As I crest a hill on a tight two-lane road — flanked on both sides by a gritty wall with a fringe of sharp, vertical stone slabs, like a dragon’s tail — the Welsh landscape opens up in front of me: Bald mountains, tufted with scrubby vegetation. A stony, gurgling brook. A few surefooted sheep, nibbling their way through an ankle-twisting terrain of rock and slate. It is, if not the most dramatic, one of the most dramatic scenes I’ve seen in Britain…and on this glorious land, that’s saying something.
The road twists onward, through a gobsmacking landscape. I drive past the hotel where Sir Edmund Hillary stayed while he was training for his historic first ascent of Mount Everest. It’s a Saturday, and the “lay-bys” are strewn with cars — jettisoned by latter-day Hillarys going for a sturdy early-summer hike. Little packs of hikers — with their designer packs, sweat-wicking tank tops, neon-hued rain shells, and carbon-fiber walking sticks — bob along paths cut into the rock and heath.
The road takes me to the hobbit-cute village of Beddgelert, where stony houses huddle around a stony bridge. The entire town looks like it’s risen straight up from the Welsh landscape…and, in a sense, it did. Parking my car, I’m swallowed up by the endearing small-town-ness of it all. It seems that all of Beddgelert’s residents are hanging out at the general store and the village pub, which stand side-by-side at the bridge. They animatedly converse in Welsh, oblivious to the ice-cream-licking, backpack-wearing tourists who wander past.
I finish my guidebook-updating chores in a matter of minutes (easy to do, when every business in town is within fifty paces). I’ve got an hour’s drive to my final stop of the day, where I’ll be checking into my B&B. But I’m in no hurry. It’s a sunny evening. I’m in my personal choice for “most charming village in Britain.” Surely I can spare a few minutes for a walk. But where to?
Slate-carved signposts answer my question: “Gelert’s Grave.” I follow these like breadcrumbs to a path along the gushing river, with craggy cliffs on one side, and a pasture of skittish, territorial sheep on the other. The path leads across the middle of a field to a little stand of trees, where a story carved in stone — in English and in Welsh — explains that this is the Bedd (grave) of a dog named Gelert, who won Prince Llewellyn’s eternal gratitude when he saved his infant son from a wolf attack. The legend is probably bogus…but this place is so idyllic, I just don’t care.
Walking back to my car — and finding excuses to take several scenic detours, since I don’t want this visit to Beddgelert to end — I think back on the incredible number of sights and experiences I’ve enjoyed in just three short days in North Wales.
In Ruthin, I sat in on the practice session for a mixed choir, polishing their glorious harmonies. Of course, the lyrics, the conductor’s instructions, and the chatter between songs was all in Welsh…as if English didn’t exist.
In Llangollen, I walked along the towpath for an industrial canal, built by Thomas Telford to connect this remote corner of Wales (and its rich slate deposits) to the port at Liverpool. And on the hill above town, I toured Plas Gwynedd, a fascinating old manor home where — in the 18th century — two Irish aristocratic ladies decided to leave their husbands, drop out of society, and shack up together, sparking scandal and, like a pair of Georgian Andy Warhols, attracting curious celebrities of the day to come visit.
In Blaenau Ffestiniog, I rode a rickety train deep into a slate mine, where the crusty guide explained the harrowing conditions slate miners worked and lived in, as they painstakingly mined and split slate roof tiles that were the rage all across Europe. At the end of the visit, he demonstrated how the best way to split slate is still by hand. As a chunk cleaved off halfway through the split, he cursed. “They don’t mine slate like they used to,” he grumbled, explaining that the original miners dug deeper for higher-quality slate.
In Harlech, Criccieth, and Beaumaris, I roamed the ramparts of three of the best-preserved “ring castles” built by King Edward I to keep watch over his unruly Welsh subjects. Today these are mostly empty shells — with few real artifacts, and only sparse exhibits — but they present some of Europe’s all-around best rampart walks and “king of the castle” viewpoints.
In Conwy — another walled castle town — I walked around the top of the walls, with a sea of slate rooftops at my feet and the imposing structure of Conwy Castle jutting up boldly at the bottom of town.
In Caernarfon, I toured the granddaddy of all those castles, and spent the night inside the adjacent walled town. In this appealingly blue-collar burg, I found myself in line at the local chippy next to a sprightly Welsh gentleman with a sparkle in his eye, a knack for making conversation, and lilting accent so thick I could barely keep up. “Aye, we’re poor cousins to Conwy,” he said with a wink, and proceeded to tell me about the time his brother went to L.A. and came home with a Buick Riviera, and about the time he watched Prince Charles address the crowd moments after being “invested” with his title at Caernarfon Castle.
In the middle of nowhere, I parked my car and hiked a well-tended flagstone path up to a remote, stunning little mountain lake called Cwm Idwal — commanding a little plateau ringed by a natural amphitheater of sheer cliffs. The mountaintops muscled back the black clouds that were trying to spill over the summit. The sun broke through the clouds, sweeping a blinding spotlight across the scrubby landscape, before being swallowed up again. And an intense wind crested the ridge and screamed across the lake’s surface with a force that created whitecaps.
In Portmeirion, I had the surreal experience of walking through an Italian Riviera-style village…a pastel, Mediterranean wonderland modeled after Portofino, tucked into a craggy, yet sunny, microclimate of the Welsh coast. (I love the uniquely British notion of a “folly”: an expensive, and ultimately pointless, vanity project done on a rich person’s whim…spending money for the sake of spending money. Portmeirion is the ultimate folly.)
In Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, I took an obligatory photo of the train-station sign for the town with the second longest name in the world.
At the Bodnant Garden, I strolled beneath a glorious laburnum arch in full bloom. People who know me could scarcely imagine I’d ever use a phrase like “glorious laburnum arch” un-ironically…but Wales just has that effect on me. It was really quite something. If you’re going to dedicate some serious time to a beautiful garden anywhere in Britain, Bodnant deserves serious consideration.
And at all of these, I always looked up to find myself under the watchful eye of a valiant red dragon, against a white-and-green field, flapping in the bracing Welsh breeze. There’s no doubt that the Welsh are proud of what makes them unique. And they should be.
Even more incredible is that I packed all of this into a mere three days. Compact North Wales makes it easy. Every time I got in the car, I plugged my next destination into my phone…and every time, I was amazed at the short distances. Drives rarely exceed 30 minutes.
Wales is not quite “undiscovered.” (Lonely Planet recently named North Wales one of its “Top Ten Destination,” about which the local tourist board made much hay.) And yet, it still must be one of the most underrated corners of Europe, relative to how purely enjoyable — and easy — it is to travel here. Give Wales a few days, and it’ll give you vivid experiences and powerful memories.
I was in Wales updating our Rick Steves Great Britain guidebook, which has all the details on everything mentioned here.
Or let someone else deal with the details: Our (admittedly misnamed) Best of England tour actually includes two overnights in Conwy, and visits several of the places mentioned here — plus a sheepdog show! (I just love sheepdog shows.)