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The small country of Wales was the first foreign destination I haunted after finishing my engineering studies in 2010, and it was the first opportunity to practice my English and improve my language skills outside school or the immediate workplace.
I visited this small (the population is some three million), culturally appealing and scenically impressive country in the western part of the British Islands for the first time in 2014.
However, my first trip had solely been a short stay in the former industrial town Merthyr Tydfil and the capital Cardiff.
The subsequent three visits (the last one in 2018) yet offered more time to get in contact with locals and to explore the central and especially the northern regions of Wales, including the national parks (the Brecon Beacons and Snowdonia).
There I set off for several challenging hiking trips (where I got accustomed to the rough weather in Britain), and there I learned many interesting details about the domestic culture.
Culturally most fascinating is without any doubt Welsh, a Celtic language which is spoken of roughly one million people mainly in the northern areas of Wales.
2. The Welsh Language
Welsh (Cymraeg) is beside English the official language in Wales.
Equally to Slavic and Germanic languages, Welsh belongs to the large Indo-European language family. Albeit related, it sounds rather peculiar (or weird) in one’s ear when one hears it for the first time – somewhat like Dutch or Danish.
Similarities exist naturally with other Celtic languages, Irish or Gaelic for example (in Ireland and Scotland).
In Wales, every announcement, every road sign, every manual (technically everything) is bilingual.
Welsh is a mandatory subject in schools. That is without much doubt the main reason the number of Welsh speakers is increasing after there had been concerns some decades ago the language could become extinct.
Of course it is sufficient to have solid English skills for a stay in Wales. I’ve never met anyone who solely spoke Welsh.
Here are a few examples for Welsh phrases and words that one might encounter in Cymru:
Thanks – Diolch; Forest – Coed; Lake – Llyn; Hello – Shwmae; yes – ie; no – na
3. Towns and Places
In the following I will illustrate a selection of places in Wales.
The small town of Aberystwyth (about 13.000 inhabitants) is situated on the western coast of Wales at the Cardigan Bay.
The town possesses a romantic promenade with many historical buildings, most remarkable is probably the Old College that belongs to the Aberystwyth University.
In Wales, castles (or remains of them) are omnipresent.
Aberystwyth Castle had been one of those many centuries-old fortifications, but unfortunately only a few wall-fragments and debris of the gates remain today since the castle was razed to the ground in 1649 by henchmen of Oliver Cromwell.
The National Library of Wales
Despite its comparatively small size, Aberystwyth became the location of The National Library of Wales1 at the beginning of the 20th century.
This institution has the privilege to claim a copy of every book issued in the United Kingdom an Ireland, and the main purpose of the Library is to preserve and facilitate material related to the Welsh language.
1 the Welsh translation reads Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru
The library is open to the public. Everybody can request a membership (my membership No. is 1564666, for instance) and borrow books from the archives.
So I seized the opportunity to explore a tiny fraction of the book inventory in one of the huge reading rooms.
Conwy (15.000 inhabitants), situated at the northern coast has a well-preserved and well-known fortification, the Conwy Castle.
This town is quite representative for the scores of towns with medieval fortification structures (in Caernarfon there exists a very similar structure, for example).
Built in the 13th century, the castle is one of the biggest of its kind in Wales.
Originally erected by English kings for the purpose of controlling North Wales, it got military obsolete in the aftermath of the English Civil War (17th century).
The medieval city-walls in Conwy are like the castle well preserved and accessible for tourists.
But don’t forget to visit the nice little town center and of course the pubs (I can recommend the pubs in the Castle Street).
The town Holyhead (11.000 inhabitants) is situated at the very north-western end of Wales on Holy Island (itself part of the even bigger island respectively county Anglesey).
On a tiny and rocky island in a few kilometers distance from Holyhead, the South Stack Lighthouse was erected upon at the beginning of the 19th century.
The (at present unmanned) tower with an attached building is open seasonally for visitors.
Not far away from the lighthouse there also exists a small bird observatory.
The species and the bird populations are very numerous around this unique area with its steep precipices and shores.
