DM and MM's Britain 2009 Diary

Day 8 - Keynsham to Cardiff

Sunday, 7 June, 2009

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Holiday Inn, Cardiff. 21:08

We have a hotel room looking out straight at the new Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, adjacent to the site of the old Cardiff Arms Park, and with the River Taff on the right hand side. Not bad, especially in the evening twilight now.

This morning we packed the car once again and had our breakfast. True to her word, our host had arranged yoghurts and freshly made fruit salad. This, combined with lighter cooked breakfasts, made us feel much better than the heavy breakfasts we've been having so far. Another couple were having breakfast too - starting after us. They were touring around too, visiting from New Jersey.

Claridges view
Morning view from our room at Claridges, over the stables

As we paid and departed, Maria (our host) asked where we were headed. When we said Cardiff, she said it was about an hour's drive away, which was good since we hoped to be there no later than lunchtime to we could spend the afternoon at the National Museum and Gallery of Wales. The drive actually took us about 90 minutes, including a diversion where we missed the exit on a roundabout because of poor marking and ended up having to drive for a while before determining that we needed to turn around and go back.

The signposting on roads really is bad here. Often you reach an intersection with no indication of where you are going if you go straight ahead, or only random local destinations marked and no point made of which way heads to the next big city. No wonder everyone says it's easy to get lost driving in England (and Wales). Even Maria said we really needed a satnav to get around properly.

Part of the drive involved crossing the River Severn on the new big bridge. The river was immensely broad, and the bridge correspondingly long. We paid the £5.40 toll for the privilege - now that's a serious toll. The motorway led us into central Cardiff without too much trouble. Then we just needed to find a park and figure out where the Museum was. We followed some parking signs towards the central shops and happened to stumble across signs pointing to the Museum! We followed those and ended up in a very convenient parking area right behind the Museum, for which the parking fee was a mere £3 for as long as we needed.

National Museum of Wales foyer

The Museum is housed in a vast, magnificent, neoclassical looking building, with broad steps leading up to a column-lined frontage. The foyer was tall and spacious, and admittance free. I needed to sign a copyright agreement to take photos inside, and there was also free Wi-Fi inside the Museum, which required signing up for a guest account, which M. did.

We began with the upstairs galleries, which were full of art. The corridors contained displays of porcelain, as did one entire room. Another room contained a temporary assembly from around the world of paintings of Welsh and English landscapes by Alfred Sisley, who was an early impressionist with a style a bit more realistic than the great impressionists, but still showing the same elements of light and colour. Another two adjacent galleries contained works showing the relationship between Auguste Rodin and his student and model Gwen John. There were several bronze and marble sculptures by Rodin, many modelled on John, and many drawings and paintings by John.

Further galleries explored European art from the 1500s onwards, with works by Rubens, Gainsborough, Turner, and Monet amongst many others. One work was from Botticelli's school, but probably by a student and not Botticelli himself. One particularly stunning work was "The Bride of Death" by Thomas Jones Barker - a large painting of a young woman in a bridal dress lying dead in a bed with a man distraught and burying his face in his arms next to her, with a faithful dog looking on sadly too. It was based on a popular tragic poem, and the painting won its artist a prestigious award.

There were also modern galleries showing 20th century works, an exploration of the human form in various media - painting, sculpture, photography - and a photographic exhibit of the work of a female photographer (whose name I forgot - Anne ?) in New York City in the 1960s and 70s. Another room contained an exhibit on Charles Darwin and the evidence for evolution.

Partway through the top floor, we took a break for lunch in the Museum cafeteria, which was in a basement floor below the lobby. M. had a cheese sandwich and coffee, while I had a brie and cranberry roll and a pear. It wasn't particularly good. We finished off the upper floor and began on the ground floor, which was a natural and human history concentrating on Wales. Partway through the lower floor we took another break for coffee and a "flapjack" - a thick square of oatmeal-cookie-like slice with little bits of fruit in it. We also stopped to use the Wi-Fi a couple of times, checking and sending e-mails to our families.

The ground floor of the Museum began with natural history displays showing the current state of wildlife in Wales, with various dioramas showing countryside and seaside habitats with typical plants and animals. Then there were detailed displays of molluscs, fish, insects, and so on, including large skeletons of sea turtles and a humpback whale. And there was a substantial section containing minerals and semi-precious gems, with some impressive display pieces of various interestingly coloured and shaped specimens, some of immense size.

Fish Fossils
Fish fossils, National Museum of Wales

Another large section contained a human prehistory of Wales, beginning with replica skulls of human ancestors and relations from Australopithecus through various Homo species. Walking around the vertical stand of skulls showed artistic reconstructions of each of the species with the same overall colouring and features, showing the subtler differences in facial shape between them. Further along were prehistoric artefacts from the early Celtic people of Wales, presented in well-done displays. There were flint and stone hand-axes and axe heads, bronze swords and axe heads, silver and gold decorative items, and many carved stone headstones and other markers. This section was large and quite comprehensive.

