CAERLEON, WALES — The loquacious cabbie who picks me up at the posh Celtic Manor Resort babbles on in a heavy Welsh accent that’s difficult to interpret from the back seat.
As he zips along the pretty wooded back roads that connect the famed golf resort —site of the 2010 Ryder Cup — to this former Roman fortress, I make out only one of his sentences: “Caerleon is beautiful.”
A short time later, the bubbly cabbie deposits me in front of the Priory Hotel on High St., and I’m instantly impressed by the handsome stone buildings that line the main street of this ancient market town.
At first glance, Caerleon does indeed appear to be a beautiful place.
The Priory itself is a gem — it’s housed in a former stone monastery building that dates back to 1180. It’s noted now for its hospitality, cosy rooms and fine dining, featuring locally sourced cuisine. It’s also centrally located, just a one-minute walk from the National Roman Legion Museum, the most-visited attraction in this quaint town that rises from the banks of the River Usk.
Above: The townsfolk dress up in historic costumes for reenactments for the tourists.
As I trudge along the narrow main street lined with a collection of playful pubs and regal listed buildings, I’m confronted by reenactors dressed like Romans who entertain the tourists at town's historic sites.
“We perform at the Amphitheatre,” a woman dressed like King Arthur’s wife Guiniver tells me when I ask where she is headed. Caerleon’s Amphitheatre, which was part of the Isca Augusta Fortress when the Romans were here, is also said to be the site of King Arthur’s fabled Round Table.
“Come and see us perform at the Amphitheatre,” the woman encourages me, “but first visit the Roman Museum — it’s fabulous.”
Many believe Caerleon is the most interesting Roman site in all of Great Britain and the town’s magnificent museum doesn't disappoint. It's jam-packed with treasures that make other Roman centres, like England’s nearby Bath, cringe with envy.
The museum, which first opened in 1850, is one of four major Roman sites in charming Caerleon — the Roman Baths (located inside the museum), Amphitheatre and Barracks are the others. The museum was rebuilt and enlarged in 1987 and only the original portico remains from 1850.
The museum is a treasure trove of Roman antiquities — currency, uniforms and a breathtaking mosaic floor dating back to when the Romans arrived in 75AD.
Most interesting, to me, however, is a wooden tablet from the 1st century that was discovered in a well on this very site. It is believed to be the oldest piece of writing in Wales.
Above: Children now play on the barrack remains which once housed a legion of Romans.
The museum also displays a large collection of gem stones, which were discovered in drains leading from the Roman baths.
The exhibit that gets the most attention, though, is the Bathstone Coffin, which contains the intact skeleton of a man from the 2nd century. The shale cup and a small bottle of perfume the man was buried with is also on display.
The Romans spent over 200 years in Wales — the furthest outpost of the Roman Empire — and many retired soldiers of the Second Augustan Legion settled in the nearby town of Venta Silurum, now known as Caerwent.
The bathhouse, located inside the museum, uses modern technology to give visitors insight into what life was like for the Romans between battles — a film projects the image of legionnaires lounging in the bathhouse’s main pool while a smaller one was reserved for women and children, only.
After admiring the museum exhibits for a few hours, I head out toward the Amphitheatre and along the way come upon the fascinating Roman Barracks — the only one still visible in Europe.
Located in the western corner of the Isca Fortress, the foundation remains of four of the original barracks now supply a playground for young children on which to pretend to be Roman soldiers.
Originally, 60 blocks of barracks stood on this site and as many as 5,500 soldiers occupied them. The Barracks started out as wooden structures but were later rebuilt in stone.
Above: The town's Roman baths are where soldiers relaxed between conquests.
A carnival atmosphere greets me when I step into the Amphitheatre. People are stretched out on the grass soaking up the spring sun, actors are milling about in costume waiting to take the stage and a group of children giggle under the weight of a long dragon’s costume in the centre of the open-air facility.
A small audience cheers when a sword-wielding actor slays the dragon and the children erupt in laughter as they try to free themselves from the beast’s fabric skin.
Centuries after the Amphitheatre — circa 90AD — was built for the enjoyment of legionaries stationed in Isca (Caerleon), the stadium is still fulfilling its original purpose of entertaining those who visit.
The wooden benches that once provided seating for up to 6,000 spectators were lost to time long ago, and the stadium’s purpose has certainly changed —where once gladiators fought bloodthirsty battles against slaves and exotic wild beasts, now visitors gather to enjoy the town’s living history.
The Amphitheatre resurfaced as part of British lore when 12th century scholar, Geoffrey of Monmouth, wrote in his History of the Kings of Britain that fictional Arthur — historians have never been able to confirm he really existed — was crowned in Caerleon and that the ruined Amphitheatre was actually the remains of legendary King Arthur’s Round Table.
“Why let facts get in the way of a good story that draws in the tourists,” laughs the ruddy-faced bartender at The Priory Hotel, where I enjoy a drink after soaking up all that fascinating Caerleon has to offer.
Besides Roman history, this area of Wales also features lots of historic castles and plenty of abbeys; plus prehistoric sites and many important buildings from Britain’s industrial revolution.
Caerleon is a gift that keeps on giving.