardiff. Our little one, whose fascination with hotels has been manifesting itself for quite a while now, jumps in delight around the reception area and collects just about any leaflet that she can reach; including the ones about the pantomime and the ballet performances. Once in the room, she inspects every corner and loudly announces items of the inventory. “Oh we have a kettle, iron, ironing board, bathmat, hair dryer too…” And there are quite a few children’s channels on the television. Excellent – some entertainment while we check emails and plan the itinerary!
As we head down St Mary Street, we breathe in the festive excitement and my H is taking in the sights of his old student town – including a photo stop in front of “The Philharmonic”, one of his many drinking holes in those days – and is shocked by how much Cardiff has changed and improved; from freshly decorated façades and numerous new buildings, to the fancy shopping centre that probably hosts every brand of a consumer’s dreams.
Well, that's what usually happens when you haven’t seen a place in two decades!

The Norman keep; our favourite part of Cardiff Castle
The Norman keep; our favourite part of Cardiff Castle

We reach Cardiff Castle mid-afternoon and there is still enough daytime left before the night spreads its long cloak over the city. The air is cold and crisp and the sun is bright, creating one of those pleasant winter’s days that lures you outside regardless of its plummeting temperature. Then again there are not many visitors around; only a few families entertaining their restless kids and loved-up couples enjoying a romantic walk.
The castle complex – one of the leading tourist attractions in Wales – is like a fairy tale fantasy and provides us with enough entertainment for a good two hours. The spacious grounds – slightly frosty and muddy – offer enough space for running, balancing on various edges and walking around the walls; while the buildings give us an insight into Roman, medieval and Victorian architecture. Our favourite part is the Norman keep; there is something magnificently timeless and fairylike in the worn walls and narrow and vertical steps that take us to the viewing terrace on the roof.
As the daylight fades and the temperature slides further down the scale, we move into the castle’s interior: the wartime shelters and the Victorian apartments. The long and narrow tunnels could shield over two thousand people during the Second World War’s air-raids and a small and corroded kitchenette and a rusty bank bed add to the atmosphere of the time. The castle apartments are situated across the courtyard. And from the roughness of Norman times and the dangers of the war we suddenly step into unexpectedly luxurious Victorian accommodation. Created by architect William Burges for the 3rd Marquis of Bute, these apartments offer a colourful and extravagant insight in the private life of one of the richest men in the world in those days. My personal favourite is the library; adorned with old manuscripts and decorated in earthy tones it calls out for contemplation, learning and dreaming.

Barker Cafe in The Castle Arcade
Barker Cafe in The Castle Arcade

In the stylish and funky Barker café in the Castle Arcade we rest our legs and grab a quick tea/coffee. The interior is filled with old fashioned lamps and other knick-knacks against the exposed brick wall and other surfaces, calming soft jazz is oozing from the speakers and the sofas soothe our tired limbs. In no time, our unruly child makes friends with a local boy of the same age and they keep visiting each other’s table and talking about school.
And it’s already time for dinner. Dictated by the palate of the youngest member of our family, we head to the nearby Zizzi for a safe “Italian”. My tagliatelle with wild boar ragù is disappointingly tasteless, lacking any hint of game, my H’s pizza is burnt, but at least our little one is enjoying her cheesy pasta, followed by a vanilla gelato. And if she is happy – everyone is happy (including the unfriendly and inefficient waiting staff…)


Due to oversleeping in the extremely hot room with an uncooperative heating system, our day starts later than planned and in a failry mad rush. We grab coffee and breakfast in just about the first open place we find; Servini’s Café in Wyndham Arcade. It’s a typical workers' caff and the other tables are bursting with overfilled full English breakfasts (or are they called Full Welsh breakfasts over here?). Basically – eggs, beans, bacon, toast and other stuff that I still consider too exotic for the first meal of the day. Luckily, they also serve croissants and Welsh cakes with candied cherries (not bad)!
The journey from Cardiff central to Caerphilly Castle takes around 45 minutes by bus. After suburban landscape, industrial plants and factories, the views suddenly open out to rural scenes of woods and farms. By the time we reach Caerphilly the thick morning mist lifts and the castle is basking in glorious sunshine. Nevertheless, the grounds is frozen and the air is almost unbearably cold, with tiny particles of either rain or ice sporadically appearing out of nowhere, determinedly announcing an imminent change in weather.

