Two Castles and a Kayak

I was invited the other weekend to go kayaking in Llanberis, a small town just on the western edge of Snowdonia National Park.  It wasn’t until the Sunday afternoon, so with no other plans booked in that weekend, I decided to make it into a little overnight road trip, finishing up Sunday lunchtime in Llanberis for a kayak with friends.

A Unesco sites that I had been meaning to visit, but was just a bit too far for a day trip, were 2 of the 4 world heritage castles on the west coast, in the county of Gwynedd; Conwy and Caernarfon. I had visited Beaumaris previously over on Anglesey and the 4th, Harlech is a lot further south, but Conwy and Caenarfon are only about 35 minutes apart, so seemed doable in the same day.

It’s super easy to get to Conwy from where I live and I didn’t even need to use my maps to get me there and 90 minutes later I was parked up at the main long stay carpark.  It sits behind the castle walls, easily signposted and payment is by app or card, so no fumbling for money needed!

Conwy Castle is an incredibly well preserved Medieval fortress, over 700 years old. Built by Edward I, Edward Longshanks to his friends, Edward was born in England, but was intent on conquering Wales. The four castles along the coast with their imposing walls, were all part of his successful takeover plan and sent out a very strong message to the Welsh that he meant business!

I have to say, Conwy Castle is one of the most impressive castles I have visited, for sheer size and how it has retained its features. You really do feel transported back in time as you explore the many chambers, climb the spiral staircases up to the towers and walk along the high walls. The views of the Conwy Suspension Bridge over the River Conwy and Snowdonia’s mountainous skyline in the distance, is spectacular, I can’t think of a more perfect location for a castle.

Having been to Conwy before, I just had a short walk along the harbour, and sat and had my packed lunch, watching the tourists queue up to visit the ‘smallest house in Britain’ while a vicious seagull attempt to eat a families bag of chips, quite entertaining really. Then I took the long way back to the carpark, via the main high street for a bit of window shopping, before heading down the coast, to Castle no. 2.

Just over half an hour later, I was pulling into the carpark down by the waterfront, staring back up to the imposing castle walls in the town of Caenarfon. Although the building of this castle started the same year as Conwy, this castle took over 40 years to completion, compared to Conwy’s quick 7 year build.

It’s an ideal spot if you’re going to build a castle, as it sits at the tip of a peninsula, edged by the Menai Strait and River Seiont, affording great views and lots of protection.

Unlike its neighbour in Conwy, Canaerfon isn’t in as good a state of repair inside, but the walls and main structure are still none the less impressive. Much of the interior hasn’t survived that well and some of the buildings weren’t ever fully finished. That said, I preferred this castle to Conwy, it takes a little more effort to get too, and was nowhere near as busy, and for me that gave it its charm. There is still lots to explore here though, spiral staircases to climb and outstanding views from the top, as well as a museum inside too. Part of the castle was in the process of being renovated during my visit, leaving a few spots out of bounds, but all us visitors got a free guidebook as compensation instead.

Highlights for me included, the dark atmospheric passages taking you through the basement and up the Well Tower, the narrow stone spiral staircases winding you up to the 2nd floor for epic but windy views from the Chamberlain Tower and a surprising single stone glass window.

Once done, I took a short walk through the town centre, but as we are still in Covid times and with some places still closed and restrictions in place, I decided to power on and head to my final destination for the day, Bangor.

I only knew of Bangor from my University days, as they used to have a school of Podiatry there, but I knew absolutely nothing else. The reason I chose it as a place to stay the night was it’s a University town, so I knew there was a good chance of there being some affordable hotel options as well as probably some plant based food for sale somewhere, and it was only a 20 minute drive from my meeting spot the next day.

But I was pleasantly surprised, once checked in I headed to Yugen coffee house, to pick up an oat latte and some vegan cheesecake, then headed to the coastline located a nice bench and then just sat and took in the breathtaking views, of the Menai Straits and Anglesey to the front and Snowdonia behind.

After a quick check of maps on my phone, I could see what looked like a pier, stretching almost all the way to Anglesey, so I continued to walk south, until I arrived at a place I had no idea existed, Garth Pier. A Grade II listed Victorian Pier, there are 2 colourful Kiosks to welcome you, and a small fee to enter. Then its a lovely walk right out across the Menai Straits, with local crafts, ice cream and art work being sold, as well as a coffee shop right at the top. I had just filled up on coffee, so I just sat on a bench completely taken in with the surrounding views of the Welsh landscape, texting family and friends about this new (to me) discovery and recommending it to everyone.

Finally, all my plant based dreams came true and my bet on Bangor being vegan friendly paid off, the first fully plant based restaurant in Wales happened to be a 5 minute walk from the pier. Called Voltaire although they were fully booked, they were happy to let me have some take-out, so with one of their signature burgers and fries bagged up, I hotfooted it back to my hotel, and tucked in, it’s pretty much a whole reason in itself to return.

The next morning, feeling refreshed, I took the short drive to Llanberis and found myself a nice free parking spot by the lake. I arrived an hour early, so did a loop of the town, remembering the places I had visited previously, investigated the lake we would soon be sailing on, and watched admiringly the sweaty, tired looking hikers who were returning from Snowdon’s summit, which I had done a year earlier.

After a hearty breakfast with my fellow kayaker’s at Pete’s Eats we headed down to Snowdonia Watersports and got our kit. For £25 we got full kit hire and 2 hours out on the lake, you also get access to indoor changing rooms, a locker and hot showers, so absolutely worth it.

