Wales: Part Two (and Amsterdam!)

29 Mar

I’m writing this post from an Internet cafe in Amsterdam. Aren’t I trendy? But before I start acting like a real European (riding around on a scooter and saying “Ciao”), let me recap the second half of my trip through Wales. Actually, let’s start with England.

You see, the train from southern Wales to northern Wales follows the English-Welsh border, and passes into England for a portion of the journey. The ride itself was very nice, passing through lovely countryside with rolling hills and pastures, past a castle at one point… I could see bunny rabbits hopping along as the train went by, as well as the omnipresent sheep. The little lambs running along are the cutest things in the world.

I had to change trains at Shrewsbury (in England), so I decided to spend a couple hours there to do some sightseeing. What was the big attraction? Tudor architecture.

I had read that Shrewsbury was the most architecturally intact Tudor city in Britain, and they weren’t lying. You can’t look anywhere in Shrewsbury without seeing a Tudor building. Although some of them are imitations (built in the late 1800s / early 1900s), most of them in Shrewsbury are the real thing.

This is what I’m talking about:

To see all of my pictures from Shrewsbury, click here.

So, I enjoyed my brief stay there. Of course, I tried to do some accent analysis, but it’s difficult when you don’t know who’s actually from the area, and who was born somewhere else. I’m not really familiar with any of the characteristics of the West Midlands dialect anyway, aside from the Birmingham “Brummie” / Ozzy Osbourne accent, which of course is not how people talk in Shrewsbury. I quite liked the accents that I heard…none of the posh-ness you can hear in the South, and none of the grittiness you can hear in the North. Just right. (As a side note, my host in Brecon told me that I didn’t sound “that American.” I’ll take that as a compliment.)

It was funny to be back in England, though. Even after just a few days in Wales, I already felt a hint of resentment towards the English…undoubtedly imbued in me by my hosts at the bed and breakfast. Maybe ‘resentment’ is the wrong word to use, though. You just get the feeling that a lot of people in England could care less about Wales (but the feelings might be mutual).

However, I quickly learned that trying to make generalizations was really quite pointless. Some of the people I encountered in Shrewsbury were quite friendly. The Welsh and the English aren’t *that* different. People aren’t that different, really. The more I’ve traveled, the more I’ve come to realize that people are pretty much the same everywhere.

That’s not to downplay the regional differences, of course, which really contribute to the character of a place. There was something familiar about being back in England, which is strange…I’m not quite sure what it was. Definitely intangible.

Anyway, I got back on the train heading north, which soon passed back into Welsh territory. I had to alight in the town of Ruabon (which in Arab-French slang would be called un bled). My destination was Llangollen (roughly pronounced thlan-GOTH-len), a small town in the Dee Valley, popular with visitors and known for its annual international song festival.

The bus driver on the bus from Ruabon didn’t think that I could use my FlexiPass travel card on the route, but when I couldn’t give exact change for the fare, she let me use it anyway. πŸ™‚ That was the only time, however, that I wasn’t able to use my pass. It was a great investment overall, not to mention the 20 pound discount that I got for having a young person’s railcard. I could just hop on any bus, show them my pass and be off. And same with the train…I could only use train travel on 4 of the 8 days of the pass’s validity, but that was just enough. The only disappointment I had was that the FlexiPass used to be significantly less expensive, last year. Oh well.

Anyway, Llangollen was in a very pretty location, located amidst forested hills and on the River Dee (which was more of a mountain river, so clearer and less muddy than most of the rivers I’ve seen here). I stayed at the Squirrels Guest House, which was very nice and run by a very nice couple. I was happy to have a TV in my room…this trip was the first time I’ve really watched television in the UK. It took me a while to realize that you have to press “0” on the remote to turn the channels on, though… and then there are only 4 channels which come in clearly. Yeah, America knows how to do TV right.