The breathtaking Caerphilly Castle
The breathtaking Caerphilly Castle

Breathtakingly mesmerising, the castle of Caerphilly, constructed in the 13th century, is the second largest castle in the UK and the surrounding area of artificial lakes, according to the historian Allen Brown, makes up the “most elaborate water defences in all Britain”. The enormous fortress is situated on a mound surrounded by hollow grounds and a large moat. With its dark grey walls and flocks of angry birds – most probably pigeons and crows – flying over and overfed ducks cruising the moat scanning for visitors carrying white nylon bags containing their next meal, Caerphilly Castle is a very atmospheric place. The closer we get the impressive structure, the more we feel like stepping either back into the dark mediaeval times or into gloomy and scary fairy tales.
When you grow up in a country with so many grand and impressive castles, the classic fairy tales certainly make more sense that they ever did to me, a child of the communist fantasy. Of course, I was read and told the tales of Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Snow White, but my imagining of them could have never developed as much as my daughter’s has. She has been visiting castles since before her memories started and she can easily visualise the stories developing in front of her eyes. By the time I visited a proper castle – Windsor Castle – I was in my early twenties and slightly too old to think of Rapunzel imprisoned in a tower!

Inside the walls there are many areas to explore; and our 4-and-¾ year old enjoys discovering passageways, staircases and rooms. We visit the accommodation quarters in the Gatehouse, which date to the 13th century, and then climb to the viewing platform on the roof. Although it offers fascinating views of the whole complex as well the surrounding area, the surface is frozen, the wind unpleasant and the air icy and we do not last more than a minute. Instead we head for the impressive Great Hall with wood carvings, colourful decorations and the large fireplace that has remained untouched by passing centuries. It’s equally cold inside the castle as it is outside. The robust stones, the draughts of air flying through doors, windows and other openings in the walls, as well as the low temperature contribute to the frightening image of the castle. Not surprisingly, Caerphilly Castle was the location for the BBC series Merlin and a few episodes of Doctor Who were also filmed here.

A view from the castle
A view from the castle

Extremely cold and equally hungry, we grab a lunch in the closest eatery we find, Glanmor’s, just across the road from the castle. With its rattan chairs and large windows encircled with white curtains, the place looks like a cross between an English Riviera caff and a little village tea house. This time we opt for a national speciality – Welsh rarebit! Basically toast with melted cheese, a hint of mustard and a drop or two of Worcester Sauce.
The town of Caerphilly is also known for its eponymous cheese, which was originally sold on the market in Caerphilly and produced from cow's milk on the farms in the surrounding hills, but these days is mostly produced in England. Its amazingly crumbly texture, natural fatness and the peasant taste takes me back to early childhood when we still had cows and my grandmother and mother made cheese.
Once back in Cardiff, my H revisits houses he lived and places he drank in during his student days while the female duo of the family heads for a rest in the hotel. Well, after a short detour around the shops…
The recently redeveloped area of the Brewery Quarter, just off St Mary Street, offers stylish apartments, funky bars and restaurants galore all in one place and we choose “La Tasca” for our second dinner in Cardiff. The popular Spanish chain has recently introduced a children’s menu (including pudding of churros con chocolate) that would satisfy the fussiest little eaters and it has also enlarged its selection of tapas (the octopus, manchego and potato bake taste amazing). And of course – Rioja goes down particularly well…


As we eat our breakfast in the Barker café in the Castle arcade, our bossy tour guide opens her bag, takes out the impressive selection of leaflets that she has collected over the last couple of days, spreads them around the table and announces that she really – really, really – wants to see a ballet! OK – we didn’t plan (or budget for) it. But – it’s not a bad idea. Plus – not accepting such a culturally advanced demand by a 4-and-¾ year old would certainly be an example of bad parenting, wouldn’t it? Afternoon – sorted!
And for the morning we head to the National Museum of Cardiff. The place hosts the natural history displays downstairs and art works upstairs. We start downstairs and thoroughly enjoy the interactive, high-tech and entertaining history of Wales (and the Earth) from the beginning of time and the Big Bang. The woodland scene and the dinosaur galleries appear to be very popular and although it is New Year's Eve, the place is heaving with children, families and seniors. My personal favourites are the large mammoths – scary and hairy; and pretty realistic too.
By the time we reach the upstairs, our little one is tired and even our usual game of “spot the animals in painting” doesn’t work anymore. We rush through, glancing at portraits and landscapes; stopping for a second look only at the large sculpture of Rodin’s The Kiss.
A quick lunch on the go – from the German sausage stall in the shopping district – and we are ready for the matinée performance of Swan Lake at St David’s Hall. Over the festive period, St David’s Hall has hosted three ballets performed by The Russian State Ballet and Orchestra of Siberia; Coppélia, The Nutcracker & Swan Lake and we have just managed to catch one of the last performances of Swan Lake.

