Train review – Deutsche Bahn during recent storm Xavier

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Train travel review: Deutsche Bahn (DB) Brussels to Hamburg during recent disruptions due to storm Xavier. 

I have never travelled in Europe by train, so this was a first for me. I decided to take the train from Brussels to Cologne and then onto Hamburg. What a journey it was to turn into. I arrived at Brussels Midi station in time to catch the ICE train to cologne (Koln) where I was due to change for Hamburg. I was on an ordinary second class ticket, but the train was very impressive. It was light, very modern and clean. The seats were extremely comfortable with more than enough leg room. The announcements were in French, Dutch, German and English which was very helpful to a number of passengers. The journey didn’t take that long and before we knew it we were arriving on time at Cologne. However things were about to start getting interesting because of a huge storm over the North of Germany that had caused a lot of disruption and very sadly the loss of life.
When I arrived at Cologne, I innocently joined the small queue at the DB information kiosk just to check the platform of my next train. It was lucky I did because the staff there advised me of the storm and that trains might not be getting through to Hamburg, but I was to travel to Dortmund where further information would be hopefully available. Red warnings were flashing up on the electronic display screens but not being able to speak German, they meant nothing. So onto my next DB train and I was hopeful because it still said it was heading to Hamburg. The train was pretty full but understandable given the national disruption but the seats were comfortable and the train staff did there best to keep passengers informed of what was happening. Unfortunately this was all in German, but when I made contact with one of them, they explained in English. 
Then the news that nobody wanted, the train would terminate in Dortmund. What now? As I got off the train and headed for the information kiosk, my heart sank at the size of the queue as of course everyone was in the same boat. The only drawback was everything seemed to be in German, funny that seeing as we were in a German city, and of course not everyone speaks English nor should they in their own country. But in these situations, the human spirit shines through and within a few minutes I had teamed up with two German speakers and a French traveller. I spoke no German or French, the French Traveller spoke no German or English, but the two German travellers took us under their wing and helped us. Eventually we got to the head of the queue and we were issued vouchers for a taxi to take us onto Hamburg. So the four of us jumped into a waiting taxi (at DB’s expense) for the 4 hour drive north. 
At Hamburg, all trains had been cancelled because of the storms, it was very late at night, but DB had provided a huge train for passengers to rest on instead of waiting on cold platforms. They provided blankets, drinks and snacks all for free. 
I had initially thought DB’s reaction to the disruption had been chaotic, however, I praise them for what they did with my particular journey, and it went above an beyond what I was use to from the train service in my own country. They had done the best they could in what was obviously a very difficult situation affecting half the country. So for me, they had got me to my destination, they provided a safe place to rest, hot drinks, water and snacks whilst waiting for an inward connection. 

Very impressed. Thank you Deutsche Bahn.

Hotel review – Scandic Bygholm Park, Horsens, Denmark

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Scandic Bygholm Park Hotel, Horsens, Denmark:

I booked this hotel at the last minute via a well know booking site and what a pleasant surprise. When I arrived, there was plenty of parking and the whole hotel resembled a Danish Manor House. 
Check in was very quick and efficient, with the benefit of friendly and English speaking staff. Within minutes I was on my way to my room. A standard room on the top floor. 
The room was what I considered a typical scandic hotel room, functional, clean and everything that one could want in a standard room. There was no air conditioning in this hotel, but the rooms had been provided with individual desk fans which made a huge difference. I have lost count of the number of hotels stayed in where it was just to much of a hassle to provide a fan. 

The hotel has an onsite restaurant and I used this for dinner and breakfast. Again the restaurant was clean and the staff very attentive. At dinner there was a choice between a buffet (something I’ve found in a number of scandic hotels) or an al la carte menu. I choose the buffet as from experience this has proven to be very tasty and very reasonable. This buffet was no exception, a choice of salads, bread, potato, fish and meat dishes all hot and very tasty. I always tend to eat early however, so the buffet had just been laid out when I eat, I can’t say what it would have been like a few hours later. 
Top tip – if you go for a buffet, always get there early. The food is hot, fresh and less chance of lots of other people especially kids putting their fingers in it. 
For breakfast the full and comprehensive buffet was available including cold meat and cheeses, a wide selection of breads, crispbreads, jams, and drinks. Hot food including bacon, pancakes and sausages. You would go a long way to find a better breakfast selection, for me anyway it was pretty much perfect. 
The location of this hotel is pretty awesome, it is right next to a large park, with lakes, paths for waking, children’s play area, picnic benches and lots of birds, geese and swans. It is a 5 to 10 minute walk into Horsens itself which is well worth exploring with its good range of shops and cafes.

