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Cardiff: A Good City Gone Bad
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Travelers beware: Cardiff, the once charming, delightfully low-keyed capital of Wales, has been "rejuvenated" by business and political interests who are after your money. As the British Tourist Authority boasts, the city has been transformed so as to rank "alongside leading European cities that have developed an entrepreneurial outlook.

While Cardiff may not actually have gone quite that far yet, it's certainly well on the way.

The best evidence of that is the huge ugly sports stadium and huge ugly shopping center in the heart of downtown. They overwhelm the space, and especially overwhelm the beautiful art deco Cardiff Castle that once defined the area. For visitors, the city has become primarily a place to shop or watch soccer -- primarily a place to spend money.

My wife Gerry and I discovered that when we returned to Cardiff recently for the first time in nine years, eagerly anticipating the charm we had found then and in an earlier visit. But aside from a tour of the castle, there was precious little to charm us this time.

What ruined Cardiff most for us was the 72,000-seat Millennium Stadium that now dominates the city's skyline. It is unquestionably one of the world's most unattractive and out-of-place arenas.

Given its massive size, there would have to be lots of open space around it for the stadium to work visually. But the walkways between the stadium's outer walls and some of the surrounding alleys and streets are so narrow we could barely squeeze past. And four stainless steel beams that jut out from the rim of the circular stadium, giving it the apparently intended shape of a giant ship when viewed from the side, cut into all but a few feet of what air space was left between it and downtown buildings.

The stadium was a gigantic looming presence throughout our stay. We booked a room in a hotel on Cardiff's main drag, Queen's Street, which put us very near the stadium. Its massive walls all but filled the close-up view from our fourth floor windows overlooking Queen's Street.

We escaped 40 miles west to Swansea without visiting any of the many new money-extracting establishments that make Cardiff what the Tourist Authority is proud to describe as "a front ranking shopping centre." Sorry, Tourist Authority, but we even passed up the much praised Queen's Mall, 1O acres of downtown shopping joy.

Swansea is almost as large as Cardiff, but not nearly as eager for tourist cash. And the heart of its downtown is dominated, not by massive ugly architecture, but by 19th century stone Georgian buildings, many with pubs, restaurants and shops on the lower floors, residences and offices above.

The old and new are strikingly but attractively contrasted at a far end of Swansea's main drag, High Street, where the ruins of Swansea Castle stand side-by-side with an ultramodern, glass-fronted British Telecommunications office building.

We were rested when we finally reached Swansea after a roundabout five-hour train ride through the lush, green southern Welsh countryside, hills and flatland polka-dotted with masses of sheep and their newly-born offspring.

Rested, yes -- but hungry. So it was off to the local ASK, one of the very few chain restaurants we'd ever recommend. Very good moderately priced Italian food, at branches in Cardiff, London and several other British cities as well as Swansea. It's just off High Street, at No. 6 Wind, where dinners for two with wine run less than $30.

Among Swansea's many charms, count its several excellent museums and galleries:

*The Glynn Vivian Art Gallery. It has an extensive porcelain and China collection and small but excellent selection of 18th century Japanese prints and British paintings from various periods.

"The Mission Gallery. It shows and sells the work of Swansea's prolific artists' colony.

*The Maritime and Industrial Museum. It thoroughly explores the long history of Wales' development from its early days as one of the world's leading sources of coal, copper and other essentials of industrialization worldwide.

*The Swansea Museum. One of its main features is a large selection of "curiosities," in the manner of Victorian-era museums that reflected the Victorians' interest in just about anything and everything. The objects include a hand axe dated 2500 BC, "Toaster, 1930s," and many other everyday objects, clothing, paintings and photos from the past and present.

*The Dylan Thomas Centre. It celebrates the life and work of the renowned poet, writer and dramatist who's Swansea's favorite son. The Centre, one of the very best of the many museums we've visited during four decades of travel on several continents, alone is worth a trip to the city.

There's of course much to see in the Centre, many photos, manuscripts and other materials. But most important, there's much to hear -- above all, Thomas reading from his own work on audio and video tapes, filling whole rooms with the magnificent sound of one of the 20th century's greatest voices reading some of the century's greatest poems and stories.

Heard from, too, are some of the many people who felt Thomas' influence, among them former President Bill Clinton and actor Richard Burton. Thomas' wife Catlin speaks candidly of his notorious womanizing and the heavy drinking that led to his death at the age of 39.

We came away from the Centre amazed at discovering just how much Dylan Thomas had accomplished in so little time and despite his ruinous personal life.

It was enough to at least temporarily drive from our travel memories dark thoughts of Cardiff and what it has become.

Copyright Dick Meister