A buzzing modern city
A buzzing modern city

Sitting in St David’s Hall takes my H back again to his student days and the graduation ceremony that was held in this very auditorium. The ballet has a hypnotic effect on our usually fidgety child who, although tired, remains perfectly still during the whole performance. Obviously, she prefers white to black swans and later on asked us about the story. It’s a love story between a prince and a beautiful girl who used to be a beautiful swan. And who are the black swans then??? Oh, they are just nasty people who don’t want them to be together. And no mention of the ending of course…
We dine in “Bill’s” in the Wyndham Arcade, a charming restaurant with a simple British menu just around the corner from our hotel. Our fussy eater – additionally fussed over by the friendly Brazilian waitress – orders macaroni cheese but once she discovers a few stray pieces of parsley she pushes it away. Luckily, our starter of breads and hummus is one of her favourite snacks and the chips that accompany our mains (cheeseburger and grilled chicken) are very tasty.
The pink bubbles and yellow stars hanging from the lampposts are shining brightly against the darkness of the evening. The city is buzzing with excitement and festive cheer, bargain hunters are happily strolling up and down the streets and hordes of people are getting ready to celebrate the New Year till the early hours of 2015. We head back to the hotel. Some television and a drink (or two) will do us fine…


Cardiff Bay is the last place on our list and we’ve left it for the morning of New Year's Day. As we walk through an empty and quiet town that is sleeping off hangovers, with no bus stops or buses in sight, we are not quite sure that was a good idea. Eventually, we flag a taxi…

The Cardiff Bay
The Cardiff Bay

Two decades earlier, Cardiff Bay was a no-go area for students, it was rough and run-down and both myself – a fan of ports and port towns – and my H – with a background in regeneration and planning – are intrigued to see how the years of investments and developments have turned out. Once the leading port for exporting coal, the bay eventually became a derelict and neglected place. The regeneration started in 1999 and it’s considered one of most successful projects of its kind in the UK.
First we grab some food in the French café/restaurant Côte Brasserie; pain au chocolat and pain au raisins. The pastries are warm and delicious but the coffee is weak and tasteless. By the time we finish our breakfast and head back to the Millennium Centre – which to our great disappointment is closed – the square is filling up with visitors.
The two buildings of the Welsh Assembly – one maritime-looking and traditional and the other an example of extra modern architecture – are just like an analogy of the modern Wales, a nation that doesn’t have any doubts about its heritage and roots and at the same time is proud to be part of the modern Britain.

The Norwegian Church
The Norwegian Church

The Norwegian Church lies forlorn on the other side of the bay, somehow out of place, as if cut out of a scene of the ever-popular Scandinavian crime series. Further behind is the location of the Doctor Who experience centre, but with no genuine interest in it and with increasingly cold and strong gusts of wind at our backs, we turn around and head back towards the centre. But first we pop into yet another bakery making fresh Welsh cakes (oh yes, I’m a big, big fan) and this time I opt for the one with chocolate. So far I’ve tried Welsh cakes with cherries, with raisins, plain, with coconut and chocolate drops – all absolutely delicious.
We leave Cardiff bay feeling that there is still lots to be done to turn this place into a really attractive location. Or maybe we just need to revisit it in a warmer season and during some other time of the day? The image of us sitting on a terrace of one of many restaurants on a summer evening, sipping a glass of wine and staring at the calm waters of the bay does sound rather appealing…

View from Cardiff Bay
View from Cardiff Bay

Our “favourite” café, Barker, is closed for the day and we end up having lunch in “The Louis Restaurant”, halfway St Mary’s Street. With its traditional British menu (jacket potatoes, fish pies), the retro interior of beige and dark brown walls, green upholstered chairs and the waiting personnel wearing tailored uniforms of navy waistcoats and white shirts, the place is unbelievably and captivatingly out-of-date. From a contemporary and modern city we’ve stepped into a café in Yugoslavia of the 70's or 80's, years of my childhood and young adulthood. No sooner have we dropped our jackets on the free chair, the old man at next table puts down his poetry book and starts telling us about his sciatica. And the rest of his medical history.
My little one and I climb up a couple of flights of stairs following the signs for the toilets and joking “But where are those toilets? There are no toilets up here!” The lady descending overhears us and says: “Oh, they are, they are! They are called lavatories in here, love, see over there!” A very friendly place, indeed…
As we wave Cardiff goodbye, the sky is growing greyer, the wind fiercer and the rhythm of the raindrops is building up. The train is heading back to London and we are gathering our memories; of gigantic castles and delicious cakes…

