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Perched on the rocky fringe of western Europe, Wales often gets short shrift in comparison to its Celtic cousins of Ireland and Scotland. Neither so internationally renowned nor so romantically perceived, the country is usually defined – if it is known at all – by its male voice choirs and tightly-packed pit villages. But there's far more to the place than the hackneyed stereotypes, and at its best, Wales is the most beguiling part of the British Isles. Even its comparative anonymity serves it well: where the tourist dollar has swept away some of the more gritty aspects of local life in parts of Ireland and Scotland, reducing ancient cultures to misty Celtic pastiche, Wales remains brittle and brutal enough to be real, and diverse enough to remain endlessly interesting.
Within its small mass of land, Wales boasts some stunning physical attributes. Its mountain ranges, ragged coastline, lush valleys and old-fashioned market towns all invite long and repeated visits. The culture, too, is compelling, whether in its Welsh- or English-language manifestations, its Celtic or its industrial traditions, its ancient cornerstones of belief or its contemporary chutzpah. Recent years have seen a huge and dizzying upsurge in Welsh self-confidence, a commodity no longer so dependent upon comparison with its big and powerful neighbour of England. Popular culture – especially music and film – has contributed much to this revival, as has the arrival of a National Assembly in 1999, the first all-Wales tier of government for six hundred years. After centuries of enforced subjugation, the national spirit is undergoing a remarkable renaissance. The ancient symbol of the country, y ddraig goch or the red dragon, seen fluttering on flags everywhere in Wales, is waking up from what seems like a very long slumber.
Once you've crossed the border from England into Wales, the differences in appearance, attitude and culture between the two countries are immediately obvious. Wales shares many physical and emotional similarities with the other Celtic lands – Scotland, Ireland, Cornwall, Brittany and even Asturias and Galicia in northwest Spain. A rocky and mountainous landscape, whose colours are predominantly grey and green, a thinly scattered, largely rural population, a culture rooted deeply in folklore and legend and the survival of a distinct, ancient language are all hallmarks of Wales and its sister countries. To the visitor, it is perhaps the Welsh language, the strongest survivor of the Celtic tongues, that most obviously marks out the country. Tongue-twisting village names and vast bilingual signposts point to a glorious tale of endurance against the odds, slap next to the heartland of English language and culture, the most expansionist in history. Everyone in Wales speaks English, but nearly a quarter of the population also speak Welsh: TV and radio stations broadcast in it, all children learn it at school and visitors too are encouraged to try speaking at least a fragment of the rich, earthy tones of Europe's oldest living language.
Although it's often the older aspects of Welsh and Celtic culture, from stone circles to crumbling castles, that bring visitors here in the first place, contemporary Wales is also worthy of indulgent inspection. The cities and university towns throughout the country are buzzing with an understated youthful confidence and sense of cultural optimism, while a generation or two of so-called New Age migrants have brought a curious cosmopolitanism to the small market towns of mid-Wales and the west. Although conservative and traditional forces still sporadically clash with these more liberal and anarchic strands of thought, there's an unquestionable feeling that Wales is big enough, both physically and emotionally, to embrace such diverse influences. Perhaps most importantly of all, Welsh culture is underpinned by an iconoclastic democracy that contrasts starkly with the establishment-obsessed divisions of England, or even, to some extent, of Scotland or Ireland. Wales is not – and never has been – so absorbed by matters of class and status as its near neighbours. Instead, the Welsh character is famously endowed with a musicality, lyricism, introspection and sentimentality that produces far better bards and singers than it does lords and masters. And Welsh culture is undeniably a popular expression, arising from an inherently democratic impulse. Anything from a sing- song in the pub to the grandiose theatricality of an Eisteddfod involves everyone – including any visitor eager to learn and join in.
