Part 2: Hiking in Wales

Our second major hike in Wales took place on the Great Orme of the sea resort town of Llandudno. The Great Orme is a giant limestone headland next to the sea. Allegedly Orme is the old Norse word for Worm or Sea Serpent. We drove part of the way up and ended up at an alpine amusement park. Naturally, we couldn’t resist. There was a toboggan ride. Basically you sat with your legs out on a piece of metal and a pulley system brought you up the hill. Then you sled down this track, whisking around turns with a small brake to slow you down or speed you up. It was lovely despite the copious amounts of sheep manure around the track. You could also ski on some padding. It was pretty sweet.

We then decided to head to the top of Great Orme. We took a detour since we wanted to check out a chapel nearby. Again, we found ourselves surrounded by vibrant green fields, happily munching sheep, and the sea way below us. There was a slight fog in the air but it was nothing like Snowdon.

Great Orme, Elisa Shoenberger (c) 2013

Great Orme, Elisa Shoenberger (c) 2013

It was a short walk to St. Tudno’s Church which was a charming 15th century church. They had some stone pews outside so they could have open air services. That is my ideal of any religious service. It was surrounded by a cemetery where sheep were casually grazing. I felt as if I had stepped into the most stereotypical Welsh scene possible. It was fascinating but the entire cemetery was covered in manure. I wouldn’t have been a happy camper if my loved ones were living there.

Sheep in the Cemetery, Elisa Shoenberger (C) 2013

Sheep in the Cemetery, Elisa Shoenberger (C) 2013

After the cemetery, we decided to head up to the top of the Great Orme. Then the fog really began to come in and visibility went down. When we got to the top, we couldn’t see anything. But it was such a lovely day and walk, it didn’t matter. We wanted to take a cable car down but they had just run their last car by the time we got up there. We meandered our way down, saw the giant tourist trap mine, and wandered past some rams with impressive horns and sheep. Again, we made sure to keep our distance since we didn’t know what to expect.

After we got back in the car, we decided to go into Llandudno itself. It’s a typical British sea resort where Bertie Wooster and other PG Wodehouse characters would go to relax. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many hotels before. Every building in the first few blocks were hotels. We briefly had some tea and snacks at one. It was not quite season for the area but it wasn’t completely dead. Then we wandered out to the boardwalk. Unfortunately, most of the shops and amusements were closed. We did get to play a Wild West shooting game. If you shot the various targets correctly, something would happen. You hit a barrel someone would come out; you hit a frying pan, the appropriate noise would come out. Sadly, the fog kept visibility to a minimum but it was an impressively large boardwalk, straight into the sea. There were some people fishing in a designated fishing area too.

What a charming area of Northern Wales!

Part 1: Hiking in Wales

Not only did our trip to Wales include castles, we also did a fair amount of hiking. I’ve only recently gotten into hiking in the past few years. I’m not a hardcore hiker by any means. I just enjoy seeing nature at my own pace.

While in Northern Wales, we decided that we want to hike Snowdon mountain, the tallest mountain in Wales. Getting to the area to hike was an adventure it itself.  My boyfriend had rented a car to get from place to place. However, as you may know, the cars in Britain drive on the other side of the road. So that naturally made driving a bit more interesting to begin with. As we got closer to the area near Snowdon Mountain, the roads got narrower and narrower so it was only one lane. Now, I don’t mean one lane in each direction; I mean one lane period. You had to pull over to the left as much as possible to allow cars to go by. And then there was the fog with 10 foot visibility. And to top it off, there was a triathlon going on so there were bikers all over.

Once we found our starting place and parked our car, we had our first mini-hike. We wanted to get to Pen y Pass, a small town that was really the base camp for Snowdon. Some of the well trekked hikes started from there. So this was a forty-minute hike up a hill, stepping on stones and occasionally mud. It was completely foggy so we really didn’t’ know how far we had come nor where to go. Occasionally, the fog would clear for a second, we’d see some sheep and maybe a stream, but then it would return. It had this wonderfully eerie aspect to it. I felt that if there were evil spirits or fairies, they could easily have led us to our doom in these conditions.

