Thursday, September 13, 2007

28 June: The Wilds of Wales

Mrs. Nixon served us our full English breakfast in the dining room, with canned peaches and prunes this time. The portions were a bit smaller than usual, for which I was grateful – I cringe at what these meals must be doing to my cholesterol level. When I went to check out, Mrs. Nixon took my credit card, looked at it for a moment, and asked if we were American. I said yes and she said, “That explains it – you didn’t sound German on the phone!” I asked her if they got many American guests and she said quite a few, so I guess they don’t all sign the guestbook.

We drove back down the crazy narrow lane and headed north on “A” roads (one step below motorway, meaning they are two full lanes wide, thank goodness) through rolling countryside populated by more sheep than people. (I’m not joking – Fodor’s says there are 2.9 million people in Wales and 5.5 million sheep.) We drove through the old spa town of Llandrindod Wells, its streets lined with incongruous Victorian mansions. From there we headed northwest into the Elan Valley, Wales’s equivalent of the Lake District (photo, right). We decided to check out something called Devil’s Bridge, which turned out to be a bit of a tourist folly. Here you can see the rushing River Mynach carving its way through a jagged chasm, complete with several “punch bowls” – nearly-symmetric bowls that have been eroded out of the rock by the river’s passage. The narrow channel is spanned by three separate bridges built literally one on top of the other, the first dating back to the 11th century, the second from 1708, and the third from 1901 (photo, right). Why they decided not to tear down the previous structures is beyond me! We paid £1 each to go through an ancient metal turnstile and hike down a zigzag trail to see the punch bowls and the trio of bridges. On our way back we got stuck because the turnstile jammed and we had to exit via another door.

We continued west to Aberystwyth on the coast (home of the National Library of Wales) and then turned northeast, passing through Machynlleth, its streets lined with handsome Georgian townhouses. By midday we had entered Snowdonia National Park and the landscape grew increasingly wild as we continued northwards (photo, below). The image that probably comes to mind when you think of Wales is really only one small part of the country, concentrated in the northwest amidst the mountains of Snowdonia. We stopped in a particularly rugged valley to admire the scenery – steep hillsides carpeted in ferns, topped by jagged slate cliffs, with the ubiquitous white sheep grazing in lush green pastures on the lower slopes.

I talked John into taking a scenic drive over Bwlch y Groes (Pass of the Cross), the highest road in Wales. I figured if it was listed in Fodor’s, it couldn’t be that bad. We started out from a lake called Llyn Tegid near the town of Bala and headed towards a bulbous rocky mountain in the distance. When we arrived at the turnoff for the pass (a road so small that it didn’t even have a name on our map), John was rather dubious. There was a sign posted that warned, “single-track road with few passing areas.” I had to show John the description in Fodor’s again to prove that we were in the right place and we weren’t going to get lost out in the Welsh wilderness. The road began winding through tall hedges, then opened up as we climbed the side of a narrow valley occupied by a lone farmstead. We encountered more sheep than cars on the road – a good thing, since sheep are smaller and easier to avoid. We stopped at a little pull-out where a stream came cascading down the hillside to eat a light lunch (salami, crackers, and a tomato and an orange left over from our Sussex Pad breakfast). Our huge Mercedes stood out peculiarly in this empty landscape. Tucked into the pull-out, it resembled a disguised Polizei car waiting for speeders. Just as I asked, “Do you think we are the only people out here in an E-Class?” we watched an older couple drive by in a silver E-Class with British plates. Apparently we were not the only crazy tourists out today. We also got some funny looks from three guys in an offroad-equipped Land Rover coming down the mountain. Remember that we have German plates, so we were definitely a bit of an oddity on the backroads of northern Wales.

After our snack amongst the sheep, we continued onwards, the road narrowing to barely a car’s width as we crept up the side of the valley, watching constantly for pull-outs in the event that someone came at us from the other direction. Fortunately we didn’t see any more cars until we got to the pass, where we got out and climbed a nearby rise to survey the landscape. It was overcast and the clouds kept spitting cold rain at us, but we could see the ridgeline of the Aran Mountains through the mist. A sign was posted that read “This is Sheep Country – you are legally required to keep your dog on a lead.” Right next to the sign stood a blocky stone marker with – you guessed it – a sheep sitting on top of it. An interpretive sign told us that the dark wavy lines on a distant hillside were the edges of ancient peat bogs – an increasingly rare sight even in this unspoiled landscape (photo, right).

