Cardiff: Castles, culture, and a tour of the Millennium Stadium
Rugby Travel Guide
Willy Brennan takes a tour of one of Rugby's most brilliant bases: the thriving Welsh capital of Cardiff.
A couple of dates for your diary: September 19, and October 11.
These are the next two occasions that the Irish rugby team will play in the magnificent Millennium Stadium in Cardiff (having recently beaten Wales there in a friendly) - against Canada and France respectively as part of the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
And if we are lucky enough to progress out of the group stage, we may end up playing there again in October. Unfortunately, I haven't managed to get tickets for any of these matches, but I was lucky enough to spend a weekend in Cardiff recently, and was very pleasantly surprised to find how much there is to see and do in this fine city.
Our first port of call was a tour of the Millennium Stadium.
The magnificent 74,500-seater home of Welsh Rugby since 1999 is situated right in the centre of Cardiff city, and is the largest stadium in Europe with a roof. Apart from rugby, the stadium also hosts international soccer, motor sports and large concerts. U2 have played there, as have Bruce Springsteen, Madonna and a host of others.
Ireland at the Millennium Stadium. Pic: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
Our very well-informed guide led us through the international players' entrance, past the honours boards along the inner corridors. Our first stop was the Press Room, a good place to have your photo taken in the seat usually occupied by Wales and Lions' coach Warren Gatland. Next stop was the home team dressing-room where the same Mr Gatland likes to regale the team with his inspiring pre-match and half time homilies.
Here, we heard an example of a coach's speech which included the advice "don't throw the first punch, but make sure you throw the last" - all's fair in love and rugby, I suppose.
The North dressing room, home to visiting rugby teams is slightly smaller than the home team's room and left deliberately sparse so that the visitors can decorate it as they wish. Next, it was on to the pitch through the player's tunnel with the roar of 74,500 fans ringing in our ears (well, a recording anyway.) You can get a real sense of what it must be like for the players on match days.
The pitch itself is partially artificial, and the grass growth is controlled by a sophisticated computerised light system. The huge roof (it weighs 400 tons on each side) takes around 20 minutes to close and apparently it is the visiting team captain who makes the decision as to whether it remains open or not - however he has to decide the day before the match is played.
Next, it was on to the really interesting bits - the corporate suites and the President's Box where the super-VIPs and members of the British Royal family sit to watch matches, probably the only time I'm ever likely to see the inside of such places! The complete tour took around one and a half hours and costs around €15 for an adult and €10 for under 16s. I'd highly recommend it, even if you are not a rugby fan.
Just a bare minute's walk from the stadium (past some enticing pubs) brings you to Cardiff's High Street. As you might expect from a city high street, it is lined with the usual selection of shops, restaurants and bars, but this high street has some unique features. On either side of the street there is a series of Victorian and Edwardian arcades housing wonderful little shops selling everything from needles to anchors - you could spend days just browsing these lovely arcades.
Then there is the Cardiff Central Market, a splendid Victorian Iron structure similar to Cork's English Market. It was once the site of the city gaol and gallows. In all, there is nearly a kilometre of arcades to explore and if that's not enough, there is a huge modern shopping centre on the next street.
The Arab Room: Cardiff Castle
The top of High Street is dominated by the Black Tower and entrance gate to the imposing Cardiff Castle. Built on the site of an ancient Roman fortification and later expanded by the invading Normans, the castle has a very chequered history. Today, much of it has been restored and the site is a mixture of reconstructed Roman fort, a huge and impressive Norman Keep and the extraordinary Victorian Gothic mansion created at the behest of one of the world's richest men, the then 18-year-old Third Marquess of Bute.
While entrance to the grounds is free to citizens of Cardiff, for around £20 you get entrance to the castle and keep and military museum, plus a guided tour of the mansion. Originally built in the 1420s, the mansion has been changed and expanded by successive owners over the centuries and the version which stands today was largely designed by the architect William Burges (who was also responsible for the reconstruction of St Fin Barre's cathedral in Cork) in the 1860s.
Highlights of the house include: The Gentlemen's Winter Smoking Room with its elaborate decoration and furniture specially designed to hold tobacco, brandy and wine. The Arab Room (above) has an entire ceiling covered in gold leaf.
At the far end of the High Street there are two areas which will be of interest to any visiting sports fans - the Brewery Quarter and the Cafe Quarter. Both areas link into each other and are teeming with bars, coffee shops and restaurants. On the sunny Saturday afternoon when we visited, the area was packed and seemed to be the place to be and be seen.
About 20 minutes' walk from the bottom of High Street brings you to another vibrant area. The recently redeveloped Mermaid Quay is also full of bars and restaurants, all with great views overlooking the bay and the spaceship-like Wales Millennium Centre building, an arts centre which houses the Welsh National Opera and Ballet.
We stayed at the wonderfully quirky and luxurious Cathedral 73, where the staff could not have been more friendly. They even insisted on driving us to the restaurant in their canary yellow Rolls Royce.
All in all, there's lots to see and do in Cardiff, and some great places to eat and drink, so the next time you are in the region, take a look at the many things that the Welsh capital has to offer.
For further information on all aspects of Cardiff see visitwales.com.
To book a tour of the Millennium Stadium see millenniumstadium.com/tours
For more information on Cardiff Castle see cardiffcastle.com
For bookings and room rates at Cathedral 73 Hotel see cathedral73.com
Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies daily to Cardiff from Dublin.
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