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Nine Days in Wales, Part One

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“Why Wales?” It’s the question practically everyone asked us when we told them where we were going.

Paddington Station

At Paddington Station, London

Well, for one thing, Wales is a lushly green, beautifully scenic country. For another: castles, lots and lots of castles. I’d been there as a child and retained epic memories of castles; I wanted to experience them as an adult. And so: Wales. That’s why.

We flew into London, stayed one night, and took a two-hour train ride out of Paddington Station to Cardiff,

The Keep at Cardiff Castle

The Keep at Cardiff Castle

the biggest city in Wales, where we wandered the lengthy pedestrian-only shopping streets, ate what may well be the best Indian meal we ever had (at a restaurant called Juboraj), and most important, visited Cardiff Castle, a complex of buildings with elements of various ages and styles.

Of the confusingly many castles we saw on the trip, only Cardiff remains in livable condition; it’s the only one that is, more or less, not a ruin. Sumptuously appointed 19th century interiors are accessible with a tour guide. The photo above is of the 12th century Keep; the ornate clock tower is much more recent. A frighteningly long WWII bomb shelter runs inside some of the outer walls, with a handful of photos and displays illustrating what life was like in Cardiff under Nazi shelling during the war. The almost supernatural length of the corridor-shelter led me to imagine terrifying ghostly visitations. We didn’t even make it through the whole length.

Cardiff Castle

Cardiff Castle

Clock tower at Cardiff Castle

Clock tower at Cardiff Castle

The next day we picked up our rented Vauxhall Astra and began an epic road trip of narrow lanes and bridges, in places one lane only, such that two cars couldn’t pass in opposite directions; of sheep, birds, and some of the friendliest people you’ll meet anywhere; of unfailingly excellent beer and hard cider; and of course, of castles. Detouring back eastward toward Chepstow, we stopped first at Caerphilly Castle, a huge ruin that’s undergone a good deal of preservation as well as land clearing to provide a more beautiful setting.

Caerphilly Castle

Caerphilly Castle

Caerphilly Castle

Caerphilly Castle

Entrance to Caerphilly Castle

Entrance to Caerphilly Castle

In the Great Hall, a batch of children ate their lunch during a class trip. In most of our sightseeing during this trip, few other people were present, but this crowd wasn’t bothersome at all, rather they were quite fun to observe playing on the lawn after lunch.

Caerphilly Castle

Kids on a trip to Caerphilly Castle

A tourist clutters up the scene (oh wait, that’s me):

Footbridge at Caerphilly Castle

Footbridge at Caerphilly Castle

We ate a delicious lunch, bought wheels of Caerphilly cheese at a local shop, and headed down the road for the Roman ruins at Caerleon. The site there was a bit difficult to find even with our GPS (whom we named Lady TomTom), but well worth the effort. Most of the ruins we saw in Wales date from Norman times and later, but finding a beautifully preserved Roman amphitheater and having it practically all to ourselves (March is “off season” but the weather is perfectly reasonable) was extra special.

Roman Amphitheater at Caerleon

Roman Amphitheater at Caerleon

Roman Amphitheater at Caerleon

Roman Amphitheater at Caerleon

The Roman baths have been dressed up for modern viewing:

Roman baths at Caerleon

Roman baths at Caerleon

A number of sites in Wales are associated with legends of King Arthur, as this appealing modern statue testifies.

Statue of King Arthur at Caerleon

Statue of King Arthur at Caerleon

One could probably plan out an entire Wales adventure based on Arthurian legend.

That plan wasn’t our plan, though, at least not this time. So we pushed on to Chepstow, a sweet little border town just over the Wye from England.

Street in Chepstow

Street in Chepstow

Bridge over the Wye from Chepstow to England

Bridge over the Wye from Chepstow to England

This part of the Wye is famous for extreme tides. Note the darkness on the bridge supports above, and the stripes on the wall of rock below:

Low tide at the River Wye, Chepstow

Low tide at the River Wye, Chepstow

Chepstow Castle is a grand sight on a sunny morning.

Chepstow Castle

Chepstow Castle

A picturesque moat, original wooden doors, a tour guide in full medieval regalia, and forbidding figures perched atop the walls to dissuade invaders are a few of Chepstow Castle’s high points.

Chepstow Castle

Chepstow Castle

Tour guide at Chepstow Castle

Tour guide at Chepstow Castle

In most towns we spent just one night, but in Chepstow we stayed two, and one evening, looking for our already customary pre-dinner pint, we wandered down to the river to seek out a pub our guidebook mentioned. Just as we approached the door, a huge cry of celebration burst out through the windows. Upon entering, we discovered that Wales had just that minute defeated France to win the Six Nations rugby tournament. The victory was the biggest news in the country for days afterward. News coverage of the sports triumph for the New Jersey-sized country – actually a part of the UK, not politically a separate country – followed us as we continued our Wales journey. Continued in Part Two.

