On an unnaturally brilliant morning earlier this month, an inflatable lifeboat chugged across Cardiff Bay in rather a Viking or perhaps Arthurian manner, heading for the capital city of Wales. It conveyed five burly crewmen, one opera singer, a poet and a slate slab inscribed with a quotation from a 13th-century Welsh poet.
When this unusual company stepped ashore, a children's choir energetically welcomed them, together with the Lord Mayor of Cardiff, the First Secretary of the Welsh National Assembly and a Special Assortment, as the biscuit tins used to say, of worthies and TV cameramen: for the singer, the poet, the lifeboat crew and all were supporting Cardiff's attempt to become European Capital of Culture in 2008.
Bryn Terfel was the opera singer, and he was going to lay the slab upon a still uncompleted centre of the arts, a symbol of "culture future". Graham Davies was the poet, and he was writing a lyric about it all as a demonstration of "culture present". The lifeboat toughs were living representatives of a local culture that has always been brawny and bold, and the plaque itself had been brought from north Wales to imply that Cardiff's was the culture not just of a city, but of a nation.
God knows culture is hard to define, but for competitive purposes Cardiff has apparently narrowed it down to three presiding themes - the arts, sport and heritage. The city is alive with aspirational energy, with a glass-walled cultural bid headquarters in which, I suppose, the visionaries of Cardiff 2008 (registered as a limited company) assemble to plot their strategies. Building sites are everywhere, half-completed projects all over the place, flags and declamatory posters and publicity pamphlets and a civic slogan that is, I am told, a quotation, but seems to me unfortunately ambiguous: TAKE ME SOMEWHERE GOOD, this insistent mantra says, and cynics might interpret it as a desire to get the hell out of the place.
But no, the popular enthusiasm for the bid is genuine, and evidently general in the city. Heritage, sport, the arts - the three motifs seem to cover most aspects of the civic character, and fortunately for me, as I wandered the streets trying to match images with their themes, I identified three iconic buildings to symbolise the bid's abstractions.
First, if it's heritage we're after, what could be more symbolic than the astonishing Cardiff Castle, which reclines in a spectacular but leisurely way bang in the middle of town? Part of it is Roman, part of it is Norman, but most of it is a romantically mock-Gothic display of Victorian plutocracy, and quite right, too.
For the cultural heritage of Cardiff is essentially 19th century, and essentially greedy. There are the remains of holy wells here and there, a suburban cathedral and some ancient churches, but Cardiff was really born out of the coal industry, and midwifed by the irrepressible venture capitalists who made it the greatest coal port on earth. I can myself remember when colliers lay in Cardiff docks as thick as buses at a bus station, and a black anthracite cloud in the air was the city's first proclamation. Fabulously rich coalmasters and their families made Cardiff Castle as we know it, founded a Civic Centre of true distinction, bequeathed it a magnificent art collection, gave the place its first taste of municipal consequence but left it, when King Coal collapsed, grimy and disillusioned.
In the 20th century, it became one of the first big post-industrial towns, and another kind of capitalism took over. The sprawling mass of Cardiff remained largely a Victorian mass, but downtown burgeoned with the usual half-cock banality of provincial Britain. Worse still, down in the old docks area, when the ships had gone, there arose the very exhibition of philistine commercialism and hyperbole - "the Greatest Development Area in Europe" - connected with the city centre by a boulevard of such dismal ostentation that Stalin's own architects would have been bored by it. They blocked an inlet with a barrage in order to build all this, turned its bird-haunted mudflats into a so-called lagoon, smothered the whole in executive housing and, dullards that they must have been, even lacked the imagination to call it Tiger Bay, to honour the famously romantic and rumbustious dockland that had been there before.
Such is the Cardiff heritage, together with run-down suburbs and squalidly littered housing estates. It seems brave of the cultural bidders to mention it. For the most part, one would think, it is best forgotten, except as an incentive to do better next time.
Victorian Cardiff never became, as for example Manchester did, a cultured city in the narrower, more elitist sense. It had no Halle Orchestra, no Guardian, and its university was founded only in 1883, 11 years after its progenitor in minuscule Aberystwyth. Faced with the challenge of listing famous people born in this city, my guidebook can suggest only Charlotte Church, Shirley Bassey, Rolf Harris, Colin Jackson the hurdler, and a couple of footballers. Yet my second totemic building, the immense Millennium Centre which is now arising by the bay, really will be emblematic of the city's new cultural maturity.
This is the multi-arts centre to which Bryn Terfel was taking that commemorative plaque, and the event was itself allegorical. One of the world's most celebrated opera singers, Terfel (ne Jones) is a sheep farmer's son from north Wales, and the slate was quarried near his home. With him he brought, I like to think, a breath of the more ancient and organic personality that is Wales itself - older by far than the city that welcomed him that morning.
Naturally, Welshness has always been here anyway. Cardiff has famously been a multi-ethnic city, with people chasing their fortunes here from all parts of the world, but most of its immigrants have been from the Welsh countryside, where music and poetry has been endemic to life itself. Few great practitioners may have been native to Cardiff, but the arts have long flourished here, in Eisteddfod and little magazines, in piano practice and male voice choirs, in vociferously enthusiastic audiences for visiting performers and a world-famous Singer of the Year contest.
