The 5 Best Castles in Wales

For anyone interested in medieval times, knights in shining armor, fair maidens, the struggles of kings and conquered peoples, and fortifications, the place to visit is Wales. This tiny country in the United Kingdom has the world’s best collection of existing castles from the Middle Ages.

Conwy Castle
Conwy Castle on the River Conwy in Wales.

Between the Norman invasion in 1066 and the English Civil War in 1651, warring English and Welsh forces constructed, and in many cases tried to destroy, more than 400 great stone fortresses. That’s a huge amount for such a small place. Some castles were constructed by Welsh princes to defend their homeland from the English invaders. Other castles were built by the English kings William of Normandy and Edward I to subjugate the proud nation of Wales.

Here’s my list of the top five castles to visit in Wales: Conwy, Beaumaris, Caernarfon, Harlech, and Raglan.

Conwy Castle inside view
Interior view of Conwy Castle.

I started my castle tour driving into Wales from the Roman town of Chester, England. The first stop was the magnificent Conwy Castle. Conwy has been described as “one of the most outstanding achievements of medieval military architecture.”  Conwy Castle was built from 1283-1289 to strategically protect the entrance to the River Conwy in north Wales. The English king Edward I withstood a siege in the castle in 1295 during a Welsh revolt. After climbing to the top of one of the towers, I could see for miles up and down the river. It was certainly built in the right spot to control the area.

Conwy Castle tower view
View from one of the towers of Conwy Castle.

Farther west along the coast of North Wales is Beaumaris Castle. This is the last of the many castles built by Edward I. Construction began in 1295 with 3,500 laborers on the job. After 35 years of building, the money and supplies ran out and the castle was never completed.

Beaumaris Castle entrance
The entrance to Beaumaris Castle.

Beaumaris was designed with geometric symmetry in a beautiful setting amidst marshland. Part of the castle was connected by a short protected channel to the Irish Sea, so ships could safely deliver men and supplies.

inside Beaumaris
Inside view of Beaumaris Castle.

The most famous castle in Wales is Caernarfon Castle. This fortress was modeled on the walls of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) and begun in 1283.

Caernarfon Castle
Caernarfon Castle in North Wales.

Caernarfon was intended as the seat of English government in Wales. In 1284, Edward I’s son was born in the castle and thus was dubbed the “Prince of Wales.” This tradition of giving the heir to the English throne the title of Prince of Wales carried forward all the way to 1969, when Prince Charles became the latest prince in a ceremony held at the castle.

Caernarfon Castle view
Interior view of Caernarfon Castle.

Situated on the west coast of Wales, Harlech Castle has a concentric design and is noted for its large gatehouse protecting the entrance to the castle. It was also built by Edward I from 1282-1289 during his invasion of Wales.

Harlech Castle
The imposing entrance to Harlech Castle.

Harlech was controlled by various sides in the English and Welsh wars and later in the English Civil War in 1461-1468, and was the site of several sieges. The castle was heavily damaged during the sieges and was never rebuilt.

Harlech Castle view.
Spectacular views of the Welsh countryside from one of the towers of Harlech Castle.

The last castle I visited before leaving Wales was Raglan Castle. It is one of the oldest castles in Wales, having been established by the Normans in the twelfth century. It was modified throughout the late medieval period.

Raglan Castle entrance.
The entrance to Raglan Castle.

Raglan was lived in for hundreds of years before being ruined during a siege in the English Civil War.

Raglan Castle tower view
Interior view of Raglan Castle from one of the towers.
Raglan Castle bathroom.
One of the bathrooms in Raglan Castle.

It was interesting to see the parts of the castle used for domestic purposes, such as the kitchen with its massive fireplaces and ovens, and even a latrine with a stone toilet seat!

As we know very well today, war is expensive. When the English invaded Wales, I wonder if King Edward I had any idea how much it was going to cost his treasury to build all of these castles to protect his conquests.

Was it worth it? Probably not, but it left us with a rich array of stunning military architecture to appreciate.





How to Make Scotch Whisky

One of the things I wanted to do during a recent stay in Scotland was to take a tour of a Scotch whisky distillery. I don’t typically drink whisky, but I was in Scotland so I thought I needed to at least try the good stuff and see if I could distinguish it from the rotgut.

