Travelling Europe in 2015 (Pt. 1): Cardiff, Wales, UK

Updated: Apr 7


I've always said that travel wasn't my thing. While my friends, classmates, and coworkers were roaming around the world – through Europe, South America, Asia, Australia, and beyond – I was more concerned with continuing my education, landing a successful career, and saving up my money for the future. I never once questioned this approach until the summer of 2014, when my life hit a rut. I was stuck in a mundane routine at work, my social life started to consist only of going to the gym or the grocery store, and my friends were busy planning their next steps as spouses, parents, and homeowners. It was pretty clear to me that I needed a change - and despite my previous misgivings, travel now seemed like the perfect and most logical solution to my problem. A long holiday to some far-away land would be a major change of pace, it was definitely out of my comfort zone and, by going it alone, I would be forced to meet new people for the first time in a long time. So, throwing any caution I may have had out into the wind, I requested an insane ten weeks off from work, purchased a one-way ticket to London, England on the most reasonably priced flight I could find, and started preparing myself for the trip of a lifetime.

It wasn't a difficult decision choosing Europe as my destination – as a long-time history nerd, there was no place better suited on Earth for me to go and see some of the world’s most amazing and historically significant locations! I’d spent years reading about famous places like London, Paris, and Rome, but it would be a whole different kind of experience to set foot there in person instead of in my imagination. And just as much as I wanted to see castles, churches, and museums, I also wanted to experience the legendary European party scene (known for some of the most epic clubs, music, and local spirits and beers on Earth). As well, and most importantly, I’d be leaving the continent for the first time ever, and I'd be the first member of my family to head back to my mother's home country of Italy since she emigrated to Canada more than fifty years ago.

But when I finally sat down to plan my trip, I hit more than a few obstacles. I mapped out my ideal travel route, but I had no clue if it was even realistic based on the time and resources I had to work with. And not only would the trip be incredibly expensive by trying to coordinate my accommodations and travel arrangements across Europe myself, but I had no idea what would be the best things to see and do at each stop, nor was I confident that I'd be meeting tons of new people this way. With limited experience and time running out, I was desperate for help. Then someone showed me Contiki. I had known a few friends who chose to travel with Contiki and had nothing but amazing things to say about the experience (though it wasn’t the only youth travel company on the market, I subscribe to the idea that nothing makes a decision easier than first-hand feedback from people you trust, which Contiki had in spades). After a deep dive into their website, I felt like I had found my saving grace - Contiki catered to travellers between the ages of 18 and 35, meaning that I’d be able to meet tons of people in similar situations to mine, and offered various methods of travel (from high-energy to easy-going) across more than an astounding 270 different tours, 130 of which were in Europe.

So I figured I'd give it a shot – I found a high-energy 38-day tour (the incomparable European Adventurer) that not only started in London a short while after the flight I had already purchased and handled all of the nitty-gritty details for me, but also hit on all of the major spots I wanted to visit during this trip, like Paris, Barcelona, Venice, Rome, Athens, Munich and Amsterdam (plus some places I would never have imagined that I’d ever want to travel to, like Nice, Florence, Mykonos, Dubrovnik, and Vienna). It also ended with about three weeks to spare, giving me a chance to experience a bit of solo travel after the tour was over in places like Berlin and Istanbul AND the opportunity to meet up with family in southern Italy before heading back home to Canada. And while this meant I had to cut some of the original locations I had included on my itinerary, I finally decided to give up a little bit of control and put my faith in Contiki to build the best experience possible for my needs.

Two months may seem like a long time to be travelling, but I knew there was so much to see and I didn't want to miss a minute of it. Thanks to Contiki's thorough route planning, my philosophy for this trip became "to see as many places as possible, and one day, I could return to my favourite spots for an even longer visit." And that was that - I was sold. I booked my tour, paid off my deposit, and soon, I was connecting with my fellow travellers on Facebook - people from every corner of the planet who were equally as anxious and excited to get started as I was. A fellow traveller, Lucy, actually found me through Instagram by the hashtags I was using on my trip countdown and directed me to a dedicated Facebook page for our Contiki tour group. And thank goodness she did - not only was I able to get a preview of the 44 people I’d be spending nearly five weeks with travelling across Europe, but many of them proved to be a valuable source of travel advice (having completed other Contiki trips in years prior). Above all though, I was finally able to share my excitement with people who really understood it (far more than my friends and family back home). But more on these fine folks soon…

I first had to figure out an answer to the important question of what kind of luggage I’d be living out of for my ten-week adventure - a backpack or a suitcase? While the majority of my fellow Contiki travellers would be using suitcases, I figured that, since I was doing much more than just the tour, a backpack would be easier to get around with once I was on my own. So, like any good Canadian, I headed to Mountain Equipment Co-op and picked out an 80-litre travel backpack, as well as a smaller backpack for our day trips - and by rolling all of my clothes as tightly as possible, I was able to take along just about everything I thought I’d need (I could always buy items I was missing as we went from place-to-place). Another critical concern when travelling abroad alone is keeping all of your personal documents safe - and with everything from a passport, itineraries, insurance documents and identification all on-hand, I needed to figure out some way to ensure that if, no matter what happened to the paper copies, I’d be able to access the documents somehow (we all know what can happen to people stuck in foreign countries without a passport). So, on top of the second hard copies I buried at the bottom of my backpack, I used my work printer to scan every document I could think of into a personal, password-protected Dropbox (which could be accessed online by me anywhere or by my family back home, just in case). When the world is waiting for you, it’s better to be safe than sorry...

