ITINERARY AS EXCERPTED FROM KAREN BROWN’S E-BOOK:
Wales has myriad towns and villages with seemingly unpronounceable names, its own language, an ancient form of Celtic, and its own prince, Charles. Narrow-gauge steam railways puff contentedly through glorious scenery, and there are more castles per square mile than anywhere else in Europe. The Welsh have always been fiercely independent. Consequently, they built fortifications to defend themselves while Edward I commissioned a series of daunting fortresses from which the English could sally forth to subdue the fiery Welsh. Today these mighty fortresses are some of Wales’s greatest treasures. Smaller but beloved treasures are the “Great Little Trains,” narrow-gauge steam railway lines with hard-working “toy” trains that once hauled slate and still steam through gorgeous countryside. And at journey’s end there is bound to be a steaming cuppa to be enjoyed with bara brith, a scrumptious currant bread. As the signs say, Croeso i Cymru-Welcome to Wales. Conwy Castle
Recommended Pacing: One night in southern Wales is all you need to accomplish the sightseeing outlined in this itinerary. In our opinion, Wales’s most magnificent scenery and stunning castles lie to the north in and around Snowdonia National Park, so allow at least two nights in northern Wales.
Leave England on the M4 crossing the Severn toll bridge. The first indication that you are in another country is that all road signs appear in two languages, Welsh first, English second. As you leave the bridge take the first left turnoff signed A466 Monmouth and the Wye Valley. The road winds a course up the steep-sided, wooded valley to Tintern Abbey, a romantic ruin adored by the sentimental Victorians. Drive alongside the ruin to the car park at the rear by the tourist office. Stretch your legs with a quick walk round the ruin or, if you would like to visit the prettiest spot on the 168-mile length of Offa’s Dyke, the tourist office will provide you with a detailed instruction sheet called Offa’s Dyke and the Devil’s Pulpit Viewpoint. Offa’s Dyke was a great earthwork built over 1,200 years ago at the direction of King Offa to divide England and Wales.
Follow the river as it winds into Monmouth and turn left on the A40 towards Abergavenny. Traveling this dual carriageway quickly brings into view the substantial ruins of Raglan Castle in a field to your right. Because it is on the opposite side of a divided highway you need to do an about-face at the first roundabout. Raglan Castle is the last of the medieval castles, dating from the later Middle Ages when its builders could afford to indulge in decorative touches. It was begun in 1431 and its Great Tower was rendered the ruin you see today by Oliver Cromwell’s demolition engineers. A huge fireplace and the windows are all that remain of the Grand Hall but with imagination and the aid of a map you can picture what a splendid place this must have been. You can climb the battlements and picnic in the grassy grounds.
Stay on the ring road around Abergavenny and 2 miles after passing through Crickhowell, a one-time stagecoach stop for coach travelers on the way to Brecon, turn right on the A479 to Tretower Court and Castle. The castle, a sturdy keep, was usurped as a habitation in the 14th century by nearby Tretower Court, a grand mansion that was the home of the Vaughan family for three centuries. As you walk through the empty medieval hall and along the stone passageways, you can imagine how splendid a home it was.
Leaving Tretower, continue down the lane, beside the house, and turn right on the A40. If the weather is fine, you can enjoy an almost circular driving tour through the Brecon Beacons National Park by turning left towards Llangynidr and, after crossing the river, taking a right turn to Cwm Cronon and Talybont-on-Usk. Here you turn left and follow a beautiful wooded valley alongside lakes and over the hills to Pontiscill. On a fine day it is a spectacular drive along a narrow paved road, but this is not a trip to be appreciated when the clouds hang low over the mountains and visibility is not good. From Pontiscill the road weaves down to the outskirts of Merthyr Tydfil where you turn right on the A470 along another lovely valley and climb the stark, bare escarpment over the pass to Brecon.
If you do not deviate through the Brecon Beacons, remain on the A40 where views of the Usk Valley and the mountains present themselves as the road climbs to the village of Blwch. Bypass the market town of Brecon and take the A470 (Buith Wells) to Llyswen where you can enjoy an overnight stay at Llangoed Hall. From Llyswen an 18-mile round-trip detour will afford you the chance to explore the many bookstores and antique shops of Hay-on-Wye.
It’s a lovely drive to Buith Wells as the road follows the River Wye through soft, pretty countryside. Crossing the river, head to Rhayader where an opportunity to enjoy a beautiful (in fair weather) drive through wild, rugged moorlands rising from vast reservoirs is afforded by turning left in the village for the Elan Valley. Your first stop lies beneath the looming dam at the information center where a small display outlines the importance and history of clean drinking water and gives details on the vast reservoirs that provide 76 million gallons of drinking water a day. Returning to the road, follow it as it traces the reservoir through fern-covered mountains. A right-hand turn returns you to the center of Rhayader and the A470.
