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Everything posted by Clare

  1. Day 8: Chamonix

    Much as we enjoyed yesterday's walk, once we were partway through it we realised that it might have been better to do it in the opposite direction, because then we would have been walking towards the view of the snowy mountains rather than away from it. When we were discussing last night what we wanted to do today, we kept coming back to the same idea of repeating the walk again Of course, it all depended on what the weather was going to be like... There had been heavy thunderstorms throughout the previous evening, but luckily when we woke up this morning and went out onto the balcony, we could see that there was a bright blue sky again. We'd caved in and decided to eat breakfast in the hotel, so we headed to the breakfast room to see what it was possible to get for €13.00. To be honest, it looked like a fairly average breakfast buffet! There was bread and croissants, ham and cheese, some scrambled egg and a bit of fruit; pretty much what you would expect from any hotel. I made several trips to the buffet to try and get my money's worth. The coffee was good at least Once we had eaten as much as we could we set off to walk to the bottom of the Flégère cable car, which we would be using to go up the mountain today rather than down. We left our hotel and crossed the river, which was looking particularly scary this morning! As we walked we could just see up to the top of the cable car station where we were headed... ...and when we turned around, we could also just make out the one that we would be walking to. The cable car was quite busy this morning and we only just about managed to squeeze in. We were rather squashed, but at least had a better trip than one French lady in the middle of the cable car who must have been terrified of heights, and so spent the entire ride burying her head in her husband so that she couldn't see anything and swearing loudly every time the cable car swayed We were soon at the top and ready to set off on our walk. As soon as we started off down the path, we had a wonderful view down the valley towards Chamonix. We were soon to find though that some bits of the walk were easier in some directions than in others. In particular, I was worried about a steep set of steps carved into the side of the mountain, which had been difficult enough to climb up yesterday and seemed like they might be even harder to climb down. We soon arrived there and I found to my horror that the steps were even worse than I thought, because the rain overnight had made the wooden bits quite slippery. Let's just say I didn't particularly enjoy the climb down! The worst bit was near the bottom, where you had to negotiate these two strange metallic steps! Eventually I made it down in one piece and was able to enjoy the views again The respite was only short-lived though, because before too long we were approaching the rocky part of the path once again. And it really was rocky... ...very, very rocky! The rocks didn't last forever though, and the advantage of doing the walk in this direction was that we had got the most difficult bit out of the way at the start, and were able to relax for the rest of the walk. There were fewer clouds in the sky today than yesterday, so we were finally able to see the top of Mont Blanc And we had an unrestricted view of most of the other mountains as well. It was definitely worthwhile to repeat the route and always be walking with the snow ahead of us Because we'd done the walk before, we were pretty sure that we would recognise the route without any problems. There were some bits I didn't remember though, like the point at which the path went round this rather scary corner! We seemingly also didn't remember the point at which we were supposed to have turned off this wide path onto a narrower one. Somehow we missed the correct sign and ended up walking quite a long way downhill, on a path which was wide enough to be a road. By the time we realised our mistake, we were too far down for it to be worth retracing our steps. We could see that the wide path would ultimately lead back uphill towards the gondola station at Planpraz, so the best option was to stick with it. It did give us a different perspective on where we'd been... ...and actually some better views of the snow than we would have had from the original path Although in places it was quite steep, we couldn't complain when we turned corners and had views like this When we got to the gondola station, we stopped at the cafe for a drink. The views from the cafe terrace were pretty impressive too. Then it was time to go back down to Chamonix in the gondolas. We had a go at taking a selfie with the view on the way down, but I think maybe we need more practice When we reached the bottom, it was fun to look back up at where we had been. Then we set off through Chamonix in search of a place to have lunch. Tim was very impressed with his steak After lunch we explored the town a bit more. It's a really pretty little place... ...completely surrounded by the mountains. As we began walking back to our hotel along the valley, we realised that we now had a complete overview of the route we had walked. It was impressive to be able to see both the start and end points from down below. As we got nearer to the hotel, I realised that there was something unusual about this afternoon; it wasn't pouring with rain yet! After a bit of a rest in the hotel, we decided to take advantage of the unexpectedly good weather by having an evening stroll around the forests behind where we were staying. It was a nice relaxing end to what has been a brilliant holiday. Tomorrow morning we will be getting a bus from Chamonix to Annecy, and then changing in Annecy for a bus which will take us directly to Lyon airport. From Lyon we will fly back to Birmingham, via another stop in Brussels. It will be a long day of travelling to get home again, but it has definitely been worth it
  2. On Thursday it was time for us to leave Chambéry and move on to the final destination of this holiday: Chamonix. When we were looking at the map and planning the holiday, we initially thought it would be quite easy to travel between Chambéry and Chamonix by train. When I eventually got around to looking at the timetables in more detail, however, it soon became clear that it would be anything but! Most of the options I found took around 6 hours and involved multiple changes of train, including travelling via Switzerland. I was on the verge of giving up on the idea of visiting Chamonix at all, when I came upon the website of the French bus company, Ouibus. Ouibus seemed to have a good network of buses in this part of France, including a line between Annecy and Chamonix, and the prices were quite reasonable. Best of all, it was really easy to book tickets online on their website, and they also had an app you could install to get what you'd purchased as an e-ticket on your mobile The only downside was that there were only a handful of buses between Annecy and Chamonix every day, with the most convenient one not departing Annecy until 15.50. We therefore had a rather relaxed start to Thursday morning in Chambéry first of all, before taking a regional train to Annecy. We arrived just on time for lunch, which we ate in a restaurant not far from the station, where I was delighted to find that they had Flammkuchen on the menu! We stretched out lunch for as long as we could, because it wasn't possible to have much of a walk around Annecy with our cases. Finally it was time to head to the bus station; we wanted to be there quite a long time before the bus was due to depart, because there were all sorts of dire warnings when booking with Ouibus about making sure you were ready to board the bus at least 15 minutes in advance of the departure time. I was a bit sceptical about whether the bus would actually be at the bus station 15 minutes ahead of the departure time, but it proved me wrong and it was There was a bit of messing about before we were able to board, because the driver handed everyone a baggage label which we were supposed to fill out our names and addresses on. But despite that we set off on time, and the only downside was that people seemed to be taking the Montenegrin approach of not sitting in their assigned seats Luckily there were plenty of spare seats on the bus, so that wasn't a problem. It was a pleasant journey as we left Annecy and headed towards Chamonix. The closer we got, the more mountainous the scenery became, until we got our first glimpses of the snow-covered peaks in the distance. The bus took us through some tunnels and over a very impressive road bridge. Finally we were there Chamonix is another place where accommodation is ridiculously expensive and so the only way we could afford to come here was to stay in a 2-star hotel a couple of kilometres outside the town. I had been contemplating whether we ought to take a taxi, but it seemed to be a nice evening when we arrived, so we decided to give walking a go instead. We'd made it about halfway there when a very threatening cloud appeared - seemingly out of nowhere - and the heavens opened. We took refuge in a nearby bar to avoid getting completely drenched. Luckily the shower was only a brief one and once it was over, the rain held off again until we were almost at the door of the hotel. The hotel turned out to be really nice; the room was basic, but it has a very Alpine feel with lots of wood-panelling Unexpectedly, we found we had a little balcony, and although the highest mountains were covered in clouds by this point, it was still a great view The rain seemed to have eased off a bit while we were settling into the hotel, so we decided to try and walk back into the town and pick up some supplies. Rather than walking alongside the main road, we found a path which ran parallel to it through the forest. It was a lovely path, but unfortunately the further we got along it, the darker the clouds become, until we started to feel the first drops of rain. The sky looked so threatening that we decided we'd better give up and go back to the hotel instead. It turned out to be a wise decision; no sooner had we got back then there was an enormous storm, with thunder, lightning and torrential rain. We went to bed hoping that the weather would be better in the morning! Fortunately, when we woke up on Friday the weather was indeed better, although the forecast suggested that it would only stay dry until around lunchtime. The view from our balcony definitely looked a lot brighter We were eager to make a start to the day but before we could go anywhere there was one small problem to resolve; breakfast. It was possible to get breakfast at the hotel, but the price was €13 each which was way beyond what we would deem an acceptable breakfast price to be. There are no shops anywhere around the hotel, so our only other option was to walk into Chamonix. I'm not ordinarily a fan of leaving the house before breakfast... and definitely not without a cup of coffee... but if you do have to take a walk to look for breakfast then this is definitely a very scenic one to take. I think I look remarkably cheerful given how hungry I was Eventually we made it to the town. It was around 08:30 by this point and so our next challenge was that some of the places which looked like they might serve breakfast weren't even open yet! Out of the places which met the criteria of having a breakfast menu and actually being open, we were surprised to find that €12 or €13 actually seemed to quite a popular price to charge. Oh dear In the end we did find a cafe where we were able to have what was described as a "French breakfast" for €6.90. This included a coffee, a glass of orange juice, a slice of French stick and a croissant. It was nice, but by the time we'd finished we felt like we could have eaten a second one. Perhaps it might be easier to pay for breakfast in the hotel tomorrow after all...! Once breakfast was complete, we had a little stroll around the centre of Chamonix. We found the church... ...the tourist information office... ...and the town hall. We walked up a road behind the church to the base station of a gondola, which would take us up to a place called Planpraz at around 2,000m. There are lots of cable cars around Chamonix, but this one had come to my attention when I was doing my holiday research primarily because it was comparatively cheap. Some of the cable cars are horrifically expensive, but this one was only €14 to go up, which when you consider that breakfast can cost €13 seemed like very good value. I had then found a walk we could do for a couple of hours along the side of the valley, coming down on a different cable car closer to our hotel. When we arrived at the base station and Tim started to buy the tickets, we realised that the prices were actually even better than we thought. For €17.70 we could buy a round trip ticket, which would enable us to go up this cable car and down the other one. That was definitely good value! We didn't have to go far once we got to the top of the gondola to get some amazing views. We set off on the walk.... ...but it was difficult to get very far because we kept having to stop to admire the view. On a completely clear day it should be possible to see the summit of Mont Blanc from here, but unfortunately today it was just hidden by the white cloud. We realised belatedly that it might actually have been better to do this walk in the opposite direction, as the path was leading us away from the views of the biggest glaciers. It was still beautiful, though. The walk started off quite easy, but as we progressed further the terrain became a bit rockier. We had to pay more attention to where we were putting our feet, but every time we turned a corner the views were breath-taking. We continued onwards for a while... ...and were soon at the halfway point of the walk, from where we could see back down the valley to Chamonix. The views to the opposite side of the valley were still amazing.... ...but we also had good views up to the rocky mountains above us on our own side of the valley. We passed some enormous rocks... ...and we soon came to a slightly disturbing sign, which warned us not to linger for too long on this part of the path as there was a danger of falling rocks! The path was indeed quite difficult to traverse here... ...and once we'd got safely across, we could look back and see that it had indeed taken us across quite a large scree slope. After this the path became a bit less rocky, but I was puzzled by the fact that we could hear intermittent shouts and screams from somewhere above us. Eventually we caught up with another English couple who had passed us earlier, and they pointed out that there were people climbing on the rocky pinnacles above us, and that there was also a zip wire up there. No wonder people were screaming! From here the path went a bit lower, so that we were back among the trees. We were almost at the cable car station of La Flégère. Before we caught the cable car back down to the valley, we stopped at a little mountain hut for a much-needed drink. It wasn't a bad view to sit down to The cable car down was very speedy and took us to the village of Les Praz, which is on the outskirts of the main town of Chamonix, not too far from our hotel. After our slightly sparse breakfast we were starving by this point, so we went into the first restaurant we found. It turned out to be more expensive than the restaurants we would normally eat in, but we had a very nice meal and some wine When we emerged from the restaurant we realised that the sky had completely clouded over and it looked like storms were about to break out again. We hurried back to the hotel as fast as we could and just about managed to avoid getting drenched. It was a brilliant day, and we definitely managed to make the most of the good weather while it lasted
  3. I said at the end of yesterday's blog that our plan for today was to visit Annecy. When Tim was reading the France guidebook last night, however, he noticed another place which sounded like it might be worth visiting: Aix-les-Bains. Aix-les-Bains is an old spa town with thermal baths that used to be visited by the rich and famous in centuries gone by. The town is situated on the shores of Lac du Bourget, which is the largest glacial lake in France. It's also on the train line between Chambery and Annecy, so all in all it seemed like an excellent place for an unscheduled diversion Aix (pronounced "Ex") is actually really close to Chambery, so it took us a mere 11 minutes to get there on a regional train. As soon as we arrived at the train station and started walking through the town, we got the feel that it was a really pleasant place. We followed signs to the tourist information office, where we picked up a free map. Tourist information is located in a building just off the main square, where there was some rather impressive topiary! The square is also home to Aix's town hall, which looks impressively like a castle... ...some pretty flower displays... ...and some Roman remains. Our interest in thermal spas is limited, so the main thing we wanted to see in Aix was the lake. We consulted the map and thought that it didn't look too far away, so we set off to find it. Appearances can be deceiving, however, and it turned out to be a very long way indeed! Or, at least, it turned out that there wasn't a terribly direct way to get to the lake from the town, and so we had to take quite a convoluted route, walking a couple of miles along main roads, through an industrial estate and past a drive-through McDonalds and a cinema before we got our first glimpse of the water. And it really was only a glimpse of the water, because it turned out the bit of lake that we had found belonged to a hotel with a private beach that was all fenced off. Oh dear! We'd come so far that we were determined to see the lake and luckily, once we'd navigated our way out of the hotel car park and past some sort of swimming pool complex, we eventually found a bit of lake that was open to the public. Yay! A sign told us that this was the town's designated public beach. There was a wide promenade/cycle path around the lakeside here, so we decided to walk along it in the vague direction that we had come, assuming that at some point we would see a side road that would lead us back towards the town. The views became increasingly attractive as we left the more commercialised bit of the lake behind us. It was quite a hazy day though, so we couldn't see very far in the distance. We must have walked along the lake for about half an hour, before it occurred to us that we hadn't seen any side roads (or any sort of signs) leading back towards the town. In fact, it didn't look like it was possible for there to be any side roads, because an unexpectedly rocky hill had inserted itself between us and Aix. It was approaching midday at this point and we'd wanted to catch a 12.36 train to Annecy, so we were keen to get back to the station as soon as possible. We kept walking and walking... eventually the hill seemed to flatten off a bit and we came to a small settlement of houses. They looked more like a complex of expensive holiday homes than a suburb of the town, but there were at least some roads here... though most of them looked like cul-de-sacs. In the end we had to resort to the power of a map and GPS on our phones to plot the best route back to Aix. It was lucky that we did have our phones, because I don't think we would ever have found this route without them! We twisted and turned uphill through the housing estate, before turning off onto a small grassy path which led us to the top of the hill. From there we turned onto another path, which led us through a dense forest and ultimately down onto a road on the outskirts of Aix. By the time we got back to the town centre, it was after 1pm and we had walked nearly 7 miles. We decided that rather than catch the next train to Annecy, it would be better to get lunch in Aix and have a much-needed sit down with some water! We found a nice restaurant not far from the main square, where I had my first pizza of the holiday and Tim had some sort of beef skewers on a bed of courgettes. He left the courgettes and ordered chips Feeling a bit more refreshed, we caught a train to Annecy in the early afternoon. It's about a 40 minute journey by train from Aix, so it was nearly 4pm by the time we arrived, but it was still really warm and sunny Annecy is sometimes called "the Venice of the Alps" and it didn't take us long to work out why. Two canals and the river Thiou run through the old town, and they're really beautiful. Away from the water, the old town itself is also fascinating, with lots of narrow medieval streets... ...and fascinating clock towers. Although it was quite busy with tourists, it was a lovely place to walk around. The most famous view of Annecy, which I'd seen in lots of places online, is this one of the Palais de l'Isle. Originally built in the twelfth century, this castle-like building sits on a triangular island in the middle of the river and historically served as a prison. It looked just as impressive in real life as it had done in photos, as did the rest of Annecy One of the other main attractions of the town is that it too is situated on a lake; Lake Annecy. And Annecy definitely beats Aix in a competition for accessibility of lakes, because you can easily stroll to Lake Annecy within five minutes from the centre of town There's a pleasant promenade around part of the lake, so we went for a stroll. Soon we could see back to Annecy... ...and further away to the mountains in the distance. Although it was early evening by this point it was still really hot, so we stopped for a drink at a bar by the lakeside. Eventually it was time to head back to Chambery. We had expected to get a train, but upon arriving at the train station were slightly confused to find that it was instead going to be a bus, albeit a special bus run by the SNCF train company. I had some misgivings, with traumatic flashbacks to rail replacement bus journeys in the UK, but it actually turned out to be really efficient and got us back to Chambery even quicker than the regional train would have done. All in all we had a lovely day, but a tiring one; the final step count on my Fitbit was over 11 miles