This is a social attribute, too - with a taste for music and art goes a preference for congenial company. Old Cardiff was mostly segregated by bank account, new Cardiff is patched with artistic and intellectual enclaves: quarters where media people like to live, or painters, or lawyers, or aspirant bohemians, or Cymry Cymraeg - Welsh-speakers. It always had a plethora of convivial pubs and eating-houses. Now it has many more or less modish restaurants, most of them apparently specialising in poached eggs on fish cake, and lots of clubs that I go to bed too early to experience for myself (and think of what I miss! - "alcopop-fuelled indie chicks", the guidebook promises of one such place, "indulging in a bit of old-skool shoe-gazing in a sweaty, packed-out hall . . .").
There are heaps of cafes, too, and not all in the Starbucks mode - open-air cafes where customers gamely read their Western Mails in the drizzle, cafes with a hashish air, Vienna-style cafes where you may loiter the hours away over a single cup, waiting for movie-time, stand-up mug cafes in the covered market, cozy drop-out cafes in the venerable arcades that have so far defied all developments and remain the most interesting things in the city centre. At Garland's Coffee Shop in the Duke Street Arcade, they will make you a bacon-and-banana sandwich, and you can hardly get more cultured than that.
The Welsh National Opera, whose new home will be in that tremendous structure by the bay, is internationally admired, and there is a BBC symphony orchestra in the city. Dozens of concert venues, recital halls and theatres of one sort and another flourish. Poets seem to be giving readings every other night, and one of the bid gimmicks is something called "the Great Cardiff Poem", a marathon composition to which anybody is invited to contribute, and extracts from which already appear upon walls or in brochures. Sample:
The Millennium Centre will be a focus for all this creativity, fun and public dedication, and it deserves a punchier name. I would rechristen it the Hub (Y Bwl). "Down the Hub", the city would go for ballet, jazz or Janacek.
But for my own tastes, anyway, the most exciting thing about Cardiff, now that the ships have gone, is the presence nearby of the coal towns and valleys, Rhondda and Rhymni, Merthyr and Pontypridd - those legendary conurbations so rich in character, ebullience, legend, pathos and despair. It is a presence mostly in the mind. The valleys are actually out of sight, beyond the last suburbs, but the flare of their communal reputation pervades the place. From its executive homes, the Cardiff bourgeoisie, I am told, often views this suggestive combustion with distaste, but it is a brave and entertaining basis for a civic culture, and its citadel is our third figurative building, the Millennium Stadium, which stands like an extraterrestrial deposit in the very heart of the city. Most capitals nowadays have big modern stadiums, but they are usually well out of town: in Cardiff, you may walk in a matter of moments from the Hilton Hotel, the St David's concert hall, Garlands Coffee Shop or Cardiff Castle itself to your beer and bacon-and-banana buttie at an international rugby match.
Your beer, anyway. The beer of the pubs, not the Sancerres of the wine bars, is the true elixir of this still earthy and merry city. The tumultuous crowds that overwhelm it on the day of a big game, swarming, tumbling, singing and cursing all around the stadium, are generally good-tempered - only recently, and then at football matches, has the usual British hooliganism erupted. A proletarian camaraderie is powerful here, as it was always powerful in the mining valleys, and it has been diffused into a general sense of geniality: if there is one thing, it seems, that the most Afghan of Afghans, the most Balkan of Romanians, the most heavily veiled Islamic dowager, the most opaque Lithuanian taxi driver soon acquires in Cardiff, it is the habit of instant familiarity - there is nowhere in the world where it gives me more pleasure to ask a stranger the way somewhere.
For this is a very likeable city. Its civic leaders may be crooks or boors, for all I know, its bureaucracy appallingly thick, its English or Anglicised rentiers unlovely, but the people of its streets are a municipal delight. Does this count as culture? It should. As my Oxford Dictionary says, a cultured person is somebody characterised by good manners.
Still, as I pottered around thinking, speciously stopping people to ask them the way, it struck me that from this civic play some Hamlet was absent. I had come to Cardiff sceptical about its cultural credentials, but it had won me over with its effervescent gusto, and I had found three terrific buildings to illustrate the three chosen themes of its bid. I somehow felt, however, that there should be one more - one more theme, one more building - and in the end I realised what it was. Did not Cardiff proclaim itself a capital city, the capital of Wales, Europe's youngest capital? Where then was its capital building, the apex of it all?
The answer was that, in Wales's fifth year as a semi-independent state, or at least a devoluted region, it hadn't been built yet. It remained a fenced-off patch beside the bay, attended by displays indistinctly depicting what it will be like if it ever happens. Cardiff shows little interest in it, anyway. Much of the citizenry hardly considers itself Welsh at all. The city voted heavily against devolution in the first place, its Lord Mayor was implacably hostile, and the Assembly for Wales, as it is patronisingly called, meets in undistinguished temporary quarters around the corner from the Millennium Centre. Nowadays, official Cardiff likes to flaunt its Welshness, with dragons, banners and statutory snatches of the Welsh language, but I dare say its status as the metropolis of a poor and struggling small nation on the western fringe of Europe seems a less than compelling asset to Cardiff 2008 Ltd.
Perhaps responsibility should be a fourth leitmotif of that bid? Popular acceptance of a profounder, wider civic purpose might deservedly consecrate Cardiff as a European Capital of Culture. But then indifference works both ways. I know just what they'll say when I go home to Gwynedd and tell them I've been visiting the capital of our nation. Some people will say: "Didn't know there was a match on"; many will say: "Bet you're glad you're home"; and not a soul will ask me how the cultural bid is going.
As part of an occasional series, NS writers will be making the case for their home cities. For more details about the cultural bid, go to www.cardiff2008.co.uk
Jan Morris's most recent books include Wales: epic views of a small country (Penguin) and Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere (Faber and Faber)