Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Back home with the Kids



Back to Northridge, to Andy and Lizzy's flat, and time to get to know their area a bit. We drove back via a shopping centre not far from them, and I spent a very happy hour or so, whilst Ian checked out a nearby sports shop, selecting from masses of fabric and sewing hardware at "Jo-Ann's" fabric warehouse. Crafts are a big leisure activity over here, and there are even craft aisles in the local "Albertsons" (a bit like the co-op over here). Consequently, because it's not such a "specialised" activity like it is in UK, and also because cotton is still manufactured in USA, whereas we import it from them, the cost of fabric and accessories is almost half the price in US, so I was having fun. But you've always got to remember the addition of roughly 9% in two types of tax added at the till! Still!!
On Saturday it was Lizzy's 25th birthday, and we'd bought her a Mexican Lime Tree, which they were both thrilled with. Andrew bought her a rosemary plant, which she can use in cooking. So it was looking very mediterranean on their verandah! Lizzy was delighted that her mum rang her to wish her happy birthday, all the way from Saudi.
Ian and I used the kids' mountain bikes and cycled out to a little oasis in the streets of Northridge- Balboa Park. It has a large lake and lawns and planting, with cycle paths, jogging and walking tacks running around the perimeter. Really relaxing place, full of wild geese and ducks and herons sitting by the water's edge. Although it was only 7.30am by the time we arrived, the park was already ful; of people, and the car parks were full. They rise very early here. Andrew starts work at 7am, breaks for lunch at 11am, and finishes at about 4pm, unless he's got overtime.
Lizzy made a cracking breakfast of eggs, bacon and french toast. That evening we went out for a meal with them and a small group of friends from work, and then on to a bowling alley. Back at the flat, all the "dudes" gave a rock concert on "Rock-Band", which was impressive and much more skilled than our efforts a few nights ago!!
When it was suggested that we had a go, we knew it was time to go to bed, or be humiliated!!! The evening was great and the dudes that Andrew works with were really nice guys and great fun.

Our last day began with a cycle ride in the Santa Monica National Park. We drove up to Mulholland Drive, with magnificent views over the San Fernando Valley and picked up a cycle/ running/ walking trail, the Westridge Trail, where Mulholland Drive changes into a dirt track! There are several trails which run off the tops of these big hills and weave along the top of them, all the way to the sea, with great views of Downtown Los Angeles, all the way down. Unfortunately, what goes down must go up, and it was hard winding back to the cay, but well-worth it.
Altogether there are about 55miles of trails all over the Santa Monica National Parks. The Americans are great at creating these parklands and preserving some of the wildness of this area. It's a great spot where their flat is, being only half an hour cycle from the park, and a short drive from the National Parks of Santa Monica and a bit further to Big Bear.
Although it was Sunday, Andrew was working, because he'd had the previous day off for Lizzy's birthday, and when he arrived back home at 5pm, we went out to Claimjumpers, which served great, wholesome food, with fantastic veggies.

With a lump in the throat we said our goodbyes and set off for the airport, on yet another very warm, sunny, blue-sky day. Just time to call in at the secret gem that is Venice. Not the brash, Blackpool-with-sunshine, crazy, slightly seedy Venice Beach that neither of us liked, but the beautiful, character-filled area of the Venice Canals. Five canals run alongside each other, inland from the sea. The locals had built them to emulate what they had seen in Italy. Clapperboard houses mixed in with modern, chiq properties jusr a few blocks inland from the beach.

ByeBye to LAX, USA. See you again soon.
Hugs and Kisses to Andy and Lizzy from Ma and Pa!

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Winter Wonderland in Socal



To start our second trail, we had to drive back up to the Aerial Tramway, from Palm Springs where we were to spend the night. We were to stay at the Holiday Inn Express,which was really good value at about £50 - admittedly it was cheaper because it was mid-week, but it was in a great spot for good value restaurants, had a lovely pool with views up to the Mountains and desert. We'd eaten at a great Chinese complete with plainly-cooked chicken, masses of green veggies, steamed rice and jasmine tea. My stomach was greatly appreciative!!
A short cable car ride up the mountain side and we were back where we'd been about a week earlier with Lizzy. We'd taken fleeces because we knew it could be cold up there, and with the mist down it was quite cold. We set off on the six-hour hike up Mt San Jacinto, 10,800ft, through pine-clad hills on great, well marked tracks. We were the first up there and had the benefit of stumbling across deer near the tracks. This was great. Walking in almost alpine scenery, whilst looking down on the grid-system development of Palm Springs in the Desert below! However there was a strong, cold breeze, as we climbed, and it became progressively colder.
We reached the summit without too much difficulty, but we were very cold, and felt a bit silly in shorts, as we dropped off and passed a couple of guys, clad in duvet jackets and several layers! We rushed to get off as quickly as possible, and couldn't wait to get back to the warm valley floor. On reaching the cable-car station, we discovered that the temperature at the top had been 37deg F, 31f with wind chill, so 0 deg, freezing, in real money!
We'd had a great walk in beautiful surroundings and both said that we'd go back there again. The beauty of it is, if we visit Andrew and Lizzy in May-time, there's more temperate areas to visit, like San Francisco, and the parks of Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Yosemite. If we want to get away in our winter, then there's the guaranteed sunshine of Southern California, and the desert areas. What surprises me is that we really liked the desert and especially waking up to warm sunshine and blue skies every day.
Back to Northridge to stay with Andrew and Lizzy for a few days, before setting off back to UK on Monday.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Camping at Cottonwood



Having previously decided that two days in San Diego would definitely be enough, we set off on a camping trip back to Joshua Tree National Park, just for one night, hopefully under the stars. We'd borrowed Lizzy and Andy's camping gear- which was surprisingly quite extensive- how they grow up. Also in excellent condition and well-packed, mainly down to Lizzy, who organised the camping pack-up. I'm beginning to realise that Lizzy is quite tidy and organised about getting ready for trip- I suppose she's had plenty of practice!
Anyway, less than 3hrs later we were back in the desert. Before we'd been to the North part of the park, in the Mojave Desert, and although there were several camp-sites in that area, it was another couple of hours drive, so we decided to stick to the Colorado Desert in the south of the Park. This turned out to be a good move, because there is no drinking water in the North, whereas there was at Cottonwood Springs, where we camped. It was also very quiet, with only three other couples camping- one in an RV.
The site was great, and we pitched opposite the trail, water, restrooms not far away, complete with toilet paper,a large bbq/fire pit just for us, with stunning desert scenery. But no stats or sunset, because it was overcast.
Just after 1pm we were pitched, and all set for a walk on the trail to Lost Palms Oasis. The Ranger told us of a number of smaller routes, and said that one we wanted to do was such a long way at this time of day- all of 9mls!! Obviously hadn't come across keen walkers from the UK! Actually, we just about made it back in time, and walked at a good pace, but the desert, we learnt, is one of those places where distances can be deceptive. We did it in less than the advised time but with about half an hour or so of daylight- dark by 5.30.We'd walked over to Lost Palms Oasis, a great little spot, with a large number of Californian Palms,watered by an underground water-hole. We walked past the lush Cottonwood Springs oasis, climbing up to views over the Salton Sea, and on towards Arizona.
Once you get used to the arid, bleached views, you start to distinguish the varied and subtly colourful plants and shrubs- jojoba bushes, creosote trees- which the Indians used to make tea out of and, not as I originally thought, paint their fences with! Lots of herbal plants and shrubs- apparently a local Indian woman was famous for saying that she looked at the desert like the rest of us would look into a supermarket!
Once back at the tent there was enough light to get the bbq going, but as it got colder we wished we'd brought some more wood with us! Instead we found a nearby dead yucca and managed to keep the fire going by stripping bits off it. The Indians wouldn't have approved of us burning the materials they use to make footwear from!!
As we sat by the fire we could see tiny gerbil-like creatures looking for scraps.
A great night in the tent, hearing coyotes howling in the distance, and Ian scaring me by saying he could hear something outside!!! The following morning we awoke to a lovely pink sunrise at 6am, but not extensive because it was overcast again, though would be warm. Off for another hike up Mt Jacinto today.