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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://www.squidoo.com/lensmasters/IanMayfield Dr Dreadful

    A bit of clarification (or perhaps not!), Jon: Wales is indeed politically not a separate country: the Act of Union passed during the reign of Henry VIII made it legally a part of England. It does have its own parliament, though, albeit with very curtailed powers. And culturally, it has always been its own nation. No-one ever speaks of “Wales, a region of England”; it’s always “England and Wales” (or the other way about).

    Wales is my own spiritual home, although I’m much more familiar with the north, where the Welsh language still holds sway. I look forward to reading further instalments of your travelogue.

  • http://jonsobel.com/ Jon Sobel

    Thanks for the clarification, Dr. D. Travels in the north in an upcoming episode!

  • http://www.RosesSpanishBoots.com Christopher Rose

    I was kind of kidnapped from inner city Manchester and forced to live in a very small village in North Wales at the age of thirteen and absolutely hated it!

    I went from being a trendy young guy in a progressive boys grammar school to being surrounded by a bunch of ignorant hicks and farmers.

    School changed to a co-educational comprehensive whose syllabus was already at least two years behind where I was.

    There were about a thousand Welsh kids and six expat English kids and they used to literally fight us almost every single day, just because we were English.

    It was also a time of fairly strong Welsh nationalism, with holiday homes owned by English people regularly being burned down.

    I got out of there as soon as I could, how, why and what happened is a whole other story, but know for a fact that Welsh is now far more widely spoken both there and in South Wales than it was then.

    It is a beautiful country but as far as I am concerned it has much in common with France; fantastic landscape utterly spoiled by the inhabitants and their horrible languages, smatterings of both I have the misfortune to have learned. Sometimes a neutron bomb, which kills people whilst leaving infrastructure intact, seems like an appealing option!

    On a slightly more serious note, I don’t see any reason, particularly within the framework of the European Union (although that organisation obviously needs some fundamental reform as well) why England, Scotland and Wales shouldn’t become independent nations. As an Englishman, I think we would be better off both economically and culturally.

  • http://www.squidoo.com/lensmasters/IanMayfield Dr Dreadful

    Did they find out you were a Manchester United fan, Chris?

    From what I’ve seen, practically everybody in North Wales supports Liverpool!

  • http://jonsobel.com/ Jon Sobel

    Kids are cruel and violent to other kids wherever you go. Sad fact of life.

    Welsh language is very present today, especially in the north. And all signage throughout the country is bilingual. A bit more on that in a future episode.

  • http://www.RosesSpanishBoots.com Christopher Rose

    Football didn’t even come into it, Doc; it was racism plain and simple! Of course, plain and simple are typical of the Welsh! :-p

  • http://www.squidoo.com/lensmasters/IanMayfield Dr Dreadful

    Twll d�n pob Sais!

    I imagine you heard that a lot, Chris!

    The English have treated the Welsh pretty shittily over the centuries, so in a way you can hardly blame them.

    Hasn’t been my experience, though. Nicer and more hospitable people you’d be hard pressed to find.

  • http://www.RosesSpanishBoots.com Christopher Rose

    In total over two periods I lived a total of 5 years in Wales and still have family there, Doc.

    Niceness and hospitality were rare things in my experience, although, mostly but not exclusively in my second stretch, I did manage to have a lot of fun, although not really the kind you could talk about here!

  • S.T.M

    I prefer NEW SOUTH Wales. No castles, but the weather and beaches are pretty good. Oh, and we’re not horrible to Poms. Mostly …

  • http://www.squidoo.com/lensmasters/IanMayfield Dr Dreadful

    I’ve often wondered why they called it New South Wales and not just New Wales.

    Perhaps the first governor had a rotten holiday in Rhyl when he was a kid and was still ticked off about it.

    Just one of those historical foibles, similar to the reason why Jews aren’t allowed to eat seafood: some rabbi had an allergic reaction to a plate of mussels he’d eaten and decided that if he couldn’t enjoy it then nobody else ought to be able to either.

  • http://jonsobel.com/ Jon Sobel

    Seafood is kosher, just not shellfish.

  • S.T.M

    It apparently looked a bit like south wales from a distance. Of course, once they arrived they realised it was more like heaven … actually, they didn’t realise that at all, did they? The bastards turned it into a living hell for 100 years.

