Marseille, France

Marseille was our starting point for our visit to road trip through Provence.  Being early May we would miss the crowds and the heat (great!) but also the famous lavender fields that Provence which start to bloom from mid-June.  That would be for another time …

We stayed within walking distance of the Vieux-Port (Old Port) which is the Marseille’s cultural heart and main focal point.  It’s a great place to stroll along the markets and restaurants and bars.  On the north side stands the modern and hugely impressive Museum which houses exhibitions considered world-class.

The city’s most striking landmark is the Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde, which is visible from all over the Marseille.  If you’re fit you can walk there.  We purchased a hop-on hop off day bus pass which included a stop at the basilica with breath-taking views.  We then spent the several hours just slowly walking back down and through the interesting neighbourhoods back to the Port.  Lunch was had at one of many well-priced seafood restaurants surrounding the port.

Island hopping half day cruises are also a popular activity but we decided to leave that for our next visit when we had more time.

Unfortunately we were somewhat limited in our options during our short stay as it was May 1st (Labour Day) and virtually everything (including all public transport) shuts down in the city.  This also coincided with the very noisy yellow vest protest which we stayed well away from.

The next day we picked up our rental car from the airport (which is 24km from the city)  to start our main road trip to Provence and Lyon. If you would like more information about this destination please do not hesitate to contact me.

May 1st Labour Day Yellow-Vest protest

39th London Marathon

This was Geoffrey’s 10th Marathon and undoubtedly his most memorable.  London is quite different from the other large marathons in that the major sponsor is Virgin Money Giving – meaning that it is so charity focused.  Around 75% of the nearly 43,000 runners raise money for charity.  In total, more than £1 billion has been raised since the first London Marathon event in 1981 and it is now the largest single one day fundraising event in the world.   Over to Geoffrey …

What a fantastic event.  The crowd support along the route was incredible and the thousands of volunteers made this an enjoyable experience for the athletes.  The weather dawned perfectly – cool to start with temperatures rising only slowly during the run.  The world No.1 Eliud Kipchoge was also running which was a good omen for me.  His last event was Berlin the previous year where I also ran – and where I broke the 4hr mark for the first time.

I felt good right from the start but often this is due to the excess adrenaline.   It can sometimes catch you out as you run too fast and then pay for it dearly over the last 10kms.   But the training had gone really well so I wasn’t too concerned.  There’s also a marathon mantra which you repeat to yourself time and time again during the run – Trust Your Training!

At the half-way point I still felt great but I was a little concerned that I was now more than 3 minutes under my goal time and I prayed that I hadn’t overdone it.   At 25km the first signs of leg cramp hit me and I immediately cursed myself for ignoring my pre-race strategy.  From this point to the end would all be about management now just to get me to the finish.  I immediately slowed down by 20sec / km and concentrated on improving my hydration and nutrition intake.

The last 17km were probably the hardest I’ve ever run in my life.  I hardly noticed the screaming crowds after that – the fantastic sights – Canary Wharf, Tower of London, Whitehall Gardens, London Eye, Big Ben, Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace were just a blur.  But the total concentration meant I was able to manage a steady consistent pace – and to cross the finish line in a new personal best, Boston Qualifying time.

Absolutely magic.

Undisputed Marathon GOAT

Geneva, Switzerland

Our France itinerary had allowed for a day trip from Lyon and as we considered the many temping options it was soon obvious what our choice would be.  Although the train trip was a little longer (2hrs each way)  we could take in the relaxing sights from our carriage before our arrival into Geneva, Switzerland.  We just couldn’t resist the opportunity to see this most famous of cities – a powerhouse of numerous international organisations (the UN, Red Cross), and a huge global financial centre.  What makes Geneva tempting for a day trip is that it is so compact – you get off the train and you can access the main sights, the waterfront and Old Town by foot.  Geneva also has an excellent bus and tram system so you are able to easily tick off many other main attractions in a few hours.

Highlights were St Pierre Cathedral and the views of the city from its north tower, the European headquarters of the United Nations and the symbolic Broken Chair sculpture nearby.  The Jet d’Eau is probably Geneva’s most famous landmark – this massive fountain (situated on the left side of Lake Geneva) jets 500 litres water per second to a height of 140 meters.  Don’t miss the nearby L’horloge fleurie or the outdoor Flower Clock.

It was a beautiful day so there was time for a relaxing lunch along one of the many lakeside restaurants as well as some shopping in some of the many interesting shops.    Probably more browsing than actual shopping though as Geneva is ranked as one of the most expensive cities in the world!

If you would like more information about this destination please do not hesitate to contact me. 