Down Mexico Way


Well, not quite.
About 18mls from the Mexican border, to be exact, to San Diego. After about a 3hr drive, we arrived in San Diego. First impressions- another big city. Our 2night stay in Hampton Inn was within walking distance of the "Gas lamp area". We were right near the sea front and wandered down past the USS Midway, a floating museum, aircraft carrier docked nearby. So big, you couldn't fit it on the camera screen. On past that to a 120ft high statue, one of twenty or so art installations along the waterfront. This particularly huge one was entitled "Unconditional Surrender", and was of a marine embracing a nurse, and she's falling back into his arms!
We saw what was to be the first of numerous vagrants, pushing all their worldly goods around in shopping trolleys.
We wandered around the historic gas lamp area, a bit reminiscent of the Rocks area in Sydney, and had a superb meal at one of the "fine-dining restaurants". You can eat cheaply here, but everything comes with a waist-expanding portion of fries and coated in seasoning and mayo, with not a trace of veggies in sight, unless you count the humble gherkin! Or you can eat beautiful food, which costs a good deal more, and comes with a lot of other stuff you'd rather not have ie. "Unfortunately we haven't got that wine, and would sir prefer this one (which costs 5$ more), $5 extra here and there, just takes the edge off what would otherwise be a great meal!

The following day, up at 6.30am, and yet another blue sky, very warm day. First ferry over to Coronado Island. We LOVE ferry rides, so reminiscent of the ferries from Darling Harbour. 30mins ferry across to a sandy beach and jetty, with other commuters getting on at the other side to travel to work in the city. Coronado is lovely, with its miles of sandy beaches, harbour-side, or ocean-side. There's a historic hotel, dating back to the 1890s, famous for Edward and Mrs Simpson's first meeting, and the setting for the film , "Some Like It Hot", starring Marilyn Munroe.
It has a very opulent lobby, with dark wood and crystal chandelier.
From here, we boarded the historic city tram, which took us on a circuit of San Diego, round to the Park and world-famous zoo(which we decided not to do, but may come back to with the kids another day), around to the Old Town, where we stopped for a few hours. We had a mexican meal of quesadilla and chimichanga with re-fried beans, and then had a wander. This is where the city began. The Kumeyaay Indians were the native people, until the Mexicans took over. There is a restored house and garden, owned by the Estudillo family. Capitan Estudillo was a fort commander, and his house is built in the typical adobe construction, 3-5' thick walls of sun-baked, adobe, mud and straw bricks on a river cobble foundation. The Kumeyaay Indian worked as cowboys, raising and grazing cattle for their Mexican landlords. The garden was in the middle, full of herbs and flowers, with a cool, shady roofed terrace around the perimeter.
After a look around the tiny graveyard, with occupants who'd been shot, hung for stealing a canoe and eaten by coyotes, we boarded the bus back over the bridge to Coronado and the ferry back. Looking out from the bridge, you got a real understanding of the importance of San Diego as a military and commercial port, with vessels all the way down the port as far as the eye could see, but then it is one of a few large US ports which are on the Pacific.
Old photos in the Info Center showed how the Old Town was just a few adobe houses and scrub in the late 1880s and 40 years later, it had boomed into a large town.
That night we ate in Little Italy, an area with a lot of character, and then off tomorrow, having seen much of what San Diego has to offer, we feel. Good but we'd probably not be coming back again.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Someone's got to get back to work!

Sunday
Up at 6.30 and off by 8am Drove down 4lane highways speedily back to Andrew and Lizzy's. Only took us two and a half hours. Called in at the local store to pick up some steaks for tea.
Back at the flat, all was well and the new "baby"/lime tree was in tact!
"Busman's Holiday"- Andrew spent the pm introducing Dad to the intricacies of the FIFA Match game- he's currently playing Burnley against Malaga. Ian's a bit gutted to learn that Burnley had just drawn with Man City, having been 2-0 up in the first half!!!! I bet Laura was cussing like a fish-wife!!!

U4 in Joshua Tree!


Saturday
Up and off early today to head up to Joshua Tree National Park, made famous partly by the band U2, with the picture of a lone Joshua Tree, on the front of the album of the same name. The Park lies on the border between two deserts, and two subtly different climate and vegetation zones- the Mojave Desert, cooler and more moist than the Sonaran Desert, its slightly hotter, drier neighbour. The route there took us through an extensive area of windmills- 4800 in all. Situated in the valley between the San Bernardino Mountains to the north and the San Jacinto Mountain range to the south, the windmills are perfectly placed to catch the winds which almost constantly funnel down between. (Just a little bit of info especially for our mate, Stuart, who's training to be a wind turbine service engineer, or a "wind-surfing" dude, according to Jools). A weird desert landscape, full to the gills with huge wind machines, set against a crystal sharp, bright blue sky. Mum and son had to get out and take what were to be the first of a gazillion photos that day, whilst Ian patiently waited around!
We drove in through the west entrance to the park, having paid our 15$ admission fee, which was good for seven days. From top to bottom of the park, you travel over fifty miles. There are short walking trails of .25 to 3mls and a hiking trail of over 30 mls, with several campsites for tents and RVs, so that you can spend the night under the stars, with basic facilities of small restrooms, picnic table and even fire grate for bbqs, so really well equipped.
The Lonely Planet guide recommended a 3ml trail into the Hidden Valley, discovered by a member of the Keys family, who lived on a nearby ranch from 1920s to 1960s, raising five children in this hostile environment, pre-air-conditioning! The Hidden Valley has some of the best views of rock formations and plant life anywhere in the Park. Rock climbers flock in to scale the unique landscape. The circular route winds in and around the rocks, with views of Joshua Trees, yuccas and cacti, and dozens of other tenacious plants that manage to live here. Info boards tell you that the huge rocks cast shadows over the desert floor, encouraging moisture and enabling life- its own micro-climate.
Several dozen photos later we managed to tear ourselves away and drive around to Keys View, at about 5000'. We were able to look across to the famous San Andreas Fault and the Plateau below. I met and chatted to a couple from Wickersley, Rotheram, who were here in an RV and had almost been joined at their previous evenings bbq by a passing coyote, and they'd gone to sleep listening to coyotes howling to each other at night. I liked the sound of that.
We drove south through the Covington Flats, into the Sonoran desert, lost the Joshua trees, which were replaced by miles of drier hotter conditions, cholla cactus "gardens", which have a strange, stark beauty of their own. After an hour or so of this, though, we all agreed that we were more at home in greener forests and mountains!
We emerged from the south exit of the Park, after about five hours, and drove the short way back to the Hampton Inn in Palm Desert.
Because Ian spends so much time in the car driving during the day, we tend to take the easiest option at "night", and grab a burger or quesadilla, beers and margaritas a short walk across the road to "The Firehouse". Really good reasonably priced food that pleases everyone.
"night" because this can be anything from 5pm to 6.30pm. We're up at 6.30, off by 8am and back by 4pm. So meals tend to be pushed forward as a result, and as for sleeping, we haven't made it past 9pm yet!!!

Webbies reunited.com


Monday
Set off 11am flight to Los Angeles
Arrived 3pm. Not too bad a flight really, and collecting the Dodge car from airport went very smoothly. An hour or so later in busy LA traffic we were at Andrew and Lizzy's flat, which is literally opposite where he works. Great to see them again, and Lizzy had made us a lovely lamb curry for tea, which Ian later accused her of being too mild, as I kicked him for saying, as she'd specifically made it mild out of consideration for our post-flight tummies!!!!

Tuesday
am We called at Home Depot to buy a BBQ for tea! and a Mexican Lime tree, which was to become the latest addition to the family. After potting the tree, we drove down to a sea-misty Santa Monica and ate a Bubba Gumps seafood and burger bar on the pier. The food was great,and it was a shame that there was a cold sea fret over the Ocean, which meant you couldn't really see anything. We drove back along the famous Mulholland Drive and christened the new BBQ with some fantastic ribeye steaks bought from the local food-store.



Wednesday
After a 3 hour drive, we arrived in Big Bear National Park, after a fairly convoluted road journey. We did a short walk up Castle Rock, among rocky and pine-clad terrain. It's a lovely spot with a lake, quaint clapper-board houses, painted grey, beige and stone-coloured to blend in with the stone surroundings. Another bright, blue sky and pleasantly warm. We drove back down the twisty road to the Hampton Inn just outside the park, in the Highland area. We ate out at an Applebees and I had my first Quesadilla, which tasted great!



Thursday
Our second day drive into Big Bear, where we drove along the beautifully understated "Rim of the World" road. We walked on the Pacific Crest Trail, or rather part of it, up to Cougar Trail, which Andrew and Lizzy had walked previously, with great views over the lake and across to Big Bear village. Back to the car and back to the Hampton, and another quesadilla at Applebees!!!



