Our first introduction to Wales was driving on terrifyingly narrow, windy (think hair-pin), hilly roads that were tightly walled in by foliage thick enough to preclude any glimpses of oncoming traffic. We crossed over a bridge so thin we had to pull our mirrors in. Every time we encountered another vehicle, we were almost forced off the road. We needed quick reactions to first make way for the oncoming car and then to stay on the road. In two cases, we had to come to a full stop since there wasn’t enough room for both cars to pass. And did I mention that the locals are fearless drivers who don’t seem to spend time worrying about accidents?
On a less harrowing note, I don’t think I’ve ever seen more shades of green, more sheep or more hills. Wales is undoubtedly one of the most majestic, lush places I’ve ever been.
It helps that it rains almost all the time. Really. Wales is one of the wettest countries in Europe, thanks to the maritime climate (think U.S. coastal northwest).
There are supposedly 3 million people in Wales, though two-thirds of them live in South Wales, which grew rapidly in the 19th century thanks to its coalfields. Back then, Cardiff was the biggest coal port in the world. Today, most heavy industry is gone and Wales depends on service industries and tourism.
Tiny Wales (8,023 sq miles) has over 750 miles of coastline and mountains galore. That bodes well for anyone who is at all interested in the outdoors. Hiking, cycling, fishing, canoeing, kayaking, surfing and golfing are major activities. Wales is especially proud of a brand-new hiking path, The Wales Coast Path, which follows the entire coast (870 miles) and goes through villages, seaside towns, mountains and beaches.
If you prefer to a more sedentary lifestyle, consider visiting one or one hundred castles. Thanks to its long history of being invaded, castles are Wales’ most famous historical and architectural attraction. About 100 of the original 400 castles are still standing. There seems to be one for every architectural and period taste.
When you get hungry, Wales has a thriving foodie scene. I wasn’t sure what to expect – maybe some black pudding, faggot and a few other dishes that I’ve never had the urge to try. Well, Wales has come a long way. The culinary offerings have really grown up. The food scene is quite sophisticated and artisinal, thanks to an abundance of fresh produce and imaginative young chefs. Farmers’ markets and food festivals have sprouted up all over, and the emphasis is on organic and local. Vegetarian and vegan dishes are not unheard of. For the traditionalists, Welsh specialties featuring lamb, beef, sea trout and farmhouse cheeses are still around, though you might find them with a modern twist.
And to drink? Local pubs are struggling to remain relevant, as they no longer serve as the community center, but microbreweries with artisanal ales are sprouting up. And don’t forget about cider. There are a more than a few varieties here.
Wales. This is one little country that’s worth a long visit.