View of Jet d’Eau from St Pierre Cathedral North Tower

Beijing – Guangzhou high-speed train

Geoffrey loves his fast trains and this was an opportunity he couldn’t resist – the chance to travel on the longest high-speed railway line in the world!   He’d complained that our previous bullet train rides had ended up been too short for him to appreciate fully.  So once making ourselves comfortable on board we sat back to enjoy the 2,298 km 9-hour journey at an average speed of 300km/hr …

What strikes you about the ride is how incredibly quiet and smooth it is.  We were lucky to secure seats in the business class carriage which meant we had acres of space to spread out or sleep (but that would have wasted the experience for Geoffrey).  How could one compare this to the stressful, cramped, noisy experience of flying?  You may save a few hours flying but this assumes the flight will leave on time whereas trains ALWAYS leave on time.  And unlike flying you can more productively use the time to due to the increased comfort of travel.

We were spoilt in the business.  There are dedicated crew on call and a complimentary meal service is provided.  We had access to our luggage which was stowed behind our seats.

It’s a great experience and a welcome change from flying if you’re not on a tight schedule.  It is also likely to more expensive as you can often pick up a cheap fare on this popular route.  But for sheer long-distance travelling pleasure it’s hard to beat.

If you would like more information about this destination please do not hesitate to contact me.

Information:

Every day, 5 pairs of high speed G trains are running between Beijing and Guangzhou with travel time of 8-10 hours. A second class seat ticket costs CNY 862. Every Friday to next Monday, additional 6 pairs of overnight D trains are available, taking 10-10.5 hours.

They are running along Beijing – Guangzhou High Speed Railway, short for Jingguang High Speed Railway, which is the longest  high speed railway in the world with a total distance 2,298 km (1,428 miles).

As an important north-south rail line of China high speed railway, it connects Beijing West Railway Station and Guangzhou South Railway Station, going through 28 China cities, including Shijiazhuang, Zhengzhou, and Wuhan. The speed was designed to be 350 km/h.

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon was the second stop of our Portugal trip and we instantly noticed the “big city” feel compared to the far more quaint Porto.  Lisbon, like Porto, is a coastal city bursting with culture and with seemingly endless things to see and do (and eat!!).  You could easily spend a full week here.  We just had 3 days so this was a city which we marked down to return to at a later date.

What surprised us was how busy the city was – we were there supposedly there during one of the quieter tourist winter months.  We ended up spending a lot of time in traffic and probably bemoaned the fact that we should have acquainted ourselves more with the city’s excellent metro network!  We were perhaps a shade unlucky as there were a number of big events in town including the annual and very popular El Corte Inglés São Silvestre de Lisboa 10km running event which immediately drew Geoffrey’s interest.

A good place to start is to take the famous Lisbon 28 tram which connects Martim Moniz with Campo Ourique, and passes through the popular tourist districts of Graca, Alfama, Baixa and Estrela.  This is the classic Lisbon tram journey – riding in a quaint yellow tram as it screeches and rattles through the sometimes impossibly, narrow streets of the city.  The trams are delightful – dating from the 1930’s – yet they are still an integral part of Lisbon’s transport network.

A highlight was the ferry across the River Tejo and the bus to the Cristo Rei – Lisbon’s Statue of Christ.  Inspired by Rio de Janeiro’s famous Christ the Redeemer statue, the 110m-high Cristo Rei was erected in 1959 and the views across to the city are stunning.

We also did a day trip to Sintra – probably one of the most popular day trips in Portugal.  However be warned – getting there by train from Lisbon was easy – but the crowds and congestion once there overwhelmed us. Just getting to the main attractions was a mission and the queues for the palaces were so long that we preferred to spend our time wandering the fabulous grounds. There was a particular highlight though – the 403 bus to Cabo da Roca. Cabo da Roca is a wild and rugged headland that marks the most westerly point of mainland Europe.  The spectacular, desolate scenery adds to the allure of the location and it was a welcome respite from the crowds.

There is an endless variety of exquisite Portuguese cuisine to sample.  There pastries are famous – especially the custard tarts – Pastel de natas. We also stumbled upon an extremely popular seafood restaurant called Ramiro.  The menu is all fresh pure seafood with bread & butter being the only side – nothing else!  If you’re into fresh clams, shrimps, prawns and crab this place is definitely for you.

If you would like more information about this destination please do not hesitate to contact me.

Exploring Lisbon’s delights up close

Porto, Portugal

Porto was the start of a one week visit to Portugal (which included Lisbon) and we were glad we started from here. Porto is beautiful and we loved it.  We travelled over the Christmas period and it was blissfully quiet.  The downside is that many of the businesses were closed but we found that we were still able to do and see everything we wanted to.  The historic centre is a UNSECO World Heritage Site and we spent a day just strolling up and down the hilly, narrow cobblestone streets exploring the town and its many attractions. It was great not competing with the crowds and the weather was cool, sunny and calm.