Friday
Because it's bright and cheery by 5.30am and more importantly, because our bodies are telling us not to stay asleep any longer, we were up and in the hotel gym for 6.30am. Weird!!! I'd been awake since 4am!!!


We were off to Palm Springs today, in the middle of the desert. We drove for an hour along ever "deserty" roads to the Aerial Tramway, or cable car, which goes a fair way up Mt Jacinto. At 10,800ft, it's the highest peak in Socal (which is the cool way of referring to Southern California).



After a brief and incredibly smooth cable car ride, we had climbed up from dry, barren desert, to pine-clad cooler forest land, with about 54mile of trails up and around the mountain. Also views across to the San Andreas Fault, the San Bernardino mountains, down towards the valley smog and Palm Springs, and on towards the incredibly salty Salton Sea, the largest land mass, the deepest below sea-level in the Western Hemisphere, or so the "exhibit" says!
A Big Sandwich with 4 types of fillings and then onto the "Living Desert". Well-thought out landscaping divided up the park into different landscapes and vegetations -Mojave, Sonaran, Colorado and Chihuahua, to name but a few. Really well done. We arrived at feeding time just in time to watch a (beep-beep) Roadrunner consume a white mouse all in one, complete with rather large pink tail! We saw hummingbirds, butterflies whose chrysalis were brought in from Florida Keys, which we'd visited when Kate was small. Fabulous plants, cholla cacti, yuccas, Joshua trees. Animals such as Lynx, big-horned sheep,which are indigenous to the area, bob-cats and coyotes.
Back to the Hampton in Palm Desert. Big rooms and big beds- kids were really happy. Off to the "Fire House" for burger and fish and chips, and margaritas, and thought I'd give the quesadillas a miss tonight. Palm Springs is very upmarket and swishy, with Palm Desert its apparent younger and less expensive neighbour. Both very beautiful, very artificial, probably very expensively sustained resorts in a strangely, hostile environment. Weird!

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Marionettes in Charleville-Mezieres

Marionnettes in Charleville-Mezieres

The day was finer but cold. A real nip of autumn in the air. We wandered into Charleville and found a boulangerie to buy almond pastries, brioche and bread. There was a large, grand, enclosed square at the top of the street, which looked really welcoming. Chairs and tables were being put out and there were signs all around saying that the world-renowned marionettes show was coming to town. But we hadn’t time to stay, and wandered back along the river Meuse, back to the van.
Five hours later we were at the Port of Calais, and with the minimum fuss and only 12pounds more, we were on the next ferry, which was only 45mins later. Couldn’t have timed it any better! Overnighting at our usual stop outside Folkestone. Incidentally though Kate was delighted that her boredom was soon to be relieved by our revised return, she warned us that we would have to expect company of three more females on Thursday. With her customary understatement, that could be three or five!!!

A La Retour

A La Retour

With a poor weather forecast, we set off back North, towards Kaysersberg. Only two hours away, so it was still early when we arrived. Even so the “aire”, a large car park within 5mins walk of the historic town, which held 80 spaces, had about 4 free spaces by 3pm!
As I mentioned before, when we called in here on the way down, Kaysersberg is a Christmas, Gingerbread of a town. Medieval, with houses dating back to the 1300s, a bridge fortified in the 1400s, it lies on the border between France and Germany. The locals speak French, but the street names are in French with German subtitles, and the delicious pastries all have German names- Kugelhopf, Linzer tarte, Quetsches. Qutcsches are blueberry tarts, and Kugelhopf are wonderfully light brioches, which can be savoury, filled with lardoons and cheese, or sweet, with raisins and almonds. As in Switzerland, the drink of choice is white beer, again something you don’t often see in France. There’s also a big thing about smoked pork, in sausage and ham form, garnished with “choucroute”/ sauerkraut! (We’ve brought some back to try for lunch tomorrow). Sitting in a café,eating sausage and choucroute, with white beer, surrounded by timber-framed buildings, dripping with geraniums, and you might imagine yourself in Bavaria!
The town was and still is famous for its pottery production, and there is a pottery market every Saturday- beautiful but pricey!
Albert Schweizer, the famous medical missionary, was born here. We visited his home/museum. He set up and ran a hospital in Africa, was a proficient organist, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He died in 1965, aged 90. That was when I remember learning about him in Padiham Green Junior School, aged 10!
On the way back to the van, we bought a few bottles of Gewurztraminer and Cremant, and I called in at a small “cave”, run by Francois Stoll. I apologised for my poor French and said how frustrating it was to try and have a conversation! He then told me about the story in the Bible of the Tower of Babel, reminding of how before this every one spoke the same language, and after the goings-on in Sodom and Gomorrah, we were punished by an inability to communicate with each other! Must look that up when we return! Lovely guy, who didn’t seem to mind at all that this crazy, English woman wanted a natter and was only buying two bottles of his lovingly-produced pinot-noir! The way out took me through his rambling “atelier”, full of wood and housing a 1930s motor-bike. When I told him that we hoped to cycle on the Route de Cretes,, he said he could never understand the attraction of cycling, when there were perfectly good engines there to do the job.

Route des Cretes

Route des Cretes, Vosges- The Ardennes

The morning started wet with little sign of improvement. We decided to abandon the cycle-ride, as it takes quite a while to take the bikes off the rack now, especially since we’ve made ourselves belt-and braces legal with a new light- board, clearly showing lights and reg . Having decided it wasn’t worth it, we motored up to the Col de Bonhomme (943m) and along the northern stretch of the Route des Cretes. This runs North-South for approx 50miles, through Alsace. Tommy, our van, handles fantastically well up and down mountain passes. It was raining harder and we decided to keep going, in fact, we both were concerned about not going back until the Sunday, as this meant we would miss Kate, who was returning to Uni that day. Let’s go back sooner, cos we’ve done what we wanted to do!
From the Route des Cretes, Sally Satnav took us into Luxembourg for about 20 mins (would like to research and go back there), and then into Belgium for about one hour, and then back into the Ardennes region of France, famous for it’s wildboar. We followed the Semoy and the Meuse rivers and ended up finding the only campsite still open, at Charleville Mezieres. Cheap enough, but what miserable weather to arrive in. I asked the cute, little receptionist if the weather was set to improve, cos she’d asked me if we intended staying more than one night, and she pulled a miserable face! So that’d be a Non. After helping her with a jammed stapler, we nestled into our “emplacement”. It’s lovely to shut the weather out, re-heat the last of the pre-prepared frozen meals, and open up a bottle of wine! All that time spent cooking and freezing meals at home has really paid off. Choose your meal in the morning, take it out of the freezer and let it thaw out during the day, then drive for several hours/ cycle or walk for several hours, return, stick it in a pan with some rice/couscous/potatoes. Ready in less than half an hour, about the time it takes you to drink your aperitif!!!

Saturday, 12 September 2009

day 7: Rest Day



Day 7 Rest Day!

Whilst Ian went off on a cycle ride to Grosse Scheidegg, 1962m, a total climb of 1450m , crazy fool, I had a potter! I cleaned the loo, sink, tidied away clothes and boots, did a bit of shopping and got on with the blog. Cloudy and sunny spells today. I wandered into Lauterbrunnen, which is only ten minutes walk away and bought some Toblerone swiss chocolate. I was horrified to read that the butcher was selling “Frischer Pferde Entrecote”. Now, my A level German is a bit sketchy but I’m sure that means horse-meat!!! Yuk, in this day and age!!!
Foods and gifts are hellish expensive. I’m so glad we stocked up on food, drink, frozen home-made meals etc before we set off, apart from three rosti meals out, and the odd applesaft juice, which is the staple drink around here, apart from the obvious beer, we’ve not been to the shops. Thank God!
The main language is a sing-songy version of German, and they then seem to prefer English to French, but then there are a lot of American and Japanese tourists. But they don’t say “Danke” for thankyou, instead they say “Mersay” with the emphasis on the second syllable, which I presume is the Swiss “Merci”.
Wilkie- we’re off for a meal tonight at “your” hotel, the Hotel Oberland. He’s full inside at 7pm. So we’ve got to eat outside, but looking forward to it. We can always stick another layer on! Opted for this over the pizza place you recommended in Wengen, Di Sana, cos the weather’s not just as good now, and we like to have a list of goodies to come back for next time!
The locals are very friendly. The transport service is phenomenal. Trains run approx every half hour and cable cars constantly throughout the day. They run to a generous number of stations dotted all over the mountains. You can go up in an infinite variety of ways, walk along, stay overnight in a number of huts of varying comfort, and return by a number of conveniently- located other lifts. It’s like a walkers’ playground! You can bite off as much or as little as you want! But there really is no excuse for not going up into this superb mountain panorama.
“Shopping List” of things still to do!!!
1. Schynigge Platte – Faulhorn-overnight stay-Schwarzhorn-Grosse Scheidegg or First
2. Isenfluh area
3. Ascend Schilthorn via Rotstock hut and down by cable car from Birg
4. Walk in the Kiental area
5. Bring mountain bikes, cos”there’s some good mountain bike trails”, or so Ian says!!!
6. Do the Jungfrau marathon from Interlaken to Kleine Scheidegg in four hours!
7. Scale north face of Eiger before lunch!!!!!!
8. Eat Pizza at Di Sana, in Wengen.
9. Visit Zermatt, Matterhorn, Reichenbach falls, Meiringen etc etc etc

