Backstory: At 4am, only hours before leaving Denver to start this summer of exploration, I woke up in a panic, suddenly realizing that I’d never actually checked what the visa regulations were for an American visiting Europe. A couple quick Google searches brought me to the Schengen agreement, which allows Americans 90 days total out of any 180 day period in the Schengen territory visa-free, which includes pretty much all of the countries in the EU with a few additions and subtractions. My original plan was to be in Europe through September, and some quick math brought me to the stark reality that September was likely not going to happen. Frantic messaging with my friend Megan who had been living in Europe for the last couple years did provide some helpful advice though – you can be strategic with those 90 days, spending time in the non-Schengen countries and tracking your travels through an app to maximize your stay and ultimately avoid deportation. (THANKS MEGAN!) The UK is not part of Schengen, so once I left London I decided to use my time wisely and pick up a campervan to visit England’s quiet, rugged and understated neighbor, Wales (Cymru in Welsh)!
I picked up my van, thankful for my intro to left-hand driving in New Zealand, but very aware of the new challenge in front of me, driving stick-shift with my left hand. Yey! I’ve driven manual cars since buying my first in 2006, but it still was a very gallery type=\”rectangular\”definite adjustment to change hands AND feet! Off I went, out into the countryside, driving at a very conservative “i’m learning” speed, waving and smiling to the very skilled left hand-stick shift drivers zooming past me. The other great thing about Wales is they have a VERY open camping/parking policy and even have directories of public toilets with hours of operation, so finding parking spots at trailheads was no problem. I got to Snowdonia National Park with time to run up a nearby peak for sunset before heading down, eating my leftover sandwich under the stars, and calling it a night in my new temporary home.
The next morning called for rain, so instead of heading straight to Snowdonia peak, I detoured to Caernarfon Castle first, because who doesn’t want to start the day in a castle? I also picked up a pass that gave me access to all-you-can eat castles for 3 days, so you’ll notice a theme in this post. By then the clouds had started to clear so I headed to the lesser-traveled Snowdonia trail head and started making my way up the highest peak in Wales. There’s a tram that runs up the mountain and a much easier (and very popular) trail that runs beside the tram, but I’ll take the extra effort any day to have a trail pretty much to myself! Views were beautiful, the trail was well marked and just hard enough to be fun, and in no time I was at the top, taking in the 360 view of Wales below. There was even a visitor center at the top selling hard cider, so since they were nice enough to haul it up I figured I’d oblige. All my friends back in CO would approve, but I definitely got some funny looks from hikers who may find the hike a little more challenging than I did, especially post-beverage! I headed down and drove out to the coast and caught sunset at one of the widest, longest beaches I’ve ever seen.
I strategically camped at the trailhead for my next-morning hiking destination, a hill-fort dating back to the iron age, perched on a hilltop with a birds-eye view of the coastline. I stopped by Harlech castle for lunch (who knew Welsh Rarebit had nothing to do with rabbit and is actually melted cheese on toast!), fit in a stellar hike to a stunning overlook on the aptly named Panorama trail, and continued driving south to find my reserved campsite on a bluff overlooking the ocean, warmly greeted by the owner and the offer of a some outdoor couch talk and a gin and tonic. This was perhaps the coolest “campground” I’ve ever experienced; aside from the expansive views each “site” was large enough to build a home on, there were decorated composting toilets scattered throughout the property, outdoor lounge areas with foosball and giant connect-four, and two of the nicest owners you could ask for. (If you’re in the area, absolutely check out Hillfort Tipis and Camping and tell them sent you!). I joined other campers for sunset at the namesake hillfort above the campground, and called it another happy Welsh day.
I took advantage of my location to hike the Wales Coast Path, accessible right from the campground, hugging the cliff-lined shores and peering down to the ocean. 7 miles later I was back at camp so I hopped in the van to check out St. David’s cathedral and Bishop’s palace, making the most of my castle pass! I swung back through the tiny seaside town of Porthgain on my way home, and when I arrived back to heavy rain I was definitely thankful that my camping venue had a hard roof!
On my drive east to return the van in London, I made a split decision to make time for a couple more castles along the River Wye, the border between England and Wales. Aside from millenium-old doors, Chepstow castle was nothing to write home about, but Tinturn Abbey was by far the most magical structure of its kind I’d ever experienced. I believe the pictures speak for themselves…
Thank you for your service and comfort campervan! On to Brussels!