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.
A long walkway atop the walls provided a dramatic perspective, literally:
The view of the village and beyond was dramatic too.
The Welsh flag, featuring the red dragon, flies wherever you look – 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:
No statues of King Arthur at Portmerion. This Buddha was more typical:
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.).
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:
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.
Noisy sea birds were our constant companions during so much of the trip.
And if we ever forgot we were by the coast, turning a corner would provide a reminder.
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.
Concluded in Part 5