Rich culture, tastes of Wales

The remains of Tretower Castle’s medieval castle and tower.
The remains of Tretower Castle’s medieval castle and tower. Photo Credit: Mike Dunphy
There's no better introduction to Welsh humor than descending a 300-foot shaft into a coal mine. In darkness so thick it touches you, wicked jests help lighten the mood, often at the expense of tourists, who nervously ponder comments like, "Don't worry, we checked for explosive gases a few hours ago."

Regardless, few things are as compelling and frighteningly intimate as a tour of the Big Pit National Coal Museum in Blaenafon, which, like so many other coal mines in Wales, served as the community lynchpin for many generations.

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Now that most are closed, the towns and villages of hilly South Wales seek new purpose, often through attracting tourists. One business, the Blaenafon Cheddar Co., welcomes many of them to its small storefront in the village center, where it turns out 15 selections of handmade cheese with names like Dragon's Breath (hot chili cheddar) and Capel Newydd (white wine and elderflower) alongside a range of Camarthenshire goat cheese flavored with honey, lavender and lemon thyme. Add a block to the picnic basket and hit the road on some of the finest driving country in the world, replete with lush, undulating landscapes worthy of Romantic poets: mossy stone sheepfolds, ruined castles and churches and bubbling brooks.

A particularly idyllic version can be found on the east side of Brecon Beacons National Park at Tretower Court and Castle. Surrounded by sheep-covered hills and pastures, the site offers a rare glimpse into 900 years of castle building, with each era represented in different parts of the complex; the most striking is the remains of the medieval castle and tower, with its cylindrical keep, where lovers have been scratching their name in the stone since the 19th century.

Few villages are more postcard-perfect than Hay on Wye, near the English border. What puts it over the top for tourists isn't the ruined castle or swaths of surrounding landscape, but the town's dedication to books: In its narrow lanes and secretive nooks, dozens of shops deal in poetry, children's, pulp, fantasy, mystery and other genres.

The Penderyn Distillery Visitor Centre. A single pot still was invented exclusively for the distillery.
The Penderyn Distillery Visitor Centre. A single pot still was invented exclusively for the distillery.

To bring this Welsh country idyll to bed with you, check into the Lake Countryside Hotel in Llangammarch Wells. A former hunting lodge dating to 1840, today's hotel is strongly reminiscent of a wealthy Victorian gentleman's club, or at least the sort of place those gentlemen might escape to for a weekend of hunting and fresh air. According to the guest book, even Kaiser Wilhelm II did so in 1912.

Cozying into a sofa next to a fire in the Grand Lounge with a cognac, it does seem as if you've stepped into a time machine, and a very comfortable one at that. Have at least one meal in the attached restaurant for some artisanal takes on traditional Welsh dishes, especially anything with cherry tomatoes, the best I've ever eaten. Add in a treatment in the attached spa and succumb to some of the deepest sleep in your life.

The Welsh countryside is home to one of the most delicious culinary treasures, lamb, which local kitchens serve with aplomb, crediting the particularly succulent taste to the ever-present sea salt in the air and pasture grass. A coat of Moroccan spices or fresh mint jelly makes it especially memorable. Wash it down with a bottle of Welsh farmhouse apple juice, something between New England-style cider and American-style apple juice. Finish with cinnamon-raisin Welsh cakes and a cup of tea and you've covered the basics of Welsh cuisine.

In Penderyn, on the south side of Brecon Beacons National Park, Wales' only whiskey distillery pours something particularly special. Since opening in 2004 (by the Prince of Wales himself), Penderyn has distinguished itself from its powerful Irish and Scottish counterparts through its single pot still, invented exclusively for them, and exceptionally pure water in the carboniferous limestone spring deep below the distillery. Having taken home armfuls of gold and silver medals at competitions, Penderyn Whisky has built a dedicated and growing following. Taking a sip of the madeira or port-finished single malts, it's easy to see why. Find space in your bag for one of each.

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