Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Long Haul

Minnewater, Bruges

The Itinerary:

- leave south of England on Thursday
- catch plane from Amsterdam Friday
- land in Melbourne Sunday
- back to work on Monday

Putting this into action:

Expecting some delays on the English roads we gave ourselves an extra hour to get from Basingstoke to Dover. Unfortunately, it wasn't long enough, as the 2 hour journey took us a little over 4 hours. The M20 which runs from London's M25 orbital to Dover had been a horror road in the week prior to our journey, with 2 fatal crashes within those 7 days. Apparently, another bad crash happened as the motorway was closed for a whole junction. As much as I might complain about Melbourne driving, the sheer weight of traffic on English roads is quite unnerving at times.

Anyway, we were put back on to a later ferry which arrived in Dunkirk after 6 pm as it was getting dark. The darkness wasn't helped by rain which made our journey through Belgium rather grim. Fortunately we didn't have far to go as we had the foresight to schedule a stop en route, in the picturesque city of Bruges.

Even the deteriorating weather couldn't stop us enjoying our final stop before heading home. We succumbed to the stereotypical Belgian treats of Chocolate, Beer and frites and mayonnaise! We also walked and wondered at the beautifully crafted old town, built around canals, with the tranquil Minnewater as the absolute jewel.

The magnificent 13th Century Belfry in the Market Square

Bruges, beautifully built around canals
 After a morning of walking around Bruges we started off for Amsterdam, arriving in good time to drop off our car and get to the terminal. Our car rental agency gave us no trouble about coming in with a new car from a different country.

The best way to deal with long haul flights is to stop over half way for a few days. However, we didn't have the luxury of doing this, so we had a 4 hour break in Dubai, before heading off to Melbourne. Our Emirates flights were definitely 2 halves of a coin. The first 6 hour flight saw poor service in our opinion, while the second flight of over 12 hours was excellently staffed, and was more spacious on the 380 airbus.

Do I suffer from jet lag? In a word, yes! I didn't sleep much on the Sunday we landed which was coincidentally, my 49th birthday. I went to sleep early that night and slept through till about 6.30 am Monday morning where I got up, got ready and went to work. After sitting around for a few hours, sorting some processes out, and getting up to speed with what I'd missed, I went home. I suffered a couple of dizzy spells during the day but I'd basically got myself back into Australian time. If past experience is anything to go by, it will take me a further week to recover fully.

I'm planning to get back into chess in a big way over the next couple of months, but there will be one last post about this roadtrip, more from a general perspective.

Belgian Chocolate



Monday, October 19, 2015


Caroline getting pretty close to deer at Windosr

After our roadtrip round France, Caroline and I visited family in England. For both of us, this was a time of happiness at seeing loved ones we hadn't met for 3 years. Mixed with this was the grief of having relatives die since our last visit to England.

Wildboarclough, in the foothills of the Pennines

Sunset at Cat and Fiddle Pass

Reflections of Castleton in the Peak District

We first headed north to Cheshire where Caroline was born and spent close to a week with her family. Cheshire is a beautiful county (except for the Merseyside parts of Leigh and St Helens) which borders Wales, touches the foothills of the Peak District, and has the walled city of Chester as its capital. Caroline's Mum lives near the railway dominated town of Crewe, which in itself is not the prettiest place in the world, but the countryside around is great, and we spent some time in the historic town of Sandbach, which has recognisable history tracing back to Saxon times.

Saxon grave markers at St Mary's, itself a 12th Centruy Church

The Old Black Bear, a 17th Century pub in Sandbach

We chose to go for a drive into the Derbyshire Peaks, a beautiful part of England. This was the sort of thing Caroline and I did when we lived in this part of the world. The beauty of the Peaks, and the belonging that resonates from the stone wall town and villages makes the Peak District a special place.

From Cheshire we drove to Hampshire where my family are based. My extended family is bigger than Caroline's and we struggled to see everybody, and even those we saw our time was spread pretty thin. For me though, the poignant issue was the absence of my Dad. It was indeed a strange experience to walk into my childhood home and him not to be there. He was never short of laughs, smiles and hugs, and wished to see those around him happy. I think his greatest wish to was to be outlived by his wife and children, and even though he reached the age of 90, I can happily say his wish came true.

Autumn colours shining through at Windsor Great Park

Windsor Castle at the end of the Long Walk

As well as visiting family, Caroline and I also managed a day out in Windsor. Besides visiting the town, we walked through the Great Park with deer roaming around. Lunch in a 17th Century pub topped off our fill of things historic which started about a month before in Amsterdam, and wended its way through France and England.
Outside Windsor Castle Queen Victoria stood as the longest serving English monarch until days before this photo was taken, when Elizabeth II broke that record

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Our French Sunset

After a magical day in the Camargue, Caroline and I started the drive to England to see our families. It is quite a way, so we split in into 3 parts. The first day we drove from Carcassonne to Orleans, a long 6 hour trip. The second day was from Orleans to Boulogne, a shorter trip but we hoped to stop in Versailles on the way. Then on the third day, we were driving the short hop to Dunkirk, ferrying across the English Channel, and then up to Cheshire which was our first stop.

The old town of Brive, excellently maintained, as so many French towns are.

The beauty of a roadtrip is that during a long drive, you still get to see things as you're going along. Obviously the knowledge you gain of a place is not as detailed as if you just base yourself somewhere, but you get to see many different snapshots. On our trip from Carcassonne to Orleans we had planned a stop in the town of Brive la Gaillarde. Pretty much everything went to plan with the drive, and we were treated to views of the beautiful green hills of the Dordogne and then up through the centre of France to Orleans. Unfortunately we didn't have time to stop in Orleans, but we had to move straight on to the northern coast of France.

