The first Welsh word I learned on the drive from London to Harlech was painted on every bend in the road. 'Araf'. Slow down. It was exactly what I intended doing when I got to north-west Wales.
Strolling dunes and empty beaches
I was booked into a tiny but handsome bed and breakfast for a three-day break in the Rhinog mountains with walking-holiday firm Upland Escapes. I'd travelled with the company before, to Italy's Majella National Park, where the format was simple: stay at an out-of-the-way village in the hills, do lots of walking, eat wonderful food. My guide then as now was Dick, who met me at my B&B and suggested we stretch my car-cramped legs.
We scrambled over the high dunes that lie between the town and the Irish Sea and went for a stroll along the wide, empty beach. Dick said the company had taken a punt on Wales because it has all the benefits and challenges of many far-flung European uplands. 'While we've never promised to save the world, or even part of it, we founded Upland Escapes on principles of responsible tourism,' he explained. 'Inspiration first struck when we were in rural Italy, with its opportunities to enjoy superb scenery, and even better food, while experiencing traditional pastoral culture at first hand. Later, we realised all the same elements were available to us much closer to home – and with less carbon emitted – right here in the Rhinogs.'
One fantasy, five pints, and an 18-cover bistro
Back in my room, half-watching a rugby match between Aberafan (Aberavon) and Casnewydd (Newport) on S4C, I thought about this. Factor in the recession, the general disdain travellers have for no-frills flights and the recent 'sexing up' of Wales, and a holiday there did seem like a good idea. But before I was allowed to indulge too deeply in my Cymru/Umbria fantasy the heavens opened. I looked out of the window and watched the rain pour down on the large caravan park at the southern end of the dunes.
We dined the first evening at the Bistro Bermo in Barmouth (say that after five pints of Brains). The town was a classy, popular bathing spot in the nineteenth century – Wordsworth visited and wrote that 'Barmouth can always hold its own against any rival.' But the resort has fallen on hard times in recent decades. Only poor Brummies come these days. I'd spied a corner café on the drive through earlier that day: the Arousal Café, the sign said. Dick explained that every time the owner put up a 'C' someone knocked it off. At the restaurant Dick and I were greeted by David, an immigrant from the Wirral. 'This corner of Wales is waiting to be rediscovered,' he claimed. The 18-cover bistro is smart and simply decorated, and the kitchen turns out Modern Welsh dishes, all cooked by his partner, Teresa.
I'd been driving past newborn lambs all day, which had made me rather hungry. For starters I tried the deceitful Glamorgan sausages: instead of a brown tube of meat I was served four gooey cheese croquettes with a sweet-sour tomato chutney. It was delicious, calorific and cholesterol-loaded. Still, I struggled on with a lamb steak while Dick tried a local dish called Anglesey eggs. Together we managed to eat four local cheeses for dessert – the Red Devil, which contained crushed chillies and black pepper, was particularly potent. Needless to say I had a slumber-free night, plagued by dreams of caravan-eating dragons.
History and fruitcake
The next day I had to burn some of it off. After a decent-sized breakfast (more Glamorgan sausages for those in need of arterial cladding) we made tracks for the Rhinogs, a range of ancient rocky hills in the south-west corner of Snowdonia National Park.
In keeping with its eco-boutique approach, Upland Escapes avoids packaged experiences and well-trodden paths. The Rhinogs don't have the height or quite the majesty of northern Snowdonia – we could see the white mound of Snowdon in the distance – but they don't have the tourists either. As Dick remarked, 'You'd be very unlucky to meet anybody.'
Dick and his small team have created more than 30 self-guided and guided walks around the area, and today we were doing a tricky, largely unmarked trail along a ridge to a Bronze Age tomb and a series of low peaks. The weather was very un-Italian, and for more than two hours we climbed up through drizzle, hail and sleet to pause at outcrops where no doubt the view in summer is stupendous. En route, we took in lakes, streams, mossy meadows and heather-clad plains, small stands of stunted, wind-lashed oaks and a Welsh long house – the traditional single-storey stone cottage where, in days of old, Welsh farmers would have beded down with their beasts. But above all we were clambering on Cambrian rock – the stuff that gave Wales its name and which is 543-488 million years old, give or take a couple of million.
One of the many high points was the packed lunch, which we ate beneath a slab of black rock during a rare moment of bright sunshine. Harlech still boasts lots of small, independent shops and Dick had sourced local sausages of pork and leek, potato salad, smoked mackerel and tuna paté, bara brith – a delicious fruitcake – and some more Welsh cheeses. The deli food was as good as anything I'd tasted in the Majella, and I joked that if it weren't for the ugly statics down below we could be back in Abruzzo. Dick disagreed, saying he'd seen a caravan park band in the middle of Umbria's Piano Grande.
