It has now been five weeks since the last walking tour of Cardiff took place. Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic has restricted mass gatherings and public travel. As a result, tourism has come to a standstill for everybody, including for us at Fogo's Free Tours. Almost coincidentally, the weather for the last few weeks has been spectacular, and Easter passed in a blaze of sunshine. However, because of Covid-19 there have been no tours, no tourists and no photos like this...
All this time away from Cardiff city centre in recent weeks, in addition to the glorious weather, has seen missed opportunities. Not just from a business perspective of course, but even in terms of what we are all missing out on. Cardiff in the sun is a beautiful place, a Victorian gem surrounding an iconic castle unmatched across the UK. The time away from the city has led to a time of reflection. What exactly have we missed and what do we miss seeing from the city after the last five weeks away.
1. Spring bloom in Alexandra Gardens
Right about this point in time Alexandra Gardens, in the heart of Cardiff's civic centre, should look like this...
Already something of a hidden gem in the city anyway, April is potentially peak season for this park, named after Queen Consort Alexandra of King Edward VII. It is already one of our favourite spots on any walking tour of Cardiff anyway, containing interesting war memorials, great photo opportunities containing nature and some of the city's prettiest backdrop buildings, and also plenty of peace and quiet. For a location so close to the centre, it is often forgotten or overlooked, and April is a special time to be there, with blossoms in full bloom.
2. A Walk Through Bute Park
Continuing on the theme of parks and greenery, Cardiff is, perhaps surprisingly, one of the greenest cities in the UK. That may come as a surprise even to visitors more used to Queen St, The Hayes, Mary St and the Principality Stadium. Heading north from Cardiff Castle is a vast landscape of green space, parks and vibrant colours (particularly in Spring and Autumn). As well as Alexandra Gardens there is of course the vast expanse of Bute Park, Roath Park, Sophia Gardens and more. Bute Park, though, is just a real icon of the city; 135 acres in size, seven miles long from Cardiff Castle to Castell Coch, 3,000 different species of tree, 43 Champion Trees that are the biggest of their species in the UK, and named after Cardiff's most famous family. Walking through the many pathways that bisect the trees, open fields and the Taff River, you can feel the history of the city, the Castle's historic families and of course feel that fresh air and the smell of the grass.
3. The view from Cardiff Castle
Over the last few weeks the clouds have cleared, the storms have disappeared for another year thankfully and the sun has become a regular visitor to south Wales. As a result, the views from the Norman keep of Cardiff Castle have improved. While it may not be the highest point in the city, and the city itself may not have the world's most spectacular skyline. The reason it is such an appealing and unique cityscape is because of the different visuals at every angle. To the south there is the city centre stretching towards Cardiff Bay. To the south-west is the Principality Stadium and the river. To the west and north is Bute Park and its endless trees, and to the east we have North Road, the civic centre, the Kingsway and Queen St. Ultimately it is a vast array of architecture both under our feet within the castle itself and on all sides beyond its walls.
4. The Architecture
Which brings us on to that architecture. Cardiff is mostly known as a Victorian city from an architectural perspective, and it is during the last 19th century that the area transforms into the town that we know today. A quick walk along any of the city's central streets will show that. Just look up above the modern shop fronts, department stores and coffee shops and the beautiful architecture is obvious for anyway to see. Most of it came about in the time of John Patrick Crichton Stuart, otherwise known better to us as the 3rd Marquess of Bute, or Lord Bute, the owner of Cardiff Castle and head of the Bute family in the second half of the 19th century. He became the wealthiest man in the world, allegedly, during his life due to the success of the coal trade. As a result Cardiff grew rapidly, and because of Lord Bute we ended up with the style of buildings that remain today. That is not only reflected in the city centre but also in the neo-classical, almost Greek flavour, of the civic centre's iconic structures like City Hall, the Glamorgan Building and the National Museum of Wales.
Of course, Cardiff's outstanding mix of architectural style is not confined to the city centre alone, as even the suburban housing of Roath, Cathedral Road and other surrounding areas stand out as something specific to the region, but perhaps the city's most noteworthy structure from the glory age of the coal trade is in Cardiff Bay, the Pierhead.
5. Life in the Arcades
No walk around Cardiff is complete without a wander through its arcades. The City of Arcades is how the city likes to identify itself sometimes, and with good reason, as there is more arcade space in Cardiff than any other UK city. Below, Castle Arcade, is perhaps the most beautiful of its kind in the city. It contains restaurants, barbers, game stores, cafes and a general wide mix of options, as well as being the only arcade with an accessible second floor.
The arcades are also unlike the rest of the city. There are no chain shops or big corporations found within Castle, Royal, Wyndham, High St, Duke, Dominion and Morgan Arcades. Their Victorian and Edwardian heritage is maintained not just in their style, but also in the independent shops that fill them. These streets that dominate the Castle Quarter side of the city are one of the things that make the city unique among other capitals of the world, and make a walk through Cardiff unlike anywhere else.
There you have it, five places or aspects of Cardiff life that we are currently missing out on during lockdown. There's more to Cardiff than this, of course, and a lot more to miss during this time, but from walking through the city and conducting tours around town sometimes we even take the obvious things for granted.
*Fogo's Free Tours offers tours of Cardiff & Swansea all year round. However, due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic we are in a unusual scenario in the tourism industry. As a result, all tours are suspended indefinitely and will return as soon as is possible. Keep and eye on the homepage (fogosfreetours.com), for the most up to date tour information.*
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