Easter Break, Part 2: Back to the 13th Century
Part one of my three part Easter break recap was about my first two weeks that were spent going around Europe with my parents. This second part is going to be about my third week of Easter break, where I spent my time exploring castles and cathedrals in the great country of Wales. For anybody that has never been, I highly recommend visiting Wales if you ever make a trip to the UK. It is surrounded by a lush countryside, rolling hills, and some architectural gems.
I knew that I would only be spending two of my three weeks off with my parents so I had a big choice to make. Do I stay in Belfast and just do local excursions or do I venture off and explore other parts of Europe? And if I did decide to venture out, where would I go? What would I see? Who would I go with?
I decided on Wales by weighing the pros and cons of the three places I was most interested in. My number one choice was Switzerland because of the vast amounts of hikes and skiing I could have done. But I ruled against it with a simple travel and accommodation price search (who knew the Swiss charged so much?!). My second choice was also just across the sea in Scotland, but everything I wanted to do while was pretty spread out and I would have spent more time travelling than I would have sightseeing. My final option was Wales where I could throw myself back into the Late Middle Ages to explore the 400 or so castles that litter the country.
I started my journey the day after my parents left Belfast. As sad as it was to see them leave, I had to embark on my next adventure. I had a nice meal at Nando’s with Sophie, Harry, and Daniel from Stranmillis the night before I was scheduled to leave. My ferry left at around 10am the next day and did not dock in Liverpool until about 6:30 that evening. I had a bit of trouble finding the train station when I got to Liverpool but once I figured it out, I was on the way to my hostel in Conwy. I was a little nervous when I first made it to my hostel because I had never stayed in one up until that point. It was quite what you would expect from a £10 per night place – an uncomfortable bed, overpriced wifi, and disgusting shower conditions. I sucked it up and made the best of it; I realized I was only using it as a cheap place to sleep.
My first day was spent in Conwy and Caernarfon, where I checked out the two castles that stand within the walls surrounding the towns. Conwy Castle and the walls around the city were really well preserved. I was able to walk around about 90% of the original walls and go up into every tower and turret within the castle. That was one of the coolest opportunities because in Germany, many of the castles are closed off or only offer guided tours through particular sections of the castles. In most of the Welsh castles, you are allowed to roam anywhere you want! While there, I also got to see the smallest house in Great Britain and the port that has been used for the greater half of a millennium. I then made my way to Caernarfon which is about an hour west of Conwy. There were also walls surrounding the town, but these were closed off to the public. I did the same thing and went through every part of Caernarfon Castle that I could. It was really cool at the top because I was able to look out over the town and surrounding countryside. I could only imagine what it was like 800 years ago when it was in its prime.
My second day was spent checking out the town of Llandudno and Penrhyn Castle. Llandudno is northeast of Conwy and also sits right on the water. It is much bigger than Conwy and Caernarfon and it is evident right away. The roads are much wider and the town centre is more than just one street. There was a really cool pier there that had little food and game stands. Up from the pier were some short hikes through the hills along the coast so I went up and did some of those. After I was done in Llandudno, I went to Penrhyn Castle. Penrhyn Castle is about halfway to Caernarfon, so in retrospect I should have seen that the day before. But Penrhyn Castle was probably the number one place I visited while in Wales. The gardens around the castle were absolutely stunning. It was only a prelude for what I was to see on the inside though. Normally the inside is open to the public to explore but they do restoration and preservation projects on Tuesdays (the day I went) so they had cordoned off most of the public spaces. To accommodate for this, they do guided tours of different parts of the castle that are not open to the public (so I got kind of lucky because my tour was more exclusive!). The inside was absolutely beautiful. I have never really appreciated interior decorations and designs until I went there. The curtains, doorways, and rugs were some of the best pieces of craftsmanship I have ever seen. During the tour, the guide mentioned that in today’s money, it would only cost about £12 million to replicate the inside of the castle. I would definitely say that is a reasonable goal to shoot for!
