I absolutely love travelling and what I enjoy most is exploring cities I’ve never been to before. So many new people to meet, interesting cultural places to check out, coffees to sip in beautiful locations while scribbling in my notebook. Bliss!
This May I booked a flight to Cardiff for a week. I know, not the most obvious place to spend seven days. You’re thinking rugby, pints and rain, right? Well, what I found was cocktails and a movie night in a Mongolian tent, talks by bestselling authors and a very interesting multicultural singing experiment. The dark horses of the travel world sometimes do turn out to be the best hidden gems.
Getting to Cardiff was surprisingly stress-free as I steered clear of a certain low-fares airline and instead opted for AerArann (no baggage and check-in fees, woohoo). I booked into the Nos Da Hostel ( = ‘good night’ in Welsh) right opposite the Millenium Stadium and at around €20 a night including brekkie a good, safe and friendly option.
You’ve probably already heard of Couchsurfing. I joined the CS community earlier this year and haven’t looked back since (I’m going to post separately on the best way to ‘score’ a couch in popular cities, what to put on your profile and, more importantly, what NOT to do etc.). Couchsurfing in Cardiff was a total eye-opener for me. The Cardiff CSers are a small, tightknit, but extremely welcoming group of people who really care about their city and enjoy sharing it with newcomers and residents alike. During my week in Cardiff I stayed with two lovely female couchsurfers one of whom organised two pub nights while I was there (see A Shot in the Dark and Royal Oak Pub). It was a great way of meeting the locals as well as exchange stories with other visiting couchsurfers.
Cardiff may only have about 300 000 inhabitants, but it has its fair share of quirky cafes and pubs. Milgi Lounge (in Cardiff’s student area around City Road) was one of those places that I wanted to take with me to Dublin when I left. A hangout that reminded me of San Fran or Amsterdam, Milgi offers an enticing food menu, great cocktails and coffee and: a real Mongolian yurt in the back garden with a collection of preloved sofas and armchairs where punters can enjoy free movies. Chapter was my other favourite place in the city. It’s an arts centre and cinema (think IFI, but with a more creative food menu and art exhibitions). It serves creative, great value comfort food, excellent coffee and homemade cakes to die for and attracts all kinds of people from young families to artsy types. Another favourite that my CS host recommended to me was the Waterloo Gardens Teahouse in the leafy suburb of Roath. With its modern wooden interior and many tempting speciality teas and coffees on offer, it is an oasis of calm only a few minutes away from the hustle and bustle of the city centre.
As this is a blog dedicated to all things festival, of course there was plenty of that as well. Hay was absolutely amazing (see my article here) and I also was at a very interesting event which might not be everybody’s cup of tea, but which impressed me a lot. The National Youth Eisteddfod is an annual Welsh peforming arts festival for young people (there also various other ones, for adults, just for music etc. see here). This year it took place in Cardiff Bay and it attracts participants from all over Wales (only those who win their local and then county competitions get to take part). There are a variety of disciplines represented, from choir singing to theatre to dance, orchestra performances to poetry recitals. The whole week gets huge television coverage and it is a great honour to be crowned one of the overall winners. You can buy a day ticket for about €13 and just stroll in and out of various competitions. But beware, everything is in Welsh (which to me is one of the most beautiful and powerful languages on earth), earphones with translations available as far as I know.
After a week in Cardiff I basically felt like I WAS already living there and was very sad to leave. But on my last day there was another highlight. Before I had left home I had emailed a woman who works for the local women’s arts association and she had told me about a new, cross-cultural women’s singing group, which I joined for one of their rehearsals. They were going to perform at the upcoming Refugee Week, an amazing nationwide ‘festival’ for locals and refugees to meet and learn from each other celebrating the contribution of refugees to the UK. Even though I could only attend this single choir session, they welcomed me with open arms. The group consisted of a friendly bunch of women from various countries and age groups and it was great to chat about how each of them experiences life in Wales.
So if you want to see a bit more of the place you’re visiting and not just scratch the touristy surface, make sure to get out of your comfort zone once in a while. It might be a bit scary at first. But it’s really worth it. Here are a few tips to get you started:
1. Do your homework: do some internet research before you go. If you like writing, look for places where readings are being held. If art or sport is your thing, check out the websites of local arts or sporting organisations and see what’s on while you’re in town. If good quality food is what you’re looking or, find recommendations from food blogs and local websites.
2. Check out the local couchsurfing forum pages: take a look at the community pages of local couchsurfing groups (you don’t need to be logged in to read the messages, just go to http://www.couchsurfing.org, click on community, then search groups). They are full of tips from knowledgeable locals about anything from local transport to where to have the cheapest pint in the place you’re visiting.
3. Make friends before you go: join Couchsurfing or ask your own friends if they know anyone in the place you’re going. Email them and ask would they like to go for a coffee or show you around. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
4. Get insider tips from locals: while the staff at the tourist office were friendly and quite knowledgeable, I got the best insider tips through asking locals I had met in music stores and cafes and who recommended their favourite places to me. And from my couchsurfing hosts of course.
So get out there and get planning, you know you want to :-)!