Ps poem on wooden “Hut” near First, to be translated
“Allzeit Frohlich, ist Gefahrlich Allzeit Traurig ist Beschwerlich Allzeit Glucklich ist Unmoglich Eins ums Andere ist Vergnuglich/Bergnuglich”
???To always be happy is hazardous To always be dreaming is wearisome To always be lucky is unlikely One without the other is Ahhhhh! I don’t know what that last word means at all. I’ll look into it when I get back.
By the way, Wilkie, they’ve covered the whole roof of that new hut near First with solar panels. About 40 of them. They look superb and the roof with wooden shingles is nearly done!

day 6: The Last Day



Day 6 The Last Day

The last day of our concessionary rail pass, that is, and the last day of our hiking journeys into the mountains. So one last effort to plaster blistered toes, don walking boots and head off on the train to Grindelwald, and then onto the magnificent First chair lift, which rises to an awe-inspiring 2168m. We were up a bit later than we should have been, but the cloudy start and sixth day’s activity on the trot, meant that we were a bit slower than usual. But after a quick adjustment to the route, we were off. We’d made a note of the last chair-lift off the mountain, which really is our only restriction on the day, however, more of that later!!
The original route of catching a bus, or as Wilkie calls it “a buzz”, to Bussalp and walking from there up to Faulhorn and onto the Hiendertellti route up to Schwarzhorn and down to Grosse Scheidegg would take us about 7hours and was virtually impossible without an overnight stop. It does n’t really look that far on the map, but distances are really deceptive. One mention about the walking times signposted around here. Now, we don’t hang around! We’re used to snacking and drinking on the move. But the times here are tight. They don’t take into account any stops for breaks, photo-taking, slowing down cos you’re getting tired! But basically, if it’s taking you longer than the recommended time for the hike then maybe you should think again! It’s so easy to think that that peak isn’t too far away, only to find you’re still climbing it at a brisk pace, an hour or so later!
We’d adjusted the route to go from First, up and down to the base of Schwarzhorn and reaching the top of Wildgarst, recommended in the Bernese Alps walking guide, returning by the same route to First. Fairly straightforward. There is a Via Ferrata ascending Schwarzhorn, but it wasn’t recommended in bad weather. It was a bit cloudy, so we’d see how we felt.
From First onto Bachalpsee lake (which we skirted in the Schynige Platte route a few days earlier), the path split and we followed it up and over the saddle, descending through a boulder field into the “Hinterberg hanging valley”. We passed along the shores of the Hagelsee lake. Trundling on over scree, we passed another tarn called Haxenseeli, with the bleak, dark walls of the Schwarzhorn mountain filling the view ahead. If you looked closely, you could make out the ladders and metal cables of the via ferrata, used to scale the Schwarzhorn ridge. Though the mist was down, only clearing occasionally with the swirling wind, I could see a few people on the ridge. Mad! We’d come across and used via ferratas on Kinabalu and the Pinnacles in Malaysia and in the Southern Highlands NSW, Australia, but I wouldn’t like to attempt the Schwarzhorn ridge unless ascending it in good weather. Not today!
More climbing through amazing rock formations, looking up at more striped and lined grey and browny rocks. That’s something I must do. Look up some idiot’s guide to geology, so I can start to understand what’s happened to these incredible lumps of grey, white and brown, striped, razor-sharp stuff!!! At the top of another saddle, Schwarzhorn was on the right, and Wildgarst was on the left. We reached the summit in about three and a half hours from First, exactly what it said on the signposts and in the guide! Superb views all around on a better day. Today a brief glimpse here and there, enticing you to come back again and try it another day!
We’d have to get a move on to get the last chairlift off. Otherwise we’d be faced by a further two and half hours walk back to Grindelwald, and there was no chance of that happening. So a quick oat bar and cheese butty, all of five minutes rest, and then trudge onwards. With the mist completely down, navigation was quite tricky, but with recalling what the way up had been like, and staring around for the white-red-white signs painted on boulders and scree, we made our way down as fast as sore knees could pick their way through the rocks! We past a young couple who’d got a bit lost, had had to change their route and asked us how far it was to the top of Wildgarst! We politely suggested they forget it! They’d got no chance of making it to the top and back in time! And if they’d got lost at this earlier stage, they’d find it very difficult higher up! Apart from them, we only met one other couple, who did go up Schwarzhorn, and we reckon that no-one else had been up Wildgarst that day. We’d got our wish of going to a much less visited area of the mountains!
We pushed on, Ian reassuring me that we were alright for time. But when we reached the First cable car, we realised that the last gondola didn’t depart in an hour and fifteen minutes, it departed in fifteen minutes! Since Sept 8, they’d brought it forward an hour. How close we’d been to having to add two and half to three hours walking very steep downhill onto what had already been five hours and forty minutes! Phew!!!!
On the way down, there was time to relax, count our blessings, and be grateful that on the seventh day God said unto the tired and weary, take the day off!!!!

Day 5:Chilling on the Eiger Trail





Day5 “Chilling on the Eiger Trail”

“Chilling” because this well-established walking trail takes you directly under the infamous north face of the Eiger, which casts a giant shadow over the trail, making it cold and sunless.
We set off walking into Lauterbrunnen at 9am and catch a train to Kleine Scheidegg, transferring to the Grindelwald train, and coming off it just one stop later at Alpiglen.
The Eiger trail leaves Alpiglen and comfortably winds its way up the mountainside back towards Eigergletscher hut (Eiger glacier hut). A lovely ascent which takes you underneath and close to the Eiger north wall. Absolutely awesome. On the way over we greeted people passing, and came across and English group. She recognised the accent as a Burnley accent, and I explained that we lived near Bakewell now. She said she came from Sheffield area! When we narrowed it down, it turned out she came from Froggatt, about 5mins walk away from where we used to live, and knew one of our present neighbours, whose husband organises the White Peak Walk which I’d completed in July this year! We concluded it was a small world and weren’t we having amazing weather and continued on our way.
We wound our way up to Eigergletscher hut, pausing to take even more photos of the stunning glacier, which seems almost within touching distance. Then back down to Kleine Scheidegg. At this point I feel I must apologise to Wilkie and Team for seriously letting the side down. We ditched the idea of making cheese butties ths morning in favour of a great lunch at a bar in K.Sch. We were so hungry and the rosti and schwenfilet plus two beers went down without touching the sides!!
After that off up the other “side” of K.Sch. onto the Mannlicher ridge, with more stunning views looking back towards Eiger, Wetterhorn, Schreckhorn, and Finsteraarhorn (being the biggest at 4724m). It’s weird that it’s the biggest of the mountains and yet far less famous, but the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau are known best because they stand close together, I presume.
We met up with an American guy, from Memphis, who was “in love” with the whole area. When we said we were from England, he said he would love to spend some time walking there, and so I recommended Alfred Wainwright’s books, not just for the walking routes or the beautiful pencil drawings, but also for his dry, northern commentary. He said he would google him as soon as he got down the mountain, and that talking with us (well, me, really!) today, had been the best experience of his stay there! Methinks, he doth exaggerate, but kind, enthusiastic words, so typical of the Americans, which are only outnumbered here by large groups of Japanese visitors, some confined, sleeping, to trains, but some do make it out onto the more straightforward treks.
We caught the Mannlicher chair-lift back down the mountain to Wengen and then the train back to Lauterbrunnen. We rarely get back before 6-7pm each day because of the transport required to go on these walks. By the time food has been cooked and washing-up done it’s getting on for 9pm. Busy, full days!
Forecast if for more cloud building over the next few days, just as I hear it’s improving at home! May affect what we do over next few days, but we have had the best weather!