The final gallery we explored was called "The Evolution of Wales". This began with meteorites, then moved quickly on to geology with displays of various rocks and a small room with a giant volcano video. Next came fossils of extinct creatures in geological sequence, showing the evolution of life over time. The ammonite and trilobite fossils were extensive and well presented. There were also less well-known animals such as Ediacaran fauna and things from the Burgess Shale. Then came plant fossils, with some ferns and fossilised conifer cones. This led on to fish, then amphibians.

Dinosaur, National Museum of Wales

Next, of course, came dinosaurs! And here there was an impressive, although not huge, display of a trio of large mounted skeletons - a hadrosaur, a plateosaurus, and a mid-sized raptor (Gigantosaurus) about 3 metres high, together with full (skin-on) models of a group of Coelophysis. There was also a femur of a large sauropod - the bone as tall and thick as a person - and a T. rex skull mounted on the wall at the appropriate height.

The dinosaurs gave way to prehistoric mammals, with an animatronic diorama of woolly mammoths, then a giant deer skeleton with enormous antlers and a mammoth skeleton, amongst other animals including hyenas, wolves, and so forth. Here the gallery ended, to allow picking up at the human prehistory gallery. All together, the Museum was excellently put together and definitely worth the time we spent there.

Cardiff Mammoth
Mammoth, National Museum of Wales

Being close to 17:00, we left to find ourselves a room for the night. We decided to try the Ibis Hotel in the city centre, but it was on the opposite side of the pedestrianised malls of the shopping precinct and the map in the Lonely Planet was barely adequate to navigate a driving route around to it. As it turned out, it wasn't adequate at all, as we were diverted off a one-way street into a direction we didn't want to go and ended up taking an extremely ill-advised left turn to compensate, ending up in a serious traffic jam on the only road into and out of the Cardiff Railway Station. It was a dead end requiring turning around at the turning circle at the end, and the way in (and out) was partly blocked by roadwork so it was only one lane wide. It was possible for so many cars to go in that they blocked the entrance and nobody could get out, and because nobody could get out, the cars blocking the entrance couldn't go anywhere! This apparently happened just after we passed the constriction, as nobody moved in either direction for several minutes.

Presumably someone behind us sorted it out and backed a few cars out, because things eventually got moving again. We slowly made our way around the circle and emerged back on to a through street. Having frustrated our attempts to get across town to the Ibis, we decided to try the Holiday Inn that we'd seen as we drove to where we were now. So we backtracked a few streets and turned into the Holiday Inn car park.

The car park had boom gates and signs indicating a minimum £6 fee for up to 8 hours parking, rising to £10 for up to 24 hours. There was no place to stop and get out to check if they had vacancies, so we plunged on into the car park, hoping they would have some, and that they would include the parking. We parked behind the hotel, virtually in the shadow of the huge Millennium Stadium, and went to reception. We secured a room on the third floor with a view over the stadium, for £85. If we'd been on the other side of the corridor we would have had a view of Cardiff Castle, which was right across the road. Presumably the deluxe rooms are on that side.

Stone Vulture
Sculpture on the Animal Wall

One settled in, we went for a short walk to find some dinner. Since we were right across from the Animal Wall, we crossed the road to walk along its length towards the castle. The wall is topped with parapets every few metres, and every second one of those has a large stone animal perched atop it. They range from a pelican to a seal to dogs and cats of various types. In all, there were over a dozen of them, leading all the way to the castle.

Garlic Sticks
Garlic bread sticks, Bella Italia

There we turned south down the High Street to seek a place to eat. Not far down we found Bella Italia, which was positioned directly across the street from not one, but two adjacent pizza places. A few doors down was another Italian restaurant as well! We chose pizzas for dinner - margarita for M. and quattro stagioni for me - and had some garlic crostini for a starter. The crostini were soft and doughy fingers, dripping with olive oil and garlic - delicious! The pizzas were thin and crispy and also very good. I decided to also have some dessert, picking "The Godfather" from the menu. This was a sundae glass full of chocolate brownie, toffee ice cream, chocolate sauce, and whipped cream topped with cylindrical wafers. They really seem to like serving desserts in tall glasses here.

Double pizza
Pizzas, Bella Italia

Dinner done, it was a quick walk back to the hotel. It had rained a bit while we were eating dinner, but was only very light as we walked. Then the sun came out again as it set, casting a golden glow over the Millennium Stadium and illuminating a rainbow against the dark grey clouds behind it. I took a couple of photos out of the window, but desired a better angle so we went for a quick walk across the adjacent bridge over the River Taff. But by the time we got there the sun had vanished behind cloud again and the rainbow had faded.

Millennium Stadium
Sunset rainbow at Millennium Stadium

We returned to our room and turned in for the day.

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