- The Washington Times - Friday, June 17, 2005

CARDIFF, Wales — “Looks like an upside-down pudding dish, doesn’t it, luv?” the taxi driver said as we drove past the new Wales Millennium Centre. The new performing arts center actually looks more like a hulking armored vehicle stalled among the low buildings of Cardiff’s waterfront. Or a giant armadillo, which is what the Welsh affectionately call it.

However it looks to you, to the Welsh it’s their joy and pride, a world-class performing arts center the city hopes will become its icon, a Sydney Opera House for Cardiff. With operas, ballets, musical theater, children’s productions and even an ice show among the opening year’s programs, the Millennium Centre, at the very least, will be a major player among European festivals.

By the way, if you are wondering why the Welsh would call attention to the fact that the millennium began years ago, the center actually is named for Britain’s Millennium Commission, whose National Lottery funded almost a third of the $200 million cost.

The 1,900-seat main auditorium accommodates large-scale productions, primarily the well-respected Welsh National Opera. Smaller venues and studios round out the performing facilities that will be home to several other organizations, among them a Welsh national youth movement of special interest to Bryn Terfel, the famous Welsh bass baritone and a guiding force behind the center.

The city’s desire for an opera house goes back more than 20 years, when a design competition was won by Zaha Hadid, a prize-winning Iraqi architect. Her dramatic angular avant-garde plan was rejected as not being Welsh enough, and the city turned to Welsh architect Jonathan Adams.

In spirit and construction, this new design is unmistakably Welsh, from the foundation of recovered native waste slate quarried in northern Wales to the steel-clad roof that curves down to greet visitors and turns bronze- or silver-colored with the changing light.

The dramatic bilingual legend above the entrance is a nod to Cardiff’s Roman roots and the ancient custom of doorway inscriptions.

Written by Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis, the English words read, “In these stone horizons sing”; the companion Welsh lettering translates to “Creating truth like glass from the furnace of inspiration.”

Walk through the huge foyer among treelike columns topped by light fixtures, a metaphoric forest meant to lead visitors from the reality outside to the fantasy onstage. The walls of the main auditorium are terra-cotta-colored acoustic tiles resembling a rough cliff face; the undulating wood ceiling strips evoke tide lines.

Don’t worry if the symbolism escapes you. The point is that the main hall is magnificent, and from these stones horizons sing with the thrilling voices of the Welsh.

The Millennium Centre almost completes the major redevelopment of the Cardiff Bay area, which is awaiting next year’s opening of the new Welsh Assembly.

The key to turning the once-derelict port into a playground is the three-quarter-mile marine dam called the Cardiff Bay Barrage (the accent is on the first syllable), which includes a bridge that lifts to allow sailing vessels, via sea locks, to enter the 500-acre freshwater lake created by the project.

Cardiff Bay had some of the highest tides in the world — often 46 feet — which left the waterfront’s mud flats unattractive and odorous and the docks unreachable for about 12 hours a day. The mud flats are now a lake, and Cardiff has a large marina.

Modeled after Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, an Arc of Entertainment stretches along the waterfront. At one end is the Cardiff Bay Visitor Centre, a futuristic oval metal tube, and the low, white-steepled Norwegian Church, once a mission for Scandinavian seamen and the place where local author Roald Dahl was baptized, now an arts and cultural center.

Hugging this end of the waterfront is Britannia Park, a long, thin swath that draws strollers, skaters and especially families for its glorious view of fishing and pleasure boats bobbing on the new lake. At the other end is the futuristic profile of the posh St. David’s Hotel and Spa, which looks like a cruise ship afloat in the bay, with a huge bird perched on the top deck.

In between is Mermaid Quay, a $36-million shopping and leisure complex, already home to an international clutch of eateries, where you can catch a Cardiff Bay cruise to see the barrage up close and a water bus that takes you up the River Taff to the center of Cardiff.

A hands-on science center called Techniquest, the largest in Great Britain, has a planetarium and more than 160 interactive exhibits in a glass-walled hangar with the iron framework of a 19th-century docks engineering works. Visitors can launch a hot-air balloon, create an animated film, find out why fireworks are different colors, and explore other scientific mysteries.

Of the Arc of Entertainment, renowned travel writer and passionate Welsh nationalist Jan Morris said, “Any minute, I expect to run into Goofy at Cardiff Bay Lagoon.”