Overall: I liked this hotel very much because of the location, room price and the service received. Was there anything negative to say during my stay – no not really. If I was in this area, I would definitely use this hotel again.
Top tip – this hotel is within easy reach of Legoland Denmark and is cheaper than the hotels actually in Billund. So worth considering. 

Review – Portmerion Hotel Restaurant 

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We had made a reservation (something that was recommended) and I was pleased to see the staff were aware of our arrival and even though we were a little early, they had our table ready. Drinks orders were taken promptly and the menus brought. Table water was provided without having to ask for it which was welcomed. 

Apart from the quality of the food, I think it’s the small things that are a mark of a good restaurant. What do I mean? Take bread rolls and butter, the rolls were unusual and fresh and individual portions of Welsh butter was presented on slate, rather than pre-wrapped portions.

We started with Welsh rarebit with radicchio, walnut and apple salad. It was delicious but three pieces was just one to many for a starter. The salad help to cut through the heaviness of the rarebit itself. 

Aberdaron crab with asparagus and avocado and a pink grapefruit dressing. Very light and refreshing and the flavours worked well together but didn’t smother the crab itself. 

For the main course it was sea trout with tender stem broccoli, black garlic, crushed potatoes, lava bread and brown shrimp butter sauce. The trout was cooked perfectly and the broccoli and potatoes were well seasoned. All in all a lovely tasting dish. 

We also had the seared Welsh feather blade of beef, triple cooked truffle chips, celeriac purée, watercress and a bearnaise sauce. The beef was ordered for medium rare and that’s how it came and properly seasoned. The celeriac purée was silky smooth and the sauce was very tasty. The truffle chips tasted good, but could have been a little more crispy on the outside whilst keeping the fluffy inside. 

Unfortunately we didn’t have room for desserts and opted for some ice cream after walking around the village some more. 

Overall, I would definitely have a meal here again. The setting is superb, eating overlooking the sea and mountains in the distance. The staff were attentive but not overbearing and the price was very responsible. The food itself was just lovely and drinks, rolls, butter and water were replenished when asked, and nothing seemed to much trouble for the staff. 

Portmerion – a jewel on the coast of North Wales

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For some, Portmerion is the setting for the iconic series ‘The Prisoner’ for others it’s just a glorious Italian village on the North Wales coast. Either way it’s a delightful day out for all the family. The views and gardens are just stunning and when the sun is shining, you could just imagine yourself on the Italian coast. 

As you walk down from the car park, you can see many of the guest houses where you can actually spend the night. The road takes you down past a few of the shops, the central piazza and down to the hotel and the sea. Unfortunately you can go into any of the guesthouse unless you are staying there, which is totally understandable. 

There are a number of places to eat, and I’ve written a separate review on the main hotel restaurant. 

Top tips, visit early, especially if the weather is good because by lunchtime it can become quite crowded. Make a reservation for lunch and you can get your admission taken off the bill. 

I would certainly recommend visiting Portmerion although I have to say it would be better to stay in the hotel or one of the guest houses as you are able to walk around the village when the day tourists have long gone. 

So much to do at Lake Vyrnwy – so little time:

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How much can you fit into a day at Lake Vyrnwy – let’s see. We left the car next to the Artisans coffee and gift shop (it also hires out bikes if you want to use two wheels). 
Off we set to walk (only a few hundred yards) to the canoe hire for a quick kayak on the water, great fun and they provide the all important life jacket and tuition (if you need it). 

