Snowdonia marries natural beauty and centuries of history

Posted Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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If you go Where to stay Hotel Maes-y-Neuadd: This beautiful manor house is set among the mountains in Snowdonia with a view of the Cardigan Bay coastline. The hotel restaurant, led by chef John Owen Jones, serves Welsh cuisine made from fresh, local ingredients. It is a bit off the beaten path, so renting a car with GPS is recommended. A double room starts at 100 pounds (about $160 at the time) in the off-season; breakfast included. 44-01766-780200; www.neuadd.com. Historic attractions • Harlech Castle: One of the most striking and formidable of the fortresses, built by Edward I, it has a beautiful view of Tremadog Bay. Open daily; hours vary by season. Admission 3.20-4.25 pounds. • Criccieth Castle: This romantic half-ruined 13th-century castle has a stunning panoramic view of the sea, coastline and surrounding countryside. Open daily; hours vary by season. Admission free Monday-Thursday, 2.65-3.50 pounds Friday-Sunday. • Caernarfon Castle: One of Wales’ most impressive castles, Caernarfon boasts polygonal towers and remnants of early-modern plumbing. In 1969, the castle hosted Prince Charles’ investiture; a slate dais marks the spot of the ceremony. Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday from Nov. 1 through February 2014. 4.50-6 pounds. Essential app Traveline Cymru: Includes bus, coach, rail and ferry routes in Wales. Plan a trip between any two locations and it will show the ways to get there. Free.

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For a relaxing getaway with the kind of fall beauty that Texans can’t find in their own back yards, consider charting a course to the idyllic Welsh countryside of Snowdonia, a scenic region in north Wales and a national park named for its tallest mountain, Snowdon.

In this distant, lovely land, sheep graze on green grass backed by the trees’ autumnal colors, ranging from deep reds to amber yellow. The clouds fly by in the bracing wind and the contrast of shadow and light dance together on the mountainside below. Gray stone walls portioning off the fields lead to charming farmhouses nestled in trees, while the smoke rising from their chimneys warms the chilly outdoor scene.

Snowdonia National Park covers more than 800 square miles in northern Wales’ Gwynedd county. Home to many breathtaking mountains and lakes, the area boasts some of the region’s most picturesque villages. It is a land steeped in history and culture, with a fair share of captivating castles and much of the population speaking Welsh.

For a tranquil and revitalizing time, stay at the Hotel Maes-y-Neuadd, which means “hall in the field.” This manor house has welcomed visitors since the 14th century, including actor Richard Gere, who reportedly stayed there while filming the movie First Knight in the surrounding area. The rambling stone manor is a quaint spot to take in the charming countryside, soak in the view of the Snowdon Mountains and glimpse Cardigan Bay from the terrace.

In the hotel bar, enjoy a pint of the local bitter in deep leather chairs near a roaring fire, then choose between a delectable dinner of roasted pheasant with sticky red cabbage and braised shallots, or pan-fried pork with a fig-thyme sauce and oven-roasted potatoes. After a good night’s rest, it’s a delight to watch the morning fog roll along the mountains while eating a full Welsh breakfast. Fruit, figs and bread awaken the taste buds before it’s time to move on to scrambled eggs and salmon or a fried egg with kippers. Somewhere in your culinary adventures, you owe it to yourself to sample the local delicacy, black pudding, a type of sausage made by cooking pig’s blood or dried blood with filler.

The closest place of interest is the pleasant town of Harlech on Tremadog Bay, which is surrounded by the Rhinogydd Mountains to the east. Harlech Castle, completed in 1289 by Edward I of England, overlooks the bay and once sat next to the sea with a 200-foot-long stairway from the castle to the cliff base. Climb the impressive castle walls to admire a building achievement that survived the longest siege in British history, from 1461 to 1468 during the War of the Roses.

After exploring the towers of the castle, you might schedule a stroll along High Street and take in the picture-worthy town. During winter, many shops and cafes close early or don’t open at all. But there is a treat waiting at the Blue Lion cafe. Devour the ham or vegetable quiche and dip a cheese scone into the tasty courgette (zucchini) soup. Once you warm up with a cup or two of tea, you’ll be ready to explore further.

About an hour north of Harlech lies another strikingly impressive castle. Criccieth Castle — with a name that might have come from the Welsh words crug caeth, meaning jail on a hill — is famous as having been a prison for Welsh soldiers. It sits atop a headland with a spectacular view of Tremadog Bay and the town below, and on a clear night, you can see the castle for miles, illuminated in the darkness.

From Criccieth, it’s just another short journey north to the charming city of Caernarfon, where you can tour the shops and stop at the open market in Castle Square to buy fresh cheese or roasted nuts. A terrific lunch awaits at a local cafe or at the Palace Vaults pub — how does a meal of jacket potatoes (baked potatoes) with cheese, bacon and beans sound?

An afternoon exploring the massive Caernarfon Castle is a delightful plan. Originally built in 1283, this castle was meant to be a heavily fortified palace. Edward I modeled the castle after the city walls of Constantinople, with darker-colored bands breaking up lighter stone. The castle was built with the most modern techniques available and was able to provide water to the kitchens through pipes and cisterns. You can still see evidence of this plumbing near the remnants of the kitchens.

From the Eagle Tower, you’ll get a spectacular view of the Menai Strait and Anglesey Island, where Prince William and his wife, Kate, lived for three years. Continue exploring the walls along the south side of the castle and visit the Royal Fusiliers Museum to learn about the history of Wales’ oldest infantry regiment. Then stand in the center of the slate dais, built for Prince Charles’ investiture in 1969.

For one last stop, venture down the coastline to the seaside village of Barmouth. Even in winter, the long, sandy beach is pleasant as you look out over Cardigan Bay. Barmouth has a scenic harbor with a beautiful rail and pedestrian bridge spanning the dramatic Mawddach estuary. For the adventurous, there are miles of great walking, climbing and cycling routes from the town, but go prepared for cold, rain and mud, then recover from the chill at the Tal-y-Don Hotel’s pub, where some of the best cod and chips with mushy peas in the country will hit the spot.

The Welsh countryside is exceptional in that the natural beauty is not diminished by overcast skies or chilly wind. It seems to embrace the damp and cold, even thrive in it. The rich history still evident in medieval castles is just part of the unparalleled beauty of the area. The living Welsh language adds another layer of depth to this unique part of the country.

Snowdonia is definitely the kind of place you can visit many times and still have plenty to explore and discover.

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