Cawl, clubbing and culture — a visitor’s guide to Cardiff
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The nearest thing to a Welsh national dish is cawl — a lamb and potato stew so watery it is sometimes mistaken for a soup. Not a great advertisement for foodies visiting Cardiff, you might think.
But the Welsh actor Rhys Ifans swears by it, as did his fellow Welshman the late Howard Marks. The convicted drug smuggler and counter culture pin-up — whose autobiography, Mr Nice, was made into a film starring Mr Ifans — once said that he never returned to Cardiff without treating himself to a bowl of cawl. He even claimed it was a cure for erectile dysfunction.
Food is not what lures most travellers to the Welsh capital. The city has never had pretensions to match the buzz of Birmingham’s restaurant scene, say, or Manchester’s sophistication. But woe betide the Englishman who dares point that out.
When the food critic Jay Rayner visited Cardiff in 2016, he was subjected to an angry Twitter storm after suggesting the best place to head to for lunch was Cardiff’s Central Station — because from there, he observed, you can catch a train to Bristol.
In truth, the choice of restaurants is much improved. Among the best city-centre eateries is The Potted Pig, which is housed in a converted bank vault. Also rated by locals are Nant, I Giardini di Sorrento, Purple Poppadom and, for vegetarians and vegans, Anna-Loka.
Cardiff is better known for its pubs and nightclubs than its fine dining. Music — particularly singing — is part of the Welsh identity, as anyone who has attended a rugby international can testify. Membership of a male voice choir or a colliery band used to be a rite of passage for young men from coal mining communities in the Valleys.
Cardiff is the birthplace of several pop and rock bands, including Super Furry Animals, who, along with Stereophonics and the Manic Street Preachers, were part of a resurgence of Welsh music in the 1990s. Catatonia’s Cerys Matthews, who sings in Welsh and English, was born in Cardiff, as was pop and classical music star Charlotte Church.
No Cardiffian will let you forget that Shirley Bassey was brought up in the city. She was raised in the working-class dockland neighbourhood of Tiger Bay, which is now part of the redeveloped Cardiff Bay cultural zone.
This month, the city hosts the biennial BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition to discover opera stars of the future. Any visitor lucky enough to obtain a ticket to a production by the Welsh National Opera would be wise to grab it with both hands.
For those who like clubbing, the city has a wide choice of venues. Tiger Tiger is the place to be on Mondays. The chain Revolution’s Cardiff bar is the hang out for Tuesdays and, on Thursdays, there is Clwb Ifor Bach.
Theatre too is thriving. The Sherman Theatre routinely wins prizes for its productions. One homegrown success from the Cardiff theatre company Sherman Cymru was Deep Cut, a play based on the real-life deaths of four trainees at the Deepcut army barracks in Surrey. A more recent production was of Robin Soans’ play Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage, about the gay former Welsh rugby captain, Gareth Thomas.
The city’s theatres, concert halls and nightclubs are centrally located and Cardiff has the advantage of being compact and easy to navigate on foot, although the commercial and business district can feel cut off from the Cardiff Bay area.
One of the less well known tourist attractions is the National Museum, which is currently showing two important exhibitions of modern art.
One features the brightly coloured abstract works of painter Gillian Ayres. The other is a show of paintings and sculpture from the private collection of Ian and Mercedes Stoutzker, including works by Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Barbara Hepworth and David Hockney.
In the past, Cardiff has had a somewhat chequered relationship with famous architects. The Richard Rogers Partnership, which was selected to build the National Assembly in 1998, was replaced in 2001, six months after construction started, in a row over costs. The late Zaha Hadid won a 1994 competition to build an opera house in Cardiff Bay, but the project was stymied by the authorities who felt the scheme was unsuitable.
Today, the city is making amends, commissioning Norman Foster’s architectural firm to build the new BBC Wales headquarters, the centrepiece of the Central Square development around the city’s former bus station. But, unlike in Edinburgh’s Georgian New Town or the grand municipal centres of the northern cities of Liverpool and Glasgow, Cardiff’s built environment is nothing to set the pulses racing.
The main reason tourists come to Cardiff is to watch their sporting heroes. For rugby fans, the Principality Stadium (formerly known as the Millennium Stadium), and the iconic Cardiff Arms Park have provided the backdrop for some of the sport’s greatest moments. It was at the Arms Park in 1973 that Gareth Edwards scored a try for the Barbarians v the All Blacks, which experts say has never been matched.
This week, Cardiff plays host to another huge sporting event. As many as 170,000 football fans are expected to arrive for the 2017 Champions League Final between Spain’s Real Madrid and Juventus of Italy.
Staging such extravaganzas presents logistical challenges. With all the city’s hotel rooms sold out long ago (and many block-booked by football’s governing body Uefa, according to locals) the BBC reports that travelling fans are being invited to campsites, and charged £300 to sleep in a two-person tent in a city-centre park.
Local residents have also tried to cash in. Adverts on websites such as Gumtree and Airbnb are offering rooms for between £80 and £2,000. Special surveillance cameras are in operation for the event. Roads have been closed off and trees in the city centre are to be boxed in.
There is even talk of waiving road tolls for the day on the Severn Bridge crossing from England — reason enough to drop in for some cawl.
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The Welsh capital has transformed itself from an industrial city fuelled by coal, into a centre for financial services and science, technology and creative sector companies. The next question for Cardiff’s companies is what the impact of Brexit will be