Reading: Ulysses (James Joyce) [Forever…]

Listening: Yeezus (Kanye West)

London, its manifold structures, its frantic medley of sound and sight, gave way to a long, pure note of grayish green as our train rolled further from the metropolis. By way of the Great Western Rail, and eventually a bus ride, our destination promised a complete one-eighty in terms of setting. A farmstead, deep within Wales’s Brecon Beacons National Park, would be our new home for the next few days. The lack of urban comforts wasn’t the problem, in fact I welcomed the prospect of a quiet, more introspective pace of life. No, as we would soon find out, the real challenge would be getting there in the first place.

After a train delay, a frantic dash for cash from what must be Abergavenny’s only ATM, and a recuperative pint amongst friendly but slightly concerned Welsh folk at a neighborhood pub, we boarded the night bus for the mountain village of Tal-y-bont. Well past sundown, the dim lights of local towns grew yet dimmer and less frequent. Finally we arrived at our stop, marked by a single bench under a single amber-hued street lamp. To our right: the village, dormant. To our left: a solitary road, narrow, lightless, and hemmed on both sides with tall hedges.

Shouldering our packs, we turned towards the road, laughing and joking nervously as the  streetlamp gave way to the blackness of the road’s mouth. It felt as though we were entering a fairytale, not the modern g-rated kind, but the kind in which the path before you ends up being the esophagus of some hungry Welsh giant.

I held a cheap flashlight, Sarah her phone. All was quiet but for the occasional chirp of insects and the tramping of our advancing feet. That was until we turned off the road, up a steep dirt path still shrouded in darkness. The hedges continued up, but now they rustled occasionally; not softly with the breeze, but suddenly and fiercely, willed by some unknown force. “What was that?!” “I don’t know!” Terror gripped us for a moment. “Uh… Hello?” To my surprise… a response was issued. “Baaaaaaahhhhhh.” Sheep! The bleating of sheep all around us! Just beyond the hedges! Relieved, we giggled the paranoia away and continued. Still, the scene reminded me a little too much of Hannibal Lector (thankfully, the sheep were somewhat conversational) and we got a move on. Though the climb was tough, we finally found our little red cottage near the top of the hill. It wouldn’t be until morning that we’d discover our new home was shared by other furry (and gaudily feathered) inhabitants.

Brecon Beacons

A breathtaking land in the heart of South Wales, Brecon Beacons National park is home to the “central beacons” range and the “Black Mountains,” including South Wale’s highest peak “Pen-y-Fan.” The area feels relatively untouched by modern civilization, as glistening moss blankets the ancient limbs of Oak, Ash, and Yew. Dense woodlands are fractured by precipitous hills and rolling fields dotted with the cumulus outlines of sheep. In lieu of steel or iron, the grazing animals are enclosed by dense hedges, adding to the sense of pastoral tranquility. Due to inconsistent weather caused by the approach of Winter Storm Ciara in the UK, we did not get to explore as much as we’d liked to. In fact, on our way back from a brief hike, we found ourselves assailed by a torrential downpour without shelter. To my dismay, the compact camera in my jacket pocket was drenched, and I felt terrible after we discovered the power button was unresponsive (though miraculously, weeks later, the camera had a Lazarus moment and resumed full functionality!!). Due to the inclement weather, we spent a lot of time on the farmstead. Sheep, a cantankerous old goat, a flock of peacocks (who took cover from the rain on our porch, using our chairs as toilets), and two lovely Newfoundlands became our constant companions. The Newfoundlands, with their initially alarming size and strength (I’m glad we hadn’t bumped into them on our nighttime ascent), were in fact totally chill and left quite the impression on me. I love those fluffy beasts!

 

 

Cardiff

While Wales is largely known for its natural beauty, its unofficial capital, Cardiff, offers a great deal in terms of nightlife and urban living. Again, getting here wasn’t as easy as planned. We learned a valuable lesson about buses in the UK: if you don’t wave them down, they’re likely to just roll on past the bus stop (even in the middle of nowhere!). This particular bus driver even waved back as we chased after him, which struck me as pretty cheeky. A few hours later, we caught the next bus with prompt, extended arms. It was on this particular ride that we met a kindly gentleman named Alan, who gave us an impromptu guide on the various natural landmarks and towns we passed through. He expressed his fascination for American mafiosos, and told us how he frequented Brecon Beacons to visit a family grave (and to go on scenic walks). He was very helpful in directing us to Cardiff, and a testament to Welsh hospitality. Thanks Alan!

Downtown Cardiff sports innumerable restaurants, cafes, pubs, and “arcades” which are mall-like shopping centers akin to outlets in the US. I particularly enjoyed the central pedestrian street, lined with Welsh flags sporting the iconic red dragon of St. George and leading towards the walls of Cardiff Castle. I highly recommend checking out the castle grounds (discounted entry with a student ID + having a baby face in my case), as it includes an opportunity to explore medieval battlements (the top offering a great view of the city), as well as a gorgeous and remarkably intricate gothic-revival style mansion renovated by the illustrious William Burges. The ceilings of the mansion are especially stunning.

