Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Land of 1000 Castles

Imagine the most impossibly green rolling hills of farmland patchworked with vibrant yellow mustard fields and dotted with fluffy white sheep. It's springtime so little baby lambs gambol through the grass, under a blue canopy of sky. Now add in a crumbling castle or abbey and that's pretty much the standard view I could see in any direction while driving through Wales last weekend.

My lovely Dad and Stepmother finally made it over to London to visit me and to drive around the English countryside. When my Dad suggested that we all go away for a weekend I immediately suggested Wales. I've had a cursory jaunt through Scotland, dabbled with the Emerald Isle and have explored much of Southern England, so I was eager to see yet another undiscovered corner of the British Isles. Wales seemed a particularly enigmatic place; patched onto the corner of England, a part of the United Kingdom for 100's of years yet stubbornly maintaining a completely different cultural identity and language. Plus the country has over 600 castles- and oh how I get a kick out of castles.

It was quite a shock to me to learn that the A40, the road which my living room looks out onto, can actually be followed all the way to Wales. If I felt like going for a particularly ambitious walk I could walk straight to the coast with only an ugly highway as my map! That's not really that fun though so we eschewed the main thoroughfares for a serious of windy little roads which took us through vast fields and villages that more then define the word "quaint". As we drew near the border the BBC transformed into a collection of guttural growls known commonly as Welsh. It is a language like none other. A couple phrases to learn:
thank you = diolch
street= ystryd
beer= cwrw
Yes, those are the correct spellings- I have no idea how one would pronounce any of those or what happened to all the vowels. Luckily, everyone in Wales can speak English, but they work very hard to maintain their national language.

Our first stop was Tintern Abbey, or what is left of it. Built in the 1130's for the Order of Cistercians (or White Monks as they were known because of their white robes), the abbey was of particular interest to me because it was probably there that a monk known as Geoffrey of Monmouth penned the earliest recorded reference to King Arthur in his Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain). After Henry the VIII kicked the crap out of the monasteries Tintern sat in neglected ruin for hundreds of years. But rarely will you see prettier ruins. The massive arches springing incongruously out of the beautiful welsh landscape inspired paintings by JM Turner and a poem by William Wordsworth who wrote;

Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,

That on a wild secluded scene impress

Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect

The landscape with the quiet of the sky.

Pressing deeper into the Wye valley we headed towards our resting place for the night, a charming town known as Hay-on-Wye. As dusk approached however, traffic came to a standstill on the two land country road we had been traveling. Lulled by the peaceful scenery and warm weather we abandoned our car to see what the hold up was. About 200 yards ahead of us was an antique tractor resting gently on it's side while a two truck tried to puzzle how to pick it up. A farmer who had walked straight off the pages of a story book stood dejectedly to the side. A strange country sight for us city slickers.

Hay-on-Wye was so charming, and so amazing that it may actually be where I go when I die (if I'm good that is, if I'm bad I'll be sent to Florida). It was in fact so awesome it warrants it's own post, so look for that later.

My Dad somehow managed to drag me away from Hay by noon the next day, and after a drive through the misty and mysterious Brecons Beacons National Park, we turned the car towards Cardiff, Wales' capital. Like everything else in Wales Cardiff is a charming city. It has more public park land per person then any other city on the planet- although the day was gray and rainy and we took little advantage of this fact. In face we spent most of our afternoon gawking at Cardiff Castle.

I've seen quite a few castles in my time but Cardiff is the most castle-y castle I've encountered. It is the perfect Disney castle, with imposing gray stone, turrets, and an over the top colorful clock tower. Inside the battlements is the ruins of a thousand year old keep, with a moat and a large Welsh flag beating proudly in the wind. All of this is sitting literally in the center of a modern city.

The castle was functional and certainly imposing back in the day, but more recently (as in the past 200 years) served as a summer home for an impossibly rich Scottish family. We toured the inner chambers, which had been decked out in a dizzying wealthy and ornate style that would make the Sheiks of Dubai feel plain. In a stark contrast we also climbed to the top of the dilapidated keep- a truly dizzying trek, for a spectacular and terrifying view of downtown. After everything else I'd seen that weekend, the flashy new football dome seemed anachronistic. Cardiff may be a modern city but the rest of Wales seems magnificently lost in time.

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