We spent a day ticking off the main city attractions including the Clérigos Tower, Livraria Lello bookstore, Porto Cathedral, São Bento Train Station, the Café Majestic and McDonald’s (considered the most beautiful in the world!). We then rested the legs and took the historic tram which provides a slow rickety scenic tour from the city all the way to the North Atlantic Ocean.

If you walk across the Ponte Luizi there are stunning views of Porto from the Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar.  The Ponte Luizi (or Dom Luis bridge) is only one of the famous beautiful bridges which crosses the Douro over to Gaia.  At its construction, its 172 metres span was the longest of its type in the world.

The 6 Bridge Cruise is also a popular 1 hour excursion but this wasn’t operating while we were there.

We spent a day exploring the famous Douro Valley wine region described as one of the most beautiful wine regions in the world.  The landscapes are breathtaking in places. Douro Valley is really mandatory for anyone who visits Porto.  There is nearly 2,000 years of winemaking history in the region so it’s worthwhile going with a tour with a well-informed guide.  Of course, port wine, (one of Portugal’s internationally famous exports) is named after Porto.  Being off-season there was only one other couple so essentially it was as good as a private tour.  The tour includes visits to wineries, a boat tour on the Douro River and a splendid a la carte lunch.  There are various options to explore the valley – by river cruise or by train.  However by land offers you more flexibility for where you can stop and visit some of the historic sites.

If you would like more information about this destination please do not hesitate to contact me.

Liberdade Square, Porto City Centre

Monaco day trip

We had based ourselves in Nice and it was dead easy to find and catch the local bus to Monaco.  It’s an incredibly cheap fare (1.50€), runs every 15 minutes and it’s probably one of the most spectacular coastal scenic rides you’ll ever enjoy anywhere.  Travel time is a short 30 – 45 minutes

Monaco – at 2 km2  –  is the second-smallest state in the world and is the perfect day-trip destination if you want to tick this off your bucket-list.  We had typically perfect French Riviera weather and we just enjoyed walking around taking in the fabulous, abundant wealth,  and the rich architectural and cultural history.  You don’t need to spend mountains of Euros to enjoy the scenery.  It will cost you nothing to see the magnificent Casino Monte-Carlo, made famous in James Bond movies Never Say Never Again and GoldenEye, although there is an entry fee to wander inside.  You can also do casino tours but we preferred to spend our limited time outside where there was so much extravagance to look at.

You can easily take the local bus which circles the city and takes in many of the extravagant sights and spectacular views of the harbour.  We took the Hop-on Hop-off buses which are an excellent way for those wanting to check out the sights at their own speed.   The open-top double-decker minibus offers better views and Geoffrey and I are big fans of the Hop-on Hop-off bus tours wherever we travel.

We topped off the end of the tour with a beautiful seaside lunch where we just relaxed and enjoyed the surroundings.   After lunch we elected to take the slower bus service back to Nice to finish off the perfect day trip.

It would have been nice to have experienced Monaco at night but this will have to wait until another time when time permits and where lots more Euros will no doubt, also be needed!

If you would like more information about this destination please contact me.

Monaco

Taroko Gorge, Taiwan

After spending a few days amongst the hustle and bustle of Taipei it was great to take the opportunity to get out of the city and explore part of the Taroko National Park.

The park was named after the landmark gorge renowned for its canyons, vertical cliffs and waterfalls.  For those interested in geology, Taroko Gorge is a fascinating study.  According to geologists, this part of Taiwan is rising because of the subduction of the Philippines oceanic plate to the east.  However, Geoffrey, a keen tramper and runner was more interested in possible walks in the park and also about possibly returning to run the  Tarako Gorge Marathon one day…

We visited the Gorge as part of a 2 day tour which was great as it saved a lot of time dealing with all the practicalities of visiting the area.  It’s only about a 2 hour scenic train ride from Taipei so it’s an easy and convenient place to visit.

Major highlights were the Eternal Spring Shrine,  the Tunnel of nine turns, and the Baiyang waterfall trail.   There’s a wealth of information at the Part Visitor Centre.

There’s a big range of accommodation options available at Hualien and we elected to treat ourselves and stay at one of the nearby 5 star hotels.  There was also plenty to do at night with the famous Hualien Dongdamen Tourist Night Market (the largest night market in Taiwan) close by.

If you would like more information about this destination please contact me.