I joined a tour leaving from the Royal Mile of Edinburgh that wound its way out of the city and into the countryside. The Scottish geography is beautiful in the summer, on one of those rare days when the sun is out and the gray rain clouds have been pushed east into the North Sea. The rolling hills, the heather in bloom, the men in kilts, I could almost picture a man with bagpipes assaulting everyone’s ears.

famous grouse
How did that bird become famous?

After an hour of wandering down country lanes, the tour bus pulled up to the oldest Scotch whisky distillery in Scotland. The Glenturret Distillery near Crieff, Scotland, started perfecting the making of Scotch back in 1775, about the time that the first shots were fired in the American Revolution. Glenturret’s main brand is a blended Highland Scotch called the Famous Grouse; hence their tour is called the Famous Grouse Experience.

famous grouse statue
A giant grouse statute at the Glenturret Distillery.

A young local man named Colin was our tour guide and resident expert. Colin walked our group through each of the rooms in the distillery and explained what happened in each room. One or two steps of the distilling process was performed in each room. Unfortunately, it was not allowed to take photographs in the working distillery.

Scotch is made from malted barley, yeast and water. The distilling process works as follows. The barley is soaked in water for two to three days, then spread over the floor of a room called a malting house. The green malt is dried in a kiln over peat smoke. The malt is then milled into grist, which is like a coarse flour. The grist is then mixed with hot water in a mash vat called a tun at about 70 °C for about an hour. This is drained off and second, hotter water is added and allowed to run straight through. Finally, a third, even hotter water is added and allowed to run through.

Glenturret Distillery
A nice day in the Highlands of Scotland.

The resulting sugary substance is collected, cooled and fermented in large pine vats called wash backs. Yeast is added and after 48 hours of fermentation, a substance called the wash is made. The wash is pre-heated in a wash-charger and from there goes to a wash still. A wash still is a large pot made of copper and is of a shape unchanged in the history of Scotch whisky making. The wash is heated in the pot still so the alcohol vapor rises up inside the still, then cools and condenses in something called the low wines receiver. The low wines then passes through to container called the spirit still, where it is distilled again.

Famous Grouse bottle
A very old bottle of the Famous Grouse.

The spirit running through the pot and spirit stills can be sampled and tested by a specialist called the “stillman” to ensure everything is going right with the process. The spirit from the spirit still is divided into three parts, but only the middle part, called the “Heart of the Run” is suitable to be made into malt whisky. The other two parts are fed back into the low wines receiver to be re-distilled. The middle cut is then sent to an oak spirit receiver and from there to filling vats in a place called the spirit store.

At this stage, more water is added to reduce the concentration of alcohol from 75% to 64%. The Scotch is stored in oak casks, each of which is handmade and therefore unique, so each must be weighed before and after filling to determine how much Scotch is in each ask. The casks are stored in a warehouse for a minimum of three years. While in the barrel, the Scotch absorbs flavor from the oak. Generally, the longer the Scotch stays in the barrel, the darker the color of the liquid, and the higher valued is the Scotch.  Single malt whisky is kept in the oak casks to mature for 8, 10, 12, 15 or 21 years, or even longer for very special bottlings. Once the Scotch is taken out of the barrel and bottled, it no longer matures.

tasting room at Glenturret
Step right up and taste some fine Scotch!

At the end of the tour, Colin led us to the tasting room where we tasted different kinds of Scotch and Scotch that had been aged different lengths of time. Despite repeated attempts at tasting, I couldn’t really distinguish the differences between the drinks. Maybe my abilities degraded over time while tasting, I don’t know….

Of course, we exited through the gift shop. I bought several bottles of Glenturret Scotch. Someday I will open them for a special occasion, like maybe making a hole in one on the golf course, the start of football season, or the end of media coverage about the 2016 Presidential Election.

Scotch bottle
Standing next to the World’s Largest Bottle of Scotch.

Experiencing Formula One Racing at the British Grand Prix

The great engines whined at a tremendous volume as the race cars came around the turn and then accelerated with maximum throttle. As seen close to the track, the cars became a blur as they whizzed by at over 200 mph. I was 15 rows up in the stands and had a nice perspective view of the turn and the straightaway. On the giant screen in front of me I could see race information and driver’s eye views of the track in front of the race car as it sped by.

race car
The Formula 1 car is a blur at 200 mph.

This was my first racing event. I haven’t been interested in car racing in general, and know very little about Formula 1 racing. However, I was going to be touring the UK during the dates of the British Grand Prix, so with the goal of seeking out new experiences around the world I bought a ticket along with some English friends.

