Travels With Myself

A Personalized Periodic Update, just for my family and friends, of the Ongoing Adventures of Your Favorite World Traveler

Location: Budapest, Hungary

After nearly 30 years in the financial industry in the US (mostly California and New Mexico), I decided it was time for my second life. I sold my house, sold my car, sold all my furniture, took a TEFL course and moved to Budapest to teach Business English to the business people of Hungary. Amazing mid-life change! I taught for about eight years, then pretty much retired. Since then I have traveled extensively, and have been to nearly 75 countries. I have had six books published, mostly about my travels - see my author's page on I have made friends all over the world. Becoming an expat is the best move I ever made and I plan to continue my travels indefinitely. Come join me on this blog and enjoy the places I've been and the people I've met in the past and present and hopefully will meet in the future.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Save the Wales!

Time for another long weekend trip, but where to go, where to go? The field is narrowing substantially, as I’ve been so many places I hardly know where to go next. OK, so I closed my eyes and threw my dart at the world map on the wall and the dart landed in….Wales! Interesting. I’ve never been to Wales, so what the heck, why not?
Off on September 3 on KLM’s Big Blue Bird, transferred trough Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport (without any problems this time) and landed at Cardiff International Airport around 4 PM. The owner of the B&B where I would be staying had written me the easiest way to get to their place: take the cheap airport shuttle bus to a nearby train station, hop on the train to the Grangetown station (just before Cardiff’s Central Station), walk out on the street, turn right then right again, and walk about 200 meters and there you have it, Bob’s your uncle.
Piece of cake. Caught the shuttle bus to the “train station”, which was actually a platform at the edge of a small town where the little (three cars) train stopped, rode it to the Grangetown Station (another little platform on the edge of Cardiff) and followed the directions to the Ty Rosa B&B on Clive Street. Clive Street is a longish street of terrace houses, or what Americans would call Row Houses, sort of like attached condominiums, of the typically narrow English floor plan. The neighborhood was somewhat ill-maintained (i.e., trash in the streets and on the sidewalks, untrimmed shrubs, unpainted buildings, etc), although Ty Rosa was nicely painted and kept up.
I checked in and was escorted to my room by Paul, one of the owners, which was in the Annexe building across the street. My room was one of three on the first floor that shared a small foyer along with a shared bathroom. Hmm, could be dicey. At least my room was a small but clean and tidy bedroom with a kitchen area, complete with fridge, oven, microwave, sinks, pots, pans and dishware. If it weren’t for the toilet/bath being a common facility with two other rooms, I could live there quite nicely.
After checking in and cleaning up, I caught the bus (stops right outside my door) into central Cardiff for a quick look-around. I walked from the Central Bus Station over to St. Mary’s Street, the main pedestrian street in town. Lots of restaurants, stores and pubs. As I ambled I stopped at The Cottage Pub for a Brains Smooth beer (the local favorite; Brains is to Wales as Guinness is to Ireland). When I got to Cardiff Castle, at the head of St. Mary’s street, I found the entire park in which the castle is located was closed off by a high metal security fence and guarded by police and regular army troops with automatic weapons.
What the heck!? Well, obviously, I hadn’t done quite enough homework this time. Seems NATO was holding a conference at Cardiff Castle, with various heads of state from around Europe and the west, including America’s Shame, Obama. The castle would be closed off until all the VIPs left, which was luckily scheduled for the coming Friday. Whew – I would get to see the castle after all, although its temporary closing would affect my other carefully planned itineraries.
So it was back to the pubs. Stopped at the oldest pub in Cardiff, Dempsey’s, for a Brains Gold, then the Urban Tap House for a lovely local ale. As I was walking back down St. Mary’s Street I heard some familiar music and stopped to check out The Borough, a funky little pub featuring, guess what? Yep, you got it – karaoke! Home!! After several more Brains I gave the crowd of Welsh singers, all of whom were far better than Yours Truly, Great Balls of Fire. It seems very few people in karaoke bars ever sing the oldies, so I was a hit with the locals, one of whom even bought me another beer. All was right with the world. I caught the bus to Clive Street in anticipation of a big Thursday.
Since I still couldn’t get into the Cardiff Castle on Thursday, the final day of the big NATO Conference, I decided on a big breakfast instead. Found a place called Pillars on Queen Street in central Cardiff that had a great deal: seven items of your choice for only 3 pounds! Amazing. And really good and filling. I explored more of the city center for a while, then decided to take the Millennium Stadium tour to see where the Welsh play rugby.
