Monday, August 06, 2007

And Now, Wales

After our stay on Dartmoor, we left Cockington (once more fighting our way through the morning traffic in Kingskerswell) and got on the motorway for Cardiff, in Wales. You know immediately when you've entered Wales: suddenly all the road signs are in two languages. (Of course, the bridge over the Bristol Channel is another helpful guide.) This wouldn't be much of a problem if the languages were consistently in the same order, but they vary - some signs are English then Welsh, and some are Welsh then English. I wasn't driving but even I found this distracting, as you glance at the sign and then have to figure out whether you read the top part or the bottom.

I found the Welsh language signs interesting; languages have always been a hobby of mine. Some of the words in Welsh are obviously copped from English, along the lines of the "le hot dog" in French: "tolls" on the bridge is tollau, and "cameras" (there are security cameras everywhere) is camerau; also, "toilets" is toiletdau. From this I infer that "au" is a plural ending in Welsh, at least for borrowed English words. It isn't for all of them, since I also saw a shop (siop) advertising byrgyrs (and yes, in Welsh that's pronounced "burgers" as far as I can tell). The only words I remember (because they were on signs everywhere) that clearly have no relation to English were araf for "stop", heol for "street", and heddlu (pronounced, I think, HETH-lee, with the th as in those) for "police." We had dinner in Cardiff at a pub called Y Mochen Du (trans: the black pig; so du in Welsh is maybe related to dhu in Scots Gaelic, which also means black? Sorry, I got sidetracked), and none of those words seem to have any English taint. Many of the Welsh consonants can only be pronounced properly by people who learned them before the age of 5; I get very frustrated by trying to read words I can't pronounce, but I never did really get Welsh pronunciation.

Our trip into Cardiff seemed uneventful - we had a good map - until we tried to find our B&B. The web site said it was a "handsome Victorian", and we assumed (beware of that word) that meant it would stand out. It was in about the fourth or fifth block of identical handsome Victorian townhouses; none of them had visible street numbers, and every third one of them had a B&B sign in the yard. At least they had yards; the Welsh don't seem to build their townhouses right out to the sidewalks as the English do. Also the parking was down the alley in back of the place, not intuitive at all. However, once we got in it was very nice, and we walked around to Cardiff Castle and caught one of the last tours of the day.

Cardiff Castle is schizophrenic. In the middle of the courtyard is the original Cardiff Castle, which was built by the Normans at the end of the 11th century and is an absolutely classic motte-and-bailey fortress in stone. Surrounding it is the rest of the castle that has grown up in the subsequent thousand years or so; but the only part of the history you actually see on the tour is the work of the 3rd Marquess of Bute (yes, that is a Scottish title) in the late 19th century. The web site says that the 3rd Marquess was
"destined to become one of the greatest private patrons of architecture this country has seen"; what he actually did at Cardiff was to transform a whole side of the castle wall into a series of chambers that represented what a well-educated late Victorian thought the middle ages ought to have looked like. (While he had a remnant of the real middle ages out on the motte...) Money was no object; our docent suggested that Lord Bute was the 19th century equivalent of Bill Gates. The staggering thing about all this architectural fantasy is that he did it in a residence where he only spent about 6 weeks out of the year - I suppose if they're always working on the place, you wouldn't want to spend much time there. I won't really try to describe Cardiff Castle, it has to be seen, especially the pre-Raphaelite style cartoons on all the walls representing various historical legends and events; but if you ever find yourself in Cardiff, go take the tour. The web site (under the link Present) has a pretty good photo gallery, but you have to see the 3 story coved (and gilt) ceiling of the Arab room to appreciate it - the photograph does NOT do it justice.

We only spent one night in Cardiff, but I learned one other thing that has cleared up something that has bugged me for years; or at least I thought it did until I found the nursery rhyme site. There's an old nursery rhyme that begins, "Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a thief." I never could understand why "Taffy" should be an insulting term for a Welshman, until I learned that the river that runs through Cardiff is the River Taff. That made sense to me until I found the nursery rhyme site linked above - which says that "Taffy" is derived from "Amaethon", the name of the Welsh God of Agriculture. If you can see how "Amaethon" could translate into "Taffy", you know more about Welsh than I do; my guess still makes more sense to me!

Our first destination in Wales was actually Llangollen, which I will NOT try to put into accurate phonetics; the "ll" is one of those consonants you have to learn in the cradle. A reasonable fake for an English speaker is "clan-GOCH-len" where the "ch" in the second syllable is roughly equivalent to the one in the German "ach". LLangollen hosts the annual International Eisteddfod, a music and dance competition that lasts most of a week; we were there for one day, staying two nights in Corwen, a nearby village. As a musician, this was a high point for me; the groups that compete in this festival are really good, and we spent most of the day listening to the choral competitions (mixed chorus, chamber chorus, folk song chorus), and a couple of the Celtic music competitions. The singing was superb and I was pleased to see American choirs (de Paul A Capella, Voices of the Academy from Chicago, Mount San Antonio College Choir from L.A., University of Maryland Chamber Singers) take firsts and seconds in several of the competitions. I'd like to go back another time and take in some of the dance competitions, and the smaller groups.

The music was the plus; the weather was the minus, this was one of the days it rained all day, and in fact waited until we were trying to get back to the car (walking most of a mile) to come down in roaring buckets. Oh, well, we hung everything in the bathroom and dried out overnight. The festival grounds were sort of paved, in some places (our B&B landlady says they've actually improved it a lot, it used to be much worse), but a great deal of it was a complete swamp. I wore light colored trousers and they were muddy to the knee, and I didn't even fall. The countryside was gorgeous: Llangollen sits in a river valley (the River Dee, no relation to the one in Scotland), and with all the rain everything was very green, and dotted with the inevitable sheep.

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