The British Grand Prix is held every July at the Silverstone Circuit, near the small village of Silverstone, England. My seat was in the grandstand seating area called Woodcote, located on the course right after the sharp hairpin turn designated number 7 on the map below. I had a great view of the sharpest turn on the course, followed by the straightaway before turn number 8.

Silverstone race course
The racing circuit at Silverstone.

My friends live in Bakewell, in the Peak District, a two hour drive north from Silverstone. Since all of the hotels near the racing circuit are booked many months in advance of the race, we had two choices. First, we could camp in a field near the circuit, which required lots of camping gear and opened us up to the possibilities of getting soaked by rain (this being England after all). Second, we could drive from their house to the racing circuit and back each day. We chose door number two. Although it was four hours round trip in the car, it was the best option.

race course view
Formula 1 race car in the straightaway after turn 7 at Silverstone.

The Grand Prix event takes place over three days. I had no idea that there would actually be a lot of car racing going on, not just one big race.

On Friday, the Formula 1 drivers take their cars for practice laps around the circuit. There are two other classes of race cars, called GP2 and GP3. These are older or slightly slower cars that up and coming drivers race before they are ready for the more advanced Formula 1 cars. The GP2 and GP3 cars race around the track in qualifying sessions to determine the starting order of the cars for the GP2 and GP3 races, respectively.

In addition, Porsche sponsors a series of races called Super Cup races. All of the cars in the Super Cup races are identical Porsche 911s. Only the skill of the drivers determines the champions in Super Cup, not any difference in car technology. On Friday the Porsches run their practice laps. (to see other cool Porsches go here)

Porsche 911
Close up of a Porsche 911 during the Super Cup race.

On Saturday, the Formula 1 cars race for their qualifying times. The GP2 and GP3 cars compete in a first race for each class. The Porsches hold their qualifying sessions.

On Sunday, the GP2 and GP3 cars competed in their second races (with combined times determining the champion), and the Porsches competed in their race. After much fanfare, including a parachute display by the Royal Air Force (RAF) Falcons jump team, and aerial acrobatics by some RAF  Typhoon fighter jets, it was finally time for the big race.

British Grand Prix race view
The start of the British Grand Prix at turn 7.

The race course is 3.66 miles around, and the race comprises 52 laps. The entire race takes about an hour and a half to two hours to run. The time is variable because there may be delays in the race due to crashes.

In searching for a particular shirt among multiple souvenir shops, I made the mistake of trying to walk around the outer perimeter of the entire racing circuit after the GP2 race. I kept walking to the next souvenir shop around the course looking for my desired shirt. By the time I got to the halfway point after 45 minutes of walking, I realized I might as well just keep walking around back to my starting point instead of turning around. I barely made it back to my seat in time for the big race.

The local favorite is British racing champion Lewis Hamilton, who drives for the Mercedes team. Every time his car came around our position on the track, all of the fans jumped up and cheered. Hamilton has won the race twice before, and was the favorite this time around.

Race car drivers at British Grand Prix
Driver parade before the British Grand Prix. Lewis Hamilton is at left.

Hamilton was in the pole position when the race started due to having the fastest qualifying lap, but he was passed right at the start by two other drivers. He hung in third place until he stopped for new tires at lap 19. When the other two drivers were forced to change their tires, Hamilton took the lead.

He cruised along comfortably until late in the race when it started to rain. This is summer in England! Despite the rain, Hamilton stayed with faster dry weather tires while other drivers switch to slower wet weather tires. This gave him the advantage he needed, so that when he went into the pit to switch to the wet weather tires, the other drivers couldn’t catch him.

Mercedes team driver Lewis Hamilton, winner of the British Grand Prix.

I never knew how tire changing strategies and deciding when to take pit stops could make the difference between being the champion and having no place on the winner’s podium. As Hamilton crossed the finish line it seemed as if all 120,000 spectators cheered at once for the hometown hero.


The Beatles Story in Liverpool

I’ve always liked the Beatles. When I was a kid we had the two Beatles greatest hits albums (the red one and the blue one, to those in the know). We played those records until the grooves wore out.

Beatles black and white
The Fab Four.

Likewise, I’ve always been fascinated by the Beatles story. There are many great bands in rock and roll history, but none that have the extensive lore that captured the essence of the times when the band rocked the world.

On my latest trip to the UK, I knew I had to finally go down to Liverpool and see for myself where the Beatles came from and how Beatlemania got started.