By Andrew Woode

Andrew Woode in front of the highest mountain in Wales, Snowdon
Andrew Woode in front of the highest mountain in Wales, Snowdon

When you cross the border with England's western neighbour you will see a bilingual sign. The English version says 'Welcome to Wales' – where the country name is based on an old Germanic term which applied to any sort of Celtic or Romance-speaking foreigner (though never to Slavs) and was probably not very polite. The Welsh version says 'Croeso i Gymru'; here the name of the country comes from the 'Cymry', the 'compatriots'; 'our people' as opposed to foreign invaders.
If you had come here 1500 years ago, neither term was in use and there was no border. The people of Wales were just a sub-section of the Ancient Britons, the Celtic people whom the Romans found living all over the island of Britain when they arrived as conquerors. But after the collapse of the Roman Empire in Western Europe, the way was open for outsiders of all kinds to push their way in; most notably for this story, the Angles and Saxons who transformed much of Britain into England. The details are sketchy – the best known name from the period is that of King Arthur, who may have been a British leader who won the famous battle of Badon against the Anglo-Saxons – but who may very well not have existed at all. By the time the invasion ran out of steam in the mountainous West, the Britons had been reduced to 3 groups; the Welsh, the Cornish, and a group of refugees in Gaul (now France) who became the Bretons. The Britons had to find new names and forge a new identity in the only territory they could still call their own, though their legends and literature never forgot the lands they had lost (one of the earliest poems, the Gododdin, relates to a battle at Catterick involving a tribe based around Edinburgh).


So lesson 1 is: do not confuse the Welsh and the English! Both parties are liable to be annoyed. But it can be an understandable mistake for non-Britons because it is a long time since the Welsh had political independence. Indeed, Wales has almost never existed as a unified, independent entity; back when the Old English kingdoms were not in a position to interfere, Wales was a patchwork of often feuding principalities, united only for short periods. After conquering England, the Normans began to move into Wales; for two centuries, Welsh rulers retained some power, especially in Gwynedd in the Northwest, but in 1282 Edward I of England finally conquered the whole country, grabbing the title of Prince of Wales from its last holder, Llywelyn the last and making it the title of the heir to the English throne. In the early fifteenth century, Owain Glynd?r rebelled against the English and held almost the whole country, but was eventually defeated. While the Welsh did eventually produce an English king – Henry Tudor, Henry VII – this did not make any great difference to their subordinate situation. Under his son, Henry VIII, they were formally unified to England, English law reigned supreme, and the Welsh language was banned from formal usage in most contexts (though after the Reformation introduced church services in local languages, it was permitted in religious use). Only in the 20th century was Wales definitively separated from England, given an official capital (Cardiff) and saw the ancient language given official status; whether you hear much of it will depend on where you go, but you will see it everywhere on modern signs. (About 20 % of the population speak it, but this figure masks huge regional variations, with large proportions in the North and West contrasting with very low numbers in the Southeast).


So what is Wales famous for? Some will mention the singing (male voice choirs are famous,
and music of all kinds has pride of place at the national cultural festival, the National Eisteddfod); others the rugby where it competes with the other British nations on equal terms; historians of labour and the Industrial Revolution will remember the coal mines and all that came with them. Sheep farming and slate could be added to the list, and the mountains and coasts have always attracted tourists. A place where, traditionally, learning was respected and aristocracy was not; distinctively Welsh culture was kept alive by farmers and miners while the gentry were trying to be as English as possible (whatever their actual ancestry).

