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Some Keys to the Castles in Wales

April 22, 2001|LUCY IZON

With more castles per capita than anywhere else in the world and a vibrant student life, Wales is worth including on a tour around Britain.

Edward I (1239-1307) conquered Wales and left his mark by building a ring of grand castles, including Conwy, Beaumaris, Caernarvon and Harlech. His son was the first to be named Prince of Wales, a title Prince Charles carries today. There are more than 600 castles and castle ruins in this country, which is only 170 miles long and 60 miles wide. Despite its compact size, it retains its own language (one village name has 41 letters), but road signs are bilingual and English is widely spoken.

A stop in Wales is easy to add to a journey to the north of England. You can reach the capital, Cardiff, by rail from London in less than two hours, and the backpacker bus service Stray Travel Experience (telephone 011-44-20-7373-7737, Internet http://www.straytravel.com) includes Welsh stops. If you are traveling by ferry from Ireland, it's a 90-minute journey to Holyhead in North Wales or Fishguard in South Wales.

In Cardiff there is a backpackers' hostel just a 15-minute walk from the center of town. Cardiff Backpacker has a four-star rating from the local tourist office. It's at 98 Neville St. (in the somewhat rundown Riverside section), tel. 011-44-29-2034-5577, fax 011-44-29-2023-0404, http://www.hostelswales.com.

Managed by Sion (pronounced Shawn) Llewelyn, the 3-year-old hostel has a roof deck with barbecue, a street-front bar (the place for guests to share their experiences) and beds for 76 travelers. Beds in dormitory rooms start at $19, in double rooms at $59. Bikes can be rented for $13 per day, and Internet services are available for $1.48 for 20 minutes. A bulletin board lists outdoor activities and other Welsh lodgings for people on student-style budgets.

The Web site http://www.cardiffmarketing.co.uk has links to information on this hostel and off-season university accommodations.

There are 4,800 single-residence rooms available in Cardiff between June and September each year. These bed-and-breakfast accommodations are administered by Cardiff University at Southgate House, Bevan Place, tel. 011-44-29-2087-4849. The price ranges from $17 to $30 a night.

Right in the center of the city is Cardiff Castle, with its excavated Roman walls, Norman keep and lavish royal apartments. Just a five-minute walk away is the National Museum and Gallery, which claims the second-largest Impressionist art collection outside Paris. Limited student discounts are available at tourist sites. For example, at Cardiff Castle the adult entrance fee is reduced from $7.25 to $6.

If you want to cover lots of key sites in two days, you can do it economically with a Cardiff Card, sold through tourism services and at the Visitors Centre at St. David's House, 16 Wood St. This $22.20 pass gives you 48 hours of local train and bus transportation and entry to these and 13 other key sites, including the Museum of Welsh Life at St. Fagans, the Roman Legionary Museum in Caerleon, and Caerphilly Castle (the largest castle in Wales, four miles from the city).

If you want to meet people your own age when you visit Wales, Saturday night is the time to be in Cardiff.

This city of about 300,000 has 14,000 college students, and if you visit during the school year, you'll find many of them in the center of town, most likely at the popular nightclubs Walkabout and Liquid. They charge a $4.45 entrance fee for live band entertainment, but the parties often spill out into the streets. Here, where the drinking age is 18, it's an interesting mix: a young and vibrant crowd sharing space with the city's ancient history.

If you hope to explore the Welsh countryside this spring (there are 38 Hostelling International hostels, many clustered around the three national parks), you'll have to keep an eye on the news about hostel and trail closures. As a precaution against spreading foot-and-mouth disease, travelers are being discouraged from visiting farmland throughout England and Wales, especially where there is livestock.

Hostel closures for England and Wales are listed on the Internet at http://www.yha.org.uk

Up-to-date information from the Ministry of Agriculture is available at http://www.maff.gov.uk/animalh/diseases/fmd/default.htm.

Lucy Izon is a Toronto-based freelance writer. Internet http://www.izon.com.

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