One of the advantages of starting a new job in late November is this: all those Christmas parties in December give you plenty of opportunities to meet up with your new colleagues. This, inevitably, leads to a number of conversations along these lines.
"Doing anything nice for Christmas this year?"
Yes, we're spending it in Cardiff.
"You've got relatives there, have you?"
Well, no, actually. We're going up there to visit the BrewDog bar. We've been to 58 of them so far, you know.
"...that's rather a lot. So it'll be your first visit to this bar, will it?"
No, we originally went there back in 2015. This time we're going to get our Beer Visas stamped. There's this little booklet they put out last year, let me show you -
"Oh, are those mince pies over there?"
...well, I'm sure they'll get used to it eventually.
So, on the Saturday before Christmas, we take the GWR train to Cardiff, hopping off briefly at the first stop for brunch at BrewDog Reading. Apart from that planned digression, the train journey is surprisingly uneventful for GWR: certainly compared with the journey back we'll have five days later, involving a rail replacement bus between Newport and Bristol that's delayed so much we end up in London 55 minutes late (not 60 minutes, though, because then we'd be due compensation). Even the by-now traditional revelation that all the seat reservations have been completely ignored turns out to be not too much of an issue.
With the uncertainty about my job, we decide to go relatively cheap with our accommodation, and end up at the Citrus Hotel, positioned somewhere between a Premier Inn and a Travelodge in terms of price. As we go through the door to check in, I notice The Belated Birthday Girl looking concerned at the two-star food hygiene rating. When we get within range of the room's wi-fi, she starts looking into that online, and we quickly disappear down an unexpected rabbit hole as we discover the history of the Citrus. Back in 2009 it opened under the name The Big Sleep, and was nothing less than John Malkovich's attempt at bringing a bit of celebrity glamour to the bit of Cardiff round the back of the Motorpoint Arena. Originally, it was pitched as an affordable luxury hangout, with designer quirks like a picture of Malkovich in every room. By 2016, it was the subject of an episode of the Welsh version of Watchdog, with people complaining about blood on the walls. (You'd have thought the hotel name might have given them a clue.)
These days, there are no traces of Malkovich in the hotel at all, and it's been sold off to a small anonymous chain. To be fair, there are no traces of blood on the walls either, at least in our corner room with an interesting (rather than nice) view across the city. The two official holidays when we have the tepidly warmed-over breakfast buffet give some sort of clue as to why it only gets two stars for food hygiene, but at least there are plenty of other alternatives available nearby. The quirky charm of Little Man Coffee, irritatingly served by a normal-sized man with limited access to baked goods but a fun as-much-cereal-and-tea-as-you-can-guzzle-for-a-fiver breakfast bar: the more contemporary Uncommon Ground for all your smashed avocado and drip coffee requirements: and the old-fashioned greasy spoon value of Sully's Cafe, which magically turns into some sort of post-pub diner late at night.
Still, the breakfast at Citrus doesn't actually kill us, and its no-frills nature suits us just fine as a base for a few days away. Well, maybe there's one frill worth mentioning: a decent sized smart TV with the Netflix app, which is still logged into the account of a previous guest. Over our five day stay, we make it our mission to watch weirder and weirder stuff just to mess up their search algorithms. Sorry about that, if you're reading. It at least means we have a couple of fun things to watch in our room in the dead zone of Christmas night, as previously reported: accompanied by various festive nibbles from Wally's Deli and some double-digit-strength beers from the likes of Buxton and Tiny Rebel, it makes for an enjoyable close to the day.
Christmas being Christmas, there are plenty of opportunities for eating and drinking. Let's get some of the minor meals out of the way first. Purple Poppadom is a decent Indian close to the Chapter Arts Centre (of which more later) with a few interesting variations on the usual menu, including Purple Moose Snowdonia Ale as a change from the usual Cobra and Kingfisher. The Grazing Shed is a Welsh chain specialising in gloriously sloppy burgers in a variety of styles, including what I'm told is a rather splendid vegan option (astonishingly, the public face of the latter turns out to be Pritchard from MTV's long-forgotten Taffy Jackass substitute Dirty Sanchez). And Nata and Co is an obvious choice for a light lunch, specialising in those scrummy custard tarts we'd been mainlining in Lisbon just five months earlier.
There are a couple of mid-tier places that we end up in purely because we could book guaranteed tables for Christmas Eve and Boxing Day, and they end up working out just fine. The Corner House is a perfectly acceptable gastropub offering a decent enough three course Boxing Day menu for £30 per person, not including drinks. Meanwhile, Bar 44 in the middle of Westgate Street's cluster of craft beer dives probably gives us the best bang for our buck during this trip: a terrific selection of tapas for around £27 per head, and that's including a couple of interestingly unfamiliar beers (Toro Blanco and Viakrucis).
But it wouldn't be a holiday without the odd foodie blowout or two, and we end up having two in rather grand surroundings. We have a fancy Sunday lunch at Park House, the sort of place where you have to ring a bell to be let in, only to discover that there are only two other tables occupied. (To be fair, we're dining at the relatively late hour of 2pm.) We have a couple of lovely three course lunches, mine centred around wagyu beef, while The BBG goes for a truffle risotto: forty quid a head, but we end up more or less doubling that when we're persuaded to throw in a wine flight.
Still, even that pales in comparison to our lunch on actual Christmas Day. That's held at the Exchange Hotel out by the bay, a gigantic old-fashioned building that isn't too grand to have a snow machine blowing out fake flakes from an upper storey window onto the arriving guests. We're eating in the enormous main hall, which is packed with family groups and only the occasional couple like ourselves: but it's a jolly atmosphere and we don't feel left out. I've had enough turkey in recent weeks at assorted functions, so I choose the Welsh lamb rump as a nod to our location: meanwhile, The BBG tries to pretend she's in eastern Europe and goes fishy with baked halibut. We even get a surprisingly melodic turn on the piano from Santa himself, which is nice.