Before I knew it, it was finally time for me to move out of my apartment (why pay rent when I could use that money to amplify my experience overseas?), clean up my desk at work and make my way across the Atlantic for the adventure of a lifetime. I arrived at Toronto's Pearson International Airport in the late evening of April 30, eager to board my red-eye flight to London. Besides my brand new pair of sunglasses falling apart the moment I arrived at the boarding gate, I think things were off to a reasonably good start. I won't lie and say I wasn't nervous though – sitting in front of me was new places with new people and unfamiliar customs - but the excitement well outweighed the nerves. With a few hours to kill (I’m someone who tends to get to the airport far earlier than I need to, just to be safe), I decided to take a seat at one of Pearson’s brand new, high-tech lounge tables (complete with USB chargers and an iPod at every seat where you could order food and drinks to your table, play games and check your flight status) - it only felt right in that moment to have my last taste of true Canadian beer while I waited to board (as a sort of mini-celebration for making it this far into the journey). Plus, and forgive me if this makes me a bit weird, but I happen to love the airport - even if I wasn't flying anywhere, I might choose to just hang out in the terminal and people-watch from there (you were treated to a very diverse, sometimes outrageous, community of travellers).

But it was finally time to get the adventure underway (there’d be plenty of more interesting people to watch once I landed on European soil anyways) - after wandering Pearson Airport for hours by this point, I finally made my way to the departure gate, which was already bustling with people waiting to board. This has to be my least favourite part of flying - most flights these days are usually so packed, and the people are so antsy to get on board first that they bum-rush the gate long before their seats are even called (causing utter chaos for the staff and a headache for me). Recognizing that this was going to be a particularly rowdy group of tourists, I decided to pop a few over-the-counter sleeping pills, hoping that I could snooze through the six-hour flight and wake up refreshed on the other side.

As you might expect, however, my first-ever intercontinental flight turned into a pretty hectic and exhausting experience. Air Transat had offered the best value for my dollar by far, but the overnight flight came complete with three screaming babies, cramped seating arrangements and aggressive, fear-inducing turbulence. Needless to say, I didn't sleep a wink, and when I arrived at London's Gatwick Airport around 10 am the next morning after a solid seven hours (the longest I’d ever spent on a plane up until that point), I'm sure I was a noticeable mess - I hadn’t even been able to sneak away from my window seat to use the bathroom the entire time we were in the air. Lesson learned for the next time, however - sleeping pills don't seem to work at all when the toddler symphony starts (even when you choke down three at a time).

After hazily shuffling off the plane and down to customs (coupled with a quick, but much-needed stop at the bathroom), I was relieved to see that the line up to go through the checkpoint was unusually short. That good mood was dampened just a little bit when I actually spoke with a border agent though - the guy behind the counter was a short, bald, miserable man who, I guess in my dishevelled state, apparently assumed that I was some serious threat and felt the need to berate me while me I tried to answer his intensely detailed line of questioning. The worst part was when he asked me how long I planned to be in the UK - worried for no reason at all that he might think I was trying to pull something over on him, I tried to be helpful by detailing my entire itinerary through Europe. However, midway through my explanation, he essentially told me to shut up and answer the question as asked (he apparently wasn’t as excited about my post-UK adventures as I was). This was not what I needed after such an uncomfortable flight, though my exhaustion and a basic understanding of airport security meant there was no chance I’d be fighting back.

Next up, I headed down to the baggage claim where I waited by the carousel for my backpack to appear. Never having gone on a trans-Atlantic flight ever before in my life, I was a bit nervous that I would be the unlucky passenger whose luggage somehow dropped out of the cargo hold over the ocean (a perfectly reasonable fear in my mind) - and those fears were all but confirmed when, after at least forty minutes, I was among the last five or so people still waiting for their bags. I was just about to break out into a full-on panic attack when, low-and-behold, the blue MEC backpack finally turned the carousel corner.

My brief time spent on British soil in Gatwick Airport had proven a little disheartening and stressful so far, but I kept my hopes up for what my adventure had in store for me next - the Contiki tour didn't set off from London until May 7, so I had to figure out some way of keeping myself busy and entertained for nearly a week. Luckily, I had some buddies in nearby Wales that happily invited me down their way when they found out I was making the trek overseas - and it would've been rude not to stop in and let them give me a proper introduction to life (and particularly nightlife) in the United Kingdom. So, still without a minute of sleep and yet to see even a glimpse of London proper (despite my primo window seat on the flight, there was nothing by fog, rain and patchy countryside to see this far out from the city centre), I navigated my way through the maze of corridors and hoards of other commuters to find my way to the Gatwick Train Station (which thankfully was attached to the airport and could take straight to the city of Cardiff). It was there I would meet up with my Welsh comrades, the two Toms (Brown and Jones), and a whole host of other friendly and familiar faces.

