Oeuf to France

The annual plume of unseasonal warm air making its way up towards the British Isles from North Africa (aka fake summer) coincided with a trip to France. In some ways it was a shame to miss out on such glorious weather in Britain over Easter – how I would miss the opportunity to pop to Tesco in my shorts to battle for the last bag of charcoal and three packs of sausages for a fiver. Or negotiate the single track roads to Cornish coves whose hillsides are coated in cars charged eight quid for the privilege. But France would be nice.

fr02Indeed, the weather didn’t bring too much to grumble about and my shorts proved a justified inclusion on the continent. There were countryside ambles and meanders through parks, Easter egg hunts in the garden and trips to the market. All the usual trappings of life on the French-Swiss border in Ville-la-Grand, snow coating distant peaks while spring was springing all around.

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Out of town, a morning amble around Lac du Mole took us slightly closer to the snow. Yet here the sights of ducklings and the sounds of randy toads were ample testament to the fact that things were hotting up.

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It was good to be out, within flirting distance of the mountains, the sight of which always entice you to explore more. However, the primary rationale for this particular outing wasn’t really to survey mountain tops and randy toads. It was – of course – the proximity of the lake to a patisserie; a roadside stop that could be a Little Chef or a Costa Coffee in the UK, but here was brim with fondant artistry and crème extravagance. As opposed to despondent mediocrity and frothy incompetence.

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While there was gateau and – naturally – cheese aplenty, this was also a trip featuring roast dinners, toads in holes and homemade lasagne; a franglais stew to cater for cross-cultural cravings. I find ice cream works in any language, whether this is whipped in Walsall or churned in Chernobyl. Both places where you’d hope not to find yourself buying ice cream to be honest.

fr06Annecy, on the other hand, is a gem of a place to take in an ice cream or do whatever you should please. From the hive of construction that is Annemasse station, a pleasing hour long train ride delivered my nephew Guillaume and I to what has been described as the Venice of the Alps, largely on the count of a canal infiltrating a few of the streets and – possibly – gondoliers wailing about their need for Walls Cornettos.

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Passing through France almost every town or village you come upon proclaims itself as a Ville Fleurie, going on to illustrate this with an intricate arrangement featuring a cast iron cow and a cluster of geraniums in the middle of a roundabout. Annecy would live up to Ville Fleurie and then some, at least in its medieval centre chock full of flower boxes and civic blooms. The suburbs could well be as grimy as Walsall for all I know, but in the midst of town, much is done to attract and charm.

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fr09The waterways and the flowers and the daytrippers milling about eating ice cream largely find their way towards the jewel in the crown that is Lac d’Annecy and its quite dazzling surrounds. Clear, glacial water hosts an array of boats, encircled by forests, villages and rapidly elevating peaks. It’s a popular spot to row or cruise or be a hoon on a jetski. Or even pedalo for half an hour in a large figure eight. Everybody loves a tourist.

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fr10bThe frequent sight of tourists eating ice cream impels one to wander the streets like a tourist to seek out an ice cream. Heavily topped cornets increase in frequency back near one of the canals, and a large queue meanders from the serving hatch of Glacier des Alpes. Patience may be rewarded with sublime ice cream but neither Guillaume nor I had much patience and opted for a perfectly satisfactory version nearby. Safe from the clutches of any devious gondoliers.

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Leaving Annecy, storm clouds were gathering over the mountains and the very fine weather would break the following day to deliver a period of wind and rain. Preparation for my return to England – and the frequently damp northwest of England to boot. Unlike in the northwest of England, the weather front passed here and left a glorious late afternoon and evening, ripe for a walk across to Switzerland.

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A recurring spectacle across my trip this year – both in France and the UK – was the sight of rapeseed flowering in the fields. A swathe of lurid yellow regularly interrupting the tranquil patchwork of green, unable to be contained within its boundaries and peppering nearby hedges and springing from cracks in the concrete. Insatiable and seemingly inevitable around every corner, in places stretching as far as the eye can see. Only the mountains appear to stop it.

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fr13And so, the last evening in France turned out as sunny as the unseasonably warm sun that was soon to fade away in Great Britain; to be replaced by a storm so irritating it was awarded a name (Hannah), heralding a permanent return to long trousers. One last slice of gateau would compensate for the impending doom, and cap off a very fine Easter; my first in the northern hemisphere since 2006. So, fake summer or real, it was undoubtedly one that will go down in history.

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Frictionless

When I get back to Australia I know I will get the question along the lines of “how are things in Britain these days then?” It’s a subtle way of probing what the actual bloody hell is going on with all that nonsensical Tory schoolboy jostling otherwise known as the British Exit from the European Union. And I guess I’ll answer something along the lines of “well, everyone is pretty much fed up of hearing about it all the time”. Because, you know, what better way to deal with impending doom than pretending it isn’t happening (see, for example, Climate Change).

Still, let’s not get all Project Fear with needless stuff like evidence and statistics and what not. Britain will be fine, because Britain is great and we can be great again because we are Britain, which is just great. So goes the leading argument for leaving. Which is bizarre when you think about it, because it relies on untainted optimism. SINCE WHEN HAVE THE BRITISH BEEN OPTIMISTIC?!!!

Anyway, it’s all great, because being great, I’m sure I will still be able to travel without much friction to Europe on my Great British passport which is changing colour because we can change its colour, wow! I can’t believe I was ever sceptical.

Yes, frictionless travel to Europe. People will continue to queue to get on the plane even though they have an assigned seat and the inbound flight hasn’t even landed yet. The size of hand luggage will continue to take the piss and be contorted into overhead lockers without any regard for anyone else. Buses will continue to transport people from the terminal to a plane twenty metres away, just to add an extra half hour on this seamless journey. And we’ll all get to France with Easyjet scratchcards and no intention at all to even consider speaking French. Nothing will change.

Ah, France. I got there eventually. Actually Switzerland, but then followed by a frictionless border crossing (okay, some speed bumps) to France. And, just for a change, Ville-la-Grand, where my brother and his family have recently moved. It’s a lovely spot, fringed by woodland and the park and bike paths and a slope to the markets and a decent walk to schools and the cheese shop also known as the supermarket. And from one supermarket you can even see Mont Blanc and other assorted mountains on a fine day. It’s grand.

The weather wasn’t very continental on the first day there. Bloody Europe, I should’ve stayed at home. With murk, drizzle and rainy spells it was much like Great Britain, but we still managed to head out for a couple of hours and not gaze sombrely out to sea from a car park eating soggy cheese and pickle sandwiches. While a downpour hammered on the car roof in the car park, it quickly passed, and we were able to amble around the pretty lakeside village of Nernier in the dry. C’est la vie.

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fra02The next day was a more promising affair, with clouds breaking and a touch more warmth back in the air. And so into the Alps, for a destination that was as much about a lunch opportunity as it was scenic nourishment. The Cascade du Rouget plunges down from the mountains, fed by snow melt and discarded Evian. Today, at the end of a long hot summer, it was a relative trickle but an impressive sight nonetheless. Liquid oozing at the mercy of gravity, the annual fondue went down pretty well too.

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fra04The nearby flowery towns of Sixt-Fer-a-Cheval and Samoens provided a touch of post-lunch ambling, ticking down time until the bakeries re-opened. They were relatively quiet on this weekday in September, a palpable air of towns that are winding down from the summer and slowly putting in place preparations for winter. Jigsaw wood piles, puffed up bodywarmers, freshly greased raclette machines. All the essentials of an Alpine winter.

But let’s not put away those Decathlon shorts and tops and sporty sandals just yet. For there are glorious end-of-summer days in which to revel. Blue skies and temperatures nudging the thirties and – finally – a taste of this legendary heatwave of 2018. Until I depart the EU and face the chilly murk of Bristol Airport of course. Great.

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Time for countryside ambles across borders, the sun dappling through the trees of brookside meanders and lighting the fields around. Busy gardens glow amongst shuttered windows and wooden beams, while rows of vines and apple red orchards are bursting for harvest. Lingering lunches alfresco provide a pause to enjoy the fruits of the summer or, more typically, the cheesy potato-bacon-salad combos. And an urge to try to counteract the heftiness of fromage propels me to borrow a bike and cycle to Switzerland and back.

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The final day in France – and very likely my last day in Europe before Britain decides it is better off without it – was surely a reminder that the motherland will always be inferior in the weather stakes. Attention turning to the BBC forecast, mutterings along the lines of 17 degrees and cloud looking “not too bad” for next week show how quickly I adjust; my expectations lower and tolerance of shorts wearing does too.

But an evening flight provides ample time to soak summer up while it lasts, so why not catch a train to Evian to do more than just drink expensive water? I came here last year, from across the lake in Lausanne, and was reasonably enamoured by its character and ambience. Today, a chance to take Mum and a useful local French speaker to enjoy its lakeside ambles and distant views of higher, craggier Alpine peaks.

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Evian’s not the most exciting of places but possesses requisite continental charm. Of course, the plastic-polluting water bottle company is a dominant theme and I believe there are spas in which you can bathe in the minerals extracted from unicorn sweat filtered through kryptonite. The actual source of water is there for all – including many a local restaurant owner and German coach party – to top up bottles. And the free funicular is a little treat for Portillo fans and youth orchestras from Wessex alike.

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Basking in such glorious weather it seems a shame to be departing. The mountains so clear that they literally beckon your name and urge you towards their valleys and peaks. But it turns out we have to leave, not because the alleged genius that is Boris says so, but because there is an Easyjet ticket which has my name on it. A ticket that also has a seat allocated, making the spectacle of hundreds of people queuing at the gate even before the plane is there even more preposterous. In an era of pure preposterousness, this takes the tea and biscuit.

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Europe Food & Drink Green Bogey Photography

Take a train, take a photo

In the space of an hour I crossed from France to Switzerland to France to Switzerland again. It would’ve been shorter if it weren’t for the fact that Switzerland obscures the presence of France, and France fails to advertise its presence at all. With our hire car eventually returned in a space smaller than – well – a hire car and the assistants nonchalantly watching with a shrug and a keen eye for scratches, it clearly felt like France. Then efficiently down an escalator Dad and I re-entered Switzerland, which was doing its best to imitate France.

Faring Dad well in the tobacco-scented chaos, my train left a minute or two late from Geneva Airport into the city, where I met up with Caroline and encountered more scandalous mayhem queuing for a train ticket. Onwards to Lausanne, where our train was one of only a handful not encountering a delay of five minutes or so. Heads will roll for this, I thought. Perhaps this French-speaking corner of Switzerland is attempting to be more like La Republique, I mused. But with no Orangina.

Michael Portillo would have been as pleased as pink pants to find that the trains were running like clockwork the following day. A good job too as we took eight train journeys (and missed a ferry, oops) to maximise rail pass value and soak up an array of succulent Swiss scenery. The kind of scenery where cows chew happily away to produce creamy chocolate and flavoursome cheese, luring visitors to revel in a pleasant cliché or two.

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swiss02Indeed, many visitors were lured by the smells of the Cailler chocolate factory in Broc; so much so that we skipped the long wait times and went straight to the chocolate tasting (i.e. shop) instead. One bar later we were getting off the train in Gruyeres, straight opposite the fromage factory and down below the castled old town. Undeniably cheesy with a touch of theme park, it is nonetheless a fine spot in which to amble and eat a random picnic from the Coop.

For me, the fifth, sixth and seventh train journeys of the day broke new ground, shifting south from Gruyeres through a scenic valley to the main street of Montbovon. From here, train number six was as delightful as a lime green blazer and yellow trouser combo. Outside, the landscape became increasingly mountainous, idyllically scattered with wooden chalets bathed in baskets of red geranium. Inside, the train was a treasure of wood panelling, art deco lamps and antiquated buffet service. At some point, somewhere, everything became Germanic. Guten tag Gstaad.

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Forty minutes in Gstaad was enough to gauge that this was another kind of Gruyeres, the Swiss theme park of gold bullion, creative offshore accounting and thousand dollar sunglasses. There were few cuckoo clocks in sight and even the vending machine at the station offered gourmet meats and diamond-encrusted olives pooped out by a rare Tuscan unicorn which belongs to Her Majesty. The supermarket water was cheap enough though and – I’m sure with more time and exploration – there would be plenty of opportunities to penetrate beyond the slightly false exterior and into nature.

swiss04Retracing some of the route back into the French speaking side of Switzerland, train seven rolled and lulled its way to snoozeville, climbing up through a hole in the rock to emerge way above Lake Geneva. The descent was disorienting as the lake shifted from left to right and eventually lapped at the foot of Montreux. What better way to stretch the legs than to walk along the lake shore in the early evening sunshine, ambling towards a Legoland castle jutting out into the water?

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Turns out it was a magical castle that disappears from view only to re-emerge further in the distance the closer you get to it. It may have been a mirage or a hallucinogenic vision created by too much train travel and ice cream. Michael Portillo would’ve had a private boat tour in some reconditioned U-boat; by time we reached the Chateau de Chillon, we missed our ferry back. Oops. Train number eight it is then.