Don't worry, the craft beer wanker muscles get a bit of a workout over the holiday too. Inevitably, there are a couple of brief visits to BrewDog Cardiff to get the visa stamps I promised the people back at the office: no major changes to the bar since our last visit, other than the new neon sign pictured above, and confirmation from The BBG that the ladies' bogs have been fixed now. We also pay a couple of return visits to BrewDog's near neighbour Tiny Rebel, who on our first night provide us with a spectacular pair of nightcap beers, Lock Stock and Bear Essentials: the latter (a collaboration with Aberdeen brewer Fierce) is so glorious we end up grabbing a can for toasting the baby Jesus on the night of the 25th.
It's interesting that with those two and Zero Degrees, plus the nearby City Arms (a Brains boozer with some decent guests), the area on and around Westgate Street has become a wee craft beer enclave. The same is true of Llandaff Road out by the Chapter Arts Centre (like I said, more on that later), which has two decent bars just a few doors apart. Crafty Devil's Cellar (not a cellar at all, it's all on the ground floor) is a cosy joint run by Crafty Devil Brewing, really a bottle shop with a few seats out front and back, and a telly tuned to the darts (a common sight this Christmas). The brewery becomes our big local discovery of the week, as they seem to be everywhere: providing the house beer for The Grazing Shed, and running a more centrally located boozer at Beelzebub's. Meanwhile, also on Llandaff Road, St Canna's Ale House is a little more traditional, with a fine mix of local cask and keg beers, as well as an entertainingly camp barman who announces the availability of wasabi Scotch eggs with some sort of karate-style gesture, before stopping short and wondering out loud if that's offensive. (Well, maybe it is, but the Scotch eggs are welcome enough on a Boxing Day lunchtime to make it less problematic.)
It's been foreshadowed twice now, so let's start the roundup of Cardiff's Christmas culture with the Chapter Arts Centre, which is a lot harder to find than it really should be. We're there for the suitably Christmassy play Margaret And The Tapeworm - no, hear me out on this - but thanks to my getting us lost, we're barely there in time to claim our free pre-show mince pies and sherry. It's written and performed by the three-woman theatre group Triongl - Rebecca Smith-Williams, Valmai Jones, Rebecca Knowles - who between them play two women who meet at an office Christmas party, and the tapeworm that one of them picks up from its badly-maintained buffet. It's actually a warmly funny piece about loneliness, and how the festive season can emphasise that even more - a time of year when everyone wants to be with someone, even a tapeworm. It's a delightfully inclusive bit of fringe theatre (the diverse and appreciative audience is proof of that), and our flying visit to Chapter makes us wish we were doing even more there. (Sadly, their Christmas Eve screening of The Muppet Christmas Carol sold out long before we'd even heard about it.)
Of course, there are non-festive things you can do in Cardiff on Christmas week - for example, we spend our final morning casually wandering around National Museum Cardiff, enjoying the Evolution Of Wales exhibition (complete with dinosaurs) and the chance to gawp at Tim Peake's actual spacecraft. But you want to be Christmassy, don't you? And Cardiff has all the usual seasonal stuff we've come to expect from a British city these days: a set of Christmas markets split between local craft stalls and fake German gastric indulgence, and a Winter Wonderland batch of fairground attractions plus an oversubscribed ice rink. It's fun wandering round the prize stalls, and their massed hanging ranks of stuffed tigers and whales looking like Greenpeace's worst nightmare: but it's not very Welsh.
You know what's Welsh and Christmassy? Shakin' Stevens, that's what. Casually browsing through the St David's Hall listings on the evening of December 23rd, we find out that on Christmas Eve morning BBC Radio Cymru will be broadcasting the Wynne Evans show live from the foyer, and Shaky will be one of his guests. We get there a little before 11 to find lots of freeloading families sitting down in stacker chairs waiting for the show to start: however, there aren't quite enough people standing around to not feel self-conscious about doing that. So we decide to wander around town and come back later, assuming they won't be so daft as to waste Shaky in the first hour. We come back 45 minutes later to discover that this is exactly what they've done, and we've missed him. Seize the day, people! Still, the second hour of the show is fun to watch, with Evans' audience banter entertaining enough to make you forgive him for his role in the Go Compare adverts. (We subsequently catch up with Shaky's slot on the iPlayer on Christmas morning, which is how I discover that some of his more recent work is a lot heavier than Merry Christmas Everyone.)
A mere hour later, we're inside St David's Hall itself to see The Nutcracker, which is obviously a feeble Christmas Eve alternative to The Muppet Christmas Carol. It's one of those large-scale touring productions that Raymond Gubbay brings over on a regular basis, this particular one being performed by the Russian State Ballet of Siberia. Shamefully, I have to admit I've never seen The Nutcracker before, and I have to admit I'm surprised by a) how ridiculously plot-free it is, and b) how many absolute bangers Tchaikovsky crams into the second, more racist half of the ballet. This particular production boasts about its 'stunning scenery brought to life by digital magic,' which turns out to be code for tacky computer-generated backgrounds projected big. Still, it's good traditional cheesy fun, with the conductor wishing us all a merry Christmas before the start of the second half.
And seeing as we had one ourselves. I'll wish you all a merry Christmas as well, even though it's over three months late. If it helps, try to imagine that our greetings travelled here on a GWR train, and then at least that'll explain the ridiculous delay.