Sunday, February 16, 2014

Europe - Day 3 - Merthyl Tydfil

Wow,  a great night sleep as the room was dark and quiet.  As I pull up the shades to let some light in I realize it is later then I thought.   I am staying at Bernard's (my cousin's husbands) dad's home and I can hear him downstairs scurrying around.   I get ready and head down to find he has breakfast of sausage, eggs, cereal, and toast ready for me, what a nice surprise. We have a pleasant conversation as we eat this most important meal of the day.  Shortly into the conversation I realize I have to pay close attention to  what he is saying  or I will not understand him.  He has a thick British/Welsh  accent and I am not accustom to it.  After  eating I finish taking a look around the place.  The back yard is so quaint with a well trimmed plot of green grass that crawls right up to the rock wall at the back end of the lot.  A row of blooming flowers line the sidewalk that takes you to the back gate.  Once you step through the gate you are in the alley with another taller rock wall on the other side.   Just on the other side of this wall there are people talking so I take a peek.  It is a bocce ball court and there are people playing a game this morning.  I find out later from Bernard's dad that this is a bocce ball club and they are having an international IMG_3507tournament there the next few days as it is a holiday in the UK.  I may have to see if I can watch a game or two and learn something about the sport.  After breakfast Pip (Bernard's niece) swings by to collect me on her way downtown to the farmers market.  It is a nice short walk through the little village on this partly cloudy day.  Little did I know the plan for the day would entail much more walking but I still would have joined her had I known.  The market is filled with typical produce,  nothing exotic like I often find inIMG_3512 Brazil,  but I enjoy it just the same.  Of course one of the vendors notice my non British accent and immediately asks where I am from.  Pip pipes up and tells him as she purchases the produce she is purchasing from his stand and we are off and walking to her house.
Up the hill past her grandfathers house, Pip and her family live in another set of row houses built by the iron companies who thrived in the area at one time.  A typical neighborhood with kids outside playing on the street and I am soon introduced to her two children (Jack and Nial) and husband as we arrive at their home.  It has been decided that we will be heading to Peny E Fan for the day and that everyone will be coming along.  We pack a lunch, put on our sneakers and hop into the car.  Pen Y Fan you ask?  Located approximately 20 miles north of town,  it is the highest peak in South Wales at 2,907 feet above sea level.  It is part of the Brecon Beacons which is a mountain range in southwest Wales inside the boundaries of Brecon Beacons National Park.  Named after  the ancient practice of lighting signal fires (beacons) on mountains to warn of attacks by invaders, or more recently to commemorate public and national events such as coronations or the turn of the millennium.  IMG_3513Today's hike will be around 6.2 mile one way which I did not know at the beginning of this adventure.  Well enough about the mountain range and from Wikipedia,  lets get back to today's journey. When we arrive, there are a lot of cars parked on the road side so we end up parking about three quarters of a mile from the starting point which is just beyond the old inn.  We exit the car and begin our journey.  As we get close I can see the trail that proceeds up the  incline into the far distance.  There doesn't seem to be many people as there is only one couple ahead of us so maybe all the cars along the road are misleading.  We have plenty of water, our lunch and positive attitudes as we walk to the gate at the beginning of IMG_3514the trail.  We pass by the old deserted inn and Pip and her husband share stories of going there for dinner and a few drink as they  try to remember how long ago it was.  The  path is surrounded by rolling hills covered by green grass and if you look close enough you see plenty of little purple flowers filled with butterflies.   It is going to be a great day as the air is fresh,  the sun is hidden behind some light clouds and soon we begin the hike.