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Day 4: Day Off




Day4 –Day off. “Using different muscles.Feet getting increasingly sore and blistered. Too much time spent cycling to get fitter, but feet feeling as soft as a baby’s bottom, as a result. Getting out of bed to go to the loo in the middle of the night was becoming increasingly more uncomfortable, with super-sore thighs. So it was decided that we would have an easy, “rest” day today. We’d use some different muscles and give our feet a break. We planned to set off nearer lunch-time, giving the sun time to get up and warm the valley. We did a bit of washing (they have real washing-machines, and driers and a fantastic free drying room, where we can put our wet towels overnight, although someone does seem to have taken a shine to our brand-new towel!) We did some repairs to a damaged window mozzie net, and I up-dated the blog.
We set off about 12am, cycling down the valley towards Interlaken. Yet another glorious, blue sky day. We cycled across the airport runway, pausing to take photos of some very large raptors, which looked a little like eagles. Then we rose above the lake and road, on a hilly section, pausing again at Iselwald, at the Hotel Bellevue. We made a note to come back here for a special wedding anniversary. It was a modest, small hotel, but had tables set up right on the waters edge, and they specialised in fish dishes, so that’s a promise! We quickly ate one of the famous cakes with a coffee- plum tart! Absolutely huge and equally delicious!! But it was 2pm, and we hadn’t had anything to eat. I find I can’t eat a proper meal when I’m working hard cycling!
Up and down again, on to the splendid Giessbach Grand Hotel. The whole area down by the lake has a very old wealthy feel about it, almost Riviera-style, with boats ferrying people up and down across the Brienzersee lake. The lake itself is expansive, separated from an equally large lake called the Thunsee, by the town of Interlaken. Both have a love turquoise colour, and on a day like today, with no wind, the water was still. I was surprised to find it quite quiet down by the lake, considering the stations are quite busy, but when you get out into the mountains it’s quiet there as well!
We took photos under the Giessbach falls which tumble down the mountainside at the back of the hotel, rather like the Lauterbrunnen falls at the back of the campsite. From the falls, onto the head of the lake and Brienz, which didn’t seem particularly striking, as we shot through it at a speed that a half-digested plum tart will allow!
We worked hard all the way from Brienz to Interlaken, on the opposite side of the lake, stopping at Interlaken to watch the paragliders landing in the field nearby, and called in at the station to buy some 1920s style mountain railway posters. Incidentally the Swiss will be working towards and celebrating 2012, like us, but for a different reason, celebrating the railway centennial, so it would be a great time to come back then, although I’ll be amazed if we don’t return yearly whilst we have the van, because we’ve both agreed it’s an amazing place!
From Interlaken it’s a gradual climb of 12k back to Lauterbrunnen, and I was ecstatic to see Lauterbrunnen railway station appear, around the bend, up the hill. I was feeling shattered but really pleased when Ian told me we’d just covered 41miles, yes miles not ks. Not bad for a rest day!
We ate a pre-prepared frozen chicken tagine with couscous and loaded up with all the food we’d missed that day, and stayed in to watch “Harry Potter” on dvd..
It’s weird but I can see what pulls Wilkie and team back to this area every year. We’ve only had one day in the valley, and we can’t wait to get into the mountains again. A bit like an addiction really, you do get a feeling of such euphoria when you@re up there in the sunshine, looking at those views!

Day 3: Schynige Platte




Day 3: The Happy Wanderers plus two. First to Schynige Platte (aka (one of) the most wonderful walking routes in the world!)

Left the van with sandwiches packed and met up with the Happy Wanderers at their hotel in Lauterbrunnen at 8.30am. We needed to set off early because we had a long walk ahead of us, with a number of connecting train journeys. Another blue sky, cold morning, with sun streaming down the shaded valley, Wengen glinting in the sunshine above us.
A train to Grindelwald, and then chairlift to First, high up in the mountains. Superb chairlift ride. Wilkie needed a few minutes to do some introductory filming, and then we were off. We climbed up from First to a stunning lake called Bachalpsee. Alistair took one of several “money shots”, which he would run on ahead and take throughout the day! Gorgeous views all around as we made our way up to Faulhorn, to the first of our huts. But no time to stop as we moved on on a high level, undulating walk well-known as the Schynige Platte, taking in ever-changing views of mountains, giving way to views down to Brienzersee and Thunsee, and Interlaken, which separates the two “sees”. As we walked on, we were already planning our “rest day” tomorrow, which would see us cycling around Brienzersee, a route that the “Team” had down a few days earlier. Just a little mention here that Wilkie and his mates are not exactly “spring chickens” but they’ve not stopped since they got here, going out every day doing really tough walks, and, as Roger aptly put it, the tanks were beginning to register close to empty, but still we pushed on at quite a brisk pace Ian’s previous pace up the Shilthorn had earned him the nick-name “Billy Whizz”, but today we needed to push on.. You have to if you want to do the whole of the Platte and get back in time for the last train off the mountain, and back before dark!
As with most long walks, the last few miles seemed to go on for ever, with the Bergstation in the distance never seeming to get any closer. Wilkie started to sound like everybody’s annoying Dad, saying that it was just around this bend, only to find another extensive path winding along the top of the hill in the distance. It was beginning to heat up as well, on another cloudless, windless, sunny day.
One lovely little moment of joy- a voice in the distance singing loud and even breaking into a yodel. As we got closer the elderly owner of this superb voice became rather shy and clammed up. The white-haired swiss gentleman, left his tractor in the meadow and greeted us on the path with the customary “Grusse” (greetings). On realising we were English, with Wilkie complimenting him on living in a beautiful place, he said that he saw this every day, and that he envied us our…. our…., at which point we wanted to help him by selecting vocabulary like, our pubs, our music, our dodgy politicians, our roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, but no, he finalised with “our queen”. Well there you go , God Bless our Queen!
5 hours and 20minutes later we were at the station, having covered a mere 13 miles, which felt more like a marathon, but feeling full on mountain scenery.
After a slow, sleepy journey on the historic railway which weaves it way down the mountain-side to Wilderswill, and then a connection to Lauterbrunnen, following the milky turquoise river up to the town, already back in the shadows, and beginning to feel cold. The 6 day travel pass had proved really good value today, saving time queuing, and covering four journeys.
Too late to cook and so off to the café for a beer and a rosti. Wilkie and co’s last night, so Ian stayed on at the local pub to “see them off”! And as a ps regretted it most of the following day. But we’d planned to catch up on some “housekeeping” tomorrow, giving us time to draw breath and the sun time to warm the cycle ride down to Brienzersee.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Day 2 : Eigergletscher




Day 2: Wengen-Kleine Scheidegg-Eigergletscher (Eiger Glacier)

