The great strongholds of north Wales, chief among them the castles of Caernarfon and Conwy, are as intimidating and imposing today as they surely must have been in the 13th century. It is no wonder they remain a popular draw for tourists and history lovers alike; North Wales is a treasure trove of the country’s past.
Our first stop was Caernarfon Castle, a behemoth built as part of Edward I’s ring of fortifications built in north Wales as a means to subdue the local populace. The site has seen its share of medieval uprisings by the native Welsh inhabitants, and it continued to play a role during the sieges of the English Civil War. More recently, it was the backdrop for Prince Charles’s investiture as Prince of Wales in 1969. There has been a castle of some description or another in the area since at least the late 1000s, and it remains a focal point of its surrounding town today.
We arrived late to Caernarfon, having first crossed over the Menai Bridge into Angelsey to visit the famous tongue-twister of a town, Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. (It is a point of pride for Welsh people to be able to pronounce the name, although it is generally shortened to the more manageable “Llanfairpwll”.) The railway station is the one photo-op we came for.
As a result, we didn’t have time to actually enter into the castle, but we spent a few hours perusing the town itself. It is hard to communicate the sheer size of the walls towering over those who walk in their shadows. I am looking forward to one day seeing the interior of this monstrous place.
The next morning, we set out for Conwy quite early. Having been there before, I was bursting with excitement at the thought of returning to a place which had previously held quite bittersweet memories.
Conwy Castle dominated the view as we drove across the River Conwy, the famous and picturesque Conwy Suspension Bridge running parallel to the road. With Mount Snowdon looming in the distance, the turrets of this intimidating castle garner the same sort of awe the townspeople must have felt in the 13th century. This castle could not be mistaken for those which fill romantic fairytales; Conwy Castle, like Caernarfon, is a show of strength, as well as dominance.
There is much to do in the old town of Conwy. Top of any visitor’s list should be the medieval town walls, a UNESCO World Heritage Site considered to be one of the best preserved fortifications from the medieval period. The oldest parts of the town are enclosed within them, and those with steady footing can climb the crumbling stairs to be treated to fantastic vistas of Conwy and the surrounding countryside.
Conwy’s quay is still functional, which also makes it an ideal place to enjoy some seafood hauled in just that morning. If that’s not your thing, there is also an ice cream truck that sets up shop there; try the elderflower flavour for a refreshingly tart burst. The Smallest House in Great Britain also fronts onto the riverbank, a cheery, comically tiny thing painted bright red. Ironically, it once housed a 6′ fisherman. On days with nice weather, a costumed interpreter lingers outside its door. Ever present in the background, Conwy Castle looms large.
Once you’ve exhausted the perimeter of the walls and harbour, and perhaps backtracked across the bridge to snap some photographs of the castle, make your way up High Street, Conwy’s main thoroughfare. At the bottom, marvel at Aberconwy House, a medieval merchant’s home and one of the oldest dateable houses in Wales. Further up the street, you’ll see Plas Mawr, a delicately restored townhouse from the 16th century now open to the public. If you happen to spend the night and want a bit of luxury, the Castle Hotel offers elegant, contemporary rooms with a historic view. If you need a quiet place in a sunny corner, head up to Amelie’s Cafe, across the street from the Castle Hotel on the second floor of its building. They have a nice little selection of homebaked goodies, as well as teas, coffees, and lemonades.
At the top of High Street, turn left for the visitor’s centre, train station, and a staircase to access the walls, or right for some adorable boutiques. Conwy’s shops offer an excellent opportunity for window shopping, but even if they were all closed, there’s no shortage of things to see.
If you have more time, consider a walk along Conwy Quay. The path extends beyond the walls and winds alongside the tidal flats out toward the open water. If you go in the evening, you’ll be treated to an amazing view of Conwy Castle and the town illuminated in the blue dusk. The castle may be terrifying, but at moments like that, it is also breathtaking.