Eventually, we got to Pen y Pass which seemed like a tiny town. There was a café, a parking lot, and a hostel. Maybe there was more but we didn’t see it. We stopped for lunch at the café which had lovely little meat pastries. We consulted with one of the rangers who recommended the Miner’s trail. He recommended it because we would see three lakes. We didn’t have time to go all the way to the top because we wanted to get to Portmeirion before it closed. This hike would provide a lot of cool things to see.

So finally, we began our “real” hike. And it was incredible. As much as I loved the castles, this was my favorite thing on the trip. Eventually, the fog melted away (we got above it) and these incredible green mountains emerged. There were occasionally sheep and clouds overhead in a blue sky. Brilliant. We got to the first lake, Llyn Teyrn, which was below us. It looked so incredible idyllic, something that I’ve only dreamt about seeing in real life.  Then we made it to the largest lake, Llyn Llydaw, where people were swimming. Again there were sheep and occasionally ruined buildings. We also stumbled upon a luxury van commercial that was being filmed. Apparently, the trail at this point was big enough to sustain the weight of the car. It was kind of random considering this windswept environment. Later, on our way back we saw an old mountain goat with these impressive horns. We kept our distance naturally. Also, there is a pipeline that is very out of the place in the scenery.

Elisa Shoenberger (c) 2013

Elisa Shoenberger (c) 2013

Then the path got a bit steep and stony. Previously it had been paved or the stones had been big enough to not even notice. Now, we were firmly aware of each step. But the views got more impressive as we climbed up. Soon the large lake was a memory below us and we could see a waterfall. And then the third lake, Llyn Glaslyn, emerged from above. There is nothing quite like seeing a lake level with your head. We waded into the water that almost looked like a rainbow from the blue sky, the green mountains, the brownish red rocks under the water. It was magical.

Elisa Shoenberger (c) 2013

Elisa Shoenberger (c) 2013

And then we turned around. The hike got even steeper from there. The ranger told us that it looks like you are three-fourths of the way there when you hit the third lake. However, because of the steepness of the path, you are about half way. We didn’t have the time. Moreover, there was fog around the peak of the mountain so we wouldn’t have seen much anyway.

But what a wonderful place!

If you can go to Snowdon, I highly recommend it. I hope that someday we can go back and finish the hike.

Art Spiegelman’s Wordless

This past Saturday, I went to see Art Spiegelman at the University of Chicago. He’s one of my favorite cartoonists; he wrote Maus which is an incredibly moving work about the Holocaust. I had missed him in the past when he spoke at UC so I wasn’t going to miss it this time. He gave a lecture/performance called “Wordless” and it was simply brilliant.

The piece was basically a celebration of wordless comics with a jazz band, the Microscopic Septet led by Philip Johnston. Art Spiegelman showed us the works of numerous artists who had been largely forgotten, narrated with a sextet. It was simply incredible.

The most moving piece was Mr. Spiegelman’s own work about a man with a fedora floating over his head. At one point, the man goes to a jazz club and there is a sextet on stage with the same instrumentation. When the bass player did a solo, a squiggly line came out of caricature of the bass player. When the baritone saxophone did a solo, the same thing happened. It was simply magical.

This fusion of jazz and comics was brilliant. I’m still feeling awed by it. I don’t tend to like contemporary/experimental jazz but this worked.  It makes so much sense to take a very modern medium, jazz, and juxtapose it with comics, which are relatively modern medium. They fed off each other; they both made each other make sense. I want to work with this idea in my own work with my alto saxophone.

He showed the work of several artists ranging from the 19th century through the mid 20th century. These artists put together entire books of pictures. For instance, Lynn Ward created novels of woodcuts, often dealing with morality tales. One of them was God’s Man about a young artist who makes a deal with a mysterious stranger and tries to find his fortune in the city. It’s very beautiful; his pastoral scenes are breath-taking. However, I’m tired of narratives that focus on the corrupting influence of the city compared to the peace and morality of the countryside.