7.30am. Cold, cold start. A quick burst of heating in the van for 20mins, just to take the chill off. Porridge and bananas, as usual, for breakfast. Rucksacks packed and we were off for about 8.30. Ten minute stroll to Lauterbrunnen station and we were on the WAB train to Wengen, 1275m. The beauty of this campsite, apart from spectacular scenery, is its proximity to Lauterbrunnen, its pub, restaurants, but most important of all, its stations for chairlifts and trains, being the main form of transport up and down the mountains.
20mins later we were in Wengen, in the early morning sunshine. Clear blue sky, not a cloud in sight and the prospect of another glorious day in the mountains. We had a steep climb up from Wengen on good, wide tracks leading up through coniferous forests. Passed a helicopter team busy shifting felled trees around. The helicopter is the Swiss workhorse around here, waking us up at 7.45am every morning, if we weren’t already up!!
About 3hours later we turned the corner to Kleine Scheidegg. Wow what a view! You felt like you could almost touch the Eiger, right in front of us, dwarfing the tall, wooden chalets of Kl.Sch. Its infamous North Face (Nordwand), in total shadow, dark and menacing. The little red train could be seen, weaving its way up the increasingly steep, narrow track, achiving its busy goal. Kleine Scheidegg is a busy little crossroads with trains arriving and departing constantly. Just a couple of swiss-style hotels and lots of bars and cafes. If you want to be careful with cash, like we do, you make your own cheese butties and tea-loaf to keep you going on the hike. But you needn’t fear of going hungry or thirsty on all but the mountaineering routes in the Oberland! Paths in the middle of nowhere can be guaranteed to work their way towards a “hut” of varying degrees of comfort, ranging from four walls with a view to die for, to one selling bed and board, fruit tarts and beer!
But if you’ve got an itinerary, linking with trains off the mountain and getting back before dark, you can’t stop for beer and rosti, so cheese butties on the side of the mountain will have to do!
Today, “lunch” was under the Eiger, looking down towards the valley where Grindelwald sits. A quick call to Kate, back home, to check that all was well. She was bored, had organised a fitness regime for herself, and wanted to know where the cardboard, sugar-paper and glue was, to make Vicki her 21st birthday card. They always used to share the same birthday party when we lived down in Buckinghamshire. A rather surreal phone call to be having sitting under the Eiger. “Yes, the cardbord’s on top of the utility unit and the glue’s in the cupboard. We’re looking up at the Eiger!”. “Oh, that’s nice! Anyway got to go, mum!”
We walked along to the awesome Eigergletscher, a massive glacier working its way around the base of the Eiger. Ian told me of how, in 1936, a climber lost his life, dangling off a rope, on the Eiger, with people trying to reach him through “windows” cut out of the Eiger, formed when the railway to the Jungfraujoch, “Top of Europe” was constructed. The poor guy died whilst being so close to safety. Not worth losing your life over!
On the spur of the moment we decided to go to Top of Europe/Jungfraujoch, which sets of from Kleine Scheidegg and takes approx an hour with two five minute stops, to get to the top. The highest railway in Europe, with 10km of it tunnelling through the mountain side. Amazing engineering. Surrounded by a carriage full of sleeping, jet-lagged Japanese, with relaxed on the train ride, stopping first at the aforementioned Eiger wand, a window cut out of the Eiger, which can be used to rescue endangered climbers. Then we stopped briefly at Eismeer, which looks out onto the Monch mountain, one of the “Holy Trinity”/ the Eiger, the Monch and the Jungfrau, which dominate most of the trails.
Finally we arrived at the Top of Europe, and could look down on the beautiful Aleitsch Glacier, which is the one that you see on most of the famous photos of the Swiss mountains. Restaurants, gift-shops and sculpted ice gallery all had to be ignored. A spur of the moment decision meant that we hadn’t long to spend, (but long enough for Ian, I suspect!), so we headed straight for the walk out onto the snow and ice, with unimpeded views over the mighty glacier. Clear blue sky, blindingly bright white snowy mountains, no wind even 3500m up. Life doesn’t get much better than this!
Two train journeys later, we were back in Lauterbrunnen. The sun had gone off the valley, even though it was still shining brightly up in Wengen, and it was beginning to get cold. But we managed to round a perfect day off with a bbq!
Ps. At 80euros, being half-price as an extra bonus of taking the 6day pass, this was an expensive trip. Glad we tagged it onto the walk, though, rather than making a whole day of it, because this briefer visit was enough, when there so much else to see here!

Day 1: We join the Happy Wanderers




Day 1:We join “The Happy Wanderers”!

We were there at 9.30am as planned. 9.35am and Wilkie came down to the reception of the Hotel Oberland, shaking his head and muttering that it was like getting a party of children ready for an outing. But there were four men, sleeping in the same room. All trying to get into the bathroom at the same time, and all trying to give it some time before they went into the same bathroom, if you get my drift! Wilkie and his friends, Dave Ed and Roger have been coming here for 25years, walking in the mountains, so it was great to be looked after by them, ferried onto trains and gondola-style ski lifts. That’s the only way to get around here. In fact, Wengen, in the high hills, can only be accessed by ski lift, service tracks or on foot!!
We finally get under way, with mutterings about dicky tummies, and tiredness due to a bad night’s sleep. We get the gondola up the mountain-side to Grutschalp, then the railway along the plateau to Murren, and then another gondola to Birg, which took us to 2600m up the Schilthorn. A few hundred metres later we were on the Schilthorn, famous for its starring role in the Bond film, (which bombed) On Her Majestys Secret Service!
With Wilkie waxing lyrical about the scenery, Roger, the hairdresser from Blackburn, cracking increasingly risqué jokes, Wilkie’s son, Alistair, buying the biggest cow-bell he could afford, and Dave Ed introducing us to Roger and Wilkie’s night-time habits, we had a great time making our way down from the Schilthorn. All the time accompanied by the most stunningly beautiful mountain views, on the clearest day, with the bluest sky. Astonishing! This went some way towards taking the pain out of tired knees and blistered feet, that had been softened by bike pedals for some time. We may have gibbed by making the main exertion downhill, but what a downhill! 4500feet of descent!
Unfortunately I had a stinking migraine on the way down, which I can only put down to altitude, reaching nearly 3000m in about an hour on our first outing. But I felt grim! Two migraleve later, and a little rest and I was ready for something to eat! We ate in the campsite café which proved to be great value. I had the local Rosti: grated potatoes, cheese, ham and mushrooms- absolutely delicious!
Slightly easier day planned for tomorrow, but we’d purchased two six day rail passes at 150Euros each, so we were committed to making the most of them during our stay here!
Really cold at night, once the sun’s gone down, which is quite early here in the valley, about 5pm

Just in time for a cycle




Just in time for a quick cycle!

Door to door, Home to Lauterbrunnen campsite in two days! And welcome to Switzerland!
Great campsite run by Australians and English! Sign on the door saif closed until 3pm, and it was 1pm. Ah well, maybe have to kill some time having a beer, but no, the proprietor, who doesn’t hold with the continental way of closing for the rest of the day, could be summoned on his mobile and was there with the famed Swiss efficiency and immediacy!
Less than an hour later we were parked up, and away on the bikes for a quick cycle up the valley. We went out one way towards Wengen, and then Ian remembered that the reason why he couldn’t find a road up to Wengen was because there wasn’t a road up to Wengen! An idyllic alpine village, complete with wooden chalets, alpine meadows, and jingling cow bells, perched high above the valley floor and only accessible by the wonderful Wengern Alpen Bahn WAB, for short, a series of funicular railways developed since 1912, which connect all the Alpine villages in the area, Wengen, Grindelwald, Murren, Kleinescheidegg, to name but a few. Absolutely magical.
We cycled out the other way towards Stickelberg, and then having orientated ourselves we returned to the van. Later that night we met up with a friend of ours, David W, aka Wilkie, aka the Doctor, in a local hostelry. He was there for his 25th or so visit, with his old school chums, Dave Ed and Roger, and his son Alistair. We got together, and discussed plans for walking tomorrow.
Incidentally, the weather is wonderful. The forecast for the next few days is great, and the scenery is outstanding. What’s more, the recent rain has settled as a good drop of snow on the glaciers and mountains, cleaning them all up, covering the dinghy tired snow-tops with a fresh covering of crisp, white snow. So in short, it couldn’t be better and we are so lucky to be here!

Monday, 7 September 2009

We shouldn't be here


We shouldn’t be here!

No, not some existential crisis! We really shouldn’t be here! We’re supposed to be in Cornwall, and even booked a meal at the excellent Rick Stein’s restaurant in Padstow, but with a week to go and the forecast of more howling wind and torrential rain, we sat down and booked a trip across the Channel again!
Sea france ferry to Calais, and then five nights booked at a campsite in Lauterbrunnen, in Switzerland.
I’ve never been before, and Ian’s only been once about thirty years ago with Keith and some mates. He went to Grindelwald and loved it! The site is within walking distance of Lauterbrunnen, with the prospect of tons of walking in the Bernese Oberland, the Eiger and Jungfrau being our nearest neighbours!
Van loaded up. Lots of meals prepared and frozen, because this is an extra treat, and I’ve heard Switzerland can be an expensive destination! Just over five hours drive to Folkestone and overnight stay at a n inexpensive caravan park. Early start at 5am for an early ferry and then we’re off on quiet autoroutes, leaving the SE England behind with its very busy, dug-up roads!
We overnighted in an aire in Kayserberg, after 650km covered, with pouring rain keeping us company all the way down. We awoke to a better morning, and had a wander around the extremely quaint Alsace town, and promised ourselves that we’d come back here for some beer and a fruit tart. No prizes for guessing who promised who what!!!!
Oh and we saw storks for the first time, nesting in the spire of a village timber-framed building. Huge nest perched right at the top, must have been at least five feet across, with the biggest birds I’ve ever seen before sitting on top! Amazing!!!

