Wales: Castle capital of the world

The spectacular ruins of Tintern Abbey (above) date back to the 12th century. Lifelike pigs hang from the rafters (below) of the Abergavenny food market. The view from the Vale of Rheidol Railway, a storybook steam engine locomotive that shuttles bet
The spectacular ruins of Tintern Abbey (above) date back to the 12th century. Lifelike pigs hang from the rafters (below) of the Abergavenny food market. The view from the Vale of Rheidol Railway, a storybook steam engine locomotive that shuttles between the holiday resort town of Aberystwyth and the intriguingly named Devil's Bridge. One of the best preserved castles is Conwy on the north coast of Wales, which Unesco considers one of the "finest examples of late 13th-century and early 14th-century military architecture in Europe".ST PHOTOS: BOON CHAN
The spectacular ruins of Tintern Abbey (above) date back to the 12th century. Lifelike pigs hang from the rafters (below) of the Abergavenny food market. The view from the Vale of Rheidol Railway, a storybook steam engine locomotive that shuttles bet
The spectacular ruins of Tintern Abbey (above) date back to the 12th century. Lifelike pigs hang from the rafters (below) of the Abergavenny food market. The view from the Vale of Rheidol Railway, a storybook steam engine locomotive that shuttles between the holiday resort town of Aberystwyth and the intriguingly named Devil's Bridge. One of the best preserved castles is Conwy on the north coast of Wales, which Unesco considers one of the "finest examples of late 13th-century and early 14th-century military architecture in Europe".ST PHOTOS: BOON CHAN
The spectacular ruins of Tintern Abbey (above) date back to the 12th century. Lifelike pigs hang from the rafters (below) of the Abergavenny food market. The view from the Vale of Rheidol Railway, a storybook steam engine locomotive that shuttles bet
The spectacular ruins of Tintern Abbey (above) date back to the 12th century. Lifelike pigs hang from the rafters (below) of the Abergavenny food market. The view from the Vale of Rheidol Railway, a storybook steam engine locomotive that shuttles between the holiday resort town of Aberystwyth and the intriguingly named Devil's Bridge. One of the best preserved castles is Conwy on the north coast of Wales, which Unesco considers one of the "finest examples of late 13th-century and early 14th-century military architecture in Europe".ST PHOTOS: BOON CHAN
The spectacular ruins of Tintern Abbey (above) date back to the 12th century. Lifelike pigs hang from the rafters (below) of the Abergavenny food market. The view from the Vale of Rheidol Railway, a storybook steam engine locomotive that shuttles bet
The spectacular ruins of Tintern Abbey (above) date back to the 12th century. Lifelike pigs hang from the rafters (below) of the Abergavenny food market. The view from the Vale of Rheidol Railway, a storybook steam engine locomotive that shuttles between the holiday resort town of Aberystwyth and the intriguingly named Devil's Bridge. One of the best preserved castles is Conwy on the north coast of Wales, which Unesco considers one of the "finest examples of late 13th-century and early 14th-century military architecture in Europe".ST PHOTOS: BOON CHAN

Wales also has lush, wooded national parks, dramatic coastlines and charming villages

Of the three countries that make up the island of Britain, Wales is probably the least familiar to visitors. Scotland is known for its castles and lochs and England has its bustling cities and popular Lake District.

But there is no reason why this should be so. Wales has plenty of greenery and scenery as well, from viridescent, wooded national parks to dramatic coastlines and brooding castles to charming villages.

It offers all that Britain can offer - with an added exotic touch. The written Welsh language has a suspicion of vowels and one is greeted by seemingly improbable signs everywhere. Wales in Welsh, for example, is spelt Cymru and pronounced "kumree".

Everyone speaks English, however, so visitors will enjoy that frisson of something foreign and yet have no problems getting around.

On a trip organised by national tourism agency VisitBritain, we skip the major cities of Cardiff and Swansea and venture deep into the Welsh countryside in a trusty van.

The most direct way of experiencing the countryside is to simply immerse yourself in it. The Brecon Beacons National Park (www.breconbeacons.org) in South Wales is lush and green and peaceful - and a magnet for walkers, climbers, fishermen, canoeists, horse-riders and bird-watchers.

At its heart is the welcoming Gliffaes Country House Hotel (www.gliffaeshotel.com). It is possible to get our fill of nature just pottering around the grounds of the handsome house. There is even a walk on the estate to take in the almost 40 varieties of trees, including redwoods, oaks, cedars and maples. In autumn, bursts of red add a dash of dazzle to the landscape.

It is a land that I can almost believe is alive with magic, particularly when gazing upon the 4.27m free-standing stone in the middle of a field in the Glanusk estate. Nicknamed the fish stone for its resemblance to an upright fish, the menhir is one of the many standing stones which dot western Europe, silent sentinels of pre-historic cultures.

The Honourable Shan Legge-Bourke, owner of the estate, explains, in an accent so posh that the folks of Downton Abbey would blush with shame, that there is a legend associated with the stone.

