Q. I would like to visit my ancestral homeland of Wales and would greatly appreciate any and all information and tips you might impart.
A. I’ve always found Wales thoroughly fascinating, and although you don’t say which part of the little nation your great-granddaddy came from, it doesn’t matter because all of Wales is a nice place to visit.
The Welsh speak English but not the kind you ever heard before, so listen hard. Most place names are in Celtic-derived Welsh, real tongue-twisters. In fact you may hear whole conversations in Welsh, which is staging a comeback. Shop for woolens at craft workshops, and be sure to attend a musical event to hear the wonderful Welsh voices.
Most visitors concentrate on either North Wales - with its great castles, spectacular national park and seaside resorts - or South Wales, from Cardiff, the capital, to the hills that were the source of Stonehenge’s inner stones.
In North Wales, Mount Snowdon, highest peak in Wales, dominates Snowdon National Park with its volcanic peaks and deep blue lakes.
The Snowdon Mountain railway is one of several great narrow gauge trains that operate in Wales. Also in the north are popular seaside resorts such as Llandudno and Conwy. Another is Portmeirion, a tourist Italianate village created by architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, a beguiling and bizarre place on Cardigan Bay that was the setting for “The Prisoner” TV series.
Visitors come to the north just to see the great castles - Conwy, Harlech, Caerphilly and Caernarvon - which are among Europe’s finest medieval military strongholds. They were built in the 13th century by English King Edward I, a Plantagenet, as part of a ring of fortresses designed to subdue the rebellious Welsh. Edward placated the Welsh by making his son the Prince of Wales, a title held by kings’ eldest sons ever since.
But Wales didn’t fully submit to English rule until 1485, when Henry Tudor, a Welshman, became king of England. The Tudors’ historic home is in Anglesey, Wales’ western island, reached by bridge from the mainland.
The great fortress castles are among the hundreds throughout Wales (some still occupied) built by native princes. One notable one that is easy to visit is Cardiff Castle in the capital city in southern Wales. The castle is part Roman, part medieval fortress and part Victorian mansion. One wall dates from 250 A.D., when it was built as part of a Roman fort. It was transformed into a luxurious home last century.
Welsh Folk Museum near Cardiff is a reconstructed village that gives insight into Celts and their way of life. Other good places to visit in the south are Brecon Beacons National Park in the Cambrian mountains; Swansea, the coastal city where Dylan Thomas was born; and farther west, the poet and writer’s boathouse residence at Laugharne, now a public museum. Pembrokeshire Coast National Park in the southwest is a 100-mile stretch that hugs the craggy seashore, and just inland, the Preseli Hills, whose bluestones were floated and hauled hundreds of miles to form Stonehenge.
Between the north and south of Wales, mid-Wales is a high plateau full of sheep, forests and manmade lakes.
A rental car is the best way to go if you want to see the scenic byways through the hills and valleys and around the 750-mile coastline. But be careful: It’s wrong-side driving on narrow, curvy roads. If you prefer to ride the trains or buses, the National Express provides a network of express bus services linking major cities and towns, and Tourist Trail passes are available. British Rail has several passes for tourists, although trains may not get you everywhere in Wales you want to go.
For literature and more information, call the British Tourist Authority in New York, 800-462-2748, during weekday office hours and ask for the new publication, “Wales, A Different Country, A Different World,” that is full of practical information as well as descriptions of sightseeing venues.
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