The Squirrels Guest House had pictures of squirrels everywhere, which was a little odd. But quirkily cute. I left the B&B to set out on another hike, this time to the castle ruins that overlook the town and the entire valley. I followed the road that I had seen on Google Maps, which eventually took me to a trailhead for the castle, although it was somewhat of a round-about route and mildly strenuous. But the castle ruins were a cool enough place to merit the hike.

Legend has it that the Holy Grail is buried underneath the ruins…I just forgot to bring my shovel.

On the way down from the castle, I actually found the intended hiking path, which was a much more direct route to town. Unfortunately I wouldn’t have more time to explore the area, because the next morning I hopped on a bus heading west, towards the coast.

To see all of my pictures from Llangollen, click here.

The coast was beautiful. The green mountains sloping down into the blue sea were a sight to behold. I changed at Barmouth for the train, the Cambrian Coast Line, which runs along Cardigan Bay. It was a beautiful ride, right along the coast (reminded me of train rides to Santa Barbara). I got off at Harlech, to see its castle…the first on a lenghty list of Edward I’s castles in northwest Wales…the “Iron Ring.”

It was a damp day, and the castle was wet and mossy everywhere, giving it a distinctly ancient feel. As the sun started to break through the clouds, though, the view from the castle was phenomenal. The mountains of Snowdonia were revealed in all their glory. Here’s a sample:

To see all of my photos from Harlech, click here

Harlech was also the first place where I heard Welsh spoken. It was very cool to hear it being used in the streets, as an everyday language. When I got back on the train, it was also boarded by a large group of local schoolchildren, who were loud and obnoxious. They spoke mostly in English, but also switched into Welsh at times. I found that interesting. I’ll have to bring it up during our seminar on code-switching in my Sociology of Language class. πŸ™‚

I changed at Minffordd for the bus, which drove through more nice scenery (it was nearing dusk, so the sun’s glow on the mountains was particularly nice), and then I arrived at Caernarfon (pronounced kyre-NAH-vin…roughly). My hostel was in the old walled town, and although it took me a while to find it (there was only a tiny sign in the window saying what it was), I was glad I did.

The guy who ran the place was very friendly and funny…and I even got another room all to myself! It would’ve been a nice place to stay for a longer period of time, but for some reason it was completely booked the next day.

Caernarfon is really at the heart of Welsh-speaking northwest Wales, and Welsh was the dominant language on the street. It is incredibly cool to hear a Celtic language being spoken (by young and old alike)…so ancient, so endangered, but still alive. It is a lovely language, aside from that horrid “ch” sound, and it was just great fun to listen to for a linguistics major like myself.

The main attraction in Caernarfon is Caernarfon Castle, another of Edward I’s castles, and definitely the one in the best shape (after restoration work). It’s also particularly massive, and after two hours I still had a large portion of the castle to explore, but unfortunately was out of time (and tired of carrying around all my stuff up and down the spiral staircases).

Unfortunately, while taking a picture of a segull perched upon one of the turrets, the bird crapped on me. Good thing bird poop is easy to clean off…

Aside from that incident, Caernarfon is probably my favourite castle so far, if simply for its size and might, and all the dark little passageways and everything. It also has a beautiful location…perhaps not quite as good as Harlech’s, but lovely nonetheless:

To see all my pictures from Caernarfon, click here.

My next stop was Bangor, which, like the city in Maine, is not particularly interesting, but has some beautiful scenery not too far away. I immediately got on the bus to Beaumaris, home of another of Edward I’s castles. I believe that Beaumaris has the largest area, although it’s shorter and less grandiose than the others (but it does have a moat!). Unfortunately I only had an hour before the castle closed, so I didn’t have time to explore all the dark corridors and everything, but I made the best of it.