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swiss06Following an epic day cruising the rails of eastern Switzerland, the next day – Sunday – proved a quieter affair. I mean, it did start with a train, the Lausanne metro transporting us to a dormant university campus and close to more lakeside ambles. Lausanne was emerging to life in its dog walkers and cyclists and rowers and barbecue in the park chefs. It was still rather quiet, in a Canberra-like kind of state.

The parkland serenity of Lausanne was in stark contrast to the triathlon taking place on the streets, an event that seemed to go on for like forever. It was still finishing up after another walk from the edge of the Lavaux vine terraces back into the city. Ice cream and midges accompanied the stroll past small parks, gravelly bays and waterfront homes. More people were out and about this afternoon, topping up tans and a healthy constitution. And still the triathletes finished, not at all concerned about being drug-tested as they sauntered past IOC HQ.

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Lausanne proved a good base to spend a few days in Switzerland and I am sure it could offer an agreeable life. There’s probably more to see and more that can be done (just ask our AirBnB host!) but, crucially, did it pass the ‘I could live here test?’ Well, probably…like if you were placed here for work or study or something. There could be far worse spots in which to dwell, even if you don’t like trains or triathlons.

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After vaguely bestowing some half-arsed compliments to a city that I spent a few days in (hey, this is rigorous Lonely Planet stuff here), Monday was an opportunity to get out of said city and use up our other all-inclusive travel day. Just the three trains and three ferries but these proved more than enough to recover the rail pass expenditure two-fold.

swiss08The trip from Montreux up to Rochers-de-Naye would cost an arm and a leg in itself. Better than cramp and a heart attack that would be the inevitable result of trying to make this journey on foot. Old and old at heart alike were more than happy to board the open air carriages, passing the raffish suburbs of Higher Montreux, up through clusters of chalets and expensive hotel restaurants commanding views of the lake, into pine forest under deep blue skies and out into open meadows way up high. At around two thousand metres in height, panoramas of Switzerland and France abound.

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There are plenty of opportunities to take a photo of the approaching train as you wait upon the platform for the ride down. A ride down that pauses somewhere and you see a couple of friends from Canberra on the other train going up! An occurrence almost as random, as bizarre as the Nolan sisters ordering spaghetti bolognaise and chips at a swanky hotel nearby.

Swank is in the air in Montreux, which is a pleasing-on-the-eye, sun-kissed kind of affair seemingly designed for lakeside promenading (as opposed to scrambling frantically for a ferry near a mysteriously disappearing chateau). Today, there was no major rush for our next connection, with time just about right to eat the world’s most expensive bagel and soak up a little of the shoreline ambience. And then, having covered every piece of rail in the area, it was only fitting that we should now take to the water.

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The ride on the lake to Lausanne offered an alternately sunny and hot or shady and cool experience in which to marvel at the mountains, to peer up and pick out the bulbous summit of Rochers-de-Naye, and to appreciate the tumbling green steps of the Lavaux. At Lausanne, an efficient interchange swept us, alongside the omnipresent youngsters of the Wessex Youth Orchestra, on board to a ferry to cross over to Evian, and back again into France.

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Evian was more charming than I remember from my one previous visit here. There was great ice cream, crepes and Orangina-au-wasp, pretty shops and houses, a Carrefour full of oddments, little in the way of French litter and dog poop, and – of course – a tap pumping out free water from an ornate unicorn’s mouth or something. Here, an amalgam of curious tourists and mischievous restaurateurs gathered to fill bottles, supping on cool refreshing water that tasted just like water.

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There’s also a free, old-fashioned funicular in Evian and on this trip there was no way we were going to miss out on such a thing! The Wessex Youth Orchestra were also keen; if only they had brought their instruments along we could have had a jaunty rendition of Climb Every Mountain and even less air in which to breathe. They then followed us to an overlook and we buddied up again on the way back down. Key take outs were that not all yoof are horrendous, I don’t miss the awkwardness of those years, thank god we didn’t have phones and social media when I was their age, and where the hell is Wessex anyway?

As the orchestra diminuendoed their way back across to Switzerland we lingered for dinner and a later sailing that coincided with dusk. Leaving France for the fourth time, it was rather sedate and beautiful: the triple-pronged peaks of an Evian bottle fading in the sky, the lights twinkling on around the shore, the calm of the water interrupted by birds and the chop of the ferry. The scene like an ending from some movie, or perhaps the closing credits of a Great Continental railway, bus, funicular, cog train, metro, foot and ferry journey.

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Europe Food & Drink Green Bogey Photography

Hors Categorie

If there’s one thing that does have enduring popularity in France it’s months of summer holidays frolicking around the republic, sampling local cheeses and drinking grapes. Some flock to thank the beaches, others wade nonchalantly within Monet waterways, while a large portion head to the hills wrapped in Decathlon. I bring my own Kmart chic to the mountains, but am happy to regularly indulge in the joie de vivre as much as the next Thomas, Ricard or Henri.

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alps01Just when you think you have pretty much seen the French Alps, another gorgeously picturesque valley road veers upwards, speckled with chalets and cyclists, leading to a modest resort town and an inevitable col de something or other once mentioned by Phil Liggett late at night. Saint-Francois-Longchamp is not only pleasingly French sounding but possesses all the jagged scenery and cowbell fields you could hope for. And plenty of those wooden chalets in which to stay avec famille.

There is a sameness to this landscape – it could be virtually any other high valley in the French Alps – but in no way whatsoever is that a bad thing. From the doorstep, footsteps can lead into sunny pastures surrounded by lofty peaks or, equally, the local piscine and boulangerie. All are recurrent, welcome sights.

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alps03As things tended to go, footsteps to the boulangerie were typical first thing, followed by a longer walk somewhere someplace prior to or incorporating lunch. Warm afternoons were generally more leisurely before fun, games, and dinner. Dinner obviously incorporated cheese in several forms… another sameness which is in no way whatsoever a bad thing.

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alps07Trips beyond Saint-Footlong-Champignons included the short climb up the hairpins to the Col de la Madeleine (HC). By voiture this was okay; an electric powered bike might have been doable; but pure pedal power seems like pure crazy. Especially from 1500 metres below in the valley of the Arc. I think if I even remotely made part of this climb without dying I would reward myself with trois boules of ice cream. But I didn’t, so just had the ‘two’ instead.

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Elsewhere, a couple of days of the week in Such-Fancy-Longpants were spiced up with a functioning chairlift. This dangled a steady stream of holidaymakers upward towards Lac Blanc and Lac Bleu. Not all the way up though…the final kilometre or so requiring a little zigzagging and pausing at opportune times for photo breaks.

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alps10The lakes were small placid affairs, ideal for observing the evolution of tadpoles to gourmet cuisine. Marmot whistles vied for attention with miniscule mosses and macrobugs, while the number of baguettes being simultaneously munched beside the water reached epic proportions around one. But then, you could see the appeal; they really were rather charming spots to eat and wile away a couple of hours up high.

Back down in town, summertime life continued with a chunder incident in the pool, horses on the loose, dog walking en masse, and people with shiny balls competing for the finest patch of gravel. The thud of Petanque was only eclipsed by the thud of the Beaufort on the table.

alps11Despite so much to enjoy it was perhaps the final morning where life in the Alps peaked. From the Col de la Madeleine once more, a cloudless sky provided the obligatory view of a glimmering, gargantuan Mont Blanc. It was a steady companion along a gravel track with views over valleys and peaks as far as the eye could see. I had probably been in some of those, and eaten some of their cheese before.

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Pausing at a boarded up wintertime ski spot, a few clouds had started to gather around the mighty massif as they almost always do. Air currents and convection and all that type of stuff; handy for obscuring prominent peaks and flying toy planes. A beacon and turning point, to head for home and leave that poor solitary walker to finally enjoy some peace and quiet!

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You don’t really think of France and burgers and beers, but lunchtime at La Banquise 2000 feasting on the aforementioned was a dream. It kind of seems wrong, but there’s something immensely satisfying about eating a slab of beef coated in melted local cheese and accompanied with the most amazing chips as scrawny people in Lycra huff and puff their way to a mountaintop.

My polka dot jersey would clearly need to be expandable to cater for these breaks, to adjust to the experience of summer holidays in the Alps and everything they entail. At least, from here, the only way is downhill, gravity assisted with extra vigour all the way back to the valley and towards Geneva.

 

Europe Food & Drink Green Bogey Photography Walking

Remain?

I was naturally curious to gauge the reaction of arriving in Europe on one of those British passports. A snide eye roll, a tutting sigh, a stale baguette in the face? But no, such was the tardiness of Easyjet that Geneva airport was practically closed (and, yes, I know, not in the EU). So with haste it was through the Swiss border and across into France.

France. Dawning on a beautiful late summer’s day on which some of its citizens were semi-productively shuffling off to work while those who worked in Switzerland – courtesy of a public holiday – were not. The French also had school, which by a happy coincidence meant a child free day to venture into the Alps with relieved parents Monsieur Alain et Veronique. And inevitably eat cheese.

La Clusaz was a suitable lunch venue, reached via a scenic ride up a valley and into the green pasture chalet-dotted world that is so typique. Quiet streets recovering from the summer holidays led down to a clutch of shops and restaurants. Being lunchtime, the shops were closed and the shop owners in the restaurants, one of which took us in for some lazy refuge. A beer, charcuterie, fondue, tarte aux myrtilles. All inescapably inevitable and delicious.

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I guess if we were keen, had bikes, several blood transfusions and some special Coke cans, we could have worked it off heading up to the Col de la Colombiere. But it was much easier to appreciate from car, rising up from Le Grand-Bornand through some of those chalet-dotted villages, alongside rustic farms and into a precipitous wilderness. Marmots whistled, cyclists huffed and puffed, and the only lump of cloud in the Alps stubbornly hovered and clung to the mountaintops above.

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Descending from here was every bit as if not more fun than the climb. While I’d appreciate the distinct lack of a need to pedal on a bike I’m pretty sure I would lack the bravery. The car itself had plenty of natural momentum to hurtle down the straights and sweep round the bends. Villages and dreamy views flew by. And then we were back into the valley. A big valley with towns sprawled out and “traffic furniture” in profusion. France was leaving school and work, and we had a pick-up of our own to get back for.

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Our school pick-up was without too many a problem. By contrast, another tardy Easyjet plane resulted in another late night pick-up from the airport, as the parents decided to join us for the weekend. Well, a long weekend, since the next day was Friday and the kiddies were still in school. Ahead was the prospect of another tantrum-free sojourn into the mountains, all being well.

fr04And what a lovely tour it was, revisiting some vaguely familiar territory but under glorious skies instead of disappointing murk. First stop was Carrefour, which was a little less lovely, but suitably stocked with bread and meats and cheese, staples that can be lumped together and taken up to the top of a hill in scenes reminiscent of a Peppa Pig episode in which they have a thoroughly middle class picnic.

The hill in question was situated in the Plaine Joux area, topped with wooden tables and lazing meadows, peppered with cows, and surrounded by mountains. If you didn’t want to idle in the sun, several trails could take you to the top of other hills, down into valleys, across farms, or simply round the corner to marvel at the vista in the other direction.

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Down there somewhere in the Vallee Verte, past the evocative Onnion, and wedged into the mountains sat the Lac de Vallon. Placidly reflective, partly in shade from the looming hills, blissfully quiet, it was a pause in the return home. A final beautiful moment before the weekend proper and the chance of greater mayhem. A mayhem that was admittedly delightful, barring one or two moments.

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fr12And so there were walks to parks and more picnics, bouncy castles, lego blocks, hearty lunches, tickle monsters, bustling markets, outdoor petanque, selfies, tired parents and doting grandparents. Oh, and a bit of a premature gateaux anniversaire for a certain someone. It was the final family flourish before saying, again, au revoir. Goodbye. Leave.

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Driving Europe Food & Drink Green Bogey Photography

Nuage magique

In further news not westcountry, here are some more pictures and jumbled words from a recent trip to the Geneva suburbs of France and the French bit of Switzerland. Family connections make such trips possible and while this can raise some minor irritations – think early starts, couch sleeps, tricky post-dinner cheese decisions – there are more positives than negatives. Like family fun at six in the morning, afternoon naps on a comfy couch when all is quiet, and fulfilling post-dinner cheese decisions.

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In addition there is the location, which provides access to two countries and cultures and some very hilly ground. I feel like I have at one explored much and touched only little over multiple visits. New settings emerge like the sun through the lake cloud, while old haunts linger, much like the lake cloud. Thus, in conclusion, the lake cloud is very variable and largely unpredictable in late autumn and sets the tone for the disposition of the day. Linger in cold dreariness or bask in pleasant, warm sunshine. Just be prepared to deal with it one way or another…

1. Disconnect sensory and logic-processing synapses

It looks like a pile of gloom. It sounds like a pile of gloom. It smells like a pile of gloom. It is not necessarily a pile of gloom, though it could be actually. Or maybe not. What is dark and leaden at the start of the 61 bus ride can be clear and airy at the end of it. Now, I know the 61 bus ride feels like an eternity for some, but not so long to make this transition conventional. You think there is no way under the (non-existent) sun that this pile of gloom will shift today, and it does. In the twinkle of a traffic light, your body which was in winter is now firmly in autumn and possibly just absorbing a residual hint of summer.