The tour lasted 90 minutes and we visited all of the important areas of the stadium. I sat in the player’s seat in the Press Room to practice answering post-game questions from reporters and even got to visit the players’ dressing room, which was clean and neat and quite different from the dressing rooms of American football players. We checked out the private apartments, rented to companies and individuals for around 75,000 dollars a year. Our final stop was the VIP box area, which the Queen of England uses whenever she gets the sudden urge to watch the Welsh play rugby; I even sat in her very own chair, so next time you see the Queen at Millennium Stadium, you may take comfort as you realize I also sat where she’s sitting.
Most of the central Cardiff streets were closed off to vehicular traffic due to the conference, and as a result many of the shops and stores and restaurants were also closed due to lack of tourist access and therefore lack of business. Not a lot of happy merchants in Cardiff when I was there. I spent the remainder of the day just soaking up the local flavors and colors, had a snack here and there (found a Krispy Kreme donut shop! OMG!!), stopped for a pint at a few of the open bars and pubs. Dinner was at The Miller and Carter Steakhouse, as I was in the mood for some good Welsh beef, and it was just as yummy as advertised. A couple of more pints at the Great Western Railway bar and at the Zero Degrees microbrewery and that was it for a quiet Thursday night in Cardiff.
As I was making my rounds of the pubs, I noticed some peculiarities in many of them; there were no barstools and no foot railings. I suppose the lack of barstools is to keep the patrons from using them as weapons, but foot railings help prop up the more inebriated customers, so I was at a loss to explain this lack.
Friday was a trip to St. Fagan’s National History Museum, located about a 20-minute bus ride from Cardiff. St. Fagan’s is a large-ish village of Welsh and English buildings, stores, shops and other structures which had been moved from various parts of Wales and the UK. There was even a St. Fagan’s castle, which was beautifully laid out with well-kept grounds and even some ponds to add that pastoral feeling.
I wandered around the grounds for three hours or so, taking it all in: the old pig sty, church, tollhouse, cockpit, general store, urinal, smithy, cobbler, etc. Of course, many of the exhibits were not operating for some reason, so I didn’t get to shoe my horse or buy a pack of Player’s cigarettes, but it was still a fun wander. And the weather was perfect, no rain or clouds, which made the day even better. St. Fagan’s castle was also a treat, beautiful old polished dark wood and furniture, it really conveyed a sense of how the rich lived way back when. Well worth a visit.
Lunch at the Pieminister, which featured lots of different Welsh pies. I went with the steak and kidney pie, washed down with another Brains Smooth; I sat there with a smile on my face and a song in my heart. By this time, the NATO conference had started to move on and, although the giant metal fencing was still up, the street in front of the castle was now open to pedestrians, so I took a brief stroll along the front of the castle, just to see what was inside. Turned out it was lots of open space and a castle keep, which I decided to save for Saturday.
It was Happy Hour time again and I decided on a brief pub crawl before my main entertainment of the night. So it was pints of good Welsh beer and ale at Kitty Flynn’s Irish pub, The Old Arcade, The Borough (where I’d done my karaoke on Wednesday night), the Cottage Pub and The Goat Major pub. A good Happy Hour meander.
Dinnertime found me at the Jazz Café in the Sandringham Hotel, right on St. Mary’s Street in central Cardiff. I went for the sirloin steak with veggies and more of that Smooth Brains. The music that night was a Blues trio; the crowd was fairly light (still a lot of places closed), the food was good and the music was fun. There was a cool breeze blowing in from the street and the beer and blues were both smooth as I whiled away the evening hours. Life is good.
I got over to the bus station in what I thought was plenty of time for the last bus, but it turned out my watch had lost about 15 minutes so all the buses had left by the time I arrived. I was forced to take a taxi back to the hotel, a cost of 6 pounds vs. 1.80 pounds. Ah, well, life was still good, just a tad more expensive.
I had hoped to get out to Pontypridd for a rugby match on Saturday, but NATO screwed up my schedule, so I stayed in Cardiff to see the castle and Cardiff Bay. After another wonderful breakfast at Pillars, and some brief shopping for souvenirs and gifts (one of my English friends in Budapest asked me to buy him one of the rugby fan sheep hats, which he referred to as a “Lambo”), I finally made it to Cardiff Castle. Yes, the fence was still up, but it was being dismantled so we could once again tour the castle grounds. Interesting place, in which the castle keep is situated on a high hill in the middle of the castle grounds. Definitely worth a visit.