Beatles instruments
The signature instruments of the early Beatles.

My first stop in Liverpool was the Beatles Story Experience. The museum is on the side of the Mersey River at a place called the Albert Docks. The once decrepit shipping docks have been renovated to be a tourist destination, with several museums, stores, restaurants, and cafes.

The museum tells the complete story of the Beatles from their earliest beginnings in Liverpool in the late 1950s to the break-up of the band in 1970. Each small room re-creates a time and place in the band’s story, complete with many authentic artifacts from that period. One walks from the place where they met, to Liverpool’s Cavern Club, the Hamburg clubs, Brian Epstein’s record shop, the Merseybeat movement, London’s Abbey Road recording studios, the British Invasion of America, the landing at JFK airport in New York, the Ed Sullivan show, and so on. Although most of the displays are static, their songs are played at different times, and the audio guide provides context and interesting tidbits about the band. It was an enjoyable and informative visit, both for longtime Beatles fanatics and casual fans.

With the Beatles story properly refreshed in my memory, I now wanted to see some of the actual sites for myself. The next morning I called Phil of Liverpool Cycle Tours. I interrupted Phil’s breakfast to inquire as to whether I could take his bike tour that afternoon. Despite being the only one to sign up for the tour that day, he agreed to show me around.

Our first stop on the bike tour was the Liverpool Institute, where Paul McCartney and George Harrison went to school. There is a statue of a pile of guitar cases out front to commemorate their time at the school. Appropriately, the statue is called “A Case Study.” Next was one of the grammar schools attended by Lennon, which is still in operation and thus was not very interesting. A simple plaque on the exterior wall notes Lennon’s attendance. Phil explained that Lennon was a poor student. He was known as a ruffian, a trouble-maker, and a daydreamer. As a tour guide, Phil was full of good information about the four lads from Liverpool.

Lennon childhood home
John Lennon’s bedroom is on the upper left.

I always thought of the Beatles as poor, working-class boys from a rough city neighborhood in post-war Liverpool. They certainly weren’t well off, but they actually grew up in the suburbs. As a child Lennon lived with his Aunt Mimi at a house called Mendips on very respectable Menlove Avenue in a suburban area known as Woolton. The house was bought by Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono and donated to the UK’s National Trust. The house is also not open to the public.

McCartney's childhood home
Paul McCartney’s home, where many early Beatles songs were written.

Paul McCartney’s childhood home is a few blocks away at 20 Forthlin Road in nearby Allerton. It is also preserved by the National Trust and is not open to the public. Many of the early Beatles songs were written and rehearsed in the front and back rooms on the first floor of the house. Phil told me how McCartney’s father was strict and would double lock the door if Paul and his brother Mike wouldn’t come home on time for dinner. One of the boys would climb up the drainpipe to get into an upstairs window in order to get in.

Penny Lane sign
An original Penny Lane sign.

Phil and I then rode down Penny Lane. Lennon and McCartney took a fair amount of poetic license in describing the places in the famous song by that name. There is a fire station nearby, but it’s not actually on Penny Lane.  Neither was there a barbershop on the street. The short suburban street is quite nondescript and does not exhibit the busyness one would expect from the song. Fans have stolen the street sign for Penny Lane so many times that now the only authentic sign is the one on a stone wall. As you can see in the photo it has been defaced by the fans.

St. Peter's Church hall sign
Where Lennon met McCartney…

After a Guinness at a pub on Penny Lane where the Beatles once hoisted a few pints, we rode up a hill to St. Peter’s Church Hall in Woolton, where John Lennon first met Paul McCartney on July 6, 1957. Lennon’s early skiffle band called the Quarrymen was playing there at a garden féte. The hall is still being used today. The site is marked by this stone plaque.

St. Peter's Church
St. Peter’s (Anglican) Church in Woolton, Liverpool.

We walked across the street to the cemetery next to St. Peter’s Church.  As we sat there on a low stone wall, Phil pointed out a headstone in the cemetery where the name of Eleanor Rigby is engraved.  According to McCartney, the original figure in the Eleanor Rigby song was called Daisy Hawkins.  He later changed it to Eleanor Rigby after a British actress of the time and the name of a store in Bristol. McCartney has said he may have been subconciously influenced by seeing the headstone, at some point, because he and the others used to hang around the area.

Strawberry Fields gate and sign
Strawberry Fields Forever… at least until the housing developers come.