Pagoda in Tiansiang

A Taste of Lake Como, Italy

Our return trip home from Berlin was via Rome and we had allowed ourselves a few extra days in the Italian peninsula dropping by Milan, Florence and Rome.  Having spent some time in these cities previously we concentrated our limited time revisiting old favourite haunts and, where time permitted, trying out a few new places.

Lake Como had been on the to-do list for years and although this would require at least a few days to see the area properly, we couldn’t resist the opportunity for a quick day trip from Milan there when the weather presented itself nicely.

Lake Como is well serviced by train from Milan to the Como Township where it’s then a short walk to the ferry terminal to various points around the Lake.  We opted to drop off at the Bellagio. The town is situated quite centrally on Lake Como at the point where the lake divides into two ‘branches’ towards the south-east and south-west and is often referred to as the ‘Pearl of the Lake’, partly because of its beauty and partly because of this position between the two branches of the lake.  Bellagio is however just one of many stunning beautiful villages along the lake but will provide a good taste for the region which has an incredible amount to offer.

There was time for a few hours of relaxed shopping, walks along the waterfront promenade, the gardens, up the hill and across to the stunning shoreline on the other side,  visiting a number of historic sites before lunch overlooking the water.  We picked up a self-guided walking map of the town which was perfect for our limited time available and which was easy to follow.

After lunch, rather than take the ferry back to Como we opted to take one of the scheduled bus services back and this something we would definitely recommend for day-trippers.  Seated up high on the bus coach, the road back along the high shoreline offers spectacular views of the lake and an opportunity to get close-up to the many smaller intimate villages along the road back.

Back at Como for the 1-hour fast train ride back and we were back in Milan by mid-afternoon in time for our next city tour!

Easy-peazy and a perfect day-trip out of Milan.  Next time however we will visit for at least several days with the hope of bumping into George and Amal…

If you would like more information about this destination please contact me.

45th Berlin Marathon

This is another marathon blog penned by Geoffrey.  It’s for the runners who will understand it.  This was our second visit to Berlin in 4 years and although the main purpose this time was the marathon event we still had plenty of time exploring the sights of this fascinating city.  Feel free to contact me if you are interested in knowing more about visiting this destination.

Over to Geoffrey …

Half way during my final training run before the marathon I tripped on one of Copenhagen’s famous cobblestone walkways.  As I was going down I thought, “bugger, this may not end well !”.  Ten months of hard training could go out the door with a broken hand or arm.  A few weeks earlier I had a similar clumsy moment which resulted in a bad cut above my right eye and which required 6 stitches and the loss of my $200 eye glasses.  Now, as I was about to hit the ground again, I thought I’d happily settle for that …

There was an air of expectancy leading up to the running of the 45th Berlin Marathon.  There was a lot of talk of the favourite Eliud Kipchoge aiming for a new world record.  Of course, for us mere mortals concerned with just finishing,  all this talk would in no way have any effect on our own runs – or would it ??

The morning of the run was perfect – cool, fine and windless.  Each wave started off with the Iceland Viking Clap which helped the adrenaline flows and greatly eased the nerves before the gun.  The Start is really is an amazing sight – 40,000 runners lined up along the Straße des 17 !

By the time I crossed the start line I was on a high and had long forgotten about the grazes on my right arm that I had sustained from my fall in Copenhagen !

My primary goal was to complete the whole course without having to walk at some point.  I’d only achieved this in less than half of my previous marathons.   This meant being conservative for the first half and trying to finish strong – possibly with a negative split.  The second goal was to run a personal best (“PB”), and finally, if pigs could fly – to run a sub 4 hour time.  I knew that if I ever achieved that I would die with a smile on my face !

I felt pretty good for the first 20kms.  The course takes you along the main sights of Berlin such as the Reichstag, the Siegessäule, Berliner Dom, Brandenburg and Potsdamer Platz in a big loop through the entire city.   I passed the half way mark at 2 hrs 2min and so was on for a new PB (yay!).  However  I would inevitably soon start to tire and so a sub 4 was now likely out of the question.

At 30km I noticed one of the thousands of spectators holding out a sign – New World Record 2:01:39 !!   This was an unbelievable time – Eliud Kipchoge had smashed the old mark by 1 minute 18 seconds.  If he could run an incredible time then so could I !  This news was so inspirational for a tiring runner.  I decided then and there to throw caution to the wind and just go for it for the last 12km.  Breaking with my pre-race strategy it was likely to all blow-up in my face.  At best I’d end up limping pathetically through the famous Brandenburg Gate toward the finish.  At worst I’d have a DNF next to my name.  But I realised that this was the Berlin Marathon and it was now or never to give it your best shot.

Miraculously my legs didn’t fall off and my training held true and I crossed the finish in 3 hours 58 minutes.

The smile is still on my face…