  4. We weren't in any particular rush this morning, as we didn't have to check out of our hotel in Grenoble until 12 and we knew we couldn't check into our new hotel in Chambéry until after 2. After breakfast we went for a final stroll around Grenoble city centre, finding the cathedral again much more easily than we had last night, and then made our way to the train station, where we caught the 12.05 train to Chambéry. It was a regional train, without much space to store luggage, but we were really lucky because it didn't seem to be a terribly popular route, and so we almost had the top deck of a carriage to ourselves That gave us plenty of space to arrange our luggage and enjoy the journey to Chambéry, which took about an hour. I think when we were originally discussing the itinerary for this holiday, we had intended Chambéry to be a day trip from Grenoble, and it is definitely close enough to get there and back in a day quite easily. We were then planning to stay for a couple of nights in Annecy. Accommodation in Annecy, however, turned out to be prohibitively expensive and so we had to rethink our plans, with Chambéry becoming an overnight destination and a base from which to make a day trip to Annecy tomorrow. As seems to be a theme for this holiday, we arrived around lunch time and set about finding a restaurant where we could stop with our cases. We found one without too much difficulty and had an amazing view of Chambéry's town hall as we sat and ate our lunch. After lunch we checked into our new aparthotel, where we found we had a much more spacious room than the one in Grenoble, although unfortunately there is no air-conditioning, so it's a bit warm. Not as warm as it is outside, though; it was a blazing hot day as we set off to explore Chambéry. The first thing we found was the town's theatre, which is a really grand building. From there we strolled along some of the main shopping streets... ...until we came to out into a pretty square with a clock tower. From there we walked down one of the side streets. ...until we found Chambéry's cathedral. It actually looked more impressive than the one in Grenoble! From there we made our way past the town hall again... ...alongside the very impressive courthouse... ...and towards Chambéry's most famous monument: the Elephant Fountain. Yes, bizarrely, this is the most famous landmark in Chambéry. It was constructed in 1838 to commemorate the achievements of a local adventurer, Count Benoît de Boigne, who made his fortune as a mercenary in India and used some of his money for the benefit of the town. It's quite an unusual fountain, but it's rather cool how the water comes out of the elephants' trunks As we turned away from the fountain, we got our first glimpse of the Château de Chambéry. A castle was first built here in the thirteenth century and was an important stronghold until 1563, up to which point Chambéry was the capital of Savoy. After 1563, the capital was moved to Turin and both the castle and Chambéry itself declined in importance. Today the castle has been restored and is used by the local government. That means you can't go inside it, but we did have fun walking around outside and viewing it from different angles Chambéry is quite a bit smaller than Grenoble, so by this point we had managed to locate all the main sights that were listed in the guidebook. It's impossible to tell from the brief description in the guidebook just what a pleasant place it is to walk around though Despite being early evening, it was still unbelievably hot and sunny so eventually we decided to make our way back to the hotel to try and cool off. Tomorrow we will be going on a day trip to Annecy, possibly with a detour to Aix-les-Bains
  5. Day 3: Grenoble

    We had quite a lazy start to the morning, but that was fine because I knew that the cable car doesn't start running until 11am on Mondays anyway. It was another beautifully sunny day when we stepped outside our hotel (the building in the picture below). It looks quite impressive until you realise that we are staying in one of the rooms on the fourth floor, which are basically in the attic and just have a skylight in the roof rather than an actual window. We walked into the centre of Grenoble, towards the cable car station. There was a bit of a queue when we arrived, but it moved quite quickly. There are two sets of four little bubble cable cars that go up and down the mountain, and the journey each way probably only takes 5 minutes or so. Each cable car holds six people, but when it was our turn we found it was quite a tight squeeze! We were packed in with some overly cheerful Americans, one of whom started singing "We all live in a yellow submarine" as we went up! The glass in the windows wasn't clear enough to take photos through as we ascended, but there were some wonderful views as we went really high across the river. Soon we were at the top of the hill and able to go out on a terrace, from where we got our first complete view of Grenoble from above. When we'd been down on the ground, Grenoble had felt like quite a small town. But now that we were up above, we could see that it's actually a huge city. After a while we realised we could see down to the old town, the church with the pointy roof being the clearest landmark. We also had a great view of the cable cars coming up and down. I'd read on the internet that there were some easy walking trails from the cable car station, but although they were supposed to be waymarked, we had some difficulty finding signs which corresponded to any of the instructions on the leaflet we had. Having failed to find the trail we were originally looking for, which was supposed to lead around some of the fortifications to an old powder store, we instead decided to follow a path which was leading towards some caves. The signs weren't very good here either, and so initially we walked straight past the caves and found ourselves at another viewpoint instead. We enjoyed the view for a while and then turned around to head back to the cable car station. No sooner had we done so, then we spotted the caves up a path to our right. As far as we could tell from the information boards, these caves are not natural but were excavated by the French army in the eighteenth century as part of the defence system for the fortress on the hill. It turned out you could walk inside them and have a look around. There were some great views out of the various holes in the rock. I thought the caves would be a dead end, but it turned out that there was a series of steep staircases leading further down into the depths of the hill. Tim led the way. I was less sure about whether it was a good idea! The stairs were really very steep and there wasn't a handrail to hold onto, but they were at least well lit. When we eventually made it to the bottom, we found ourselves in a long tunnel. Luckily there was light at the end of it! It was nice to emerge out into the open again We'd bought a one-way ticket to the top of the hill, which cost under €6, so our plan was to walk back down to Grenoble. Having survived the caves, we set about finding a path which would take us downwards. On the way, we walked under the cable car line several times and got some good views of the bubbles going up and down. The path down led around the military fortifications on the hill, but to be honest they didn't seem particularly impressive; at least not to me, as I was comparing them to the hill fortress in Kotor! At one point the path merged into some sort of aerobics trail. Tim experimented with the equipment As Grenoble got nearer, we were able to get a good view of the river Isère. Eventually we got back down to one of the main gates into the old town. We strolled along in the shade of the buildings for a while... ...before finding a nice restaurant to eat lunch. We both ordered the menu of the day, which included a salad, macaroni bolognese and icecream for €13.50. I opted not to have the salad! We had a lovely view while we sat outside and ate We went back to the hotel for a while to cool off after that, before heading out again for a stroll in the evening. I wanted to find Grenoble's cathedral, which we seemed to have missed on our explorations of the old town so far. Unfortunately we got a bit lost and initially ended up in a housing estate, before seeing a church tower on the horizon and deciding that must be the one we were looking for. We headed towards it, but established it was just a normal church, albeit a pretty one. Finally we succeeded in making our way back to the old town and tracking down the real cathedral. It actually didn't look very cathedral-like! But it was in an attractive square On the way back to the hotel we realised belatedly that the cathedral wasn't far from the part of the old town we already knew, and we could have got there quite easily. Never mind! We've had a lovely day in Grenoble and tomorrow will be travelling onwards to Chambéry.
  6. We woke up to a beautiful sunny morning in Lyon We hadn't paid to have breakfast in our hotel as it was quite expensive, so as soon as we were properly awake we went for a stroll around the town on our way to find somewhere to eat. Because the streets were so quiet in the early morning, we were able to notice some things which we'd missed when walking around yesterday, like this pretty church... ... and the rather unusual golden cockerel on the top of this building. We also realised that the bookshop where we'd been shopping yesterday evening was in a really ornate building too. After breakfast we made our way to the main square. I hadn't realised when we were there yesterday, but you can get a great view of the basilica on the hill from here. We had to check out of our hotel by 11am, so soon it was time to head back through the still empty streets. Once we'd packed up and collected our stuff, we set off again for the train station. Tim found a more direct route this time, which was a bit more scenic. We crossed the huge river Rhône... ... and passed by this church, which we hadn't seen at all yesterday. There's one regional train an hour between Lyon and Grenoble. The tickets cost €22.50 each, which seemed quite expensive for a journey of less than two hours, but when the train came it was nice and modern, and we had some good views as we made our way through the increasingly hilly countryside towards Grenoble. We arrived in Grenoble around 13.45, which is an awkward time to arrive anywhere in France because it means you are just on the verge of having missed your opportunity for lunch. We were in luck, however, as we managed to find a small restaurant with tables outside that was still happy to serve food, and today we even managed to get the right piece of steak each from the start It was a walk of about a mile to the aparthotel where we are staying. When I was trying to book accommodation in this part of France it seemed virtually impossible to find actual apartments, but aparthotels seem to be very popular. We found this one without any difficulty, but checking in was a slightly confusing experience, as they wanted to authorise my credit card... despite the fact I'd already paid for the room in advance and so all we had to pay was the city tax, which we were attempting to pay in cash. It turned out to be some sort of fraud check to prove that I had really used my own card to book the room, or something like that. The hotel is in a nice location anyway. This is the view you get when you step outside the door. Once we'd settled in, we went out for a walk to find the centre of town. The centre of Grenoble seemed slightly smaller than I had expected, but really attractive, with brightly coloured buildings. There were also some really grand buildings, like the church of St Louis, which was built in 1699. We wandered through the little streets of the old town. Eventually we came out in this little square, place Saint-André. I particularly liked the church in the background with its pointy tower This square brought us to the edge of the town centre and the river Isère. We crossed the road and walked alongside the river a bit. From here we had a fantastic view of the colourful houses on the opposite bank and the fortified Bastille hill behind. We crossed the river on one of the several bridges. From the opposite side we now had a view back towards where we had been, including the church with the pointy tower and Grenoble's theatre, which is the orange building that has windows cleverly painted on. There was a rather unusual monument beside the river, which seemed to be commemorating the first bridge being built across the river at Grenoble, nearly 2 000 years ago. We strolled along the river for a while, enjoying the views. I was quite excited to see the little "bubble" cable cars which go up from the town, across the river and onto the hill beyond. We're hoping to take one up tomorrow... ... and hopefully get a good view of Grenoble from up above
  7. Day 1: Lyon

    When we were planning our holidays for this year, we thought it would be nice to return to France. Although we've had multiple holidays there in the past, it's a huge country and there's still so much of it we haven't seen! In particular, we were keen on the idea of exploring some of the more mountainous regions, around Grenoble. Grenoble felt like it ought to be a fairly straightforward place to get to, given that it has an airport with numerous direct connections to the UK... Once we started looking at summer flights, however, we quickly realised that almost every airline only flies to Grenoble in winter for the skiing, and it's almost impossible to get a flight there in the summer. We started researching alternative options. One idea was to take a Eurostar to the south of France, which sounded quite fun, but it was complicated by the logistics of trying to get to London early enough for the required train. Flying to Geneva was another option, but travelling onward from Geneva was potentially expensive. In the end, flying to Lyon seemed like it might be the best solution, and with the help of Google we found out that it was possible to fly there from Birmingham with Brussels Airlines, with a change in Brussels. We don't normally take indirect flights, but the convenience of flying from Birmingham rather than Stansted or Gatwick seemed appealing enough to cancel out the hassle of having to change planes, so we decided to give it a go We booked the flights in February. Five months later when we were actually packing to go, I started to doubt whether it had been such a good idea when I realised that the first flight from Birmingham to Brussels was around 6am, which meant that I'd booked the airport parking for 03.30. It was a very early start, but everything went smoothly at the airport and we were soon on our way to Brussels. I wasn't really sure what to expect from Brussels Airlines, which I have to confess was an airline I'd never really heard of before, but it was a really nice plane with an an impressive amount of leg room; at least twice as much space - if not more - than I had on the Monarch flight to Dubrovnik last month! It was around 08.20 when we landed in a rather cold and grey-looking Brussels. Our onward flight to Lyon was departing at 09.30 so we had just about the right amount of time to disembark one plane, march through a series of long airport corridors, and then queue up for the next one. I'd forgotten that when you transfer you have to go through security a second time, so was slightly disappointed to have to throw away the bottle of water I'd bought in Birmingham and not yet finished drinking! Everything else went well though and we were soon aboard the second flight, on our way to Lyon. We landed in Lyon just before 11am and even before we'd got off the plane, it was clear that the weather was going to be a distinct improvement from Brussels The sky was a brilliant shade of blue and everywhere looked warm and sunny. As we approached passport control in Lyon airport, I was also extremely impressed to see a display of water bottles with a sign inviting people to help themselves for free. That made up for having to throw a bottle away in Brussels! The airport in Lyon is connected to the city via a tram called Rhônexpress. This departs from the train station just outside the airport every 15 minutes, with the journey into Lyon taking around half an hour. So far so good - and having been on the tram I can say that it was a very efficient service and nicely air-conditioned - but the price is absolutely extortionate at €14.70 each for a single ticket Outside of the Nordic countries, I think that must be the most I've ever paid for public transport from an airport! The tram stops right outside the main train station in Lyon. We got off and started walking in the direction of the city centre, in the hope of finding somewhere to have lunch. Having got up so early in the morning, we were absolutely starving, despite the fact that it was barely midday. My first impressions of Lyon were that it seemed to be a huge commercial centre, with lots of offices and industrial buildings, but not a lot else to recommend it. Originally when planning the holiday, I'd contemplated staying here for a couple of nights, but then reading between the lines of the Rough Guide to France realised that there probably wasn't a lot for tourists to see. The area around the station didn't give me any reason to regret having only booked a hotel for one night, en route to Grenoble. As we got closer to the town centre, things began to start looking up though The centre of Lyon is situated on a peninsula between the rivers Rhône and Saône, and as we crossed the first bridge over the Rhône, all the building suddenly started to look a lot more attractive. We soon located what seemed to be the main shopping streets, but it took a bit longer to track down a road that had any kind of restaurants. When we eventually found one, it turned out to consist of the sort of restaurants where a meal costs in excess of €30, which wasn't quite what we had in mind. But ultimately we managed to find a branch of Hippopotamus, which I was on the verge of describing as a French burger chain, before I realised that might make it sound like a fast food place and it's actually quite expensive. It's more like a chain of steakhouses, I guess. We've