"On the western fringe of Europe lies Wales--surrounded by water on three sides, mountainous, and dramatically beautiful. Geologically, it is one of the oldest parts of the world, and such is its nature and history that it sometimes seems like the first place God created."
--Jan Morris in "Wales, The First Place"
It's a shame more travelers don't make the journey to fascinating Wales, located just a short drive or train ride from London. It is a small and quirky land, with four sheep to every human and more castles than any other country in Europe. Not only that, but half the signers of the Declaration of Independence and five of the first six U.S. presidents had Welsh ancestry. Wales has a strong identity, its own language, and plenty of sights to see. Here are three of the most fascinating.
Museum of Welsh Life
at St. Fagans, just outside Cardiff
One of Europe's largest folk museums, this center was established in 1948 to collect and study materials that illustrate the character of Wales. It is as popular with locals as it is with tourists. Over 40 diverse buildings were moved here from around Wales, including a bee shelter and a circular, surprisingly tidy pigsty. The village is alive with craftsmen demonstrating their skills, and some houses warmed by wood-burning fireplaces allow visitors a chance to feel their coziness--providing a special comfort on drizzly days. Galleries display costumes, traditional love spoons, and quilts, and both St. Fagans Castle--a 16th century Tudor manor house--and a beautiful medieval church with extremely rare wall paintings can also be toured. Additionally, a restaurant, several tea rooms, and an oak-fired bakery are on site.
in the scenic Wye Valley bordering England
This medieval market town claims to be the used-book capital of the world. Composed of winding streets and alleys lined with atmospheric shops purveying used and new books alike, it presents a delightful way to pass a day. Some shops sell antiques along with their tomes. In cool weather, a few charming tea shops figuratively beg you to sit down and recharge, while in warm weather Shepherd's Ice Cream Parlour is a must for a refreshing treat made with local sheep's milk. Perhaps the most interesting venues are Hay Cinema, located in a former movie theater, and Hay Castle, a 17th-century Jacobean mansion that keeps bookshelves in its open-air courtyard available round-the-clock for browsing. The Guardian Hay Festival of Literature is held in town annually. Featuring poetry readings and literary events galore, it draws the likes of Tom Wolfe, Paul McCartney, and Bill Clinton. This year, the 15th festival is scheduled for the first week in June.
National Botanic Garden of Wales
at Llanarthne, near Carmarthen in South Wales
The first national botanic garden to be created in the U.K. in 200 years, this magnificent facility opened in 2000. Dedicated to conserving threatened plant species, it is twice the size of Kew Gardens in London and gets twice the rainfall--56 inches each year. Visitors can explore a variety of microclimates and see an unusual 18th-century double-walled garden (with a brick inner wall and stone outer wall) as they make their way to the Great Glasshouse--a contemporary interpretation of the ornate Victorian glass conservatories seen in Kew Gardens. Measuring approximately 325 feet long by 195 feet wide, this gigantic curiosity is the largest single-span glasshouse in the world. Highly engineered ball and socket joints allow precise movement of its glass panels, which permits coddling its collection of endangered Mediterranean plants hailing from South Africa, Chile, Australia, and California in the U.S. A great gift shop and pleasant cafe are on the grounds.