A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to be in Venice, and I tweeted to ask if it was weird that I got more excited visiting the fish market than the Doge’s Palace. The answer was pretty unanimously ‘yes’!
It wasn’t a one-off experience. Stately homes don’t do a whole lot for me. Recently I was in Cardiff, and was duty-bound to visit the Castle, partly because it is the famous local landmark, but mainly because my husband’s beloved grandfather worked for the Castle as a groundsman for 50 years. My husband wasn’t able to be there, but as I had shared Gramps’s love of growing with him, I went in search of the plaque in his name. Incongruously, it was behind the security-locked gate to the tennis club, where only the privileged few could see it.
I got side-tracked en route to the Castle though. Enjoying wandering through the shopping arcades with the narrow alleys with glazed vaulted roofs I came across the market. I looked at my watch. Time was rather limited and I should stick to the plan. I looked at the market. I went in. It was a beautiful traditional market, with a glass roof and a gallery for a bird’s eye view of the stalls. It was still a proper market too, with butchers’, greengrocers’ and fish stalls and not much in the way of tat. I am so often tempted to move to a city solely so that I can buy my food at such a market!
Fortunately it was early and not yet fully open, and there were few food shops on the rest of the route (I am not distracted by shoe shops!), so I was not too delayed and still made it to the Castle. Yes the state rooms were remarkable, in a rather overdecorated way, but I felt slightly swindled of the £13 entry fee. The only room where I felt inclined to linger was the library, with its collection of all of the nineteenth-century classics, such as every one of Dickens’s novels, all rebound in matching leather with the family logo, naturally.
You see, the 2nd Marquis of Bute, a Scotsman, not a Welshman, made the vast fortune that built this castle from coal mining, having inherited much of South Wales through his wife. And under that simple statement lies a multitude of truths about children working in mines, about the deaths of miners leaving their families destitute, about the wrecked health of men and the long and bitter fight for proper wages and health and safety for such hard and dangerous work. Not to mention the raping of Wales’s natural wealth and the wrecking of the environment.
So it seems a little obscene to me to gaze up at the gilded ceiling. Most stately homes have that effect on me. I look at them and wonder if they were built from the profits of slave trading or colonial exploitation. When the Brits arrived in Bengal it was the richest country on Earth. A century later it was pretty much the poorest, which it has remained ever since, and Britain had built a lot of stately homes. To preserve them for the general public to pay a (rather high) fee to gawk at how the other half lived from behind ropes and with exhortations against touching or taking pictures of the precious things, well I do wonder what is the point!
Now a market, on the other hand – they are frequently older than a stately home for a start. The Rialto market, for example, has been there four centuries longer than the Doge’s Palace in its current form. Markets always contain characters, the best of them are a mine of information about authentic local food culture (like buying laver bread and Welsh cakes at Swansea market or fresh stuffed pasta in Bologna market) and, duh, there is stuff to eat there!
Although the Rialto market was very fine, I think my all-time favourite market is still that in Cork. You could buy every single part of a pig there – I have never seen a display of pigs’ tails anywhere else! The fish was a match for anything I’ve seen on the continent, and all sorts of modern exotic ingredients were available as well. If you lived locally, you would never need to shop anywhere else.
My European tour of markets goes on though, so Cork’s leading place is only provisional! I have heard of a great market in Sardinia which I must visit, and there is the famous Mercato Vucciria in Palermo too. Watch this space for further travels where stately homes and ‘attractions’ get elbowed out of the way for the local market.