eaten in several of them before anyway and this one had the advantage of having enough space between tables for us to safely stow our suitcases away while we ate. There was a menu of the day for €20 which included steak and chips, a dessert and a small pichet of wine, so we decided to go with that. Tim ordered my steak to be well-done and his to be slightly rarer. We sat outside in the sunshine, enjoying the free bread (which seemed to be limitless - our basket got spontaneously refilled twice!) while we waited for the steak to arrive. When I first bit into mine, I have to say I was slightly alarmed; it was distinctly more pink than I would have liked. I reminded myself that this was France though and their idea of what constitutes a "well done" steak is not necessarily the same as mine, so I tried to make the best of it and work my way through it... As I started to get towards the middle though, it began to look barely cooked, and so I remarked to Tim that if this was what a well-done steak looked like, I dreaded to think what one which wasn't well done would be like. It was at that point we realised that the waiter had given us the wrong steaks, and while I'd been wincing at the blood in mine, Tim had been chewing his way through one which was somewhat more on the cremated side. We promptly swapped, and were able to enjoy the second half of our meals at least Once we'd finished eating, it was an acceptable time to go and check into the hotel. As we were only staying for one night, I'd chosen a hotel which was as near to the old town as possible. When we arrived we found our room was a bit on the small side but comfortable and perfectly fine for one night. After a much-needed nap, we set out to see some more of Lyon. This was the view which greeted us as we walked down the street which our hotel is on. The large white building on the hill above the old town is the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière. The lady on reception at the hotel had recommended that we take a funicular up the hill to it and that we would be able to see out across the whole of Lyon from the top. That sounded like a good idea. First of all we had to cross the river Saône. This river seemed smaller than the Rhône, which we had crossed on our way from the train station, but still very pretty. The old town is on the far side of the Saône, and the basilica towers above it. Shortly after crossing the river, we found Lyon's cathedral. It was impressive from the back... ...but even more impressive from the front. Not far from the cathedral square was a metro station, where we were able to buy tickets for the funicular. It cost €2.80 each to go up and annoyingly we had to pay by card (in the absence of the correct number of coins) because the machines didn't accept notes. It was a bit of a crush inside the funicular and the ride itself wasn't very exciting (as it was mainly inside a tunnel), but as soon as we stepped out of the station at the other end, this was the view we were confronted with. Wow. The basilica is really beautiful up close. It is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, who is believed to have saved Lyon from the bubonic plague. We went inside to have a look around and found that the interior is extremely ornate as well, although we weren't able to take any photos because there was a Mass in progress. If you walk around the back of the church, there is a viewing platform with the views out across Lyon which the receptionist had promised us. We could just about make out the cathedral down in the old town below us, as well as a large reddish square which we thought was probably the city's main square. After admiring the view for a while, we followed signs to what were supposed to be the remains of a Roman forum. I think we are probably a bit spoiled by having visited amazing places such as Bitola, Sepino and Pula - not to mention Rome itself - so we found these remains a bit difficult to get excited about. We had a pleasant walk around the ruins though, finding a path which started to lead us downwards back into the city. Once down, we crossed the river again... ...before wandering through the streets of the newer town until we found the reddish square which we'd seen from above. This is indeed the city's central square - Place Bellecour - with a large statue of Louis XIV in the middle. Some of the main shopping streets lead off from the square, so we took the opportunity to visit a big bookshop and stock up on some French reading material for Tim. By that point it was nearly 8pm, so we decided to call it a day and head back to the hotel to write up the blog and get some much-needed sleep! Tomorrow we will be off to Grenoble, but we will hopefully wake up early enough for another walk around Lyon before we go
  8. Today it was unfortunately time for us to leave Montenegro behind and return to Croatia, on our way back home. I had bought tickets online for the 10.10 bus from Kotor to Dubrovnik, and when I spoke to the daughter of the lady who owns the apartment the other day, I had asked her if she could arrange us a taxi to pick us up and take us to the bus station at 09.30. She said that she would do it, but something seems to have gone wrong somewhere, because when we were standing outside the apartment today with our luggage, after a final breakfast on our balcony overlooking the Bay of Kotor, there was no sign of any taxi. Initially I thought it was maybe just late, but as the minutes ticked by it became increasingly clear that it wasn't going to come, and so eventually I had to admit defeat and go and track down the lady who owns the apartments. She said she would call us a taxi straight away and that it would come within five minutes, which turned out to be the case, but in the midst of all this confusion we nearly ended up with a taxi all the way to Dubrovnik rather than just to the bus station! Eventually it was all sorted out and a beautifully air-conditioned taxi arrived to take us to the bus station, for the bargain price of €2.20. We were still there on plenty of time for our bus, which according to the timetable was due to arrive in Kotor at 10.00, so around that time we began anxiously standing near the entrance to the platforms, hoping to be among the first to get onto the bus. This bus was originating in Budva, so we knew there was the potential for it to already be quite full when it pulled into Kotor, and judging by our experience on Monday it didn't seem like there was much chance of us getting our reserved seats. 10 am came and went with no bus, as did 10.10 and 10.20. Finally, around 10.30, the bus pulled into the station. Mom made a mad dash for the luggage hold and we did indeed manage to be the first people to pay for our luggage. We didn't get our seats, but we did get seats quite close to them, and we were very glad that we had rushed when we later observed other people wandering up and down the bus, unable to find anywhere to sit. The bus driver did eventually manage to cram everyone in somewhere, and we were off. It took a while to get out of Kotor, but then we were once more on the beautiful road around the bay, admiring the views of Perast one more time, and then passing through Herceg Novi. A few miles outside Herceg Novi we suddenly came to a halt in a line of traffic, and I was worried that this could be an exceptionally long queue for the border, which was around 4 miles away at this point. We must have sat in the traffic jam for 20 minutes or so, but ultimately the traffic started moving again so we think it must just have been an accident somewhere further up the road. It all added on to the delay that our already delayed bus was experiencing though! Crossing the border was a different experience this time to on the way there. Both at the Montenegrin checkpoint and at the Croatian one, we all had to get off the bus one by one and show our passports individually to a policeman at a desk. This seemed like it took a long time, but it was actually better than having the passports collected up and taken off the bus; firstly because we don't like being seperated from our passports, and secondly because it gave us an opportunity to get some fresh air and stretch our legs. All in all it probably still took an hour to get across the border though, and so by the time our bus finally arrived into Dubrovnik it was about 14.15. That was just slightly later than its scheduled arrival time of 12.30, but that was actually good for us because we couldn't check into the apartment until 14.00 anyway. As we are just staying in Dubrovnik one night this time and leaving quite early tomorrow morning to get a bus to the airport, we had chosen an apartment near to the main bus station. It was quite easy to find, only a 5 minute walk away, although our hearts did sink when we saw that there was a huge flight of steps up to the door. We were met by the owner of the apartment, who gave us a quick tour and then asked us to sit down while he poured us a glass of the orangest looking orange juice you have ever seen. Closer inspection later revealed it to be orange and carrot juice! It wasn't very nice at all, but we all sat politely sipping it while he talked and talked about the best way to get to town, the best way to get to the airport etc. Eventually he left, and we were able to relax a bit before setting out to walk into Dubrovnik. It was a couple of miles into Dubrovnik from where we were and it was an incredibly hot day today, but after hours of sitting on the bus we really enjoyed the walk. It was particularly great to get the views out across the sea again, complete with flowering cacti. There were several cruise ships docked in Dubrovnik today, but when we got to the Pile Gate it wasn't actually too busy, because lots of people were leaving rather than arriving. The main motivation for us walking into town was that I wanted to use my spare kunas to stock up on some Croatian reading materials. From being in Dubrovnik last summer, I knew that there were two bookshops on the Stradun. We walked to the furthest one - Algoritam - first of all, where I was hoping to be able to pick up some translations of easy English books; perhaps something like Agatha Christies. I was surprised when we got to the front of the store that it looked closed, although according to the opening hours on the door, it looked as though it ought to have been open. Then we noticed that all the windows were papered over and it didn't look like there were actually any books inside... it must have closed down for good! That was a surprise, but luckily there was still the other bookshop, which is admittedly smaller but has a better quality selection of books. It also had very good air-conditioning, so we all spent a while inside browsing and after a helpful chat with the shop assistant, I came away with ten new books I asked her what had happened to the other bookshop and she explained that the chain had recently got bust, being unable to pay its debts! So it's not just the Algoritam shop in Dubrovnik which has closed down, but all their shops across Croatia. Laden down with books, we set off into the sun once more. We went for a walk around the old harbour... ...had a final view of Mount Srđ... ...and across to Lokrum too. It seemed amazingly busy in the harbour this evening, with dozens of little boats coming and going, and a mixture of locals swimming and fishing. We sat on a bench for a while to enjoy the views and then headed back into the town. We decided that for our last meal we wanted to go to a restaurant in Lapad which we had eaten at earlier in the week. It seemed like a good idea and the map showed that it was only 2.3 miles away, but it felt like much longer in the heat. Eventually we made it and settled down for another enormous meal. Mom and I decided we would order a bottle of Graševina wine, which we had tried one night in Montenegro and really enjoyed, although at 150 kuna for a bottle it felt quite expensive. I asked the waitress and she slightly confused me by asking me whether we wanted half a litre or a litre (it was only on the menu as a 0.75cl bottle). We went for half a litre, which appeared in a carafe and was delicious. Imagine our surprise when we got the bill and saw that we had only been charged 40 kuna! Perhaps asking for the wine in Croatian had helped Feeling very full, we strolled back through Lapad and along the harbour to the apartment, watching the sun set in the distance. It's been another lovely day, and we've had a brilliant holiday together in Croatia and Montenegro. We've packed so much in that it's difficult to decide whether our favourite bit was walking around the shady woods of Lokrum... ...strolling around the bay in Cavtat... ...walking around the walls in Dubrovnik... ...looking down on Dubrovnik from the top of Srđ... ...sitting on our balcony with this view of the bay of Kotor... ...climbing up to the church within Kotor's mountain fortress... ...attempting to paddle in the Adriatic... ...taking the boat to Perast... ...or exploring the old town of Herceg Novi. Each place has been different, but beautiful in its own way and I think it's fair to say that we have all had a great time
  9. We didn't have any firm plans for our final day in Montenegro, so breakfast involved a bit of discussion about where we should go. Dad was interested in seeing the Roman mosaics at a place called Risan, but the guidebook didn't make it sound like there would be much else to do there. We contemplated the idea of going to Budva, but it felt like it might be a bit of a comedown after visiting Perast the day before. In the end we settled on Herceg Novi, a town on the northern Montenegrin coast that we had passed through on the way from Dubrovnik on Monday. As the decision was quite last minute, we hadn't planned the practicalities very well, so we arrived at the bus station just after a bus to Herceg Novi had departed at 10.28. That meant we had a rather long wait until the next bus departed at 11.18. The tickets to Herceg Novi were good value though, costing just €4 each, and it didn't look like there were too many people waiting for the same bus... That turned out to be a false impression, of course, because as soon as the bus in question pulled into the bus station, a horde of people seemed to appear from nowhere to elbow their way onto it. Despite having been waiting for so long, we were some of the last people to manage to get on, but luckily did manage to get some seats towards the back of the bus. It was a little disappointing that it wasn't a particularly clean bus though, so we were hardly able to see out of the windows as we wound our way around the Bay of Kotor and towards Herceg Novi. I thought the journey was supposed to be about 45 minutes, but with a slight delay at the start and a few traffic jams leaving Kotor, it was over an hour before we finally arrived at our destination. Herceg Novi is a town built on the side of a hill, with the bus station being at the top, the old town in the middle, and the sea at the bottom. Our first challenge was to follow a series of winding and sloping roads, interspersed with staircases, in what I hoped was the direction of the town. Eventually we found a square which looked promising. We climbed up the steps and walked under the tower. Although the clock looks quite new, the clocktower itself is presumably quite old. There is an inscription one side of the tower in Arabic script, dating from the time when the town was ruled by the Ottomans. Just after we walked through the clock tower, we were waylaid by a man who wanted to show us his bookshop, which at 3.8 square metres is apparently the smallest one in the world. It can sometimes get a bit tiring in Montenegro with people trying to waylay you and sell you things, but in this instance it was actually quite a welcome intrusion. Herceg Novi is a town where the Cyrillic script is quite prominent, and as soon as I went into the bookshop I saw that they had a number of books in Cyrillic. I asked the man to recommend me something, perhaps for children, and came away with two books of Serbian fairytales which are going to be great Cyrillic reading practice. I also got a book about the history of Herceg Novi in Serbian, which looks like it's going to be an interesting read. As far as I was concerned, this already meant that the hour bus journey to Herceg Novi had been worthwhile We continued our walk downwards towards to the sea, passing the town's large Serbian Orthodox church. It looks really pretty, surrounded by palm trees, and it was really beautiful when we went inside it for a quite look as well. From the church square, more steps led downwards... ...and we soon had a beautiful view of the sea. We climbed down even further, past one of the town's large fortresses... ...and finally we arrived at the bottom, next to the large statue of the Bosnian king Tvrtko, who founded the town in 1382. One of the nice things about Herceg Novi is that there is a long promenade along by the sea, which makes strolling along quite relaxing. We walked along it for a while, and were amazed by all the different cacti growing along the edge. Some looked like they were about to flower... ...and in the end we found one that was already in bloom We walked for 20 minutes or so, enjoying the beautiful views out across the water. It was 2pm by this stage though, so we decided we'd better turn around and go back to the town to find something to eat. We found a lovely little restaurant with an outside garden area, completely shaded by three large trees. They had a huge grill where they were cooking meat, and grilled meat did indeed seem to be one of the staple items on the menu. Mom and Dad went for stuffed chicken and I went for a punjena pljeskavica, which you could translate as a stuffed hamburger, but I don't think that would do it justice All our meals were enormous, and very meaty. While I was eating I even had a view of the fortress through the trees. All too soon it was time to start to climb back up the steps towards the bus station. With views like this, the uphill was almost enjoyable though We must have taken a slightly different staircase on the way back up, because we soon came across some sights which we hadn't seen before. The first was this very small church... ...and the second was this display of enormous old anchors. From there we continued to walk upwards, through some of the narrow streets of the old town... ...and soon we could look back down towards the churches that we'd seen. We also found this funny little statue of a man, although I wasn't able to work out from the Cyrillic inscription who he was or what the statue was supposed to represent. Our bus back to Kotor was due at 16.25. We were at the bus station with plenty of time to spare. When I went to the cash desk to try to buy tickets fro the bus, however, they told me that I needed to buy them on the bus itself, and pointed out to me something which only looked slightly larger than a minibus. This made us a bit anxious to make sure we got on it and we got a seat, as there wasn't another bus to Kotor until after 6pm, so we had a rather long wait hovering outside the bus. Once we got on, the bus was actually quite good though; there was plenty of leg-room and the windows were a lot cleaner than this morning's bus, so we were able to enjoy views of Perast from multiple directions as we wound our way back around the bay. The only slight inconveniences were that the air-conditioning was leaking quite badly (although luckily not onto us!) and at one point we took a corner so violently that one of the curtains was detached from its hooks and landed on Dad's head. Apart from that, the journey was uneventful and we were back in Kotor in around an hour. We spent some time sitting on our balcony, enjoying the wonderful views of the bay as the sun set. Tomorrow morning we are heading back to Dubrovnik, prior to having to go home on Saturday, so we took the opportunity to go for a final walk around the old town of Kotor in the dark. The town itself looked really pretty at this time of day... ...but we were slightly concerned by this scary looking man, who has suddenly appeared on one of the town walls. I am glad I took a picture of the reflections here yesterday, to prove that I'm not going mad and this thing definitely wasn't here 24 hours ago!
