I’ll admit it. When I first got invited to go to Wales for a week, I figured it was going to be just like Ireland, only more British. I can honestly say now I was wrong. Sure, Wales has a strong Celtic influence. And yes, Wales is a part of Great Britain. But neither of those two things really define Wales. It is a small country (just over 3 million) with a lot of paradoxes that make exploring here a pleasure.
A few things about Wales weren’t a surprise. You know them well. Let’s start with the castles. You go to Wales expecting to see castles and you see plenty. There are more than 600 castles in Wales, hundreds of which are still standing in one form or another. Many were built by the Normans on old Roman fort sites – designed to squash the local Welsh population.
Wales also has an incredibly beautiful coastline, arguably the most beautiful in Britain. And while that wasn’t a surprise, the beauty of the Irish Sea along the Welsh coast certainly made me look twice – it has a calm and peace about it that you rarely get on the Irish side.
Other things about Wales came as a perfect surprise. The food here is incredible, largely because most of the food served and eaten here is actually grown and produced in Wales. Where does that even happen anymore? Apparently in Wales. Restaurants and hotels around the country are pretty much operating within a 7-mile radius, meaning they source all the ingredients they serve from within seven miles of their own location – pretty impressive when I considered the number of gourmet meals I ate. Venison, oysters, black beef, fresh cod and chips, dozens of different cheeses, baked goods… that’s not even to mention the amazing different beers and ales I sampled, all produced in Wales.
Wales also surprised me with its culture, and I’m not talking about classical music or arts, although there’s plenty of that (just check out the National Museum, which houses the largest collection of French Impressionist paintings outside of Paris. Another surprise!). What was truly wonderful, though, were the Welsh people. Warm and friendly, fiercely proud of their Welshness yet left wing and liberal, terribly concerned with keeping it local – everywhere I went I received warm welcomes and the hope that I would love and understand Wales as much as they did.
On my final day wandering around Cardiff, I walked by City Hall and noticed, for the first time in a week of travelling north to south through Wales, the Union Jack was flying. Everywhere I’d been across Wales, the Welsh flag flew, with its prominent green and white backing the bright red dragon, as an emblem of a country that is more its own than British. Is Wales a part of Britain? Of course. Inexorably.
But it is also a truly unique place of the type that is, more and more, ceasing to exist in the world.