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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

An Introduction to Wales in Conwy

Conwy was the first stop on our trip through North Wales this April and we really couldn’t have started our journey in a better place: Conwy’s spectacular geographical location close to both the mountains and the sea would have been enough to entice me, but combined with the quaint historical center that was over 800 years old and the ancient castle that majestically overlooked the town, it really encompassed everything I love about Great Britain in one perfect little package.

We got our first glimpse of Conwy after a long day of travel that included multiple train rides and one international flight and we were smitten from the moment we first stepped onto the cobbled streets of the Old Town. It was a gorgeous day with a clear blue sky, the perfect weather for a day at the seaside, and since we had some time to kill before our final bus, we strolled down to the harbor to catch the sun.

The tide was out and many little children were playing on the now exposed beach where they collected small crabs and deposited them in aptly named crab buckets, while parents and the odd seagull quietly overlooked the action. Suspecting that the good weather might not list until our next visit the following day, I quickly whipped out my camera to take a few pictures of the castle: The bright blue color of the sky and the sea was only broken up by the colorful little fishing boats that were rocking on the waves and the shimmer of the sun reflecting off the water and I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect picture-book scene if I had tried.

Just as expected, the weather had taken a turn for the worse when we were back the next day: The sky was hidden under a thick cover of grey clouds and visitors and locals a like were bundled up in rain jackets, knowing that the next downpour would come sooner rather than later.

Hoping to avoid the worst of the rain, we decided that our first objective of the day would be to visit Plas Mawr. Located along Conwy’s main pedestrian street in the heart of town, Plas Mawr was a bit inconspicious from the outside, but truly a delight to visit. Built by a local nobleman at the end of the 16th century, it is one of the best preserved Elizabethan town houses in the UK and offered a great glimpse into what life was like during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, a time often referred to as the Golden Age of Britain.

After switching ownership multiple times over the centuries, Plas Mawr is now managed by an initiative of the Welsh government that seeks to ensure the protection of historical buildings and that has truly done a remarkable job at bringing the house and its history to life: The included audio tour managed to navigate the fine line between education and entertainment marvelously and since we almost had the entire house to ourselves during our visit, the whole experience felt especially immersive.

I particularly enjoyed just how lovingly the rooms were decorated. They weren’t just filled with random furniture, but actually appeared to be lived in and the vegetables, fruit and bread in the kitchen were actually fresh ingredients that I wouldn’t have hesitated to sunk my teeth into. This attention to detail was really astounding and made our visit feel very genuine, almost as if we had actually stepped back in time to visit the Wynn family. It was also a lot of fun to photography and definitely gave me some serious food photography inspiration!

At the end of our visit, we climbed up a winding staircase to the highest point of the house from which we had a sweeping 360° view of the town and its surroundings: We spotted Conwy Castle in one direction and the sea in the other and gave us good overview for the rest of our time in Conwy and an interesting new vantage point from which to see (and obviously photograph) the castle.

By the time we were done with our visit, it had begun to rain and since there was no sign of it stopping any time soon, we had no choice, but to brave the elements and made our way over to Conwy Castle. Constructed in the 13th century by French masterbuilder James of St. George for King Edward I., Conwy Castle was part of a complex system of military structures built to strengthen the English rule over Wales. After conquering the country in a bloody war, Edward I. had various castles constructed along the north coast of Wales from which he and his successors (mostly) successfully warded of rebellious Welsh movements.

Now know as the Iron Ring, these castles are still marvels of architecture today and have been awarded status as UNESCO World Heritage sites because they are considered some of the finest examples of medieval military architecture, though one look at Conwy Castle sitting proudly above the town is enough to imagine how threatening a sight it must have made in the past.

Conwy Castle is neither the most grand nor the best preserved of the castles of the Iron Ring, but for me it’s easily the one with the most beautiful and unique location. Set at the mouth of the river Conwy, the castle provides the perfect lookout point over the surrounding countryside and a walk over the thick walls of the castle will take you from vistas over the sea to views over the mountains in a blink of an eye.

