BONJOUR WORLD: The history lives on alongside the modern in Wales
I was looking for some sort of mystical experience coupled with good food and legend and it turns out Wales is a place that can provide it all. It’s a bit like a mist covered Avalon, this unique destination with castles that peek out of the fog, towns that date back hundreds of years with a strong Welsh persuasion and a geography that goes from windswept beaches to rugged uplands. Oh and there is the fact that the unique Welsh language lives on even if the country is part of Great Britain.
It’s only a two-hour train ride from London’s Heathrow, but you couldn’t find yourself dropped into a more different and might I say idyllic setting.
Let’s begin with some facts about Wales. There are literally hundreds of castles to be visited, vast coastline and gourmet menus (included Michelin-starred restaurants) that will tempt your taste buds.
So, when I crossed over into the land of the dragon I could feel the ancient history in the air. The Welsh Dragon – it’s red – appear on the flag of Wales and it has been a symbol used by the Welsh people since around AD 829. King Arthur and Merlin legends are whispered here and remember, the dragon was supposed to have been used by King Arthur and a variety of other Celtic fighters back in the day.
The tour company that took my colleague and I around for the week was Dragon Tours and Mike Davies, very knowledgeable and accommodating so the company comes highly recommended.
Since castles are a main ingredient on any Welsh itinerary you might as well begin your journey at one called Chepstow Castle, which dates back to 1067 and was a base for the Norman Conquest of southeast Wales. Like most of the breathtaking castles on Welsh soil, this one was built on a cliff – the better to see enemies before they arrived – and above a river for even better fortification.
As for ghost in the area I didn’t see any in the Chepstow area, but you can feel the history in the air. With that history is the fact that the ancestors of this place really do seem to be alive and strong as the current residents keep the history of the Welsh people alive.
At a place called Tintern Abby in the Wye Valley you will be delving into a past that dates to the year 1131. Another location built on the edge of a river with all the sides surrounded and protected by a steep wooded gorge.
This abbey was actually the first Cistercian foundation in Wales and the ruins of this once active structure are dramatic, even more so as you consider the history. A stunning example of the gothic times that took 60 years to build, the ruin easily calls to mind the monks – called the white monks - roaming the rooms back in the day.
Staying in the town of Abergavenny the first night, on Saturday there is a traditional indoor market with local vendors selling everything from produce to fresh bread to jam or even historical items and handicraft.
I was looking for ghosts during the trip, so I headed into the Brecon Beacons area and to the Skirrid Inn for lunch. The place has quite a reputation. First of all, it is said to be the oldest pub in Wales so already you can imagine the history. Even Shakespeare found inspiration here and you can still spend a few nights at the inn, which has been standing for over 900 years. You are sure to find a resident ghost during the night or even just taker in the history of the revolution in the area dating back to the Norman Conquest of the 11th century.
As for the Brecon Beacons, it is another one of those areas in Wales that is steeped in mystery and intrigue. The landscape goes back to the ice age. There are wooded valleys, caves and little market towns to spend the day like in Abergavenny or even Hay-on-Wye a famous book town that has been referred to as “the Woodstock of the mind.”
Located in the Brecon Beacons Carreg Cennin Castle promises spectacular views built on a limestone cliff and not inhabited since the mid-1400s.
A bit off the beaten path, but worth it, find St. Issu Church in Patricio, sometimes spelled Partrishow and located on the southern slopes of the Gader Range. Once at the church you will find broad views of the lower Grwyne Fawr, but the best part is the church itself named after an early Celtic saint who was murdered and thus the place became an important pilgrimage area. There are medieval wall paintings inside the church and in the back a parish chest carved from a tree trunk with iron bands around it. A feeling of medieval times abounds here and if you walk down the hill it’s even better, there is a fairy tree with ribbons and a fairy spring.
This whole idea of fairy’s is strong in Wales too and if you keep your eyes open you might find one, particularly at the trees where the rags and bits of clothing have been tied to the branches – a strong tradition in Wales when the tree is located near a holy well.
