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August 20-24, 2016: From Shrewsbury I rejoined the Birmingham to Holyhead train to reach Conwy, on the north coast of Wales. The rails ran quite close to the shore in places, and I enjoyed the views. My B&B was just uphill from the small, on-request station, and the whole town was easily walkable. The B&B, the Gwynfryn, run by friendly hosts busy expanding their operation into a former chapel, was a little frou-frou for my taste, with cute decorations on every available surface and trailing draperies at the window. (I don’t necessarily count the extra pillows and bedspreads, I seem to be always removing those.)
Back when the Welsh were periodically fighting to remain independent of the English, Edward I built a number of castles to keep them quiet. Conwy has not only retained its castle, roofless and floorless but otherwise impressive and in quite good condition, but an almost complete circuit of protective walls around the town center. Visiting the castle costs money, but walking the walls is free. I did both, although while I walked the castle’s battlements, I only went up one of the towers, as the wind was trying to blow me off and I didn’t feel secure enough to take photos, which required two hands. I did see enough to appreciate the castle’s strategic position.



After the castle I visited Conwy’s two house museums. The National Trust property was small and rather bare, but Plas Mawr was big and well decorated. The elaborate Tudor plasterwork had been renovated, and painted in the original colors. Ornate chests flanked four poster beds, a good sized kitchen was next to a scullery with game hanging from the ceiling, and the main bedroom even had its own toilet in a small closet.
Three bridges cross the river Conwy right below the castle: the railway bridge, the modern road bridge (currently partly hidden while renovations are in process), and between the two, Telford’s 1826 suspension bridge, anchored actually into the castle walls at one end. Admission to the NT house included admission to the toll keeper’s cottage at the far end, and I got to walk the bridge as well. I was surprised to learn that the position (and the accompanying cottage) had been auctioned off every three years. The winner got to keep the tolls, and apparently made enough money, and enough of a reputation as a reliable worker, to move on to other things, as records showed continual changeover.




My splurge meal in Conwy was at Watson’s Bistro, just up the street. This turned out to be an excellent choice, for both service and food. I had made an Open Table reservation, as I was eating there on a Saturday night, but the reservation had not made it into the Bistro’s system. Fortunately, my reservation was early, at 7:30. I ate my main course at one table, reserved for 8:30, and my dessert at another, vacated at 8:00. Meanwhile, several couples were turned away. The main course, tender lamb shank with potatoes and vegetables, was delicious, but too much meat given I wanted room for dessert, an excellent Welsh cheese board, complete with descriptions. The house port was quite drinkable and went well with the cheese. My other meals in Conwy were not memorable.


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LBS: Cooling it in Kufstein

OK, time to get back to travel. Not present day travel as yet (I’ve abandoned thoughts of visiting Alaska, and am thinking of heading back to South America), but carrying on the Look Back Series I started before the renovations got under way last year.

After limping around Budapest, hobbling around Vienna, and resting up some in Graz I headed west to the Austrian Alps. I was aiming for Innsbruck, but the train trip from Graz was long enough and slow enough I decided to stop off for a couple of nights on the way. I chose Kufstein because I was thinking of hiking, but luckily it turned out to be a good rest stop.

Kustein castle

Kustein castle

I shared my compartment on the train with two young women, one traveling all the way to the Swiss border to visit her boyfriend in Bregenz, the other, a piano student, going home to North Italy (Sud-Tirol) to spend the upcoming All Saints’ Day holiday with her family. The piano student planned to stay on in Graz after graduation, and I remembered that the woman on the train from Vienna had mentioned that a lot of Germans were doing the same thing.

The journey was enlivened by conversation with the women, and with the elderly Austrian man who shared my table in the restaurant car, and by the scenery, which got progressively more mountainous the further west we traveled. And the further west we went the further behind schedule we were, finally reaching Wörgl 30 minutes late, and after my connecting train had left. However, I knew that the Wörgl-Kufstein leg was on the main line to Germany, and didn’t stress out. I spent the twenty minute wait talking with a woman from the Kitzbühel tourist office, who was upset to learn that I hadn’t even considered staying there because I thought it too expensive.

