The castles scattered through the countryside and strategically placed along the coastline are a picturesque and often lyrical reminder of Wales's ancient lineage. Some merely softened, others ruined by the centuries, these vast military fortresses and romantic castles have been the focus of a year of celebrations and pageantry, ''Cestyll '83.''
For my tour of Welsh castles, I took the train from London to Cardiff in south Wales and continued north by rented car. Once past the industrial areas surrounding Cardiff, the traveler is free from the somber residues of the coal-mining industry. The Brecon Beacons National Park and the Hay Valley open into high hills and picturesque ridges, stretching long and green against the horizon. The road to Machynlleth clings to hillsides purple with heather, the only sounds the bleating of sheep and a plaintive whispering wind. Over the Cambrian Mountains, I continued toward the coast and then up to Harlech, the first castle of my tour.
At Barmouth, 10 miles south of Harlech, the sea was everywhere. The bay spread out in a sheet of brilliant blue; sea gulls soared over rooftops, while along the sidewalks ran sun-tanned children, pails and shovels in their hands. In September, I was told - when the hawking of postcards and T-shirts, along with the waves of visitors, has subsided - Barmouth is once again distilled into a quiet seaside village.
Crowding the sidewalks and hillsides, sturdy gray stone houses are a carnival of windows and doors painted blue, yellow, fuschia, and turquoise. White cotton curtains flutter at open windows, and window boxes are full of bright-red geraniums and orange marigolds. Many of these charming and unpretentious homes offer bed and breakfast at (STR)5 or (STR)6 a night ($7 to $9).
Harlech, a major kingpin in Edward I's plan for subduing Wales, was begun in l283, after Llywelyn the Last (the last native Prince of Wales) was defeated. It was completed in 1290. By Elizabethan times, the fortress was in ruins.
Today, Harlech is a cavernous ruin of gray stone. The sea that once crashed upon the rocks at its base has long ago retreated to an azure line half a mile away. It is a popular summer spot with visitors, with entire families crowding its parapets overlooking the town to the west - and a kind of suburban sprawl to the east.
For those with the good fortune to arrive at Harlech on a quiet misty morning , the mountains of Snowdonia slip in and out of a blue-gray mist while footsteps echo in the inner ward and jackdaws call.
Important though Harlech was in history, a far more interesting day's outing would be Powis castle. Returning along a magnificent coastline with miles of virtually deserted sandy beaches, I then headed east toward Welshpool to this National Trust property. One of the castles that guarded the Welsh Marches, the earliest parts of Powis date back to the 1200s; by 1300, it was very much as it appears today. Its position overlooking the Breidden Hills and Severn Valley was once strategic from a military standpoint. Today, this situation offers picturesque vistas of the countryside across the castle's famed terrace gardens.
While many of the ancient military strongholds have, over the centuries, slid into decay and ruin, Powis has been inhabited almost continually since the 13th century. As a result, its various rooms contain fine period furniture and paintings, accumulated over the centuries.
As I walked along the wide wooden floors of the Long Gallery, the sun slanted through the windows in dusky golden rays, highlighting gilt tables and Roman marble statuary. I felt as if I were in the 12th century as I paused by a leaded window for a glimpse of the garden with its massive clipped yews and lichen-covered balustrades.
Toward evening, after a stroll along the grass terraces of the Powis gardens, I drove north to Glynceiriog and the Golden Pheasant, a pleasant country inn with large airy rooms and expansive views to the lovely Ceiriog Valley. Not far from the Golden Pheasant is Chirk Castle, another of the ''border castles'' constructed in the late-13th century to maintain Edward I's conquest of Wales. If you have a free afternoon, you might want to contrast its austere architecture and garden to the richness and artistic lushness of Powis, but I wouldn't unless you had time to spare.
Begun in 1295 and completed in 1310, Chirk appears very much as it did then, a squat, truncated fortress atop a hill. The home of powerful figures in English history, it has been continuously occupied since its construction. Also worth noting are the entrance gates. These imposing structures, crafted in the early- 18th century, are a wildly ornate efflorescence of exotic wrought-iron flowers and various heraldic devices and crests.