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Another early start



Another Early Start

Off early and on the road north. Just got as far as we felt comfortable. The van’s superb to drive, but after lunch, you just feel the need for a siesta! We pulled up 50miles north of Dijon, in the Cremant de Borgogne wine-growing area. Cremant is much like Champagne, but they’re not allowed to call it that. We “installed” the van on the “emplacement”, at Chatillon-sur-Seine. Ian went off on another cycle ride and I chose to prepare some food and catch up with the blog!
Ian’s sort of mentioned in passing, unenthusiastically, that there is some ancient artefact in the museum in town. I later discovered that it sounds spectacular. It turns out that the village of Vix, 6km northwest of Chatillon, is the highest navigable point on the Seine, and they think that the Celtic chiefs who controlled it, were brought gifts, possibly from traders in Cornish tin, shipped South from Britain on the way to the Adriatic. So the treasures are technically ours, I suppose! The museum houses finds from the 6th century BC tomb of a Celtic princess, buried in a four-wheeled chariot. They say that the best piece is a simple gold tiara, and the largest bronze vase of Greek origin known from antiquity. It stands an incredible 1.64m high on tripod legs.
A little insignificant place like this, with nothing much else to say about it, and it houses an amazing relic!
And Ian thought he was going to get away with not visiting it. You’ve got to exercise the brain as well as the body, Ian!!! We can’t wait to see it before heading to the seaside and the Boulogne area! Ferry crossing in three days time!
PS Picture shows us at Le Touquet on an aire - it's not all beautiful mountain scenery!

Catching up with Family



Catching up with Family!

After a seven hour walk up La Tournette, we got straight in the van and headed off for Geneva area, where we were going to meet up with Keith, Deb, Alice and Ed in a couple of days. This country’s so big, and distances are deceptive. We arrived in the Haut Alpes area, near Geneva, at about rush-hour. We’d shut “Sally SatNav” in the glove compartment because she kept sending us to places we didn’t want to go, and then trying to turn us around! We went all the way down the valley to a very busy little place called Samoens, past idyllic, picture-postcard, geranium-strewn chalets. No, they were full, and suggested two other places. One we couldn’t find and the other was up a scarily narrow track. It was nearly 6pm, and things were being said that oughtn’t to have!
We finally found an excellent site in a fairly non-descript place called Taninges. It was cheap and cheerful, and you could walk into town.
We talked about staying only one night and ended up staying three! One day we cycled up onto the higher plateau of Les Gets, where Keith and Deb had hired a chalet for the week. We had a lovely afternoon swimming in the lake with them, and a lovely meal, which Deb cooked for us. Not too late, we set off on the steep ride back to Taninges, 12k with your hands covering the brakes all the way, averaging about 20mph!
The following day, setting off at 8.30 am to avoid the heat and the traffic, we cycled all the way back past Samoens and onto Sixt Cirque du Fer a Cheval, which is a vast semi-circle of rock walls up to 700m high and 4-5 km long, ridged with white water from numerous water-falls. A reasonably flat 32 mile cycle ride there and back. I find the flatter ones even worse that the steep ones, because you can’t help feeling you could be going faster!
It was a particularly hot day and lovely to get back and just doze under the trees near the van, pretending to read!
At about 7pm, Ed and the family arrived to give the van “a once over”. Ed was fascinated with all the switches and cupboards, even down to the workings of the loo plumbing. When it was time to go, he probably knew as much about the van as Ian did!

Toiling up La Tournette



Toiling up La Tournette

Ian has an irritating fascination with maps, and is infuriatingly drawn to brown lines on maps! I mean the sort that get very close together, when there are hills and mountains. This knowledge, coupled with the Lonely Planet’s description of the area, drew him to La Tournette. The LP states that “experienced hill-walkers (that’d be us) wanting a stiff (that’d be Ian!) but straightforward (that’d be me!) mountain ascent could tackle La Tournette(2351m)., which dominates the beautiful, turquoise Lac d’Annecy. You could reduce the height to a reasonable 1200m by driving up nearby Col de Forclaz and then walking up to Col de L’Aulp before beginning the rather steep ascent. Now, later in the passage it talks about scrambling using chains and hand-rails, which seemed to somewhat contradict the “straight-forwardness” of the climb. As I’ve got older, I’ve found that I’m getting reasonably fit at climbing. As with cycling, I get into a rhythm and plod on. But coming down is a different matter entirely. Ian’s got some excellent footage of me coming down backwards, in Mittagong, Southern Highlands of NSW, Aus, zooming in on my rear end and making all kinds of sarcastic comments, like “My mum could come down faster!”. The knees have lost their shock absorbers!
However we did it in good time, helped by the usual array of stunning alpine meadow flowers, cornflowers, astrantia, wild geraniums, scabious, and hundreds others. There were herds of cows with their massive jangling bells, grazing under huge rock faces that soared into the bright blue sky. Why wouldn’t you want to risk life and limb on a little scramble!
When we reached the top, WOW!!!!! Mont Blanc in all its white-topped glory, right there in front of us. We sat and ate a boiled egg and cereal bar, savouring every moment, at least I did, as Ian legged it off the summit to a more sheltered spot just below!!!
Coming down was slow. The minute you started to relax, the gravel under foot would suddenly slide and send every tired muscle and tendon spasming and bracing for the inevitable crash onto your back-side. I thought of Grandma coming downstairs backwards, and realised that I wasn’t far behind!!! But it was worth it, even though two days later my thighs were still trying to tell me that I was a 50something year old woman!!!
We’d left the van at the head of the Col de Forclaz and gingerly made our way back down the narrow track to Menthon Saint Bernard, hoping not to meet anybody on the way down! We couldn’t have left the van on the site, because you have to be off before 12noon. Incidentally, we find a really nice site on the edge of Lac Annecy, in Menthon Saint Bernard, where the patron saint of hill-walkers lived. The site was quite full and there were signs that we were heading into a busy touristy area. A lovely place but I’d try it outside August next time.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Back in the Ain via Alpe d'Huez and La Grave




We left Perigeux and went over to Bourg d'oisans so that Ian could have a go at the Alpe d'huez cycle climb - well known in cycling as it rises over 1000m in 13 km with 13 hairpin bends. Did it - but hardest thing he had done - thankfully that should be the end of the heroics for this holiday!We also went to la Grave and ascended the telephrique to La Meije which dominates the area - beautiful. The weather was about to change for the worse, however, so our time there was cut short.
After a long drive we were back in the Ain region- the Bugey, and parked up in our Caveau Bugiste, from where we’d promised ourselves a cycle ride. Peaceful, unspoilt and very untouristy backwater of France. I love backwaters! Caroline had said about their little corner of France that some of her friends just don’t “get it”, and can’t understand their choice. It’s the same with us. There’s something about this area that makes us feel so relaxed and “at home”. Maybe it’s the weather, because on the two occasions we’ve been here, it’s rained both times- the only times in four weeks!!!
We had a superb cycle ride, through several stunning, quiet villages with old timber and stone houses, past a little lake, across the incredibly wide Rhone and up a rather big hill- La Colombiere. It was getting quite late, so (un)fortunately couldn’t get to the top- more unfinished business for next year. Nobody around us when we got back and the caveau was closed for the evening , so were able to have one of our few bbqs- limited by the fire risk and disturbing others nearby. No risk of fire here. There’s a very good reason why it’s green and lush!
The following day we pootled down to Annecy. A bit like the Lake District but warmer. Today was looking drier, but the tops of the amazing cliffs and mountains were obscured by clouds. Our plan to climb La Tournette with its stunning views of Mont Blanc could wait until tomorrow, so we decided to get ourselves settled for one night in Menthon Saint-Bernard, a lovely little camp-site under the Chateau, and within a very short walk of the village. We had one of the few meals we’ve had out here, and the only one that’s been a delight. Menu de jour for 12e 50 and an even cheaper plat du jour, if one course is all you wanted. We’d go back to the “Gout de Jour” again. Ate a Marmite of beef, which was basically casserole, and this time got exactly what we expected, with no weird offal in sight!!
Back for a siesta and a bit of “sorting out”! We’re meeting up with Keith and Deb in a few days time, so working our way over to Morzine area, via the Aravis Mountains, where there’s supposed to be yet more great cycling!

Bonjour a Harvey Paul Fort


Christine is a Grandma!

Text message from my sister-in-law, Christine, to say that her son, Lucas and Liana have had a baby boy named Harvey Paul Fort, and she was clearly delighted. It was my mum’s birthday today, so she is now a great-grandma too! I’m looking forward to visiting them all when we return in about ten days.

Yours will be the Tete de Veau



So Yours will be the Tete de Veau, Monsieur!

