The handsome stone market town of Brecon stands at the meeting of the River Usk and the River Honddu. For centuries the town thrived as a centre of wool production and weaving; today it's the main hub of the national park and a natural base for exploring the surrounding countryside.
Against a background of pastel-painted Georgian prosperity, the compact market town of Monmouth bustles and thrives. It sits at the confluence of the Rivers Wye and Monnow, and has hopped in and out of Wales over the centuries as the border shifted back and forth. Today it feels more English than Welsh.
Hay-on-Wye (Y Gelli Gandryll)
Hay-on-Wye, a pretty little town on the banks of the River Wye, just inside the Welsh border, has developed a reputation disproportionate to its size. First came the explosion in secondhand bookshops, a charge led by the charismatic and forthright local maverick Richard Booth.
Chepstow is an attractive market town nestled in a great S-bend in the River Wye, with a splendid Norman castle perched dramatically on a cliff above the water. The town is also home to one of Britain's best known racecourses. Chepstow was first developed as a base for the Norman conquest of southeast Wales, later prospering as a port for the timber and wine trades.
South Wales Valleys
The valleys fanning northwards from Cardiff and Newport were once the heart of industrial Wales. Although the coal, iron and steel industries have withered, the valley names – Rhondda, Cynon, Rhymney, Ebbw – still evoke a world of tight-knit working-class communities, male voice choirs and rows of neat terraced houses set amid a scarred, coal-blackened landscape.
Fforest Fawr & Black Mountain
West of the A470, this entire half of the national park is sparsely inhabited, without any towns of note. Fforest Fawr (Great Forest), once a Norman hunting ground, is now a Unesco geopark famous for its varied landscapes, ranging from bleak moorland to flower-flecked limestone pavement and lush wooded ravines choked with moss and greenery.
Of all the valley towns that were decimated by the demise of heavy industry, the one-time coal and iron town of Blaenavon shows the greenest shoots of regrowth. This rejuvenation is helped to a large part by the awarding of Unesco World Heritage status in 2000 to its unique conglomeration of industrial sites.
Merthyr Tydfil (Merthyr Tudful)
Merthyr Tydfil (mur-thir tid-vil) occupies a spectacular site, sprawled across a bowl at the head of the Taff Valley, ringed and pocked with quarries and spoil heaps. It was even more spectacular 200 years ago when the town was at the heart of the Industrial Revolution, and this bowl was a crucible filled with the fire and smoke of the world's biggest ironworks.
Black Mountains (Y Mynyddoedd Duon)
The hills that stretch northward from Abergavenny to Hay-on-Wye, bordered by the A479 road to the west and the English border to the east, are known as the Black Mountains (not to be confused with the Black Mountain, singular, at the western end of the national park).
Pressed from a similar mould to Skenfrith, although its contours are a little more rugged, Grosmont is another charming and character-filled village set amid the classically beautiful Monmouthshire countryside. Its castle has the same history as Skenfrith's, although de Burgh completed this one 24 years earlier.
Reed-fringed Llangorse Lake (Llyn Syfaddan), to the east of Brecon, may be Wales' second-largest natural lake (after Llyn Tegid), but it's barely more than a mile long and half a mile wide. Close to the northern shore is a crannog, a lake dwelling built on an artificial island. Such dwellings or refuges were used from the late Bronze Age until early medieval times.