North Wales (Snowdonia) and Cardiff

Essentially, we had only a day and two nights in the beautiful hilly heartland of North Wales, Snowdonia. Wales is Castle country, North Wales only more so. We had booked our bed and breakfast at Queens Hotel in the shadow of the majestic Harlech castle, a short walk from the beach.

Harlech Castle

 Harlech Castle and sea

That is the beauty of the mountains of Wales and even Scotland at times, the sea is never far away. Turn the corner around a hill and you are greeted with splendid views of a bay, with yatchs (or sometimes a cruise ship if you are lucky) or simply blue expanses. We reached the hotel at dusk and had just about enough time to walk around town hunting for some good food (it is another matter that the vegetarian Indian fare we finally managed to find was pathetic). The hotel owners were Welsh and had a cute little kid who kept running around and trying to converse with us in a mish-mash of Welsh and English. We were to find later that Welsh is seeing a revival as a language, and most Welsh make it a point for their children to learn it. In a time, when everything else is dictated by commands from London, I guess it is a sane method to preserve one’s distinct heritage.

Snowdonia gets its name from Mt. Snowdon, the highest peak in Wales and second highest in Britain. Many enthusiasts spend a few days in the area to scale the mountain and its adjoining peaks, and detailed tracks and trails are available readily with tourist offices, hotels as well as online.

Our day in the region though, was mainly planned along a drive, which I charted out using websites and google maps. It read something like this –

Harlech to Beddgelert (pronounced Be-“the”-gelert) – 30 min drive

Beddgelert to Betws-y-Coed (pronounced Betoos-ee-Coed) – 30 min

Betws-y-Coed – Blaenau Ffestiniog – 25 min

Blaenau Ffestiniog – Criccieth – 40 min

Criccieth – Portmeirion – 20 min

Portmeirion – Harlech – 20 min

All these difficult names do not appear that difficult to the Welsh and also highlight how different the two languages are. What we decided to skip were as usual, the more beaten paths, namely the Caernarforn Castle (the most popular castle among visitors because of its size and the fact that this is where the Prince of Wales, currently Charles, is anointed; but then we were already visiting what I think were more enchanting castles in Harlech, Criccieth and Cardiff) and the Welsh mountain railway from Porthmadog to Ffestiniog (the oldest running railway in the World, a kid’s delight but again very similar to the mountain railways of Ooty and Darjeeling).

We had difficulty reaching Beddgelert as the highway was closed for maintenance and the re-directing signs were extremely confusing, following which we initially landed up on very narrow mountaineous roads high high-up amidst refreshing greenery of the mountains and mist, but obviously did not mind the detour that much!

Beddgelert means “the grave of Gelert”. Gelert was a dog. Yes, a dog (Lucky dog, as the English may say, got a town on his name after all!). The story goes like this – the local King loved his faithful dog. One day on a hunting mission, upon returning to his camp, he was horrified to find the bed of his toddler son empty and blood all around. The dog came barking excitedly towards him with its mouth stained with blood. In a fit of rage at what had seemingly happened, he slayed his pet with his sword. As he did that, he saw his son appear unharmed from inside the dog-house, and looking around, found the body of a wolf that the dog had apparently fought and killed in order to save the boy’s life. The king was distraught and decided to honour and remember the dog’s courage by establishing his grave and that’s how the town got its name. I actually think I had this story in one of my story books as a kid. The village-town was picture perfect with a pretty stream flowing through it and flowers blooming on every sidewalk and every window-sill.

Beddgelert

And we were simply amazed to see the number of tourists, who had brought their dogs along for a pilgrimage! It was dog-riot of all shapes and sizes and breeds, and together we all walked humbly to pay homage to man’s best friend.

Gelert's grave

From one picturesque village to another. The drive to Betws-y-Coed was panoramic and praised in superlatives in every travel review I came across. We liked it, but to be honest, it was not as scenic as the vistas I had come across in Switzerland and Scotland, and definitely nothing compared to, let’s say, the drive to Badrinath in India. We stopped by at Swallow Falls that reminded me of the waterfalls in Coorg, and there were so many coins people had thrown in the stream running out of the falls as well!

Coins in stream

So we quickly hurried towards our next stop, the slate caverns of Blaenau Ffestiniog. Mining has been THE industry in Wales for a couple of centuries now. This was where the Industrial revolution of Britain got fuelled in the literal sense. There are many mines in the area, best ones to view being the Slate and Copper mines. The Slate Caverns are the biggest, and a large portion (2 sections of the old mines) have been opened to the public and made into a visitor attraction. A typical small miner village from the Victorian times has been re-created and preserved to give visitors a true experience of what the life of miners in that era was like. It was a hard life for sure. There was the house of the blind Harper that attracted our attention the most, as also the shop with the old-world charm and goodies. What’s commendable is, that the exhibits are presented very attractively which makes even a dull place like a mining village look appealing, and every little scrape of history is well-preserved and exhibited. We did a tour of the mines underground, where using a number of exhibits (8 i think), a detailed life-history of a miner was presented. We were carried a few hundred feet under the ground, and came across a beautiful underground lake and the audio-visual presentations were impressive as well. But what was really commendable was that my dear fellow traveler made through all of the dark and damp caverns, despite being claustrophobic.

