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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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