Known mainly for a dusty poet (Dylan Thomas), a pop star-cum-opera singer (Charlotte Church), and one of the longest town names in the world (Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrob-
wllllantysiliogogogoch), visitors to the U.K. would sooner spend their time in England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland than explore Wales’ mysterious lands. Bully for Wales, because most people leave alone its miles of rugged, unspoiled countryside dotted liberally with castles. Each fortress is uncrowded, underexplored, inexpensive to visit, and well worth the trip.
Must-see sites include three formidable castlesÂ?Cardiff Castle, Castell Coch, and Caerphilly Castle. All were formerly ruined structures that blossomed under the wealthy hand of a family of British gentry. However, you don’t have to be rich to enjoy them or visit the surrounding towns.
The wealthy John Patrick Crichton-Stuart, third Marquess of Bute, created his mock-Gothic icon, Cardiff Castle, smack-dab in the middle of town. He enlisted the lavishÂ?bordering on gaudyÂ?help of architect William Burgess in 1866 to restore a crumbling foundation that Romans had established 2,000 years earlier. The result is sturdy and boxy from the outside, but stunningly splendid on the inside. Burgess covered the castle ceiling to floor with frescoes, crammed jewels into any open crevice, and gilded anything worth gilding. For less than Â£5 for students or Â£6 for adults, you can take a friendly guided tour of the grounds and apartments.
As exorbitant as Cardiff Castle is, it didn’t put much of a dent in the Marquess’ budget. He had plenty of money left over for his next enterprise: the restoration of Castell Coch. This time, he and Burgess set their sights on the Middle Ages and rebuilt a fantasy castle as a “summer retreat” in Tongwynlais, five miles north of Cardiff Castle.
Castell Coch (which means “red castle” in Welsh) was in ruins when the pair took it over. Burgess worked hard to recreate the castle’s medieval architecture, and externally, he nailed it. Outside, it looks like the Magic Kingdom at Disney World, but it’s still a faithful reproduction of the building that had been sitting on the site since the 13th century. The inside, however, is pure folly. Characters from Aesop’s Fables climb up walls and ceilings and intricately carved furniture packs every room. The construction was clearly an expensive undertaking, but the castle tour costs just Â£2.50 for students or Â£3 for adults.
Unfortunately, by the time Castell Coch was completed, the Marquess was old and ailing, and he only visited it a few times. But before he died, he acquired Caerphilly Castle, the largest castle in Wales and the second largest in Britain, behind Windsor. It’s big, to be sure, but Caerphilly’s main draw is its southeast tower, which sits at a cockamamie angle even steeper than that of the Tower of Pisa.
Whereas Cardiff and Coch are a rich man’s audacious fantasy versions of castles, Caerphilly, built in the 13th century by the Anglo-Norman Lord Gilbert de Clare, is much more traditional. The Marquess restricted his flashy redecoration to a few rooms, and left the rest of the work to his descendents. Caerphilly is a castle’s castle. It sits in the middle of a lake on a 30-acre site about 10 miles north of Cardiff, and has catapults, thick walls, and dark interiors. Access costs just Â£2.50 for students or Â£3 for adults.
Cardiff, Coch, and Caerphilly are just three of the scores of excellent castles in Wales. If you have a good throwing arm, you can pitch a stone from just about anywhere within the country, hit one, and pass through a charming town on the way there. The only question you’ll be asking yourself is why you never did before, especially once you find out how affordable it is to stay here.
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The Big Sleep
Where to eat and shop
Cardiff is as steeped in history as the rest of the country but also uncharacteristically cosmopolitan. Pubs rule over cafes in Britain, but Cardiff is an exception. French-style cafes line the streets where you can sip a coffee and read the paper. In more drizzly weather, try the budget Garlands Coffee Shop in the Duke Street Arcade (4 Duke St.). They have a bacon-and-banana butty (sandwich) that’s known throughout the city, as well as funky music and a relaxed atmosphere.
For something more substantial, try Bread of Heaven (100 St. Mary Street), where you will find some of the best bread west of the English Channel at reasonable prices. Make sure to try a traditional Welsh cake too.
St. Mary Street is the main shopping route, but the best place to buy is in the arcades. Both the High Street and Duke Street arcadesÂ?Victorian structures umbrellaed by scrolling wrought iron and panes of glassÂ?are good bets for clothes, offering numerous outlets and independent shops. Try Eccentrixs for shoes or Drooghi for whole outfits.
Just across the street from the castle, the Caerphilly Visitor Centre (Twyn Square) is a surprising place to pick up a cheap bite. It includes a specialty shop that features foods from throughout Wales. Don’t leave without trying some of Caerphilly’s famous, crumbly white cheese.