The last stop of the 17-mile bike tour was at Strawberry Field, made famous by Lennon’s song “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Strawberry Field was a Salvation Army children’s home near Lennon’s house. As a child Lennon played with the kids there and in the grounds.  Much of the land has been transformed into housing, and the original gates were removed in 2011 and replaced by a replica. Even so, it made for an interesting stop.

Cavern Club sign
The Cavern Club lit up in neon.

That night I walked over to the Cavern Club. The Beatles played the original Cavern Club 292 times from 1961-1963. This was where Beatlemania started. The club was in the basement of an old warehouse.  It was down several flights of stairs. It was tiny, dark, hot, and humid in the club. Fans would pack it until hardly anyone could move. The original club was closed in 1973 and filled in during construction of an underground rail line. A new club was opened at the same address in 1984, using the original plans and even some of the same bricks.

Cavern Club view
The tiny middle hall of the Cavern Club, with the stage at the far end.

It wasn’t too crowded when I first got to the Cavern Club at around 8pm. A local solo performer was banging out 60s hits from the famous stage at the end of the room. Next, a pop quartet fronted by two women called the Mona Lisa Twins cranked out early Beatles hits note for note. They were very good, and it was a different sensation to hear the vocals sung by women.

Mona Lisa Twins
The Mona Lisa Twins play the Cavern Club.

By the time the Cave Dwellers took the stage at 11pm, the place was jammed and rocking. The Vox amps were blasting and my ears had had enough.

Cavern Club stage
The tiny stage of the Cavern Club, with two Vox amps ready to go!

Beatlemania lives on in Liverpool.


Dubrovnik: Jewel of the Adriatic

Unlike many places in the Mediterranean and the Adriatic, you can actually find a sandy beach in Dubrovnik. I don’t know if it was trucked in from somewhere else, or it if was naturally occurring. I don’t really care. I just want to sink my toes into sand when I’m at the beach.

Banje Beach
Banje Beach, just outside the town walls of Dubrovnik.

Europeans must have tougher bodies, and especially tougher feet, than I do. Most beaches on the Mediterranean and Adriatic are made up of pebbles instead of sand. Sometimes the rocks are rough like gravel. The pebbles can be the size of peas or even as large as golf balls. The beach in Nice, for example, has stones the size of lemons, but at least they are smooth.  The beach goers stretch out their towels and lay down on the rocks and pretend it’s comfortable. Seems more like a form of torture to me.

Dubrovnik Harbor
The harbor in Dubrovnik.

The coast in Croatia is beautiful. I only got to Dubrovnik and didn’t have to time to venture farther up the Dalmatian coast, or to go out to one of the many Croatian islands in the Adriatic Sea. The weather was perfect for lounging at the beach and swimming in the clear, cool water of the sea.

Dubrovnik walls.
The high walls of Dubrovnik.

Fortunately for my feet, I found that the closest beach to the Old Town, called Banje Beach, was sandy. It was an easy 10 minute walk outside the Port Gate of the Old Town. The view of the Old Town from the beach is fantastic.

I found a sandy spot on which to relax, however, the edge of the water was a small wall of pebbles…

Dubrovnki beach
Which way to the beach?
Dubrovnik street
A street in Dubrovnik at night.

Dubrovnik has existed for more than 1,000 years. The defining feature of the Old Town are the city walls that encircle the town. Some parts of the wall are twenty feet thick. There are only two gates in the wall. Some buildings in the town date from the 1300s. The town was bombed by the Serbs during a siege in the Yugoslav war in 1991, damaging more than half of the buildings and killing over 100 residents. I don’t remember hearing about that in the US news at the time.  In the late 1990s, the city repaired the damage caused by the Serb artillery shelling.

Dubrovnik side street
A narrow side street in Dubrovnik.

Dubrovnik is very popular right now due to the hit TV show “Game of Thrones.” The Old Town is used to represent the fictional city of King’s Landing in the show. Walking tours of the old town that visit filming sites are big attractions for the tourists.

I liked walking around the Old Town, but it was so clean and perfect looking that I thought I had wandered into Disneyland or a movie set. Thousands of tourists (many of them from cruise ships) pour into the town every day. The main street becomes very crowded. It’s better to stroll along the backstreets in the evening.

Dubrovnik wall.
Dubrovnik town wall at dusk.

Dubrovnik, one of the best preserved medieval walled cities in the world, should be on your travel bucket list.


Travel Stories from Around the World by Steve Skabrat