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Fr03Of course, this is marvellous given such abysmal expectations. You find yourself beside the lake in Geneva all sapphire and topaz crystal. Leaves are ablaze with afternoon sun. A walk up into the old town warms the body further, despite its narrow cobbled streets in the permanent shadow of expensive jewellery shops and even more expensive solicitors. The Saleve – which didn’t exist before – punctures the horizon from the Promenade de la Treille. Children play merrily, students philosophise lazily, lovers embrace amorously. Where is the gloom? None of this makes sense.

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2. Ascension

There is wisdom to be had in the words of Yazz and the Plastic Population. It may take many hairpins and navigation through the inside of a big damp cloud, but go up and you may just end up above the weather.

It was looking doubtful climbing up to a car park in the shadow of Les Voirons, a lumpy ridge rising to highs of 1400 metres. Only in the last few kinks of road did the mistiness glow bright and dissipate. Even then, occasional wisps of cloud hovered over the road surface, as if a smoke machine was spewing out its final puffs from a distant eighties dance-pop-funk performance.

In the clear air, churned up tracks through the forest conveyed a sense of truffle hunting, rabid dogs, and people with shotguns. After piddling about along these tracks for a little while, the only way was to ascend, bay-ay-beee. Up through millions of discarded leaves, into a clearing and views of the sea; a brilliant white sea lapping at the shores of craggy peaks and ice-capped spires. The very top of the Saleve a small desert island floating in this blinding ocean.

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Fr06There was something very satisfying about being above the cloud, in brilliant blue skies, knowing that it was well miserable down there. As if you had stuck two fingers up to the weather and, for once, outsmarted it. Haha, yes weather, you are no match for altitude, mwahahahaaa! All your stupid cloud is doing is reflecting the sun and making me incredibly warm, so that I can cope in a T-shirt. And in making the valleys disappear, you accentuate the purity of the view, the drama and scale of the stunning panorama of the Mont Blanc massif. Yeah, screw you, cloud.

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3. Just eat

Sunday lunches are often best when they are lingering affairs, embellished with hearty food and infused with wine. They are the perfect antidote to grey skies and uninspiring temperatures, a strip of crispy crackling in a pile of over-boiled cabbage. Perhaps in the case of this particularly Sunday lunch it was the heat from the Raclette-melting contraption (it probably has a local name, like raclettesiennierre-de-montagne-lardonass) that generated just enough upward convection to part the clouds towards the end of the day.

Fr09Cue some reluctant shifting of our own lardonasses for a welcome amble in the nearby Swiss section of countryside. Golden light casts a serene glow on everything and everyone. A crispness in the air is refreshing and helps to dilute the strong odours of cheese. The cloud has gone again, and – in such endless skies reaching to the stars – it is hard to believe that it will so easily return.

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4. Try a different country

Okay, so perhaps Switzerland has all of the sunshine, what with millions of fancy penknives slashing at the cloud and all. So, with a free day out to use up courtesy of my rail pass I was able to penetrate deeper into the country and seek out its sunnier spots.

Fr11First, with cloud embedded deep into the valleys, I had to escape up once more. From the town of Vevey, a gleaming commuter train elegantly curves its way past chalets and chateaus to the suburb of Blonay. Here, a change of train (waiting on the other platform, naturally) shifts into a steeper grade through forest and occasional hamlets to Les Pleiades. Nothing much is at this terminus, apart from open meadows, scientific contraptions, and labourers preparing for the winter. But it is a spot well above the cloud, which sits snugly in its lake-filled indent, a luminescent glacier of cotton wool.

Numerous jet trails pierce the clear blue sky and it is warm again. This is the sunny side of Switzerland, all rolling green meadows and dotted villages. Happy to linger, I gradually stroll down, passing a small fromagerie and a couple of holiday chalets a louer. A barn sits empty, the cows having descended for the winter, the sound of their bells occasionally echoing up the valley. I move down too, only from what seems an alpine summer and back to a winter by the lake.

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My original plan was to hop on a boat cruise from Vevey, a sedate and civilised way to soak up the charm of the Riviera towns and the drama of the rising mountains. While some hazy breaks hinted at a clearing it was still predominantly grey; not quite the scene I had pictured in which I lazed contentedly on a wooden deck, the lowering sun illuminating the surrounding mountains. So instead – with free travel at my fingertips – I jumped on a train for twenty minutes to Aigle.

One of the problems with free travel and chronic indecision is deciding what to do with the free travel that you have decided to buy. At Aigle, two tempting options wait and time, really, for only one. Platform 13 and a train to Les Diablerets, Platform 14 Leysin. Both equipped to move upwards and no doubt deliver another hearty dose of gorgeous Swissness. One leaving in four minutes, the other in six…time barely sufficient for decision-making.

Jumping on the first to depart (Les Diablerets), the carriages immediately turned into a tram and clunked through the streets of the town. I caught a glimpse of the chateau on Aigle’s edge, and promptly jumped off at the first stop. There would be no time to visit that as well as Les Diablerets, so I crossed a road and caught the following train to Leysin.

Fr14With the sun now out in Aigle there was less imperative to climb, but the train relentlessly lumbered upwards. Surprisingly there was deception in that valley sunshine, as it became clear once up high that a layer of haze hovered at around 800 metres. The sunny valley was no longer visible, despite it being sunny when down there. What kind of sorcery was this?

Leysin itself appeared to possess charm and utility, no doubt bustling in winter and thriving in summer. In early November things were a little devoid of life apart from clusters of students, neatly attired, mostly Asian, receiving an expensive Swiss education in a school with a view. A few joined me on the train back down, through that mysterious haze which was only visible from above.

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In time-honoured tradition I hopped off the train a couple of stops early, prior to it reaching Aigle level. I had noticed on the way up the glimmering terraces adorned with rows of vines, golden in the peculiar autumn sunshine. The chateau would be visible below, and there must be a walk down, because a carriage of younger schoolkids disembarked here on the way up.

Fr15I have no idea how all those schoolkids assembled on the platform, such as it was: two square paving slabs dangling over one of the walls cascading down in giant steps towards the valley. What looked like some kind of drainage channel passed steeply under the rail track; the only other person to disembark informing me that this was the road-cum-path. And despite this initial steepness, it was a glorious walk, mostly following the small chemins used to transport grapes and labour. Occasional houses adjoined the route, each proudly displaying the name of the vigneron and date of establishment. One or two tempted with open doorways, while outside a couple of workers toasted a hard day’s winemaking with a crisp glass of white.

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Fr17With the light lowering in the clear (???) sky, there was barely chance to visit Aigle’s picturesque chateau before it would be cast into shadow. While sunset time was a little way off, the narrowing of the valley and the proximity of gargantuan mountaintops meant that it would soon kiss this part of the world goodbye. Darkness would return, and with it, the infamous foggy shroud of dank.

5. Suck it up, cheese boy

There is only so much successful blue sky strategising that one can manage, and fortuitous decision-making will eventually turn sour. While I loved practically everything about an overnight stay up from Vevey in the village of Chexbres – king-sized bed, amazing shower, big screen TV with 832 channels in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Cornish, Swisshornian – the balcony view was not one of them. Beyond vine terraces and tightly packed village roofs floating in the mist a sparkling blue lake had disappeared.

With a midday checkout I dawdled for as long as possible for things to clear but today was not going to happen. On top of the low cloud, some medium level cloud and then some high cloud, with a few spots of rain and little hope of sun. I faced a cloud lasagne with bits of Switzerland oozing through the layers. Suck it up, cheese boy.

Still, the setting – in the heart of the Lavaux wine region – was very pretty, just that more subdued than the previous afternoon in similar terrain around Aigle. Wine has been grown here for donkey’s years, probably with the use of donkeys on the steep-sided terraces, frisked by slavering monks gagging for their next tipple. Today, a few mechanical contraptions – steep narrow-gauge rail tracks like fairground rides, convoluted water sprinklers, grape conveyor belts – have evolved, but much must still be managed and picked by hand.

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A network of chemins provides gentle and mostly traffic-free walking across appellations, between villages, and – occasionally – directly through the rows of vines themselves. It’s such easy and serene walking that you can comfortably end up strolling all the way into Lausanne. I practically did in the hope that the sun would shine as the hour lengthened. And, towards the end, the milkiest hint of sunlight filtered through the cloud levels, briefly giving the impression of a vast lake below, and high mountains beyond.

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A large patch of blue sky greeted me as I arrived back into Geneva’s train station. It seemed – from my limited recent experience – uncharacteristic that Geneva would be clear while further up the lake it remained damp and grey. Little of the day remained to enjoy it, but the light illuminated the final 61 bus ride back to Annemasse. And it provided a salient reminder that there is only so much you can do to predict, manage, and deal with the infamous wintry shroud of Lake Geneva.

Europe Food & Drink Green Bogey Photography Society & Culture Walking

Swiss day out

The number 61 bus from Annemasse Gare to Geneve Cornavin seems to pass as one of the longest short journeys around. I don’t know what it is about it…perhaps the trundle through France, with its oil-stained Renault workshops and flashing green pharmacie signs? Or maybe the sombreness of being beneath a Leman gloom cloud, omnipresent in early November? Though a seamless (at least then) border crossing sweeps you into a more sanitised array of Swiss shops and streets, the rattling and bending and last-gasp stopping continues apace. Stylishness and affluence glides in, bag ladies and yoof dribble out. No-one, ever, stands up for anybody else, achieved (for those rare species without tablets and phones) through an accomplished display of middle-distance gazing, looking at nothing or no-one in particular.

The journey only takes forty minutes or so, which is considerably longer than the one hour, thirty six minutes and forty nine seconds it took me to travel almost all of the Piccadilly line (from Oakwood) to Heathrow, which in itself was longer than the flight duration from London to Geneva. But this bus feels the longest trip of the lot, and it is with relief and excitement that you find yourself at the virtual terminus of the Swiss railway network (not to mention round the corner from Manor).

Looking for something to do – for lake cloud to escape and bendy buses to flee – I availed myself of a Lake Geneva – Alps Regional Pass. It took some finding, for there is nothing the Swiss seem to like more (well, apart from chocolate, cheese, and referenda) than a convoluted array of rail passes, network zones and travel conditions, all in French, German, English and occasional Italian. I could get a Swiss Card for a half-priced fare, or a one-day whole-of-SBBCFFFFS roamer, or a Zug Snausserhorn Goldenpass or maybe a Cloud Cuckooclockland permit, with 70% discount on VIP chocolate train seats instead? What is certain is that no Swiss person will ever pay a full fare and that – despite such ticketing intricacies – the trains will still run like a well-worn cliché involving clock mechanisms.

It’s not just the timeliness of the trains, but the efficiency of connections, something which never fails to evoke wonder amongst travellers bred on a discombobulated British rail system or faced with a practically non-existent Australian one. Connections to other cantons and cities and major towns, but also to tiny villages, hay sheds and pieces of rock in the middle of nowhere. Like Montreux – upon glittering Leman shores – to Rochers de Naye, some two thousand metres in the sky.

RDN01Lake cloud which started to fragment in Lausanne had virtually evaporated by the time I reached Montreux, for my seven minute transfer to platform 10 and the Rochers de Naye train. Departing exactly at 09:47 as planned, the two cogwheel carriages made no bones about it and immediately veered sharply upwards, through a tunnel and out onto sun-filled plateaus coated with luminous autumn foliage and expensive views.

Riviera homes for bankers, third rate Swiss pop stars and dairy farmers alike slowly passed by, and occasional stops in the middle of nowhere allowed regulars to jump off to reach their hidden retreat in the woods. While some stations resembled the genuine thing sited in proper villages, other stops were little more than a plank of wood or a metal gate. Here, the train would briefly pause on a 50% gradient, before rolling a tad backwards in a disconcerting motion accompanied by a grinding shriek of metal on metal. You could almost smell the sparks as Sepp hopped off and waved a cheery goodbye to Michel, brown envelope in hand, as though this was the most normal thing in the world.

With altitude the ‘suburban’ stops fade and only walkers and the curious remain at this time of the year. Many of the walkers disembark at the Col de Jaman to walk up the nearby bulbous lump that is the Dent de Jaman. The curious – such as I – stay seated, dedicated to reaching their highs the easier way.

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One final climb through a pitch black tunnel makes the dazzle of reasonably fresh snow all the more blinding. Such is the drama of the journey, the top station is a touch underwhelming. A few views are spoiled by ski infrastructure, while building work distracts from an overpriced and bitter coffee in the cafe. A couple of goats offer mild amusement but the jardin alpin is closed for the season. Fortunately there is a higher viewpoint from here, up a short series of switchbacks, from which Switzerland – and France – is on view.

And what a view. A long way down, Lake Geneva cuts a swathe like a bloated boomerang westwards. Beyond lumpy outcrops and hills forested dark green and charred red, the lakeside towns – Montreux, Vevey, Lausanne and others – portray one elongated urban jungle. Occasional tower blocks, cranes, churches, chateaus can be picked out, while the curvature of the rail line up from there resembles some kind of herculean bobsleigh run. The alternate side of the lake sits hazily desolate, hemmed in by the pile of Haute Savoie dents, cols and monts. On the horizon, the thin line of the Jura hovers above the remaining cloud, still seemingly enveloping Geneva.