4. The National Parks
The national park Snowdonia covers a considerable part of northern Wales, with a total area of around 2200 square kilometers.
Snowdonia is the largest of in sum three national parks in Wales.
Note: for detailed tour descriptions I recommend the following website: walkupsnowdon.co.uk
Apart from its large total area, the national park possesses also the highest peak on the British Island outside of Scotland, Mount Snowdon or Yr Wyddfa (1085 meters AMSL, i. e. Above Mean Sea Level; every stated height in this article is AMSL).
This mountain is probably the most popular tourist destination in Wales respectively Snowdonia. So it can be a rather awkward experience ascending the peak during an average Sunday since there might be plenty of visitors and fellow hikers.
A mountain railway from the town Llanberis to a big refuge near the summit generates an additional amount of tourist numbers, though the train journey is comparatively expensive in my opinion (here you can find a price list).
Fortunately there exist several trails to Mount Snowdon, so if you choose a more difficult one chances are good that you don’t stuck in a logjam.
Regardless of choosing a more ambitious trail or not, it is likely that one has to deal with rather bad weather conditions. That means more precisely not low temperatures, but strong wind, fog, and sometimes heavy rainfall due to the adjacency of the Atlantic Ocean (oceanic climate).
But the view onto the landscape is absolutely breathtaking and worth all the effort of the climb and the exposure to rough weather conditions.
During a hike through Snowdonia one will spot many so called cirques, concave geological formations usually filled with melting water (so they form mountain lakes without inflow or outflow).
The Rhyd Ddu Path to Mt. Snowdon is a good example, where you have a excellent view onto several of those depressions.
In the south of Snowdonia lies the Cadair Idris mountain and its peak Penygadair.
Hiking to the peak is very challenging, though the height of the mountain appears not intimidating at the first glance (893 meters) – yet in Dolgellau or in Minffordd you start virtually on sea level.
In sum, I made three attempts to climb Penygadair, the first time in spring (on the Minffordd Path) and two further times in autumn (again on the Minfordd Path and on the Pony Path).
My first summit attempt was a failure, I had to turn back just a few yards short of the peak. But the wind was dreadful and I had almost no sight during my ascent. Occasional blasts appeared as having the potential to blow me down the steep crests. I spotted only two other hikers on this day in April.
The second time I climbed with my buddy Uwe. It was not our first trip together, and I had no doubt that we will not be successful. However, as we were descending the northern ridge of the mountain we got lost as we weren’t able to identify the trail in the dense fog. Ultimately, we had to walk for two extra hours through heavy rain and a storm.
This was no fun at all, but nevertheless a very valuable experience and a lesson about team-work.
Sadly there did occur a tragedy as well on this afternoon: another hiker got lost (we didn’t know him, and we hadn’t taken any notice of fellow hikers during our ascent) and he was found dead a couple of hours afterwards by a rescue team, as we learned the next day.
I was also successful with my third attempt as I climbed the Pony Path near Dolgellau, again without company.
Again I was close to abandoning my tour, once more because of a heavy storm and very bad sight. On this day, several hikers passed me by during my ascent, they all quit their summit attempts because of the bad weather conditions. Negotiating the last kilometer was indeed dreadful, and I was wet to the bones in the end.
The Brecon Beacons National Park (the second largest in Wales) is located in Central Wales, with Pen y Fan as the highest elevation (886 meters).
Except for this peak, this area is not necessarily a popular tourist destination.
It may happen that you hike for several days in a row without coming across another human being. The British military also utilizes this solitude area for its special forces (SAS) training.
The small town Brecon situated at the northern edge of the national park is a good starting point for hiking and cycling tours through the Brecon Beacons.
I hope you enjoyed this article about Wales and Welsh culture.
One interesting thing I didn’t mention so far: like in the other parts of Great Britain you have of course left-hand traffic in Wales.
This demands an extra amount of attention in the road traffic, especially if one drives nice little French cars.
So I am glad about the fact that nothing terrible had happened during my adventures in Wales – neither in the mountains nor during my car rides.
Featured image: Aberaeron, Cardigan Bay