Posts Tagged ‘Wales’

25th October
written by Hope

Color me humbled. Here I was thinking the UK wasn’t exotic enough for two around-the-world travelers who just spent 6 months in Asia. But the beauty of cosmopolitan London, the romanticism of the English countryside, and the history and general awesomeness of North Wales did a lot to change my mind. Just goes to show, you can find whatever it is you’re looking for in any country, as long as you remember to keep your mind open and your curiosity healthy.

scenes from london
We don’t know what this building in the background is (we even asked some Londoners and they didn’t know either), but it’s pretty isn’t it? Taken in Hyde Park, London.

Days spent here: 16 (July 16-August 1, 2009)

Highlights: hanging out with friends in beautiful London, storming castles in North Wales.

Places we would like to visit next time: Scotland, especially Edinburgh

Average daily expenditures (for two people): US$95/day in London (note that we did not pay for housing because we stayed with a friend); US$200 the rest of the time we were in the UK (including our rental car)

Guidebooks we used: Eyewitness London and Rick Steves’ Great Britain. Honestly, we probably wouldn’t have chosen these books for ourselves, but our generous host in London (Chi-Chi) had them sitting on her bookshelf so we were able to borrow them for free. Up until now, we have primarily used Lonely Planet guidebooks, and I guess we’ve grown accustomed to the LP’s format, because we found all the photos and illustrations in Eyewitness London distracting. Just give us the quick and dirty info we need, Eyewitness! Rick Steves’ book was much more useful, but it is obviously slanted towards older travelers. In one case, he recommended making a hotel reservation via phone, fax, or letter. Letter?!? Who writes letters?!?

Prices: No bones about it, the UK (and especially London) is expensive. Even with the sterling pound down in the currency markets, it still reigns over the crappy dollar. In particular, dining out will really hurt your pocketbook, with a pub meal in London running at minimum £10 (US$15). In London, you can keep costs down by (1) going to museums (which are free) and avoiding outrageously expensive tourist sights like the London Tower, and (2) making friends with someone who has a spare couch.

main entrance hall at the natural history museum, london
The excellent (and gorgeous!) Natural History Museum in London.

Accommodation can also hurt the budget. We spent between £55-60 (approx. US$90-100) for double rooms with bathroom ensuite.

Surprisingly, renting a car in the UK is quite cheap. Our week driving around England and Wales set us back a reasonable US$34 per day.

Weather: We were in the UK during summer, which we found quite pleasant! Of course, bear in mind that we came from China, where the heat and humidity pretty much defeated us, so we found the cooler temps in the UK quite refreshing. We had some rain but also some gloriously clear weather, and the days were nice and long (we imagine that winter in the UK might be a bit depressing, with darkness starting at 4PM and all).

Food: Nobody seems to believe us, but we swear it’s true: British food is good now! It is still the case that walking into any old sandwich shop is not going to get you the best grub, but there are really excellent restaurants out there now (at all price ranges) that serve food on par with any other cosmopolitan city. In fact, we had some of the best salmon we’ve ever tasted at Chi-Chi’s local pub in Chiswick (The Roebuck) for only £5 (about US7.50)!

And of course, despite the UK’s bad culinary reputation, the English breakfast has always reigned supreme:

a proper english breakfast, london
The glorious English breakfast: ham, sausage, fried eggs, fried mushroom, fried tomatoes, and beans.

Accommodation: We can’t comment on accommodation in London, since we stayed with a friend, but it seems that B&Bs are the best value in the English and Welsh countryside. We stayed in a youth hostel in Wales and had to pay extra for breakfast and towels, which would have been included in the price if we stayed at a B&B.

our b&b in maugersbury, cotswolds
Little Broom, our cute B&B in Maugersbury, near Stow-in-the-Wold, the Cotswolds.

Transit: In London, we got around on the Tube, and we generally found it to be excellent, with good coverage and easy transfers. Our one complaint: there seems to be no ventilation in the cars other than tiny windows at the beginning and end of each car. I know London’s weather is typically pretty dreary, but we found the Tube stifling on days when the mercury barely busted 70 degrees!

j waiting for the tube, london
Waiting for the Tube.

For the rest of our week exploring England and Wales, we rented a car, which, at only US$34 per day, was quite reasonable considering how much everything else costs in the UK.

Internet: Like most developed countries, wi-fi is either locked or expensive, and sometimes both.

Culture: We only visited England and Wales, but there are pretty big cultural differences between the two home nations. In general, people in London tend to be like people in most big cities: rushed and at times dismissive (though Londoners have the added joy of being aggressive drunks). We also noticed that Londoners tend to think of everyone north of London as backcountry hicks. In general, we found the people in the English countryside and Wales nicer and friendlier than the people in London…but I don’t mean to give Londoners a bad name. Our friend-of-a-friend Jonah and his girlfriend were really, really cool and they took us out to all these excellent off-the-beaten-path bars and clubs the night we went out with them. So while the average Londoner on the street might not strike you as overly friendly, they are excellent hosts and their distance might just be a function of the big city.

the ladies with the big hats, london
The ladies with the big hats going to a function at Buckingham Palace.

In short: Incredible architecture, historic sites, beautiful countryside, AND good food (yes, really)! We had a wonderful time in the UK!

