WHERE TO GO Like all capital cities, Cardiff is atypical of the rest of the country, but as the first major stop on both rail and road routes from England into south Wales, its a good place to start. Most national institutions are based here, not least the new National Assembly, currently in a temporary home but soon to be housed in purpose-built splendour amidst the massive regeneration projects of Cardiff Bay. The city is also home to the National Museum and St Fagans Folk Museum both are excellent introductions to the character of the rest of Wales and the brand-new Millennium Stadium, which hosted the 1999 Rugby World Cup. The only other centres of appreciable size are dowdy Newport and breezy, resurgent Swansea, lying respectively to the east and west of the capital. All three cities grew as ports, mainly exporting millions of tons of coal and iron from the Valleys, where fiercely proud industrial communities were built up in the thin strips of land between the mountains.
Much of Wales appeal lies outside the towns, where there is ample evidence of the warmongering which has shaped the countrys development. Castles are everywhere, from the hard little stone keeps of the early Welsh princes to Edward Is incomparable series of thirteenth-century fortresses at Flint, Conwy, Beaumaris, Caernarfon, Harlech and Rhuddlan, and grandiose Victorian piles where grouse were the only enemy. Fortified residences served as the foundation for a number of the stately homes that dot the country, but many castles were deserted and remain dramatically isolated on rocky knolls, most likely on spots previously occupied by prehistoric communities. Passage graves and stone circles offer a more tangible link to the pre-Roman era when the priestly order of Druids ruled over early Celtic peoples, and later religious monuments such as the great ruined abbeys of Valle Crucis, Tintern and Strata Florida lend a gaunt grandeur to their surroundings.
Whether youre admiring castles, megaliths or Dylan Thomass home at Laugharne, almost everything in Wales is enhanced by the beauty of the countryside, from the lowland greenery of meadows and river valleys to the inhospitable heights of the moors and mountains. The rigid backbone of the Cambrian Mountains terminates in the soaring peaks of Snowdonia and the angular ridges of the Brecon Beacons, both superb walking country and both national parks. A third national park follows the Pembrokeshire Coast, where golden strands come separated by rocky bluffs overlooking offshore bird colonies. Much of the rest of the coast remains unspoilt, though seldom undiscovered, with long sweeps of sand often backed by traditional British seaside resorts: the north Wales coast, the Cambrian coast and the Gower peninsula display a notable abundance.
WHEN TO GO The English preoccupation with the weather holds equally for the Welsh. The climate here is temperate, with Welsh summers rarely getting hot and nowhere but the tops of mountain ranges ever getting very cold, even in midwinter. Temperatures vary little from Cardiff in the south to Llandudno in the north, but proximity to the mountains is a different matter: Llanberis, at the foot of Snowdon, gets doused with more than twice as much rainfall as Caernarfon, seven miles away, and is always a few degrees cooler. With rain never too far from the mind of any resident or visitor, it is easy to forget that throughout much of the summer, Wales particularly the coast can be bathed in sun. Between June and September, the Pembrokeshire coast, washed by the Gulf Stream, can be as warm as anywhere in Britain. The bottom line is that its impossible to say with any degree of certainty that the weather will be pleasant in any given month. May might be wet and grey one year and gloriously ! sunny the next, and the same goes for the autumnal months November stands an equal chance of being crisp and clear or foggy and grim. Obviously, if youre planning to lie on a beach, or camp in the dry, youll want to go between June and September a period when you should book your accommodation as far in advance as possible. Otherwise, if youre balancing the likely fairness of the weather against the density of the crowds, the best time to get into the countryside or the towns is between April and May or in October. If outdoor pursuits are your objective, these are the best months for walking, June to October are warmest and driest for climbing, and December to March the only times youll find enough water for kayaking.
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