Finally, if you happen to be in Cardiff during the Six Nations Rugby Cup, prepare yourself for a wild time. I felt right at home amidst the flurry of red and white (Wales’s team colors), public intoxication, and hearty banter. Think Lincoln, NE on game day hosting Wisconsin (hard to say which is crazier!). Also, the best fish and chips I had in the UK were consumed during this match, though that may have been due to an appetite worked up by zealous day drinking (for cultural immersion, obviously…).


 

Swansea

Even in Swansea, people asked “Why Swansea?” And for a few rainy days, with few options for dining or nightlife, I too began asking myself, “why Swansea?”. But then it happened: radiant sunshine stretching out over the sea , beckoning us out from our shoddy apartment and towards the shore. We strolled along the coast to the “Mumbles” area, around the pier, and up and up and up upon absolutely stunning cliffside trails. For two blessed days the sun shone, and we walked miles along the ocean cliffs, from Langland Bay to Caswell Bay. Shocks of samphire plants and yellow wild flowers fringed our path as ocean waves spit white froth, lapping at the cliffs below us. We ended the second night with wine and sandwiches snuggled within a small alcove overlooking the sea. We watched the setting sun. Blushing, sleepy sky. It felt like a dream.

Reading: Ulysses (James Joyce) [Why am I putting myself through this?]

Listening: TOTAL (New Order)

Poet, playwright, and tragic figure Oscar Wilde once wrote of his love for the city of London, remarking “it is entirely composed now of beautiful idiots and brilliant lunatics.” Over a century later, I wonder to which camp our descent into Heathrow bolsters. Marrakesh had been fun at first, yet as sickness gripped our lungs, the packed markets and enterprising merchants had grown stifling. Haggling can be a joy, but a fever under the Moroccan sun makes for a poor business associate. London, cool and damp, sounded a relief to our sweat-slicked brows. Plus, Sarah needed to get her drone back from the authorities!

Directly after our arrival, we took “the tube” for first time. Our public transport repertoire growing, we were awed by just how subterranean the tube actually was. We dove deeper and deeper into the earth’s crust, marveling at the extent and depth of earth displaced. After a few transfers, we arrived at our Airbnb in North Lambeth. Every floor of the flat was distorted and slanted in one way or another, owing to a sensation of having entered an M.C. Escher painting. The bed, however, was quite comfortable.

Highlights:

Kennington Park:

A lovely swathe of green on our walk from Lambeth to Chelsea. Moss-gowned trees and wagging puppy-dog tails abound. Would highly recommend when seeking a place to stretch your legs and enrich your lungs.

 

Natural History Museum London:

The structure itself is nearly as interesting as the exhibits it holds; weathered busts of lions, goats, and even pteranodons glean from various precipices overhead. A cavernous central hall makes for a unique, waterless aquarium in which a massive whale skeleton crashes towards the entrance. The various halls that offshoot from the central one can be a tad restrictive at times (depending on the crowd) but all promise something remarkable (i.e. DINOS!). Even better, it’s completely free.

 

The Walrus:

A place we ventured frequently, The Walrus was doubtless our favorite pub in North Lambeth. Being a pub/hostel hybrid, a revolving door of new faces inhabits the cozy interior. Drinks are cheap and the people watching is priceless. (Or you could be a normal person and actually socialize, yikes!)

 

Pétrus:

Sarah and I absolutely adore Gordon Ramsay, though “adore” may be an understatement. Does calling yourself “Gordy’s Boy” for nearly five years sound like adoration? Fanatical derangement? You decide. Anyways, Sarah and I were determined to eat at one of his many restaurants here in London. Though the flagship The Gordon Ramsay was tempting, it was also very difficult to get a reservation. We settled on Pétrus, and by settling I mean enjoyed the most delicious five-star meal of our young, impressionable lives. Order the Orkney scallop, then contemplate the gods of Olympus and pity they’ve only tasted ambrosia. Apparently, according to our dashing French waiter, we’d missed Gordon himself by a mere week. And so the quest of Gordy’s Boy continues…

 

Leake Street Tunnel/Bahn Bao Brothers:

The Leake Street Tunnel is a graffiti artists dream for two reasons: a.) the amazing range of styles and images literally coating the expanse from top to bottom, b.) tagging here is completely legal! Underground art is thriving in London, and there’s no better gallery than these public tunnels in North Lambeth. Sarah and I also encountered a troupe of bongo drummers (numbering around 15), which frankly scared the crap out of us due to the thunderous acoustics of the place. Adjoining the tunnel resides a real stylish gem of a joint, Bahn Bao Brothers. Curving brick interior meets hip contemporary asian aesthetic (complete with perennially blooming cherry blossoms). The modern Vietnamese cuisine is top-notch.

 

Soho:

Grey days in London can make for dreary streets after a time. Where’s the color? The vivaciousness? Well, if anywhere, it’s in a bumping area dubbed “Soho” of London’s West End. Pubs, restaurants, theaters, and jubilant shouts of “cheers!” coax a twinkle of gaiety (or even mischief) from the downcast eye. Though we only experienced a fraction of the nightlife Soho has to offer, our favorite spot was a little cocktail bar called Jimi Loves Gloria. If RuPaul’s face is part of the wallpaper pattern it has to be good, and the stream of Bowie from the stereo lifted us from London gutter to glam-rock heaven.

 

Unfortunately, Big Ben was feeling a little camera shy and covered himself in scaffolding. Still, such a gorgeous face!

Next, the majestic wilderness of central Wales!

Cheers,

Julius