You can get that feeling in a half-day away from urbanity, and then you’ll crave a week or more getting lost in the heart of the hills.
Take it from us locals – here the things that we’d tell anyone that you just shouldn’t miss.
The gorgeous rural roads
Driving around here is a jaw-dropping pleasure that never gets dull – the undulating landscape takes on different colours and impressions in all seasons and weathers. Take the road from Chepstow to Raglan: the hill views from Devauden and Llansoy will have you pulling over into laybys to pick up your jaw. Or the A466 through Tintern to Monmouth is a woodland fairytale too, shrouded with beautiful trees as you wind along the Wye.
Travelling through the area’s rural north-west, you’ll also grab glimpses of the monumental grandeur of the Hatterall Ridge, marking the eastern end of the the Black Mountains, falling away into the steep dip of the Black Hill.
And here’s a special insider’s tip: the cross-country road from Monmouthshire village Cross Ash to Pandy, affording unparalleled views of Abergavenny’s Skirrid, Blorenge and Sugar Loaf peaks, before stretching on back into the rest, and West, of Wales. It’s never not breathtaking.
Unspoiled market towns
Abergavenny, Monmouth and Usk are special places, towns touched by modernity which still retain an unique sense of historical character. Take Abergavenny’s rolling pedestrianised thoroughfares, where old businesses sit side-by-side with new, artsy newcomers. Monmouth has a similar feel, its gently busy shopping road accessed through a gorgeous 12th-century gatehouse. Less than ten miles from the M4, Usk is smaller but no less characterful, with its lovely tearooms and shops, 11th century castle, and namesake river rushing nearby. Which reminds us…
The incredible waterways
The Wye and the Usk are beautiful rivers in all seasons, and guided walks around the Wye at Tintern, and the Usk in its hometown, are a balm for the mind whatever the weather. We’d also recommend our southern stretches of the lesser-known Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal, which flows into this area from the Brecon Beacons. It’s particularly lovely around the limekilns at Goytre Wharf, where you can hire boats and bicycles, attend children’s nature activity days, and have a homemade scone at the Green Flute café while the kids run around the adventure playground. It’s fun at the Pontymoile Canal Basin too near Pontypool too, where you can have lunch on a moored riverboat the Boat Yard Café.
The stunning gardens
The Wye Valley is an incredible spot for nature, so it’s unsurprising that many gardens around here are worth a day's wallow. Make Dewstow Gardens the first on your list, where an exceptional labyrinth of underground grottoes, tunnels and sunken ferneries was buried under thousands of tonnes of soil just after WW2. They were rediscovered and restored in 2000, and now boast tropical glasshouses, rock gardens, ponds and an alpine garden. If Dewstow has sown some seeds in your mind, there are more gardens in the Wye Valley and Vale of Usk to explore too.
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The ancient history
Monuments that have lasted nearly a millennium, or even more, are plentiful here – pick one, or plan on visiting several, to get a solid dose of local history. Take the ruins of the Roman fort at Caerleon, built in AD75, that guarded the region for over 200 years (the National Roman Legion Museum re-opens after refurbishment in October 2019). There’s the artist's paradise of Tintern Abbey, which famously inspired the poems of William Wordsworth and the paintings of JMW Turner. It now offers a fantastic focal point for a day’s touring around the craft shops and cafes of this vibrant village community. Old churches that date back centuries can also be found in hidden countryside villages if you’re after more humble treasures, like the stunning St Jerome’s in Llangwm Uchaf, and St Cadoc’s in Llangattock Lingoed.
Don’t forget the castles too. Chepstow Castle and Raglan Castle are our grandest specimens, the former being the first stone fortress built in Wales, only a year after William the Conqueror came to power. You can walk the battlements here, high above the Wye. Raglan is its much younger, flashier sibling, a late medieval wonder towering proudly over the busy A40. Family days and big events are held regularly, including a hugely popular Tudor-themed family festival.
But if you’re looking for gentler fortifications, the Three Castles – White Castle, Skenfrith Castle and Grosmont Castle – are where the locals go All built by the Normans to protect the border between Wales and England, they’re all set in stunning Monmouthshire countryside too. The first of these is in a deeply rural spot, with a size still stuns. The others are in beautiful borders villages, both of which homes to lovely pubs, The Bell in the former, The Angel in the latter. Perfect places to raise a toast, indeed, to this area’s magic and wonder, and to plan many more hours, days or weeks out in this remarkable part of our gwlad.