Then it was off for a planned Saturday afternoon and evening in Cardiff Bay, the harbor area of the city. After strolling the castle grounds and surrounding Bute Park, I caught the ferry on the River Taff for the 20-minute journey down the river to the harbor area. Cardiff Bay has cleaned up its harbor and enclosed it with a series of Barrage manmade embankments, which has turned the harbor into an inland lake. The harbor area itself is now awash with restaurants, pubs, shops, amusements and the Millennium Center, a huge multi-purpose building fit for conventions and other major gatherings. The seat of Welsh government is also in the harbor area, but the amusement center, known as Mermaid Quay (pronounced by the Welsh as “key”), attracts locals and tourists alike to the water.
My boat ride was enlivened by the presence of a local guide who gave me lots of good information about the formation of the harbor, its history and its present use. Upon arrival at the main dock area, I checked out some of the buildings and surrounding sights. I passed on the Dr. Who Experience, as the Time Lord was not in residence, but I did get to see a Dalek.
It being lunchtime, I headed to the Pearl of the Orient for some Cantonese food. Although not as spicy as Szechuan, Cantonese does have its own mix of flavors and aromas. I started with some steamed dim sum and then gorged on the Chilli Squid. A pot of tea helped settle lunch and I was happy again.
After a brief interlude in my B&B, I headed back to Mermaid Quay for Happy Hour, which I spent at a lovely little old pub called The Packet. Pubs in the UK are all so filled with character and history that pretty much any one you amble into will be an enjoyable experience. All one needs to do is stand at the bar and order a pint, say “Cheers” to your neighbor and you will immediately find a new companion; British pubs are social centers and people who frequent them are expected to enter into the natural scheme of things by joining in the conversations. I’ve passed many pleasant hours in British and Irish pubs and expect to pass many more.
Dinner was a tasty plate of meat and cheese tapas accompanied by some nice white wine. Afterwards I wandered over to The Glee Club, a local comedy club in Mermaid Quay that I had found on Trip Advisor. Despite several unfortunate previous evenings at British comedy clubs, I keep hoping the next one will be better. Of course, I keep finding my hopes cruelly dashed to earth, but it seems I just have to keep on trying. Tonight’s entertainment was to be no exception. Apparently, the language used by British comedians reflects their society in that they think that substituting coarseness and scatological words and phrases and references will be amusing to their audience and will take the place of actually having to be humorous. In most cases I have observed, the comedians seem to be correct and their offerings of crass and filthy language are well-received by the crowds.
Unfortunately, such is not the case with me. While certainly not a prude or averse to such language, I still believe there is a time and place for it; also, if used in an appropriate manner, it can be quite funny. Too bad these comedians don’t understand the same. Their language is crude and low-class, their sexual references better found in the gutter and their attempts at confusing the two with humor leave a more sophisticated audience completely unmoved.
I found The Glee Club’s emcee and three featured comedy acts pretty much the same as other British comedy performances I have witnessed. Some semblance of humor emerged here and there, as if the comedians hadn’t really intended them to be funny, but all in all it was another exercise in more profanity, less humor. Do I keep on trying? We shall see.
Sunday was my final full day in Cardiff. I arose late and showered (when the bathroom was free) and made my way into the city center to The Queen’s Vaults for their Sunday Carvery: roast beef, veggies, Yorkshire pudding with stuffing and a side of Brains. Big smile!
I scoured Cardiff again for those souvenir items I hadn’t yet found, like a real Welsh dragon belt buckle, which should be a best-selling item but was nowhere to be found. And I suppose I am the only person who sees the humor in a Save the Wales T-shirt, as they were also nonexistent. Ah, well, better luck at my next shopping venue. Dinner at The Prince of Wales and to bed.
Monday was check-out day, so I rose late again and checked out and had a late Welsh breakfast in town. After a final circuit of the city I set off for the airport in a local shuttle bus and killed some time there before my flight in the late afternoon. The flights home were uneventful, clearing again through Schiphol Airport and arriving in Budapest at 11 PM. A minibus home and I was safe again in the bosom of my cozy little flat near the Danube.
A good weekend among friendly people and good food and beer and nice weather and some interesting sights and sounds. Just the sort I like.