Though exhausted already from lugging around my backpack, I was relieved when I was able to find the train station without any outside help - but the hard part now was going to be picking up my tickets and finding my platform. A particularly unpleasant airport station attendant directed me over to a lineup of electronic kiosks where I’d be able to print out the tickets that I had purchased online a few months prior - after waiting in an excruciatingly slow and complicated lineup, I quickly printed out my passes as another impatient security guard rushed everyone through the process. All the hecticness had me a little more stressed now, but I was still able to decipher the arrival/departure board to find the appropriate track platform that would take me to Cardiff (even though there was still plenty of time before I’d be able to leave Gatwick behind).

After spending an hour half-sleeping, half-watching my bag, so it didn’t get stolen, I finally boarded my train and began my three-hour journey to Cardiff. My first European train journey was split into two parts - from Gatwick to Reading and then Reading onto Cardiff - meaning that I’d need to be on top of my game to navigate switching from one train to the next in only a twenty-minute window. As the first train pulled out of the station, I got my first up-close view of the UK - passing through a hazy mist of fog and rain, I caught glimpses of humble little cottages, quiet side streets and green fields that stretched on into the endless beyond (all of which seemed like an atmosphere I thought only existed in the movies). But as soon as the train started picking up speed, the view began to blur together in a colourful mess, and the rain started streaming across the windows in huge bands - and after only a moment, the gentle rocking combined with my exhaustion had me falling asleep almost immediately.

As you can probably imagine, I was more than a little bit disoriented when we pulled into Reading Station. I instantly woke up once the train stopped moving and quickly grabbed my backpack from the luggage rack before stepping out onto the platform - I was sincerely hoping that my next train would merely be waiting for me on that same platform, but obviously, it wasn’t going to be that simple. After frantically going up-and-down multiple escalators, some confusing directions from the locals and the anxiety-inducing clocks ticking down towards my deadline at every turn, I was getting distraught that I may miss my transfer. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw a train lit up with “Cardiff” pulling up to the platform I had gambled on (I promised myself that I wasn’t going to screw this trip up that quickly).

It was on this second half of my train journey where I even had my first interaction with a European local - a rather gruff-looking guy who just so happened to be assigned the seat next to me (which seemed a bit ridiculous considering that this particular train car was next to empty). I can't remember his name for the life of me, but my Welsh seatmate wasn’t shy at all when it came to sparking up a conversation, asking tons of questions about Canada and my travels, and happily answering my sometimes-silly questions about life in Wales and the rest of the UK. By the end of the journey, we had basically exchanged life stories, and I definitely appreciated the company so early on in my adventure.

Since he’d stopped me continuing the nap I’d started on the first train, I also had this Welshman to thank for the view I got to take in all along the way to Cardiff - the closer we got to our destination, the more it seemed like we were entering something resembling the Shire of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. My buddy Darren talked up Wales all the time, but I didn’t believe the hype until I saw it before my eyes - the emerald rolling hills, the patchwork fields and forests, the muted blue-and-grey skies, the charming isolated hamlets - all of it was beautifully mesmerizing in a way that I’d never seen back in Ontario (I can’t speak for the rest of Canada). Several times I caught myself zoning out from my neighbour’s stories and losing myself in the passing views, eager to experience more of this small country. Just down the car from us were also several rowdy, already-drinking groups of young people who (once my unnaturally friendly train mate started up conversations with them as well) told us that they were heading into the city for a slew of bachelor/bachelorette parties. I very rarely encountered even one of these on a night out in Toronto, so it was clearly a cultural difference, but I wasn’t complaining - this meant that there was going to be plenty of partying going on in Cardiff this weekend.

When I finally arrived at the train station in the Welsh capital nearly four hours after first touching down in London, I was a little miffed to discover that the UK was determined to be a stereotype - dreary and rainy. However, unlike the normal rainy day back in Toronto, none of the unique charm and wonder was lost on me as I parted ways with my train mate and started my walk from the station to the hostel. As the largest city in the country of Wales, Cardiff is no doubt a hub of economic and social activity (with a particular affinity for sporting venues and large-scale events) - but being that the modern city is only just over a century old (the settlement itself, by comparison, had a rich history almost 6,000 years old), it was far more modestly built than you might imagine (and the rain was clearly keeping the droves of people indoors). Regardless though, Cardiff was indeed a beautiful city that looked like nothing I had ever experienced before in Canada - the quaint row houses, the lush green backdrop, the fairy-tale castle walls - and from what I had heard from my buddies (and judging by the sheer number of people I’d already encountered coming into the Cardiff by train to party it up), it was a city that knew how to have a lot of fun.

I moved from the train station (which was handily located right at the centre of Cardiff’s downtown), through the hundreds of tightly packed shops and storefronts that lined the narrow streets as I gathered my bearings (I was sort of cheating by using my phone and Google Maps as a guide, though I now know that I stupidly took the longest possible route to get to my destination) and tried to keep dry from lingering, misty precipitation in the air. With plenty of stores and brands that I recognized right off the bar, it honestly didn’t seem all that different from Canada, but perhaps that was because I hadn’t heard anyone speak yet. As I continued through the dense inner city and out into the expansive and more widely spaced-out area around the River Taff (which ran directly through the city centre), I passed around the back of the enormous and imposing Millennium Stadium - this immediately confirmed the notion that Europeans are obsessed with football and rugby (things that, while popular back in Canada, were nowhere near as prominent as this).