  10. When we woke up this morning and went out onto the balcony, we were thrilled to see that there were no cruise ships blocking our view of the bay Consulting the internet showed that there was one boat due into Kotor that morning, but it turned out to be so small that we couldn't see it from our apartment. As we walked into town after breakfast we did find that there were some tour groups being offloaded from coaches, but overall the town was significantly quieter than yesterday, and we were able to enjoy an early morning wander around the almost deserted streets of the old town. There were hardly any people at all in the main square, which was wonderful. While we had been eating dinner the previous evening, we had noticed some people walking along what looked like part of the walls in front of the town. It wasn't immediately obvious how they were getting up there and there certainly weren't any signs, but then I had a flash of inspiration and remembered some steps which lead up to the terrace of a cafe, from the far corner of the main square. We followed them upwards, and sure enough we found our way onto a narrow little path along the top of the walls. As we walked along we had views of the harbour on one side... ...and views back into the old town on the other. When we looked upwards, we also had views up towards the fortress and to the church where we had climbed yesterday. The path wasn't very well maintained so you did have to be slightly careful not to trip over anything, but the views were definitely worth going up for. Eventually the wall came to a dead end, near to the Gurdić gate and it was time to turn back around. We walked back to where we had started and climbed back down to the town near to the Serbian church. Once back in the town we went to the post office to get a stamp for a postcard, stopped off at a cafe in the main square for a coffee, and then walked out of the main gate towards the waterfront. We had bought tickets for a boat tour to Perast, which was due to leave at midday. It cost €15, which included the return boat trip from Kotor to Perast plus a trip to the island Gospa od Škrpjela (Our Lady of the Rocks). We were at the boat on plenty of time and able to get a good seat. As the boat pulled out of the harbour in Kotor, we had some lovely views back towards the town. There was some commentary on the boat which gave us some interesting background about the bay of Kotor including the fact that, although in places it looks like a Norwegian fjord, in the strict technical sense it isn't a fjord because the bay here was created by movements in tectonic plates, whereas fjords are created by glaciers. After about half an hour on the boat, the small town of Perast began to come into sight on the horizon. The tall church tower in the centre of the town looked very familiar from my previous visit here last summer. Our boat deposited us on the island Gospa od Škrpjela, which is the only artificial island in the Adriatic. We had half an hour to spend there, and I was determined that this time I wanted to get inside the beautiful church of Our Lady of the Rocks. Last time I had been here there had been too many group tours, and so although I had visited the island, I had only been able to see the church from the outside. This time Perast was noticeably less busy, probably due to the lack of cruise ships moored in Kotor, and so I was in luck. We paid 1 euro to enter the church and were initially slightly disconcerted when walking inside to find it occupied by a large Slavic tour group. But they quickly moved on, and the guy who had been selling the tickets invited us to sit down while he gave us some facts about the church in English. He repeated the story which I had partially understood from my landlady in Kotor last year; that the church had been built on this location because at some point in the fifteenth century, some sailors had found a painting of Our Lady on a rock in this bit of the sea. They took it back to Perast with the intention of keeping it in the church there, but the next day it reappeared on the same rock out at sea. This kept happening, until they realised that it was a sign that they needed to build a church on this rock to house the picture. And so they set about bringing rocks out to sea to build an island, which was pretty slow work until someone hit upon the idea of strengthening the base of the island with old fishing boats. Eventually they had an island which was big enough to build a church on The other interesting story linked to the church is about a woman who embroidered a beautiful picture, partially using her own hair as the thread, while waiting for her husband to return from the sea. The embroidery is kept in a museum upstairs in the church and once the tour group ahead of us had dispersed, we were able to get a good look at it. It isn't possible to make it out in the photos, but the hair of the angels around the edges is brown in some places and grey in others, reflecting the age of the lady when she sewed it. Visiting the church and hearing all these stories was great, but the only problem was that we had nearly used up our allotted half hour on the island. We rushed out of the church and back towards our boat, which was getting ready to depart. As the boat sailed across from the island to the town of Perast, we had another lovely view of the island. Once we got to Perast we had a choice of either spending half an hour there, and returning on a boat at 14.10, or staying for two hours and returning on a boat at 16.10. We started having a walk around, and thought it was so pretty that we would stay for the two hours and have lunch there. Our boat had arrived opposite Perast's main square, which is dominated by the large church of St Nicholas. The church has an enormously high tower, which we didn't feel energetic enough to climb. As we strolled along the sea front we had a view not just of the island which we had visited, but also of the island of St George, which is home to a monastery. We walked as far as we could in one direction along the coast, until we got to the end of the village. Then we turned around to stroll back again, continuing to admire the views both out across the bay... ...and of the town of Perast itself. Perast really is a beautiful place After a while we found what looked like a good restaurant and sat at a table near the sea to have lunch. It turned out to be the best food we had had all holiday; everyone's meal was amazing, and the view was pretty stunning too. After lunch we wanted to explore the part of the town away from the sea front. We climbed up a number of staircases in the hillside and eventually found ourselves at the main road above the town, from where we had a good view back down towards it. From there we were able to walk down a slightly easier path back towards the coast. There was about half an hour left until our boat was due to depart, so we just had time for a quick stroll along the sea in the opposite direction... ...before we needed to walk back towards the harbour. The boat back was quite a bit busier than the boat we had taken out. We managed to sit on the opposite side to where we had been before though, so we had an interesting view of some of the other little settlements on the opposite side of the bay. Once back in Kotor, we retired to the apartment for a while to drink coffee and eat some Serbian chocolate (the latter does not come highly recommended!). In the evening we set out again, climbing down the steps alongside our apartment to the promenade, and having dinner outside at a restaurant beside the sea. When we arrived it was still daylight, but as we sat there twilight began to fall and the mountains were soon just dark outlines above the bay. By the time we had finished eating, the bay was in complete darkness. The way the lights reflected in the sea was amazing. We wandered back into the town to see the fortess lit up at night again as well. For me the most impressive view tonight was actually the reflection of the walls in the clear water of the sea. It's been another fantastic day in Montenegro
  11. Our plan for today was to explore Kotor, so we were able to have a bit of a lie-in until 07.30, before heading down the steps towards the sea to buy bread. Having breakfast on our balcony with a view across the Bay of Kotor was beautiful, although we were slightly disappointed to find that there was not just one cruise ship but two cruise ships in the town this morning! Kotor is only a small place and it was clear that each cruise ship held several thousand passengers, so it had the potential to get very busy in the old town indeed. For that reason, when we walked into town after breakfast we decided to skip the main gate and walk along the outside of the town walls to the Gurdić gate at the south of the end of the town. I figured there would be fewer people going in this way, and happily I was right As we walked through the gate, we realised there was a place where we could climb up onto the walls... ...and have a better view out across the bay. We walked through some of the narrow streets of the old town... ...and saw the first of many churches which we were going to encounter in Kotor that day. We also came across sign saying "Ulaz u tvrđavu", pointing towards the entrance to Kotor's fortress. I know from past visits to Kotor that the climb to the top of this fortress is a very tiring experience, especially on a hot sunny day, so we hadn't been planning to do it. When we were standing there we started to feel tempted though... and the entrance fee was only €3... so in the end we decided to pay it and just go part of the way up. We bought our tickets and began the climb. The list of rules was slightly concerning, especially the part about encountering reptiles! This was a different entrance to the fortress to the one which I have used when I've climbed it on previous occasions, and the path started off quite gently. We didn't have to climb far before we already had a great view of the harbour... ...as well as a great view of one of the huge cruise ships, of course! Rather than just being relentless stone steps, this route took us along the mountainside via a more conventional path for a while. We had a great view of the mountains. For a while we walked alongside a high wall, where we could peer through narrow windows to the town below. In this picture you can just make out Kotor's huge Serbian Orthodox church. Eventually we came to a flattish viewpoint area, where the path we had been walking on joined with the steeper path I've taken before. Only one path led upwards from here, and so it was time for us to tackle the rocky steps which I remember so well from previous visits. Climbing up them was hard work, but with every corner that we turned we could see further and further out into the bay. In addition to trying to avoid dying from exhaustion/sunstroke/an encounter with a reptile, one of the major challenges today was that the path was incredibly busy! One of the cruise ships, which seemed to be Norwegian, was evidently having a shore excursion for some passengers to go to the top of the fortress. They must have started out quite early, because as we were trying to come up the steps they were streaming down in groups. Because the steps are so narrow, and in places the stony path alongside them is too steep to step across onto, we kept having to wait until there was a break in the crowd to be able to get onto steps at all. This did give us a good opportunity to catch our breath though. After a while we began to have a fantastic view down onto the red roofs of Kotor's old town. We were all getting pretty tired by this point, but decided to keep going until we reached the church, which is perhaps just under halfway up. This is the Crkva Gospe od Zdravlja... ...and this is the amazing view it has. We were thrilled to have got this far up, and once we'd taken some pictures of the view, took advantage of the cool shade inside the church to recover for a bit, before deciding that this was definitely as high as we were going to go today and beginning our descent. As we set off back down the steps, we kept peering up the mountainside behind us to see how far from the church we had come. The further down we progressed, the clearer it became how the church really is just perched on the edge of the rocks, and also the more justified we felt in feeling tired after climbing up to it. Eventually we were down! We started to wander around the streets of Kotor, looking for a likely place to have lunch. Eventually we found an restaurant which looked promising in the square outside the cathedral of St Tryphon. It was a beautiful location in which to have lunch, but the most memorable part of the whole experience was probably an English man sitting a few tables away, who announced to a rather confused Montenegrin waiter than he wanted a shandy. The poor waiter clearly had no idea what a shandy might be, so the man started explaining to him that it was beer with lemonade. The waiter became increasingly bemused: "You want me to put lemon juice in your beer?". Having disappeared into the restaurant, he emerged a few minutes later with two beers and a shot of lemon juice The man then started trying to explain to him that it needed to be a fizzy sort of lemonade. "Fanta??!" In the end they seemed to reach a compromise whereby the waiter bought him a bottle of Sprite, which he proceeded to try and pour into his beer. Once lunch was over, we set off to explore some of the churches within the walled town. The cathedral of St Tryphon is actually more impressive inside than out; you have to pay €2.50 for a ticket to get in, then enter some sort of museum which might be very interesting if you had any idea what the various exhibits actually were, but unfortunately rather than having descriptions next to each object, they had instead just given them a number. The numbers presumably corresponded to explanations in a guidebook which they were selling, but we didn't feel like forking out additional money for that. The church with the most spectacular interior was definitely the Serbian Orthodox church of St Nicholas, which had all kinds of exotic decorations inside. We also visited the tiny Montnegrin Orthodox church of St Peter of Cetinje. I never worked out what this church was called, but I loved the shape of its roof... ...and the fact that, if you look carefully, you can see the fortress church on the hillside in the gap between its two towers. There was one more gate out of the town left for us to explore. There was a good view up to the fortress from just outside this gate. Just looking at it was making us feel tired at this point, so we decided to head back to the apartment to cool down and have a bit of a rest. Once we had recovered from our exertions a bit, we decided to go out for an afternoon stroll down to the beach below our accommodation to dip our toes in the Adriatic. This sounded like a fun idea, but you have to remember that there is no such thing as sandy beach in this part of the world; beaches are either rocky or pebbly. This was a pebble beach and I naively assumed that the pebbles must not actually be that uncomfortable under foot... but I was wrong! We walked to the edge of the sea and took off our shoes, instantly confirming that the pebbles are actually very, very sharp! I decided to try and paddle anyway but was quite taken aback when, upon stepping into the sea, my foot began sinking into a very unstable mass of pebbles. I had imagined that they would be quite solid underfoot, but that definitely wasn't the case. I think Dad enjoyed himself anyway though We decided that beaches aren't really for us, and went for a less pain-inducing walk along the promenade instead. Both cruise ships had left now, and so the views were wonderful. In the evening we walked into the old town, where we had a lovely pizza sitting outside in the main square. Darkness had fallen by the time we had finished, and so walking back we were able to enjoy the beautiful sight of the fortress all illuminated for the night. It was a perfect end to the day
  12. It was another beautiful sunny day when we woke up in Dubrovnik this morning, with hardly a cloud in the sky as we sat on the terrace having breakfast. Our bus to Kotor was at 10am and the owner of our apartment had offered to arrange a taxi to pick us up just across the road from the apartment at 9. We were ready well in advance of the taxi, and stood by the side of the road, trying to find some shade under a palm tree while we waited for the taxi to arrive. It turned up exactly on time and whizzed us to the bus station in record time, following a series of shortcuts and narrow side roads which seemed more direct than the route which we had walked the previous day. The end result was that we arrived at the bus station around 09.15, so with plenty of time to wait before our bus to Kotor! We found a shady bench to sit on while we waited, and it wasn't actually too long before our bus arrived in its appointed slot. I assumed it wouldn't be possible for us to load our luggage and board until much nearer the departure time, but as a queue of people without luggage started to build up outside the door of the bus, I eventually realised that the driver was loading luggage onto the opposite side of the bus, and we needed to get a move on. He turned out to be the grumpiest bus driver that I have ever encountered. The man in front of us was obviously a bit confused about the concept of having to pay extra to put his baggage in the hold, and had a small bag which seemed to be attached to the side of a larger one. He had paid his €1 for the first bag and the driver had affixed a baggage label onto that, but when he then attempted to put both bags into the hold together, the driver went ballistic at him because he needed to pay another Euro for the second bag. It took a while before this misunderstanding was ironed out and we were able to get our bags in. The bus company was from Montenegro and I realised belatedly that he was charging people in Euros rather than kuna for the luggage, but fortunately when I asked him if we could pay in kuna that wasn't a problem. What did turn out to be a problem was getting our assigned seats on the bus. I had reserved 7 and 8 (next to each other) and 11 (behind) all on the same side of the bus, from where we ought to have a good view of the Bay of Kotor. Unfortunately it seemed to be one of those buses where people weren't obeying the proper seat numbers, and although we managed to get two of the reserved seats, number 11 already had a girl sitting in it. We tried suggested she move but then a slightly scary conductor lady who was sitting at the front of the bus checking the tickets intervened and told us that the numbers didn't mean anything and we just needed to sit wherever. Oh well! It was a beautiful journey anyway, with the bus firstly travelling up into the hills above Dubrovnik and giving us one more spectacular view of Lokrum and the old town as we drove past. Then we travelled through the Croatian countryside, towards the Montenegrin border. According to the timetable, the bus was supposed to arrive in Kotor around midday, but I don't think that had factored in the fact that there might be a wait at the border. I had indicated when booking