Time for a break…long overdue
A break in my busy work life was long overdue. It has been 7 years since I last had a proper holiday. There is not a specific reason for this, really, at least not one that would convince any person with more than two brain cells. Often, the excuse I give myself and others is having a busy life, mixed with academia and a job that takes most of my day but also my brain power. I often travel around the country, but this time I wanted something different. So, I thought of Wales, in Great Britain, as my destination as it was close to home and cheap(ish) to explore.
I had heard so many great reviews about this country and I wanted to see for myself what all the fuss was about. I then decided to go on a 4 day drive-by-trip, to explore the exotic mountains, the charismatic and peculiar towns, and the golden beaches of Cymru. Not long ago I found that Wales has their own language, completely separate from English, and both languages co-exist in Welsh culture, so I was preparing myself for yet another cultural shock in going to a country inside a country where I would not understand a word if people spoke to me in their native dialect. Cymru is the Welsh word for ‘Wales’, but not pronounced the way it is written. Linguistically, Welsh is a complicated language that I do not intend to master it even if I am somewhat curious to learn bits of it. So, I set from Liverpool, from the land of the Beatles, as a modern conquistador of foreign lands, with my SatNav set to the first stop in Wales, with my smart-phone as a back-up, and my camera to record the most beautiful landscapes I could find. I was so excited in travelling that I felt as if I was going somewhere mysterious, like Marrakesh or the Amazons.
Travelling into Wales was like going back in time to a Tolkien period where modernity meets a middle -arth of exotic fragrances and landscapes that we can only find in the most remote places on earth. From afar, gigantic mountains vowed upon the horizon, where the blue sea was king. The pride of Welsh people was expressed in the ‘Welcome to Wales’ ‘Croeso i Gymru’ sign and coat of arms that divided this magnificent land with the country of England. It was amazing to witness the transformation in traffic signs thereafter written in both languages, and my heart pounded excitingly as if looking for more visual evidence to convince me that I was indeed in a different country, and not just somewhere that serves as an extension to England, or even a bundle of countries that make the United Kingdom of Great Britain. As I travelled inland less signs would be expressed in English and many would be only written in Welsh.Fascintating and intimidating, because I did not know what they meant!
I stopped in a few places which I honestly would not go back to, not because they are not worth it (because they are), but because I prefer a more cosmopolitan feeling in towns and cities. I am not very keen in remote isolated mountain-towns where the only café closes at 3.30pm, and this was a big disappointment for me (as I love my coffee or creamy latte). However, the other side of the coin was the busyness of certain towns, like Conwy, Caernarfon, Llandudno, or even Beaumaris, with a touristic vibe but still holding on to the traditional values of small picturesque Welsh towns with good fresh food and honest smiles in people’s faces. Perhaps not everyone was a tourist, or it was me perhaps projecting in other people ‘the eternal tourist in me’, since the first contact with living Welsh language was when entering the shop a woman spoke to me, and I did not have a clue what she was saying. As I did not respond, rather acknowledged her with my nods, she must have thought I was just another rude twat passing by, or simply pitied my Welsh ignorance! It was only when rewinding her words in my mind, the only one I recognised was ‘Diolch’. So I guessed she was thanking me for giving her way of passage to exit the shop as I was entering it. This word echoed thereafter and I used it often, perhaps to show that I too can be a ‘Roman in Rome’ or rather ‘Welsh in Wales’ or at least attempt to mingle with the locals and show respect for a language that has been in this place for hundreds of years and still seems strong and alive as no other ancient language has survived.