Art Spiegelman also showed Si Lewen’s The Parade which was powerful. It shows how something seemingly innocent as a parade can turn into massive destruction and suffering. I don’t think I’ve seen such an amazing visual representation of the Nazi indoctrination process before.

There were pieces that weren’t so depressing. One whose name I cannot recall featured a woodcutter who has to save his lady love from a corrupt man in the city. (Once again that pastoral peace, corrupt city trope again). It was a wonderful celebration of these lesser known novels.

My only complaint about the whole program was the lack of female cartoonist. This may sound like nit-picking but it’s really important. Women are frequently left off narratives and that can only be corrected by thought.  Now, I don’t know a lot about wordless novels so maybe there aren’t many famous female artists. However, Art Spiegelman specifically wanted to celebrate these artists who have largely faded from public consciousness; it would have been nice if he could have rescued a female artists from obscurity too.

Anyway, if you have the chance, you should go and see this marvelous program.

Part 4: Edward I/Patrick McGoohan tour

We next traveled to Conwy for our final castle in the Edward I/Patrick McGoohan tour. We immediately went to the Conwy castle, another of Edward I’s Iron ring castles. It’s  quite an impressive structure. Some consider it the strongest of the castles; it isn’t the largest nor the most beautiful. Part of the strength lies in the fact that it is built in the rock.  It has eight towers with a view of the water.

Elisa Shoenberger (c) 2013

Elisa Shoenberger (c) 2013

The town is also surrounded by a fairly sturdy wall, seemingly thicker than the one in Caernarfon. In terms of historical events, I was excited to learn that the chapel was where Richard II surrendered to Henry Bolingbroke. However, Richard II was held and died in another castle nearby. When we visited, there was a tour of children who were learning about British history in the chapel. It was extremely charming.

There were some unusual art pieces in the castle itself. There was a wire piece of Richard II’s head hanging from the throne room. There was a sinister sculpture soaring up from the dungeon memorializing all those who suffered there.

After a satisfying time around the towers, we ventured into the town itself. One notable site is the Plas Mawr, one of the best examples of an Elizabethan town house. It was built between 1576 and 1585 and owned by a wealthy merchant, Robert Wynn. It was a fun place to visit since they really strive for historical accuracy there. There were rushes on the floors in some rooms and food out to show the different foods and drinks that people would have at the time. We also learned about how the house would brew its own liquor, common at the time. However, it would really cause quite a stink.

Many rooms have wondrous plasterwork; there are these almost cartoonish looking sirens in bright bold colors. Other plasterwork pieces are crests and coats of arms of Elizabeth I, other notables and the family. One had to pay homage to the Queen. Also, we learned that the upper floors would be rented out to other folks. I just learned that you can actually rent out the house for weddings and other events.

Then we wandered to the dock to see England’s tiniest house. It’s nestled between two buildings and is less than 6 feet high. According to legend, a 6 foot fisherman used to live there.

We had lunch in a turret of the great wall. It had a wonderful view of the sea. It was fun to learn that they had their own legends about ghosts; a photo by the front door allegedly showed an orb. But in the basement (where the bathrooms were), there were fake skeletons and other Halloween decorations.

And that concludes our Edward I/Patrick McGoohan tour for now. In terms of the Iron ring, we missed Harlech castle and possibly others (it’s hard to find a good full listing of all the Iron Ring castles). And that doesn’t even include all the other castles not part of the Iron Ring. Clearly we have to go back.

Part 3: Edward I/Patrick McGoohan tour

The next day, we drove to Beaumaris on the island of Anglesey in far northwest part of Wales. Before we actually go to Beaumaris, we first stopped at the tourist trap “Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwyll-llantysiliogogogoch” which is the longest place-name in England.  It means “St. Mary’s Church in the hollow of the white hazel near a rapid whirlpool and the Church of St. Tysillio of the red cave.” It’s actually a train stop, not the name of the village.  It was actually thought up by a sailor to make the place a tourist trap. Nice job there! It was a fun place to check out.