the accommodation that we would arrive at 1pm, as I was expecting a delay of 20 - 30 minutes. It turned out to be quite a bit longer than that! We arrived at the Croatian side of the border first and pulled up into a lane behind several other buses. The bus driver disappeared off somewhere, perhaps to have a cigarette as he seemed to have a bit of a chain-smoking problem. Wherever he went, he had closed the door of the bus and we suddenly became aware of a bit of a commotion, as an American backpacker came to the front of the bus and was desperately trying to get off... because he'd just realised that he'd forgotten his passport!!! The bus driver returned shortly afterwards and there was a bit of an altercation, as the American tried to explain to him what had happened. As you can imagine, the driver was singularly unimpressed. There was much swearing and waving of hands, which culminated in the American having his luggage removed from the bus and being left at the side of the road as we all moved on across the border. Goodness knows how he was going to make it back to Dubrovnik! The Croatian police boarded the bus and took our passports away. After what felt like a long wait they were returned to the driver who passed them to the guy in the front seat, but then shouted at him when he made a move to start handing them back out. We drove through the brief stretch of no man's land which separates the Croatian border control from the Montenegrin one, with this guy holding an enormous pile of passports, and then the driver took them back to hand them over the the Montenegrin police at the other end. The drama continued at the Montenegrin border control. The bus pulled up into a lane and the driver started shouting and pointing that there was a toilet here. Numerous people got off the bus to take advantage of it. A Montenegrin policeman then started shouting and waving his arms, indicating that our bus was in the wrong lane and that it needed to join an adjacent lane behind several other buses. The bus reversed and drove to this other checkpoint, which was quite a way from where he had dropped passengers off to use the toilet. We can only imagine how some of them must have panicked when they emerged and found the bus was nowhere near where they had left it! There was another long wait here while all the passports were checked and stamped. The queue in the opposite direction, coming from Montenegro back into Croatia, was even longer and while we were waiting we saw one woman who seemed to be having some serious problems with her car. When she was nearly at the control point, ominous smoke started emerging from her vehicle, which got worse when she got out and lifted the bonnet up. A Montenegrin policeman came over and after a heated conversation, she was made to leave the queue and drive back in the direction she had come from; hopefully towards a garage! Finally the passports were returned and the entire pile passed down the bus for people to try and find their own. I think we all felt happier once we were safely reunited with ours! The entire process had taken around an hour, so it was already midday as the bus started driving away from the border and towards the first real town on the Montenegrin side; Herceg Novi. The driver seemed to have used up any goodwill he might have felt to mankind by this point, so our progress through Herceg Novi and then around the Bay of Kotor was punctuated by much honking of the horn and chain-smoking. The views were spectacular though, especially as we passed Perast, and the fact that he was driving with one hand while talking on the phone with the other was only slightly distracting, as we wound around the narrow bends alongside the sea. It was 1pm by the time we arrived in Kotor. I wasn't completely sure how far away from the main town our apartment was located, on account of it being one of those "bez broja" (numberless) buildings that are difficult to reliably locate on Google maps. There were various hopeful looking taxi drivers lurking outside the station. We went with the second one who approached us saying "taksi", and agreed a price of €5 to the apartment, which didn't seem unreasonable. The taxi turned out to be ridiculously hot, but the good news was that the apartment wasn't too far away, and 10 minutes or so later we were pulling up on the drive of the apartment. Before we had even finished unloading our cases from the back of the taxi, we were approached by the owner, who was quite flustered to see us as she thought we were going to be arriving at 4. I've got no idea how this confusion can have arisen, because I was sent an email by booking.com last week with a link to click and input our arrival time, and I know I had definitely said 1pm. But anyway, they seemed to have had some other guests checking out later, and they hadn't quite finished getting the apartment ready for us. The lady was very apologetic and brought us up to sit on the terrace while they finished cleaning the room. It was hard to complain when the view from the terrace was like this. They brought us a refreshing glass of orange, and we were quite happy to sit and drink it while admiring the view of the bay. It wasn't long before all the cleaning was finished, and we were able to get a proper look at the apartment. It turns out to be huge, with three bedrooms and two bathrooms, plus an enormous living room which features unusual decorations that include what appears to be a gun mounted to the wall. The most impressive thing was that we have our own water machine, a miniature version of the sort you would get in an office, complete with a new barrel of water to fix onto it when the old one runs out. This was a great surprise and is going to save us a lot effort in not having to buy bottled water and carry it back to the apartment. The apartment is in a very scenic location; this is the view from my bedroom And this is definitely the best view I've ever had from a bathroom! Once we had settled in, we set out for a walk to see if we could find some shops. The lady had explained to me that we could walk down a staircase by the side of the house, then down a small road to where there is a promenade with restaurants along by the sea. I was really glad she had told us about it because I had never found this promenade on previous visits to Kotor, and the steps looked quite private so I don't think we would ever have walked down them without knowing. We followed the instructions though and were able to have a very pleasant stroll along by the sea. Unfortunately there was a large cruise ship in the bay, slightly spoiling the view in the other direction. We found a small shop where we could get some milk, then later walked into the town to do some more serious shopping in the main supermarket. By the time we returned to the apartment after this, the cruise ship was just getting ready to depart, and we were able to watch little boats being hauled up to it, hear the announcements from the ship's captain, and finally watch it sail away in the distance, on its way towards Greece. The view of the bay without it was 100 times better In the evening we walked towards the old town and got our first views up towards the imposing fortress. We walked as far as the main square, where we sat outside and ate a very tasty meal of punjena piletina (chicken wrapped in bacon, and stuffed with cheese and ham). It was absolutely beautiful, and a nice relaxing end to our first day in Montenegro
  13. We tried to make an early start again this morning, having breakfast on the patio in the sun, entertained by the antics of the apartment owner's kittens We were at the Pile Gate before 9am and today we were successful in beating the hordes Sunday was supposed to be the quietest day of our stay in Dubrovnik, with only one cruise ship (carrying approximately 2,000 passengers) being in the port. We could really tell the difference compared to Friday and Saturday, with the Stradun looking beautifully empty for a change The price of a ticket for the Dubrovnik walls has increased this season to 150 kuna. This doesn't seem to have deterred any visitors though, and we were certainly willing to pay that price. I bought our tickets and then we began the climb up the very steep steps at the entrance. The first thing you see as you emerge out onto the walls is a close-up view of the Franciscan monastery. As we walked a bit further we could see that the Stradun was still really peaceful We soon got our first view of the beautiful Fort Lovrijenac. The latest craze in Dubrovnik this summer seems to be sea-kayaking, and we could soon see a number of people setting off on this potentially dangerous activity from the bottom of the fort. The walls continued to lead uphill from this point, closely following the edge of the cliff. When we turned around at this point we had a great view back towards Mount Srđ, which we were hoping to go up via the cable car later in the day. We rounded the next corner and had the first of many beautiful views out to sea, in the direction of Lokrum. After a while we thought we could just about make out Cavtat on the horizon as well. The walls were starting to get a bit busier by this point, with the first of the tour groups well on their way. What we found though was that they were all walking so quickly, seemingly in an attempt to get through their tour in the shortest possible time, that we were able to just step to one side and let them pass us, then enjoy the views in peace again until the next tour marched by. After Lokrum, the path around the walls became more level for a while and led around the edge of the old town harbour. We were able to look down on the places where we had been catching boats to Lokrum and Cavtat for the previous two days. We could also see rows of smaller boats lined up in the port. At one point as a tour group were pushing past us, our attention was caught by this shot; you can just see the statue of a bishop from the top of one of the town's churches, peeping up over the top of this red roof. At this point we turned another corner on the walls and the main views began to be towards the centre of the town rather than out across the sea. Although I've been here several times before, everything is so beautiful that it's hard to stop taking photos By this point we were approaching the final stage of the walls, which lead up towards the highpoint of the Minčeta Tower. As we climbed higher we had views which encompassed the entire town, plus the harbour and Lokrum for good measure. In the opposite direction we were now able to see Fort Lovrijenac again. Climbing up the tower itself is a little nervewracking, as this is the one part of the walls where there isn't a one-way system in place, so there are people coming up and down the same staircase at the same time. We managed to be strategic though, placing ourselves behind other groups of people going up and down so that they cleared a path and we were able to just follow in their wake! It was definitely worth climbing up there for the views. Eventually it was time to begin our descent back towards the Stradun. It was about 11.30 by this point, so not late enough to go into a restaurant for lunch, but we were all feeling pretty hungry after our exertions. Mom remembered that she had seen a bakery not far from the Pile Gate, so we headed back out in that direction and sat on a bench eating burek, before setting off for our afternoon activity: the cable car. I had thought this might be less busy than the walls, but it possibly turned out to be busier! Or, at least, because the cable car can obviously only accommodate a certain number of people on each trip up the mountain, quite a long queue had built up at the base station. The length of the queue wasn't helped by the fact that the one cruise ship in the port obviously had the cable car as one of its shore excursions, as there was at least one guided group of cruise passengers ahead of us in the line. We probably had to wait for around 30 minutes in the end and the journey in the cable car itself was quite short, but when we ultimately got up to the top of the mountain, the views were spectacular. It was impossible to get tired of looking at Lokrum in one direction... ...and the red roofs of Dubrovnik in the other. After admiring the views for a while, we stopped for a drink in the slightly posh terrace restaurant. We didn't join the waiting list for a table overlooking the town, but the view of the sea was pretty amazing from where we were sitting anyway. Suitably refreshed, we explored the top of the hill a little further. Once you turned your back on the sea, there were some beautiful views inland also. We realised belatedly that the strip of Croatia that Dubrovnik is situated on is actually quite small and that we were probably looking across to mountains in Bosnia. We followed a little track across the top of the mountain for a while, until it came to a dead end at this beautiful view of the Elaphiti islands. There was another path you could follow which went a bit further, but it looked like it would be rather dusty because it was being used as the track for the "buggy safari" which seems to be a new attraction on the top of Srđ. We went back the way we had come instead. There was just time for one last look at the view before it was time to get in the cable car back down to Dubrovnik. Once down, we went back to the apartment for a short break and then set off again towards the main bus station. I had booked the bus tickets for tomorrow's journey to Kotor in advance, using the website of Dubrovnik's bus station, and this seemed to have worked well. However, rather than being issued with an e-ticket at the end of the transaction, I was given a bar code which I was then told to take to the bus station and exchange for the actual ticket. Never having used this website before, I wasn't quite sure how this exchange was going to work out, and I thought it would be better to encounter any potential problems this evening rather than 10 minutes before the bus was due to depart tomorrow morning. I had thought the walk to the bus station would be around 30 minutes, but it was was further than I had thought. We did get a nice view though when we arrived at the harbour, even with the cruise ship on the horizon. In the end everything worked like clockwork; I successfully exchanged the bar code for our tickets, and we are all set for our trip to Kotor tomorrow. We've had a great few days in Croatia, so here's hoping that Montenegro will be just as much fun
  14. We woke up early this morning with the aim of getting into Dubrovnik early enough to beat the hordes onto the town walls. We hadn't reckoned though with the fact that because some of the cruise ships were leaving Dubrovnik in the early afternoon, they would be making a correspondingly early start to their excursions. We were at the main Pile Gate into the old town around 9am, but numerous coaches had beaten us to it, and several tour groups were already following their leader towards the walls. The climb up the initial steps looked pretty busy already, so we decided that it might be better to give the walls a miss for today and escape the old town for another, quieter destination. When we had been getting a lift from the owner of our apartment on Thursday evening, he had mentioned that Cavtat (pronounced "tsavtat") was a nice place for an excursion. I'd never been there before, although I was aware that it was a small seaside town not far from Dubrovnik airport. You can get to Cavtat on a public bus which departs from somewhere in the vicinity of the main Dubrovnik port, but we decided to go for the more exciting option of taking a boat. When we were queuing up for the boat to Lokrum yesterday, we noticed that there were also smaller - and less busy - boats departing for Cavtat. When we arrived this morning there were a row of competing vendors selling Cavtat tickets at the entrance to the old town harbour. I opted for one which looked like it had a fairly frequent timetable, and we were able to buy return tickets for 100 kuna each. The guy who was selling the tickets gave us a timetable which helpfully had the names of the boats which belonged to this particularly company written on it for future reference. The next boat was at 09.45, so we had a bit of time to take a stroll around the harbour while we waited. We walked right to the end of the harbour where there is a small pier jutting out into the sea. From here we had a good view out towards Lokrum. There was a bench right at the very end of the pier... ...where we were able to sit and admire this view. After a while we headed back to the harbour to wait for our boat to arrive. There were quite a few different boats coming and going so it took a while before we saw one of the boats named on our timetable approach. Our first thoughts were that it seemed a little small, but the good news was that there weren't many other people. Soon we were off, pulling away from the old town. We sailed past Lokrum... ...and out into the open sea. The journey seemed to take somewhere between half an hour and 40 minutes on the way there, and we had some beautiful views as we made our way down the Croatian coast towards Cavtat. We passed some unusual-looking islands, which seemed to be smaller and rockier versions of Lokrum. Eventually we arrived in Cavtat, which seemed to be a pleasant seaside town, complete with a promenade lined with palm trees and cafes. We tried going inside the town's church, but didn't stay for long because they seemed to be preparing for some sort of ceremony; we couldn't work out whether or not it was going to be a wedding. The town is also home to a monastery. We went inside the church here and found it had a rather disturbing pulpit, with a random hand clutching a cross protruding from the side of the railing. A path lead past the monastery and around onto the wooded headline which Cavtat is situated next to. As we started to walk along this path, we had some views back towards the town. The path was very shady and pleasant, and we had some great views of the sea as well. It was really cool to see the way cactuses were just growing in the wild by the edge of the water. After we'd been walking around the coast for a while, we realised that we had a view back towards Lokrum and Dubrovnik. It was so far away that zooming in with the camera didn't massively help, but it looked a bit clearer in real life. Lokrum is the green strip of an island towards the centre of the photo, and the walled city of Dubrovnik is the brown splodge to the right of it. We thought we'd walked a really long way and would soon have to turn back and head back to Cavtat. We rounded a corner though and found ourselves in a car park, which initially didn't look very promising, but once we had walked through it we found ourselves in almost the same spot where we had started our walk earlier in the morning. Without realising, we had managed to do a circular walk, along one side of the headland and then back round the other to the town. It was about midday by this point and before we investigated options for lunch, we decided that it would be best to explore what is (apparently!) Cavtat's main attraction; the Račić family mausoleum. This was sign-posted from the main town, along a path which initially went a bit uphill