  • http://www.RosesSpanishBoots.com Christopher Rose

    There is actually quite a distinct difference between the various regions of Wales, most prominently between North and South, so I presume whoever named NSW was simply exercising a little regional pride.

    I believe the reason Jews don’t eat seafood is based on the mistaken perception that shellfish, like pigs, eat things that make them a health risk. Yet another lesson in the stupidity of dogma…

  • S.T.M

    I must say, I do like – love – the wild parts of the REAL South Wales. I went camping in there for a week one summer, in the Brecon Beacons national park, by a beautiful, crystal clear river, as a boy. We got rained out in a fierce storm on the last night and had to regroup for brekkie at a farmhouse where the farmer and his missus fed us farm fresh eggs and slices of thick-cut bacon that tasted more like top-grade ham and probably came from their own nice fat little porkers. All washed down with fresh-baked bread and about three hundreds cups of steaming hot tea.

    Funny what you remember … telling stories around campfires; swimming in cold, clear running water; the bizarre sight of a whole lot of HALO parachutists (wouldn’t have known it then, but was it the SAS??? That’s where they train. No planes were ever seen or heard by any of us) appearing literally out of nowhere and opening plain-coloured little square chutes 500m from the ground for about three hours nearby on one of the days there; the rugged beauty of the mountain scenery, and especially that breakfast after a long, cold and wet night.

    When my parents asked me how it was, I told them it was “OK”.

  • http://www.squidoo.com/lensmasters/IanMayfield Dr Dreadful

    The SAS are based in Hereford, in the Marches, so it makes sense that they would train in the Brecon Beacons.

    Slightly on a tangent, there’s also special forces training that takes place on Rannoch Moor, a 50-mile expanse of bog in the Scottish Highlands. One standard exercise – I think it’s for the Royal Marine Commandos – is to live out on the moor for several days without being seen: more difficult than it sounds, since there are tourists everywhere.

    There was one story we heard from a local about a young couple who stopped on the moor for a – shall we say – rest break. The woman went off into the bushes to answer the call of nature, finding what to all appearances was a nice secluded spot with no-one in sight for miles.

    Halfway through the process she happened to glance down – and realized she was peeing on a commando’s face.

  • S.T.M

    Jon, rugby is almost a religion in Wales. For many years, because of the exciting way they played it, Welsh rugby was a benchmark in the northern hemisphere, more admired even than the slightly different French style of play, which is also very open and free-flowing (and hugely different from the then rather dour English and Scottish and to a lesser extent Irish way of playing, although that forward-based style often wins games). Alas, when rugby became a professional game, Welsh rugby took a bit of a dive. It’s only come back again in the past couple of years under their New Zealand coach Warren Gatland, who came within a whisker of downing France in the semi-final of the Rugby World Cup, while playing a man down (bad refereeing IMO cost them a shot in the Final and a chance at glory in the final against New Zealand). Winning the Soix Nations is a really big deal in world rugy – it means you are the best in the northern hemisphere.

    Part of the fun of going to rural parts of the British Isles is to turn out on a winter’s Saturday afternoon with a pair of gum boots on and while chomping on a hot sandwich, watch two teams of muddied oafs belting the living shit out of each other in a local rugby game.

    Doing it in Wales means seeing it at a pretty high standard, since many of the village sides pull in good players from all over the district and these will play at a reasonably high tier of national competition.

    It’s a great day out and a real eye opener as to how obsessed the Welsh are with the game. Down my neck of the woods, the wellbeing of the collective national psyche of New Zealand depends on how ell the national team, the All Blacks, are doing. In their case, it’s an obsession with winning. And they are good at that.

    While all teams should go out to win every game, if you don’t, it’s not a national disaster. The Welsh seem to enjoy the playing of the game a bit more (most boys play from Under 7s right through high school and most adult males up to the age of about 50 are still running around the paddock in Wales, it always seems to me), so winning something like this is a huge thing … as you’d have gathered.

    It’s worth checking out some old videos of Welsh rugby from, say, the 1970s to fully understand the passion. In short, they are nuts …

    It’s an ongoing reason to hate the English (and the Scots and Irish and everyone else).

    Cheers, hope you always remember the visit. Sounds like it.

  • S.T.M

    Doc, I bet the dirty bugger never moved an inch, good marine that he was.

  • S.T.M

    The thing I love about rugby, BTW, is that you get to experience that same spirit anywhere in the world. Watching two village teams playing in Fiji isn’t that different to watching two village teams playing in Wales (well, except the Fijians do throw the ball about a bit more). But you get my drift. If you play rugby, go anywhere it’s played and you’ll always have at least 14 friends (the downside: some of them you might never want to introduce to your wife or mother :)