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Mike Parker has had close ties with Wales since buying himself a "Teach Yourself Welsh" book at the age of twelve and is a contributer to the Rough Guide to Britain. Paul Whitfield has had a similarly long-term relationship with Wales and is author of the Rough Guide to Alaska and co-author of Rough Guides to New Zealand and California.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Where to go
Like all capital cities, Cardiff is atypical of the rest of the country, but as the first major stop on both rail and road routes from England into south Wales, it's a good place to start. Most national institutions are based here, not least the new National Assembly, currently in a temporary home but soon to be housed in purpose-built splendour amidst the massive regeneration projects of Cardiff Bay. The city is also home to the National Museum and St Fagans Folk Museum – both are excellent introductions to the character of the rest of Wales – and the brand-new Millennium Stadium, which hosted the 1999 Rugby World Cup. The only other centres of appreciable size are dowdy Newport and breezy, resurgent Swansea, lying respectively to the east and west of the capital. All three cities grew as ports, mainly exporting millions of tons of coal and iron from the Valleys, where fiercely proud industrial communities were built up in the thin strips of land between the mountains.
Much of Wales' appeal lies outside the towns, where there is ample evidence of the warmongering which has shaped the country's development. Castles are everywhere, from the hard little stone keeps of the early Welsh princes to Edward I's incomparable series of thirteenth-century fortresses at Flint, Conwy, Beaumaris, Caernarfon, Harlech and Rhuddlan, and grandiose Victorian piles where grouse were the only enemy. Fortified residences served as the foundation for a number of the stately homes that dot the country, but many castles were deserted and remain dramatically isolated on rocky knolls, most likely on spots previously occupied by prehistoric communities. Passage graves and stone circles offer a more tangible link to the pre-Roman era when the priestly order of Druids ruled over early Celtic peoples, and later religious monuments such as the great ruined abbeys of Valle Crucis, Tintern and Strata Florida lend a gaunt grandeur to their surroundings.
Whether you're admiring castles, megaliths or Dylan Thomas's home at Laugharne, almost everything in Wales is enhanced by the beauty of the countryside, from the lowland greenery of meadows and river valleys to the inhospitable heights of the moors and mountains. The rigid backbone of the Cambrian Mountains terminates in the soaring peaks of Snowdonia and the angular ridges of the Brecon Beacons, both superb walking country and both national parks. A third national park follows the Pembrokeshire Coast, where golden strands come separated by rocky bluffs overlooking offshore bird colonies. Much of the rest of the coast remains unspoilt, though seldom undiscovered, with long sweeps of sand often backed by traditional British seaside resorts: the north Wales coast, the Cambrian coast and the Gower peninsula display a notable abundance.
When to go
The English preoccupation with the weather holds equally for the Welsh. The climate here is temperate, with Welsh summers rarely getting hot and nowhere but the tops of mountain ranges ever getting very cold, even in midwinter. Temperatures vary little from Cardiff in the south to Llandudno in the north, but proximity to the mountains is a different matter: Llanberis, at the foot of Snowdon, gets doused with more than twice as much rainfall as Caernarfon, seven miles away, and is always a few degrees cooler. With rain never too far from the mind of any resident or visitor, it is easy to forget that throughout much of the summer, Wales – particularly the coast – can be bathed in sun. Between June and September, the Pembrokeshire coast, washed by the Gulf Stream, can be as warm as anywhere in Britain. The bottom line is that it's impossible to say with any degree of certainty that the weather will be pleasant in any given month. May might be wet and grey one year and gloriously sunny the next, and the same goes for the autumnal months – November stands an equal chance of being crisp and clear or foggy and grim. Obviously, if you're planning to lie on a beach, or camp in the dry, you'll want to go between June and September – a period when you should book your accommodation as far in advance as possible. Otherwise, if you're balancing the likely fairness of the weather against the density of the crowds, the best time to get into the countryside or the towns is between April and May or in October. If outdoor pursuits are your objective, these are the best months for walking, June to October are warmest and driest for climbing, and December to March the only times you'll find enough water for kayaking.
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Book Description Rough Guides, 2000. Paperback. Condition: New. Never used!. Seller Inventory # P111858285437
Book Description Rough Guides, 2000. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M1858285437
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