The following day I travelled to the famed faux Little Italy of Portmeirion. Built by a rich eccentric called Sir Clough Williams-Ellis between the 1920s and 1970s it takes the idea of the twee folly to metropolitan heights. Italianate villas sit alongside ocean-liner deco buildings, Victorian villas look out on sunken gardens, and the whole complex hides behind a hulking great castellated medieval mansion now used as a hotel.
Shortly after arriving I had a brief but bizarre exchange with a man in a blazer. I was about to mount a stone staircase when he appeared round the bend, accompanied by a woman in a multicoloured cape. I noticed his penny-farthing badge and assumed he was part of a vintage bike rally.
'Did you arrive on a penny-farthing?' I asked by way of introduction. 'Ugh?' 'Your badge,' I pointed, noting his generally retro apparel. 'Ha ha, you are kidding, aren't you?' Now his friend pulled a face too. 'No,' I said. 'You do know what was filmed here?' 'Sure, "The Prisoner",' I replied.
He then explained the bike badge and the blazer and his wife's cape. It's funny how 'The Prisoner' is such a cult, but I have to admit I have only the vaguest of memories of its reruns in the 1970s. It turned out they were delegates at a 'Prisoner' weekend conference. I'd come to Portmeirion during its most important event in years – and as star and producer Patrick McGoohan died in January, there was a tangibly intense, emotional atmosphere. I found myself walking around the ersatz villas carrying a placard of McGoohan's handsome face and chatting to 'Prisoner' addicts. I felt trapped in a weird cult. I started running up and down the winding staircases. It was brilliant.
A pint of the purple stuff
I spent the rest of the day driving slowly along back roads and combing the beaches near Abersoch, before heading to Caernarfon to explore its lofty castle. At 5pm, I wound up at what was now my own, far nicer local castle – Harlech. After a pint of the local ale, the intriguingly monikered Purple Moose (whose amusing slogan is 'Dark Side of the Moose'), Dick and I went to meet Harlech's best local band, the Ardudwy Male Voice Choir: the only such choir in the Rhinogs region. Its 35 members hail from 'as far as' Barmouth in one direction and from Portmeirion in the other. They gave us a rendition of 'Finlandia' – which was dark, deep and glacial - and 'Pwy Sydd ar Dir Arglwydd' ('Who is on God's Land') – which was warm, Welsh and wonderful. The funny thing was they skipped from Finnish to Welsh, I was told later, and we never noticed.
Still, I felt deeply honoured to peek inside this unique world. Dick and his local guide, Gary, assured me that the show wasn't just for journalists and that guests of Upland Escapes would receive the same treatment. There are cynics galore when it comes to Welsh culture and language but, trust me, it's worth opening your ears to all those double 'l's and double 'd's.
I had another amazing dinner at Harlech's highest-end restaurant, the Castle Cottage. Here well-travelled chef Glen Roberts prepares the finest North Walian produce with an expert hand. I ate quails and then a fantastic porchetta. I avoided cheese.
The 'random' road home
On the drive back to London I decided not to head for Shrewsbury and the M54. Instead I took a random series of roads via Machynlleth (one-time capital of Wales) Newtown, Llandindrod Wells (where a remarkable 40-metre-long monster fountain spouts jets of water in the middle of a boating lake), pretty Crickhowell and Welsh foodie capital Abergavenny (Ludlow is very last century). I had seen the beautiful Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons en route, having had made plans for future trips. From here I had easy access to the M4 and a painless dash home. But back on English roads I missed the constant reminder to araf.
Five great food festivals
West Wales Food Festival
The first ever West Wales Food Festival. Demos from top chefs such as Angela Gray and Nerys Howell alongside the very best of local produce. The botanic garden is open 10am- 6pm, with last entry at 5pm.
Where: National Botanic Gardens of Wales, Llanarthne When: May 3-4 2009 Tel & web: 01558 668768, www.gardenofwales.org.uk
Llyn Land and Seafood Festival
Set in the picturesque marina on the south side of the Llyn Peninsula, this family-friendly two-day festival showcases an array of farm produce and seafood, together with local cheeses, meats and wines. Squeeze in a meal at Harlech's acclaimed Castle Cottage en route.
Locally caught fish and shellfish are cooked in front of you by some of the country's leading experts and enthusiasts. Beach art, jazz bands, a mackerel barbecue, shanty singing, crab picking competitions, whelk racing and evening music on the pier keep up the festive atmosphere.
Stalls at this International food and drink festival feature produce not only from Wales but also France, Germany, Norway and Italy; pick up seasonal recipes, watch demonstrations and sample international and local specialities.
Originally more of a social meeting for local oyster producers to share their produce alongside a fair amount of alcohol, dancing and singing, the festival is now one of the most important dates on the Welsh gourmet calendar. Admission to the festival is free of charge.
Upland Escapes' (01367 851 111/www.uplandescapes.com) Rhinogs trips are available until Nov 1 (min two nights). Guided holidays cost from £190pp for two nights or £595pp for a week, including B&B, packed-lunches, three organised walks per week, a range of self-guided walks and support from a local manager.