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Nine Days in Wales, Part Four

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Continued from Part Three

After experiencing sublime St. David’s we headed up the coast towards Snowdonia National Park, but this was not a hiking trip; Harlech Castle was our next stop.

Harlech Castle

Harlech Castle

Harlech Castle

Harlech Castle

A long walkway atop the walls provided a dramatic perspective, literally:

Atop the walls of Harlech Castle

Atop the walls of Harlech Castle

The view of the village and beyond was dramatic too.

View down to the village from Harlech Castle

View down to the village from Harlech Castle

The Welsh flag, featuring the red dragon, flies wherever you look

Welsh Flag at Harlech Castle

Welsh Flag at Harlech Castle

– huge ruined castles, humble little touristy shops, and everywhere in between. The green and white stripes are Tudor colors, but the dragon has been associated with Wales for well over a thousand years; in fact, according to Wikipedia “the red dragon is popularly believed to have been the battle standard of [King] Arthur.” A pewter dragon and a plush one came home with us, for gifts, and I’m looking at a miniature Welsh flag as I write. (That was for me.)

Next up was one of the strangest places I’ve ever been. Portmerion is an artificially constructed Italianate village pulled together over the course of the last century by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis and famous as the setting of the 1960s TV show The Prisoner. Now it’s run as a tourist attraction like any other, with a hotel and a waterfront. But if you’ve gotten a little overloaded with half-crumbled stone castles during this travelogue, have a look this for something utterly different:

Portmerion

Portmerion

Archway at Portmerion

Archway at Portmerion

Portmerion

Portmerion

Portmerion

Portmerion

No statues of King Arthur at Portmerion. This Buddha was more typical:

Buddha at Portmerion

Buddha at Portmerion

Ironically, it was at one of the gift shops at this decidedly non-Welsh pocket of Wales that I bought the Collected Poems of Welsh minister-poet R.S. Thomas, as well as a children’s book relating the tale of Gelert, the Faithful Dog. I remembered being captivated by the tale of Gelert during a visit to Beddgelert when I was a child; we didn’t have time on this trip to stop there, but the book made up for it. And Thomas – well, so many of his poems are about the Welsh people and countryside that being back home reading them has the effect of extending the trip. As he writes in “The Village”:

Scarcely a street, too few houses
To merit the title; just a way between
The one tavern and the one shop

That leads nowhere and fails at the top
of the short hill, eaten away
By long erosion of the green tide
Of grass creeping perpetually nearer
This last outpost of time past.

We arrived that evening in Caernarfon, where the Black Boy Inn was a welcome sight (though it would never have been named that in the U.S.).

The Black Boy Inn, Caernarfon

The Black Boy Inn, Caernarfon

Coincidentally, the Black Boy appears in this video about the crwth, a medieval stringed instrument a few hardy musicians on both sides of the pond are reviving. I happened upon the video purely by accident while hunting for information about Welsh music.

But the main attraction in Caernarfon is Caernarfon Castle, where Prince Charles was invested as the Prince of Wales back in 1969 on this stone circle:

Caernarfon Castle

Caernarfon Castle

The uncharacteristic hexagonal towers of this relatively intact castle were designed that way, it is said, to suggest the power of Rome, which the restive Welsh still respected centuries after the Centurions were gone. Thus it was hoped there’d be less rebellion. Remember that these castles were built not by and for the Welsh, but to keep them in line.

The towers of Caernarfon Castle

The towers of Caernarfon Castle

Hexagonal tower at Caernarfon Castle

Hexagonal tower at Caernarfon Castle

Noisy sea birds were our constant companions during so much of the trip.

Birds at Caernarfon Castle

Birds at Caernarfon Castle

And if we ever forgot we were by the coast, turning a corner would provide a reminder.

Boats outside Caernarfon Castle

Boats outside Caernarfon Castle

With its large size and jutting angles, Caernarfon Castle is one of the most famous places in Wales. Accordingly, we encountered more tourists here than at any other castle. But it was still easy to feel precarious and alone climbing among the passageways and rooms and walls. In the next and final installment, we visit a much less traveled castle, then finish up at the seaside resort of Llandudno.

Caernarfon Castle

Caernarfon Castle

Concluded in Part 5

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.
  • http://missus-emm.blogspot.com/ Mandy Southgate

    I really enjoyed Harlech Castle when we visited. It was the one day during our trip to Wales that we had stunning blue skies and sunshine and my camera ran out of battery! It was quite tragic.

    I only heard about Portmerion after our visit and your photos make me even more sad that I didn’t get to visit this peculiar town.

    I did get to visit Gelert’s grave though, so that was a treat!

    I loved the town of Caernarfon and would love to stay within the town walls one day. Caernarfon Castle was great (and so are your photos!) but by then, my poor husband was a bit tired of Edward I castles.

  • http://jonsobel.com/ Jon Sobel

    I sympathize with your husband’s being a little tired of the castles. They were the primary focus of our trip so we saw a great many, and I’m glad we did. But there’s definitely room in the landscape for more trips to this beautiful country. We didn’t even do any real hiking, and seeing all the hikers passing through the Carreg Cennen area made me want to come back with my backpack and hiking boots.

  • Marie

    That castle is beautiful, but I would have been more inclined to see the national park! I’ve never been hiking in the UK, and have actually never been to Wales at all. I’m trying to hike in every country in Western Europe before I die, starting with El Camino de Santiago (I read about it in Bill Walker’s book “The Best Way“), so I may have to look into Snowdonia for Wales.
    Tangent aside, beautiful photos.

  • http://jonsobel.com/ Jon Sobel

    Thanks, Marie. I’m a big hiker too. But that’s not what this particular trip was about. It was about climbing treacherous dark spiral staircases up the towers of ruined castles. A different sort of hike, you could say.