The Auracher Loechl

The Auracher Loechl

My river-side hotel, the Auracher Löchl, was tucked beneath a steep hill crowned by a well-preserved castle, and just a short limp across a bridge from the train station. My very comfortable single faced the river, and I ate breakfast (killer buffet with squeeze-your-own orange juice and boil-your-own eggs) and two delicious dinners (at half-board rates) in the hotel restaurant just across a pedestrian passageway.

I made it up to the castle courtesy of a little funicular railway, finding the view more interesting than the castle. Aside from wandering around town and admiring several decorated buildings, my only other sightseeing was a visit (by bus) to the Riedel factory on the outskirts of town. I drink a fair amount of wine, and had been highly skeptical when I first heard the theory that the taste of wine could be affected by the shape of the glass. Sounded like a great sales technique, but could it really be true? Well, yes. A few taste tests were all it took to convince me, and I now own two sets of Riedel glasses.

Building in central Kufstein

Building in central Kufstein

I have to say, once you’ve seen one glass factory, no need to visit another. I had taken the VIP tour of the Edinburgh Crystal factory back in 2004, during which I actually got to briefly blow and cut glass, and just watching from the balcony at Riedel didn’t measure up. Nor was their Sinnfonie “experience” particularly interesting for someone already a convert. Of course, there was always the shop, with deals like eight glasses for the price of six.… (But I figured the savings would be eaten up by the shipping charges. And did I really need eight more glasses?)

Birth of a glass

Birth of a glass

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Around Hama

October 15, 2009: Once again, I had my hotel arrange a car and driver for a day’s exploration. After an indifferent breakfast we left in good time for the Roman site of Apamea, arriving well before any tour groups. In fact, aside from a couple of other people, I had the whole 2km length of the main street, and its flanking columns, to myself.

The main street at Apamea

Founded during the Seleucid Empire in the 3rd century B.C.E., the town really prospered after its capture by the Romans in 64 B.C.E., with a population as high as 500,000, and rating a visit from the (in)famous Anthony and Cleopatra. Less important after the Muslim invasion, an earthquake in 1157 C.E. essentially destroyed it, and the columns that impressed me today had been reconstructed by a Belgian team.

Nothing could better illustrate the power and reach of the Roman Empire, not to mention the importance it attached to the province of Syria, than Apamea (or no doubt, Palmyra, if I had made it there). I have visited a number of imperial outposts, but this is easily the largest. In addition to sheer size, the elegance of the reconstructed columns suggests more than normal care in construction.I never pass up an opportunity to look at mosaics, and the museum just outside the site had some lovely ones, especially some of hunting animals. Unfortunately, they were in dire need of cleaning and proper display.

Unusual columns at Apamea

The scenery on the way to Apamea, north of Hama, had featured more of the flat, stony terrain I had seen from the train. Driving south via Musyaf to the Crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers, however, the countryside became both more mountainous, and greener. In addition, I was surprised to see unveiled women in some of the villages. My driver told me that they were Ismailis. When I remarked that wearing black burkhas, as many of the Sunni women did, must be very hot in the Syrian climate, he claimed that only one month would be really uncomfortable. I was sorely tempted to tell him to try it himself!

Our relationship deteriorated further when we reached Krak. I wanted to eat lunch in one of the restaurants listed in Lonely Planet as having views of the castle. He said that he didn’t know where they were and stopped instead at the Restaurant des Chevaliers right in front of the main gate. I should have made him keep looking, but I was hungry and instead I ate without views and with a large tour group.

Krak des Chevaliers

T. E. Lawrence wrote of Krak that it was “the finest castle in the world”, and it was never taken by force – the Christian defenders left in 1271 under truce after Jerusalem had fallen and the Crusaders were in general retreat. While the moat would look better with some clean water, the walls were still formidable and much of the inner fortress was still intact. After visiting the castle I insisted on trying to find the Restaurant al-Qalaa, for coffee, and again my driver claimed not to know where it was. It turned out to be just across a valley from the castle, and the really excellent views were necessary to properly appreciate the defensive merits of the castle.

Clearly, my driver had a good relationship with the place he took me for lunch, leaving with a bottle tucked under his arm and a big smile on his face, and a bad relationship with my choice, where he didn’t even go into the building. After we drove back to Hama, and he escorted me up to the hotel’s reception desk, I explained the situation to the manager, who said that the driver had been told not to take tourists to the Restaurant des Chevaliers. I did not tip.

The manager also said that tourists who ate at the Restaurant des Chevaliers tended to get sick.

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