and then degenerated into a succession of staircases up the side of a hill. It was quite tiring, but once you got most of the way up, you did have a nice view back towards the town. It costs 20 kuna to go into the mausoleum itself, which is a strange white building right at the top of the hill. We decided to give it a miss. The mausoleum is situated in the middle of a graveyard, and it is true that there were some pretty spectacular views from there of the coast. It felt a bit strange taking pictures from a graveyard though, even though it was a very attractive one. We managed to take a different path down which avoided most of the steps, and found ourselves back at a point partway along the wooded headland. There was a really nice restaurant there where we were able to sit outside and have lunch, although quite a strong wind seemed to be blowing in our direction from out at sea, so by the end of the meal we were all probably looking a bit windswept. Disaster almost struck when Dad put our 300 kuna inside the wallet with the bill to hand back over to the waiter, and somehow the wind was so strong that it blew the wallet back open and our kuna went flying towards a neighbouring table. Luckily it didn't blow them too far and we were able to retrieve them! We walked back to the centre of town, had a post-lunch ice-cream on a very sunny bench, and then started to follow a path which led around the other headland of the bay. From this path we had a view towards the mausoleum that we had climbed to earlier (it's the white blob you can make out at the top of the hill!). The views of Cavtat were particularly beautiful from here. Unfortunately, after a while this path turned into a bit of a dead end, with the only way to progress further being to climb another rather steep looking set of stairs. It was time to retrace our steps and head back to town. The timetable we'd been given said that there was one boat back to Dubrovnik from Cavtat at 15.00 and another at 16.00. We were just a couple of minutes too late to get on the 15.00 boat, although as we saw it pull away it looked far too busy for us to cram onto anyway. I assumed we would have to wait unil 16.00, but as we were strolling along the waterfront we saw another boat which was going to Cavtat at 15.30. The name matched one of those in the list we'd been given, so I figured it was just an extra service they were putting on at a busy time. We went for a quick drink at a nearby cafe, returning with plenty of time to catch the boat. This one turned out to be nowhere near as busy as the preceding one, which was good news. We sat down and made ourselves comfortable as the boat pulled off. We enjoyed the journey for a few minutes, and then we realised that the boat didn't seem to be going in the same direction that we had come from this morning. First of all the boat pulled into a small settlement on the edge of a bay opposite Cavtat, where it picked up a couple of passengers, and then it preceded in the correct general direction of Dubrovnik, but very close to the coast. We couldn't work out whether this was because it was a slow boat which was scheduled to stop in lots of places - hence not being on the official timetable we'd been given - or whether it was because the sea was actually getting quite choppy and it might be calmer nearer the shore. It didn't stop anywhere else in the end, perhaps partly because the coast is so rocky that there wasn't really anywhere else you could stop even if you had wanted to. But it did take a much slower route, with the final journey time to Dubrovnik being nearer an hour. We really enjoyed it and had some fascinating views of the coast before we found ourselves back in Dubrovnik once more. Evening was starting to fall as we made our way back towards the apartment, where we cooled down for a bit before going out for an evening meal. At the end of a tiring day there was just one more obstacle to negotiate; the steps down to our "ground-floor" apartment
  15. Tim and I decided to take a different approach with our first holiday this year, so while he is off on holiday in Fuerteventura with his extended family, I have come to Croatia with my parents We flew to Dubrovnik from Birmingham yesterday afternoon with Monarch, in what was possibly the aircraft with the world's least leg room. Apart from the slightly cramped conditions it was a nice flight, although the weather was a bit hazy, so we didn't have as clear a view of the Croatian coast as we might otherwise have done. The sun was just setting as we landed in Dubrovnik and were picked up by the owner of the apartment we had booked to stay in. He drove us the 20km or so from the airport to the suburb of Lapad where we were staying, and we got our first (admittedly slightly dark) glimpses of the sea and the old town through the car windows. It was a bit strange arriving at the apartment in complete darkness - especially because there was a rather vigorous chorus of insects outside - but when we woke up this morning we were able to see that it is in a really pretty location. After an excursion to the nearby supermarket, we sat outside and had breakfast on our terrace, which is beneath an enormous fig tree. While we ate we were entertained by the antics of some of the local cats and kittens. We knew that today was going to be a busy day for cruise ship tourists in Dubrovnik, with over 7,000 people due to visit the town. We had therefore decided last night that the best strategy might be to ignore the old town and walls for today, and escape to the island of Lokrum instead. The apartment is about half an hour's walk outside the old town of Dubrovnik, so we set off in that direction, heading for the old town port where we would be able to catch the boat. On the way we passed this beautiful viewpoint outside the town. This was our first proper look at the sea It was fairly busy once we arrived at the town, in particular outside the Pile Gate, but once we started walking down the Stradun it wasn't actually too bad. We made it to the harbour and saw that there was a boat to Lokrum getting ready to set off, but I was surprised to see that there was quite a significant queue. When I went to Lokrum last autumn, I don't remember having to queue at all and I think we were more or less able to have our choice of seats on the boat. I'm not sure whether it was busier today because we were a bit later or because some of the cruise ship companies might have added Lokrum to their list of excursions, but the queue to get tickets was an absolute rabble. We got stuck behind a large bunch of Polish people who had bought some sort of group ticket and were trying to explain in a mixture of Polish and broken English that they wanted us to give them €14 to be included on it. While we were trying to disentangle ourselves from that confusion, several other people started to push in front of us in the queue, which was a bit frustrating. But we made it on to the boat in the end and actually got quite a good position to stand, where we were able to enjoy views firstly of the harbour... ...and then out to sea. The boat officially runs from Dubrovnik to Lokrum every 30 minutes, although it felt today more like it was running every time they got to the point that they couldn't cram another single person onto it. Lokrum isn't very far away from Dubrovnik, so it wasn't long before we had our first view of the island. There was quite a crush of people when we disembarked from the boat, but we soon lost them the minute we struck out on one of the smaller paths away from the harbour. We started following signs towards the slightly strangely named "Pigeon's cave". When we got there we found we could only just about see the cave... ...and there were no pigeons in sight! But there was a beautiful rocky viewpoint. From there we followed signs to 'Mrtvo More' (The Dead Sea), which is a small salt-water lake. Last time I came here it was almost empty, but today it was a popular location for swimmers and sunbathers. We were quite hungry by this point so started walking back in the direction of the ruined monastery towards the centre of the island, where I thought there might be some restaurants. On the way we passed a family peacocks, complete with very fluffy babies. I knew there were lots of peacocks on Lokrum, but I'd never seen one that was as adventurous as this one before; somehow it had hopped it's way up into this tree! We found a little snackbar where we were able to sit in the shade and relax with a drink and a sandwich. Then we set off again, this time along the so-called "paradise path", which is actually an extremely steep path which leads up to the highest point on the island. As one of the tourists who had stopped for breath alongside us commented at one point, perhaps they call it the paradise path because when you get to the top you want to die There's a fortress at the top of the path, which isn't particularly worth seeing, but what really is worth coming up for is the views on the way down. First of all we had some beautiful views of the sea... ...and then as we kept walking we had some amazing views back towards Dubrovnik itself. Unfortunately it is quite a long way away in camera terms, and so if I tried to zoom too much the pictures became quite blurred. It was fantastic to be able to see the entire perimeter of the walls in one shot though Once we had got the (rather rocky) downhill path out of the way, we continued on a flat and shady path around the edge of the island. We had some views of parts of the Dubrovnik walls from here too... ... as well as wider views of Mount Srđ and the Dubrovnik coastline. This path took us back to the harbour where we had originally started. We stopped for a slightly disappointing iced coffee at the snackbar (too much cream, not enough coffee!) before catching the boat back towards Dubrovnik again. Once again we managed to get a good standing position and were rewarded with some excellent views of the town's fortifications as we got closer. Mom and I decided to try and take a selife... possibly we need a bit more practice The closer to Dubrovnik we got, the better the views became... ...until finally we were back in the old town harbour once more. We walked back to our apartment to cool off for a while, before heading out to a nearby restaurant which served nice Italian food. I thought I was doing well asking in Croatian for my pizza to come without olives... until I realised that the "with olives" option only resulted in everyone else's pizza coming with one single solitary olive! It was a lovely meal though, and a good end to what has been a fun but tiring first day in Croatia
  16. Day 3: Amsterdam

    There was some serious thunder during the night on Sunday, and when we woke up on Monday it was extremely humid, though not quite as sunny as the previous two days. After a leisurely start to the morning at the hotel, we set off to the centre of Amsterdam, from where we were hoping to catch a boat across the IJ lake to Amsterdam-Noord. This isn't a part of Amsterdam which is top of the must-see list for most tourists, but Tim had read online that the area was home to the largest elm forest in Western Europe. A forest sounded like a good place to visit on such a hot day, so off we went. Our first challenge was to find a way to get across to the other side of the water. We could see that there were two ferries which left from just outside the main train station to cross to the other side of the lake but we couldn't work out how or where to buy a ticket. While we were standing outside the train station, looking at the info boards and trying to figure out what to do next, something caught our eye on this map of ferry connections. Yep, you've got it: Zamenhofstraat! We decided we would have to walk to the place on the map labelled Azartplein in order to catch the Oostveer ferry. It took us about an hour to walk along the waterside to the correct location. On the way we passed a number of Amsterdam's other sights, such as the Science Museum. Although in places the landscape was a bit industrial, some of the old warehouse buildings were quite pretty. Eventually we made it to the ferry stop. Here is the timetable - it really does go to Zamenhofstraat! We still couldn't figure out how the ticketing system worked, so we decided to just hope for the best and get on when the ferry arrived. Having crossed the water there and back on the ferry now, I can honestly say I still have no idea how the ticketing system works; there didn't seem to be anyone on the boat to check tickets at all. The trip across the water was only a short one and soon we had arrived at Zamenhofstraat itself. We found a couple of different signs... ....and a cafe called "Zamen" too! We walked down Zamenhof street in the direction of the forest. The forest is called Vliegenbos and is Amsterdam's oldest urban nature area, created by the politican WH Vliegen in 1912. It's not really a big enough forest to get lost in, but there are helpful maps along the key paths to show you where you are. It was definitely a nice shady place to have a stroll In the centre of the forest we found a pond with lots of ducklings... ...and a heron as well! At one point when we were walking, we saw some trees which looked a rather funny colour. Tim went over to investigate... ...and found that they were covered in some sort of nasty cobwebs. Eek! Eventually we came to the edge of the forest and so it was time to turn around and head back to Zamenhofstraat again. We had a refreshing drink at the Zamen cafe before catching the boat back across the water. We seemed to find a slightly quicker route this time, so it wasn't too long before we were back in the centre of Amsterdam. Lunch was long overdue by this point, so we found a restaurant not far from the station where I had lasagne, Tim had an enormous chicken schnitzel, and we finished up with cake Then we were off for a final walk around central Amsterdam. We managed to avoid being mown down by bicycles and Tim even found a comic shop where he was able to buy the Dutch version of the Asterix book he collects. We found a few sights which we had missed on Sunday... ...and some more pretty little side streets. Eventually it was time to head back to the station and catch a train to Schipol airport. After our experiences with how long it took to get through Charles de Gaulle airport earlier in the year, we didn't want to take any chances with Schipol, so we probably ended up spending three times as much time there as we actually did on the plane. It was worth it though, because both we and the flight were perfectly on time, making this our most successful flight home so far this year It was a really good end to a really good weekend in Amsterdam
  17. Day 2: Amsterdam

    It was another beautiful bright sunny day when we woke up on Sunday. Breakfast in the hotel was really expensive, so while I was still waking up, Tim set off to try and find the Spar supermarket we'd seen next to Sloterdijk station. He came back reporting that our hotel is actually so close to the station that you can almost see the sign from there. It seems that on Saturday we had taken one wrong turn compounded by another and ended up taking a very long and involved route before we eventually managed to find it! After breakfast we took the brief train ride to Centraal station and set off to explore Amsterdam. When we stepped outside the station, and the first thing we saw was this view of the IJ waterfront. Consulting the map showed us that this meant we had come out of the wrong side of the station. When we walked around to the correct side, we immediately had a view which was a little less industrial We didn't have a definite plan for where we wanted to go, so we set off down one of the streets, attracted by the pretty red and white patterns on this building. We soon found ourselves on a little street alongside a canal with some very crooked houses. Crooked houses seem to be a theme in Amsterdam. We walked along the canals for a while.... ...and ended up outside the Royal Palace. In the same square as the Royal Palace is the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church), which although it is called "New" was originally built in the fifteenth century, before being destroyed by fire in 1645 and rebuilt in a more Gothic style. Across the square from the Royal Palace is the National Monument, which commemorates deaths in the Second World War. Just around the corner we found this building, which looked very impressive although it turned out just to be a shopping centre. We began exploring the little side streets in the old town... ...and at one point found ourselves in a pretty covered passage (alongside a Primark!). It had little sculptures on the wall which seemed to represent things that were typically Dutch (the nearest one in the photo is a clog). Eventually we came to Amsterdam's main street, Damrak. It was crazily busy but there were some really beautiful buildings. We probably should have found this street a lot earlier, as it leads straight down from the station, whose facade we could now see when we turned around and looked back. One of the most impressive buildings on the street is the Beurs van Berlage, which used to be a thriving commodity exchange in Amsterdam. These days it is used more as a concert and exhibition hall. After a while we left the main street behind... ... and tentatively turned down one of the side streets. We didn't want to stray too far into the Red Light District, but we did want to see the Oude Kerk (Old Church) which now has the misfortune to be situated in it. Luckily the church was quite easy to locate from its spire. We strolled down one of the nearby canals, taking care not to be mown down by the ubiquitous bicycles. This gave us a good view back towards the Old Church. We were starting to feel pretty hungry by this point, so we stopped off at a little cafe for lunch. We both ordered a cheeseburger and it's a bit of an understatement to say that Tim was impressed when it arrived with an accompaniment of his favourite food: crisps! After lunch we decided to take a stroll around the Grachtengordel, the ring of canals around Amsterdam's city centre. There are so many canals that we quickly lost track of which one was which. Some were fairly small and narrow. Others seemed a bit wider and grander. Every so often the canals would intersect with each other and there would be a criss-cross of little bridges. The canals were all lined by beautiful houses. It wasn't hard to see why this area is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The really crooked houses were definitely my favourites We must have walked along the canals for several miles and were getting pretty tired in the heat, so eventually we decided to head back to the hotel for a while to cool off. In the evening we had arranged to meet up with two other Esperanto-speakers who are currently living in Amsterdam for a drink. We ended up having quite a few drinks as we sat discovering our common dislikes of certain other Esperanto-speakers, before it got too chilly to sit outside any longer and we needed to head back to the hotel. Overall we had a great first day in Amsterdam and were relieved to see that it really is a lot more photogenic than Eindhoven We're looking forward to seeing more on Monday!