I wasn't sure what to expect when I crossed the river towards the hostel for the first time - my only point of reference was the horror movie Hostel, which didn't necessarily inspire a great deal of confidence in the turnout of this stay (truthfully, I liked having both of my kidneys). However, reassured by people back home who had had plenty of experience in hostels around the world, I kept an open mind. And I'm definitely glad I did - as I descended the stairs at the end of the bridge and continued down the walking path, my home for the next two nights finally came into full view. The Riverhouse Backpackers was an unintimidating yet unbelievably tall and flat row house situated on a quiet road that screamed of suburbia - yet considering that this wasn’t the only hostel on the street, I’m sure it wasn’t as quiet once the drinking and partying really got underway.

After walking inside and grabbing a room key from the girl at the front desk (the Toms had handled all of the arrangements for the hostel, so thankfully I didn’t have to think or do much of anything), I took in my surroundings to see what exactly it was I had gotten myself into. I was relieved to see that not only was this hostel clean, central and chalked full of amenities (including private bathrooms, a library with an entertainment centre, and a full kitchen with cheap snacks), but there were travellers there from all over the world who were friendly and more than willing to share in the good times with their new guests. As I headed up the uncomfortably narrow staircase to check out our room, I even happened to meet someone who attended the same university as I did back in London, Ontario - proving that it really is a small world after all!

Finally managing to summit the four flights of stairs to our room and dropping my bag down on the bunk bed, I was ready to crash for an uninterrupted 12-hour nap - but I knew that was never going to happen. The Toms would be here in no time, and all the memories of my time with them in Canada told me that we wouldn’t be chilling in the room for long, so I’d only have a few moments to check out the room. Though quite an intimate space, our room held four single-size bunk beds (it wasn’t yet known if there would be a stranger joining us for these two nights) and four storage lockers - and with outlets aplenty, I was able to test out my new universal adapter for the first time as well. Even if the room was a bit bland and boring overall, the view outside the window was still pretty spectacular to an amateur traveller like myself. Being on the top floor of the hostel, at the very apex of the building, I got an unobstructed look at my surroundings - just below me was a narrow, heavily car-lined street (both the lanes and the cars in this country seemed to be extra tight) flanked on one side by endless more row houses like the one I now stood in and on the other by a cobbled walkway and a brick barrier separating us from the slow-moving River Taff. Beyond the water was an even more substantial view of the stadium, with it’s shimmering metallic side panelling and white spires standing tall at each of the four corners (though empty now, I could only imagine what this must look and feel like on game day), with the shallow rooftops of Cardiff’s city centre sitting just behind it, waiting for us to take it by storm.

Like clockwork, the Toms arrived about half an hour later and, just like I had guessed, we wasted no time with long, drawn-out reunions so we could quickly get changed (I had to settle for a bit of a whore’s bath to save time) and head out into the city for beers and whatever other fun was waiting for us. We had called for a local taxicab to meet us outside, and it was on our way to the first bar in city’s downtown that I realized this was my very first experience driving on the other side of the street - something so normal to these guys but something so insanely awesome to me that I felt the need to document it with a picture and send it to my family back home (I clearly didn't mind standing out as a tourist).

Our first stop was The Prince of Wales, a massive three-storey bar in the heart of Cardiff that had quite the selection of authentic pub fare and beer (as well as dozens of proud Welshmen enjoying their daily midday pints in the midst of some of the most unusual decorations one could imagine). Its unnatural size was easily explained by the fact that the pub had been built out of an old theatre once able to sit more than 2,800 people. There were even remnants of the original theatre still showcased throughout the building - studio lighting tracks hanging from a soundproof ceiling, regally designed balconies and blood-red velvet curtains lining the stucco walls, suspended walkways and grand staircases aplenty, and a now-hollow stage opening enveloped by Greek columns and intricate frescos. Needless to say, it was a pretty unique place to enjoy a few drinks.

After finding a table on one of the balconies up top near some spectacular and richly designed windows looking out the front of the building, we ordered a tray of appetizers and a couple of rounds of local beer as a bit of a pre-dinner snack. Unfortunately, I ran into a few obstacles once it was my turn to pick up a round. Not only was I completely ignorant of most of the available beers on tap (there was going to be no Molson Canadian around here), but this was also the first time I had tried to use Euros (something that apparently required a lot of skill because I failed miserably) - since the Euro evidently doesn’t correlate the size of their coins with their value (unlike with the Canadian dollar), I was forced to very slowly and carefully had to examine each piece. With a little help from a disappointed yet friendly bartender though (who thankfully realized why I was struggling once he heard my accent), I survived my ordeal and made my way back to the Toms with beers in-hand.