From Rhayader the A470 quickly takes you north. After the junction with the A458 be on the lookout for a small sign that directs you into the pretty roadside village of Dinas Mawddy and along a narrow lane that climbs and climbs above the green fields into stark mountains. You crest the pass and wind down and around the lake to the outskirts of Bala. Here you make a right-hand turn then go immediately left on the A4212 (Trawsfyndd road) for a short distance to the B4501, which quickly brings you to Cerrigydrudion. There you turn left on the A5 to Betws-y-Coed, set in a narrow, densely wooded valley at the confluence of three rivers. Crowds of visitors come to admire this town, which was popularized by the Victorian painter David Cox.
From Betws-y-Coed take the A470, following the eastern bank of the River Conwy north as it winds its way to the sea. After passing through the village of Tal-y-Cafn, look for Bodnant Gardens (NT) on your right. Garden lovers will enjoy almost a hundred acres of camellias, rhododendrons, magnolias, and laburnum, which provide incredible displays of spring color. Above are terraces, lawns, and formal rose and flower beds; below, in a wooded valley, a stream runs through the secluded, wild garden.
The swell of Conwy Bay is flanked by high cliffs and the town of Conwy is unforgettable for its picturesque castle set on a promontory at the confluence of two rivers and for the town’s wall-over ¾ mile in length with 22 towers and 3 original gateways. Conwy Castle was begun in the 13th century for Edward I and suffered the scars of the turbulent years of the Middle Ages and the Civil War. The defensive complex includes an exhibit on Edward I and his castles in Wales. On the top floor of the Chapel Tower is a scale model of how the castle and the town might have appeared in 1312.
Leaving the castle, cross the road to the quay to visit a tiny home that claims to be the smallest house in Britain, then turn onto the High Street and visit the oldest house in Wales, Aberconwy House (NT).
Leave Conwy and follow the A55 as it hugs the coast in the direction of Caernarfon. Rather than going directly to Caernarfon, follow signs for Bangor (A5122) and call in at Penrhyn Castle (NT), a fabulous sham castle built as a grand home by a local slate magnate in the 19th century. This impressive house of intricate masonry and woodwork is filled with stupendous furniture.
Cross over the Menai Straight to the Isle of Anglesey on the Menai suspension bridge, the first of its kind, built by the famous engineer Thomas Telford, then follow the road that hugs the coast to Beaumaris with its closely huddled houses painted in pastel shades strung along the road. Beaumaris Castle, the last of the castles built by Edward I in his attempt to control Wales, is a squat, moated fortress with grassy grounds inside thick walls facing a harbor full of sailboats.
Return to the Menai bridge and, if you are inclined to have your picture taken by the sign of the town with the longest name in the world, follow directions to Llanfair, the abbreviation (that fits on signposts) for Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyndrobwylllan-tysiliogogogoch. This translates as “St. Mary’s Church by the white aspens over the whirlpool and St. Tysilio’s Church by the red cave.” The drab little town has little to recommend it but commercial opportunists have cleverly situated a large shopping complex directly next to the station.
The A5 (Bangor road) quickly returns you to the mainland via the Britannia road bridge where you pick up signs for Caernarfon. Edward I laid the foundations of Caernarfon Castle in 1283 after his armies had defeated the princes of North Wales. Many revolts against English rule took place in this imposing fortress and during the Civil War it was one of Cromwell’s strongholds. The first English Prince of Wales was born here in 1284. The investitures of the Duke of Windsor in 1911 and of Prince Charles in 1969 as Prince of Wales both took place in this majestic setting. This is the most massive and best preserved of the fortifications in this itinerary. It takes several hours to clamber up the towers, peep through arrow slits in the massive walls, and visit the exhibitions on the Princes of Wales, Castles of Edward I, and the Museum of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers.
Leave the coast at Caernarfon with the beauty of Snowdonia ahead of you, following the A4086 Llanberis road. The Snowdonia National Park is a region of wild mountains which, while they cannot be compared in size to the Alps or the Rockies (Snowdon rises to 3,560 feet), are nevertheless dramatically beautiful with ravines and sheer cliffs whose sides plummet into glacier-cut valleys sparkling with wood-fringed lakes and cascading waterfalls.
The village of Llanberis is the starting point for the ascent of the highest mountain in Wales, Mount Snowdon. Easier than the rugged walking ascent is the two-hour round-trip journey on the Snowdon Mountain Railway, an adorable “toy” steam train that pushes its carriages up the mountainside on a rack-and-pinion railway. The little train winds you along the edges of precipices and up steep gradients to the mountain’s summit. If the weather is fine (the train runs only in clear weather) and especially if it is July, August, or the weekend, arrive for your adventure early to secure a pass that entitles you to return at an appointed time. On the day we visited a 10:30 am arrival assured us of a place on the 4:30 pm return train. Remember to take warm clothing with you as it is always cold on the summit.