  18. Day 1: Eindhoven

    When I was thinking about holidays the other day, I realised that for the past two Spring Bank Holidays in a row, we have been to Sweden! In 2015 we went to Gothenburg, while in 2016 we went to Stockholm. This year we have decided to break with what was becoming an accidental tradition, and visit a brand new country instead: the Netherlands When Tim was looking for cheap flights for this weekend, there really didn't seem to be a lot of options. The best deal he could find were flights from Stansted to Eindhoven. Eindhoven wasn't a place we really knew anything about - and it certainly isn't a place I've ever heard anyone say they are going to on holiday - but when we looked it up on the map we saw that the journey between Eindhoven and Amsterdam looked manageable, and a weekend in Amsterdam sounded quite exciting Our flight was at 08.35 this morning, which necessitated getting up at 03.30, but this and the journey to Stansted actually felt quite relaxing compared to our even longer and earlier trek to Gatwick for the previous Bank Holiday. Stansted was heaving with people, but not having any bags to check in meant that we missed the worst of the crowds and were soon on off on our way to the Netherlands. Whenever I fly to Europe I tend to assume the flight will take two hours, irrespective of my destination, so the flight to Eindhoven was surprisingly short; it barely felt any longer than the flight we took to Edinburgh last week. By around 10.40 we had already landed and were emerging into the scorchingly hot sunshine outside. The centre of Eindhoven is just a short bus ride away from the airport, and so within half an hour or so we were there and ready to explore. As we sat on the airport bus, my first impressions of the Netherlands were that the stereotypes are true; it really is completely flat and people really do seem to cycle everywhere. Every road we drove down seemed to have a special cycle lane by the side and when we ultimately got off the bus outside the main train station, the first sight which greeted us was this enormous mass of bike racks! I quickly decided that a key skill for successfully surviving in the Netherlands would be to avoid walking in the bicycle lanes. Particularly as it seems that people use them not just for normal bicycles but for various types of motorised scooters as well! We set off to explore Eindhoven. The guidebook hadn't been terribly complimentary about it, and neither had two Esperanto speakers from Amsterdam who we met last weekend. Eindhoven is actually one of the oldest towns in the Netherlands, but unfortunately it doesn't really have anything to show for it. This is firstly because it was a really tiny place until the late nineteenth century, when the electronics firm Philips was founded in Eindhoven and population growth exploded as a result. And secondly because most things which might have been of interest were destroyed during heavy bombing in the Second World War. The result is that Eindhoven is a very modern-looking city. There were quite a few space-age looking buildings like the one above and also a number of buildings relating to Philips, even though the company no longer has its main headquarters here. Eindhoven does have a Philips museum which is apparently very educational if you are interested in engineering, but we aren't so we decided to give it a miss We walked down one of the main shopping streets, enjoying the sunshine. The towers which we caught sight of at the end of the street belong to what seems to be one of the only historical buildings remaining in Eindhoven: St Catherine's Church. We were quite excited to find a building worth photographing We continued down some side streets past the church, where we could see various restaurants which looked like they might be promising for lunch. We could see the spire of another church in the distance, so we decided to aim towards that. In the process, we accidentally left the centre of Eindhoven behind us. Time to turn around and head back. We tried to take a slightly different route in case we'd missed any sights, and came across the Van Abbemuseum. This is a contemporary art museum, but we aren't much better with contemporary art than we are with engineering history, so we chose to enjoy it just from the outside. It was officially lunchtime by this point, so we set off back towards the streets where we had seen restaurants earlier in the morning. We soon found a nice place where we were able to eat spaghetti bolognaise, followed by pancakes, sitting outside in the sun. Our plan was then to catch a 14.32 train from Eindhoven to Amsterdam. The journey should take around 80 minutes, and so we would be arriving in Amsterdam in the mid-afternoon, with plenty of time to check into our hotel and do a bit of exploring. Unfortunately, the rest of our afternoon was spent learning that the Dutch train system can be just as inefficient as the British one! Buying the tickets to Amsterdam was easy, and they cost just under €20 each which didn't seem too bad, but after 15 minutes or so of waiting on the platform, we realised that the train had been cancelled with no announcements. I don't think it was even the case that there was an announcement in Dutch that we didn't understand; there genuinely didn't seem to have been any announcements at all, and the first anybody knew about it was when the train details disappeared from the platform screen We went back to the main concourse to try and find some more information, but there didn't seem to be any. Looking at the paper timetables on the wall, we figured out that there was another train to Amsterdam at 15.02, departing from the nearby platform 6. Off we went to platform 6 to wait for the train... the details of which soon disappeared from the electronic screen on that platform. Oh dear. Back to the main concourse. This time we found an electronic display wich said that the 15.02 was going to depart from platform 5. Off we went to platform 5... only to find that the electronic display on that platform was showing a 15.14 train as the next one incoming. This was chaos on a level which I have previously only experienced at Birmingham New Street Eventually Tim decided the only option was to go back out of the ticket barriers and find an information desk. The lady there explained that the 15.02 would be coming on platform 5.... but not at 15.02 as it was running 20 minutes behind schedule. She advised that we could either wait for that train or take the (also quite delayed) 14.47 train to Utrecht and change there for Amsterdam. I didn't have much faith in the elusive 15.02 actually arriving, so we decided to try the delayed Utrecht train and hope that once we got to Utrecht there would be more reliable connections to Amsterdam. This was a bit of a gamble, as I'm not sure either of us were completely sure where Utrecht was. But it turned out to be a beautifully air-conditioned train, with plenty of seats, that took us on an hour's journey through the very flat Dutch countryside in the vague general direction of Amsterdam. Unfortunately I didn't get any photos, but I was very excited on a couple of occasions when I caught sight of villages with windmills We arrived in Utrecht shortly before 4pm and were relieved to see that there were indeed plenty of connections to Amsterdam. Unfortunately some of these also seemed to be subject to delays and cancellations at short notice and so it was more like 16.25 by the time we (and several hundred other people!) were trying squeeze on to the delayed 16.08 to Amsterdam. We both made it onto the train but I think it's safe to say that this was a much more crowded and unpleasant journey. By 5pm we had made it as far as Amsterdam Centraal. We'd given up on the idea of exploring the city for now and instead just wanted to get into our hotel and check in as quickly as possible. When trying to book hotels for this weekend I'd had major problems trying to find anything affordable though, so we had ended up with a room in a hotel near Amsterdam's Sloterdijk station, which is some way outside the main city centre. We therefore needed to make one final train journey - thankfully only a short one - between the two Amsterdam stations. When we stepped outside at Sloterdijk the first thing we saw was another sea of bicycles The hotel was only supposed to be a 5 minute walk away, but somehow we managed to walk 10 minutes in the wrong direction, which protracted the process of actually finding it. We got there in the end though and confirmed that we had a nice comfortable room, although rather frustratingly it has a coffee machine and no coffee. A definite plus point of the hotel is that it has a pizza oven, so we decided to have a quiet evening in and recover from our early start and subsequent train woes. Tomorrow we are looking forward to actually seeing Amsterdam
  19. Day 3: Sète

    When we woke up in Montpellier on Monday morning, we were pleased to see that the sky looked a lot brighter than the day before. The plan for our final day was to visit the seaside town of Sète, so after breakfast we set off down the palmtree-lined road to the train station. Sète is located on the Mediterranean coast, only about 15 minutes away from Montpellier on the local train. If you look at Sète on the map, you'll see that it is in an unusual location, on a thin strip of land between the sea and a saltwater lagoon. The town centre itself is also criss-crossed by a number of canals so you are never far away from water, as we found when we stepped out of the train station. We didn't have a map of Sète but we knew it was only a small town, so we decided just to stroll around and see what we could find. We quickly realised that Sète is a really colourful town; all the canals are lined with brightly coloured buildings. Behind the town is a small hill called Mont St Clair. While we were admiring the hill, we caught sight of the tower of the town's main church, which is set a little way uphill, above the canals. We decided to walk towards it... ..arriving there just on time to hear the clock strike for midday. Midday meant it was time to start looking for somewhere to have lunch. One of the canalsides was lined with restaurants and looked very promising indeed. Unfortunately, once we took a closer look at the menus though, we realised that Sète's location means it specialises in fish. Every restaurants seemed to be advertising a different type of fresh fish on its lunch menu. Mussels, prawns, things we'd never heard of; it all sounded disgusting! I was relieved when in the end we managed to find an Italian restaurant, which was serving fish-free pizza. I had a margherita, which somewhat unusually came with ham. It was tasty though, and it was warm enough to sit outside in the sun After lunch we walked to the town's main square. Continuing the fish theme, it featured a rather unusual statue of an octopus. We climbed a very hilly street... ... found another church... ...and strolled along some more canals. In the mid-afternoon it was time to say goodbye to Sète and head back to Montpellier. The hotel had kindly been looking after our backpacks for us, so we went to retrieve those and then had a final stroll around the city centre. We revisited some of our favourite sights from Saturday... ...and then walked in the direction of the bus stop where we would need to catch a bus back to the airport in the evening. We had decided it made sense to find somewhere to get dinner not too far from there. We weren't starving after our pizzas earlier in the day in Sète, but we were feeling a bit peckish. In the end we found a nice restaurant by the river where we were able to share some tapas and some wine. Up until this point, it had been a very relaxing day. Then we got to the airport and found our flight had been delayed. At first, for an unspecified amount of time, which ultimately turned out to be 3 hours and 40 minutes. That wouldn't be good at the best of times, but it's especially not good when the flight was a late one in the first place (scheduled to leave at 22.00). After what seemed like forever waiting in the airport, we eventually took off at 01.45. The airport staff had said that the delay was something to do with the weather, but the pilot explained that there had been a technical difficulty with the original plane, which meant we had had to be allocated a different plane and a crew called out from standby. It was 02.30 by the time we landed in Gatwick, it took about 45 minutes to get out of the airport and retrieve the car, and so by the time we finally pulled into our own driveway, it was 05.45 on Tuesday. That's definitely the latest we've ever got home from a weekend away! But it could have been worse - at least we didn't miss the flight this time And it was still a really enjoyable weekend in France.
