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Fascinating Wales holds tight to its culture and traditions

Shops on a Llandeilo back street; the town is named after a 6th century Celtic saint, Saint Teilo.Katie Hammel

Shops on a Llandeilo back street; the town is named after a 6th century Celtic saint, Saint Teilo.

The first sign that Wales — a small country on the west coast of Great Britain — is different from its neighbors is its flag.

A red dragon, proudly strutting over a green and white background, is an apt image for a country where rolling green, sheep-dotted hills cover the landscape and locals hold tightly to ancient culture and traditions.

Another sign of the difference between Wales and England is noticeable immediately upon crossing the River Severn that forms part of the border between the two — and it’s quite literally a sign. Wales is officially bilingual and all road signs are in both Welsh and English; the Welsh language is still spoken, too, and you’ll be greeted with “bore da” as often as “good morning.”

Wales is often overlooked by travelers, but with a culture, language, and cuisine of its own, it’s an exciting destination in its own right or well worth a detour from London. Thanks to the country’s small size, it’s easy to tour its west and south corners in just a few days.

The Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff is an arts complex that covers a total area of 4.7 acres.Katie Hammel

The Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff is an arts complex that covers a total area of 4.7 acres.

The capital of Wales, Cardiff (Caerdydd in Welsh), is just 2.5 hours from London by train .

The city’s heart is Cardiff Castle (cardiffcastle.com), built over the centuries and now a mishmash of styles. The walls are remnants from the Roman occupation that ended in the 5th century, the ruined stone keep was built by invading Normans 700 years later, and the main building is a 19th-century Victorian reconstruction of a medieval castle (designed by William Burgess), complete with million-dollar rooms, such as the Arab Room (also known as the Harem Room), which features hand-tiled mosaics and gold-leaf paint. It would cost more than $ 10 million to create the same room today.

In 1947, Cardiff Castle was officially given to the people of Cardiff. Now, all Cardiff citizens have free access; for visitors, the cost to explore the castle’s opulent rooms and take in the view from the top of the keep is £12 (about $ 19).

The view from Carreg Cennen Castle, near Llandeilo in Carmarthenshire, Wales.Katie Hammel

The view from Carreg Cennen Castle, near Llandeilo in Carmarthenshire, Wales.

Cardiff’s most visited attraction is a more recent addition: the Wales Millennium Centre (wmc.org.uk), which opened in 2009. It contains the largest theater in Europe and has quickly become one of the top performing arts centers in the UK. Its exterior is dominated by a huge copper dome on the front and Welsh slate on the side, making it look both futuristic and industrial. The façade is inscribed with phrases in Welsh (translation: “Creating truth like glass from the furnace of creation”) and English (“In these stones, horizons sing”) that hint to its mission to bring the best of the world to Wales, and showcase the best of Wales to the world.

The Centre is home to eight cultural organizations, including the Welsh National Opera, two full size orchestras, dance and theatre companies, and an organization that uses arts therapy for people with autism. It also houses the Cardiff Bay Visitor Centre and a 150-bed youth hostel. Free performances are held daily.

The waterfront where the Millennium Centre sits was a bustling harbor back when Wales exported one-fifth of the world’s coal, but as the coal industry declined the area became a red light district. These days the harbor is once again bustling as a model for urban revitalization and home to high-rise apartments, shops, restaurants, and two more major attractions: the Senedd, home of the Welsh National Assembly, and the Dr. Who Experience (doctorwho.tv/events), a kitschy interactive adventure based on the British sci-fi show that follows a time traveler known as the Doctor.

The stunning ceiling of the million dollar harem room in Cardiff Castle.Katie Hammel

The stunning ceiling of the million dollar harem room in Cardiff Castle.

For a different sort of step back in time, browse the city’s six glass-covered Victorian shopping arcades lined with cafés, cheese shops, and clothing boutiques; wander the pedestrian-only Queen St.; or pick up tasty treats like traditional raisin-studded shortbread Welsh cakes at the 16th-century Cardiff Central Market.

Head to Cardiff’s Civic Center, near the castle, to see the City Hall (its dome is topped with a snarling bronze dragon) and visit the free National Museum Cardiff (museumwales.ac.uk); the highlight there is the Davies Collection, the largest collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings outside Paris. For dinner, continue the time-hop at Chapel 1877 (chapel1877.com) — a restaurant set in a Gothic-style former chapel — for a modern take on Welsh cuisine, with dishes such as Welsh lamb with potato gratin and morel mushroom jus.

