Thursday, December 23, 2010

Wishing you all the best in 2011

In what will likely be my last post of 2010, I wanted to take this opportunity to thank everyone, at home and abroad, for their kind words and encouragements throughout the year; particularly those related to this project. It's an endeavour I take a lot of pleasure from, of course, but it's always great to hear when it brightens your day.

I'm feeling especially festive this year, as our blanket of snow is still in good shape almost a week later. And now that the streets are finally somewhat passable -- they don't really understand plowing here, no matter what they say -- only its benefits remain: seeing your breath as you get a good pace going, the beautiful snow-covered treetops, kids and dogs (and 'adults') frolicking about, rosy cheeks, the list goes on.

But never fear; the press have a new bogeyman in the wings, as "Frozen Britain" peters out: "The Big Thaw" looms!

Oh well; I'm sure we'll survive. Check back soon for stories from our last Christmas market trip of 2010, to Prague, Czech Republic, and have a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Cologne: all in sight of the Dom

Our drive to London was surprisingly painless. We had plenty of time to relax in St. Pancras Station before our train to Brussels, and then comfortably made our connection to Cologne. After a warm welcome at the Excelsior Hotel Ernst, we made our way to the Christmas market in the shadow of the 'Dom' -- Weihnachtsmarkt am Kölner Dom.

What an amazing market! We started with these slab o' ham sandwiches that were so good, quickly followed by glühwein; our first of many that evening. After a once-over of the stalls, we made our way to the famous Früh am Dom, just beyond. We weren't standing at the tables outside for more than a moment, wondering what to do, when a man in a blue vest came by with this caddy of 0.2 L glasses of beautifully clear, Früh Kolsch. Fruity, with a nutty finish -- and served by gravity, out of huge barrels -- in a word, delish!

Back at the market, more glühwein found its way to our mugs, and then there was tasty pomme frites, followed by the best crepes Tea's ever had! (And, as she says, she's had some crepes in her life.) These came with a healthy helping of Nutella, and I could tell she was on cloud nine.

Sunday, December 12

We started the day with a lie-in, safe in the knowledge that we'd still easily make the Excelsior's breakfast, on 'til 11 a.m. and very high calibre. Then it was out for a walk along the Rhine. Walking over the Hohenzollern bridge was a bit moving, if I'm honest: the impressive current under us, so many symbols of commitment locked to the railing beside us, built to a tangible energy in the air.

Our first pub of the day was Brauhaus zur Malzmühle, a brewpub in the style of the Hofbrauhaus (is the way I think of them, it being my first) and beautifully decorated for the season. Warmed by some fantastic goulash and their Kolsch, we made our way to the old town market, Alter Markt/Altstadt. "Hyper German" is the phrase that popped from my mouth, surrounded by those familiar stalls, but also under the gaze of gnomes, a bonneted matron's music box filling my ears, quickly followed by the squeals of delighted children as the tune reached its crescendo.

At times I was aware that I had the biggest grin just plastered on. The celebration was so infectious. Every stall held fresh memories from Tea's childhood. Afternoon became evening, and we made our way to another pub on the list, Pfaffen brewpub. Our beer guide commented on the beautiful stained glass above its doorway; combined with the extraordinary wood carvings along much of its interior, it was a lovely, if cosy, spot to spend a few hours.

When our waiter found out we were from Canada, his face lit up, "Ah, I've been there! Toronto! Beautiful city! I was on a very famous street..." His brow knit as he struggled to draw out the name. By this time, another waiter, the self-proclaimed "Psycho" -- little wonder why we aren't supposed to pick our own nicknames; you get a room of Mr. Blacks -- has joined in the conversation, proclaiming that more Macedonians live in Toronto than do at 'home'. "Danforth!" saved us from committing either way to this proclamation.

We'd been noticing how wet and bedraggled many of the newcomers appeared; luckily the next pub on our list was just a few doors down. The party was in full swing in the Brauhaus Sünner im Walfisch, with an L-shaped table across from us sharing what we soon found out was a five-litre tower of Sünner Kolsch. On the dubious logic that you can wait some time for refills of those tiny 0.2 L glasses, we quickly found ourselves in the shadow of our very own three-litre tower of Cologne's nectar.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is where the evening begins to take on a sort of glowing haze. Full of delicious pork, potatoes and Kolsch -- although, not the whole three litres, I hasten to add: no, we shared some with the others at our table, and received many thanks and shots of some sort in return -- we made our way, first, to the so-called medieval market, where we enjoyed more glühwein from heavily cowled folk in the light of open flames, and then to the Christmas market on a boat moored in the Rhine, not far from the Hohenzollern bridge. We had our portraits done there, Tea undoubtedly drumming up more business for the artist, such was her enthusiasm for the enterprise.


Thankfully, the day started very peacefully, the hotel now well below capacity. After breakfast, we made our way to the first of the two remaining Christmas markets -- if you haven't been counting, that's six in walking distance of our hotel and the Dom! -- Cologne's oldest, in Neumarkt. The weather had been steadily improving over the weekend, and we enjoyed the sunny breaks sipping glühwein and munching on kartoffelplätzchen (fried potato cakes).

