So herein begins my ‘real’ trip. Ireland was baby steps really. Now I head into the wild European yonder to sample indigenous delicacies and provoke the locals with my twangy Kiwi accent.
Last Monday I took the ferry from Dublin port to Holyhead in Wales. From Holyhead I caught the train to Bangor, and then the bus to Caernafon, and in doing so learnt that I get more sick travelling on ferries than I do on buses, more sick on buses than I do on planes, and less sick on trains than any other mode of transport. I was under the impression that a boat that can carry cars would have little roll-to, but the ocean is a powerful beast obviously.
Caernarfon is a quaint town built inside the walls of an impressive castle on the cost of Wales. Yes, a quaint town which unbeknownst to me at the time of visiting, was the quaint location for a quaint mugging of a good friend of mine. I didnt see any muggers, maybe they were disguised as quaint villagers, but I did feel a little like I was being watched by the locals.
I was suprised at how commonly the Welsh language is spoken here. At first I tried to blend in by speaking gobbledygook into my cellphone, which only seemed to draw more stares (not to mention a few rocks), so in the end I decided to stop pretending and embrace the tourist within – oversized map in one hand, both straps of my backpack securely tightened over my shoulders.
There’s a certain freedom in letting go of ones inner tourist, and soon enough Id hung my camera round my neck and started walking slowly infront of the locals, stopping every now and then in the middle of the narrow footpaths to point and exclaim at a particularly curious food product or street sign, phonetically sounding out the welsh labelling in typical Kiwi twang. Incidentally, I found out early that if you say Caernafon as ‘Carn-a-fon’, you will get the authentic idiot tourist treatment. (Though I must say all my encounters with the Welsh proved them to be as friendly, if not more so than the Irish, which is saying something).
I stayed at the homely Totters hostel where I had a dorm room to myself – one of the advantages of travelling off-season. The hostess there was kind enough to give me some quick Welsh language tips. Incidentally again, Caernafon is correctly pronounced Ca-Narven. Of course it is.
Caernarfon Castle is worth the £4.75 entry. The middle is grassed over, but the structure itself has been restored and its possible to walk through the shell of the castle – through passage ways, along walls, up towers (guaranteed to give you jelly legs), imagining bumping into the Prince of Wales himself ‘Oh how do you do? Lovely day, yes loovely day. Tea and scone your majesty?’.
After Caernarfon, I headed down the west coast taking the Sherpa route to Beddgelert (Beth-gelert) then Porthmaddog (Port-maddog) to give myself a glimpse of Snowdonia. No, not the amazing funpark it sounds like, but a mountain range. From Porthmaddog to Aberystwth (Aber-wrist-with), on a train that went around the coast and had beautiful views – atlantic ocean stretching out on one side, Welsh coutryside on the other. Then I jumped on a bus to Fishguard (Fish-guard…) – why? mostly because it has sufficent vowel sounds to satisfy my needs. On the bus I chatted to a Welsh woman (the bus ladies in Wales are rather friendlier than their Irish counterparts) who told me I HAD to go to St Davids, which was handy since I previously had NO idea where I was going, and it conveniently met the vowel-sound quota – as if it was just meant to be…
So after having caught four buses and two trains I arrived after dark in Fishguard where I stayed at Hamilton Backpackers Lodge, also homely, and run by the friendly and well travelled Steve.
The next day, I caught a bus to St Davids, hoping the lovely Welsh lady was actually lovely and not just of a different variety of the Irish bus-lady – but maybe one who lulls you into a false sense of loveliness with her Welsh charm, though who ultimately has the same goal – that goal of course being to make my life miserable. But thankfully she was genuinely lovely and had not pointed me to the national Welsh dumping grounds, but to a beautiful medieval little town, with a cathedral and a ruined Bishop’s palace.
The bus ride itself did provide much Welsh scenery to be admired. We meandered along narrow roads lined with bare trees and down into valleys passing through tiny villages – just a few houses clustered here and there – and every now and then Id catch a glimpse of the coastline and the ocean beyond. I expect the area would be lovely in Summer, yet even at this time of year the landscape is dramatic for all its sparse ruggedness. Unfortunately when I did arrive at St Davids, there was a funeral on at the cathedral, and the ruins were under restoration, so I had to take a few un-intrusive photos from the outside.
The highlight of my day here though, was visiting Whitesands Bay, which (if you call ‘less-brown’ than everywhere else in the UK and Ireland ‘white’), did have white sand – and waves, just like home. In either direction from Whitesands, there is a coastal walk that stretches around the entire South-Western Welsh coast. I followed my guidebooks advice and walked 40 minutes or so in the bitter cold wind to the St David peninsula. I saw hardly anyone else as I walked, another advantage of travelling off-season. A disadvantage being the way the season turns every path to mush, leaving your new, probably innappropriate suede converse boots looking not so new at all.
Once used as a fort, you can still see the remains of a guarding stone wall, and Neolithic stone circle huts on the rocky outcrop known as St Davids head, beyond which the ocean stretches out endlessly and un-scarred by any land at all. The day was overcast and wild and as with Irish landscapes, you can feel the history in Wales, like there are ghosts on the wind… The feeling remains the same though the ground surface itself varies – here in Wales an endless blanket of olive green is interspersed with blue grey rock and rusty orange bracken. In places like this I remember I love being by the coast and in the middle of nowhere. I feel like I could walk forever, the chilled seabreeze and the surrounding nature energising me. Its the road that makes my feet ache and numbs my brain.
And yet it was the road I reluctantly took back, unwilling to sacrifice my new shoes to the hungry bog the rain had left behind in place of the walking tracks through the fields. Luckily I had chocolate onhand. Thats the great thing about walking, carrying around half a block of chocolate wrapped in foil and being completely justified in eating a square at a time…or a half-block at a time.. for energy reasons only…
I was aching when I arrived back at Hamilton Backpackers after more walking than Ive done in months. But it was a good ache, worth while to have explored another little corner of the world.
(NB Ive chosen to describe the days events in a most lady-like way, resisting the urge to make some comment about squatting on St Davids head, so you’ll just have to make your own rude jokes).
Just to rush through the last few days before I turn into a computer:
From Fishguard, I then travelled to Cardiff where my ever-so gracious hosts Winston and Patrice showed me the city and let me lay my weary head on their couch. Highlights being Cardiff Bay, and as always, teasing Winston..
Cardiff Bay is great, with some really stunning architecture. Cardiff city itself is not unlike Dublin in that it doesnt feel very big. It also, strangely, has a Hamilton-esque vibe about it (but dont let that put you off).
After Cardiff, I caught the expensive train to Milton Keynes where the equally ever-so gracious host Lex (and co-host Ian) let me lay my weary head on THEIR couch. Highlights included the royal school tour, the royal pub tour,Oxford, and Lexes mysteriously shrinking trousers…
On the day that Lex and all other responsible humanbeings went back to work (Monday), I went to Oxford. Oxford really is impressive. It has way too much history for my history-repellent brain to handle, but even just visually its impressive. Its packed with immense college buildings, museums, spires, posh accents and students whizzing about on their bikes.
Today, leaving behind good friends in both the Land of Gobbledygook, and the Land of Tea and Scones, I caught an early train to Edinburgh (which you’ll find in the Land of Haggis). And I will tell you all about it soon – but only if you are good and eat all your greens tonight. A vegetarian always knows…