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RDN06And that is just the westward view. In all other directions, a sweeping panorama of snow-capped peaks and plunging valleys reaches out into the distance. The behemoths of the Bernese Oberland pierce the sky, pointed and rutted and sharpened and sculpted. Pillars of rock – too precipitous to catch the snow – endure; like resistant teeth in a seven year old’s mouth. This raggedy snowline fades into darkly forested slopes and meadows tinged brown by the passing summer.

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There is still warmth in those upland valleys, a sun-trap that allows for wearing of T-shirts, particularly when walking uphill. Keen to take advantage of this unexpected vestige of a rapidly fading summer, I embarked on a circular walk pieced together with my Rochers de Naye leaflet and snatches of online maps for crucial moments of decision and misdirection.

Following a ridge gradually down from the viewpoint, I reached a junction: one way back through a small valley to the top station, or another down alongside a rock face to the Col de Jaman. Somewhere within this hulk of rock the train burrows through, while humans have to inch their way around on slate ledges and avalanche rubble. The route understandably prefaced with warnings involving sturdy footwear, slipperiness, and crumbling pieces of mountain made it an easy decision: lunch on a sunny patch of grass with a spectacular view, before heading back up the valley.

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RDN09Thus it was that I found myself down to a T-shirt (and trousers!) while walking through snow. The snow had obviously thinned as the day had progressed, but remained thick enough to obscure the last part of the trail up to the top station. Warm, slightly breathless, low on water…I could see the appeal of taking the train now, which again emerged out of its tunnel to taunt me. It was heading down, and – after safely completing my walk – I was to join it.

RDN11I could have plunged all the way back down to lake level but – determined to make the most of this wonderful weather (not to mention my expertly discovered rail pass) – I paused at the Col de Jaman station. Walkers were still setting off to conquer the lump nearby and close up it didn’t seem too bad. Switchbacks yes, but nothing that would cause undue alarm for someone with sturdy footwear and good heart. Maybe on another day, but today I was content to bathe in the sunshine accompanied by the remainder of my giant Raclette pretzel bought from the kings of Cornavin.

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RDN13

My final stop on the way down was somewhat spontaneous and turned rather fortuitous. I had made a note of Glion on the way up, purely because of the splendid views down to the lake and across to surrounding mountains, sweeping their way into the Valais. The foliage too – on this lower south facing terrace – was something to cherish in the eruption of autumn. Through the leaves and branches, glimpses of glassy water would emerge, encircled by the mountains rising upwards through the valley haze.

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RDN16The outlook was so alluring, the late afternoon light so enchanting, that I set off walking and carried on without really knowing where I was going. I assumed – given the gentle downward gradient of the lane I followed – that I would end up somewhere by the lake, from which an efficient and comfortable Swiss train would be waiting. Few cars bothered me, while occasional grand houses and health retreats sprung up on the slopes between the trees. At a kink in the road, passing two farmhouses, the view again opened out to reveal the colourful wooded hillsides tumbling down towards the lake, with a hint of winter looming upon the distant Dents du Midi.

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For all the fun of the train I was glad to complete this final part of the descent on foot, each turn revealing a looming mountain, glimpse of water or avenue of bronze. Merrily marching, time whizzed by and before long I did indeed reach the outskirts of Montreux, a feat achieved more through instinct than design. A long straight balcony of a road continued to descend, each house and villa passed with a tinge of envy and click of a camera. A churchyard offered one final panorama as the sun started to graze the tops of the peaks to the southwest before dipping beyond. In such a setting, even I might be tempted to attend Sunday service here.

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No doubt if I had stayed on the train descending all the way to Montreux I would have had such a simple and effective connection that I would be back in Geneva by now. Instead, arriving at the station on foot I managed to miss a train by a matter of minutes. The next was a whopping forty-five minutes away, an incredulous amount of time given Swiss standards. However, despite gathering weariness that comes with a 5:30am start and a ride on the 61 bus, I inched on down to the lake shore, feeling fortunate in the end to have missed that train…

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Such was the beauty of the day, the charm of the late afternoon, the ambience of the evening as the last light faded I was tempted to stay for some dinner and catch a late train back. Perhaps if I did I would not have had to – shockingly –stand in the vestibule of a railway carriage, at least until Vevey. It turns out (relative) congestion sometimes exists in Switzerland too.*

No such problems back in Geneva, with a seat on the 61 to push through the darkness and over into France, eventually. Some of the people – enduring a long, hard day of low-taxing money making – were quite probably on the same bus as me this morning, staring absently into the middle distance. Their laborious daily commute was my stroke of fortune, a crucial cog taking me to the top of a mountain and back. An unappreciated, maligned link in a great continental railway – and now bus – journey.

* I should add, trains can run late as well. On another journey of mine the train was once running four minutes late departing Lausanne. The conductor was beside himself with contrition and pleaded to the gods that this had not caused any inconvenience to anyone whatsoever.

Europe Green Bogey Photography Walking

Dublin effort

Twenty-four hours in Dublin. Twenty-four hours after very little sleep, crossing Canada, crossing the Atlantic, crossing the road with traffic back on the proper side. Some off my plane would have gone straight to the pub for a pint of the black stuff. At eight in the morning on a Sunday, I opted for the full Irish breakfast instead, accompanied by HP sauce and several cups of tea.

dub01Unable to check in to my room at such an early hour I instead auditioned as an extra for The Walking Dead in the grounds of Trinity College. I was probably not the only one, given the high concentration of students following in the hungover footsteps of such greats as Samuel Beckett, Bram Stoker, Chris de Burgh, and Father Jack Hackett. A few of the students possessed sufficient sobriety to dress like Harry Potter and lead clusters of tourists around the grounds, recalling the rascally deeds of former chancellors and erstwhile academics, tales of privilege and luck, tradition and progress. All the while subtly leading you to the queue for the Book of Kells, some ancient sacrosanct manuscript of religious fastidiousness, painstakingly embroidered on calfskin and difficult to fully appreciate when you think you are going to faint because your body should be sleeping right now.

From one book to many in the Long Room, a library of epic proportions in which the books appear to be arranged according to subject area, author’s surname, and size. So while the small riveting reads clamber for any attention at the top, large tomes of tedium brood all too accessibly further down. Probably to do with weight distribution. Downstairs sits a gift store as gargantuan, for all your novelty leprechaun-themed needs, arranged in equally eccentric order.

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dub03By some miracle (thank you Book of Kells) I made it out of there and got back to a hotel room all ready for me to shower and nap. Then, my body decided it was starving and chowed down a mega-plate self-loaded with traditional Irish fare such as sweet and sour chicken and onion bhajis from a food court. Meanwhile, the rest of Dublin was being a multitude of hip, merry, dour, sophisticated, happily pessimistic, and – with rainbows still prominent – a little bit gay (in a jauntily liberal welcome to the twenty-first century kind of way).

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It would be fair to say – to be sure – that there is no prominent centrepiece to Dublin. No wow look at me razzle dazzle, no glitzy building housing opera, no distinctive skyline or meandering waterside. Along the Liffey sit video stores and Spar shops, greasy spoons and hairdressers. Perfectly functional and useful, but not so appealing to the tourist unless you fancy egg and chips and a perm. Dublin has clear British city resemblance, and some familiar sights – Tesco, double decker buses, drizzle – are strangely comforting. Other things – like the pedestrian crossings seemingly imported from Australia (which themselves were imported from the Death Star), and the dual language signage – hint at the exotic. It is though everything here points to me being home, but there is something not quite right.

dub05Dazed and confused I naturally headed to the Guinness Storehouse brewery, which is more than a meander along a gritty suburban thoroughfare. I suppose this is the thing to do in Dublin, and many others were clearly of the same opinion, as streams of people passed me in the opposite direction with their exclusive gift shop purchases in Guinness branded bags.

If nothing else I thought a visit here would be something to do to keep me awake. What I thought might be overly gimmicky and tacky was actually a good deal of fun. The building possesses enough crumbling brickwork and iron to retain authenticity (and quite probably fit out 10,000 hipster cafes). A clever renovation has seen a museum and visitor centre encased within the old building, spiralling up five floors offering details of the brewing process, the (double?) vision of Arthur Guinness, and – my favourite at least – a plethora of marketing and advertising icons.

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Smartly, the top level is a panoramic bar, offering unparalleled views of Dublin and an opportunity to obtain your free pint of Guinness…after 119.5 patient seconds of course. Inexplicably, some people were drinking water. Perhaps this was to avoid induced joviality leading you back down to the gift shop and purchasing Guinness themed leprechauns and tea towels. I succumbed to a bag of crisps, which became dinner.

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Back out into the Dublin air it was clear that being a Sunday night was not going to stop the party and that many more pints of Guinness and other beverages would be consumed and the Irish economy would be perfectly fine. Indeed, my frequent jetlag wakings were accompanied by a muffled background of cheers and jeers, as people spilled out on to the streets of Temple Bar. 2am. 3am. 4am. Tick followed tock followed tick. A final, sporadic night to get through before making the final turn for home.

Europe Food & Drink Green Bogey

May

Recently I saw the first mention of Britain being warmer than Spain. It was on the Yahoo homepage, somewhere between top ten tips to pout like a trout and a twitter post from Taylor Swift that you would, apparently, never believe. Somewhere or someone called Yahoo is not a place I would naturally go for in-depth analysis of the factors underpinning the fragmentation of the Middle East or the precise dimensions of Kim Kardashian’s behind, both of which may be somehow inextricably linked. But a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I created an email address there and occasionally get distracted by evil click-baiters now preying on people who are slightly bored enough to be checking their email.

Anyway, today, Britain was warmer than Spain, and adorned with attractive young ladies baring skin on a strip of pebbles next to some murky water. The pronouncement of this statement is, of course, as much a feature of British summertime as Wimbledon and a plate of Cumberland sausages infused with burnt charcoal. It blares out why go overseas when you can roast yourself red here? Given a clear pathway towards Brexit forged in the desperate need for a PM to save his shiny, pampered skin, and what with the incredulous love-in for UKIP and Nigel Farage (whose own skin is tanned to the extent that it can only have been achieved with European influence), it is a statement that is arguably as popular as ever [i]. Yeah, who needs Spain anyway, what with its nasty weather and cheap prescriptions and high-speed trains and bargain-basement villas and welfare and services readily available to millions of British expatriates?

Back to this article…I am not sure where in Spain somewhere in Britain was warmer than. It could have been the top of the Picos de Europa being compared with a 1980s British Railway carriage in which the heating has always been on. I suspect it was more likely a temperate resort – usually a Malaga or a Benidorm, or perhaps a more northerly Costa Brava – being compared with an equally delightful place like Gravesend or Hastings. Regardless of its pitfalls, the story was clear: the weather was actually quite nice for the first time in ages.

It may be this that I most miss about Britain. When I see numerous Facebook posts like “Loving this sunny weather” and “Baking in the garden” and even – god forbid – “Sitting in the shade because it’s too hot”, I want to be a part of it, there in my jumper, wondering what all the fuss is about. No, seriously, with acclimatisation still pretty instantaneous I’d be there in my shorts and chomping on a plate of burnt Cumberland sausages with the rest of them.

It really is true how eighteen degrees feels much warmer in Britain than it does in Australia. And in May, equilibrium strikes: Plymouth and Canberra will likely attain similar maximum temperatures. But while one is on the rise (or at least fairly steady), the other is quickly descending into Arctic despair, judging by the attire of locals and their desperate protestations of hypothermia. Thus, despite the same temperatures it is not unusual to come across adjacent posts on Facebook informing me that it is too hot to sit in the sun and that I should be wrapped up in a Merino wool thermal Snuggie with accompanying solar-warmed Ugg boots.

Notwithstanding such distorted equilibrium, and a withering autumnal beauty stretching across Canberra, I’d still rather be in Britain in May. Which is a tad ironic when I think I have only been back to Britain in May once, and then propelled primarily by a wedding. I suspect a big reason for this absence is the level of work sprouting from every orifice of the Government, in a crazy cash splurge that could rival a Channel Seven teatime quiz. Spending is temporarily back in fashion in order to receive the same budget funding, the leftovers of which can be spent frantically again this time next year. Thus Mad May, as I quickly discovered it to be known, is a perennial – but welcome travel-funding – feature of my life.

And so it is that my European trips usually take place from July at the earliest, once the financial year has wrapped up. But, as I say, I did manage a May trip once without the Government here collapsing, and it was truly a beauty. Okay, there was some rain – you expect that – and I may have needed a jumper once or twice, but there were also barbecued Cumberland sausages, early season strawberries so much better than any from down under, and one or two days in which it was okay to wear shorts. Add the inevitable industrial doses of clotted cream to a backdrop of pure green fields and wooded river valleys, and you have the recipe for success (and possibly a heart attack).

may01I remember the green most of all. Catching a suburban rattler from London Waterloo through the Surrey heath and into Hampshire, the rail line part tunnel of branch and leaf, the hedgerows maintained by the clipping blade that is the express to Southampton. The woodlands glowing chartreuse, as a gentle sun dapples its light onto sweeping clusters of bluebells. The cocoon of light and leaves offering a greenhouse in which sweaters can be comfortably removed. In the open, fields of yellow canola interspersed with succulent pasture for cows and hilly outcrops for sheep stretch south and west. Despite intrusions of modernity, there is a timelessness to it.

