“Do you know where Wales is? Most people in the world have no idea. It is a peninsula standing at the heart of the British Isles, on the western flank of England facing Ireland.” – Jan Morris
One of the three constituent countries of Great Britain, Wales (“Cymru” in Welsh) is officially bilingual (around a quarter of the population still speaks the ancient Celtic language) and has a distinctive literary tradition and culture. South Wales was heavily industrialized during the 19th century, and today it remains the most populous part of the country. The rest of Wales is mountainous, extremely picturesque and a walker’s paradise. The immense Caernarfon Castle, built in 1283 by English King Edward I, is one of the most spectacular fortresses in Europe.
Superb Hiking Trails
Wales has many superb hiking trails, the most famous being the 177-mile Offa’s Dyke Path, which defines much of the border between England and Wales. A massive linear earthwork up to 65 feet wide and eight feet high, it formed some kind of boundary between the Anglian kingdom of Mercia and the Welsh Kingdom of Powys in the eighth century. On a recent trip, we were able to spend some time hiking a clifftop stretch of the celebrated 186-mile Pembrokeshire Coast Path in southwest Wales, which provides panoramic views of Skomer and Skokholm islands — both wildlife reserves teeming with seabirds — as well as unspoiled golden beaches such as those at Marloes Sands and St. Brides Bay.
The wild terrain of Wales has always presented a problem to those determined to impose their will on the British Isles. The Normans were inclined to take no chances, so they set to work on a series of fortresses, the imposing remains of which can be seen today in places such as Chepstow and Pembroke. Two hundred years later, their descendants were still having trouble, so in 1277, King Edward I embarked on the so-called “Conquest of Wales.” With the defeat in 1282 of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, the last independent prince, his annexation was complete. Like his forefathers, Edward then set to work in a mania of castle-building. The most impressive of his great fortresses, Caernarfon, Harlech, Beaumaris and Conwy, survive largely intact to this day. If you have time to visit only one, Caernarfon should be your choice (avoid crowded weekends). It is not the largest castle in Wales, however. That distinction belongs to Caerphilly.
A Beautiful Garden
In North Wales, don’t miss the 80-acre Bodnant Garden, administered by the National Trust. Bodnant is particularly famous for its breeding program of rhododendrons and azaleas, as well as for collections of camellia, hydrangea, clematis and magnolia. Its celebrated laburnum arch generally flowers the first week of June.
Rock Walls and Glacial Valleys
Snowdonia is the most dramatic area of Wales. Although none of the region’s peaks exceed 4,000 feet, the sheer rock walls and steep glacial valleys are impressive, with the road from Beddgelert to Capel Curig via Nant Gwynant being particularly spectacular. Snowdonia should be avoided in summer, however, especially on weekends, as it is readily accessible from large cities such as Manchester and is often crowded with climbers, hikers and sightseers.