IMG_3518The journey to the first peak is uneventful, but once we reached the summit I began to realize this adventure was going to take all day and Pen Y Fan may be further then I first expected.  I was also glad there were clouds in the sky,  because if there were not it would be terribly hot.  It was really the perfect day to be hiking through the grassy knoll.  The trail winds down the hill to a little creek at the bottom of the valley.  We step across the babbling brook using the strategically placed rocks and once IMG_3520again we begin traveling up hill.  This incline was quite a bit steeper then the first and each of us had to take a minute to catch our breath from time to time.  (of course except Pip's sons who often ran ahead and are quite a bit younger) .  At the second summit I realized fully what this adventure was going to be as the third summit was more of an incline yet after a short little valley.  Fortunately we were not in a hurry so as we continued to climb we made plenty of stops to catch our breath.    We pass by some horses with colts and take a minute to enjoy their playfulness.  I think it was actually a good reason for a minute to relax.  I had worn a jacket and at this point I  wish I would have left IMG_3530it in the car.   On the way to the third summit we are met by a couple guys running down the path.  They are obviously in great shape and are wearing race numbers as they traverse the path  towards the road below.  I am intrigued as they are obviously running some sort of a race but they are traveling too quickly to ask any questions.  We arrive at the third summit and the forth summit is in site.  There is no valley in between and the path has changed from dirt to rock and is quite steep.  Shortly towards the forth summit another runner comes trudging down from above. This one is a little slower as the trail is much steeper and he has to be more cautious.  Since he is almost walking on his descent  I ask him what the run is all about.  He shares that it is a race to raise awareness and funds for three military men's families.  These three men died earlier this year in the Brecon Beacons as they performed military drills.  After he passed by,  Pip proceeded to share that this area is used by the UK Special forces for demanding selection training exercises called the fan dance.  Earlier in 2013 three of these trainees died and this run must be raising money for their families and legacies.  As a forth runner comes quickly down the mountain,  I have to think how dangerous it is and how glad I am that we are walking and not trying to sprint.  I am also not even sure how long it has taken to this point but I am happy there are not a whole lot of people around.   It sure makes a nice afternoon.IMG_3528
We pass the forth peak and to our surprise there is a fifth with the trail continuing along a cliff.  As we begin climbing to the top a cooler gust of wind begins to swirl over and around the summit.   I had mentioned earlier that the jacket was a hindrance but at this point I am sure glad I brought it along.  The wind has gotten cold as the clouds become more gray and we begin to think it may rain.
IMG_3526Wow- at the top of Pen Y Fan is a spectacular panoramic view.  It is just a little hazy today so you can see for miles.  Farmland creating a quilt of greens and browns  near the horizon where the rolling grass covered hills end and the trees begin.  On the top of the mountain is a large rocky area with a plaque at the highest point.  We pull out our cameras to commemorate our  accomplishment and then proceed to have lunch.  The food sure takes on a different flavor at this altitude or maybe I am just a little more hungry after that uphill hike. A simple sandwich has not tasted this good in a long time.  After lunch we continue to explore and a short distance from the plaque is a IMG_3529peculiar  pile of rocks.  Pip advises me to find a flat rock and a chalk rock to write my name on it.  She explains that it is tradition to place a rock with my name on it on the pile commemorating the end of my journey.  Well at least my journey up.   I spend some quiet time meditating as I explore the horizon of the surrounding area.  It is truly a beautiful afternoon.
We begin the long journey down but as one can expect the descend is quite a bit easier then the ascend.  In the distance I see a reservoir which I had not noticed on the way up.  I understand we had driven by it as we  drove from Merthyr Tydfil and if we wanted to, there IMG_3531is a path that brings you there as well. However, that would mean we would need to walk back up the road which would be quite a hike within itself so we opt for a return trip the way we came.    After a leisure walk back down we finally reach the Inn where a vendor is selling ice cream alongside the road.  We have certainly earned this treat and shortly after devouring the small ice cream treat we are back in the car headed towards town.  I believe we are all proud of our accomplishment today and the ride back is a little quiet as everyone is tired.  Once we arrive back in town we have dinner and settled in for an early evening.  I was happy to get to bed early as I was still feeling a little of the time difference.  As my head hit my pillow I was excited for tomorrow adventure! 
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Thursday, February 13, 2014

Europe - Day 2 - Merthyr Tydfil...