Then it was off to the Christmas market on Rudolfplatz, in the shadow of the Hahnentorburg, one of the original twelve gates in the medieval city walls of Cologne. Our first stop was for more mulled wine, of course. Something I've failed to mention is that you're typically drinking out of mugs that are unique to that market; you pay a deposit and can then go from stall to stall, refilling as required. However, most markets won't accept mugs from other markets, which was fine with us: we had quite a collection by this point. The Rudolfplatz market's mugs were especially neat because two of them, side by side, formed a miniature replica of the Hahnentorburg.

After a bit of shopping -- Tea added to her Christmas village, and we picked up biscuits for the work crowd -- we stopped at another brewpub on the list, Päffgen Brauhaus, for an early supper. Again, I just love the feel of these places: the smell of the... unfinished pine, I suppose, of the tables, and then the deep, rich wood of the booths and panelling; this brauhaus had some fabulous stained glass as well; and it's rare that you aren't sitting near a group of older men, swapping stories or debating as they've done many times before, over a good many Kolsch. Oh, and to give you an idea of how easy that is, the waiter just keeps coming with those 0.2 L glasses, marking a stroke for each new arrival on your beermat; put your beermat on top of your glass when you're done, and he or she will tally it up. Easy-peasy!

A kip at the hotel was then in order, and as we got ready to head out again that evening, a beautiful, light snow started to fall. I don't think it could've felt more Christmas-y, as we again walked the Alter Markt and the am Kölner Dom. The crowds had hardly dipped from the weekend, and no one seemed to mind the snow -- for my Canadian readers, that may sound strange, but trust me, there are certain folks (not naming names or... nationalities) that just seem to carry on as always, shivering and muttering in their trainers and light coats, hoping this strange white stuff will simply go away.

In addition to sampling many of the old standbys, Tea also tried some käsespätzle, which looked amazing and put the biggest smile on her face.


Since our hotel was right beside the train station, and the train to Brussels didn't leave 'til 3 p.m., we still had lots of time to wander Cologne, even after our lie-in. We decided to forego the hotel breakfast for slab o' ham sandwiches, pomme frites and crepes (marmalade in mine) -- ah, there's a start to your day!

We toured the Dom and its crypt -- all free! -- and then relaxed in the Gaffel am Dom brewhouse with a few Kolsch before grabbing our bags and heading to the station. We had talked about leaving earlier and spending some time in Brussels, but decided to leave that for another trip.

Check out our Picasa album for more pictures from the trip.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

A little slice of Germany (and Christmas!) in the Midlands

We decided to take a quick train ride up to Birmingham to check out its famous Christmas market -- the biggest outside Germany, apparently. It seems that Birmingham is always a waypoint for us, as we fly on to other destinations, so it was nice to spend some time there; it really does feel like the country's second largest city, particularly the area we were in, swelled as it was with the market crowds.

At times you couldn't move, the pavements were so packed. Not a big deal when you have a piping hot mug of mulled wine warming your mitted hands and smelling so wonderful. And it was a feast for the eyes as well, of course: from the stunning traditional carousel in Victoria Square, to the displays of miniature German villages and nutcrackers -- Tea brought some of that home with her, of course.

Something I didn't expect was the wide range of German beers. In fact, it so struck me as wandering in Munich, that when Tea said that the market was known for its rare German beers, I replied, "What? I'm sure we could get a dunkel or Weissbier on any corner." Honestly, it really is a little slice of Bavaria. (Well, Germany, I guess, as they had Kölsch as well, which is associated more with Cologne -- where we're going next month for yet another Christmas market!)

We had a fantastic bratwurst shortly after arriving -- even the roll it was in was so wonderfully crusty and fresh... My mouth's watering just remembering it -- but started to think about a sit-down supper as evening approached. Thanks to Tea's handy CAMRA Beer Guide application, we found that a former Pub of the Year, The Wellington, was just a block off the market. That board on their website is current; they have it up on a big screen, and you order by pump number. The place was packed with folks and good cheer; just a great atmosphere. You don't see many milds around, so I ordered a pint of Hobson's Mild and Tea went for a Baskerville from the local Two Towers brewery. Both were excellent.

The Wellington doesn't serve food, though, so after that we were back on the street in search of a restaurant. Luckily, Thai Orchid is pretty much across the way. Their Tom Yam Goong (#11) was probably the best Thai soup we've had -- delicious!

The market was still in full swing as we finished up, so we got another mulled wine for the train ride, then continued with the supermarket brand when we got home, watching Love Actually and part of Elf before packin' it in.


Check out my Picasa album for more pictures from the evening.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Wandering Wales

Thursday, November 18

After a nice lie-in and a few errands, we crossed the border to Wales, heading to Abergavenny. With sunset before half four these days, we didn't have much time to explore. A quick pint in the Hen and Chickens -- a cinnamon real ale of sorts that was good (in small quantities, I would suggest) -- and a stroll through the market area, alight for Christmas, and it was back on the road west for the short drive to Crickhowell and our lodgings for the evening: The Bear Inn.

