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Holyhead, Wales

About Wales

Wales, part of the United Kingdom, encompasses the western reaches of the mainland of Great Britain. Its Celtic heritage, dating back to about 500 BC, is among the most visible in the modern world, contributing significantly to today’s Welsh culture. Fierce warriors, the Celts managed to maintain traditions and language throughout the Roman occupation and Norman invasion. But Wales is perhaps best known for its beautifully untamed landscape and rugged coastline. Hills and pastures roll out in seemingly infinite shades of green.

The history of this nation goes back much further than the Celts. Evidence suggests that it has been occupied by humans since the last Ice Age, more than 10,000 years ago. When hunters and gatherers settled into agricultural cultures, the first societies in the area of Wales were born. Remnants from the Neolithic period and Bronze Age have been found throughout Wales, mostly on the island of Anglesey. Some 30 Neolithic and Bronze Age burial chambers have been preserved here, in addition to ancient settlements, standing stones and millennia-old monuments.

Wales has more castles per square mile than any other country in the world—over 600 total. Many are impeccably preserved, so visiting these medieval fortresses is like walking through history. The legendary King Arthur appears in early Welsh literature, so if he ever lived, many think it was probably here.

Wales Lifestyle and Culture

Welsh flags depicting the iconic red dragon are ubiquitous in this region. Displayed everywhere from town shops to castles to license plates to souvenir pens, it quickly reminds visitors that this is not simply part of the United Kingdom—it is Wales through and through. The northern part of the country, in particular, embraces its culture, evidenced by the amount of Welsh you’ll hear spoken. The endangered language is taught in school, ensuring younger generations keep this ancient Celtic tongue alive.

Wales has its own holidays and traditions. One of the most treasured is the custom around the Welsh love spoon. These handmade spoons, whittled from a single piece of wood and traditionally given as a sign of a young man’s intentions to marry a young woman, were usually crafted while away on a long sea voyage. While the practice fell out of favor at the end of the 19th century, today love spoons are given to commemorate births, weddings, anniversaries and Dydd Santes Dwynwen—the Welsh equivalent of Valentine’s Day.

Literature plays a special role in Wales. The town of Hay-on-Wye, about six miles north of Cardiff, is the largest secondhand book selling center in the world. Charming used bookstores are found throughout the village, selling just about anything you could ask for. There are even bookcases lining city streets with an honor system of payment, and a huge annual book festival each summer. Dylan Thomas, a Welsh writer and poet, found fame in the US in the 1950s before he died at the early age of 39. In his birthplace of Swansea, about 40 miles from Cardiff, the Dylan Thomas Center holds literary exhibits and lectures, and the Dylan Thomas Theater is home to a performance company. Each year the Dylan Thomas Festival is held from October 27 to November 9, the dates of the writer’s birth and death.

Welsh cuisine has evolved mostly from the ingredients farmers and shepherds have reaped from the land, producing simple meals with a handful of ingredients. As such, lamb, beef, cheese, seafood and leeks (the country’s national vegetable) make up many local dishes. Traditional favorites include lamb stew, Welsh rarebit (cheese on toast), bara brith (spiced fruit loaf) and Welsh cakes (a type of thick pancake with dried fruit).

Wales Sights and Landmarks

With so many castles, it’s hard to know which to visit. In the south, Caerphilly Castle is the largest. Built in the 13th century, it is most stunning when reflected in the beautiful waters that surround it. Caldicot Castle, just outside Cardiff, was built by the Normans and restored as a Victorian family home. Powis Castle is known for its extraordinary French and Italian-style garden, a lush bounty of flowers, yew hedges and topiaries. Caernarfon Castle, one of Wales’s most important, was built by King Edward I of England in the 13th century and features several polygonal towers. The Edwardian Conwy Castle, with its large suspension bridge leading to the entrance, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And then there’s Beaumaris Castle, King Edward’s last, regarded as the most technically perfect with its concentric walls.

Snowdonia National Park is the unspoiled pride of Wales in the north. Named for its highest peak, Snowdon, this protected area is a richly textured, blue-green canvas of soaring mountains, dense forest, deep valleys and shimmering lakes, all intimately tied to the Welsh identity. Known as Eryri in Welsh, which translates to “the place of the eagles,” it covers more than 800 square miles.

Cardiff, the capital and largest city in Wales, is the country’s cultural, sporting and commercial center. Here the National Museum pays tribute to the country’s art and natural history. Set in a large neoclassical building, it is one of Britain’s finest. Also of note is the modern Wales Millennium Center, site of the Welsh National Opera, National Dance Company and National Orchestra.