Once we’d built up a considerable buzz, we headed back out onto the street and took another short cab ride down to the Cardiff Bay harbour, where I’d be reunited with some more great friends (most of whom I’d met and partied with at my best friend’s wedding back in Canada nearly a year prior) for an exceptional steak dinner (and more beers) at the Miller & Carter Steakhouse. This definitely seemed like far too fancy of a place for us given how quickly we were deteriorating from the alcohol - the exterior radiated class with a mix of jet black and stainless steel finishes and perfectly trimmed shrubs, while the inside was covered in darkly finished wood, carefully placed stone walls, minimalist glass art and floor-to-ceiling windows. Naturally though, as we waited for everyone else to arrive, the three of us tried to fit into the high-end atmosphere by continuing with our drinks in the comfy leather lounge chairs next to one of the restaurant’s many open-flame fireplaces.

After the rest of the gang arrived and we all took our seats, I started to feel much better about my decision to travel. Here I was, sitting thousands of miles from home, enjoying steak, endless pints and side-splitting great times (thanks in large part to a few cheeky comments on someone’s Facebook profile) with people who, despite having had life experiences that were so different from my own, welcomed me like one of their own (I really hoped that this was an indication of how the rest of this trip would go). Not only that, but I was thrilled and very grateful to be treated to such a delicious and expensive meal by my buddy Darren’s very generous parents (my Contiki tour fell into the “budget” category so this was most likely the last one I’d have for a while). Above all else though, it was just great to see all of these familiar faces and catch up with people who gave me a bit of a taste of home before spending the next month or so with complete strangers.

The Toms and I decided to keep the night going a bit longer, even though most everyone else had headed home after dinner was done. In an attempt to find more pubs nearby where we could continue our drunken adventure, we began an embarrassingly crooked walk through a movie theatre parking lot (that at the time had felt as long as two or three football fields) - however, the many, MANY beers combined with my lack of sleep and my lingering travel exhaustion very quickly started to take its toll on me. This became clear to my buddies when, after another couple beers at the Cardiff Bay Tavern and Flaming Grill (a chain-style restaurant that, despite its massive size, multiple-storey layout and fairly substantial offering of beer seemed to be empty except for us and a few last-call regulars), my eyelids stopped fighting back against gravity and I started to pass out right there at our table.

Though they had trouble not finding my current state hilarious (I can’t really blame them), my buddies knew that I wasn’t going to make it much further and was probably just going to slow them down. Now on hour 23 without anything close to resembling actual sleep, I decided that I had to call it a night around 1:30 am - a pretty tame evening compared to what they were used to - but I was determined to make the next night (and my final night in Wales) one to remember. We flagged down a taxi and, still, on their way to yet another bar, the Toms had the cab driver make a quick stop at the Riverhouse Hostel so I could jump out and stumble up the three flights of stairs to bed. Side note - based on a particularly embarrassing photo of me from this night (see right), it seemed that we had been walking around the Millennium Stadium at some point during this journey (but at no point then or since I have I been able to remember where this falls in the timeline, given that the stadium was located so far from the waterfront where we had dinner). Oh well, I guess that’s all part of the adventure...

Little did they know, this was the one-and-only time I got sick on my entire ten-week adventure through Europe – a feat that I am particularly proud of (given my reputation back home). Since the Toms didn’t get back to the room until 4 am and 6 am respectively, I had time to crawl from my top bunk to the downstairs bathroom and make it back before anyone was the wiser. Thank goodness I did get sick though because it set me up to be perfectly awake and energetic for the next day in Cardiff. The same could not be said of the Toms, however, who were struggling hard with the after-effects of the previous night’s activities. Even though both guys were dealing with a hangover, Tom Brown was the one who had it worst - after going off on his own the night before, he somehow ended up at a gentleman’s club. Though typically harmless fun, Tom’s post-drinking headache got exponentially worse when he checked his bank balance the next morning - he couldn’t have been there for longer than a couple of hours, but according to his credit card, he somehow managed to drop an insane 600 pounds (roughly CAD 1,200). I couldn’t say much to make the dude feel better at that moment, but I do hope that his night (and the company) was worth it.

No matter where you’re from though, nothing helps you feel better after a night of heavy drinking than a hearty, greasy breakfast, so I had no trouble convincing the Toms to get up and moving for a late-morning meal. In need of some fresh air, we decided to walk into the city this time around - after Tom Jones added some money to his parking meter out front (a ticket would definitely have made the hangover feel much worse), we slowly strolled beneath the overcast sky alongside the river until reaching the bridge that would take us across towards the city’s vast collection of food options. Luckily, my buddies already had a good idea of where to go for the type of breakfast they were craving (which was helpful considering I was still just a tourist in these parts) - they quickly led me to place just beyond Cardiff Central Station called the Yard Bar & Tavern.

Overall, the two-storey restaurant was beautiful, with a modern, rustic look, trendy light bulb messages hanging from the walls and a steampunk bar top with what seemed like too many beer taps to even count (though they would be going untouched by us for the time being). The front of the restaurant was a simple lounge area, with Union Jack couches sitting on seating platforms of seemingly random height and location, that slowly transformed into tables as you moved down the long stretch of the building towards the bar at the back. The most interesting part of the Yard was the communal bathroom - at the bottom of a wide, metallic spiral staircase near the front entrance was a round, open-air room with deep, industrial sinks lining the walls and only swinging saloon doors separating this from the hallways where the men’s and women’s toilets were hiding. The food here was also as good as you could hope for. The guys tried to get me to taste some of their traditional English breakfasts, but I could barely stomach looking at the baked beans and blood pudding (especially after my early morning vomit), so I opted for something simple instead (eggs, toast, hash browns and a glorious black coffee were perfectly fine by me).

