Our eighth day on the road is a day imperatively wasted for us as, for the first time in what feels like a very long time, we have domestic luxuries at our disposal. And so smalls are washed, emails are caught up on, gallons of tea – opium of the Brit – are drunk and I take a walk around the Bristol area of Bedminster we’re staying in.
A curious neighbourhood that, from its pubs and the sculpted beards I see around, seems to have become a sort of hipster-ish haven despite the rows of dull, slightly unloved, suburban family terraces and semis.
Later Passepartout and I walk into Bristol centre, past candy coloured houses perched high above us on sheer faced hills, via a route taking in the Clifton Suspension Bridge (another shaky history lesson of mine, this time of Brunel’s towering Victorian engineering achievements). Then the prepossessing Georgian buildings and cafes in the student area: so ‘nice’ and middle class your teeth start to ache.
My travelling companion had wanted to see the edgy side of the city, mapped out on Massive Attack records listened to two thousand miles away at university in the bars of the Zefxidos area in Thessaloniki.
My friend has instead arranged for us to meet in a chain Caribbean restaurant in the new Bristol Harbourside development. A development, probably approved by some score of spectacled grins, that has galleries, new flats, large glass frontages, gyms, angular bridges and lots of banners up saying what a truly vibrant area it is – and which feels utterly new, soulless and depressing to me. But then, as with all feelings on our trail around Britain, it could be just me, on this night, at this time.
We are taken later to the cool area of Stokes Croft to see some of the Banksy street art whose eminence is, again, hugely famous down in Greece, while poor Brunel lies in unjust obscurity, and then a trek back to Bedminster and to bed.
Next day, having given the car back to the rental branch in Bristol, we leave the city from the great Victorian Temple Meads station – Brunel again – with its look of a more sober, English, repressed Mumbai terminus. Beautiful.
The platforms, however, are settled with waiting thick-necked fathers in vests and with Celtic cross tattoos – or the Chinese symbol for a Celtic cross – and their pudgy 12 year-old sons, addicted to frankfurters. Depressing.
It’s great to be on trains again though. If we had all the time and money in the world I would have suggested doing the whole tour of Britain by train – taking in all the branch lines that dodged the Beeching axe and chunter along on the Scarborough Flyer, the Torbay Express, the Benjamin Britten or the Brighton Belle.
As it is we’re only on the train for little over an hour, crossing the River Severn with a good view from the window of the Severn Bridge, long and shining bright white in front of a fishscale-grey sky, and over into Wales and on to Cardiff.
Cardiff station, though re-built in the 30s with an art deco look still has that classical feel of the golden age of railway travel, with an imposing ‘Great Western Railway’ carved in the stonework. We’re disgorged uncommonly close, for a City Central station, to the centre of the city.
Strangely in the centre too is the monumental Millennium Stadium. I have previously explained cricket to the Greek, telling her it is a working class sport in the north, more of a fop’s sport in the south. Now I try and explain the working class passion for rugby in Wales as opposed to the crowds of Barbour jackets she’s seen in Twickenham.
She has little time for my treaties on sport or social commentary, however, and instead we walk in the sun around the sprawling and lush Bute Park. Watched over by the handsome university buildings and the castle.
Walking by the River Taff, Passepartout appears possessed by Cardiff and, as we saunter by the curiously eccentric sculptured ‘animal wall’ ringing the park: with Victorian apes, ant-eaters, seals, lynx and others on top, all seeming to be in the process of climbing out of the grounds, she tells me “I could live here!” I look at her surprised. I mean, I find it a fairly appealing city, but it seems she’s really fallen for it.
Later, we meet friends from her old country, who are studying here and live in the centre, in one of the giant towers placed in 2005 on top of the old 1830s Cardiff Gas Light and Coke building: as if an elaborate UFO landed on the back of this rusticated old building, which now only survives as a tiny scrap of history at the bottom of the 23-storey behemoth.
230 feet up, we’re as high as you can go in Wales without aid of one of its mountains.
Staring out across Cardiff, sealed in, the trains soundlessly departing the city far below us, the bay in the distance and the tedious, endless, huge churches of retail planted all around us, the friends bewilder me too with their extoling and eulogizing of this very un-Greek city of Male Voice Choirs and Doctor Who.
“But the best place, the best place..” they tell me in an awed whisper, as I crane forward to hear where this Greek Elysium could possibly be “..is Tenby!”
They tell me they go all the time and invite other Greeks to come over and wonder at the small, Presbyterian town of healthy seaside air, weathered old ladies and old fisherman’s cottages selling tin tea trays and Welsh cakes. I tell them we’ll try and put it on our itinerary, as we head off into town for a curry.
Like some seasoned know-all I tell them that it’s well-known that curries “in the provinces” are weaker than in London and order the hottest I can find on the menu. Half an hour later, tears sprinkling my eyes, a heavy sweat on my brow, I whimpering allow I may have got that one wrong, as we say goodbye to Wales’ capital, in the dark, serenaded with sitars, served with incommodious politeness and grazing on Britain national dish.