What a fabulous spot! So warm and welcoming. We'd booked the half seven supper time, and so we went down to the bar to enjoy a few pints by the roaring hearth, planning the next day.

Their food matches their hospitality: Tea loved her Black Mountain steak filet, and my rump of lamb was excellent. I had pigeon for a starter, which was also very tasty -- it would seem, happily, that my earlier run-ins with their brethren on the balcony of our first apartment haven't scarred me. That, and I'd enjoyed partridge a number of times as a kid in Newfoundland, and it's similar to pigeon.

For dessert, Tea had her first pavlova, and loved it. I helped her with a bit of the meringue, and, man, it was good.

Friday, November 19

The trend continued with breakfast; in fact, my full English came with some of the best black pudding I've ever had. We both agreed that the ham and bacon was exceptional too -- local, according to the menu.

The forecast for later in the week and week's end had been poor, so no one was more surprised than us when we were greeted by the sun on Friday. Crickhowell was irresistible, blanketed in a morning mist, so we took some time to explore the local castle and side streets. The plan had then been to go straight to St. David's and hike, before coming back to Slebech for the night.

Well, we started to have doubts about that plan after the sixth time we pulled over to take pictures -- and all this before Brecon, which isn't a half hour west of Crickhowell! The countryside in the morning sun was that spectacular. And then our modified plan of a tea in Brecon turned into four lovely hours, including a walk around the Cathedral Church of St. John the Evangelist, some shopping, a few pints at the Boars Head -- "the flagship of the Breconshire Brewery" -- and delicious döner kebabs for the road from this hole in the wall. (We've decided we have to find one of these shops closer to home after that awesome street vendor in Oxford the other weekend, and now this.)

We should've made it to the hotel with plenty of daylight to spare, but let's just say that Slebech Park is well tucked away.

After calling them, then stopping and asking for directions at a car dealership -- insert much more to'ing and fro'ing -- and finally following a random car down a narrow -- and, by this time, very dark -- road we hoped might lead in the right direction, we made it!

As we entered the reception area, the girl behind the counter said, "Oh, was I speaking with you?" When we hinted at our exasperation, she immediately indicated to her right and said, "Oh, would you like to sign our petition for a sign?" Honestly, I thought she was joking, and actually laughed, her deadpan delivery was so spot-on.

But, no, as Ellie went on to explain, the local council is dead-set against what they call "sign pollution," even though the hotel merely wants to use a portion of the existing road sign for Picton Castle. I don't know how anyone finds this place without it; the petition was certainly chock-a-block by the time we got our hands on it.

Things started looking up once we'd booked a supper time and opened a few selections of Brains' fine brews. The estate is really very impressive, and the restaurant is in what used to be part of the stables; a cart shed, specifically, I believe, which doesn't do the scale of the structure justice. We decided to dine on the upper balcony, and at times we felt like royalty above our subjects, themselves dining before a crackling fire.

Saturday, November 20

But it's the land surrounding the estate -- including its view on the Daugleddau Estuary -- that set Slebech Park apart. The following morning, we had a fantastic time walking but a portion of the grounds, with not another soul in sight. At one point, which, with hindsight, was probably the highlight of the trip for me, we were looking out over a field grown so high that the sheep were partially hidden, when suddenly this enormous FROOMPF! erupted all around us, as literally hundreds of small birds took flight simultaneously. The sky was black with them for a second or two, and we must've spent another twenty minutes watching their elaborate dance amongst trees near and far.

We took our time driving -- ever west! -- to St. David's, stopping on a whim in Solva. The tide was out, which caught our eye, quickly followed by the Harbour Inn. It was probably the pub of the trip, with excellent food and ales on tap, and a hearth that Tea hardly took her eyes off.

We did make it to St. David's eventually, and had a great time exploring the town, as well as the cathedral and nearby Bishop's Palace. The whole area is something to see, the way it's unveiled as you walk down into the town. We could've spent a lot longer there, but we knew that our hotel was just outside of Aberystwyth, well over an hour up the west coast.

We drove through Fishguard as the light began to fade, and swore we'd come back to Cardigan one day. Thankful, the sign for the Conrah stands out well on the roadside as you come to Chancery, just before Aberystwyth. Our room was really a separate cabin of sorts -- with an amazing view, we discovered in the morning -- and perfectly laid out.

Sunday, November 21

For our last day, we decided to explore Aberystwyth, and then take in the Devil's Bridge on the drive home. We were clearly getting the hang of planning by this point, because once we'd explored the beachfront, including the nearby castle and climbing to the top of Constitution Hill, it was well into the afternoon.

The rain was holding off as we pulled into Devil's Bridge to take in the town's namesake. We descended the slick stone steps to that thunderous culmination of the Mynach Falls called "The Punch Bowl" and gazed up at those three famous bridges. It's really quite a sight; particularly when you learn that the original bridge dates from the 11th century.

Then there was time for some refreshments at the nearby Hafod Arms Hotel -- Welsh cakes! Yum! -- before we hit the road for home.

As always, there are many more pictures (over 100!) in my Picasa web album from the trip.