Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Highs and Lows in the French Alps

Sunset over Lake Annecy

The French Alps has to be one of the most beautiful regions in the world. Caroline and I based ourselves in Annecy which must be one of the most beautiful alpine towns I've ever been to. Lake Annecy is picture postcard stuff, one of the cleanest lakes in Europe. What more could one possibly want?

Lake Annecy, one of the cleanest lakes in Europe
 Ok, the stunning beauty counts for a lot, but one certainly pays for it. We drove to Annecy via autoroutes and the tolls were quite expensive. And as one would expect of a tourist town, the price of food, drink, souvenirs is a bit over the top. But our answer to that was to eat at our hotel from a supermarket, with cheese, ham, bread and yoghurt on the menu.

Palais de l'Isle, Annecy

Palais de l'Isle, Annecy

Archways, alleys and medieval buildings are a pleasure to walk around in Annecy

The price is something that we expected, but what we didn't expect was for our hire car to break down. This was an annoying episode which cost us most of a day in sight seeing. We drove the car out of the hotel parking lot, and within 50 metres, it just cut out and stopped. A mechanic came out and didn't know what was wrong with it, and then our rental car company towed it away and replaced it with another, which we thought was a pretty good result for us. The only problem was that we had to pick up the car from Lyon airport which is about 125 km. Hertz came up trumps and sent a taxi to pick us up and drop us at Lyon where we got a new car and drove it back to Annecy. The main hassle was that a whole day had been wasted by doing all this.

We put this behind us and chalked it up to experience. Our new car did get us to Chamonix the next day, though, before we head west towards the Pyrenees. One of the things we wanted to do was see Mont Blanc, Europe's biggest mountain. We were blessed with good weather, and a comfortable drive.

Mont Blanc towers above Chamonix (and everything else!)

Alpine rivers flow quickly, and wherever you are in Chamonix, Mont Blanc isn't too far from view

Friday, September 25, 2015

European Roadtrip: Amsterdam to Annecy

The wonderful Place Francois Rude in Dijon

My experiences of road trips have been that sometimes, there are real treats to be had in the least expected places. After landing in Amsterdam and spending a day around the city, Caroline and I had planned to drive to the French Alps where we were to stay at Annecy. We were taking a fairly straight route down through Belgium, into the Ardennes region of France, and then down the Eastern side of France with overnight stops in Charleville-Mezieres and Dijon. We weren't too sure what to expect along the way, though we had planned to stop at Domremy la Pucelle to see the memorial to Joan of Arc.

We left Amsterdam and immediately became lost in roadworks, driving in the wrong direction for about 15 minutes. This would become par for the course. We found the right way and headed towards France. Neither of us had spent much time in Belgium, and I really don't know why as it is such a beautiful country. Much of our route followed the Meuse river in the Wallonne region of Belgium, a truly beautiful area of the world with Dinant being our favourite spot. Having been born in England, I still have trouble believing I hadn't even heard of Dinant as a town when it really is stunning.

Dinant, on the Meuse River

We carried on our wending way to Charleville-Mezieres, the capital of the Ardennes region of France (and Belgium). This was where our navigation problems really began to surface. It was beginning to get dark as we reached Chareville-Mezieres, which made things harder, and we were both tired from the drive, and I guess a bit of jet lag catching up. Anyway, we couldn't find the way to go, got lost in one way systems, and the peculiarities of French road signs didn't help. Luckily, my minuscule knowledge of French, coupled with a strangers minuscule knowledge of English allowed me to gather directions for where our hotel was. But the problems didn't stop there, on what was turning out to be a very long day. We were low on fuel, and couldn't find a petrol station. we were directed to an automated petrol station, but I didn't have a credit card on me, only a debit card, which the machines wouldn't accept. We went to sleep a little stressed, very tired, and a little worried about our ability to get fuel.

Woinic Boar, symbolic of the Ardennes

The morning brought clarity to our thinking, new hope, and determination to just get on with things. A delicious breakfast, and directions from our kind hostess allowed us to fill up with no problem. The previous evening, the only stations open in the vicinity were automated, but in the morning all petrol stations were open. With a full tank and clear heads, we headed to Domremy la Pucelle, the birth place of Joan of Arc. But we took the wrong road again and ended up in Reims! Still in the general direction we wanted to go, we decided that we'd spend a couple of hours in Reims and forget about Joan of Arc. We managed to navigate the town better this time, and went to the Cathedral, a truly spectacular gothic structure. Reims Cathedral was the place where many kings of France were crowned and it has a brilliant array of stained glass, foremost of which was a window designed by the artist Marc Chagall. No photos I could take would do it credit, it really is beautiful craftsmanship.