When you return from your mountain experience make your way to the other side of the lake to ride the Llanberis Lake Railway (rarely do you have to book in advance). The adorable little train that once served the slate quarries now puffs along 2 miles of track by the edge of the lake beneath the towering mountains. On fine days you have lovely views of Snowdon.
When you leave Llanberis the road climbs the pass and the scenery becomes ever more rocky and rugged: small wonder that Hillary and Hunt trained for the 1953 Everest ascent in this area. At the Pen-y-Gwryd hotel turn right on the A498 for Beddgelert. The landscape softens as you pass Lake Gwynant and, with the River Glaslyn as its guide, the road passes through a valley that is softer and more pastoral than those of Snowdonia’s other lakes.
Crowding the riverbank where three valleys meet is the little village of Beddgelert, nestled in the foothills of Mount Snowdon. From Beddgelert, the road follows the tumbling River Glaslyn which settles into a lazy glide as it approaches Porthmadog, the terminus of the hard-working little Ffestiniog Narrow-Gauge Railway, which runs to and from nearby Ffestiniog. The train provides riders with a mobile viewpoint from which to enjoy the most spectacular scenery as it follows the coast and chugs up into rugged Snowdonia, at one point traveling almost in a circle to gain altitude, to terminate its journey at Blaenau Ffestiniog. Here, in summer, you can connect with a bus that takes you for a visit to the nearby slate caverns before taking you back to the station for your return journey to Porthmadog. This rugged little train for many years carried slate from the mines to the port of Porthmadog.
A short drive on the A487 brings you to Minffordd where you turn right to the extravagant fantasy village of Portmeirion, which looks like a little piece of Italy transported to Wales. It has a piazza, a campanile, and an eclectic mixture of cottages and buildings squeezed into a small space and surrounded by gardens full of subtropical plants and ornate pools. The village is a mass of color-the façades are terra cotta, bright pink, yellow, and cream, and the gardens full of brightly colored flowers and shrubs. Portmeirion was the realization of a dream for Sir Clough Williams-Ellis who bought this wooded hillside plot above the broad sandy river estuary and built the village to show that architecture could be fun and could enhance a beautiful site, not defile it. His architectural model was Portofino and, while there are many Italianate touches to this fantasy village, there are also lots of local recycled houses. Sir Clough rescued many old buildings and cottages from destruction (he termed Portmeirion “the home for fallen buildings”), transporting them here and erecting them on the site. Day visitors are charged an admission fee but if you really want to fully enjoy the fantasy spend the night at the hotel or in one of the rooms in the village and enjoy it after the visitors have left.
Leave the coast behind you and turn inland to Blaenau Ffestiniog where terraced houses huddle together beneath the massive, gray-slate mountain to form a village. Taking the A470 towards Betws-y-Coed, the road follows terrace upon terrace of somber gray slate up the mountainside to the Llechwedd Slate Caverns. Exhibits show the importance of slate mining but the most exciting part of a visit here is to travel underground into the deep mine and follow a walking tour through the caverns.
Continuing north (A470), a 15-minute drive takes you over the pass to Dolwyddelan Castle, a 13th-century keep built by Prince Llewyn which was captured by Edward I and subsequently restored in the 19th century.
From Betws-y-Coed take the A5 to Llangollen, a town that has become the famous scene of the colorful extravaganza, the international Musical Eisteddfod, the contest for folk dancers, singers, orchestras, and instrumentalists. Llangollen’s 14th-century stone bridge spanning the salmon-rich River Dee is one of Wales’s Seven Wonders.
Leave Llangollen on the A542 and travel over the scenic Horseshoe Pass past the ruins of the Cistercian abbey, Valle Crucis, to Ruthin. Nestled in the fertile valley of Clwyd and closed in by a ring of wooded hills, Ruthin is an old, once-fortified market town whose castle is now a very commercialized hotel complete with medieval banquets.
From here a fast drive on the A494 returns you to England and motorways that quickly take you to all corners of the realm. But before leaving the area, consider visiting the charming medieval city of Chester. The Romans settled here in 79 A.D. and made Chester a key stronghold. Much of the original Roman wall survives, although many towers and gates seen today were additions from the Middle Ages. Chester is a fascinating city with a 2-mile walk around its battlements-the best way to orient yourself. It’s great fun to browse in The Rows, double-decker layers of shops-one layer of stores at street level and the other stacked on top.
* (NT) means that the property listed is under the care of the National Trust.