In the spirit of all things myth and legend you won’t want to miss the town of Carmarthen since it’s where there is a museum with a tree inside that is said to have been a part of the history of King Arthur’s Merlin. There is a Merlin festival in this town in the summer, but if you are there at any other time you can also ask to be pointed toward Merlin's Hill. It is the location of an Iron Age Hillfort. The Hillfort dates back to 400 B.C., and was likely used for tribal gatherings however, in 1188, Gerald of Wales wrote that Merlin was born in the area and was thought to have lived in a cave on the hill. True or not, many folks still say they can hear Merlin clanking his chains in the area.
While inland Wales offers a certain mystique unparalleled to many destinations, the Welsh coastline is also a thing of legend in its beauty. The St. Brides Spa Hotel is a modern building and worth a few nights in Pembrokeshire with views of not only Carmarthen Bay, but also Saundersfoot Harbor. The artwork is contemporary inside the building with floor to ceiling windows in the main rooms. Definitely to impress is the dinner in the Cliff Restaurant and afterwards enjoy the nice big fireplace to warm your bones.
Keeping the coastal theme the next day I headed to the town of Tenby and on to Swansea. In both of these towns get out of your car and do some walking and wondering around. Swansea is where you can find Dylan Thomas still alive and well with a Dylan Thomas Center and the Swansea Museum.
Consider having lunch on the beach since the vibe is engulfing and while in the colder months the wind is strong it will blow the spirit of Wales into your bones.
Also in the area is a village called Cwmgwrach, which means "The Valley of the Witch.” No one is sure where the name came from, but there is a large sign when entering with a witch symbol. It a fun stop on the road as you discover more tales featuring Welsh pride.
As the end of the trip as I neared Cardiff there was an old cemetery in Merthyr Tydell called Vaynor (St. Gwendoline) Church Cemetery. There are many graves dating back hundreds of years, but the feeling of walking through this old landmark with a history that dates back many hundreds of year – well that is the real attraction. There is certainly a feeling of not being alone, but it’s a peaceful feeling as you walk among the old trees and read the gravestones, some so old that the wording has been lost to time.
A good idea will be to spend your last night in Cardiff as it is near the airport and there is much to do in this bustling modern city. A short list includes the National Museum of Wales with Roman relics and Celtic crosses and Cardiff Castle with its own ghost stories, but of course head to the harbor for one last breath of clean Welsh air.
When visiting Wales you can be sure that the ghost and fairy stories will be a conversation worth having so listen for the word Ellylldan, that is a Welsh spirit that misleads travelers down the wrong roads, but you might find you like the directions better. And ask about the fairy lights often found in boggy areas. The term Tylwyth Teg is a Welsh term for the 'Fair Folk' and if you have some time get up to Freni-Fawr, said to be a mountain associated with the fairies and an entrance to the other world.
It’s worth a peek into this magic country so plan for it now and just know you will definitely feel as if you have stepped into another time.
Where to stay
The Angel Hotel
St Brides Hotel and Spa
The King Arthur Hotel
Where to eat
Blaenafon Cheese Company is a specialist cheese maker in Wales with a tasting room and shop.
The Potted Pig is located in a bank vault beneath the city of Cardiff with a seasonal menu that includes suckling pig.
South Beach Bar and Grill – stunning views on the sea shore and try a bloody mary in Tenby.
Pettigrew Tea Room
If you time your trip during Halloween you will get a special surprise at the ghost tour in Raglan Castle. It’s highly recommended because let’s face it ghosts and Wales go hand in hand. Dragon Tours can set you up with this tour or if not during the season, visit the castle for a historical observation in the Abergavenny area. Raglan Castle is one of the last medieval castles to be built and there is a great tower and the traces of a Tudor garden. There are also stories that date back to Henry Tudor, aka Henry VII who spent some of his childhood here.