With no real plans for the day and the rainy weather not cooperating, we decided to go for a bit of a wander after breakfast. Tom Brown chose to make a quick stop at Coral, one of the local gambling shop chains, to drop a couple of quick racing bets - I learnt that these shops were an apparent staple for this city and for the rest of the UK (which was pretty believable given that they were on every corner like Starbucks was in North America). Even in the middle of the afternoon, the place was crawling with people looking to make money, eagerly staring off at the many television screens showing horse races, football games and plenty of other sporting events (they were even taking bets on the name of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s soon-to-be-born second child). Figuring that my luck was next to none when it came to gambling, I decided to leave the bets to Tom and save my money (I’m sure there’d be some other way to piss it way over the next ten weeks).

We followed this up with a bit of shopping at the unbelievably busy St. David’s Dewi Sant Cardiff shopping mall (where I got my first taste of international clothing stores like Superdry, which was previously unknown to me back in Canada). But it wasn’t long before we were all hankering for some “hair of the dog” to cure a bit of the after-effect from the previous night’s activities - after leaving the shopping centre with some fresh threads for the night ahead, we stumbled upon a nearby pub called Dempsey’s and headed inside, away from the occasional drizzle, for a couple of midday pints. The pub itself was small, drab and dark, but had all the famous charm of an authentic British pub, with its traditional wooden bar top, the dusty, fabric-lined booths, walls covered in pop culture paraphernalia, and grimy, stained-glass windows that only let a minuscule amount of yellow light through. Dempsey’s was also nearly deserted, but we weren’t up for a party just yet anyways - we were perfectly content with casually sipping on some brew and watching coverage of the now timely and ironic birth of Princess Charlotte (making me think that maybe I should’ve hazarded a bet on that back at Coral). Nonetheless, however, it was still an epic and historic moment actually to be in the United Kingdom for.

Still only in the early afternoon, we decided to walk over to Millennium Plaza (just across the river from our hostel, next to the Millennium Stadium) to see if we could squeeze in a viewing of The Avengers: Age of Ultron at Vue Cinemas - but by the time we got there, and up the five or six escalators it took to get to the ticket booth, it was pretty clear that the Toms were about to crash hard (making a movie nearly impossible to sit through). So, in favour of a big, energetic night out, I told them to head back to River House and spend the rest of the afternoon getting some sleep - though they felt bad leaving me on my own, I assured them that I’d be perfectly fine. As the rain and clouds cleared out a bit, I took this as an opportunity to turn on my iPod and take a walk around Cardiff. After ordering Starbucks for the first time on foreign soil (a difficult task given that the baristas were having such a weirdly tricky time understanding my accent), I made my way back through St. David’s and out across Queen St., a promenade lined with hundreds more familiar (and unfamiliar) shops and playing host to a whimsical collection of timeworn trees, jolly musical performers, an antique multi-faced clock, and even a traditional merry-go-round. Though I didn’t plan on spending any more money, it was still a thrill to look around and to see how many people were out-and-about enjoying their Saturday afternoon (making it the perfect spot to people watch).

Likely lost in sheer wonder over the fact that I was just casually romping around Wales like it was any old place, I quickly got turned around - and after ducking through a maze of alleyways and arcades, I finally ended up in front of a massive neon sculpture of a lightning bolt by the name of “Alight”. Thinking I could figure out where I was all on my own, I started looking to the streets signs for some guidance - but as anyone who’s ever come across the Welsh language before definitely knows, it’s one of the most interesting, intimidating and confusing-looking languages in existence (judging by town names like Llanfairpwllgwyngyll, which seemed to be commonplace). So instead of even trying to make heads or tails of that, I decided just to cut my losses and once again break out Google Maps to get me back to one of the main streets.

It turned out that I wasn’t that far away from the city centre, popping out from the labyrinth just in front of the historic Cardiff Castle. This revived medieval relic located in the middle of a modern-day city was indeed a sight to behold - you could pay to go inside and take a guided tour, but since it was quite expensive and there was plenty to look at around the outside of the structure, I decided to pass. Instead, I continued my already lengthy walk around the castle’s exterior, which harkened back to the simple castles of fairy-tale stories (complete with typical elements like simple yet sturdy brick walls, rook-like turrets and even a real-life drawbridge). In fact, it was so sensational in its appearance that I can only assume more than a few Welshmen have ended up this way after a bender and thought for a second they’d gone back in time.