It is said that it would turn into a man once a year on midsummer's eve and, as a child, she had tried to catch a glimpse of that transformation by camping with friends. They managed to spook themselves but, of that elusive fish-man there was no sign.

Spread out across the Welsh countryside are other relics which conjure up the distant, if not quite as fantastical, past.

There are the spectacular ruins of Tintern Abbey (search at cadw.wales.gov.uk), with their towering interlocking arches, splendid against a backdrop of green rolling hills in the picturesque Wye Valley.

The remains date back to the 12th century, when the abbey was home to an austere order of monks known as the Cistercians. A short walk away and tucked into the hillside is the atmospheric ruined 19th-century church of St Mary. Tombstones dot the grounds, including what looks like a clawfoot bath memorial.

Not for naught has Wales been dubbed the castle capital of the world. It has more than 500 castles, of which more than a quarter are still standing, either as ruins or restored attractions. Many of them are under the care of Cadw (pronounced "kadu"), the historic environment service of the Welsh government.

One of the best preserved is Conwy Castle (search at cadw.wales.gov.uk) on the north coast of Wales, which Unesco considers one of the "finest examples of late 13th-century and early 14th-century military architecture in Europe".

It is also home to some of the continent's best preserved mediaeval walls and I get an excellent overview of the town and the surrounding environs while walking along the elevated stone walkways. And when we peer into the yards of modern-day houses, we wonder if property prices are lower the closer they are to pesky tourists.

Another familiar building in the Welsh landscape is the church, be it large or small, imposing or inviting. The Holy Cross church at Mwnt (pronounced "mont") is a modest affair, with whitewashed walls and a grey roof, but it is dramatically set against a green hillside which overlooks a sliver of beach. A waterfall runs down the slope invitingly to what has been voted as one of Europe's top 10 loveliest hidden beaches in the Daily Mail newspaper.

We, a motley crew of writers from around the world, troop down to the quiet, sandy cove and also hike up the hill, hunkering against the whipping wind to perch atop a rocky ridge to take in the gorgeous view. No one is blown away and we have windswept pictures to prove we made the foolhardy trek. It is a good day.

Those with a taste for adventure can also fly over rugged landscapes at Zip World Titan (www.zipworld.co.uk), nestled amongst the mountains of Snowdonia in North Wales.

For a more genteel way of luxuriating in the countryside, hop on a train or tram.

The Vale of Rheidol Railway (www.rheidolrailway.co.uk) is a storybook steam engine locomotive that shuttles between the holiday resort town of Aberystwyth and the intriguingly named Devil's Bridge. As it winds its way through the woods, the gorgeous valley bursts into view for a second or two before getting swallowed up by the trees once more. And each time, it sets off a mad scramble of picture-snapping for Instagram's sake.

For a less challenging level of photo-taking, take a ride on The Great Orme Tramway (www.greatormetramway.co.uk), in operation since 1902. As it climbs 1.5km up the Great Orme Country Park and Nature Reserve, the houses drop away and sweeping vistas of blue sea and green and yellow grass appear as sunlight peeks through the cloud cover.

For a change of scenery, we drop by some of the charming towns and villages snuggled in the countryside. With its maze of bookshops catering to every taste, from murder thrillers to poetry, Hay-on-Wye (www.hay-on-wye.co.uk) is a welcoming sight indeed for the voracious reader.

Even the animals here seem more literary as one orange tabby lazily patrols an unmanned second-hand shop set against a stone wall. An advertisement for Anti-Stiff to strengthen the muscles in an old tome sets off a round of giggles and someone buys it for a laugh.

The village hosts an international renowned book festival in May and just about the only thing that is not welcome is the electronic reading device. "Kindles are banned from the Kingdom of Hay," proclaims a banner solemnly.

Even quirkier is coastal resort Portmeirion (www.portmeirion-village.com) within Snowdonia National Park in north Wales. Designed and built by one Sir Clough Williams-Ellis between 1925 and 1975, it feels as though we have wandered onto a film set of an Italian village filled with colourful facades and incongruous touches.

Cherubs and mermaids abound, a Buddha statue sits serenely under a verandah, while sculptures of Thai dancers perch atop columns in a central garden.

One of the most satisfying ways of savouring the countryside is to sink one's teeth into it.

Given the variety of fresh local produce, chefs have no need to look beyond their own backyards for inspiration. Check out the ingredients at food markets such as the one at Abergavenny, with its distinctive decoration of lifelike pigs hanging from the rafters - or get down and dirty at the cattle market in Cardigan and get hypnotised by the sing-song auctioneer.

Treat yourself to a traditional Sunday roast beef and Yorkshire pudding or pamper yourself with the delicious tasting menu at one-Michelin-starred Ynyshir Hall (www.ynyshirhall.co.uk) by head chef Gareth Ward. Our lunch includes a mushroom dish that is umami richness, balanced with a little tartness and crunchiness from some croutons, perfectly cooked pink lamb and a dessert that harmonises tart flavours and creamy textures.

And to work off any meal, simply start walking from wherever you are. You will not be disappointed by what you find.

bchan@sph.com.sg

The writer's trip was sponsored by VisitBritain.