In Devon, the county may have been made for May. Here, the whole landscape is the epitome of the Ambrosia custard can. There is a sense of new endeavour in the rolling hills, a scene of rapid natural productivity in the woodlands, and an audible tinkling of rivers and streams as they make their way towards the estuaries and inlets of the coast. The city of Plymouth is something of a black spot amongst this utopia, but even here you cannot ignore the sweeping green grass of the Hoe, the headlands plunging into the glittering waters of the Sound, and the grasses, flowers, and weeds flourishing in the cracks of the pavements and the neglected council estate gardens.

Not far from Plymouth, largely tucked away from civilisation, Noss Mayo exudes a loveliness that is probably repeated up and down the south coast of Devon.  Here, I could brave shorts, chomp on fresh strawberries, feel the warmth reflecting off the blue seas, and cool down again through the shadowy banks of the Yealm. I could hike up to the church and wallow in more bluebells and daffodils and buttercups and daisies. I could let gravity take me back down to the creek for a cold cider or warm beer beside the water, as boats of red and blue sit in the tidal mud, and the sporadic appearance of a bus may or may not feature. Sitting waiting without a care, floating butterflies will make friends and transform into wasps and shake me from my rose-tinted moment of paradise.  Like impending Atlantic weather fronts, wasps are wont to do that [ii].

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And so back in the real world, the British May may be heaven one day and a drearier version of hell the next. But at least it is not winter anymore and the prospects for a good day again soon appear credible. As the rain plummets onto the broken concrete Plymouth streets and buses of damp people in damp coats on damp seats grind their way up the hills, I have a vision of beautiful people in Canberra drinking flat whites, wrapped up against the perishing eighteen degree days, thinking about what dubious investments they can make before the end of the financial year. Mums sup lattes as their kids crunch amongst the oak leaves, hipsters go about perfecting their hair, beard, and top button arrangements, and tradies roll around in the lucre of non-stop apartment-building. I may long for the colour, the coffee, the air. But there are no bluebell glades, and only the prospect of several frosty months and a period of intense labour for companionship.

In Canberra, in May, there will be no headlines jubilantly celebrating temperatures warmer than the Costa del Sol. And that is surely reason enough to turn minds back to the north.

 

[i] Of course, the very recent 2015 UK General Election demonstrated Little England was still going strong, sticking two fingers up to those pesky Scots what with their crazy ideas of equity and – well – caring and compassion for the less rich, and cementing an in-out-shake it all about referendum on participation in the EU. As for UKIP, well, 3,881,129 people must see something, I’m just not sure what, and whether this something is really the panacea to solving all their woes. Nonetheless, Mr. Farage can at least now go work on his tan.

[ii] Indeed, the European wasp is fast becoming a scourge of Australian suburban idylls. Bloody Europeans, coming over here, taking our native flora and fauna. See http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/european-wasps-in-canberra-at-record-numbers-20150427-1muobh.html

 

12 Months Europe Walking

March

March strikes me as a celebratory month. Events include the wedding anniversary of my mum and stepdad, for instance, which tends to slip my mind without fail every year. Likewise, Mother’s Day, which may or may not happen at some point in certain countries. With similar vagueness, Easter might eventuate in March, but this is contingent on some advanced algebraic calculation based on a factor of the day when Jesus rose up to make pancakes on the moon or something. Elsewhere, at the start of the month in Wales, people get all excited about leeks on cheese on toast, drink Brains, and break out in hearty song about Saint Dafydd. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the rest of Australia (and thus of course the world), the natives of its capital gather to commemorate the city’s founding by promptly and unapologetically fleeing to the coast. There is clearly much to celebrate.

Mar01The biggest cause for chirpiness however – specifically in the northern hemisphere – is the symbolic termination of winter. Sure, it may still rain curtains of icy drizzle from time to time, but it can do so safe in the knowledge that the worse is behind us. Evenings suddenly seem to stretch for longer; the sun, when it can be persuaded to appear, resonates a faint whiff of warmth; daffodils – that most blessed portent of a new season – glow as proudly as a Welshman once did at Cardiff Arms Park. Promise pervades the air.

There is a particular day in March – let’s say the 19th – in which seasonality gets a little carried away with itself. The temperature might reach something freakish like 18°C. The wind temporarily vanishes, leaving the rays of the sun untempered to shower upon beaming faces. A national mood change is palpable as families picnic in parks, people spill out of London pubs short-sleeved, and the first whimpers of charcoal smoke rise from over the neighbour’s fence, ruining the washing on the line that can finally dry properly for the first time since September.

There is ,of course, a wickedness to this day. It is as though a dose of paradise has been granted that will not appear again until at least May, if not July. The irresistible inclemency of an Atlantic front is never too far away and the return to what passes for normalcy leaves you wondering whether yesterday was a dream. Instead, the season builds more subtly, like a light’s dimmer switch being incrementally dialled up as opposed to the classical on and off again manner. But at least March represents a time when someone’s hand is on that dimmer switch, and anticipation about whether the bulb will eventually glow at sixty or a hundred watts is almost as overwhelming as a confused metaphor about electrical illumination.

I would struggle without seasonality. I may be in a minority, given the population growth of the Gold Coast and the increase in beachside Pilates taking place during southern Spanish winters. Here, a quite remarkable assortment of fossils can be spotted, bedecked in sun visors, creaking and contorting in slow motion like a troupe of jaded CP3Os, as if worn down from another hackneyed yet money-spinning outing. Leathery limbs reach tentatively to the skies, embracing the sun that seems forever warm and almost always present. The people here may never wear trousers, or coats, or enclosed shoes ever again. And while it may seem like some fanciful paradise to wake up to blue skies every day, to never feel cold, would it not also eventually feel remorsefully dull, remarkably uneventful, entirely, tediously predictable?

This, I believe, is one of the more common complaints from UK migrants to certain parts of Australia. I’ve seen it on those daytime TV shows – Get a Life Down Under, I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, Escape to the Country (Just Don’t Come by Boat or You Will End Up in a Concentration Camp on an Impoverished, Mosquito-Infested Island), etc, etc. To some of the locals, such comments just seem to reinforce a lovingly-embraced stereotype related to whinging. But I get it, even though I would try to make the most of endless days of fair weather myself. There is glumness in Britishness – fostered over millennia, permeated by the weather, resolute in the character – that cannot easily be discarded. It is not a bad thing, predominantly because we are skilled at making light of it (indeed, this is something to be celebrated). And, I think, it nurtures appreciation and satisfaction in the simplest of things, such as the emergence of a snowdrop from the earth in early spring [i].

I guess what I am saying, what I am typing, is that March can be so exhilarating in Britain because of what you have been through to get there. Yes, much like the proverbial rollercoaster or, more aptly, the Northern Line, dawdling through what seems an endless toxic darkness to finally emerge into the light and airy park-side setting of East Finchley. Spring and summer, or Woodside Park and High Barnet, lay ahead. And while these will often end up being more disappointing than hoped-for, in March the anticipation is still there, yet to be dashed by John Ketley.

Australia is in many ways a different proposition. The sheer size and variability in the weather means that March could herald heatwaves, cyclones, snowfalls, floods, dust storms, mist patches, and cascades of quokkas and numbats. In small pockets – such as the south east corner with which I am most familiar – there is a parallel cooling and drawing in of nights, and the first vestiges of a prolonged autumn appear. Though there may be some sombreness that summer is on the wane, there is little of the dread associated with a forthcoming northern winter. Partly that’s a result of days that can still exceed thirty degrees but mostly milder, more amiable conditions as a whole. This is the start of a golden period, when pleasant, blue-sky days and refreshing nights stack up one after the other and seem to stretch on into May.

Of course, I write this safe in the knowledge (or 97% confident) that climate change could totally wreck everything I am going on about. Stormy Marches and hot Marches and cyclonic Marches or even snowy Marches could become the new norm. Do I have evidence for this? Well, no, but that doesn’t stop climate sceptics receiving a sycophantic front page diatribe in certain national media, so no harm in including a few words on an obscure blog. While we may (only part) jokingly embrace climate change if it means we can wear union jack shorts in Southend in March, it would be a shame to lose that which is special about the seasonality it offers. Otherwise we’ll just be as bad as the Gold Coast.

I can accept hot days in early March, but it was nearing month’s end in 2013 when myself and a friend decided to persevere with the preparation of bangers and mash during a 38 degree northerly on the southern extremity of the Australian mainland. It is probably one of the biggest collective regrets we have from a three month trip across Australia. Just what were we thinking?! I guess in the joy of food planning and supermarket shopping a few days in advance we didn’t anticipate such furnace-like conditions. Plus we had packed a potato masher as something of a luxury item, so were eager to use it on any possible occasion.

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The setting was Tidal River, a sprawling campground complex within Wilsons Promontory National Park. It’s popular with Melburnians and wombats, both of whom were in profusion. The wombats were engaged in a faux cultural conversation about the ethics of rainforest regurgitated coffee beans, while the Melburnians contentedly chomped away on the grass and shitted square bricks. The day had passed with the sight and smell of smoke from the lower Strzelecki Ranges, and a coming-close-to-mild-dehydration tramp up to Vereker Outlook. Relief of a kind came from the beautiful white bays and clear waters of the coastline, though even here the brilliance of the sand glared with a resonant heat. General fatigue was high, and the struggle to boil potatoes on a portable gas stove in a strong northerly beside the sea was only made more pleasurable by the numerous flies clearly determined to explore the nasal cavity. This was not quite the idyllic March that I had come to know and love.

Mar03Needless to say, a week later I was freezing my butt off in another Victorian national park, desperately lighting a pile of twigs to ward off the chance of hypothermia. In the golden goldfields around Castlemaine and Bendigo, Creswick and Ballarat, the effect of March was bearing fruit. Planted to gentrify the antiquated avenues and make Englanders feel partly at home, the oaks and elms, beech and poplars, were busy transitioning into autumn shades. The spa town of Daylesford was made for this time of year, its lake happily reflective and the Victorian Victorian streets lined with large-leaved trees that seem to be excited by the end of summer. A refuge for Masterchef cast-offs, there was no doubting that the pork roasted to succulence in a charming old pub was several hundred times better, and a thousand more fitting, than the bangers and mash of past.

Thus, climate change pending, there is much to celebrate about March whether north or south. I am pleased to say that as I write this in Canberra, the sun is shining, it is a predictable 25 degrees and the forecast is set fair. Spring may be yet to truly spring in the UK, but there is an inevitability that it will come. Soon. Two weeks and there may be a freak warm day coming up, so stock up on charcoal before the supermarkets sell out, and beware of white van man with his top inexplicably off. Above all, cherish this most pivotal of months which signifies the start of something new. Love the seasons, and all the incremental change that they deliver. Otherwise, head to the Gold Coast or Lanzarote and dwell in temperate predictability, never to wear long pants ever, ever again.


[i] In making a sweeping generalisation about national character I should caveat: there will still inevitably be a handful of tiresome, grouchy narks who hate the sound of children’s laughter and lament the daffodils emerging on the median strip because they might provide a place for immigrant burglars to hide and spread Ebola. The good thing is everyone else will take the piss out of them. Apart from desperate politicians who seem to focus endlessly on wooing their vote.

12 Months Australia Europe

Shorts non-personality of the year

Yikes it’s nearly Christmas. It doesn’t feel like Christmas, but there is the smell of smoke in the air so it must be. And 2015 is just around the corner, up the hill and across to the right a bit. One year closer to impending doom from Islamist wind farms and Europhile selfie-taking teens throwing ice cream buckets over old ladies in the concrete parking lots of the Tarkine wilderness. Or something. I get confused from what Rupert tells me I should think.

One thing I can be sure about is that 2014 is coming to an end. If 2013 was the year of unbridled travel, 2014 was almost as static as a static caravan stuck in the mud in Stuckhampton, wearing a fuzzy jumper while watching a crackly TV transmitting a documentary about the Van de Graaff generator and appropriating humour from Blackadder the Third. I daresay 2014 was almost a year of work; there was incontinence to deal with and tax and depression and parents doing things with their kids and interesting accountants and books for sale and other things I probably should not go into too much detail about mainly because I don’t really remember.

But I did travel and I did escape, it was just no 2013. Who knows, maybe odd-numbered years are for being slack and the evens for work? Only time will tell. But as for 2014, what were the highlights, lowlights and fairly average lights in between…

Best stay: Center Parcs, The Lake District

IMG_5623Log cabins in a pine forest, sun dappling through the trees, a red squirrel darting across the branches. Even the shrills of wild children and hypersensitive smoke alarms cannot dampen the environment and your temporary spot within it. Plus a bedroom to myself with a real bed…a relative luxury on trips to the motherland.