The flight across the pond has been uneventful and soon we are on the runway taxiing to the gate.  I take a minute to think  about how different first class has been with its service and amenities offered.  I am not sure it would warrant the  price for me but this flight it was a free upgrade so I am happy with it.  I exit the plane and head to find where my bus departs from (no need to stop at baggage claim as all my luggage is with me).   It is 6:30 A.M. and my reservation to Cardiff is not until 10:30.  I plan to find where it leaves from and check into an earlier bus.  It doesn’t take long to find the departure point although I must say I am underwhelmed by the airport. It is old and dated and dingy, not what I expected or remember from my last visit.  The bus stop is conveniently located right outside the terminal and it is only five Euros to get an earlier bus.  I ponder it a while but the largest issue with an earlier bus is that my friends plan to meet me in Cardiff and I have no way of getting in touch with them.  It is way too early to call.  When I left the first class cabin,  the stewardess handed me a voucher for some hotel like sleeping space located  in the airport.  Another bonus of first class.  I guess it is kind of a hotel of sorts and a shower sure sounds good.  After looking around a while I stumble imagesupon the small space tucked in the corner of the airport.  The voucher is a complimentary stay for up to 3 hours.  Just enough time to relax, nap, brush my teeth and shower.  The room is so small there is hardly enough room to turn around but I am just wanting to close my eyes for a minute so that really doesn’t matter.
Of course as soon as my head hits the pillow it is time to get up, get read and I am off to catch the bus-  I must say this was  a wonderful unexpected perk of first class.  The bus  is not very full and soon we are on our way.  The ride through London and adjacent countryside is pleasant but uneventful and to be quite honest I struggle to stay awake.  I arrive in Cardiff to see the smiling face of my friend Pip there to greet me.  There is a short layover in Cardiff before we head to Merthyr Tydfil  my first stop on this long journey so we grab a cup of coffee.  After a short bus ride we arrive at terminal in the small city of 30,000 inhabitants.  OK,  like other posts I need to learn a little about the city I am visiting so lets consult wikipedia and see what we can find out.
Merthyr Tydfil was once the largest town in Wales but today it holds the honor of being the 14th largest urban area in Wales as it sits in the lower eastern section of the country.  According to legend, the town is named after Saint Tydfil, a daughter of King Brychan of Brycheiniog. It is said the princess was slain at Merthyr by pagans around 480 and thus the location was named Merthyr Tydfil in her honour.  The village was small with the adjacent land being filled with shepherds and small farms.  In the 1700′s during the industrial revolution, the town grew quickly as its proximity to  iron ore,  coal, and  limestone made it ideal for ironworks.  Soon railways connected the 998795_10201679420405468_1792113831_ngrowing city with every major city and sea port in the area.    In 1861 the city was over 50,000 residence and growing but over the next several decades that growth stopped and the city began to decline as its inland location became cumbersome for the production of iron compared to new iron producing areas in the Ukraine and United States.  The city rose to a population of over 80,000 people until post World War I found many unemployed there and a mass migration of thousands away from the city.  World War II stabilized this out-migration but the iron works industry in Merthyr Tydfil has never recovered.    The last of these iron based companies shut its doors in 1987 ending the 228 years of iron production.  Today with several industries leading the employment numbers .
IMG_3510I am excited to get off the bus and see what this city is all about.  Of course it is afternoon and it is kind of a gloomy day with gray skies and the threat of rain. We walk up a small hill through the business district of the community.  My first impressions are that it is smaller the I expected with a Chinese restaurant on every other corner.  I was not expecting that, thought it would be a pub.  We pass by a few abandoned buildings which I am sure I will hear the story of at some point during my stay.  Soon we arrive at Pip’s grandfathers place where I will be stay.  (He is actually the father of my cousin’s husband which is my connection to them).    A quaint neighborhood with row houses in grays, whites, and browns.   By the time we arrive it is getting later so we have dinner and soon it is time to get some sleep.  I am happy to be able to get on line using a neighbors wi-fi,  but I am tired and as the jet lag begins to set in it is off to bed.. tomorrow we are planning to hike but I will leave more about that for the next post.