Wales Millennium Centre
Wales Millennium Centre


Two thousand years ago, Briton spoke Ancient British, known to scholars as Brythonic, part of the Celtic family; it would have looked a bit like Latin or Greek, with lots of words ending in -os, -a and the like. Some words would have sounded familiar to a visiting Roman, since Celtic was part of the vast Indo-European family which included Latin, Greek, Persian, Slavic and North Indian languages, and similarities still persisted; the word for king was probably rix, similar to Latin REX (we don't have any texts from the Roman period, so we have to extrapolate from later forms and other Celtic languages of the time). When the Romans left, it would have seemed even closer, as Britons had borrowed lots of fashionable Latin words, even for things they already had; modern Welsh has pont, 'bridge', from Latin PONS, llong 'ship' from Latin NAVIS LONGA, eglwys 'church' from ECCLESIA and many more.
During the confused century after the Romans left, both the Britons and their cousins in Ireland (who spoke the ancestors of the Gaelic languages) underwent vast changes to the language. It's almost as if they waited to the darkest of the Dark Ages when nobody was looking... This involved losing the final syllable of every word which had more than one to start with, changing most of the vowels, softening most consonants, until practically everything was unrecognisable. Who would guess that cysgu 'sleep' comes from Latin QUIESCERE, or that myfyrio 'study' comes from MEMORIA? But the lost final syllables left ghostly influences behind, which were manifested on the first letter of the following words; so in modern Welsh the word for 'bridge' is only pont some of the time; 'the bridge' is y bont, 'my bridge' is fy mhont, while 'her bridge' is ei phont. Since Welsh can also change the end of the words, and sometimes the vowels of the middle, life can get very complicated. (E.g. castell, 'castle', has plural cestyll, 'white' is gwyn in the masculine and gwen in the feminine).

The general loss of syllables destroyed the old case system (nominative, gentive, dative etc. as in Latin or Croatian), but left a highly complicated verb system intact and produced baroque combinations of prepositions and pronouns. Unlike English, adjectives follow nouns (pont newydd = 'new bridge') and possession is done by placing the possessor afterwards and suppressing 'the' before the first noun; cath y dynes 'the woman's cat' is literally 'cat the woman').

When the Anglo-Saxons arrived, there would have been almost complete incomprehension between the locals and the invaders. Old English too had its roots in Indo-European but both had changed too much now to see any similarities. English borrowed remarkably little from Welsh ('gull' from gwylan is a notable exception) except for a few place names such as Avon (which is just afon meaning 'river'). In the other direction, colloquial Welsh has been borrowing English constantly for centuries; siop from 'shop' even makes it into medieval poetry. But more formal Welsh has tried to stick to native vocabulary, and official modern Welsh tries to continue the trend; a computer is cyfrifiadur, the police are heddlu (“peace-force”), and aeroplane is awyren. Incidentally, don't think that car is from English, though the meaning is identical; the English word comes from the Celtic of Gaul via Latin and French. And if you ask a simple question like “What's the Welsh for 'yes'”, you may be in for a long explanation (short answer; there isn't just one word; it all depends on how you formed the question). If you speak English, you can read at least a few words on any page of a book in most Western European languages; try the experiment with literary Welsh and nothing may be familiar.

As for the spelling – well, it's actually fairly regular (though complicated by regional variations and how formal you need to sound). But it's utterly different from English; dd is like English 'th' in 'the', a single f is like English 'v', c and g are always hard, ch is as in German Bach. A e i o are fairly average European vowels (not as in English), but w is mostly a vowel (Croatian or Italian 'u'), u sounds like i (in South Wales; in the North it has a sound of its own). Y has two sounds; the main one is like English 'a' of 'ago' or 'u' of 'but', but in final syllables it sounds like Welsh u. But the real killer for foreigners is the Welsh ll; a bit like saying 'h' and 'l' simultaneously, but with added friction. Unfortunately it's rather common....
Strangely enough, some of these conventions are only a few hundred years old; medieval spelling was irregular, but more like other languages of the time.

And I should mention the literature – Welsh prose is much like prose in any other language, but the formal verse is something utterly unique, with complex formal patterns of rhyme, alliteration and assonance all co-existing, far more complex than anything attempted in any other language I know. And it still retains a strong place in cultural life, with prizes given out for it with great ceremony at the Eisteddfod and popular radio programmes devoted to it.

In the early twentieth century, a very conservative formal language co-existed with widely differing dialects, to the extent that communication was sometimes difficult between regions. There is still a lot of regional variation, but some of the more extreme dialects are dying out (partly because of whole regions transitioning to English, as has happened to some dialects near Cardiff in particular), and more informal Welsh can now be heard on the media, so there is less difficulty in making yourself understood. But regional identity is still a big issue, accents are significantly different and many words vary from one place to another: your grandmother will be nain in the North and mam-gu in the South. Of course, no one over the age of 5 speaks only Welsh (the last monolinguals died out in the 1960's); if you want to find someone who speaks Welsh but no English you will have to head for Argentina, where a Welsh-speaking colony was established in 1865 … though of course the Patagonian community are all fluent in Spanish these days.

Welsh rarebit
Welsh rarebit