To get a sense of the glory days when coal was king, sign up for the walking or bus tours that leave from the Cardiff Bay Visitor Centre (029-2046-3833).You will see historic Bute Street and Mount Stuart Square, where coal barons lived in grand Victorian mansions and made their fortunes at the imposing Coal Exchange.

You’ll hear tales of Tiger Bay, the notoriously dangerous and colorful square mile that was home to more than 30 ethnic minorities and was demolished in the mid-1960s.

From its years as the world’s busiest port in the early 20th century, the Cardiff waterfront still has several historic structures.

Anchored behind the Visitor Centre is a restored Bristol Channel lightship whose light tower, engine room and cabins are open to the public. Most prominent is the grand Victorian brick-and-stone Pierhead Building next to the center, formerly headquarters of the Port Authority and now used for exhibitions.

In front of the Visitor Centre, an open-air plaza surrounded by columns was constructed over the original Oval Basin, an 1830 entrance to one of Cardiff’s former docks. Popularly called the Piazza, it rang with thousands of voices of male choirs and celebrants in November during the inaugural festivities for the Wales Millennium Centre.

Range of performances at Millennium Centre


The Wales Millennium Centre’s inaugural season includes musicals and pop music and entertainers as well as classical music and opera.

Some highlights of the season include: “Miss Saigon” until July 9; “Swan Lake,” Australian Ballet, July 13 through 16; “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” July 26 through Aug. 20; “Don Carlos,” “The Merry Widow” and “The Barber of Seville,” in repertory by the Welsh National Opera between Sept. 17 and Oct. 8; and the Mark Morris Dance Group, Oct. 14 and 15.

The Welsh National Opera performs in many cities in the United Kingdom. From February through June 2006, the company will mount a full season at the Wales Millennium Centre that is to include “The Marriage of Figaro,” “The Flying Dutchman,” “Jephtha,” “Tosca,” “Mazepa” and “Don Giovanni.” Tickets for performances at the center can be reserved by visiting www.wmc.org.uk.

On most days, free performances are presented in the lobby at 1 and 6 p.m., ranging from jazz to choirs, readings to performance literature. Bandstand concerts are presented at 3 p.m. Sundays.

During 2005, Cardiff is celebrating its centenary as a city and its 50th anniversary as the capital of Wales. See the full roster of events at www.visitcardiff2005.co.uk.

British Airways operates daily flights from Washington Dulles and Baltimore-Washington international airports to London Heathrow Airport. From there, the Heathrow Express takes travelers to London’s Paddington Station, from which there is frequent train service to Cardiff, a two-hour ride. Last month, Continental Airlines began daily nonstop flights between Newark, N.J., and Bristol, England, a nearby gateway to Wales and Cardiff.

St. David’s Hotel and Spa, Havannah Street; 800/223-6800 (Leading Hotels of the World), or visit www.roccofortehotels.com. The stunning avant-garde building juts into Cardiff Bay, and its 132 rooms, including 27 suites, have terraces that look like decks on an ocean liner. Rooms from about $485.

Jolyons, 5 Bute Crescent, 44-292/048-8775; www.jolyons.co.uk, a charming six-room boutique hotel with a lively bar opposite the Wales Millennium Centre. Single rooms from about $140, doubles from $160.

Novotel Cardiff Centre (formerly the Hanover International Hotel), Schooner Way, Atlantic Wharf, 44-292/047-5000; www.novotel.com/novotel/fichehotel/gb/nov/5982/fiche_hotel.shtml; has 156 rooms, a pool and gym and is within walking distance of the Millennium Centre. Doubles from about $225.

The Wales Millennium Centre has several dining options: Brazz, a brasserie, bar and cafe, open daily from breakfast through late supper; Brazz Club, a more formal restaurant open daily for lunch and dinner; and Fizz, a champagne and wine bar with light snacks, open from 6 p.m. before evening performances and during intermissions.

For international cuisine with a Welsh flavor, go to Tides Bar & Restaurant in St. David’s Hotel on Havannah Street. Woods Brasserie on Stuart Street serves modern British food in the original stables for the Marquis of Bute’s horses.

Two interesting restaurants in Mermaid Quay are Bosphorus for modern Turkish cuisine and European seafood, and Izakaya Japanese Tavern

Craft in the Bay, Cardiff’s best craft shop, is across from the Millennium Centre at Lloyd George Avenue; www.makersguildinwales.org.uk.

For more information, contact the Wales Tourist Board, 551 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10176; 212/850-0321; or www.visitwales.com.

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