Best warm fuzzy moment with vague memories of childhood thrown in: Plymouth Hoe

Sun out, jumper off, cool breeze from the Sound, jumper on. The Gus Honeybun train clacking along with the occasional clang of a bell. Crazy golf, children running around like long-lost maniacs, ice cream with raspberries and clotted cream. So much of my own childhood now being lived out by the next generation of treasured little pirates. Sausage and chips in the gutter with seagulls to fend off. Janners and Frogs blending over Jasperizers. Real street food. Priceless.

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The Remind Me Why I’m in Australia Again Award for Self-Satisfied Contentment: Mollymook Beach

IMG_4875May was a month when winter patiently waited and the outstretched hand of summer never quite let go. Dragging myself away from the glorious technicolour of suburban circles under a bold blue sky, the waters of the Pacific caught me unawares with their warmth and placid demeanour. Mollymook Beach is good at the worst of times. On a calm day in the mid-twenties, with winter around the corner, it is hard to not pinch yourself at the good fortune of being, feet planted in antipodean gold as crystal waters roll caressingly in.

IMG_5884Best meal: Trois Fromages d’Areches

I love fondue. I love Raclette. J’adore Tartiflette. Ménage a trios, anyone? On a rainy summer’s eve in the heart of Alpine cheese country, what better than to be warmed by concentrated lactose blocks and fermented grape juice. A backdrop of French hubbub and je ne sais quoi charm. Cheese to the left of me, fromage to the right, and here I am, stuck in the middle with you and positively wallowing in it like a hunk of stale bread relinquished to the fondue pot.

The Bethany White Commendation for Services to Selfies: Titlis Suspension Bridge

IMG_6358Selfies, selfies everywhere and not a shot to think. Being the only person not from China and not owning a telescopic selfie propulsion system I nonetheless grappled with iphone controls and pouty expressions all the while swaying slightly above a five hundred foot ravine in the snow, ice, and thin air of a Swiss Peak. It sounds like an endeavour worthy of Scott and Mallory, of Fiennes and Kardashian, a feat of suitably slavish worship to the filter in the sky.

IMG_6548The Lance Armstrong Medal for Performing-Enhancing Ingestion of Substances Related to Cycling: Kingston coffees and cakes

Inspired by two wheels in the Lakes, I bought a bike and discovered that exercise is nothing if not a cake enabler. Reluctant to become a middle-aged cliché on two wheels, Lycra still escapes me. But a post lake loop topped with a Kingston coffee and some combination of caramel slice, cronut or wagon wheel is the new norm. Every bite eating into the calories my phone tells me were lost; every sip making me more charmed with those who provide it.

The Pengenna Prize for Cornish Wondrousness: St Agnes Bakery

Sausage rolls are the new pasties. Well, almost. All I can say is that if ever you find yourself within a 5o mile radius of St Agnes in Cornwall, do yourself a favour and pop into the tiniest bakery in the tiniest high street and pick up a sausage roll, plain or flavoured with herbs or onion or garlic or chilli or, well, whatever satisfying variation has been baked that day. Even better, pick up two for the extra energy required to hike over the Beacon and along the tin-scarred, Atlantic-carved, enduringly timeless coastline of this magical corner of the world. And don’t ever go back to Greggs and expect to be happy again.

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Destination of the Year: Canberra

Well, would you Adam and Eve it? The world’s most boring, berated, slated and abhorred capital amongst those who have never been there also happens to be one of the best places in the world to live. Yes, as a tourist destination it is perplexing at best; yes, it could do with a little more caution in its drive to transform everyone and everything into an identikit apartment-owning, pulled pork eating, coffee-sipping post-hipster pop-up; and yes, I probably wouldn’t have chosen this if I had been to – say – Torres del Paine or the Maldives or if it hadn’t rained in Switzerland for the whole of 2014. But I came back to Canberra and je ne regrette rien. Yes, it has a natural sense of space and air and light and changing seasonality that lends a continual beauty to its setting; yes it still fulfils me when one of its resident rosellas darts past or its roos bound into the sunset; and yes, it provides good coffee and pulled pork post-hipster pop-up environments in which you can at least temporarily pretend that you can afford to own one of the identikit apartments rising up from the ground.

End of year

Australia Europe Food & Drink Great Britain Green Bogey

Show and Tell

ch13What started in the Alps finished in the Alps, with the cloud from four weeks back seemingly, stubbornly, static. It would wait until the day after I would leave to clear and then reveal deep blue skies under which spectacular chains of icily jagged mountaintops glow. I know this for I have been blessed many times in the Alps with such weather and its associated gargantuan views (plus I checked the webcams once I left just to be really irritated). Alas, this year it was not meant to be and I had realistic expectations of a few days in Switzerland; whatever the weather I would do my best to make full use of my Tell Pass – a golden ticket allowing access to many mountain trains, cable cars, chairlifts and the stock standard complex of railways conquering central Switzerland. I think I got my money’s worth…

Trip 1: Zurich Airport-Lucerne-Engelberg

‘Engelberg Humdinger’ would likely have been the hilarious title of this blog post given perfect weather. In planning a few days to end my trip (seeing I was flying out of Zurich), I was seeking a reasonably accessible spot in a mountain valley with various lifts up into the high country and opportunity for blissful Alpine walks. Somehow I came across Engelberg which appeared to fit the criteria, tucked into a valley south of Lucerne and encircled by mountains reaching up in the sky to 3,000 metres or so.

Arriving into Zurich, the weather was warm and bright enough and the train zipped through comfortable commuter towns and villages chock full – I assume – of affluent bankers and cuckoo-clock makers. In an hour, Lucerne emerged as pretty as a picture, the train looping alongside the river and parking itself close to the shores of its beautiful, far-reaching blue-green lake. No time for sightseeing but enough time to grab a salami pretzel sandwich from my old friends at Brezelkonig and hop aboard the Engelberg express.

Fringing the lake at first and then meandering into a valley, mountains began to increase in stature and presence and nomenclature…somewhere up there is the Stanserhorn, accessible via a cable car and deserving of pronunciation in a zany butch German accent. Finally, through a long, dark tunnel, up and up the train goes until it emerges into Engelberg. The sun now down for the day, the last glow of purple sky illuminates jagged mountain apexes, while a valley cluttered with wooden chalets curves along to their base. This fits the bill.

Trip 2: Engelberg-Trubsee-Titlis

ch01The next morning dawned clear and calm and I was incredibly excited about that. Thirty minutes later, eating a steadfast breakfast involving bread and cheese and cold cuts, much of the blue sky had filled in. However, there was enough hope – and predictions that this might be the best weather day – to attempt the trip up to Mount Titlis, summiting at 3,239 metres.

ch02Now, this may sound like the start of some intrepid adventure: hiking through wild meadows, scrambling across rocks, crawling under ice caves, and braving perishing blizzards. However, this is Switzerland and I had my Tell Pass, which comfortably took me almost to the top. First, a gentle cable car up to Trubsee (1,796m); here, the valley was still visible and pockets of sun endured. Next, a larger cable car swung its way up into the clouds at Stand (2,428m), each sway accompanied by a huge oooooooh-aaagghhhh from the hundreds of Asian tourists packed in. Finally, the last stretch takes place in – get this – a cable car that rotates 360 degrees. It’s kind of fun, weird, and in no way whatsoever disconcerting.

ch03The top – or the top of the cable car (3,028m) – was a little James Bond like, though not quite as James Bond like as the Schilthorn. Despite being up here fairly early in the day I was not alone; indeed, those hundreds of Asian tourists were now happily engaged in various conformist and non-conformist photo poses. Many selfies transpired, several of which were taken with the aid of some extendable stick-like gadget which holds the camera phone out at a distance without the need for arms. It’s fair to say that whoever invented this contraption is, like the loom band man, now extraordinarily minted.

ch04The altitude made walking a little difficult at first but I ventured out onto the slushy snowy ice-like material covering the ground, avoiding people posing for selfies and looking for a view. There was a view. Then there wasn’t. Then there was again. Then a little hole appeared over there, then it filled in again, but another hole formed elsewhere. A few times I stood above the weather, above the clouds where nothing could be seen below. Then, more extensive holes in the cloud would appear and snatches of a mountain range, glimpses of a valley, and snippets of a glacier would emerge. Given I was not expecting to see beyond my nose, it was exhilaratingly breathtaking.

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ch07Beyond the hordes of seemingly photogenic tourists, a groomed track led to some other overlook that was rarely visited. Only a kilometre round trip, but it was hard walking. Any downhill dips involved a gentle slide into some slush, hoping that the snow was not particularly deep or covering some unknown crevasse. Slight inclines uphill were arduous and oxygen-sapping. A couple of Aussies coming back advised me to stick to the path which I was planning on doing anyway thank you very much. They had gone ‘off-piste’ and sunk up to their waste. They were probably in thongs too. Not following their footsteps, I ended safely at an overlook, looking over nothing much other than cloud below. However, around and above, a large patch of blue sky had appeared and, for a few minutes, I found myself in a pleasantly warm, quiet and calm, summer winter wonderland.

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By the time I made it back to the safety of the cable car complex, cloud had started to fill in more extensively and any gaps were infrequent. Completing every other distraction (including a stroll through an ice cave, a chairlift over some crevasses, and a walk across a suspension bridge spanning a poop-inducing long drop), I headed back down. Now mid-morning, many people were still coming up and I was not sure what, if anything, they would now see.

Trip 3: Engelberg-Lucerne-Vitznau-Rigi-Goldau-Lucerne-Engelberg

I was hoping the weather would hold so that I could engage in one of those lovely Alpine walks involving meadows and flowers and lakes and cows and probably strong hard cheese and salami for lunch; I had spied a couple of small lakes, joined by a fairly even trail and a cable car for the uphill bit which seemed ideal for the job. It would have started from Trubsee, where I waited for 15 minutes to see if the heavy rain now falling would abate. It did not, and all the bad weather was coming over the mountain and falling here. Distant, somewhere I think towards Lucerne, was a large patch of blue sky, but it had no intention of coming this way. So I sought it out instead.

ch08Not for the first time I found myself in Lucerne and this time taking a boat (included in the pass of course) to Vitznau. I had made this trip before, in the glorious, warm, late September sunshine of 2012, and it was stunningly beautiful. Today it was just fairly beautiful, a tad cooler and covered by white cloud with the occasional brighter spot as the sun threatened to emerge.

ch09Previously I had 50 minutes to spare in Vitznau before the return boat trip; today, I could go further, taking the mountain cogwheel railway up to Rigi Kulm. This is proclaimed as the first such railway in Europe and it retains a classically elegant air. Trundling up, any views of Lake Lucerne fade away into haze, and small hamlets, forests, meadows and waterfalls compete for attention. Occasionally, schoolkids on their way home hop off at random points. This sure beats the school bus.

Rigi Kulm stands at a modest 1,798 metres above sea level, but the information leaflet proclaims that you can see thirteen lakes from here and points as far as Germany and France. While of course this was not so much the case today, there was a gap in the sky and some overhead sunshine that reminded of the warmth brought by summer. It was sufficiently balmy for an ice cream and I even managed a brief Alpine walk with the cows, down to a lower cogwheel station where I caught the train down the other side of the mountain, to Goldau. All the while, mountain tops flitted through the haze as Lake Lucerne disappeared under the weight of clouds, occasionally billowing up and over one side of the mountain like steam from a kettle.

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Goldau took me back to Lucerne which again took me back to Engelberg, where the roads were still fairly wet and everything was a tad sodden. All in all, I had done well today. Very well indeed.

Trip 4: Engelberg-Brunni

After yesterday’s extensive escapades I was actually keen to minimise my travel today and stick within the valley and perhaps hop on a chairlift to undertake one of those Alpine walks I may have mentioned already. It looks so obvious on the fold out map of Engelberg: walk up the valley, jump on a cable car here, do a circular walk on this plateau, come back down, have some lunch, go back up somewhere else and have another walk back down into the valley to round off the day.

Breakfast time and Engelberg had disappeared. There was nothing to see from the window apart from a vision of grey-white. Drizzle floated haphazardly in the air. The one other couple chomping breakfast at the same time as me also stared out of the window with a sullen look of inevitable despair. Helpfully, in the corner, there was the Engelberg TV channel showing various webcams atop mountains and cable car stations. Turns out the cloud reached 2,000 and 3,000 metres as well. Still, we can be nothing but hopelessly optimistic having spent a small fortune to stay in Switzerland; carry on regardless, looking for small trinkets of hope – a brief whitening of the greyness of the cloud, a murky dark fleeting vision of some trees over the other side of the valley – that may herald a turnaround in the weather.

ch10Indeed, things had cleared a little by time I had got myself ready to stroll up the valley. That is to say, stuff was at least visible, including the steadily tumbling river, the dark foreboding forest, and the occasional cosy glade. A golf course, treacherously criss-crossing the river at cunningly placed intervals, held some appeal, particularly as the drizzle had briefly ceased. A man was out blowing leaves around his chalet in Wasserfall, a sure sign that things were to clear, right? But at Wasserfall, water fell, and the Furenalp cable car I had hoped would propel me to a sunny walk seemed a pointless endeavour.

