Monday, April 9, 2012

Caerdydd, Saturday (The Castle)

I'm getting a vague suspicion that people in Cardiff might secretly be zombies: there is a beer named Brains that seems to be everywhere.

Wales has both English and Welsh as official languages, and lots and lots of signs are in both languages (I guess this would increase signage costs?). I'm enjoying trying to figure out which words mean what, but I think I need a few lessons in Welsh pronunciation. All I know is that 'si' can sometimes be 'sh', and 'll' makes a cool tongue-flicky sound. My spell check seems to know Welsh too, since it doesn't object to words like Caerdydd.

This morning I dined on my breakfast of Welshcakes, which are little griddle cakes a cross between a biscuit/cookie and a cake with sultanas in it. Maybe it's close to an American biscuit? I don't know, having never had one. I got them yesterday in a little shop in Mermaid Quay (and had to go back for more today...) when I ate them still warm from the griddle. Mmm. I might have to find a recipe and make some myself.

The bus dropped me right outside Cardiff Castle, which I walked all the way round the edge of: through a park beside the moat, around a Victorian attempt at excavation and restoration of a thirteenth century friary, past a circle of standing stones and out of the park and along beside the animal wall.

The Victorian 'restoration' of the friary basically involved laying bricks over the remains of the walls in a 'here it is!' kind of way, so all you really see is low brick walls, the remains of a tiled floor (possibly a hundred ten-centimetre square tiles remain in one corner, though I'm not sure if those are original because someone was buried beneath them in the nineteenth century) and a Victorian fountain. They're currently doing a modern-day excavation on a larger scale, which might yield some more of the actual buildings.

From the friary, a circle of standing stones caught my eye. I went to take a closer look (admiring the antics of a trio of squirrels on the way) but there was no sign. In the centre of the circle was a stone table which I half-expected to have a lion on it. I took a few pictures and stared perplexed a bit longer, and finally found a sign right at the edge of the park. It appears the standing stones were put in place in the seventies to commemorate something (exactly what eludes me), and the stone table in the centre is the only actually ancient part - it used to be in the centre of another stone circle somewhere else.

The animal wall is a wall with animal statues on it that stare at you. Some of them I quite liked, some not as much, though I did feel a bit sorry for them. The less interesting animals probably don't get their picture taken as much.

And then I came to the castle! Cardiff Castle is quite interesting in that it has three layers to it - it was originally a walled Roman Fort, and then it became a motte and bailey castle in the eleventh century. This kind of castle has a castle building/keep on a man-made hill or motte, with a moat around it. Then there is the bailey, which is the outer part of the castle that is enclosed by a long wall. Through various wars, invasions and uprisings, the castle fell into disrepair until Victorian times, when a Marquess of Bute decided to rebuild it in medieval/ancient Roman fashion. So today, you see a huge mock-Roman wall all the way around the lawn of the bailey, the motte with ruined castle on top, and a rather hodgepodge great house to one side, adjoining the outer wall.

I decided to go for the full castle experience, which included a guided tour around the house as well as access to the rest of the grounds. The Marquess was obviously very interested in medieval things, because virtually very single room of the great house is done up as if by a fourteenth century lord, albeit a very, very rich fourteenth century lord. The Marquess at this time was one of the richest men in the world, thanks to the coal mines he opened up.

Everywhere you go there is wood panelling and statues and gold paint and emeralds and rubies (actually) and hand-painted tapestries and wall painting. The great banqueting hall looks like you'd imagine a kings's court to look in medieval times, but in actual fact the room has gone through many incarnations since actual medieval times. The current room used to be two rooms double the height, but the Marquess lifted the roof and dropped the floor and created another floor in the middle so now it's a library downstairs and a banqueting hall upstairs, complete with minstrel gallery.

The master bedroom is filled with mirrors, especially on the ceiling, which are meant to encourage self-reflection. Upstairs from there is a roof garden modelled on Pompeii, with the story of Elijah told in pictures and gold Hebrew lettering around the walls. The bronze fountain in the centre of the garden is apparently worth more than most normal houses.

The drawing room is the only room that isn't medieval-ised or romanised. It's decorated in light, airy eighteenth century fashion (the Marquess's wife put her foot down here) with French windows looking out to the motte and grounds. After the tour, I went to find the famed Arab room, but went round twice and saw no sign of it. On my third time around (after asking for directions) I happened to be there when a man pushed open some doors and called to his wife to come look. A guide came over very quickly and closed the doors, saying the room was closed at the moment. I looked sad and said I'd been looking for it for ages, and the guide let me in surreptitiously.

The room is quite small, with a very small space near the door roped off to stand in. It was closed off because people had moved the rope and were going around touching things (!). The ceiling steps up to a point and is covered in gold and sculpted to look like Arabian buildings. Beautiful stained-glass windows are set high and the walls are covered in colour. I didn't have long in the room - only enough time to stare in amazement - but it was definitely worth the hunt.

The outside walls of the castle were used as air-raid shelters during WWII, and I walked all through these tunnels and then around the top of the bank just inside the walls too. It was raining by this time, but I braved the extremely steep stairs up to the Norman castle and was treated to more stairs up the tower, the living quarters where the lord's family would have retreated to in times of war, and the remains of a longdrop that opened directly onto the battlements. Apparently, one extremely displeased tenant once managed to break into the castle keep, get past about a hundred heavily armed men and abduct the lord and his family, then ransom them in the forest. I'd kinda like to know how he did it.

I had vague plans of going to an Easter vigil, but couldn't get bus times to work properly and was too tired anyway. Instead I spent the rest of the night talking to my roommates. I do like hostels - so many interesting people.


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