How we ended up at Perigueux, capital of Perigord, when we were looking for somewhere quieter, I don’t know. But believe it or not, it was actually quieter than the Dordogne-sud and a helluva sight more “real”!!!
We saw a few campervans down by the river on a car park, and having paid for two nights at great expense, we decided to make it a free night tonight! Parked up on the car park, right next to the river, with a delightful view of some graffiti covered flats opposite. But the river was lovely, and we looked up at Perigueux cathedral, and could walk into town. As everywhere, the car park was free, and even had water and tank-drainage facilities, where you just drive over a dip and dump; your waste water and even toilet waste! France really does cater for camping cars, everywhere.
We decided to spoil ourselves, seeing as we were in the city, and found what looked like a pleasant, inexpensive café/restaurant, which got a reasonable write-up in the L.P. Guide. I ordered the Pommes Sarladaise (from Sarlat, nearby), which was basically a shed-load of potatoes cooked with lardons and onions, and was really tasty. Ian bravely ordered from the menu, ordering a grillard of cold cooked meatloaf, which looked distinctly like the kind of stuff I’d throw away. Then the crazy guy followed it with tete de veau, even though there was duck etc in the offing. When it arrived it was a gelatinous wobbly mound topped with mashed up yellow pate, on top of a salad. Ian looked shocked, especially when I explained that he ordered head of veal! There were things that looked like lips and cheeks, and the yellow pate might well have been brain matter. Gross! The waitress looked surprised when she cleared away a half full plate, and asked if I could translate for the menu, as she has clearly had shocked reactions from UK visitors in the past!!! My rather dull goats cheese on toast with more salad seemed wonderful, by comparison! Pudding to wipe away the taste of the previous course, and we were out of pocket by 70euros. Not a good night, but an experience. We went back to the van and sat outside, with our Spanish neighbours, who were just about to tuck into roast chicken, which they’d cooked in the van, and it smelt delicious!
As I stood chatting to a local elderly lady, I saw a kingfisher land only a few feet away with a few fish in its mouth! The lady was promenading because, she said, there was nothing on the TV. She enjoyed passing the time with all the different nationalities who parked up. I got the feeling she was lonely. She said she hadn’t seen anybody all day, apart from a workman, who came to fix the windows. We chatted for about half an hour, about her knowledge of UK, Sudampton, and the Isle of Wait. She tried to speak a little English and was a very jolly lady. She told me that she had climbed up the dome of the cathedral, when she was in her thirties, but now thanks to Health and Safety, that avenue of pleasure was closed years ago. Aussi en Angleterre!

Dawdling down the Dordogne



Dawdling down the Dordogne!

On the way to the Dordogne, we called in at the little town of Lauzerte, about an hour away from Caroline’s, and packed with Roman and medieval architecture. France is so old! In the garden area, there are a number of little “Tapis” or rugs made out of various beautifully coloured ceramics, the work of Jacques Buchholtz. .Stunning views over the rolling hills beyond.
On increasingly busy roads to the southern Dordogne. I could feel the relaxation of the last few days starting to unravel. We camped on a very large, busy site complete with swimming pool and hefty tariff! We set off on a cycle ride, passing beautiful chateaux and running alongside the languid river Dordogne, but unfortunately competing with a lot of traffic. The busiest place we’ve been so far! But we decided to book a canoe trip for early the following morning, which would take us past the awesome La Roque -Gageac.
We set off early before the river became very busy and pootled down the Dordogne in the canoe. We’d booked it for half a day, at 27euros. Good value we thought afterwards, because it’s the only stress-free way to see this area in Summer, when the roads are thronged with tourists. La Roque-Gageac, visually stunning, with its ochre-coloured houses sheltering under dramatically overhanging cliffs. It’s described in the Lonely Planet as “almost too perfect”, and I agree totally. It’s almost too neat and scrubbed up for the tourists, and is a regular winner of France’s prettiest village contest. We dawdled down, watching the river flowing gently, and the water birds dipping and diving. Superb way to gaze slowly at the chateaux. In fact, there’s little need to paddle, just letting the river do the job. You canoe downstream and then catch a minibus back. Fantastic!!
Got back to our miserable pitch in the dirt, and even though we’d paid we left rapidly and decided to head back to a quieter area!

From Compact Living to the Best B&B


From Compact Living to the best “B&B” in France!

“Where’s the loo roll?” “In the oven!” Compact living is amazing! You find space in the most unlikely places- Space for round things. Space for long, narrow things. Space for squidgy things. It’s incredible what you can fit into a 6m van and also what you can do without for four weeks! We’ve not really missed anything yet and the facilities in French camp-sites really are first rate, so that washing-up and showering is not done in the confines of the van, but in the ample facilities of the sites.
However, it’s been our plan for some time to visit our neighbours from a couple of years ago, who have moved to France for six months or more, to see how it feels. We were looking forward to catching up with them for a couple of days, and began our trek into unknown territory. We’d never been to the Gers region of France before, which is roughly south of the Dordogne and within sight of the Pyrenees.
After several hours trekking west, through Mende (capital of Lozere), over the spectacular Millau bridge (architect, Norman Foster, who also designed the “Gherkin”/Cornichon in London), on to Albi and finally to Montauban. About 300miles brought us to a little, provincial village called Gaudonville. We passed through fields and fields of sunflowers, and roadsides decorated with exquisite wildflowers- poppies, daisies and cornflowers. This area seemed to have adopted a more natural approach to becoming “fleuried”, rather than the more colourful, garden annuals chosen elsewhere. The village is very pretty and the area totally uncommercialised. Not a pottery shop, or tea-towel stall in sight. Very agricultural and unspoilt. The house which Glyn and Caroline were renting was stunning. In need of some work and money spending on it but exciting and delicate, none the less. Massive barn attached with timber frame, although rotten in places. We sat in the garden and drank Cremant sparkling wine and the second night enjoyed a great barbecue under the stars, sitting under a mulberry tree. Glyn and Caroline have created their own “potager”/veg plot and in the brief time that they’ve been there have kept themselves supplied with courgettes, tomatoes and beans, as well as enjoying kilos of plums from the fruit trees in the garden.
We visited nearby villages like Fleurance and Lectoure, with its Roman and medieval architecture, which sits comfortably alongside upvc windows and concrete. Authentic but still lived-in! All the trip I’d been bursting to visit a local market and so to Fleurance, a very pretty village. Fruit and vegetables in abundance and much cheaper than in the shops. There are markets at most villages on specific days of the week, and no shortage of fresh produce. So different from UK with our weekly and sparse markets.
As always when we stay with Glyn and Caroline, we ate fantastically well, emptied their fridge of beers, and slept well. Only disturbance were the church bells which rang out enthusiastically at 7am, and were accompanied by the local dog who tried to sing along! On the subject of loud noises, whilst we were in Fleurance, at twelve noon, there was an almighty racket as a siren, which sounded like the sirens at the quarries in Stoney Middleton, prior to blasting, went off at full volume. The busking singer stopped playing and crooning, and waited for the row to pass. Caroline explained that, in the absence of church bells, the siren told everyone that it was time to stop what they were doing and have lunch- 12 noon!!!
They both looked really healthy and happy in their French pastoral home, and feeling very relaxed ourselves, we set off for the Dordogne area.
A very big thankyou to them both.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Cooling in the Tarn


Cooling in the Tarn

After saying goodbye to one of the few English couples we’ve met on the journey so far (from County Durham, on a ten week sabbatical), and picking their brains about sites and experiences, we set off on another big climb up Mont Lozere, a large mountain to the north of Florac. We’d set off in the cool of the morning, expecting it to be sweltering on the way back down. It didn’t turn out to be too hard until you got near the top and then it suddenly became quite steep. But thanks to my granny cog, I slowly but surely reached the top of another 1000m climb. Slowly but steadily, not thinking too much about the distance and incline ahead, or about Ian’s shape disappearing into the distance. We passed through a couple of lovely little villages, Le Pont de Mont Vert, and Cocures, but no time to stop and stare! It was getting hotter and there wasn’t a cloud in the beautiful blue sky.
A quick photo and then a wonderfully cooling first half descent. As we got closer, even the breeze felt very warm and the road surface started to become sticky! After 35miles we arrived back and plunged straight into the River Tarn. You can get into it from the campsite. Lovely cold clean water. It even smells nice. It must be clean because they bottle it just up the river! It was a new experience for us, as we’re much more used to the smell and feel of pleasantly warm sea water. Once we’d got our body temperatures down, we hunkered under the expensive but totally indispensible awning, one of the number of extras we bought for Tommy. More about the van later. Tomorrow we’re off to explore, in the van, the rest of the Tarn Gorge which stretches for at least 30miles. Then on to visit on ex-next door neighbours from Buckinghamshire, who are living in France for 6months. It will be lovely to catch up with them and talk about what they’ve discovered.