And once again, a beautiful view:

To see all of my pictures from Beaumaris Castle, click here

In Bangor I stayed at the youth hostel (part of the Youth Hostel Association). These hostels are more ‘organized’ than their independent counterparts, which in some ways makes them more attractive…they’re also generally somewhat cheaper, and unlike at independent hostels, they include a restaurant where you can buy a full dinner and breakfast (I had the “Welsh fry up”, my fourth full Welsh breakfast after those at the B&Bs…great start to the day). I also splurged and had ice cream after dinner (don’t tell my parents).

However, the YHA Hostels have their downsides. First of all, they’re usually located on the edge of town…so it was a pain to walk there with all my bags (about a mile). The rooms are typically larger, so there was no chance of me having one to myself. Also, even though it’s supposed to be a YOUTH hostel, most of the people there were in their 50s and 60s! It was very odd.

After Bangor I embarked on a series of bus and train journeys throughout Snowdonia National Park. I began by heading along the north coast of Wales, past mountains and cliffs to the resort town of Llandudno…I was only there for a few minutes, though, before getting on a train on the Conwy Valley Line to Blaenau Ffestiniog. An old slate mining town with a hydroelectricity plant, Blaenau Ffestiniog was my point to get on the Ffestiniog Railway, one of many scenic narrow-gauge railways in Wales (which happened to be free with my FlexiPass!)

The train ride was nice, aside from the annoying toddler in front of me. The line ended at Porthmadog, where I had a mediocre lunch (but enjoyed listening to all the other diners speaking Welsh). I then got on a bus that went into the heart of Snowdonia…past some pretty breathtaking scenery. The bus stopped at Pen-y-Pass, on probably the highest road in Wales, which offered some great views of Snowdon and the surrounding valleys.

Ironically, even though it’s called “Snowdon”, there wasn’t any snow. It’s higher than the Brecon Beacons, so I wasn’t sure why that was…except perhaps because it’s closer to the ocean. Even though these mountains are smaller than the mountains in New Hampshire, somehow they seem grander, more epic…I think it’s because they have so few trees…it’s all that darn grass!

I then took a bus to Llanberis, site of my third and final bed and breakfast, run by another very nice couple. I took a walk to the nearby Padarn Country Park, which was gorgeous. The view towards Llyn (Lake) Peris was breathtaking:

There were also castle ruins nearby, which added to the coolness of it all.

To see the photos from the first half of my Snowdonia adventure, click here

The next morning, I took a somewhat crazy route and went back to Caernarfon in order to catch the Welsh Highland Railway, which was also free with my FlexiPass. The ride started off uninteresting but soon passed through some truly beautiful scenery. When the train reached its terminus at Rhyd Ddu, we had half an hour before it would leave, so I decided to take a quick walk in the area.

It was really an epic feeling. All the windswept mountain grass, with the wind blowing in your face and mountain vistas beyond…I definitely felt like I was in Lord of the Rings or something.

After the return train ride, I actually went back to Llanberis to catch the Llanberis Lake Railway…not free, but with a 20% discount with my pass. However, it probably wasn’t worth it. The scenery was nice, but the route was much too short, and I could’ve seen better scenery on foot.

Interestingly, however, half the train was filled with some kind of French school group on a trip. All that French being spoken was a reminder of what is yet to come in my European adventure.

The next stop on my Welsh journey was the town of Conwy (Conway is the English name), another walled town with a castle built by Edward I. When I arrived, I headed for my hostel…another YHA hostel, which required a walk up a steep road…not the most convenient location, but there was a good view of the town from the hostel’s roof terrace!

When I first walked into the hostel, there were two people standing at the check-in counter who were staring at me…one of them smiled and said hi to me. I was a little confused by this, and I didn’t realize until after the fact while they had stared. They were the exact same two people who were waiting at the counter when I walked into the *Bangor* hostel, two days before. Simply uncanny.

For some reason, my name wasn’t showing up in the hostel’s reservations, so I had to whip out my laptop and show the guy my booking reference number…from which he was able to pull up my reservation (hey, thank God I brought that heavy laptop with me, right?).