I followed along the main path, across another mesmerizing stretch of walkway lined with perfectly symmetrical trees and leading towards some unknown building on the horizon, into the verdant Bute Park, which surrounded the northern banks of the River Taff. The trees here must’ve been hundreds of years old, with thick trunks, dense foliage that hung down over the water and nearly touched the ground, and leaves in every possible shade of green on the spectrum (I could only imagine how insane this park must look in autumn). And even though it was still raining on-and-off, the foggy, hazy weather added some mesmerizing ambiance that made this part of the walk something special, like I was strolling through an ancient magical forest. There was even a small outcropping between the trees where an eerie collection of large rocks were arranged in some kind of strange, mystical altar like Stonehenge, reminding me of where a witch might perform her sacrifice (however, I might be overthinking this).

After heading back to the hostel for a quick nap of my own (walking for miles can get exhausting), the boys and I got ready for a what was sure to be an epic night on the town - and I left it up to them to show me what Cardiff was all about! I was a little concerned that the bouncers might give me some trouble with my Ontario license, as I wasn’t sure how many tourists they were used to around Cardiff, but I can preface my story about this night by saying that this turned out to be no trouble at all (it was even an interesting topic of conversation each time we tried to enter a new bar). My point about this being – don’t take your passport with you as an ID anywhere because you don’t need it (keep it locked up whenever possible). You’re better off getting denied from somewhere than losing this very important piece of identification on a night out.

First off, we jumped into a cab and headed to The Crockerton Pub for some chicken wings and beer to get our night started. There wasn’t too much to this bar (it was essentially one giant, square room filled with hundreds of four-seater tables), but there were enough boisterous Welshmen and sharp, shrill lassies watching sports, downing drinks and getting generally rowdy to make it a decent pre-game spot and an epic people-watching venue (especially for a traveller like myself, who was eager to get a front-row seat to all of the most authentic and celebrated Welsh customs that Cardiff had to offer, most of which centred around alcohol). The main difference I noticed between these pubs and the bars back home in Canada was the fact that there were no servers. If you're used to someone coming to the table to take your order, you're not going to find that in many places in the UK - apparently, you're expected to head up to the bar to order what you want. It wasn't something I was used to, but I definitely wasn't complaining (it was far better than waiting around when you wanted another drink ASAP).

This was also the first time that I was able to call home since leaving Canada (I figured it was probably best to call before I got too far deep with the beers). I wasn’t yet feeling homesick (I barely even had the time to), but I knew that my parents were likely more worried about me than they had let on - especially given that my family weren’t really “travellers” and this was the first time I’d gone on my own to somewhere outside North America. So, to quell their fears a bit, I tried to find a quiet corner of the bar (which was next to impossible) so I could ring them up (after first struggling to figure out what the time difference was) to let them know all of the things I’d seen so far and to reassure them that I was perfectly safe and having a great time. While I still think they would’ve preferred me to be wearing a tracking beacon of some kind, it’s important for my parents to get some distance and understand that, while I can’t always guarantee that things will turn out okay, they have to let me experience life on my own (no matter how messy).

After emptying a few pitchers and getting a bit of a buzz on, we headed down the street to Varsity, a bar that had the vibe and setup of a nostalgic 50's-style diner (the retro jukebox in the corner, the neon wall signs, the matching red stools and craterous booths and the long malt shop countertop were a bit on the nose). In reality, though, it was just another bar filled with dozens of drunk folks, a DJ and a huge dance floor. The bouncers here actually ended up holding me for back a bit as they checked out my ID (I had a momentary heart palpitation when I thought I was about to be given a hard time and questioned on it) - but as I’ve already said, they didn’t cause me any problems. Instead, they surprised me by asking where to find the birthday because they’d never seen a Canadian ID before (something I was happy to do) and then proceeded to get into a brief yet hilarious conversation with me about how a Canadian ends up so far away from home in Cardiff before finally letting us in.

Never had I seen so many bachelor/bachelorette parties in one place (or, as the locals referred to the female version, hen parties) - there had to have been at least four or five of them in this bar alone (proving that the people from the previous day’s train ride into Cardiff were more the norm around these parts than the exception)! But they made for a good time - most of them were decked out in silly costumes with outrageous props, while altogether they started a huge conga line that weaved through the bar and out onto the street. The DJ even grabbed a few of the newlyweds-to-be and invited them up on stage for a side-splitting competition that involved everything from dance-offs to strip teases (things I’m sure they’d have to put to bed once they actually walked down the aisle). This was also where my buddies taught me about "strawpedos" - an easy way to down a lot of alcohol in a very short amount of time (check out the video to your right for my demonstration of this). Essentially, you stick a straw into a cooler, bend it over the side with your thumb, spin the liquid until it’s moving like a whirlpool, and proceed to chug it down (which was made extra speedy thanks to the excess air escaping through the straw). Given that there was still plenty of party ahead of us, I stuck with just the one strawpedos this night, but at least now I had a new technique in my roster should I ever be running low on pre-drink time.

From here, we were amped up, nursing a fairly aggressive buzz and looking to bring the night to the next level. Our first stop was The Live Lounge at the very corner of the street - unfortunately, despite being an incredibly spacious club that seemed to go on for ages, it was abysmally empty, particularly for a Saturday night in the country’s biggest city (you could almost see the dust collecting on the many massive private booths that lined the walls). Naturally, we still chose to down a beer each to warm us up before heading back out into the now torrential rain. After walking through the streets in the rain to find an ATM and stumbling upon a marching band street performance, we spent a few minutes trying to have a good time in another spot called Tiger Tiger. More of a bar than a club, this place seemed to have the opposite problem - though it may have quite a bit smaller than The Live Lounge, Tiger Tiger was filled to its breaking point with people. After pushing and shoving our way through the dense crowd (my lack of height usually helps me sneak through unimpeded) and grabbing a beer, we found that the only free spot to stand was directly outside the bathrooms. Since this wasn’t a glamorous situation, we decided to abandon this bar and head back around the corner to a well-known nightclub called PRYZM.

