Even though I go to university abroad, I am not abroad in the traditional American-student sense of the term. I’ve never flown on Ryanair. I spend most weekends at home, studying. Going to university abroad is moving your life and plopping it down in a different country, switching accents and money accordingly. For better or for worse, I don’t feel as if I’m abroad.
That would be why, it took me until now to make the hour long journey to Cardiff. Bristol is this close to Wales! So, I peeled myself out of bed last Sunday for an early morning bus to Cardiff. The coach was pleasantly empty and I settled down into my seat, getting ready to watch the countryside roll by my window. We passed over the Severn bridge that connects south west England and Wales, as the sky slowly shifted from depressing grey to bright sun. The landscape looked surprisingly welsh, though I’m not quite sure what that means. Cardiff’s bus station is right next to the train station, which is right next to the Millennium Stadium, which is smack-dab in the middle of town. Fresh off the bus, I stretched my legs with a quick jaunt to the market on Fitzhammon Embankment, directly across from the Millennium Stadium. The walk looked like a fair distance on the map, but took less than five minutes. Cardiff, I was beginning to sense, is quite a small place. The sun was shining and there was a smattering of people walking around, enjoying the lazy Sunday morning.
As a New Yorker, I’m no stranger to open air markets, but it’s rare to find an exceptional one. Cardiff’s was a cut above and met the fantasy farmer’s market expectations that I didn’t know I had. There were stalls with beautiful produce mingling next to stalls that were selling breads, cheeses and cured meats. You could buy raw, vegan foods or a really great coffee. After purchasing, there were plenty of river side tables at which to sit down and enjoy your welsh cake and cappuccino. Why don’t all markets have that?
My time in the city was limited, so I quickly made my way to Cardiff Castle, which was barely ten minutes away. The city was an interesting mix between empty and busy that only exists in small towns. You got the sense that it was a good day to be outside, enjoying the world, yet there was plenty space for more people to join in. I was strangely disappointed; I wanted to see as much of welsh society as possible. Cardiff Castle is really old, though I do not recommend watching the horribly cringe-inducing information video to get a sense of just how old. Much of the castle as you now see it, however, comes from the relatively recent Victorians. Unfortunately — despite the steep price of the ticket — there’s not much to see. I walked through the war tunnels and marveled at the spaces in which people hid during air raids. I soaked up the sun around the castle walls, climbed up the main fortress (though I didn’t have the nerves to go to the top) and walked through the rooms open to the public. I was ready for the next thing, only to glance down at my map and discover that I had done it all. Cardiff Castle feels as if it should be a beacon for history, for really cool old stories, but all it feels like is a way to celebrate the glory of Cardiff. It doesn’t even do a good job at that.
From there, I hoped that I would get a better sense of welsh culture with a trip to the National Gallery. The building looked beautiful from the outside and provided a delightfully eclectic collection that could only be found in the national museum of a small quasi-country. There was science, welsh history, impressionist and modern paintings all grouped together. The collection was surprisingly large, with gems sprinkled through out. I knew if my dad had been there, he’d have been able to spend a long, long time looking at the painting collection. Not to mention, they had a whole gallery devoted to welsh castles. Did you know that Wales has the highest concentration of castles in the UK? Apparently it does. Then, I knew I needed a bit more fortification so I began the long(ish) walk to Cardiff bay, stopping along the way to gawk at some of the more spectacular buildings in the shopping district.
Cardiff bay is, according to Rough Guide, a recent regeneration project with spectacular results. The walk out is boring enough, but once you arrive, you’ll be able to tell from the throngs of people. Cardiff bay looks like the mix between a mall’s food court and a generic harborside district. I expected something vaguely nautical, but saw only a few industrial places from which to view the water. I may have sat down and got a deeply discounted meal at Mimosa (which, despite being highly recommend, was only okay) and eaten a welsh cake (like a cross between a shortbread cookie and a scone, yum!), but I was eager to get back to central Cardiff.
I generally find myself getting annoyed and depressed when I spend large amounts of time around tourist districts, but my feelings about Cardiff bay make me wonder if this restlessness is less about tourism and more about the personality and personal nature of a place. I want to be able to have my own interaction with a neighborhood and enjoy a sense of discovery, no matter how false it is when I travel. Cardiff bay and similar areas quickly remove any autonomy from travel. They force us to see a monotone nature of another culture, dictated by who-knows.
I was relieved to leave Cardiff bay and spent the rest of my afternoon wandering around Cardiff. It was barely five, but the city already felt significantly emptier. While I enjoyed my time in the small welsh city, I can’t help but think that the weather had something to do with it. Cardiff is an adorable city and deserves all the visitors, personality and passion it can get.
Do you enjoy walking around busy cities? Or do you prefer to explore emptier areas?