Much of the inside of the castle has fallen into disrepair over the centuries, but for its age Conwy Castle – just as the rest of the Iron Ring – is extraordinarly well-preserved. The walls and the towers still stand as strong and seemingly impenetrable today as they did eight hundred years ago and it was great fun to stroll around the grounds and imagine how the castle used to look when all its grand halls had still been intact.

While I have certainly seen my faire share of castles growing up in Germany, the castles of the Iron Ring are truly some of the most impressive I have ever seen. All of them perfectly embodied the classic fairytale image that comes to mind when one thinks about the Middle Ages and while it was hard to choose a favorite, Conwy Castle was well worth a visit for the views alone.

Since we had somewhat gotten used to the rain at this point, we were keen to explore some of the natural splendeurs of Conwy. The guide book had recommended two outdoor activities – one suggestion was to hike up Conwy Mountain, the other to walk along the coast to Morfa Beach – but we only had time for one and because climbing mountains in the rain didn’t sound like too much fun, we decided to go with the latter.

Our walk started at the harbor and in comparison with the evening before the quay was practically deserted: Only a lone person in front of the smallest house in Britain and even more lonesome seagull seemed to withstand the rain and the carefree atmosphere of the night before had been replaced with a rough feeling of nostalgia that every British seaside town seems to portray when the weather isn’t quite right. The sea still had a raw and wild beauty to it – perhaps even more so in this state than the day before – but it didn’t take a whole lot of imagination to understand how tough life in North Wales must have been in the times before central heating.

We followed a small path along the coast that quickly lead us away from the Old Town and the closer we got to the open sea, the stronger the wind grew. Morfa Beach was located a few kilometres away from the town center and aside from its harborside beginnings and beachy end, most of the path wasn’t too interesting. Since there weren’t any guiding signs, there were a few times when we weren’t sure if we were in the right place, but eventually we found our way to a parking space next to a large golf club where we spotted a sandy path leading through the dunes.

I have often said that mountains capture my heart and my spirit like no other place in the world, but after traveling to Wales I feel the need to revise that statement: It is not just mountains that call my soul home – it is any type of wild and secluded landscape that does. And as such, the broad beach that finally opened up in front of our eyes was a true feast for the senses.

I have always found myself attracted to the parts of the world that most people would describe as rough or even unhospitable and there is no doubt in my mind that this is the reason why I wanted to visit Wales in the first place. Wales may not exactly be the most remote place on Earth, but it has the same type of raw and untouched beauty to it that you would expect to find in places much more difficult to get to. And as we stood at Morfa Beach and just took in the scenery – stormy clouds looming over the mountains and harsh winds roughing up the sea – it was only all too easy to forget that we were only a stone’s throw away from the edges of town.

Sufficiently shaken by the wind, we headed back to town and warmed our frozen bones with some tea and cake at L’s Coffee and Book Shop. Stopping by a cafĂ© quickly became one of my favorite afternoon rituals while we were in Wales and has greatly expanded my fondness for taking my tea with a splash of milk – I now can’t believe there were days when I would scoff at this notion! But since there was one more thing we wanted to see in Conwy, we soon got ready to head out into the cold again and soon found ourselves on the old walls that surround the town center.

The town walls circled almost the entire historical heart of Conwy apart from the harbor and stood still as intact as the castle. As history buffs (and with a boyfriend that gets excited about any type of medieval fortifications), we definitely couldn’t let the weather keep us from going on a walk on top of the walls, though the views over the town and the castle would surely have been enough to draw in our attention.

Conwy made a great impression on me from the moment we first stepped out of the train from Birmingham, but it wasn’t until we had seen more towns on the north coast of Wales that we really started to appreciate just what a gem Conwy truly was. We passed a few towns on our trip that seemed to feel the economic downturn hard and felt sort of devoid of life as a result, while Conwy felt both lively and prosperous – no doubt at least in part because of tourism – and there were times when it felt almost surreal to see just how different two places along the same stretch of coast could be.

In any case, Conwy really is the perfect embodiment of the word charming and I am already looking forward to returning one day – hopefully with less rain, though!


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