Of course I fell in, whilst the others gracefully climbed into their kayaks, but I regained my composure and tried again with my second attempt being successful, all while keeping my hair dry!

Then we were off, for a glorious, peaceful sail around the lake, with incredible 360 views of the lakeside steam train, the welsh mountains and the sun reflecting off the rippling water. It was a perfect sunny Sunday afternoon.

Once back on dry land and warmed up with a hot shower, we all headed back to Petes Eats for a hot drink, then it was time to load up another podcast for the drive and head back home to have that kind of deep rejuvenating sleep you can only have after a full day out in nature. Wonderful.

The Microstate of Liechtenstein

When I took a month off to travel, pre-pandemic (ah those were the days) I made it my mission to visit Liechtenstein as it was my final European microstate that I had to visit.

It was a destination that had flummoxed me a few times, as I had been to or near to towns in Austria or Germany that appeared to be on a train line close by, but in actuality it wasn’t as simple as I had initially thought, and I never quite made it.

But, in 2019 I gave myself 2 weeks to travel across Europe, visiting a few new places, ending up at a music festival in Spain, so I had the luxury of time to plan a trip specifically to visit Europe’s 4th smallest country & I am so glad I made the effort.

I took probably the easiest route in, which involved a train from Zurich with gorgeous views of the lakes and mountains, (definitely get a window seat if you can). Taking just over an hour, you get off at the Swiss border town of Sargans, minutes from the border. There is only 1 train line in Liechtenstein, but it doesn’t pass through the capital, it crosses further north, starting in Buchs, Switzerland over to Feldkirch in Austria.

The 12 E bus was perfect for me, you get it outside Sargans station, and takes about 15 minutes to get to Vaduz the capital, costing about £2 if memory serves.

Once I arrived in the capital, it was a short 10 minute walk from the bus stop to the one and only Youth Hostel in the country, taking in the stunning mountain views all around.

 

Once refreshed, I set back up the road to explore the capital, feeling a little tired from my journey I took it easy for the rest of the day, exploring the shops, cafes and trying the local beer. I would leave the popular castle for day 2 & made an obligatory stop at the tourist information centre to get a local map. It was nice not to have much of an itinerary, but wandering, taking photos, window shopping (its an expensive country!) & constantly gawking at the incredible surrounding scenery.

Being on a budget, and only a few days into my 2 week journey, dinner was bought at the local supermarket and cooked at the hostel. But this tiny country sitting between Austria and Switzerland is surrounded by breathtaking mountainous views, which I could luckily enjoy from my hostel window, so I most definitely could not complain.

That evening, I picked up a walking trail close to the hostel and headed South towards the Swiss border. I found myself at the famous Rhine River, which acts as a border between the two countries and I had a lovely walk as the sun started to set. I crossed over bridges between the two countries, with a line marking the spot of the border half way across the river. Of course I couldn’t resist getting a couple of photos of me standing in both countries at the same time.

I had pretty much a full second day in the capital, as I was catching the night train to Slovenia at around 9PM that evening. Once I had checked out of the hostel, I stored my rucksack in the lockers located in the centre of the town. I can’t quite remember exactly where the lockers were, but they were on the east side of the main road right in the heart of Vaduz.

My first stop was up to see Vaduz castle, I headed there first, as its location on a hilltop, is 120 metres above Vaduz, so thought it best to avoid hiking up in the midday sun. A fortress initially in the 12th century, it gradually expanded to become a proper residence, with the royal family moving there in the 1700’s. Although it did become abandoned many years later, the royal family renovated it and moved back in and still live there today, meaning that you can’t actually visit inside. Don’t let that put you off making the trip though, the hike up is lovely, with some incredible views all around.

If you have had your fill of window shopping and cafes the Kunst Museum is an airy, interesting, artistic space. Built across two levels, the museum houses both modern & contemporary art from worldwide artists, a cafe and of course the all important gift shop. If an entire art gallery is too much to handle, you can still get your fill of cool, unusual sculptures dotted around the city centre, like the Colombian Reclining Women.

Next up was the Neo Gothic Vaduz Cathedral or Cathedral of St Florin. Quite a simple, peaceful place, I had it almost to myself, I must have timed it just right. It had some lovely stained glass inside, and made for a cool, quiet rest stop.

Due to the mild climate and south west facing slopes, vineyards are a common sight along with the ever present mountains, so it’s no surprise that there are many companies offering wine tasting trips. That wasn’t something I had the time, money or inclination to do, but I still had a wander out of the main centre and into the countryside to explore the rows of grapes vines, and I even came across some grazing goats.

It was another supermarket late lunch, as not only are the cafes and restaurants expensive, the plant based options were limited, but I didn’t quite mind as I found a bench in the shade, and took my last views of the surrounding landscape.

Although my night train onward wasn’t till late, I fancied a look around the Swiss border town of Sargans, which is where I boarded the bus to Vaduz and would be boarding the train to Slovenia. So, feeling refreshed, I grabbed my rucksack and only had a few minutes to wait to get the bus back over the border to continue my adventure.

Would I return, actually yes I would, it’s a bit of a faff to get too, and the only way in is via expensive Austria or Switzerland, so it’s never going to be a cheap trip. But if I got the opportunity, I think I would fancy Schaan, the largest city in the country and this time I would bring my walking boots and head up some of the many walking trails. You can never get enough of those incredible mountain views and fresh alpine air.