In addition to all the scenic hikes you can do in Wales (last weekend, we did a 9-mile loop called the “Waterfalls and Ridges” hike that I’d highly recommend), there are lots of castles to visit, too. “Real” castles. The kind you’d draw as a kid, with crenellated turrets, keeps, moats, flagpoles and everything.
I’m hazy (read: pretty ignorant) on Welsh history, but the pattern of history underlying most of the castles seems to be: Romans build forts; Norman lords start castles on top of the forts to show that William the Conqueror meant business; English kings fortified the castles to keep down those pesky Welsh rebels; hundreds of years of fighting and sieges ensue.
Take, for example, Cardiff Castle (photo above), which sits in the middle of Cardiff. It’s literally the last bastion of medieval history in a downtown area overrun by the usual high-street chain stores. The “pattern” I just described applies to the castle keep, for sure, but what’s quirky about Cardiff Castle is the Victorian-era mansion that sits on a wide lawn next to the keep.
The Castle website describes the mansion thus: “With his immense wealth and the fanciful talents of his architect, William Burges, John Patrick Crichton Stuart, the 3rd Marquess of Bute, created the Gothic splendour we see today. Not only a unique archtectural treasure but also a showpiece for some of the most important Victorian interiors in Britain.”
But in my own words: “The mansion is yet another example of interior decorating a la eccentric rich guy with too much money and time on his hands.”
First, there are the peacocks. You know, your usual high-maintenance house pets, roaming the wide lawns of the mansion.
Then there’s all the gold leaf, ornate carving, marble, semi-precious stones and obscure dead-language phrases, the sum total of which announces: “I’m rich and I’m educated.” But the gaudiness of which would put Donald Trump to shame. Not your run-of-the-mill milquetoast nobleman, this Marquess of Bute.
Oddly enough, my favorite castle of the trip, Raglan Castle, is mostly in ruins. It was grand and atmospheric, even though most of the interior walls are gone. Maybe I loved it because so much is left to your imagination.
The Raglan Castle sits near the border of Wales and England. Not much of the castle remained standing after the English Civil War, when Cromwell supporters burned and hacked away at it in 1646. (The castle’s owner, the Marquess of Worcester, was a crusty old supporter of the king, and what he got in return for his loyalty to royalty was a 11-week siege of his castle). Nothing like a crumbly old castle get me psyched for a history lesson!
In any event, if castles are what you’re after, get thee to south Wales.