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May 14, 2002
Cymru: Caerdydd (Russell)

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Our rainy arrival into Wales

Compared with the expanses of Australia and China (and for that matter, the United States of America), everything in Europe seems small and easily reachable by car.  And compared with Continental Europe, everything in the United Kingdom seems downright compact.  From London we had zipped west to Bath, then back east to the Cotswolds.  Now, we zigzagged back west again, drove through Cheltenham on the M5 and M4 motorways, and crossed the bridge into Cymru (Wales).

It is just as well that driving distances are so short; when we changed countries on May 13th, it was pouring rain.  The only presence of a border was some welcome signs and the fact that everything is now printed in two languages, English and Welsh.  (We haven't the faintest idea how to pronounce anything in Welsh -- according to Rick Steves, "LL" is pronounced "as if you were ready to make an 'L' sound and then blew it out" -- so we just end up mumbling something rather incoherent.)

The title for this letter -- "Caerdydd" (Cardiff) -- is somewhat of a misnomer, as we didn't actually visit the Capital of Cymru.  With our now very unstructured itinerary, we knew that we wanted to see a trio of sights in southern Cymru, but we weren't sure where to stay.  After failing to come up with anything else, we pulled out our trusty Travel Inn guide and reserved one night at the Travel Inn in Cardiff Bay (even so, four other Travel Inns were full before we found this one).

Ignoring the wet weather, we first drove west past Cardiff to spend several hours at the Amgueddfa Werin Cymru Sain Ffagan (Museum of Welsh Life at St. Fagans).  Here, hundreds of years of Welsh history are re-created in 30 historical buildings and houses that have been physically moved from all over Cymru to this open air museum, spread out on 100 acres of beautiful countryside.  In each building, there is a cozy fire burning in the fireplace and a guide who will happily chat with you about anything you want to know about the place and its history.  And most amazing of all, the entire museum is completely free of charge.

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The Museum of Welsh Life at St. Fagans

As it rained intermittently outside, we popped in and out of various buildings and learned about everything from wheat milling to bread making.  Highlights included the Celtic Village, a recreation of a 2,000-year-old mud and thatch hut where the guide let Cameron and Joss try out ancient shields, spears, and swords; and the Rhyd-y-Car Row House, where adjacent rooms recreate a living room and kitchen as they have progressed through 1805, 1855, 1895, 1925, 1955, and 1985 (seeing a bulky 1985 VCR was hilarious).

After checking into our single room at the Cardiff Bay Travel Inn (off the motorway and past seven roundabouts), we had dinner next door at the Ocean Park Brewers Fayre.  We were some of the only customers at this family restaurant, and our meals were both delicious and huge.  (Somewhere during the course of  this trip, Cameron has reached the point where he no longer orders off of the children's menu.  He now prefers -- and needs -- full adult courses).

On May 14th, with the sun occasionally peaking through the rain clouds, we checked out of the Travel Inn and headed north.  Our first stop was the Abaty Tyndyrn (Tintern Abbey), once one of the wealthiest and most magnificent religious houses in Wales.  Founded by the Cistercian monks in AD 1191 (who had broken away from the Benedictines because the latter's ways had become too lax), the Abaty Tyndyrn was the second Cistercian house in Britain, and the first in Wales.  ("Cistercian" comes from Cīteaux in Burgundy, France -- "Cistercium" in Latin -- where the monks first established their order in AD 1098.)

Here again we saw proof of the lesson, "do not get on Henry VIII's bad side."  The Abbey was completely gutted and destroyed in D 1536 with the dissolution of the church in England, after being officially valued by Henry at £192.  Today it is a hauntingly beautiful but completely empty stone shell, tucked away off the side of a road.  While Gail listened to the audioguide and Russell took pictures, Cameron and Joss explored the tunnels and trenches of the old sewer system.

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Tintern Abbey... what's left of it

Our second stop on the way out of Cardiff was further north at Symonds Yat, where a tourist attraction called The aMazing Hedge Puzzle had attracted Cameron's attention in a TI brochure.  The town itself was in the middle of nowhere; and when we finally found the attraction, it was tucked into a rather shabby complex of buildings that included "Oriental World" and "Fairy Tale Land."  Our suspicions were further raised when we went into the restaurant next door for lunch -- we felt like we had been the only customers there in months (when we paid, the woman confessed that she had never tried using the credit card machine before).

The aMazing Hedge Puzzle itself was quite entertaining.  It was founded 20 years ago by two brothers, one of whom acted as our "Puzzle Master."  He clearly knows and loves puzzles and mazes; in the shop where we bought our tickets, he entertained us with impossibly-difficult metal ring puzzles (the kind where you try to remove a metal ring from a mess of horseshoes and bits of metal that have been welded together).  Cameron was the only one who solved one without help.  The Jubilee Maze was a gigantic and well-maintained hedge maze.  Cameron and Joss independently made their way through within minutes, leaving Gail and Russell to flounder around while the children laughed at them from a high platform.  Afterwards we visited the Museum of Mazes, where several hands-on educational exhibits gave us further insight into the history and mystery of mazes (back in the shop, the Puzzle Master spent a considerable amount of time trying to explain the concepts of maze "seed shapes" and "clue twine" to Gail, but she came away not understanding a word he had said).

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Amusing ourselves at the Jubilee Maze

From here, we will proceed further north into Cymru for the next week.  We are optimistic; we have now secured accommodations for the next six nights, and the weather looks like it might even clear...


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