Only 160 miles from north to south and 50 miles from east to west, Wales is smaller than Massachusetts and only half the size of the Netherlands. Most of its inhabitants are packed into the southern quarter of the country, a fact which will largely dictate where you travel and what you do. Like all capital cities, Cardiff is atypical of the rest of the country. Most national institutions are based here, not least the infant National Assembly, housed in brand-new splendour amid the massive regeneration projects of Cardiff Bay. The city is also home to the National Museum and St Fagans National History Museum – both excellent introductions to the character of the rest of Wales – and the superb Millennium Stadium, the home of huge sporting events and blockbuster gigs. The only other centres of appreciable size are loud-and-lairy 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 larger towns, where there is ample evidence of the warmongering which has shaped the country’s development. Castles are everywhere, from the hard little stone keeps of the early Welsh princes to Edward I’s incomparable series of thirteenth-century fortresses at Conwy, Beaumaris, Caernarfon and Harlech, 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 abbey of Tintern lends a gaunt grandeur to their surroundings.
Whether you’re admiring castles, megaliths or Dylan Thomas’ 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 are separated by rocky bluffs overlooking offshore bird colonies. Much of the rest of the coast remains unspoilt, though seldom visited, with long sweeps of sand often backed by traditional British seaside resorts: the north Wales coast, the Cambrian coast and the Gower peninsula have a notable abundance. The entire coast is now linked by the 860-mile All-Wales Coast Path: be sure to spend some time along its length.