Just about a year ago, standing on the wintery ramparts of the Roman fort at the charming heritage town of Chester, I caught a hazy glimpse of Wales on the horizon, tantalisingly out of reach. Later, in these very pages, I wrote about thoroughly enjoying a historic and happening northwest England but rued the lost chance to see the legendary British countryside. The Celtic gods must surely have heard! Because, even by the vicarious standards of a travel journalist’s life, it’s nothing short of a miracle that the next stamp on my passport should be from Manchester again. Except this time, I found myself driven past now-familiar signboards straight into that corner of Wales to which even Englishmen head when they need bracing lungsful of pure air in some of the most scenic surrounds anywhere in the world.
I say Celtic, British, Welsh and English with considered distinction (the Romans stopped mattering a long time ago). A quick primer before we proceed: Wales is a part of the United Kingdom but also believes itself to be a fiercely independent-minded country by itself (not unlike Scotland and Ireland). The Welsh win under the British flag at the Olympics but play rugby against the English in the World Cup (they are battles masquerading as sport by all accounts; we may be reminded of a similar analogy closer home). The Prince of Wales is heir to the English throne, and I heard Wales described as England’s first colony on the day I landed, which sort of explained a lot. It’s never out of sight, this passionate assertion of identity, and yet the warm-hearted Welsh are incredibly polite even when they talk about the travesties of their temporal destiny. I guess it’s hard to be a grouch when you live in paradise.
So at the Unesco-protected Edwardian castle town of Conwy, our first night’s halt, we learnt to distinguish between castles (walled fortresses containing royal residences) from forts (only military defence strongholds minus walls), and walked the remarkably intact ramparts that once kept the Welsh out, but now in company as sunny as the weather. An adorably complicated Gaelic tongue full of deep-throated sounds and an enviable lilt, it’s meant to be read phonetically and not literally (an automatic mistake because the script looks like English). The Welsh speak it with an easy camaraderie, inviting us to know more with on-the-spot tutorials.
The nice roads, pretty towns and cosy B&Bs notwithstanding, Wales has a mesmerisingly untamed quality about it. This is a land of wild, wild beauty and the Welsh live in sync with it. In some parts of the coast in south Wales, depending on the season and the moon, the tide rises and falls by as much as 14 metres every six hours. Mysterious dolmens stand as silent evidence of forgotten ancestors, the earth is fecund in the frequent damp, and sheep farming and slate mining were the cornerstones of the economy till not very long ago. We travelled miles to remote Mwnt (the ‘w’ pronounced as ‘oo’) to reach a breathtaking but desolate cove and a modest yet historic church, and found barely two dozen people at the windy vista where sheepdogs were rounding up their flock on dangerously craggy cliffs. In New Quay, a touristy beach town overrun with cafÃ©s and souvenir shops, where devotees of Dylan Thomas come looking for references to Under the Milkwood, I saw families picnicking upon grey rocks near grey sands by a grey sea beneath grey skies.
With more castles and forts per square mile than anywhere in the world (641, in case you’re counting), it’s worth remembering Edward I’s signal contribution to building them, over the 1280s, when the reviled English monarch established his supremacy over Wales by quickly raising imposing keeps that were larger than anything the Welsh had then or since. They are still visible for miles around, eschewing traditional hilltop vantages for coastal impregnability in another sign of his daring.
We drove a great deal in a week, about 800 miles mostly along the coast in a near full circle, and motoring is really the most convenient way to see Wales and its dispersed attractions. We crossed over the Menai Straits via the Brittania bridge to Anglesey, the largest island in Britain. The brief stop at tiny Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch is good for a laugh over the marketing trickery of the town’s founders. Like all good Welsh names, it’s descriptive of its location–‘St Mary’s priory in the hollow of the white hazel near the rapid whirlpool and the priory of St Tysilio by the red cave’. Locals, being sensible folk, simply say Llanfair PG.
Onward then to the castle at Caenarfon, considered Edward I’s ultimate stronghold. It has ornate polygonal towers (climb up!), colour-banded masonry inspired by Constantinople’s fifth-century walls, and very interesting museums and exhibits. We continued driving in and out of the profusely verdant Snowdonia National Park, landing up one evening at the delightfully bizarre village of Portmeirion, which overlooks the Traeth Bach tidal estuary. The eye-popping sprawl of architectural experiments in what are now Grade II listed holiday cottages, gazebos, terraces and lookouts, was built over 50 years by the eccentric genius of Bertram Clough Williams-Ellis, who purchased this private peninsula in 1925 for £5,000 and kept working on it till he died at the age of 93.
We stopped for lunch at a cosy cafÃ© in the market town of Machynlleth, next door to remarkably well-preserved medieval building where the first Welsh Parliament was summoned in 1404 by the rebel hero Owain Glyndwr. As we journeyed by road from the north to the middle to the south of Wales, we encountered a stunningly rugged land in painterly shades of green, brown and grey over miles upon miles of forests, meadows, rivers, mountains and sea, and we repeatedly kept halting for some memorable surprises.