Then we went to see the column of the Marquess of Anglesey. We had to wander into this dark, damp forest to a little house which keeps up the column. We paid a small fee and wandered past overgrowth of various grasses and plants to the column itself. We had to walk up about 100+ steps to the top which gave a wonderful view of the Menai Strait and Anglesey. However, the steps were really daunting; occasionally, a step would be caved in. And there was a copper wire wrapped around the central pillar, which had the ominous sign “Don’t touch the copper wire due to electrocution” or something along those lines. I don’t think I’ve ever felt nervous about steps quite before this. But the Marquess was a bit of a bad ass. He fought bravely at Waterloo. During the battle, his was blown off by a cannonball to which he turned to the Duke of Wellington and said, “By God Sir, I’ve lost my leg.”

The leg has its own history as well.

Then we drove to Beaumaris itself as the grand event.  Beaumaris is French for “fair marsh.” Edward I built another of his Iron ring castles here in 1295 but it was never finished. There is an incredible symmetry to the castle, which is rare. It has a lovely moat and a gate that permitted supply ships to sail right into the castle. Again, the attraction was wandering the castle itself such as walking the parapet, wandering in the dark damp corridors. It was simply amazing.

Elisa Shoenberger (C) 2013

Elisa Shoenberger (C) 2013

There were some terrifying signs warning tourists of low ceilings and birds. Yes, there was a sign showing a person being attacked by seagulls.

Elisa Shoenberger (c) 2013

Elisa Shoenberger (c) 2013

Afterwards, we decided to go to some prehistoric sites around the island. One site actually had three sites of archeological interest. One was a 14th century chapel with no roof. There was a little Roman-British settlement. It was small but fun to walk amongst the ruins in the forest. And there was a 2500 BC stone burial mound that you could actually crawl into. I’m not sure if we were supposed to but we did and it was awesome.

We drove to another 3500 BC stone burial mound which was surrounded by prickly hedges. While wandering to the site, it made me feel like I was in the maze from the 4th Harry Potter movie. The site was really neat; it was a mound with earth over it.  You could also go inside.

To round out the day, we had a bit of a misadventure at the Newborough Warren, a protected dunes area, that led to the beach We met a lovely old couple who told us about the wild horses that populated it and  a little clearing with blackberries. We got very excited and began hiking it. Well, after about 2 miles, we had seen neither horses, blackberries and the beach. We eventually decided that we had enough of this weird sandy path and turned home. Alas. There were some horses near the parking lot but we weren’t sure if they were wild. I call them my possibly wild horses.

We spent the night in Beaumaris and met some Welsh folks that knew a lot about American football. This family was full of football fans and each had their favorite teams. One liked the Dallas Cowboys because of the star. They were planning on going to the game in London later that year. It was really charming. We ate well and wandered home in the fog, making the castle look ever more mysterious.

That’s all for now. Part 4 will look at Conway.

Part 2: Edward I/Patrick McGoohan tour

The next day, we continued our Patrick McGoohan/Edward I tour with a visit to Caernarfon Castle, one of the Iron Ring castles. Construction started in 1283 on the fortress and it was a ready symbol of England’s dominance over Wales. His son, Edward II, was born in the castle in 1284, making him the first Prince of Wales.

Edward I paid some homage to the Welsh’s respect of the Romans. The fortress was built near the former location of a Roman fort. There are several towers but the most impressive is the Eagle Tower with stone owl statues, another nod to the Romans. The fortress is built on the water of the Menai Strait so you get a beautiful view of the water. I think this was where the investiture of Prince Charles took place in 1989.

There is not a lot of exhibitions to see within the castle itself. There were some cannons in the courtyard. It  was fun rushing up to the top of each tower and getting a view of the city. Or wandering through the corridors from one tower to the next.