I'm usually not overly impressed by clubs back home, but PRYZM was incredible (and not to mention, unimaginably huge) - with four floors, ten different clubs, fantastic music and surprisingly almost no wait at all to get a drink (even with hundreds of partiers around every corner), there was definitely nothing to complain about. There was a wide selection of tunes scattered across all the various rooms for just about anyone to enjoy, whether you liked classic hits or mainstream EDM ragers - and after paying a fairly reasonable cover charge at the front entrance (which included my drunken fumbling with the unfamiliar UK pound), the Toms took me immediately up to the top floor, which held the largest and busiest of all the clubs. The massive room was hidden behind two large double doors - it was lined with two long bar tops along the bottom and a balcony wrapping around the entirety of the second floor. To the centre of the room was where the action happened though, with a huge dance floor flanked by stand-up counters and already packed to the breaking point with drunk Welshmen getting down to some serious beats coming from a DJ turntable suspended high above it all on a stage at the front. And all this was taking place completely awash in flashing blue lights, lasers and floor-to-ceiling LED screens playing the most hypnotic patterns - with this atmosphere beckoning, I had no choice but to grab another drink and join in on the fun.

After tearing it up for a bit on this dancefloor, we decided to check out what the rest of PRYZM had to offer - so we headed back out and across the hall towards one of the other clubs, this one quite a bit different from the last. Instead of a massive open space, this room clocked in at about a third of the size, with low-hanging ceilings covered entirely by mirrors (I think I’ve seen similar things in one or two strip clubs) and a semi-transparent dance floor that lit up with a million colours to the sound of the music (it was surrounded by signs stating “no drinks allowed”, but naturally, everyone including us just ignored those). We once again wasted no time jumping into the mix - but with more than a few people dressed up in random costumes for some strange reason, we were sticking out a bit like a sore thumb in our normal clubwear. The music in this room was also considerably more dated, playing everything from 90s anthems to full-out disco (not really my ideal, but not necessarily a problem when drunk).

Despite this slightly awkward atmosphere, the Toms certainly knew how to show a guy a good yet outrageous time - including dragging me over a barrier mid-dance and introducing me to a Welsh girl who was more than thrilled to dance with a Canadian and hear his “exotic” accent.

That accent and my “Canadian-isms” did prove to be a bit of a challenge though when asking where the bathroom was. The security team inside the bar was positioned on risers around the dance floor, and in my stupor, I figured they’d be my best bet to find the washroom - but I didn’t realize that “bathroom” or “washroom” wasn’t really a recognizable term in the UK (most people just asked for the toilet, especially since most places separated the actual toilet from the sink and shower). After a few confused glances (and some awkward shuffling on my part), the guard finally understood what I was asking for - and thank goodness I did this early in the night because I had already broken the seal.

After ducking back-and-forth between the two clubs for hours each time we grabbed a new drink, we finally left our epic night at PRYZM behind at around 3 am - something that was so foreign to me as a Canadian (in Toronto, I'm used to bars closing at 2 am at the latest). After waiting in line for Subway, a pretty standard after-bar meal even across the pond in the UK, we finally started the journey home. It took us forever to find a cab, simply because they thought it wasn't a long enough trip to be worth the fare for them - so finally we just lied, told them we were going somewhere further and got them to drop us off along the way (Tom Brown ended up getting frustrated and walking the rest of the way in the rain for some reason - once he started though, there was no stopping him). After a brief, albeit highly intoxicated, conversation in the communal kitchen with a few of our hostel-mates from New Zealand once we got back, it was finally time to hit the hay.

These first few days in Europe were quite the experience, and I can't imagine a better place to "ease" myself into this adventure than with my buddies in Wales. It wasn't what I was used to, and I was out of my element, but even in that short weekend, I learned to adopt the attitude that I need to go with the flow and make the most of the experience that I had been presented with. With eight weeks still ahead of me, these first few days in Cardiff made me optimistic about what was to come. And in that same vein, I can't say enough good things about Wales - not only is it visually amazing, but there was so much to do in Cardiff alone (whether shopping, nightlife, etc.) that I am definitely making a point of heading back that way sometime soon. And while it wasn't as different from Canada as I initially thought it might be, it opened my eyes to a whole new world.

The next day, we grabbed another quick breakfast at the old faithful Yard Bar & Tavern, and I said my goodbyes before heading over to the train station. It was tough to leave my buddies because it was something familiar, but I was ready to get settled in London and to finally meet the 44 people I'd be spending the next 38 days with on my Contiki tour. I may have started this journey by saying "travel wasn't my thing," but I was beginning to think I might have been wrong - and over the next few days, I would find out that I definitely was.

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