Roughly a half-hour's drive from Chirk is Erddig, an intriguing study of life in the 18th century. For anyone who is interested in tools and antique machinery , Erddig is definitely worth a day's visit.
Built between 1684 and 1687, with additions in the 1720s, architecturally, Erddig is less than distinguished. The castle is a large, square lump, squatting on an otherwise charmingly restored garden and landscape of 1,700 acres.
Architectural shortcomings aside, Erddig is redolent of another era, but with a different emphasis than most stately homes open to the public. At Erddig, visitors are first directed through stable blocks with a complete collection of horse-drawn farm implements and antique cars.
After passing blacksmith shops, wagon sheds with various wagons, and the joiners shop with wood-working tools of the era, we visited the laundry, with its archaic tubs and ironing devices. After this thorough ''downstairs'' introduction to the underpinnings of a country estate, there are the rooms of the main house, beginning, of course, with the kitchen.
The house was furnished from 1720 to 1726, and virtually every purchase of the house from teaspoons to bed linen was carefully documented. From the drawing and dining rooms to bathrooms and bedrooms, the entire house contents - from children's rocking horses to walking sticks in the hall - were presented to the National Trust. I would plan for at least a full morning, full afternoon, or full day in which to appreciate the diversity and richness of the collections at Erddig.
Driving north through such lyrical tongue twisters as Cerrig y Drudion, and a stone's throw from Dolwyddelan, I came upon Conwy castle, another Edward I fortress of the 13th century. The most striking feature of Conwy is that the turrets and parapets are part of a walled city, whose walls still stretch for over four-fifths of a mile and feature 21 towers. It was built by an estimated 1 ,500 craftsmen. As you walk through the little town, past fish and chip shops and postcard stands, the massive castle seems always to be with you.
After a wind-blown afternoon of strolling along the castle's walks and enjoying expansive views, I drove two miles north of Conwy towards Llandudno, a beautifully preserved Victorian seaside resort. Turning up into the hills, I arrived at Bodysgallen Hall, a country-house-turned-hotel.
The origins of this gracious hotel date back to the late-13th century, when part of what is now a spiral staircase was presumably built as a watchtower to protect low-lying Conwy Castle from surprise attack. On a clear day, atop five flights of progressively steeper stone steps, there is an expansive view to Conwy and surrounding countryside.
A very good hotel version of a pleasant country house, Bodysgallen's sitting rooms are full of freshly cut flowers from its own gardens. Its bedrooms are airy, with chintz-covered tables and chairs - and bathrooms appointed with enormous tubs and old brass fixtures.
Dinner that evening was memorable: fresh vegetables from the hotel's own garden and fresh local seafood. For dessert, I requested that fresh raspberries and double-thick cream be set on the terrace by the water. Across the terrace and down the stone steps into the rose garden, I stopped to savor a fragrant rose and watch the swallows dart among the gables of the house.
The virtues of its skillfully prepared food and lovely surroundings aside, Bodysgallen Hall is close by several other lovely castles and gardens. It is within a half-hour drive of Penrhyn Castle, which offers exceptional views across the Menai Strait. Only 15 minutes away is Bodnant, one of the best gardens in Britain, noted for its views as well as its rhododendrons and azaleas.
An hour eastward is Caernarfen Castle, the most important of Edward I's castles and one of the most aesthetically appealing. The sea is still there, and unlike Harlech, it is not in ruins. Along with Powis and Erddig, this would be a place worth going out of your way to see, if only for the drive along the coast, along A 55 from Conwy and continuing along A 487 from Bangor. It is certainly one of the most dramatic in Wales. Clinging to the coastline, the road rolls and curves, often opening suddenly to spectacular vistas of mist melting into the Irish Sea.
At Caernarfen on a sunny day when the sun is so brilliant the air shimmers, you can see the island of Anglesey. It sits across the Menai Strait like some mythical land of green hills and fields. Viewed from the parapets high above the sea, it is as if the legends and poetry of Wales have come alive. Practical Information:
For your tour of castles in Wales, two guides will prove most helpful: ''Wales Castles and Historic Places'' has good, brief descriptions and color photographs and maps; ''Historic Houses, Castles, and Gardens'' gives opening times, days, and hours. Both booklets are available from the British Tourist Authority bookshop in New York.