I knew I wanted to get around to a more urban part of Wales so I only planned on staying in Conwy for a couple days. I took the train down to Cardiff the next day. The hostel I stayed at in Cardiff was very nice; it was such a big improvement from where I had just come from. They had free breakfast, free wifi, countless maps and brochures for attractions in and around the city, and the two owners were extremely nice. After I got settled in, I did a little bit of wondering. The hostel was located about two minutes from the main train/bus station and sat right across the river from Millennium Stadium. I walked through a couple parks that are situated right on River Taff and just enjoyed the natural environment.
When I woke up in the morning, I went down and got recommendations of places I should go. The two owners gave me a huge list and helped me narrow it down to fit my time and interests. I decided for that day that I would go just north of the city and see two castles that are quite close to each other but very, very different in nature. The first was Castell Coch which was more of a replication/house than it was a castle. It was built on the ruins of a 13th century castle but nothing of the original castle remains except the dungeon. The other castle was in the town of Caerphilly, just east of Castell Coch. Caerphilly Castle had one of the smartest designs I have seen. Instead of just having one set of walls with a moat in between, this castle had three sets of outer walls! Unfortunately, it did not work as planned seeing that it was conquered/overran a couple hundred years afterwards. But it was still really cool to see. When I made it back to Cardiff, it was still light out so I walked around a little bit of the city and saw Cardiff City Hall, the outside of Cardiff Castle, and a couple local markets.
The weather the next day was awful. It was raining from the moment I woke up to the moment I got on the train to go back to Cardiff. I was not going to let that get in the way of my trip though. I started out by going pretty far outside of the city to Chepstow Castle. This castle was built in three different phases by three different groups of people, which was evident in the architecture. I did not spend much time there because I wanted to move on as quickly as possible. My next stop was Tintern Abbey. Tintern Abbey used to house monks hundreds of years ago but has since fallen into disrepair. It has been preserved in recent times and is a very picturesque place. The massive walls and pillars are still present and make the trip worthwhile. The way the light comes through the window holes is so cool. I really wish I could have gone on a clear day. I finished that day by stopping off by Raglan Castle. Unfortunately I got there kind of late so I could only take pictures from the gate. I was pretty tired though so I did not mind much.
My last day was going to be a long one. My train to back to Liverpool was not until 4pm and my ferry did not leave for Belfast until 10pm. I had the whole day to check out the rest of Cardiff. I went to Llandaff Cathedral and the walked around the gardens surrounding it. I then worked my way to Cardiff Bay on the south side of the city. This is one of the nicest places in Cardiff that I saw while there. The bay has a bunch of film studios, theaters, fancy hotels, and the home of the National Assembly for Wales (same as their congress or parliament). I took about an hour out to get a free personal tour of the National Assembly. I learned loads about the history of the National Assembly, like the fact it has only been around since 1998 and that only 60 members represent the entire country. I was able to go down to the assembly floor where legislation is discussed. One interesting feature is that it is situated in the shape of a circle. This is intended to create more of an open forum, unlike the structures of the British parliament or US houses.
The journey back to Belfast was quite tedious. I had to get on a train to Liverpool that lasted about three or four hours and go on an eight hour overnight ferry. Luckily for me, there were no little kids running around on the ferry like there were before. I was able to find a semi-comfortable chair and fall asleep. I was surprised but I actually was able to sleep a solid five hours! We docked in Belfast around 6:30am and I was back in Elms before 8:00.
My trip through Wales was quite an experience. I learned a lot about myself and how to handle certain situations on my own. I was by myself for the entire week so I figured out how to cope with the boredom and loneliness. It would have been nice to have other people with me but this way I could see the things that I wanted to see and do them at my own pace. I was not restricted to a group and could take my time with whatever I wanted. Wales is often underrated and a lot of people do not think of it as a popular tourist destination. I can say with confidence that Wales is beautiful and full of history. You should try to find some time to see the many castles, cathedrals, and cities it has to offer.