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Instead I walked a different way back to Engelberg and in the hour or so taken, the sun had peeked through and delivered instant warmth. Furenalp was now probably bathed in sun but I was no longer anywhere close. An alternative route up into the hills presented itself closer into town, via the Brunni cable car.  And while the initial rise presented some hopeful sun-glazed valley views, the top was shrouded in murk. I could wait it out in the cold, or go back down and eat lunch. I was hungry and pork schnitzel, chips and salad in the Co-op restaurant sated me greater.

Trip 5: Engelberg-Furenalp

Retiring for an hour or so back at my hotel, I watched the loop of Engelberg information on the TV channel. Sunny pictures with happy families frolicking in rivers; beautiful people getting expensive spa treatments to a backdrop of dazzling snow-capped peaks; webcams showing nothing much at all. Except, hang on, Furenalp. There was a shadow, as if it was above the clouds.

Chasing the sun once more – or at least the potential for something clear – I hopped on one of the hourly shuttle buses and then the cable car. This was a less extravagant operation than Titlis. One small cabin travelling up every half hour or so, or, to be honest, just on request from the dear lady sat in the kiosk. I was the only soul, the wire shooting up towards a large rock face and into the clouds. Only, thanks to the webcam viewed now quite some time ago, there was a chance I would make it above them. The ride was something quite spectacular, rising steeply in line with the rocks, grazing pine forest and revealing hidden crevices where pools from weeping cascades formed. At some point the world disappeared and, out of nowhere, the top station emerged.

ch12It was wet, windy, cold and cloudy. There was nothing to see, apart from a closed restaurant that would be amazing on a sunny day. Determined to make something of it I walked a little. The rain had stopped and, occasionally, visibility would increase to something like 50 metres. The trails were not that well marked though, and, as the clouds billowed in and obscured any landmarks I made the decision that I did not want to be that stupid English tourist who goes missing and requires an intensive search and rescue effort. Sometimes, we must come down to be able to go up.

Trip 6: Engelberg-Brunni again

Breakfast time again. Engelberg had disappeared again. I had some of that pretzel like bread with salami, egg and cheese again. I was leaving today, eventually for Australia. But I had lots of time before my evening flight, and wondered what I could exactly do with it.

Appropriately dawdling in my room, Engelberg TV in the background, it was as I was squishing dirty pants into my luggage that the loop of webcams came on. Titlis, no. Stand and Trubsee, no. Furenalp, no. Brunni lower station, no. Brunni top station, er, maybe I guess.  After the next round of adverts with blue skies and happy people, the webcams again, and more hope. A small lake. Some shadows. Enough to take a chance…if nothing else to kill some time.

And so, for about thirty minutes I had a dose of Switzerland that I had yearned for all along. The final chair lift ride up to the top station of Brunni was a delight, the warming sun coming from my right. Long shadows of cows formed on the succulent pasture below, their occasional moos and tinkling bells the only sound. Views of peaks and, just now and again, glimpses of the top of Titlis across the other side of the still shrouded valley. I wish I could have lingered longer, but travel requirements meant I needed to leave. And the chair lift down was infinitely less delightful now, as the cold, grey cloud enveloped everything around once more.

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Trip 7: Engelberg-Lucerne-Alpnachstad-Pilatus-Alpnachstad-Lucerne

So, farewell Engelberg, I am sure you are fantastic in a proper summer and provide an excellent base for so much that is around. I had one other target on my Tell Pass list and, filled with hope that the Brunni blue skies could extend as the day progressed, I returned to Lucerne. From here, it was once more onto a boat and out onto the lake, this time heading in a different direction to Alpnachstad. At Alpnachstad, the base of the steepest cogwheel train in the world, conquering gradients of up to 48% to Mount Pilatus (2,128m) – Lucerne’s mountain.

Now this experience is as much, if not more, about the journey as it is the destination; particularly today when the summit was, yawningly predictably, cloaked in the clouds. Each single carriage train is built for the job, separate compartments rising with the slope in a staggered series of steps. Looking up through the driver’s window the track rises stupendously steeply; looking down out the back and you are left wondering quite exactly how this gravity defiance all works. I assume something to do with the cogs, steadily clicking out a rhythm at a gentle, sleep-lulling pace.

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At the summit complex I found myself – not for the first time – looking at the postcards with all the stupendous views. But I wasn’t upset or dejected or even that frustrated that no such scene presented to me today. It was a shame, I would say to myself, but nonetheless I had a really enjoyable time. I mean, there’s much to like about a walk out to a viewpoint to admire the shifting fog of clouds, plenty to ponder while navigating the slippy rocks with a (thankfully fenced off) drop on either side, and ample satisfaction from a cup of coffee and chocolate brownie back in the warmth. Plus, there is still the sheer wonderment of the trip back down to come.

Trip 8: Lucerne-Zurich Airport

ch17The remaining few hours of this trip in Europe were whiled away in perhaps one of its most elegant, picturesque, and sumptuous small cities: Lucerne. It had been a conduit, hub, and pretzel provider for the past few days but now, as the sun gently began to filter through the late afternoon cloud, it offered a healthy last dose of European je ne sais quoi. Thus the time skipped by alongside waterways and through cobbled streets, admiring window boxes brim with flowers, crossing old bridges, dodging cyclists, and fleeing from specific corners where the thousands of smokers seem to gather.

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I had been in Lucerne before – in 2012, in hot sunshine – but it was just as charming, and even more comfortable to explore on this much cooler, cloudier day. Like last time, I made it up to remains of the old town wall and castle, where snatches of Lake Lucerne and distant mountains appear through the gaps in the ramparts, yonder the old rooftops and leafy trees scattering down towards the water. The top of Pilatus was still shrouded in a haze, but certainly much of the murk had lifted. Probably upon boarding the train to Zurich, the top would emerge, a final tease of a farewell to what could have been.

Somewhat lethargic and bored of weather angst, part of me was ready for it to be over. But – with an impending trip cooped up in an airplane to cover half the globe – I was also reluctant to leave. Tomorrow it may be brighter and, if not, I could always easily return to the UK where the Indians were having a summer or something, though Britain First were probably getting a bit upset that the Indians had stolen the summer and posting something with grammatically flawed menace on Facebook for people to like. A shamelessly opportunistic emigrant and immigrant, my own tomorrow was a long way off, but I knew that when it came, it would emerge with blue skies and a nice flat white. A scene from which I could happily savour the numerous journeys I had just had the fortune, the pleasure, the freedom of travel, to experience.

Europe Green Bogey Photography Walking

Ou est l’ete?

fra01Apparently, Canberra experienced quite a few nights in a row below -5 degrees, plummeting to -8 on one occasion. In my last week prior to escaping to the northern hemisphere this felt bearable, safe in the knowledge that I would be heading into summer. Another comfort came from the days, which were utterly gorgeous, clear as crystal and with a hint of spring in the still, sunny, wattle seed air. Such an embarrassment of blue sky riches seemed excessive and, pottering around Red Hill for one last time before the trip, I yearned to bottle just a little of it to take with me.

There was plenty of blue sky above the clouds, I assume, on the longest Sunday ever. Commencing at 3am Sydney time it finished around 11pm Zurich time. This equates to 28 hours, and that’s just the part for which I was, alas for the large majority, awake. Still, it is a means to an end and Zurich was warm with thunderstorms gathering and had giant pretzels readily available for an evening snack.

From Zurich the next day I enjoyed the calm seamlessness of Swiss rail to transfer to Geneva. Heavy overnight rain had given way to cloud and drizzle, with a spot of blue sky emerging to engineer hope, followed by a windy squall to dampen it all. Little was different by the time I rocked up in Annecy, much to the dismay of the French bus station man who was unable to sit down on the wet benches and so instead decided to regale me with tales of the summer holiday travels of his entire lifetime in this area oblivious to the fact that I could barely understand what on earth he was babbling on about. Which part of je ne comprends pas do you not understand?

Things lifted as the last part of my journey took place in English in the comfort of a car and with brightening skies…south to Albertville and then up into the mountain valleys of Beaufort and, finally, after a disjointed 48 hours, Areches. If ever there was an archetype for Quaint Alpine Village Design Course 101 this was it: a central church from which ramshackle chalets radiated up and down the slopes; village life decorated with flowers and fountains, vegetable gardens, and hens wandering the streets; the boulangerie tucked away on the narrow main street alongside the delicatessen; and, should all be quiet, the sound of cowbells emanating from the green meadows around.

The view from our digs could embrace this all and, bathed in sunlight the next morning, my fears that the worrying weather of the Tour de France was a settled summer pattern dispelled like the morning clouds over Le Grand Mont.

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fra03A little walk nearby through forest and alongside a tumbling stream felt like it was going to be the first of many, the dappled sunlight a joy but doing little to dry out the oft muddy track. Sunshine was maintained through to lunch time and a picnic baguette in Le Planey avec les familles. A picnic baguette that was wonderful in the main due to the Beaufort within. These cheeses always seem to taste their very best consumed in their area of origin. Like the fish and chips by the sea effect.

Le Planey possesses one of the two summer chairlifts that are sporadically open in the area. Today it was ouvert (apart from a break for lunch, understandably) and propelling people up to around 1900 metres. Views of the mountains and valleys are easily on offer from here, although the very highest, Mont Blanc of course, was now penetrating into the slowly greying sky. It’s no Red Hill, but it sure is pretty.

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It was not long after descending that the rain arrived; first a few spots nothing more than a minor irritant, then a steady downpour beating out a consistent rhythm on the trees and chalet roofs. On the plus side, it is good weather to hunker down in a cosy restaurant and eat dishes that involve one or more of the following: cheese, potatoes, cheese, bacon, cheese, onions, cheese, wine, cold cuts, cheese, and a splash more wine. And thus through the magic of sharing I was able to partake in the Savoie triumvirate of Fondue, Raclette, and Tartiflette all in the one sitting. Cue inevitable X-rated cheese shot.

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fra06The remaining few days involved plenty more rain and plenty more frustration at the ever-changing cloudscape that could be comfortably viewed from the living room window. There was also, of course, plenty more cheese, the making of which could be viewed in Beaufort, upon dashing from the marketplace to the co-operative in undoubtedly the heaviest deluge of the week. Drying off in the elevator, I swear cheesy aromas had been deliberately piped into it. Either that or a pair of smelly old socks had been inadvertently lost in the escape hatch.

fra07There were further forays into nature to be had and – indeed – further bursts of occasional sun. A trip to the beautiful Lac de Saint-Guerin was a race against time before the sunny pocket was once more filled. Briefly, just briefly, it dazzled in sheer Alpine loveliness, that is turquoise water, bright green meadows dotted with flowers, dark green coniferous forest, and rising, rising, mountain peaks. Peaks from which brooding grey clouds return to deliver their annoying life-giving wateriness once more.

The other chairlift opened on the Thursday and I took that in the dry, walking quite steeply up to a spot called Tete de Cuvy. Nearing 2000 metres here, the table d’orientation promised 360 degree views with Mont Blanc as a centrepiece. But, you guessed it, little is on view when in clouds like this. In the effort-reward ratio stakes, it was a walk that veered a little too strongly into the effort column, so moan moan, grumble grumble.

I shall quit grumbling about the weather even though this is a genetic predisposition of Britishness for which you must please understand. Because, you know what, Areches was a lovely spot with some lovely moments. Yes it was chilly and quite probably colder than Canberra on descending the chairlift, but, at a lower altitude, the sun had poked through for a little while. It was peaceful and calm and glowing and pine-fresh fragrant and all those nice things that occasionally come together into a wholesome whole. I may have been clinging on for dear life on a cold steel coat hanger swaying down a mountain, but it was indeed well worth clinging on to. Hell yeah, I may even let one hand loose to take a picture as I descend, adrenaline junkie that I am.

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fra10Safely back in the valley, I was able to calm myself down with a coffee and cake, before the family rejoined and we set off on an afternoon amble in this Alpine idyll. Relatively clement conditions accompanied a meander though the Areches ‘suburbs’, zigzagging their way up the slopes in a series of hairpins, giving way to larger plots and bigger views and farmland pastures with cows. The cows, I hasten to add, were sat down, giving further credence to their weather forecasting expertise.

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Their forecast was more a medium range one, for the late afternoon and evening cleared to the clearest it had been and I even wore sunglasses back to the village for a final Tartiflette*. The skies gave hope for one final morning before departure; I could picture gargantuan panoramas under deep blue skies, the white of the Mont Blanc massive shimmering into the air, a landscape of lakes and ridges and rocks and valleys. But the cows were right. Il pleut. Someone really has stolen the French summer. All one can hope is that the 2014 vintage leads to such green pasture to provide the most spectacular fromage yet.

* though I predict Angliflette avec Reblochon de Tesco could be on the cards.

