Since 1969, restaurant, hotel, travel & other witty reviews by a handpicked, worldwide team of discerning professionals—and your views, too.

WALES? WELL,WELL!

Why in the world would you want to visit Cardiff, if you are no rugby fan? There are several good reasons to justify your choice. First, Cardiff is the capital of Wales, in the South-Western part of the U.K. The Welsh of Celtic origins are probably one of the oldest populations of Europe, related to the Scots, the Irish and the Bretons of France. Over the centuries, they have developed and fiercely preserved their own personality. Don't be surprised if the road signs read in Celtic as well as in English. Once the bridge over the Severn is crossed, you are in Wales, not England. After years of neglect—if not contempt—the Welsh culture is born again and there's now an almost tangible buzz in the air about this renaissance. Wales is not a province, it is a nation and, for that matter, one of the oldest of Europe, proud of itself, marching with energy into the new millennium. The days of steel and coal (Cardiff was once the world's largest coal shipping harbor) with its trail of pain and misery are gone with the wind of a new era.

Luxury apartments are now planted on the former docks; the St. David hotel and spa, an audacious and original architectural structure, rivals the Millennium Stadium with its retractable roof, the largest in the world. But a few yards away a restored medieval castle reminds you of its colorful history. The hundreds of Roman and Celtic monuments, castles and temples that still dot the land tell another tale. Not much imagination is required to see the Knights of the Round Table riding their horses across the bewitched forests. More contemporarily, in the newly elected National Assembly, Welsh representatives debate with a certain degree of independence vis-à-vis the London government over the future of their nation. They wish to see it, with its ancient roots, well integrated in the European Union as an active part of it.

But for us, the highlight of the Wales rediscovered will remain one of its best-kept secrets: the National Museum and Gallery of Cardiff. Founded in 1907 and nestled in the impressive civic center it is a real gem. While famous museums such as Le Louvre can be daunting with their size and vast wealth, this one, with its human proportions, is easily accessible and painlessly "digested." A few hours in the Gallery will help to understand the evolution of Wales-once inhabited (can you believe it?) by dinosaurs and crocodiles.

From what is believed to be the beginning of the world 4,600 million years ago to last week, the history of the planet is told with its successive layers of lava and ice, deserts and oceans. Let us be modest: Compared to the Big Bang and the geological chaos, which our planet and particularly this region have been through, the human invasions and resulting wars, devastation by the Celts, the Romans, the Saxons, the English, the Scandinavians and the Normans appear as a mere tick of the clock. The Museum puts it all in perspective.

The world of our ancestors was brutal. But what about today, what about the harsh life of the coalminers until the middle of this century as it is illustrated in the Museum of Welsh Life in St. Fagans?

But on the first floor shines the absolute splendor of the Museum: a fabulous collection of French impressionists and Flemish , Italian and French masterpieces of previous centuries. Admiring the Rubens, the Claude Lorrains, the Cézannes and the Van Goghs you may wonder why such treasures could be found there? Thanks to the industrial revolution of the 19th century, self-taught David Davies made a fortune and a few children. He would be forgotten today if it were not for his two granddaughters Gwendoline and Margaret. Early in the century, with grandpa's money, they started to buy old masters as Turner as well as new artists like Monet, Renoir, Rodin, Van Gogh. The 260 works—the largest collection of Impressionists of Great Britain—they accumulated during their lifetime were reunited in a bequest to the Museum. Thank you Gwendoline, your exquisite taste has put Cardiff on the map.

Another lovely story is that of the Gwydir Castle in the Conwy Valley. The 16th century monument had been abandoned and deteriorated badly. The content of the house was sold to American newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst including the delicate oak paneling of the dining room. After a long investigation, the new owners of the castle finally retrieved the beautifully maintained oak panels in the basement of the Metropolitan Museum of New York. The panel is back and the castle open to the public. Ironically enough, without this American escapade the panel would have been lost forever, because in the meantime the castle caught fire and all its remaining contents were destroyed.

Disaster sometimes carries a blessing!




Hotels:

Hilton Cardiff:
Kingsway, Cardiff, Tel. 44 (0) 29 20 646300, Fax 44 (0) 29 20 646350 www.1hilton.com
Overlooking the Cardiff Castle and parks and gardens. Near shopping pedestrian street.

Saint David's Hotel and Spa, Havannah Street, Cardiff Bay, Cardiff. Tel: 44 (0) 29 20 454045, Fax: 44(0)29 20 487056, www.rfhotels.com
A modern landmark on the waterfront.

The Celtic Manor Resort: Coldra Woods, Newport, South Wales NP6 27A. Tel: 44 (0) 1633 413 000 Fax: 44(0) 1633 412 910, www.celtic-manor.com
A convention resort on 1400 acres of parkland, three golf courses.

Restaurants:

Buffs Restaurant (Modern Welsh ), 8 Mount Stuart Square, Cardiff Bay. Telephone 029 20 46462

Blas Ar Cymru (Welsh), 48 Crwys Rd., Cardiff. Telephone 029 20 382132

Le Gallois 5Y Cymro (Franco-Welsh) , 6-8 Romilly Crescent Canton, Cardiff. Telephone: O2920 341264

Wales Tourist Board
Brunel House 2
Fitzalan Road Cardiff CF24 0UY
Tel: 44(0) 29 220 49 9909
Fax: 44(0) 2920 47 5321
www.visitwales.com

Other helpful web sites:
icwales.icnetwork.co.uk
www.cardiff.gov.uk

Virgin Atlantic operates many flights from the U.S. to London Heahtrow (Two hours by train from Cardiff) with state of the art aircrafts Boeing 747/400 and Airbus 340. If you travel in Upper Class you will enjoy a new very comfortable seat and a massage. A limo will pick you up promptly at destination. Phone: 800-862-8621.

 

Across the Atlantic in Relaxed Style

A myriad of flights and airlines go between the U.S. and the U.K. Although we are frequent flyers with "traditional" carriers, this time we picked Virgin Atlantic, which like all Virgin brand products wants to reflect its own personality and originality. But is it conceivable for an airline to have a character of its own other than in the ads? Is there a way to alleviate the pain and hassle of reaching congested airports and crammed aircrafts, other than flying with Air Force One or your private jet? Are not all these planes, stewardesses, food platters and seats the common fate of today's travelers?

Virgin Atlantic does its best to offer a reasonable alternative: In Upper Class, for the price of business class, they give you first-class treatment. In 21 U.S. states, Virgin Atlantic at no charge will transport you via limousine to the airport and whisk you into town upon your arrival. Prior to that, in many cities you can step into the clubhouse and take a shower, relax with a beauty treatment, or exercise on a ski simulator.

When departing from London, your chauffeur does the check-in for you while driving you from your hotel to Heathrow or Gatwick. All you have to do is walk to their lounge with your boarding pass and sip a drink until departure time.
Once on board, relax at the bar, select the dishes that will be served at the time of your choice, watch a movie on one of the 20 video channels, and sleep in a duvet in a complimentary sleep-suit, resting on a reclining sleeper seat with adjustable leg-rests. In the future, additional amenities will include power for laptops, video-on-demand, and, yes, Internet access (in 2002).

Tired of working on your computer? Here is the cherry on the Virgin cake: an in-flight therapist will give you a relaxing massage that might work better than melatonin to overcome jet lag and the bore of a long, long flight.

 


André Gayot enjoying his Virgin massage

(Updated: 06/20/08 HC)


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