I don’t think there was anyone at this hostel besides me and my stalker friends…completely empty. I naturally had another room to myself, which was great. I ordered a Welsh lamb casserole for dinner, which was very filling.

In the morning I headed for the castle…which was kind of a frightening experience. The castle itself was very cool (one of the highlights is a 91-foot well), but there were pigeons *everywhere*. Given my experience with the seagull at Caernarfon, I wasn’t too keen on getting pooped on…but that wasn’t my biggest fear. I would just walk through all of the dark, narrow passageways in the castle when suddenly a pigeon would fly out from nowhere, scaring the crap out of me.

There were tons of holes in the stone walls…and everytime I looked in one, I would see pigeons, with their scary, red little eyes. There were nests of disgustingly freaky little baby pigeons. The male pigeons were making their horrifying little mating call. There were pigeons with all kinds of deformed colour patches and dirty feathers…all squawking and scaring me. It was the exact plot of The Birds.

Needless to say, I was happy to get out of the castle when I did. I hopped on a train heading east, towards England, and specifically the city of Chester.

Chester’s main attraction for me was its walls, which are Roman in origin but have undergone upgrades in the Medieval period and later on. It also has a good deal of Tudor architecture, although not as much authentic architecture as Shrewsbury. There’s also a Roman amphitheature, which I was excited about, but disappointed when I discovered a short semi-circle of a ruined wall. Nimes trumps that big time.

Nonetheless, Chester was quite a pleasant place. I walked along the town walls, enjoying the warm weather (I really couldn’t have asked for better weather during this trip). I also managed to buy a 1-gig SD card for 20 pounds (more than half the price of the one I’d seen in Brighton), so I wouldn’t have to bring my laptop with me to Europe.

I have to admit that I went to Pizza Hut again when I was in Chester. Pathetic, I know, but when you’re indecisive about food you tend to gravitate towards what you’re familiar with. I got a lunch buffet, which was still way more expensive than it would’ve been in the US, but it filled me up. Besides, you can only have fish n’ chips so many times…

The hostel itself in Chester was ok…I shared a fairly large room with a few other guys, whom I didn’t really have a chance to talk to…most of them were older anyway. One of them was quite a loud snorer, which made getting to bed somewhat difficult, although I’d walked enough that sleep was inevitable.

The next morning I got on a train to Liverpool, which was the closet place to get a cheap coach ride back to London. I ended up getting there earlier than I thought I would, so I had a couple hours of downtime at the coach station, which I spent reading the Nintendo Power magazine that I got back in October. Yes, it’s the first time I’ve had the chance. Pretty sad, huh?

That brief stay in Liverpool was fascinating for the linguist in me, even though it wasn’t the first time I’ve heard Liverpool accents here. Still, listening to some of the people…it was like listening to a foreign language. I had no idea what they were saying. That doesn’t happen very often.

The coach ride was 5 hours long, but I managed to get through it. The coach back to Brighton was once again a big, decked-out coach with awesome leather seats and everything. Even though I had to pay more because I booked a little bit later, coach is definitely the best way to travel across the UK…very good value.

If you’re wondering why I haven’t included links to the photos from the last few days of my trip (Snowdonia Part II, Conwy, and Chester), it’s because I didn’t have the time when I got back to Sussex. Given Sussex’s retarded Internet connection which for some reason prohibits facebook’s standard upload feature, I had to upload all my albums manually, 5 pictures at a time, which took forever. I had no time to get my much-needed sleep, and I had no time to get any of my other important tasks done, either, which I now have to do at Internet cafes and friends’ houses across Europe. Gah.

By the time I had to leave school for my flight to Amsterdam, I was barely functioning. I made it to the train station in time, but the train arrived while I was buying my ticket and I couldn’t get on in time. I got on a later train to Brighton station, but fortunately I was able to catch another train leaving towards the airport, so I got there in time for check-in. It was a good thing, too, because the queues were kind of long.