A short drive from the capital will bring you to quaint hamlets and tiny cities where ancient traditions mix with modern industry and more Welsh is spoken than English. Just 20 minutes from Cardiff, Llanerch Vineyard (llanerch-vineyard.co.uk), part of the country’s bourgeoning wine-making industry, makes light and fruity wines and houses a restaurant and pub, gift shop, five studio cottages, and a cooking school. Welsh cuisine may not be as varied as others, but what the Welsh do, they do well. The focus is on lamb, seafood, and beef — quality ingredients prepared simply. Under the tutelage of Welsh celebrity chef Angela Gray, students learn how to make staples such as grilled lamb or potted seafood — a mix of salmon, cockles, crab, shrimp, lavarbread (seaweed), butter and spices.

The Wales Coast Path runs close to the majority of Wales’ coastline.Katie Hammel

The Wales Coast Path runs close to the majority of Wales’ coastline.

From Llanerch Vineyard, it’s an hour to Carreg Cennen Castle (carregcennencastle.com), a 12th-century castle that’s been in ruins since 1462. It’s not the largest of Wales’ 600-plus castles, nor the oldest, but it would be hard to find one that makes for a better quintessential snapshot of Wales. The castle is set up on a hill, surrounded by fluffy white sheep grazing on rolling green hills. The walk to the top is steep but worth the effort for the view over the white-flecked countryside. Sheep seem to dot every open space in Wales; in fact, they outnumber people three to one.

Wales is home to only 5% of the total population of the United Kingdom (about three million people) and 10% of its land, which means there’s plenty of countryside to explore. Much of it is along the coast.

Wales has a coastline of more than 800 miles and nearly all of it is connected via the Wales Coast Path (walescoastpath.gov.uk). The path passes 58 beaches and 14 harbors, including the town of Porthgain where you can fuel up at the Sloop Inn (sloop.co.uk), the local pub, on traditional Welsh food such as rarebit (cheese-topped toast), cawl (a hearty lamb stew) and sticky toffee pudding. Even if you’re not up for walking the path from town to town, it’s easy to access the trail for a leisurely afternoon ramble, one of the most traditional of Welsh pursuits.

The seaside town of Mumbles, near Swansea.Katie Hammel

The seaside town of Mumbles, near Swansea.

In the village of Castlemorris, another Welsh tradition is accessible to visitors. The water-powered Melin Tregwynt mill (melintregwynt.co.uk) showcases the ancient art and sells exclusive wool blankets, accessories and clothing that combine Welsh tradition with modern design.

A tastier souvenir can be found at the Caws Cenarth cheese company (cawscenarth.co.uk) in Cenarth, where guests learn how one of the country’s most traditional cheeses, Caerffili, almost became extinct and how the proprietors brought it back from the brink. Afterwards, guests can try Caerffili and other delicious, award-winning varieties.

Round out your tour of the south and west corners of Wales with a visit to the twee town of Llandeilo, whose streets are lined with colorful houses, charming bakeries and woolen goods stores, and where locals are happy to chat up visitors over a glass of Penderyn’s whisky at the town pub.

Traditional Welsh cakes for sale at Cardiff Central Market.Katie Hammel

Traditional Welsh cakes for sale at Cardiff Central Market.

Or, head to the coast and the delightfully-named waterfront town of Mumbles, five miles from Swansea. The seaside town is the perfect place to cap off your Welsh adventure, and it’s just three hours by train from Swansea back to London.

***

If you go

Cardiff's covered arcades contain cafes, cheese shops, and boutiques.Katie Hammel

Cardiff’s covered arcades contain cafes, cheese shops, and boutiques.

More info: visitwales.com

Getting there: Multiple airlines offer nonstop flights from NYC to London’s Heathrow Airport. From there, take the Heathrow Express rail to London’s Paddington Station. Cardiff is 2.5 hours from London via Eurail. From Swansea, it’s three hours via direct train back to London.

Stay: – in Cardiff, Park Plaza Hotel (parkplazacardiff.com)

– in Llandeilo, The Cawdor (thecawdor.com)

– in Mumbles, Patricks with Rooms (patrickswithrooms.com)

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