19th October
written by Hope

We all have a little kid inside of us, don’t we? Hey, I’ll admit it: my inner child still loves playing dress-up and eating the heads off of gummy bears. Well, Jeremy showed me exactly what his inner child always dreamed of when, on a whim, we decided to head up to Northern Wales for a few days. The promise of castles and old city walls around a town called Conwy had Jeremy’s inner child squealing with delight. Even better: we would be sleeping in bunk beds at our youth hostel (and I let him have the top bunk). Castles, swords, city walls, AND bunk beds? I am pretty sure that 10 year old inside of Jeremy just had his mind blown.

my knight, conwy (wales)
My knight in shining denim.

Conwy is a lovely little town located on the coast of North Wales. We rolled into town in the late afternoon, with enough time to walk the old city walls, which enclose this little fishing village by the sea.

view of conwy from atop the old city walls
The view from atop Conwy’s old city walls.

view of conwy from atop the old city walls

The following day, we prepared to invade not one but two castles. The first, in a little town called Caernarfon, is (like Conwy) another picturesque little town by the sea famous for its lovely views from atop its lovely castle.

caernarfon castle
Beautiful Caernarfon Castle.

Entering the castle, I noticed that most visitors had kids with them. I felt a bit silly when we got up to the ticket gate and asked for “two adults.” That is, until I saw the look of glee in Jeremy’s eyes. The joy in his inner child’s heart was just priceless. I even felt like a proud parent as he ran around shooting fake arrows through the castle’s many “murder holes” (yes, that’s what they’re called).

murder hole, conwy castle
View through one of Caernarfon Castle’s murder holes.

Though not as large, Conwy’s castle is equally impressive. Tucked into a corner of the square created by the city walls, the castle allows beautiful views of the town and the sea.

conwy castle
Conwy castle, with views of the surrounding city and countryside.

We learned quite a bit about the United Kingdom from our visits to Conwy and Caernarfon. In fact, these castles were built not to protect the Welsh from invaders, but to project English King Edward I’s power into Wales. Charles was crowned Prince of Wales at Caernarfon Castle (as all that are next in line for the throne), a kind of reassertion of the UK’s dominance over Wales. See, like Northern Ireland, Wales wants it’s independence. And it makes sense why they would—the Welsh have their own traditions, their own food, and of course, their own language. Speaking of which, Welsh is crazy! One look at the written word and you know that Welsh has absolutely no relationship to Latin. The Welsh language looks like it was created when someone accidentally rested their elbow on the keyboard. Ddwylodd. That’s probably a word in Welsh.

All joking aside, even though they do not express their desire for independence in a violent manner, this is a pretty serious issue for many Welsh people. Quite frankly, before our visit, I knew very little about Wales. Perhaps this was ignorant of me, but my impression of the UK was most closely associated with England: you know, Big Ben, powdered wigs, and bucolic countryside scenes like those we saw in the Cotswolds. I knew that Scotland and Northern Ireland were quite different culturally from England, but I didn’t have a sense of Wales. I certainly didn’t realize how distinctly different the four “home nations” of the UK (England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland) would be. I am humbled and continually amazed by the number of things we learn from our travels. Without this experience, there are so many details and intimacies I never would have known about this world!

royal symbol, caernarfon castle
The Prince of Wales’ Feathers, a royal badge which is controversially used by the royal family to symbolize Wales.

Not only is Wales it’s own animal culturally, but physically the landscape is quite different too. Of course, it is much wetter in Wales than in England (though luck was on our side in Wales—we had rain only one morning during breakfast and it was glorious sun the rest of the time we were there!), but the North Wales area is also home to the tallest mountain in both England and Wales: Mount Snowdon. Whereas we saw gentle, rolling hills in the Cotswolds and Oxford, Northern Wales has some pretty dramatic mountain scenery.

the welsh countryside near snowdonia
The Welsh countryside near Snowdonia National Park.

But Northern Wales isn’t just about big mountains and castles. As part of our entrance ticket to Conwy castle, we also saw an old Elizabethan house called Plas Mawr, which had fascinating displays detailing life in the Middle Ages. They had info on everything from the sewer system to strange medical procedures to toilets to diet. It was incredibly interesting, and the house wasn’t too bad looking, either!

gorgeous ceiling in plas mawr (old elizabethan house), conwy
I was totally obsessed with the decorative plaster work covering the walls and ceiling in Plas Mawr.

What a wonderful time we had in Conwy and Caernarfon! Old city walls, castles, verdant mountain scenery, and old Elizabethan houses…turns out North Wales had more than a few things to appeal to my inner child as well. :)

How we got from the Cotswolds to Conwy: Conway is a 5 hour drive northwest of the Cotswolds, and this had many people in our B&B on edge. “Oh, Conwy’s very far, you’d better get a move on!” “Be careful, you can always pull off to the side of the road if you’re tired!” We were like, “Um, we’re from California…we do 5 hour drives in our sleep!”

Where we slept in Conwy: We stayed at the Conwy YHA, which was located up the hill outside of the city walls. Even though it was kind of hike out of town to get back to the hostel, the views were stupendous! The hostel itself was clean and comfortable, thought our room was very tiny, and they charged extra for towels. I think staying at a B&B in town might have been better value…though you certainly won’t get the same vistas.