- The Washington Times - Friday, January 2, 2004

That slight drizzle the Welsh know as “mist” does not bother us at all as we walk about the tiny village of Beddgelert. It has been misty much of our time in Wales. It may be misty, but it also is delightful, and Beddgelert is a good example of what makes it so. This village of 300 is exactly the sort of place for which the much overused word “quaint” was invented.

It sits in the foothills of Mount Snowdon, Britain’s highest mountain outside Scotland, at a spectacular spot where two rivers and three valleys meet. Its picture-perfect fieldstone and slate homes and shops blend tidily into the landscape, pleasing to the eye and also impressive for their sturdiness.

Walking around the village, savoring its attractive appearance and views of the river that runs through it, we come across cute little shops with surprisingly wide selections of interesting and unusual handicrafts. We find charming little places to duck into to enjoy tea and scones in cozy surroundings.

Beddgelert has a heart-wrenching legend. The revered 13th-century Welsh Prince Llywelyn the Great, as the legend goes, went hunting one day and left his faithful dog to guard his infant son, but when he returned, he found an overturned cradle and beside it his dog, covered in blood. Thinking the dog had attacked his son, the prince killed it immediately, only to discover his son unharmed under the cradle. Nearby was a wolf the dog had killed while protecting the baby.

In Welsh “bedd” means “grave,” and Gelert is said by some to be the name of the dog of the legend. A mound of stones just outside Beddgelert (Grave of Gelert) is said to mark the grave of the dog. It’s a fake, though: An early 19th-century hotelier named Dafydd Pritchard adapted the old Welsh legend to associate it with the village to promote tourism and fill rooms in his hotel. Tourists still take a walk to visit the false grave, which just takes away time from enjoying what is real about this little village.

The lovely village of Beddgelert doesn’t need anything made up to make it well worth a visit, and neither does Wales in general, although it certainly is a land very rich in legends.

STUNNING SCENERY

Visitors to Wales soon sense they are traveling in a land of legends because they can’t go very far without coming across a medieval castle. No other country in Europe has as many castles per square mile, the Welsh claim.

Wales is called a country rather than a state or dominion, although it actually is part of the United Kingdom — England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Welsh are British, too, because what we refer to as Great Britain consists of England, Scotland and Wales.

Many Americans who haven’t visited Wales may believe it is mostly run-down coal mines, but when it comes to scenery, Wales easily matches Ireland or Scotland. Indeed, few other countries have so much stunningly beautiful scenery in so small an area.

Wales is very small — about 170 miles long and 60 miles wide — and is bordered by the sea on three sides; the fourth shares a border with England. Its size leads many visitors to make the mistake of allocating too little time for visiting Wales. Besides there being a lot to see, visitors need to make allowance for the fact that Wales is mostly mountainous with mainly narrow roads.

Driving around Wales may be slow, but that’s a plus because there is so much glorious scenery to take in — an abundance of mountains, hills, waterfalls, narrow river valleys, rocky streams, forests, lakes, rolling pastoral landscapes and pretty little villages. To a considerable extent, it is reminiscent of New Zealand. With sheep everywhere, Wales also has a sheep-to-people ratio that is almost as great as New Zealand’s.

EASY AND AFFORDABLE

For Washington area residents, visiting Wales has become easier and more affordable. That’s because BMI airline (formerly British Midland) and a Welsh hotel group have teamed up to offer a package out of Washington Dulles International Airport for about $1,500, which includes round-trip air fare in its New Economy class (more legroom), plus six nights’ accommodations in first-rate hotels and a six-day car rental with unlimited mileage.

This Wale of a Deal travel package runs through March 31, after which the cost increases by $100 and includes five rather than six nights’ accommodations and five days of rental car use. It still is a great bargain because the cost for everything is about the price of airfare alone.

This travel package allows travelers to select from among 43 members of the Welsh Rarebits collection of historic inns and country manors. This was the package we took for our visit to Wales. After landing in Manchester, England, we drove about two hours before crossing into Wales, where we stopped for lunch at the first licensed inn in Wales, the 16th-century Groes Inn, at a place called Ty’n-y-Groes just outside Conwy.

Conwy is one of Britain’s lesser-known and underappreciated historic towns. This small town, population 3,800, is in just a bit from the Irish Sea and is dominated by a massive late-13th-century castle with eight huge towers that the English King Edward I constructed as part of his iron necklace of fortresses designed to intimidate the Welsh into submission. Every bit as impressive as the castle is the well-preserved wall — fortified with 21 towers and three gateways — that encircles almost the entire town.

Other Conwy attractions include Teapot World, a museum that displays teapots from several centuries; Plas Mawr, an Elizabethan mansion known for its impressive interior; and the Smallest House, supposedly the smallest house in Britain. It is two stories but only 9 feet high and 6 feet wide. A woman dressed in traditional Welsh garb greets visitors.