This divine visual imagery was broken only by lovely villages and towns with slate-roofed buildings painted in pastels over most of rural Wales–Aberaeron, Aberystwyth, Cardigan, Porthgain, Tenby, Llandeilo. Splendid opportunities to walk, window shop and people watch, they are also sort of places to which anyone battling urban dystopia would want to move. We spent charmed mornings and afternoons at the immaculately kept medieval cathedral at St Davids (the atmospheric ruins of a bishop’s palace are just adjacent), and the evocative Dylan Thomas trail in peaceful Laugharne. We wove in and out of the Snowdonia, Pembrokeshire and Brecon Beacons national parks. It was an embarrassment of riches.
So, when we reached Cardiff, I found it a vibrant and gregarious antithesis of the Wales we had seen thus far, and I was by then careful not to slot it into easy categories. We took a guided tour of the Cardiff castle, and strolled the Civic Centre, which is a magnificent cluster of important buildings, including the Cardiff University, the Temple of Peace, the Welsh National War Memorial and the City Hall (behold the snarling dragon stop, guarding an egg that could be Wales beneath its claws). Short of time, I picked to enter the National Gallery and Museum of Wales here, for the terribly guilty pleasure of hurrying past the Davies Collection, the largest display of Impressionist and post-Impressionist art outside Paris, which includes Monet’s San Giorgio Maggiore and Renoir’s La Parisienne (Van Gogh’s Rain at Anvers was travelling to America when we visited).
If you have only one day to spare for Wales, I dare say you couldn’t do better than spend it at the exceptionally picturesque Wye Valley. We drove past white painted cottages behind stone walls, sunlit shrubbery arched over the road, the winding Wye river forming a natural boundary with England, and grassy meadows where wild ponies grazed alongside fluffy sheep, rows of hedgerows and jungles of gorse.
We were headed for the atmospheric ruins of the 12th-century Tintern Abbey, the first Cistercian monastery in Wales. Fortunately, given how little time we had, we continued driving further up to the Vale of Ewyas, the easternmost valley of what are called the Black Mountains because of their brooding colour.
On the first day itself, I had meandered about a fabled garden, complete with a still-occupied manor house fitting my preconceived template of what’s best about Britain. Bodnant Gardens in the Conwy county of north Wales is 60 acres of planned verdure under the care of the National Trust, which is doing a fabulous job of protecting heritage treasures across the UK. The Old Park grassland here, dating to the 1700s, is landscaped in the style that was fashionable at the time, with a Ha-Ha ditch (a surprising innovation and thus the name!) to keep livestock out for uninterrupted views. Bodnant is home to several levels of lily and rose terraces, and a croquet lawn, beside old blue cedars and oaks standing within buttressed walls. There are exotic species brought from plant hunting expeditions to faraway lands; there’s a gorgeous 180-foot-long laburnum arch that blooms for four weeks from the end of May, and its leaves were still sparkling wet from the night’s dew at noon. I remember sitting on a weathered wooden bench by the shade of a young starlight tree, breathing deeply, trying to memorise the loveliness of where I was, feeling grateful that I had seen everything I wanted to see on this trip if not my last. I was, as it turned out, wonderfully, wonderfully wrong. In fact, as Marco would have said early on in our pages, you simply can’t see Wales in a week.
Conwy and other attractions in northeast Wales are only about an hour’s drive out of Manchester, to which plentiful connections are available from India. Round trip fares are about â‚¹57,000 (economy), ex-Delhi.
Online applications for a UK visa can be made at vfsglobal.co.uk/india (fee of â‚¹8,925; online appointments). The passport is returned in 15 working days.
£1= â‚¹96 (approx.)
Where To Stay
Our accommodation over the trip reflected the diversity of options available across Wales. We stayed at the old-fashioned and cosy The Castle Hotel (from £80; castlewales.co.uk ) overlooking Conwy’s laidback High Street. The quirky exteriors of Portmeirion (from £100; portmeirion-village.com ) went on to reveal very elegant and spacious rooms, no two of them alike (imagine a canopied, all-white, wrought iron bed in a room themed subtly around a pale blue). Gwesty’r Emlyn Hotel (from £80; gwestyremlynhotel.co.uk ), about ten miles from Cardigan in Carmarthenshire, has compact rooms with efficient service. At the charming town of Llandeilo, we were put up at The Cawdor (from £65; thecawdor.com ), which is both stylish and welcoming. At Cardiff, the centrally located and well-managed Clayton Hotel (from £90; claytonhotelcardiff.com ) was the first high-rise in which we stayed while in Wales. Our last night in Wales was spent at the Metropole Hotel (from £98; metropole.co.uk ), a 117-year-old family-run property in the spa town of Llandrindod. All rates are for standard doubles, inclusive breakfast.
What To See & Do
Driving about is the quickest way to get around, which also allows flexibility in exploring the alluring Welsh countryside at will. There’s no admission fee and walking the ramparts of the Unesco-protected Conwy castle is a great way to get a sense of the little town by the coast.
There’s a generous supply of great castles in Wales but if you had to pick only a handful, Caernarfon, Harlech and Carreg Cennen (the last a steep climb worth the fantastic views) also make most lists. St Davids Cathedral in Pembrokeshire and Tintern Abbey in Monmouthshire are splendid examples of historic sacred architecture.
Welsh museums and art galleries don’t need tickets (some castles do). The government-run Cadw (Welsh for ‘to protect’; www.cadw.gov.wales) works to preserve and promote the heritage sites in Wales. They sell 3/7-day Explorer Passes at many of the attractions they maintain. www.VisitWales.com is an excellent resource for planning itineraries and finding accommodation.