A heady brew

8th August 1997 at 01:00
As you walk out of the railway station, common sense tells you to follow the seagulls, south down Bute Street to the docks and the legendary Tiger Bay.

It's where Shirley Bassey, Cardiff's most celebrated daughter, first strutted her stuff; gloriously raucous, proudly cosmopolitan, it was the one place in Wales that really knew how to pop its cork. Forget it. The bulldozers and the town planners have put paid to all of that. For better or worse (and local opinion is bitterly divided) the whole dockland area is undergoing a massive redevelopment. It might be impressive when (or, perhaps, if) it is completed, but it will never be the real Cardiff. It must be said, however, that the real Cardiff is an increasingly difficult place to find.

For example, if you start your walk by turning right at the station into Mill Lane, you will feel as if you have accidentally strayed into Cardiff's twin town of Nantes. Stretching far into the distance, the pavement is hidden beneath a flotilla of plastic furniture and parasols occupied by carefree boulevardiers - city-types and shop-'til-you-droppers - being contentedly Continental. You can feast on natchos and gnocchi, pizza and paella, but don't expect cawl or Pen Clawdd cockles or lava bread. It might be Wales's premier city, but Cardiff has always stoically resisted the temptation to be Welsh.

You're certainly unlikely to hear Welsh being spoken in the streets. Listen out, instead, for the unique Cardiffian accent, especially as you walk through The Hayes (still splendidly shabby, despite the town planners) to the glass-roofed Victorian market. If you're lucky, on your way there, you will be overwhelmed by the pungent whiff of hops being boiled at the nearby Brain's Brewery. You must not leave the city without sampling Brain's Dark or "Daak", as the locals call it - the accent sounds as if every vowel has been lovingly marinated in the local brew.

If you want to shop, explore a few of the gleaming Victorian arcades which give Cardiff a charm of its own - and the newish St David's Centre shopping mall which makes it seem pretty much like any well-heeled provincial town. Then hurry down Queen Street, find Park Place; walk past the New Theatre (home to the Welsh National Opera) to spend some time relaxing in the impeccably manicured Gorsedd Gardens. Look out for the druidic stone circle. But don't get too excited - it dates back to the mists of 1899.

The magnificent civic centre before you is of similar vintage. Stately - imperial almost - the cluster of administrative buildings in white Portland stone are a fitting testament to the days when coal was king and Cardiff exported more of the stuff than anywhere else on the globe. Find out more in the National Museum of Wales which also has an impressive collection of paintings, including some by Gwen John and her more famous, but infinitely less talented brother, Augustus.

It's time to walk down Boulevard de Nantes (pronounced, by true Cardiffians, to rhyme with "Aunties") to the Castle. It has splendid grounds, strutting peacocks, a couple of military museums, a Roman wall, a Norman keep and all the usual stuff history teachers like. But don't dawdle too long. Part with Pounds 4.80 and join the conducted tour. You'll find that the interior makes Le Chateau de la Belle Au Bois Dormant in EuroDisney seem positively understated.

At the turn of this century, the castle was entirely refurbished by William Burges, an architect and interior designer whose extravagances would have made his pre-Raphaelite contemporaries blush. He plundered the classics, the Book of Revelation, Hans Christian Andersen and the mysterious east for images and motifs with which to adorn the walls of a series of rooms that are as shamelessly gaudy as any of our Shirley's frocks. It will strike you as a wonderfully romantic over-indulgence, or an awesome example of Victorian taste at its stomach-churning worst.

Either way, the experience will convince you that nothing the dockland developers attempt could be quite as outrageous as Burges's attempt to improve on the old. And if it has left you feeling queasy, on your way back to the station, pop into the Cardiff Cottage on St Mary Street for a sobering glass or two of Daak.

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