All in all, things went smoothly. The flight came in on time…I was a little worried about flying EasyJet, but I found it quite professional and modern…arguably nicer than Southwest. All of the orange colour is quite cheery, too. The captain was English, and there was a Scottish, Welsh, and Irish flight attendant. It was like a little cornucopia of British accents.

Unfortunately, the flight to Amsterdam was only 50 minutes, which didn’t give me any time to catch up on sleep. But the arrival was easy…the customs agent didn’t even ask questions, he just stamped my passport and let me in. Yay! Also, all of the signs at the airport were in English, which made finding my way around easy. I bought a train ticket to Amsterdam Central, which in retrospect was idiotic because I could have just used my Eurail Pass (actually, they didn’t even check tickets).

I’ve been amazed at how much English is used here…I was a little bit worried about not knowing Dutch, but it hasn’t been a problem at all. Everyone speaks English, and lots of businesses have signs in English rather than Dutch. I guess the city really is geared towards tourism.

The hostel is kind of subpar…it has a very claustrophobic, crowded feel (it’s completely full right now), and the service isn’t 100% friendly, but at least the water in the shower is hot. Also, there’s a cat who lives in the building who has become my friend. He sat in my lap this morning as I was eating breakfast and didn’t want to get off. πŸ™‚

I’m sharing a room with a few Americans, who don’t really seem to be the uber-partying, dope-smoking types, which is good.

Amsterdam is one crazy city, though. I knew about the Red Light District and all that, but I had no idea it would be so…visible. If you look into a window near a red light, you see…almost everything. The prostitutes will tap on the glass to entice you to come in. God it’s creepy.

I’ve tried to avoid those side streets in favour of the lovely canals, with all the cool Dutch architecture. A lot of the big 16th and 17th buildings have actually reminded me quite a bit of Boston in their look, but certainly more impressive. The canals really make the city, though, and it is pretty. I just wouldn’t feel comfortable here for another night. Doesn’t exactly cater to my interests.

House boats are big, obviously. As are bikes. They’re everywhere. I’ve had a few near-death USC flashbacks, actually. My favourite thing about the city so far, though, are the big music-maker machines. I don’t know what the technical name for them is, but they play that lovely European-style carousel music. It’s very “classic” Dutch and that’s the side of the city that really appeals to me. The church bells are also very melodic, playing some beautiful tunes.

Today I had lunch at an Italian restaurant, which I think was run by people from Jordan or some other country in that area. I had a Hawaiian pizza while watching two Irish guys play pool in China on the TV, while listening to Celine Dion (singing in English and French), all the while in Amsterdam. The world really is a multicultural place (gee…that sounded intelligent).

Unfortunately, the food wasn’t any cheaper than in the UK…perhaps even more expensive. But maybe I just went to the wrong place. I’m hoping the prices won’t be as bad here, and I’m sure that they generally won’t.

Tomorrow I’m off to Brussels. It probably won’t be a mental overload like Amsterdam is, although I’m sure I’ll be using more French and less English. Good preparation for France. I’ll be in Strasbourg on Saturday. I’ll try to upload my pictures when I have the chance, but I can’t make any guarantees yet.

I know these posts will be terribly long, but thank you for reading and for your comments. It’s cool to travel on your own and plan your own itinerary and everything, but it does get lonely. The Internet is my lifeline…even if it does cost 2 Euros per hour. Gah.

Thank heavens for this Internet cafe. It’s actually run by the same company that owns EasyJet (the orange is everywhere!) and is called EasyInternetCafe. Heh.

I would say “goodbye” in Dutch, but I honestly don’t know how to…and yet that hasn’t been a problem at all.

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2 Responses to “Wales: Part Two (and Amsterdam!)”

  1. Ifan 21 June 2007 at 12:36 #

    What’s wrong with the ‘Ch’ sound?! ;P

  2. Frank Brantley 28 May 2010 at 13:33 #

    You’ve done it again! Great read!

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