Walking about Conwy, we soon size up the Welsh as polite, friendly and helpful to visitors. We are amused to note a couple of perfect examples of British understatement, too. One is a store called the Useful Shop; the other is the sign outside a shop that claims its fish and chips are “probably” the best in town.

Overnighting in a different town — Beaumaris, on the island of Anglesey on an inlet from the Irish Sea — we once again are under the shadow of one of King Edward’s massive castles. The town is home to such other attractions as a historic jail where visitors can learn about the harshness of prison life in Victorian times; a butterfly farm that is home to a collection from around the world; and an unusual museum devoted to the topic of childhood.

The hotel, the Olde Bull’s Head, is genuinely historic. Most of the rooms bear the names of Dickens characters because Charles Dickens once was a guest here, as was Samuel Johnson.

GOOD FOOD

The Olde Bull’s Head, it turns out, is typical of the places where we stay — a small hotel with real character, a pleasing ambience, great service and amazingly good food.

That’s what surprises us most about all of our accommodations — the food. Each of the Welsh Rarebits hotels serves a varied menu of outstanding food, as good as we have had in Europe — excepting Italy. The old wisecrack about traveling in Britain — “If you like the weather, you’ll love the food” — is becoming obsolete.

Leaving Beaumaris, we head toward the Snowdonia area of northern Wales, the area around Mount Snowdon. Northern Wales, the area to which we have decided to confine our first visit to Wales, and especially Snowdonia, is widely considered to be the most scenic and interesting part of Wales. This is the region in which the old Welsh language is most vigorously preserved. Signs usually are in English and Welsh, but sometimes only in Welsh. That can confuse things because Welsh is a difficult language that favors long names, and pronunciation is not at all what the arrangement of letters would suggest.

Along the way to Mount Snowdon, we do as most tourists do and stop in a town that is famous for having the longest name in the world. The town of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllandysiliogogogoch has 58 characters in its name, which translates into English as “Saint Mary’s church in the hollow of witch hazel near a rapid whirlpool and the Church of St. Tysilio near the red cave.” The Welsh usually refer to it by its nickname, “LlanfairPG.”

Other than looking at signs of the long name, about the only thing to do is to shop at a huge tourist store that specializes in Scottish woolens rather than Welsh goods.

Moving along toward the mountain, we also take a look at yet another famous castle, Caernarfon Castle, the place at which the reigning British monarch’s eldest son is invested as Prince of Wales.

Mount Snowdon may not soar quite so high as the Alps or the Rockies, but on a clear day, the views from atop are spectacular, taking in distances as far as the Isle of Mann and the Wicklow mountains in Ireland. Unfortunately, it is pouring rain when we show up, although the rain stops in the afternoon while we are underground visiting the Welsh Slate Museum. Still, the few hours we spent on the steam-train ride up and down the mountain was fun and makes us wish to return someday.

PLENTY OF PRETTY SIGHTS

The mountain may be the central focus, but it is the surroundings that make Snowdonia so special — all the beautiful rivers and valleys, lakes, waterfalls, pastoral scenes and wee villages.

You can take in the scenery just driving by, for waysides for a view are far too few. It’s a good idea to get off the usual paths and see the countryside while riding on one of the Great Little Trains of Wales — narrow-gauge trains that once hauled slate but now carry tourists. We’re not hikers, but we also enjoy spending part of a day seeing some countryside with a hiking guide. It is a great way to get to some very tiny villages that most tourists don’t know to visit.

With so many sheep around, visitors can learn a little bit about them and see some impressive demonstrations such as sheep shearing and a shepherd working champion border collies to herd the flocks at a family-run working sheep-farm attraction called Ewe-Phoria. We have seen several of these sorts of operations in New Zealand, but Ewe-Phoria is the only one we know of in Wales, and it is nicely done.

We also take in Portmeirion and Bodnant, two other places considered must-see tourist spots of Northern Wales.

Portmeirion is a sprawling Italianate fantasy village with no residents, only guests. The 50 eclectic buildings, ranging from Oriental to Gothic, are placed around a piazza that a Welsh architect whimsically assembled on his property in the 1920s. The famous Portmeirion flowered pottery was created by the architect’s daughter, and firsts as well as seconds in the pottery line are for sale here, although it is now produced in England.

Whereas Portmeirion is bizarre and can’t compete with the beauty of the Welsh countryside and villages that lie nearby, Bodnant Garden, our last major stop in Wales, is splendid, perhaps Britain’s finest and certainly one of the most beautiful gardens in Europe.

We have moved around a good bit, staying at a different place each night, but at no place were we more than a two-hour drive from any other place we visited.

We could as easily have selected just one of the historic inns or country manor houses as our base and suffered no real inconvenience other than missing out on a more varied accommodations experience.

That’s what’s so delightful about Wales: so many pretty sights to see and interesting things to do in such a small, easy-to-get-around area.


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