Louis XIV on horseback in front of  the Palace of Versailles

Even the gates at Versailles are opulent

We were wary of last drive through France as we were to come quite close to the capital, Paris, which I wasn't particularly happy about driving through. As such we came closer than we thought and were in sight of the Eiffel Tower. However, after some nervous moments we managed to work our way around the Periphique. We stopped for a short break in Versailles to see some of the amazing architecture. Personally, I couldn't stand the crowds at Versailles which was way larger than anything we'd experienced anywhere else along our roadtrip. Queues to get into the Palace at Versailles stretched hundreds of metres, and the coach park was packed. Still, we made the best of it, and went to the quieter Cathedral, and generally strolled around. Once back on the road, it was fairly straightforward as we headed to Normandy.We reached Boulogne in daylight and our hotel was parked right next door to the most amazing patisserie which provided our breakfast the following day. We treated ourselves to a meal out on our last night in France. It was a good time to reminisce about the good and bad times on the roadtrip around France, and to plan the second half of our European break with family in England.

The sun goes down on Boulogne harbour, and on our French roadtrip

Sunday, October 11, 2015

South West of France

Pink Flamingoes of the Camargue

The medieval waals of Cite de Carcassone

From the Auvergne, we moved to the South West of France where we based ourselves in the city of Carcassonne. Carcassonne is an excellent place to base oneself for a roadtrip as it is about one hour from the foothills of the Pyrenees, an hour or two from the Mediterranean, a short hop to Toulouse, Montpellier, or Nimes, with an amazing amount of interest in itself.

On the ramparts, looking at the Gallo-Roman semi circular tower, second in this line.

Carcassonne is a hidden treasure, a city which I'd not heard about until reading Kate Mosse's novels which are based around the city. Like much of this trip we have tried to get a little off the beaten track and have been rewarded by experiencing some beautiful parts of France. Carcassonne is a city split in two by the river Aude. On one side is a medieval walled city surrounded by a twisting, sprawling town. On the other side is another old town, though much of the buildings are more like from the 1600-1800's. That's not to say that side of town isn't old, it just was pummelled at times, including once being razed to the ground with the inhabitants banned from rebuilding until an amnesty 7 years later. Times were indeed tough in the middle ages.

Carcassonne fortress towering over the river Aude

The "new town" has a history of its own

It is a joy to walk around the walled cite de Carcassonne. There are a fair share of souvenir shops within the walls, and cafe/restaurants but it is all in keeping with the environment. Just walking around the walls is a great experience. Although much of the walls were rebuilt in the 1800's, there are parts which are much older, going back to the Gallo-Roman period which roughly was between 250-450 AD. The cite is built on a hill which makes it an imposing fortress, but it also makes walks to it (and runs around it!) quite difficult. It is absolutely worth it though.

Layeerd hills in the Pyrenees

Towns and villages nestle into valleys in the Pyrenean foothills

We took two day trips from Carcassone, one to Ax-Les-Thermes in the Pyrenees, and another to the Camargue. Both were absolutely amazing for the scenery we saw, though the Camargue had the added benefit of being a wildlife reserve. Our trip to the Camargue started with a trip to the Mediterranean town of St Maries de la Mer where a yearly Romany pilgrimage occurs every May. From there, it was just drive around and stop and look at the flora and fauna of the region, including white horses, kingfishers, Heron's, the scrubby ground full of sea lavender and dotted with Tamarisk trees, and of course, the bright pink Flamingoes.
Sparkling Mediterranean

St Maries de la Mer

White horses of the Camargue

Still waters over the Camargue marshes

Camargue sunset

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Alps to the Pyrenees

Notre Dame de France (La Vierge), Le Puy's most visible monument

Well, more accurately, we drove from Annecy in the Hauts Savoie to Carcassonne in the Aude Valley. This was a 2 day drive split up with a stay in Le Puy en Velay. And again, more accurately, we didn't stay in Le Puy, but in a village about 10 km away.

Finding our accommodation was impossible without the help of the locals who proved to be friendly and helpful. We went to the village where we thought we should be, only to be told we weren't anywhere near. But then, one of the locals said they would drive to where we needed to be and we could follow them. We then found ourselves staying at a beautiful old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere!

The beautiful stone house we stayed in

We explored Le Puy en Velay the next day. To be honest, I'd never even heard of Le Puy before we started investigating this trip. I now know it is the start of the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage trail where many Catholics set off to the shrine of St James in northern Spain. I was absolutely wowed by the city which boasts much architecture from medieval and pre-Norman times. One thing I would advise anyone that gets inspiration to go to Le Puy is be prepared for some hill walking. The old city is built around a hill, or hills, and the cobbles and steps don't make walking around any easier.

Seeing the sights took some effort....

...but the views were worth the effort

The high point for me was definitely the Cathedral, a beautiful building dating back to Gallic-Roman period, or the 5th Century. Much of the architecture comes from the 10th-13th centuries as like many of these ancient structures, they are renovated over time. The Cathedral has had a good run, missing out on destruction from revolutionaries and invading forces, which means that it is in good condition, taking into account its age.

Le Puy Cathedral is still in excellent condition

St James, the reason so many make the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage

Le Puy is situated in the Auvergne region of France, a landscape of beautiful rolling hills, many of which were formed by volcanoes, which contributed to the lush, green countryside. The central mountain range of France, the Massif Central, is often overlooked due to the Alps and Pyrenees also being a part of France. But the valleys, gorges, rolling hills and colours of this area make it truly beautiful. We headed south from Le Puy to Carcassonne where we will spend 3 days before heading north to England.

Rolling hills of the Auvergne as seen from the top of Massif de Meygal, anothe leg burning hike.

By the way, for those of you who get the Monday blues, France closes on Mondays :D