Europe Food & Drink Green Bogey Walking

Xenophobe

If X is a difficult letter then why not take on a difficult subject to make it even more difficult? Perhaps it’s because I am some culturally deficient rosbif, a soap-dodging pom who has come to take your job and steal your social security and write about it with an air of superiority and pomposity befitting of someone who can eat stodgy food and believe it is better than anything ever created anywhere else in the world and then have the cheek to enforce this food upon you by taking over the corner shops up and down the land that were once yours and using them as a cover for illicit activities. Oh yes, I am your ultimate nightmare, your superlative Daily Mail concoction of hatred.

In truth this all sounds rather silly don’t you think, but time and again, in conversations, in discussion groups, in one-liners, I come across sentiments such as these. Not directed at me of course, apart from the gentle ‘banter’ of pommie-bashing which can become quite vitriolic with alcohol fuelled cricket frenzy; or that time I was in France on a school trip and a few skulking local youths decided to call a group of us ‘Bloody English’ in a growly spittle-filled accent that was too much of a parody to be overly intimidating. Bloody French cheese-eating surrender monkeys anyway!! No, these comments frequently involve stranger foreign types, queue-jumping, tax-dodging, funny-smelling immigrants from poorer places, who, it would seem, are always up to no good.

I assume many more learned and bothered-to-do-their-research people have written theories about why this might happen in civilised society, citing one or more of protectionism, fear, resistance to change, cultural imperialism, elitism, distrust, nationalism, competition for space or resources or infrastructure, pervading social norms and stereotypes. There is, to be fair, some foundation to the concerns people have about ‘others’. For instance, we can realistically assume that an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist is more likely to be darker skinned and have connections with the Middle East, and less likely to take the form of an old granny who lives next door and bakes apple pie. However, the problem is the giant leap of an assumption that, by very irrational logic, all darker skinned people from the Middle East are potential or actual terrorists. It is as ludicrous as, say, gay people being responsible for a spell of wet weather in Britain. [1]

X_gay rainSpeaking of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), it has been interesting to observe their rise in prominence at a distance. For here, as in several other countries, is a political party premised on xenophobia, and doing so rather successfully despite an obvious number of crackpots and – well, to put it nicely – policy gaps in far more important areas of concern to us all. Clearly there remain enough antiquated barons who still distrust the Germans in Britain, but where UKIP have profited most is in tapping into the fears and concerns of those disgruntled and disenfranchised and downtrodden, whose own struggle and lack of fulfilment can feel better when apportioned to something outside of their control.  And pesky foreigners have always made an easy scapegoat for our own failings.

Observing these developments from a sunny, warm, multicultural and coffee-blessed Australia, where people don’t think twice about paying ten quid for a sandwich, you would be quite right to assume there is an air of Antipodean smugness [2]. Because of geopolitical remoteness, there can be no Australian Independence Party in the same way, though I’m sure Western Australia has something of that ilk, campaigning on a ridiculous non-daylight saving platform and the right to dig up literally every single last rock in the state and keep the money all to themselves. However, despite its undoubted multiculturalism, xenophobia is alive and kicking down under, given a fresh lease of life by some of its most prominent politicians.

The big peril in Australia comes from the north, via Indonesia, which is treated like some Hicksville backwater despite being one of the most populous countries in the world [3]. Indonesians themselves are not so much in the firing line, just the innocent casualties caught in the middle of a war (yes, you read that right, war) on people smugglers [4]. You see, people smugglers are responsible for bringing foreigners across from Indonesia on boats. Foreigners who are mostly fleeing proper war or famine or persecution, or just seeking to be reunited with their children [5]. They are desperate and willing to risk their lives on a perilous sea journey and I challenge you to say you would not do the same if the alternative was inevitable destitution and destruction.

Of course, we don’t want them to drown at sea, so the latest solution is to do everything we can to stop them from coming [6]. The fact that this addresses some of the dubious concerns that our cities and towns are being ‘swamped’ by outsiders, who are taking our jobs and our houses and making the traffic to Kmart a nightmare because they are going to the nearby mosque has nothing to do with it. It would be cynical of me to think this is a neat political outcome that again taps into fears and struggles of people who are ‘doing it tough’, leveraging just an essence of xenophobia that definitely exists – and should be acknowledged to exist –  in Australia [7].

I wonder if there is something about island nations such as the UK and Australia that provoke a touch more insularity, a tad more protectionism. A churning sea provides that clear sense of separation from others and the sense of a wholly identifiable land mass to be protected. I guess I can only draw on my experiences living in these countries and would not really know if xenophobia is more or less rife in, say, mainland Europe or southeast Asia . I suspect it differs little. Perhaps it is natural for humans to be wary, to distrust, and to compete against the unknown and the alien. A genetically embedded manifestation of the survival of the fittest, which cannot be disentangled from a yearning for one-upmanship and conflict.

One would hope that the old adage of travel broadening the mind plays true. It can certainly help to dispel some of the myths and stereotypes that underpin elements of xenophobia. For instance, I have met friendly and funny Germans who totally get my sense of humour. I have been welcomed and embraced by French people, though the cheese-eating stereotype is clearly evidence-based [8]. I have been surprised that Australians can be the antithesis of their laid back Fosters advert image – hard-working, anxious, equally whingey and obsessed about the weather as some other nationality out there. I have met and talked to clever and articulate immigrants from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka who would be an asset to any country who lets them in. And I have discovered that Asian food is far from anything to be feared.

The risk is that travel can also potentially reinforce some of the distorted views of others that we may hold. A smelly toilet in France can make us question the hygiene of the entire nation. Gloating cricket winners can annoy us so much as to make us think that Australians are a cocky, self-satisfied bunch. Hong Kong citizens adorned with face masks can lead to the assumption that everyone has bird flu. Canadians being genuinely pleasant and good-humoured can make us think that all Canadians are indeed the finest people on the planet. This may be mostly true, but I am sure there are at least a few bad eggs somewhere in the depths of Manitoba [9].

I suppose the essence of all of this is that we should at least try to be a bit more open-minded about people and the places they come from. A good start would be to consider the positives, revel in the differences and what this can bring to our lives and those of seven billion others. For instance, what about all the good things that EU membership brings to the UK, what about all the hard work that has been done by Polish immigrants and the economic contribution made? [10] What about the unknown potential of thousands of well-educated people arriving from Sri Lanka, regardless of whether they do this by sea? What about the wonderful world of cheese, of coffee, of coconut cream curry that have emanated from elsewhere and enriched our lives?

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I wanted to finish this meandering, slightly ranting and hopelessly idealistic piece with an anecdote from Spain. This is something of a travel blog after all, so I can tell you that I have had a few visits to Spain, mostly in the Costa Blanca region, and I will shove in a photo just to have a photo in this blog which often contains a photo or two.

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I haven’t made up my mind if I truly like this area or not, given the confused conglomeration of coastal developments, warm seas and dusty mountains. There are pockets of untainted rural beauty and then there are sprawling anglicised new towns, offering roast beef and paella at the same turn.

Perhaps it was around the early part of the century that represented the boom time for the migration of older people from Britain to these far warmer shores. Recessions and downturns, housing busts and credit crises have since impacted the influx, and it is easy in hindsight to see that the country overreached itself on a false bubble of property development. Still, amongst the unfinished lots and closed down Chinese takeaways, many ex-pats linger on, some enthusiastically embracing something of the Spanish way of life, others steadfastly ignoring it and hoping it will go away.

I remember speaking to one such new immigrant a few years back, who was quick to express disdain for Britain; perhaps a natural reaction to justify in one’s own head the move overseas. I had heard it before but the crux of the argument was that Britain had been overrun by foreigners, who were taking over and were jumping the queue for handouts. Britain, it was claimed, had gone to pot. Spain was now the place to be.

Of course, there is delicious irony in these words, uttered in the midst of a series of new developments in Spain that had been colonised by, well, immigrants. Where shops sold proper English Cheddar and the Fish ‘n’ Chips were better than at home. Where tobacco was cheaper and prescriptions too, so you could happily smoke away and get some government-subsidised anti-coagulants to keep things moving. A place where there were also other enclaves for Germans and Dutch and – recently with their smartly invested oil wealth – Norwegians.  A spot where you could concur with the thoughts of the Daily Mail as you labour over a fried breakfast: surely a top notch recipe for sustaining the inevitable cycle that is xenophobia.


[1] Yes, indeed, in Britain where rain is not uncommon. See http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-oxfordshire-25793358 and then enjoy the numerous piss-takes such as https://twitter.com/UkipWeather

[2] A smugness massively inflated by cricket results of late.

[3] And thus, you would think, a country to form positive relations with…to make the most of economic opportunities as Indonesia develops and for future security of the underpopulated resource-rich island to its south.

[4] I doubt if this one will make the A-Level history syllabus.

[5] Processing shows that 90% are genuine refugees. Some of the wars they are fleeing (unlike the war on people smugglers) are genuine serious things that Australian troops are involved in (e.g. Afghanistan).

[6] Preventing drowning at sea is of course a genuinely valid objective and mired in policy nightmares. For my part, I say build a bridge and deal with it like other countries have to! Hell, you could even employ immigrants in the construction.

[7] Ironically, some of which comes from second or third generation migrants!

[8] And instead of resisting this trait when in France, just embrace it and gorge on Camembert, Munster, Roquefort, Reblochon, Comte, Brie, Pont l’Eveque, Beaufort, Tomme de Savoie, Morbier, Chevre, Raclette, Boursin, Port Salut and Cantal after dinner.

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One big year…

2013 – a year of 365 days, 12 months and approximately 52 weeks. A year with four different digits for the first time since 1987. A year in which I made it to ten countries via 12 airports and stayed overnight in…wait for it…121 different locations. A year in which I drove and drove something in excess of 25,000 kilometres, enduring 3 chipped or cracked windscreens and one tyre puncture. A year in which pointless statistics are endlessly available.

But, apart from such statistics, what are the highlights and where can stupidly made-up awards be, well, awarded?

rev01Best stay: Aroona Valley, Flinders Ranges National Park

Anywhere with a pit toilet must be pretty special in so many other ways. Camping amongst the pines and earthy creeks lined with River Red Gums, wonderful walking trails on your doorstep, sunset and sunrise views over the crinkled geography of the Flinders Ranges, all make for a magically rustic stay. Plus the pit toilets were actually reasonably pleasant.

Best walk: far west Cornwall in September

rev02Of all the places, of all the walks, of all the splendid days this was the best. Under warm blue skies, half of the fun came from the open top bus journey to and from the coast path between Porthcurno and Sennen Cove. At Porthcurno a cream tea and splendid outcrop overlooks over sapphire bays set me off to amble along cliff tops cloaked in purple and gold. A pause at Lands End provided ice cream and final propulsion onward to the charms of Sennen Cove and its sweeping golden sands. Hard to match, hard to beat.

Best food experience: camping fry ups

Again proof that the simple things are often the best, some combination of pork sausage, bacon, mushrooms, baked beans, toast, tomatoes and hash brown capped off with HP sauce. Best appreciated following a wearisome day of walks and served somewhere beside the sea off southern Australia.

Best drink experience: the first sip in Munich

rev03Long haul flight dehydration is probably not best solved by a beer; however, Munich makes it hard to resist. Popping to some nearby gardens for air, tucked under the shady trees sits a charming beer garden, serving delicious cooling Weissbier and ridiculously salty but irresistible pretzels. A chance to sit and bask back in summer and embrace the slow realisation that you have made it across the globe.

The NBN award for worthy endeavours that are behind schedule: gbpilgrim.com

In a shameless cross-promotional opportunity, may I refer you to the tales and travails of gbpilgrim.com. Here I set myself the task of writing an alphabetical tour-de-force around the world within the year. But as you would see should you go there I made it to U. Seriously sidetracked, nonetheless I am nearing the end with 21 pieces of beachside / fireside reading this summer / winter.

The Johnson-Haddin award for being really annoying: the Australian fly

rev04There are many parallels between the Australian cricket team and the swarms of flies that irritate their way across this huge country. In your face, buzzing away, seeming to scarper then coming back in a marauding fashion to head up your nose and down your throat. It is as if the flies peppering the body around Arkaroola are wearing small baggy greens and sprouting dodgy facial hair and a little too much attitude. They may be swatted for a while, but it’s a futile effort and they come back bigger and badder than ever.

Word of the year: ablutions

Ablution. It rolls off the tongue like sheets of wafer-thin toilet paper spilling onto the floor of a damp concrete floor. It sounds as appealing as a thong-clad grandpa shuffling into the toilets for his morning dump. It rolls around like the huge industrial drying machines that leave clothes damp and itchy. Up and down the country, ablutions are servicing the needs of the ageing population living in their deluxe caravans, and offering at least a wry smile for those paying over the odds to camp amongst the awnings and concrete pitches of a mobile shanty town.

rev05Destination of the year: South Island, New Zealand

Sorry Australia, but New Zealand is simply spectacular at every turn. Nowhere more so than on the south island, where there is a surprising diversity beyond mountains and glacial rivers to a world of ancient forests, grassy meadows, jagged coast and pristine golden bays. All pleasingly accessible and navigable by car, by boat and, most of all, by foot. Somewhere you could happily return to again and again and again.

Australia Driving Europe Food & Drink Great Britain Green Bogey Walking