Zurich, Lucerne & Jungfrau, Switzerland

From Hong Kong to Florence required a connection and we decided on Zurich where we also took the opportunity to stopover for a couple of days.  Being December we were expecting it to be old but it was actually quite pleasant and of course quiet at this time of year.

We did our usual hop-on, hop-off bus tour and tested the local transport which proved easy, convenient and efficient.  We strolled around the Old Town and lakeside and generally just explored the city’s sights.

In the afternoon we took the train to Lucerne and spent a few hours there.  The train ride is less than an hour and cheap and leaves frequently so no need to book.

The following day was the full day trip to Jungfraujoch – one of Europe’s highest-altitude train stations, set 11,333 feet (3,454 meters) above sea level in a UNESCO-listed wilderness, and dubbed the ‘Top of Europe.’  The tour starts with a scenic coach trip leaving from central Zurich and journeys south through Switzerland’s scenic Bernese Oberland to Lauterbrunnen.  You then board the train to Jungfraujoch where you disembark and enjoy the many activities and attractions there. The Alpine Sensation is a visual-experience moving walkway that transports you past presentations showcasing the Jungfrau Railway’s history and an Ice Palace glacier walk to see ice sculptures. Then head to the Sphinx Observatory for stunning panoramas over the Aletsch Glacier, and the Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau.

It was actually incredibly impressive and a must do if you have a day to spare in Zurich.

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

Train to Jungfraujoch station – 3,454 m

Villages of Provence, France

The only way to properly see the famous lavender fields and the historic villages of Provence is by car which we picked up from Marseille.  As it was May we knew it would be relatively quiet as the lavenders don’t start to bloom until late June.

The first stop was Aix-en-Provence, a university city of around 140,000.  Our hotel was close to the Cours Mirabeau which is the heart of town and adjacent to the old town.  This is a beautiful historic area and we spent several hours just strolling the markets and shops, checking out the numerous cafes and restaurants. Especially stunning was the old Town Square  with its 16th-century clock tower and the nearby St Sauveur Cathedral.

The following day we drove to Gordes, considered as one of 7 most beautiful villages in France.  Built on the foothills of the Monts of Vaucluse, its houses and buildings of white stone root themselves into the sharp cliff of the mountain.  We spent a couple of hours here strolling  through the narrow streets and taking in the views of the surrounding countryside.

Close by is the 12th century Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque – a Cistercian abbey well worth a visit especially when the lavenders are in bloom.  It is still an active monastery.

The village of Roussillon is renowned for being sited in the heart of one of the biggest ochre deposits in the world with its magnificent red cliffs and ochre quarries. There are a couple of informative short walks through the old ochre quarries which Geoffrey raced through!  However we spent most of our time there just having a relaxing drink admiring the surrounding views.

Our next village Sault was our most disappointing stop.  It was getting towards the end of the day and the weather began to turn.  There are stunning views of the lavender fields to be had when in bloom, but it was April, and the village was cold, wet and largely disserted.

First stop next day was Lourmarin village and the local market was open which was a bonus.  There was a 15th Century castle nearby set within a large poppy field which is was stunning sight so typical of Provence.

The road to Valensole Village travels through the picturesque lavender countryside and where you will find some of the best photo opportunities.  The Plateau of Valensole is also famous for its truffles. The village itself is yet another example of beautiful old houses set in the colours typical of Provence.

You hear the phrase “the most beautiful village in France” so often in Provence but Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, in my opinion takes that accolade.  The village is built on platform terraces a hundred or so metres up the side of a limestone cliff and there are amazing views of the village from the road.  I would have loved to have spent more time there to take on the challenging walk up to the 12th century Chapel Notre-Dame-de-Beauvoir. It was probably not as far or difficult as it looked, and as well as seeing the chapel you also get lovely views across the rooftops of Moustiers.  But it was getting late in the day so it will have to wait for next time!

Our final stop was the Lake of Sainte-Croix.   This is actually a man-made lake that was formed by the construction, between 1971 and 1974 of a reinforced-concrete arch dam by the name of Dam of Sainte-Croix.  But you would never know – the waters are a beautiful emerald-green and it is used extensively for swimming, windsurfing, canoeing and kayaking, catamaraning, pedalo boating and fishing.  You can get some great photos of the Gorges from the Galetas bridge at the Northern tip of the lake.

I would love to return to Provence in July / August but I’d be fearful of the crowds.  The very narrow countryside roads could make driving a nightmare and parking at the villages almost impossible.  But the scenery would be totally out of this world…

Til next time then… If you would like more information about this destination please do not hesitate to contact me.

Valensole Plateau

Lyon, France

The car trip from Avignon to Lyon was virtually all motorway so it wasn’t a particularly interesting road trip – albeit it was quick!  They have these large service centres every 25km or so you don’t have to exit the motorway if you need a comfort / fuel / lunch stop.  This saves travel time but it does mean you may miss an interesting town en route and instead end up eating at some over-priced, mediocre and crowded pit stop.   Still, it does the job …

The obvious highlight was the ornate Basilique Notre Dame sited atop of Fourvière hill with its majestic views of the city.  On a clear day, Mont Blanc, the highest point in Europe, can be seen in the distance.   We then took the funicular down to Vieux Lyon (the old city) and spend a few hours exploring the interesting winding alleys, restaurants and shops.

Once we arrived in the city it took us a good 40 minutes to return the rental due to the traffic congestion so it wasn’t a great introduction to the city.     However our hotel was located in the heart of Lyon, a stone’s throw from Place Bellecour.  As we usually do when we first arrive in a new city we purchased a hop-on, hop-off bus tour.  These are inexpensive and a great way to quickly orientate yourself as well as having great views from the double-decker.  They also serve as great transport to getting around the city especially if you have the time.

Geoffrey, fresh from his London Marathon a couple of weeks earlier, also explored the city by running along the banks of the Rhône and Saône rivers while I explored the premium shops around Rue de la République.  There are also a number of interesting markets around the city and Geoffrey mentioned the utterly modern, cool Confluences Mall situated near Lyon’s revamped docks area that he ran past. 

Although Lyon is the 3rd largest city in France you can easily cover its main attractions over a few days and it is only 2 hours by fast train from Paris and even less from Marseille. 

Definitely worth a visit.

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

La Saône River

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

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

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.