There is the Museum of Royal Welsh Fusiliers which discusses the history of the Welsh Fusiliers in history. I found it moderately interesting (military history is not entirely my cup of tea) but it is thorough if you do. I was happy to learn about the Royal Goat. The crown traditionally gives a goat with gold gilded horns to the Fusiliers. It is not the mascot; it is part of the order.  Sometimes a person had to pretend to be the goat when the goat was not readily found. Yay for goats!

There are some other decently interesting things in town but the castle is the main attraction.  We took a boat ride over the strait, which was nice. We could see the mountain ranges of Snowdonia, which were incredible.  There is Segontium, a Roman fort, a little bit outside of town but all that exists are the foundations of the buildings. There was a nice hill overlooking the town. It wasn’t the most impressive by any means of Roman ruins but it was okay.

It was interesting when the tide went out and the harbor suddenly is just mud. Boats had been bobbing in the water when we arrived and five hours later, they were sitting in mud. The sandbank was exposed with all sorts of seaweed and birds wandering on it. There were some nice parks, one by the wall. There isn’t anything quite as spectacular like swinging next to ancient city walls.

We did find a tower rising up in the forest that we had to find; we called it the Wizard’s tower. It required going into a cow pasture and wandering up a hill, avoiding the cow pies. It was kinda neat.

Stay tuned for Beaumaris castle in Anglesey.

Elisa Shoenberger (c) 2013

Elisa Shoenberger (c) 2013

Part 1: Edward I/Patrick McGoohan tour

In September, we went on a trip of Northern Wales. To quell the Welsh, Edward I built a series of castles in Northern Wales, known as the Iron Ring. The focus of the trip was going to be Caernarfon Castle, one of the biggest. The other special stop was Portmeirion, the strange coastal town where the 1960s show The Prisoner was filmed. Everything else was bonus in between. We called it our Edward I tour since we saw several castles of his Iron Ring and Patrick McGoohan, the man who plays the Prisoner, would go on to play Edward I in Braveheart.

On our Edward I/Patrick McGoohan tour, we first went to Portmeirion. It’s a strange place built by an eccentric Englishman, named Clough William-Ellis who decided to save buildings from all over the building and put them in his town. He scoured the world in the 1920s. So you’ll have a Spanish wall next to a column with a Bodhisattva on top of it. Or a pantheon next to a hidden Buddha. All sorts of Strange architecture juxtapositions. To add another level of strangeness, the buildings are painted all sorts of pale colors. The town also goes down to a sandbank and a hotel. There was a wedding in the hotel when we visited.

It was the site chosen to film the 1960s television show The Prisoner starring Patrick McGoohan. Basically, it’s about an English spy, a true anti-hero, who decides to retire for the service. However, he is thwarted when he  is kidnapped  by an unknown group and brought to the Village. The Village is a place with surprisingly sedate, happy people who are known by the numbers, not their names. They are cut off from the rest of the world. He repeatedly goes head to head with Number 2 and the unknown organization; they are desperate to know why he decided to retire. Each episode is about his rebellion and constant work to escape the Village and find out who is behind the organization. It’s a wonderful television show (though it can feel very much a product of the 1960s). We got to shake our hands at the unseen force behind the town.

It was fun visiting the town but it was unmistakably and delightfully eerie. It’s a private town so you have to pay 10 pounds sterling to go in but its half off after 3. At 5, the town is still open but all the shops closed. When we got there, it was slightly drizzling and everyone was basically gone. We got the town mostly to ourselves.There were some other people like us wandering around, including a man and woman who swam in the little sound to the sandbank.  And there was also the arriving wedding guests. What a peculiar spot for a wedding!

There is also a forest with hidden pagodas and gazebos. We saw signs for a dog cemetery but we could not find it. It was sheer bliss wandering around the forest with bright green leaves and a slight drizzle.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

Elisa Shoenberger (c) 2013

Elisa Shoenberger (c) 2013