Slate mines

From here we headed towards the Criccieth Castle, sitting at the tip of the sea, where it was witness to many a wars between the English and Welsh, and thereafter, the British and French.

Criccieth castle

After touring the castle, we sat in its shadow gazing at a very impressive beach again, sparkling golden under the late afternoon sun.

Criccieth Sea

From here we headed to the bizzare, uber-stylized Italianate village of Portmeirion. It was built in the late 70’s by a business tycoon to retain the charm of cultured lifestyle in a setting styled on a mediterranean resort town. We reached late, but managed to see past the guard for my travel partner’s respected traveler credentials. The village is only a designer village where no one lives but it hosts guests in its hotels and general visitors in daytime. It was interesting in its bizzare mix of architecture, but again honestly, we wouldn’t have missed a lot had we skipped it. Lets just say we found it was a nice place to relax.

Portmeirion

So, as the evening sun started to set, we reached back our hotel from where we were off the next morning for our 4 hour drive back to Cardiff airport, where we returned the car and jumped on a bus to the city. In Cardiff, we explored the city streets around the centre and the Cardiff Castle, the central area being very pretty.

Cardiff castle

 Cardiff lane

Cardiff Castle is impressive as a modern-day castle structure. Its internal tour, however, did not appeal to me, as it was nothing more than about the luxurious life of royal sidekicks in the last 80 years or so, hardly any history in it. So that was it, we finished off our trip to Wales (shamefully in Burger King), and boarded the late evening bus to London.

11 Comments

  • SilkRoad says:

    OH. beautiful place.

  • Manish Khamesra says:

    Beautiful Rahul, you soaked me in the beautiful description.

    Nice pictures of the reddened sky, the cycle and the stream with coins :)

  • Nandan says:

    Interesting. Very well written (as if thats a news anymore) with subtle hints of your travel partner keeping the curiosity alive :).

    England is Right hand drive, right ?, just like India. Is wales a left hand drive ?. The Beddgelert pic has this oncoming car on left, may be its a one way road.

  • Rahul says:

    Thanks guys for ur appreciation. :-)
    Nandan, Wales is right-hand drive as well. The car you see is stationary. Its only coz of the parking being full on the bank holiday weekend, people were forced to park on street! Great observation though!

  • Ram Dhall says:

    The Welsh beauty and the literature based on the Welsh country side has always been fascinating me. Your beautifully written article has further strengthened my desire to include Wales on my itinerary during my next visit to U K.

  • backpakker says:

    I go back almost fifteen years when I decided not to study at cardiff ..I realize what a mistake it was …

    Your post was so beautiful that I just got carried away..I have this fascination for the UK ..maybe its the colonial hangover !!

  • smitadhall says:

    wow! what pictures!!! and a great write-up to match!

  • Rahul says:

    Thanks everyone!
    Dhall uncle, you must visit Wales, and in summer as winter is miserably rainy. It is an ideal mix of a quiet close-to-nature holiday and historical discovery.
    backpakker, don’t know about 15 years ago, but the ranking of Cardiff Uni has fallen over the last few years, so maybe it was a good decision! :-)

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Thanks Rahul. We are planning a trip to U.K. sometimes in May / June. I will get in touch with you and discuss our travel details.

  • K Singh says:

    You wrote:
    the Welsh mountain railway from Porthmadog to Ffestiniog (the oldest running railway in the World, a kids delight but again very similar to the mountain railways of Ooty and Darjeeling..

    Please note that the two railways (Ffestiniog and Darjeeling) are officially twinned. The Indian Railway Company’s Darjeeling Himalaya line, which opened in 1882, was modelled on the much older Ffestiniog Railway in Gwynedd.

    The Ffestiniog Railway is said to be the oldest independent railway company in the world, being founded by an Act of Parliament in 1832.

    Read more at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/wales/north_west/7022605.stm

  • born4thesurf says:

    I have visited Snowdonia on a number of occasions for the sheer natural beauty of the place. I recommend taking a trip on Snowdon Railway – It is a fantastic mountain top adventure for everyone! Also take a visit to the one of the many stunning castles such as Conwy and Dolwyddelan Castle. Accommodation is plenty nearby ranging from the basic backpackers type place to the luxurious. There is one particular Snowdonia Hotel that I personally love and that is Dolserau Hall. It is a lovely Victorian Country House Hotel dating back to 1860 set in the heart of the beautiful hills of Southern Snowdonia. I got engaged there as it is such a romantic setting. Enjoy Snowdonia!

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