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.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Oxford: lifting spirits and pints

When Tea's Aunt Lill said she and Robbie were meeting friends in Oxford for the weekend, we jumped at the chance to see them and that beautiful city once again.

We threw an overnight bag in the car late Saturday morning, and met them at the hotel a little over an hour later. After catching up for a bit, it was time to head to the Bodleian Library to meet Lill's old friend Lisa, her husband and another couple they'd been visiting in Hampshire. Before long, the gang was assembled and in search of sustenance. Easier said than done when you're a group of eight on Saturday!

The White Horse smelled amazing, but, alas, the one table that might've suited was full. Although it seemed like we'd have no more luck at the Turf Tavern, we spied a couple of tables on the back patio that were just being vacated. The nearby heat lamps cut the crisp afternoon air nicely, and shortly thereafter we had pints and vino in hand and steaming plates of goodness before us.

Lisa suggested that we might take in a college or two before the sun fled, so off we went to Magdalen College. With the last light of day, we walked beside the River Cherwell, a few brave punters guiding their charges to the docks below us. Later, finding the grounds of Christ Church College closed, we walked around to its Cathedral, just in time to take in the Evensong.

The organ and boys choir left our scalps abuzz -- I've been enjoying my recordings from the evening as I type this. One in particular I had to share: if you listen carefully, you can hear fireworks from the second evening of Guy Fawkes celebrations in the background -- very surreal, I assure you!

Then came the long-observed tradition of a few pints after the church service, before bidding farewell to Lisa et al. at the train station. Many more pints with Robbie and Lill followed -- broken up by a street-side lamb döner kebab worthy of the best of the evening's choral delights -- including a nightcap at the Eagle and Child; an old haunt of Tolkien and Lewis.