Then it was back to Artisans for a coffee and slice of cake and I have to say that was very disappointing. The coffee was more milk than coffee and the cake had seen better days so we didn’t bother. It felt as though this coffee shop had the market cornered and therefore didn’t need to do anything else for its customers. This was reiterated when I wanted to be served and the staff seemed more interested in drinking their drinks at the back and chatting. Over 7 minutes I waited to be served (and they knew I was there waiting).

Next it was as visit to the RSPB shop (top tip, they sell coffee in their shop, well worth it and to support RSPB at the same time). Great shop selling usual RSPB things, but also a very good selection of binoculars. 

Then to watch a very informative video presentation in the Severn Water Vyrnwy experience. This was free for visitors and well worth taking the time to watch. We then set out for our walk along the lake road. If you walk right around it is about 15 miles, I have to be honest, I only managed a fraction of this. But it was long enough to see the sheer beauty of Lake Vyrnwy. 

Finding the ‘pecking order’ Totum pole (easily missed if your not careful).

The Victorian ‘training tower’ (unfortunately not open to visitors).

Little beaches (no swimming or fishing is allowed on the lake).

And of course, the dam itself.

Finally we finish at the Lake Vyrnwy Hotel, perched above the lake with commanding views. The hotel was very welcoming even though we were not staying the night (£269 pn for a premium room in the summer). We sat on the terrace overlooking the lake with our drinks, relaxed and took in the view. 

The only thing that spoilt it was the rubbish left (not something I would expect from a hotel charging those rates). 

Overalł, Lake Vyrnwy was such a lovely place to visit. Lots of woodland walks, places to park around the lake parimeter road, picnic places and the lake itself. The best time is first thing in the morning and late afternoon / evening as they are less crowds and you can enjoy the peace and quiet. 

Castles of Wales – Dolforwyn Castle, Powys:

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If you travel on the main road between Welshpool and Newtown, you will come across the signs to Dolforwyn Castle, and what a gem it is. Dolforwyn Castle can be found on a wooded ridge with commanding views across the Severn Valley and is a fine example of medieval Welsh castle design. 
Llewelyn ap Gruffudd was recognised as the Prince of Wales in 1267, and to maintain his control he ordered the construction of Dolforwyn Castle between 1273 and 1277. The castle does not appear to have been occupied for very long because by 1381 it was already described as being in poor repair. By 1398 the castle was described as “ruinous and worth nothing”. 

It seems that after this date the castle attracted little interest and was almost lost from history. The Castle was given to the Cadw (the Welsh Government historic environmental service) in 1955. Following a long period of excavation, the castle was finally opened to the public. 

Overall it was a great little find. It’s a small castle compared to others, but a beautiful location with fantastic views. It’s worth noting that once off the main road, it’s single track road (with passing places) that takes you to a very small car park (space for about 4 or 5 cars). From the car park there is a steep track up to the castle, it it’s certainly worth making the effort to see this gem of Mid Wales. 

Castles of Wales – Montgomery Castle, Montgomery, Powys:

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I stumbled across this castle almost by accident whilst seeing it from the road on the way to Welshpool. The castle is set on top of the hill overlooking the town of Montgomery and surrounding countryside and is well worth a visit. 
Unlike Powys Castle, Montgomery Castle is a ruin, but what a castle it must have been in its time. When you walk through from the car park, you see the outer walls, two new bridges linking the outer, middle and inner parts of the castle, the remains of a tower and what would have been a kitchen. It’s an ideal place for a short visit or a picnic so if your in the area, go visit, you won’t be disappointed. 

The castle is one of many Norman castle on the Welsh borders and stems from around 1071-1074, however the stone remnants as we see them today stem from 1223 when the castle was rebuilt. In 1267 the castle was the site of treaty negotiations with King Henry III and the future Prince of Wales Llwelyn ap Gruffudd. Following the final Welsh war, it appears Montgomery Castle became a prison and fortress rather than a front line Castle as it had been.

There is no visitor centre, shop cafe etc, but that’s what makes it so nice. The castle is free to visit and the car park (again free) is at the top of castle hill so you can avoid the climb up to the castle. For those that want the exercise, there is a footpath from the town up to the castle and plenty of places to have a drink on your return.