The land of the Howells. TNT Travel Writing Awards 2009

By Lorena Di Nola

His passport may be American, but his last name is truly Welsh. It was time for my friend Chris to visit the land of his ancestors: a sign of gratitude for this surname, Howell, who among the valleys of his fathers proudly carries the meaning “eminent”.

The genealogy made us take the direction of South Wales. It was to be a journey of self-discovery, and the rite of passage was made even more solemn by the majestic bridge marking the entrance to the country. The line to pay the toll was equally majestic, and we began to wonder if all of the Powells and Howells on the highway were traveling, somewhat biblically, to their homelands. The sense of exploration that comes with crossing borders made a smile pop up as we started the route on the Welsh side.

Aberganvenny has been referred to by our guide as ‘the city of food’: a concise description, but enough to persuade us to go straight there for the Sunday roast. Whole families had donned their finest attire to savor “Slow-roasted Welsh lamb shoulder glazed with gooseberry jelly”: with such a solemn name, the dish deserves nothing less than a dress and a fascinator. on the ladies sticking a fork in the meat.

When you leave the restaurant on a full stomach, the climb to the castle has the potential to catch your breath along the way. The ruins reveal valleys in the background; an opening in the old wall is filled with the blue of the sky. The passage of time seems to have improved the appearance of the castle: partly collapsed, it offers ever new views over the valley.

Getting to our next stop is only part of the reason we get back into our car so enthusiastically. Nowhere else but South Wales will the journey be as much fun as the destination. We drive on stone bridges and country lanes, through valleys and small villages. Still children of the 21st century, the electronic voice of a GPS judiciously shows us the way. We obediently follow directions, like star-guided mages, but sometimes have to descend and measure the width with our strides to check if our car can possibly fit in the narrow passage we’re, amazingly enough, headed towards. Even in the age of satellites and Google Maps, driving in this corner of Wales still retains elements of adventure.

It takes a fair amount of driving on muddy country roads to get to Hay-on-Wye, but it draws visitors from all over the world. Its literary festival is completely different from the crowded plastic pavilions of so many other book fairs. The festive atmosphere is permanent in this small town; outside of public holidays, you will recognize it in children happily holding ice cream, or in readers standing on every street corner oblivious to the world. With its 39 bookstores, you’ll find the book you never knew you wanted. Or rather, the books will find you. They are there to be enjoyed with all your senses, losing you among the labyrinthine libraries. War literature, gardening, American novels, Greek classics, Russian realism: the succession of second-hand books is dizzying. Open them up and you might find a bookmark or a faded family photo from a previous owner. The books even hang on the walls of the old castle, like ivy to read, and are sold for a handful of pennies. The city that defies the laws of competition has more joys to offer than the literary ones. If books dominate in Hay-on-Wye, antiques arrive right after. In one of the stores I find the blender my mom used in the 1980s to make the carrot cakes I grew up with; with its warm orange color and faded box, it brings back memories long forgotten. A rhinestone dress in a Berlin cabaret style draws me into a boudoir-like store smelling of French perfumes, displaying crystal bottles for sale on oak tables. It’s really hard to leave Hay-on-Wye without a shopping bag hanging from your hands.

We follow the scenic route back home. The sun sets over the Brecon Beacons National Park: the land is steeped in yellow and orange hues. Evening sunlight penetrates the valley and hits the stones, casting long shadows on the bare ground. Standing on the edge of the hill, I am confronted with nature. It is the ‘genteel’ Welsh countryside, but to contemplate it seems intensely powerful. Brecon Beacons is an idyllic refuge in the classic sense of the word, the mythical Arcadia on British soil. I stand in the contemplation of a flock of sheep and find in the lambs the image of unconditional joy. One of them climbs the hill freely, prompting all the others to follow him in a rush, only to frantically descend the hill and start the game again. Almost with the same enthusiasm as the lambs, a couple cross the valley in paragliders. The cows look gigantic and solemn as they stand by the side of the road, frozen in disbelief at the sight of a car and gazing curiously out of our window.

The electronic voice of the satellite navigation system guides us out of the park and into the city, leaving behind the luxury of Welsh pancakes and the power of bare nature. My friend Chris may have discovered the land of his ancestors, but in the vastness of the valley, I too feel like I have found a piece of myself.

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