We continued on over the pass, rolling treeless grassland stretching out around us. We arrived at a crossroads and admired the view down another steep valley (photo, right), but our route took us in the other direction. On the way down the other side we had to keep our eyes peeled because we encountered several oncoming cars. A couple of times John had to back up quite a ways in order to give the other cars room to pass.

We finally emerged at Lake Vyrnwy and decided to drive counter-clockwise around the lake and then hook up with a B road that would take us back to Bala. We could have taken another mountain road to get back, but John decided that he had had enough of that sort of driving for one day! The lake – or what we could glimpse of it through the trees – was very pretty, with not a house in sight to disturb the landscape of dark forest and green pastures. We stopped at the southeast end of the lake to cross the late 19th-century dam (constructed to provide water to Liverpool) and used the award-winning loo there (yes, these things are important).

I navigated us back to a nice wide A road (who knew we would ever be so grateful to see a dotted white line down the middle of the road) and we headed west to Trawsfynydd and then north for the final push to Betws-y-Coed. We passed the Llechwedd Slate Caverns en route, where you can tour the slate quarry. The scenery in that area was amazing – enormous piles of slate literally poured out of the mountainside like shards of black glass. Unfortunately it was now raining heavily so I couldn’t get any pictures.

We turned off before reaching the popular resort village of Betws-y-Coed to find our lodging for the next two nights: Tan-y-Foel Country House. It is located several miles from town, up yet another winding single-track lane between high hedges. We were quite relieved when we finally arrived at the gorgeous 16th-century stone farmhouse nestled in the woods (photo, right). This was our big splurge on the trip and I was anxious to see which of the six individually-decorated rooms we would get. We rushed inside to escape the wind and wet and were greeted warmly by Kelly, daughter of the proprietors. She told us that we were the only guests for the night so they had upgraded us to a larger room. Kelly threw on a coat and took us back outside, around the side of the house to our private entrance. We had our own little vestibule where we could take off our coats and shoes. A second door opened onto the room: a cozy, low-ceilinged chamber with ancient wood beams, a king bed swathed in a gold quilt, two comfortable leather armchairs, a dressing table and large closet, all done in soothing cream and beige tones with lots of atmospheric lighting and artsy fixtures. The bathroom was enormous, simple and modern, with cork flooring, a separate shower and tub, and huge fluffy white bath towels and robes. We were in heaven!

Tan-y-Foel is known for its fine cuisine, cooked up by co-owner and Master Chef Janet Pitman, so we were really looking forward to a wonderful meal. We were seated all alone in a nook in the modern dining room, looking out on a little walled garden where a tabby cat was snuggled in a box under an umbrella, oblivious to the rain. Our meal was simply fabulous, starting with the homemade bread – white with Welsh cheddar and brown flavored with molasses. For starters, I had chicken livers on toast with mixed greens and raspberry-mustardseed vinaigrette and John had roast salmon with tomato fondant and olive tapenade. We both had the Welsh pork tenderloin with crisp pancetta, potato cake, apple cider sauce and something called “bubble-and-squeak,” which is a crispy sort of cracker made from the pork drippings. Can you imagine a more perfect meal for a dark and stormy night? To go with it we had the recommended Jackie Janedot Moulin-a-Vent Beaujolais. For dessert, John had rhubarb fool and I had apricot Tarte Tatin with crème Anglaise. Kelly was our server and sommelier and, since she didn’t have any other guests to take care of, stopped to chat with us several times about our trip and living in Germany. After dinner we retired to the cozy lounge, also very tastefully decorated in a modern style, where I had Earl Grey tea and John had a glass of port, which he picked because it was described as tasting of pencil lead. It was raining sideways when we finally turned in for the night. Full of good food and exhausted from the day’s journey, we relaxed in our cozy room, quite safe from the raging Welsh weather.

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