The highlight of my experience was an hour-long boat trip for £6 per person around the Great Orme in Llandudno bay, and even though the weather suddenly became a bit miserable, I was fascinated with the sights, landscapes, birds, and even a family of seals timidly swimming at the sight of human intruders. I attempted a photo but they were much faster in hiding than my finger in pressing the camera button. Other similar experiences were also available at the top of this Great Orme, where cable cars seemed busy with people curious to see life from above. I did not attempt this experience, as it seemed rather high for my own taste, but there was an old tramcar that took us from Town to places in the Orme, as if attempting to overcome a nostalgic feeling from times long gone where our Victorian ancestors gorged themselves in this pure and fresh air away from dirty old and smokey cities, like London or Birmingham. At the end of my experience I was starving but being a bit of a food fuss, I did not want to eat the famous ‘fish and chips’ that somehow populates the interest of most people in Britain. So, I waited until I found a half decent place that was at the same time affordable but healthy, to give it a bite. I curiously entered in a little pub, as I gazed at their ‘Fresh local caught fish’ sign which grabbed my attention. I timidly asked what they were serving, and perhaps perplexed by my question (or because she was too busy for nonsense) the waitress directed me to the ‘a-la-carte menu’ or ‘to the specials written on a black slate board’. I decided to try the chicken ciabatta, while my travel partner chose the grilled salmon. I confess I was not ready for the plate I was presented with, which overwhelmed my eyes but delighted my taste buds. I was expecting smaller portions maybe disguised by smaller plates, and what I got were large portions in massive plates (at least massive by UK standards, where portion-mania seems to dominate everything you buy and eat). I must say, that meal was the best meal-out I ever had in the 10 years I been in the UK, and I have been out a few times to compare the miserable food that is being served elsewhere in this fabulous country. Sometimes I wonder if the British lack culinary standards, or just seem to resign to the fact that restaurants and cafes take the piss out of us when they serve us with disgusting half-chewed food and then charge us a fortune. Or is there a cultural acceptance that when you go out you eat what you are served, then you thank with a smile while paying what you owe, and then forget the ordeal only to return to that same place at some point in the future? I don’t know… but I have a ‘little black book’ of all the restaurants and places I have been to which I will never return, unless for some ordeal of fate I get severe amnesia or their menu changes.
Each town I stopped had castles and churches, and I am fascinated by these, or how they managed to survive time and human activity. Interestingly these monuments reign the horizon, and no building seems taller than these. Is this an ancient respect which dictates that churches and castles should be closer to the heavens than any other earthly building? Or is this only a coincidence that these towns prefer to keep their medieval characteristics to call for tourists, instead of starting to populate the landscape with gigantic skyscraper and ugly glass architecture? My conjecture; I have no answer for this, nor I am interested in finding one. As I travelled further down, I found quirky pockets of wild beaches near Porthmadog, where realistically you could not comfortably fit more than 5 people at one time, where the sands were unusually thin and golden and the water was clear green and blue. These little beaches were amazingly hidden under thick masses of nature, and woods (and let your imagination lead you wherever you want) and the only access to these is by walking through small dirt roads which at first seem to lead to nowhere until they reveal an almost untouched gem in Welsh landscape. It is good for families or couples who perhaps want a little privacy while getting away from busy city life, but be prepared to take a nice picnic and plenty of fluids with you, so that you don’t find, like I did, that there are no shops nearby and the only restaurant-look-alike-business only opens from 5pm.
Prices are very much similar to other UK cities and towns, but not if you eat out a lot. So, as a compromise I only ate out one meal a day, usually a later lunch (Dunch or Linner). For other meals I would purchase lots of fruit and salad, to have it later on or the next day for breakfast at the motel I was staying in. I wasn’t hungry with this deal and saved a bit of money, and on my weight. With this experience, somehow I felt at home. Even driving for 4 days (with obvious long rests, stops and walks) I always felt so refreshed and motivated to visit the next town and was curious about what I would find next. I’m not sure how many miles I did in these 4 days, but they did not seem much compared to what Wales still had to offer me. I only surrounded the valleys but I was aware of the majestic mountains that shadowed my every trip around North Wales. I thought in going to visit these mountains, but time was not enough to cover all the beauty that this country has to offer. I only managed the North-West of Wales, so my next trip will need to cover the centre and south. I recommend such experience, for those who like busy towns or even quiet mountains. Wales made me reflect about life, on what really should be my priorities. I am often so engaged in my career and studies that I forget that life doesn’t stop. In fact, life goes on without me noticing it, as if I am living it mindlessly and rushing to the afterlife by ignoring that this life is a unique experience that should not be wasted by nonsense and stupidities. On my return I had an almost epiphany about what I really want. I say ‘almost epiphany’ since I still want to achieve my goals in life and I still love my work, but I decided that I want to focus more on what is really important to me and what I need too – or living life with the people I love and living it more often by opening my eyes and noticing that people around me are also alive.
Oh, I almost forgot to mention the village with the longest name in the UK and Europe, and one of the longest names in the world – Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. Well, technically the name is shorter but they like it that way, and to be fair it attracts tourists, even if the only attraction is the rail station, and nearby pubs, where the name of the town prevails and stands proud, where you can always buy some postcards and get them wet-stampted with that cute name for a small donation, or for free if you are feeling cheeky.
This slideshow contains a small sample of the 900 photos I took over the 4 days. Enjoy!