  20. We knew that today was going to be a rainy day in Montpellier, and sure enough when we opened the curtains this morning we could see a very wet street outside. From consulting the weather forecast last night, we knew that the weather was expected to be slightly better away from Montpellier, and so we had decided to visit the towns of Nîmes and Avignon, which we first visited in May 2015. Nîmes is about 30 minutes away from Montpellier by train and Avignon is a further 30 minutes away from Nîmes, so they were both mangeable for a daytrip As we left the hotel to get breakfast on our way to the station, the main square in Montpellier looked quite damp and dismal. Our train to Nîmes was at 10.13 which doesn't sound like a terribly early start, but getting up felt a bit of a struggle after the tiredness of yesterday! It was a pleasant journey though, and we were soon stepping off the train in Nîmes. We remembered from 2015 that when you come out of the train station in Nîmes, there is a long tree-lined avenue which leads straight to the town's main square. Unfortunately there was some drizzly rain, so everything looked a bit damp here too. Around the corner from the square, we soon got our first glimpse of Nîmes's amphitheatre. We could see that there was a crowd of people gathered outside it, so we went over to investigate. It turned out that this was a special Roman weekend in Nîmes, with Roman re-enactments taking place all around the town. Some of the costumes were truly amazing. We saw soldiers dressed in animal skins, like this rather scary-looking guy draped in a lion skin. There was a solider draped in a bearskin too! And, of course, there were plenty of more traditional uniforms as well. The soliders all congregated in the square in front of the amphitheatre for a while, in numbered legions. Then at a signal, different legions started marching off in different directions around the town. We ran into groups of them at various intervals as we began exploring Nîmes ourselves. We soon found our way to the Maison Carrée, one of the best preserved Roman temples in the world. From there we continued towards the cathedral, which turned out to have a rather unusual water feature in its backyard. You could walk between steps of flowing water to get from the cathedral to the little square below. We found another really pretty church not far away too. This one was just across the road from a bit of Roman wall... and just by chance we happened to arrive there at the same time as one of the Roman legions. This legion was headed by a man with a bearskin. It was really cool to see them in action... ... and we got some great photos as they started to march onwards. By the time we got back to the amphitheatre it was looking a bit quieter, with the Romans dispersed all over the town. We had a coffee and then headed back to the station for our train to Avignon. There was no rain forecast in Avignon today at all, and sure enough when we stepped off the train we found it was a cloudy, but dry day. It was about half past one by this point, so our first priority was to get lunch, and we found a nice restaurant on one of the main streets where we were able to sit outside eating steak and chips We followed it up with pudding, though I think my choocolate mousse looked slightly more appetising than Tim's cheese. After lunch we set off to see the main sights of Avignon. From our previous visit, we knew there were two things in particular that we wanted to see: the Palais des Papes and the Pont d'Avignon. It didn't take us long to find the former. Although we had been here before, we were impressed once again by just how big the palace is. It was home to seven different popes during the fourteenth century. We also had a good view of the cathedral, which is situated next to the palace. Together they make a very imposing collection of buildings Once we'd admired the palace for a while, we set off to find the bridge. We soon had our first sight of it We remembered from last time we had been here that we had managed to cross the river via a road bridge and then get some great views by walking along the opposite side of the river, so we decided to try and do the same today. We got some really good views straight away from the road bridge; we could see the mountains in the distance... ...and the walled city of Avignon behind us. The bridge in Avignon was first built in 1177. Unfortunately it was never a very successful bridge, with the arches tending to collapse every time the river Rhone flooded. Eventually the constant upkeep and repairs of the bridge became too expensive, and so it was allowed to fall into a state of disrepair. Today there are only a few arches of the bridge remaining. We walked along the opposite bank of the river for a while, enjoying the views back towards Avignon. Then we got level with the bridge, we took some final photos of it and turned around to head back into the town. It was soon time to set off back on the train journey to Montpellier. We've had a really fun day exploring Nîmes and Avignon today, despite the weather not being perfect, and it was particularly exciting to see the Roman re-enactments in Nîmes. We're hoping that the weather will be better tomorrow, because we want to visit the nearby seaside town of Sète before catching our flight home tomorrow evening
  21. When we were booking Bank Holiday flights back in January, a 06.20 flight from Gatwick seemed like a good idea. Or, at least, I assume it did! When we started trying to work out last weekend what time we would need to leave home at today in order to make the flight... and realised it would be 2am... it started to seem like less of a good idea. It feels like it's been really difficult to find any cheap flights at all this year though and Easyjet to Montpellier was definitely the most reasonable price I could find for this particular weekend. The flight time aside, Montpellier itself sounded like an attractive destination, with a good chance of it being warmer and sunnier there than in the UK. Getting up was painful as I'd anticipated, but we got to Gatwick with plenty of time to spare and our flight even arrived in Montpellier 30 minutes ahead of schedule. That didn't actually help us, because there's only one airport shuttle bus every hour and we'd just missed one by a couple of minutes, but it did make Easyjet seem efficient and they didn't even play a self-congratulatory jingle over the tannoy as we landed Montpellier itself is inland, but it turns out that the airport is quite near the coast. Until about 30 seconds before the plane touched down, we were still flying over the sea and hoping that the pilot could see some land ahead which we couldn't! Montpellier airport is quite small and so it didn't take long to get through passport control; definitely an improvement on our experiences at Charles de Gaulle earlier this year. There was a very visible security presence; as we sat drinking a much-needed coffee in the airport cafe, we saw an armed solider patrolling past us. I realised later there were quite a number of armed soliders positioned at different points inside and outside the airport. Getting from the airport to the centre of Montpellier itself is a little complicated, despite the fact that in terms of kilometres it isn't actually very far. First of all you have to catch the airport shuttle bus, which runs once an hour and drives for 15 minutes, before depositing passengers at Place de l'Europe, a square on the outskirts of the city. From there you have to catch a tram, which runs from the square towards the main train station. You can buy a combined ticket which covers both parts of the journey for only €2.60, so it isn't very expensive, but it's a bit of a pain having to change transportation halfway through. We arrived in central Montpellier around 10.30 and found a very sleepy town, almost devoid of locals. It seemed like they might all still be in bed, whereas we were calculating how long we had left before we could respectably try to have lunch! It was good though, because it meant we were able to wander around the streets of the old town without dodging hordes of other people. From the tram stop at the main train station, it wasn't far to walk until Montpellier's central square - Place de la Comédie. The square is home to Montpellier's opera house. There are also a number of other very pretty buildings and a fountain. From the square it was easy to start walking through the old town. Before long we'd caught sight of something in the distance which looked rather reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe. It's not quite as big, but this is Montpellier's triumphal arch. It is called the Porte du Peyrou and was originally built in 1693. Further detail was added to it in 1715 to glorify King Louis XIV. Behind the arch is a park, complete with statue of Louis XIV on his horse Hercules. From the statue we had a good view back towards the opposite side of the arch. We were walking along what is known as Promenade du Peyrou, an esplanade first created in 1689. This unusual structure at the end of the promenade is a water tower. It was built in 1768 to help distribute drinking water to the town. From this side it just looks like a pretty monument... ...but from the other side you can see that it is actually attached to an aquaduct. If you climb up the steps at the side of the water tower there is a really great few back along the promenade towards the arch. From there we walked back into the town, looking for the cathedral of St Peter. This must be my favourite building in Montpellier The conical towers at the front are really unusual and reminded me of some of the towers in the old walls of Carcassonne. It was almost lunchtime by this point, so we wandered back towards the centre of the town in search of places to eat. We found a nice restaurant in the main square, and it was (just about!) warm enough to sit outside while we ate some delicious steak and chips The hotel I had booked is just off the main square, so we headed there to check in straight after the meal and then decided to have an hour nap... which ultimately turned into more of a two-hour nap... before we set out again. We had seen most of the old town of Montpellier during the morning, so when we emerged from the hotel later in the afternoon we wanted to see some of the more modern parts. On the map we could see that there were some newer developments by the river, so we decided to head in that direction. We soon found the river Lez, which was surprisingly big for a river we'd never heard of. There are some very modern-looking developments by the river. We particularly liked this office building which mirrors the shape of the triumphal arch We found our way back into the old town via a series of atmospheric little streets. Montpellier is a really pleasant city and we've had fun exploring today. Unfortunately the weather isn't forecast to be quite as bright here tomorrow, so we're investigating whether there are some other towns we can visit with a lower chance of rain
  22. Today was our final day in Lapland and I wanted to make the most of it by seeing as much snow as possible. We were feeling recovered from our cross-country skiing and snowshoeing expeditions now, so we were ready for a slightly longer walk. We'd found a beautiful path through the woods by accident when we were in Äkäslompolo this time last year, and so our aim for this morning was to try and track it down again. It felt pretty nippy when we stepped outside of the apartment, and one of the village thermometers confirmed that it was -14 We remembered that last year we had turned off one of the side roads out of the village and eventually come across a signposted walking trail, so we set off along what was definitely the right road. After 15 minutes or so we still hadn't seen a walking trail though, and the road seemed to be going suspiciously uphill. Eventually it turned into a dead end, which culminated in a little settlement of wooden houses. We definitely hadn't been here before, so we started retracing our steps back down the hill. Towards the bottom we realised that there was a turning for a side road which we should have taken earlier on. As soon as we started walking along that road, things started to look more familiar... ...and soon we had found the sign for the path we wanted The path starts off as a wide track through the woods. There was so much snow everywhere; this fallen tree was almost completely buried. After a while the path becomes slightly narrower and starts to lead through a little valley. It was really magical There were lots of beautiful trees along the way. Some were almost buried in the snow... ...and some were really bowed down under its weight. More fresh snow had fallen overnight and the further we went, the more tiring walking in the soft snow seemed to become. It was fantastic scenery to walk through though At one point we took a turning down a different path and found ourselves at the edge of a frozen lake. It was an amazing view but we could see running water in places so it definitely wasn't a lake to walk across. We retraced our steps back up to the main path. Around 2pm we arrived at the path's destination, which is a small restaurant hut at the crossroads of several ski trails. No time to go in though because we only had an hour of daylight left and nearly 4km left to get back to Äkäslompolo. Fortunately we were able to walk much quicker on the way back than on the way there as we weren't stopping so often to admire the snow There were still some fantastic views though, in particular when trees bent with snow formed arches over the path. At one point, one of the trees had bent over so low that it was almost blocking the path! One thing I'd forgotten from last year was that on the way back there is a point where the path suddenly takes a very sharp dive downhill. I may have needed some assistance in getting down this bit After that it was all plain sailing and we were soon back on the flatter path through the valley. It was definitely getting darker though, so there was no time to lose in getting back. Just after 3pm we made it back to the bright lights of the main road We were pretty tired and cold by this point so went to the local pizzeria to warm up with a meal. My pizza was huge in comparison to Tim's chicken wings! And as it was our final day we treated ourselves to an alcoholic drink (€6 for the cheapest beer and €10 for a glass of white wine!!!!). As we walked back to the apartment in the darkness, we could see that the temperature had now fallen to -15. Today's walk was a lovely end to what has been a really fantastic holiday. Lapland is a wonderful destination and Äkäslompolo in particular is a brilliant place to get away from it all and relax. Our only complaint is that the week seems to have gone too quickly; tomorrow we have a flight from the local Kittilä airport to Helsinki at 10.50 and then will be flying back from Helsinki to Gatwick later in the afternoon. We may already be discussing what would be the most cost effective way to fly here again next year
  23. All the activities of the past few days have been rather tiring, so we decided to have a more relaxing day today and go for a stroll around Äkäslompolo. As we stepped out of the apartment, we could tell that there had been fresh snowfall again overnight. Everywhere looked brilliantly white. This was the view as we stepped out onto the pavement outside the apartment. We followed the pavement along towards the centre of the village. We were heading towards Äkäslompolo's frozen lake. We could soon see it in the distance. On the way we passed a thermometer which announced that today's temperature was - 12. As we approached the lake, Tim caught sight of some animals in a nearby field. Reindeer! These are the first reindeer we have seen in Lapland so it was quite exciting, although we could smell them from a considerable distance away so I didn't regret not having booked a trip to the reindeer farm! We walked out onto the lake, which was completely frozen and criss-crossed by several cross-country skiing and snowshowing trails, same as last year. At least this year we realised that we were walking on a lake It was a nice clear day and so we had good views of some of the fells in the distance. We set off walking along one of the tracks; technically it was for snowshoeing, but it was possible to use it without snowshoes as well. Walking on the fresh snow was quite tiring though and I started to feel some sympathy for the huskies from the other day! The lake is deceptively large and it took us quite a long time to make it to the other side. Eventually we arrived at the far side and found ourselves in a little wooded area. The trees looked beautiful in the snow The further we went the deeper the snow seemed to be and the harder it became to walk through it. It was quite easy to accidentally step onto a bit of snow which was deeper than it looked. Ultimately we came to a hill slope which looked steeper than we were able to climb without snowshoes, so we turned around to retrace our steps back to the village. The views were just as wonderful in the opposite direction. As we crossed the lake again we could see that there wasn't much more daylight left. It was about 2pm, so we decided to go to our favourite restaurant from last year for a meal. It was now open, although the pizza oven was broken so I had to have a burger instead. We had a table by the window which looked out onto mounds and mounds of snow, on what I think is probably the restaurant's terrace during the summer. It was a nice end to a relaxing day
  24. Today's activity was one which we had already done last year and really enjoyed: snowshoeing. I was glad there was no need to be nervous this morning; snowshoeing is a lot easier than cross-country skiing and a lot less frightening than huskies It was snowing lightly when we left the apartment and set off towards the bus stop again, but nowhere near as much of as a blizzard as it had been on Friday. At 11.25 a van pulled over to pick us up, and the good news was it was only around -10 today so the doors opened perfectly. We were the last couple to be picked up, with several German couples already inside, and so we were soon speeding on our way to the nearby village of Ylläs. The Germans had all apparently tried cross-country skiing recently too and they spent most of the journey discussing how difficult it had been. One man in particular said he found it more frightening than downhill skiing because there was nothing you could do to brake when going downhill. I was glad I wasn't the only person who had found it a challenge!! Ylläs is a popular ski resort, about 12km from Äkäslompolo, on the opposite side of a large fell. It seems a lot more touristy than Äkäslompolo, with large hotels and restaurants. There are also various ski lifts to take people up to the top of the fell for downhill skiing. We were surprised to find that our guides for the snowshoe expedition were two French girls. They were friendly but didn't seem quite as well organised as the guides we've had on previous trips, and there was a certain amount of chaos as our group arrived at the offices of the activity company and was fitted out with snowshoes. I was glad that we had tried snowshoes before, because they didn't give us any explanation of what to do. Fortunately, the hardest part of snowshoeing is getting the snowshoes on in the first place, and they were able to help us with that. There are several straps which need to be done up tightly to hold your feet in place, and these are made from a rather hard plastic which is really difficult to bend and clip into place. Eventually we were ready to go. Walking in snowshoes is the same as walking normally, though you do have to be careful not to trip over your own feet. We started off along one of the trails which had been specially prepared for snowshoeing. Every so often we paused for the guides to point out items of interest. First of all we saw some footprints which had been made by a snow hare (or a large rabbit, which was as far as the English of the French girls extended). Then there was this lichen, which grows on the trees here because there is so little pollution. Some of us had more fun with it than others The scenery we were walking through was absolutely beautiful; so much snow everywhere! Some of the trees were really struggling under the weight of it. We continued following the snowshoe path through the forest. Tim and I were coincidentally at the back of the group and at one point we had a slight issue when one of the straps on Tim's snowshoe came undone and we got left behind. Luckily one of the guides noticed and came back to help us, although she had misheard Tim's name as Sam and persisted in calling him that for the duration of the trip Some of the most challenging bits were when we had to go up and downhill with the snowshoes. I don't have any pictures of these paths because I was too busy trying to stay upright, but there was one downhill stretch where all we could really do was slide, and a steep uphill track where we were supposed to be kick the sharp ends of our snowshoes into the side of the hill in order to get a grip. About an hour into the trip we reached a little shelter where we were able to take a rest. The guides explained that Finland is full of these and the public are allowed to make fires here. They set about building a fire to keep us warm while we drank some juice. We were rather surprised by the fact that there was not only a huge pile of logs available for people to use on the fires, but also a public axe to use to chop them up!! Even with the fire, sitting in the snow was pretty cold and it was soon time to set off again. On the way back we took a different route, which involved more snowshoeing off the track, on the normal snow. It was so deep that without the snowshoes we would definitely have sunk. Eventually we found ourselves at a viewpoint where we could see down the fell and out across the surrounding countryside. It was really beautiful, and great to see the view because last time we came here it had been too misty. We finished the trip slightly earlier than planned and so for the final 20 minutes the guides took us off piste again, striking off in a random direction down the hill. Going down was fun but climbing back up again was rather tiring! Eventually we were back at the office, ready to hand back our snowshoes and be driven home to Äkäslompolo. Snowshoeing is great fun but pretty exhausting, especially the day after cross-country skiing. Let's just say we now have rather tired legs
  25. We were pretty exhausted after our cross-country skiing session yesterday, but we wanted to venture outside one more time, to see what was happening for New Year in Äkäslompolo. We got a surprise when we stepped outside our own front door and saw that we had acquired our own New Year's decoration; a candlelit display made from blocks of ice. As we started walking along the road towards the centre of the village, we realised that the sides of the footpath had been decorated with hundreds of little candles, embedded in the snow. If you thought there was a slightly funny smear in the sky in that photo above then you would be right; as we walked along the road into town we got our first proper glimpse of the northern lights It was really difficult to capture them on camera, but they were beautiful. As we got closer towards the lake in Äkäslompolo we started to see some other strange lights floating through the sky; these looked more like fire balls! Then I remembered that I had read something online about a release of lanterns from the lake to celebrate New Year. Sure enough, when we arrived at the lake itself we could see a crowd of people releasing lanterns. This was instead of an official fireworks display and it went on for ages. The northern lights seemed to have faded away for a bit, but as the clock struck midnight they reappeared We had our own display which was far more exciting than fireworks! We couldn't have hoped for a better start to the new year