Wonderful stained glass at Reims Cathedral

From Reims we headed south to Dijon which we found ok, although again we became lost in the maze of the old town, and again were helped by a local who guided us to where we wanted to go (we were actually very close!). We had a little stroll in the evening, and spent a couple of hours around the old town the next day. Dijon is very old, pre-dating Roman times even, though much of what can now be seen comes from the middle ages onwards. The interesting fact that I learned about Dijon is that the city has an affinity with owls, which can be seen dotted around the architecture and in the pavements. Apparently, visitors to the church of Notre Dame can touch a bas relief carving of an owl for good luck. I didn't know this, and although I saw the church I never touched the owl. However, luckily, I don't believe in luck.

Palais des Ducs, Dijon

We left Dijon in good spirits, having been charmed by the city, managed to navigate out of the town well, and dropped on to the right road towards Annecy, where we arrived to witness a sunset over the lake, which lays claim to being the cleanest lake in Europe. We have 3 nights in Annecy to check out the alpine air and surrounds. So far this roadtrip has taught me:

- be open minded and accept that changes of plan aren't necessarily bad things
- trying to communicate to people in their language gains respect...and the French are a generally helpful people
- French road systems and road signage is not easy for non-French to understand
- French food is amazing, and I will probably arrive back in Australia the size of a small planet!

Sunset over Lake Annecy

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Nostalgic for Amsterdam

When I travel I love to experience new things, whether it be people, landscape, culture etc. This roadtrip will be taking in some new things as Caroline and I drive around France. But before that, we flew from Melbourne into Amsterdam and spent a day in Holland's cultural capital city.

Our flight with Emirates was smooth but exhausting. We took a 3 flight route, with brief stops in Kuala Lumpur and Dubai. Each leg of the trip was about 7 hours so there were no ridiculous 12 or 13 hour legs. But the flying time was still the same, which means that it is still exhausting. The first flight left Melbourne at about 2.40 am Sunday morning and landed Amsterdam at about 8.00 pm Sunday night. This was good as it meant that after a quick shuttle ride to our hotel, we could crash out at a reasonable time, which is what we did.

We are staying close to Schipol Airport and today we commuted to Amsterdam for a chilled out time before starting the drive tomorrow. It was a little strange going back to a city where I'd spent quite a bit of time before, albeit a long time before. We walked around a bit before meeting up with an old friend. In the early 1990's I went to Amsterdam a couple of times as a sort of apprenticeship in the art of street performing. At the time I was in a double act and we learned our skills in Amsterdam. While I met a lot of people in Holland, I've only kept in touch with one, a woman called Marion. Today, Caroline and I met up with Marion at a cafe that we used to go to over 20 years ago, De Balie.

Caroline meeting Marion for the first time in over 10 years

It was actually a very odd experience sitting in a cafe for the first time in over 20 years, waiting to meet someone who I hadn't seen for over 10 years (Caroline probably hadn't met Marion for 15 years) in a city that is 10,000 miles away from my home. But meet up we did, and we had a great time chatting with Marion and her family, and catching up on what she is doing (a mother to a 2 year old daughter and nearly full time work) and reminiscing about the past.

Chess Pilgrimage Site

Besides plenty of walking and sightseeing I managed to visit the Max Euwe Centre, though it doesn't open on Mondays and we had pancake for dinner, a typically Dutch dish. So the first day was a chilled out affair, but pretty tiring as we got through quite a bit. It was pretty much a perfect start to our European trip.

Central Station, Amsterdam

Restaurant of the Five Flies

Typical Dutch Architecture

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Coffee is Taking Over from Chess for a While

Just to let you all know that this blog will be turning into a travelogue for the next month.

I'm taking a vacation which starts in about 7 hours (currently taking a break from packing and cleaning the house)  which will take Caroline and I to Holland, Belgium, France and England. We might pop into Switzerland and Spain on the way round, who knows?

While we are road tripping, we will have a few stops on the way. So we're spending a short time in Annecy, Le Puy and Carcassone to explore those areas a little more, before getting to England where our time will be split between Caroline's and my own families.

What am I looking forward to? Well besides hopefully seeing some beautiful French countryside, and experiencing some of the culture and history of rural France, it is the food that is uppermost in my mind at the moment, and especially the bread and cheese (yes, I admit that this could turn into a bit of a Wallace and Gromit blog).

The Emirates flight from Melbourne will take us to Amsterdam via Kuala Lumpur and Dubai, and will leave at about 2.30 am Sunday morning, and land at about 8 pm Sunday night. We then have a full day in Amsterdam before heading south to France.

So far, all the roadtrips I've had with Caroline have been amazing, so I'm getting pretty excited about this one. Here's a couple of memories from the last roadtrip in the USA.

Caroline touching a Dinosaur Bone

Me at Arches National Park in Utah