Wales, Part One

We took a morning from Newcastle to Bristol – in the extreme west of England – the day before my mom was due to fly into Cardiff, Wales where we were to pick them up. Before that, however, Lauren and I had a night in the city to get acclimated before we picked them up the next morning. After settling in I went in search of some food when I just happened to stumble on a Shake Shack which are as rare as they are tasty – I have only ever seen a couple in my life – so I ordered some to take back to our hotel. I got our first notice of the difficulty to understand the Welsh/English when the surprised Eastern European teller I ordered from asked me, “Where are you from? You speak English the way I was taught before I moved to Wales, not whatever they speak here.”

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After this encounter and the demolishing of our burgers in the hotel, I went out again for a quick walk in the Cardiff city center. Throughout the outdoor marketplace I happened upon thousands of pre-Christmas shoppers getting the last few gifts for their loved ones while we were all serenaded by a group of carolers in the middle of the square. I was not really looking to buy anything so I wandered around the city center getting lost in all the arcades which house small specialty shops and boutiques. Nestled between the streets and arcades are large indoor shopping centers with even more shops, but mostly of the big brand variety. There must have been at least a thousand different stores in and around the main square which was beautifully decorated for Christmas – the perfect place for finding gifts.

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One of Cardiff’s many arcades

The next day we picked up my mom from the nearby airport for our 2-week journey around Wales and Ireland. It is a really great time to have her come visit us as Christmas time and New Years was always going to be a difficult time missing all of our friends and family. Her visiting us definitely softened that blow. My mom and I both really wanted to visit Cardiff as a large chunk of our heritage is Welsh and we knew it would be a really special experience for the both of us.

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Animal Wall outside Cardiff Castle

Cardiff is sometimes referred to as the city of castles due to the five castles situated in and around the city. The most famous of these castles, Cardiff Castle, is situated in the heart of the city.  The 11th-century castle lies on the edge of the city center and next to the 130 acre Bute Park, which is named after a previous owner of the castle and its grounds. The castle itself consists of apartments in which the owners lived and a large shell keep that sits on a manmade hill, also known as a motte, all surrounded by thick castle walls. We visited the castle with my mom and enjoyed the beautiful panoramic views of the city from atop the shell keep, along with the stunning lodgings that were remodeled by the Bute family. One of the most interesting aspects of the castle is the WWII era air-raid shelters that were built inside the castle walls, capable of holding up to two thousand people at a time.

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Cardiff Castle’s shell keep and motte
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Arab Room in the Cardiff Castle residences
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Air-Raid Shelter

On our way out of the city and north-west to the little town of Abergavenny, we stopped at an abandoned abbey which was to be the first of many ruined buildings we saw on our trip around Wales. Tintern Abbey was the first Cistercian Abbey built in Wales (12th century), which was later left abandoned in the 16th century after the Dissolution of the Monasteries by King Henry VII, a Protestant, to spite the Catholic Church after the Pope at the time refused to grant the king a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. The Abbey today is one of the most complete examples of ruined churches in all of Wales and is an absolutely awe-inspiring piece of architecture to view. Its isolated setting among the picturesque hills nearby also makes it a great place to view the Welsh countryside. After our side trip, we completed our journey to our hotel in Abergavenny where we spent the rest of the night drinking and talking with the locals until the wee hours of the morning.

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As we made our way out of Abergavenny North and west again towards Aberystwyth, we randomly discovered another ruined building, this time a castle. Raglan Castle in the grand scheme of Welsh history is relatively young, though at around 500 years old cannot exactly be called new. It was purposefully slighted, or rendered useless as a fortress during the English Civil War in 1646 and was later abandoned. One of our favorite parts of the castle was climbing the only accessible tower to get an amazing panoramic view of the Welsh countryside. Though only meant to be a short sidetrack, we spent a great deal of time in the castle examining all the various rooms and imagining what the grandiose building must have looked like in its heyday. It was a really fun and interesting experience. The number of random historical buildings, ruined or otherwise, really puts into perspective the long history of Wales in comparison to the United States’s relatively short past. It’s one of the many things I love about visiting Europe

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We hit the road again after visiting the castle, driving north through the Brecon Beacons National Park, the first International Dark-Sky reserve in Wales – an area certified to be perfect for stargazing. We took winding roads through what seemed like hundreds of hamlets and villages between Abergavenny to the south-east and Aberystwyth to the north-west – the vast majority of towns we were unable to pronounce – every one of them surrounded by rolling green hills and pastures. The roads the entire way were quite narrow and rural which kept us passengers on the edge of our seats the entire ride through the heart of Wales. Luckily, we only hit a curb once.

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One of the most beautiful roads on the way to Aberystwyth is called the Abergweysn Pass, which is also coincidentally one of the most dangerous roads in Britain with the road often running mere inches from the edge of monstrous cliffs. The pass begins near St. David’s Church, a 6th-century church surrounded by a neglected looking cemetery that due to the rain coming in off the nearby mountains caused many graves to collapse. The collapsed graves and heavy mist that hovered above the church gave the entire place a very creepy vibe, especially as we knew the dangerous roads we would soon be facing. Luckily, there were no issues on our drive and we made it to the other side in one piece, not to mention we ended up with some pretty awesome views!

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Tips:

  1. No matter how comfortable you are driving manual in the United States, the crazy, winding and thin roads in Wales, combined with driving and sitting on the opposite side of the street make renting and driving a car VERY difficult. Spend the extra money for an automatic, you’ll thank me later.
  2. I’m pretty sure that not a day goes by in Wales that it doesn’t rain, don’t get discouraged if fog ruins your pictures, there’s not much you can do about it.

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