Now, I get a lot of stick for being Welsh here in England. And I get it. The jokes about sheep are a given. However, there are some people that genuinely seem to think that Wales is a place best forgotten about and not worth visiting whatsoever. That, I can’t quite get my head around.
As a local, I’m probably biased. But wherever I’ve been in South Wales – down the valleys, across the coast, into the cities – the variety of South Wales never fails to amaze me. For those of you who think that Wales is essentially England except with more hills, sheep and a language that nobody speaks: you’re wrong. There are so many things that make Wales what it is, and give it an entirely different feel than England.
But, as anyone will say, the ‘feel’ of any place is something that can’t quite be defined. For Wales, my Wales, it’s looking out of your window and being surrounded by hills, mountains and valleys, a landscape that makes you want to start walking, just to see where you end up. It’s the instantly recognisable accent that makes me smile every time I come home. It’s welsh cakes. It’s the sheep. The slightly more predictable weather in that it is probably going to rain through most of the colder months. It’s all of these things and more.
If you do end up in Cymru, you’ll probably be in the capital at some point. Cardiff has had a massive overhaul in the last decade; the Bay especially has had a stunning makeover, no longer a muddy wasteland. Cardiff is a great place for a day out, and the more cosmopolitan, high-end shopping centres meld into the Victorian/Edwardian architecture against the backdrop of Cardiff Castle.
The shopping complexes rule the high street and, like any city, you’ll find the standard Topshop, Zara, McDonalds etc. However, look a little bit closer, especially around the castle, and you’ll find the arcades. Cardiff is known as ‘the City of Arcades’ for a reason, boasting the highest concentration of Victorian, Edwardian and contemporary indoor shopping arcades of any British city (or so says Wikipedia). But really, they are well worth a visit if you’re looking for something a little more offbeat. In the arcades you’ll find vintage, independent designers, quaint little cafes, tea shops and diners, and Wally’s is one of the hotspots for both foreign food and proper local produce.
Cardiff Bay has been updated with a plethora of restaurants, and is a great relaxing end to a day’s shopping. Most have stunning views over the waterside, and it’s well worth a visit even if there is only one train platform that goes back and forth to Central. Although it has all the standard chain restaurants like Café Rouge and Nando’s, the Turkish restaurant Bosphorus is situated right out on the water, and the food is fantastic.
Welsh food is generally pretty standard British fare, but it has its specialities. Welsh cakes anyone? For those of you who have been deprived of this Welsh delicacy, welsh cakes are a kind of pancake/scone-type cake with currents and/or sultanas, dusted with sugar. Don’t leave Wales without a good few bags of these, though I’ve heard they sell them in M&S. They rarely ever last more than a day in my house. The cheese is also a must-buy; in most shops you can find Caerphilly cheese, a sculpture of which is apparently erected in Caerphilly. My personal favourite is the Black Bomber from the Snowdonia Cheese Company. Bara Brith is also worth a try, and our lamb is renowned.
Even Newport, despite what you’ll see on Bouncers, has its good points. Newport provides one of the cheapest student nights in the area (much cheaper than Cardiff) with a good variety of clubs, some of them even half-decent. Bring your student card for student night (Wednesday) and get cheap entry into Delilah’s, Meze and OTT (in that order). I also challenge anyone to find a better Italian restaurant than Rossini’s in Clarence Place. Just trust me on this one.
Barry Island, however, genuinely lives up to its reputation. Only go for the chips and the Gavin & Stacey banter. The Pleasure Park is massively overrated, and as soon as the sun comes out the beach is overrun with locals. Go to Swansea instead, and walk along one of the coastline paths. The beaches are phenomenal on a sunny day, and to walk along the coast with the sea breeze in your face and the sound of the waves is a relaxation that is incomparable.
If history is more your thing, there’s Caerleon Roman amphitheatre, the Big Pit mines in Blaernavon and Cardiff’s museums. The architecture of the Millennium centre and Ikea-style Welsh Assembly building at Cardiff Bay are also worth a look-in. For those seeking ‘true, rural Wales’, its reputation for stunning landscapes is well-earned. I’m lucky enough to live on the side of Twmbarlwm, or ‘Nipple Hill’ as most of us locals call it (look it up on Google Images and you’ll see what I mean). But for the real views there’s the Sugar Loaf, the Brecon Beacons, the Blorenge… one of the things that really defines Wales is its landscape, the hills and the mountains. South Wales has such a varied mixture of scenery in such a small area. Yes, you will find the wastelands. Merthyr Tydvil and Bridgend are definitely worth avoiding. But places like Blaernavon are worth driving around just to see the contrast between the undulating countryside and the slag heaps. Although these deceptive ‘hills’ are now being overcome by nature, for many they still echo the harrowing Aberfan disaster that saw the collapse of a colliery spill tip into the village. The effects of the 1980s mine closures are glaringly apparent in such towns, where entire villages depended on the work generated by the mines.
Like any place, South Wales has its good points and its bad points; you just have to know where to go. Wales is one of those places that really does have so much to offer whatever your tastes, though I apologise if I sound a bit like a travel brochure. I think everyone has a soft spot for their home, and Wales is no exception for me. You all know the ‘Visit Wales’ advert: ‘You’re not having our mud. It’s good mud’. Thanks for that Rhod Gilbert, but there is a tad bit more to Wales than just mud…