Thursday, 14 May 2015

Beautiful Bruges

Its the weekend again and Friday afternoon we head down to London for an evening with the family. always a hot pot of conversation with everyone around the table, and with a country election only a few days ago, it was a lively dinner.

In the morning before anyone was up, we headed to St Pancras International station - only a 5 minute walk from Keystone Crescent to wait for our train. Eurostar is the high-speed railway service connecting London with Brussels and then a local train to Bruges, the latter our destination for a night. It is a change from taking a plane, and I just have to not think about the time we will be under the English channel. We had booked a table area with seating for 4, and by the looks of the people waiting to board, it was going to be a full train. As it turned out, a group of 5 had 2 people pull out at the last minute so we had empty seats next to us giving us room to stretch out. We called it 'business class'.

Once out of the greater London metropolitan area, the scenery is lovely racing through England's south-east towards Dover. In no time at all we are plunged into darkness and have entered the tunnel. The train is very quiet, hardly any noise and putting my thoughts into a jigsaw on my Ipad, the 20 or so minutes that it takes to cross the tunnel is over before I know it and we are back up in the glorious sunshine. Countryside France looks much like England, the only difference is the cars are driving on the right hand side of the road. Crossing the border into Belgium, we are soon arriving into Brussels where we caught a domestic train to Bruges.

Bruges is a beautiful medieval city, similar to Amsterdam and Venice being set on canals. Many of its cobbled streets are pedestrian only, so a great place to walk around. Following our Ipad maps, we locate our accommodation for the evening - B & B Ambrogio. It's a small premisis with only 2 rooms to let, but a great location with a view overlook the canal, and the friendliest welcome we have ever experienced. Philippe and Katrien show us over their newly renovated property, complete with sauna room in the basement and bicycles for our use. We drop our backpacks, and with the sun shining, decide to go for a ride. I can't remember the last time I was on a bike, but riding is one of those things that you never really forget.


                                  The view from our bedroom at B & B Ambrogio, Bruges


 
 
 

 










Pete and self on our bikes. Spent a couple of hours each day riding along the cycle paths following the canal that encompasses Bruges Old Town. I was a bit wobbly to start with, but it all came back to me. I was however a little sore the following day - too long in the saddle or maybe it was the tough going over the cobbles.





Bruges, a world heritage site is one of the best preserved medieval cities of Europe, suffering only minor destructions in the world wars. Located in the city centre is the  Markt (Market Square) covering a hectare and surrounded by Gothic architecture. Imposing is the enormous Belfry Tower and Cloth Hall. The belfry seems to chime all day long starting 5 minutes before every quarter of the hour to announce that the quarter is about to strike, and for 5 minutes after, they announce that the quarter has struck. Just as well it is a beautiful sound.

                                   An evening shot of the Belfry Tower located in the Markt



                           The Markt empties out over dinner time. A good time for a romantic walk

 


        Our bike riding took us through many parks, trees coming to life after winter and more tulips!



                       Wisteria growing outside many homes - even purple painted doors to match.

Before finding somewhere for dinner, we decided to have a drink at Bruges International Beer Café - La Trappiste. It is located in an 800 year old cellar with spectacular vaulted arches, and boasts having 17 varieties of beer on tap and more in bottles. After our beers, it was off to dinner. We hadn't booked anywhere and it took us 3 restaurants to find somewhere who had a table free. Bruges is a very popular destination, and it isn't even high season yet.


Pete at La Trappiste with a beer paddle with 5 different flavours


                                        Vaulted arches of La Trappiste Beer Café



                                          Our street - or should I say our canal after dark.

Next morning, breakfast was served in the dining room set with just 2 tables.  Just squeezed orange juice and fresh fruit salad, followed by smoked salmon, cream cheese and chives. A basket of croissants and pastries baked fresh that morning sat on our table tantalizing our taste buds. We had to decline a cooked breakfast, we would never fit it in. All served on navy/gold edged crockery and linen napkins - like no other B & B we have ever stayed at. Philippe and Katrien enquiring as to how they could help us plan out day or could they get us anything more. This accommodation has only been opened less than a year and has already been awarded a 9.9 rating from Bookings.com., and we could see why. It should have been a 10!

It was time to check out, but not say goodbye just yet. As we had an evening train trip home, we still had the whole day to explore. We were free to use the bikes again, so leaving our backpacks there, we headed off again in glorious sunshine for another circuit of the town. The drivers are extremely courteous towards cyclists and as well as the numerous cycle tracks, the main roads all have bike lanes. We recovered much of our tracks from the previous day, completing the perimeter of the old town, then cutting through the centre and out again. Bruges is known for its chocolate and lace, with shops and market stalls everywhere you turn. There are also museums for both, the chocolate museum having the longest queues!!



We cycled down to the Beguinage - a semi-monastic community of Benedictine sisters. A artist has been granted permission to build these 'tree houses' in the grounds - meant to represent a place for 'reflection'......... A purely symbolic structure as there are no apparent means to get up into the lofts.             


Beautiful cycle ways throughout the town. Green everywhere with just a touch of red. 

Some of the roads were closing in preparation for a running race soon to start. We still had a canal cruise to do, so we returned our bikes, thanked our hosts and headed to one of the boat departure points.

It is a leisurely way to see the town, a 30 minute meander up and down the canals, ducking under bridges low enough that you could touch the roof and picturesque scenery around each corner. The skipper gives a running commentary on the architecture and points of interest, jumping from English, to French and Flemish. These boats run from 10.00am - 7.00pm every 30 minutes carrying up to 25 passengers, and we never saw one that wasn't full. Below are some shots taken on the boat ride.



                       Approaching a pretty 'dead end' on the canal - a U-turn point for the boats.


                          Vine clad walls of some of the private homes along the canal.


 
                                  Brick Gothic architecture for which Bruges is so famous.
 
 
                                                                     The Belfry Tower
 
The race was on and there were literally thousands of competitors - men, women and children. The highest competitor number we saw on their shirts was around 4600 - that's a lot of runners. The sun was shining and it was warm, the scarlet faces of the runners telling the story.
 
A quick stop in one of the chocolate shops to purchase some goodies and it was time to head back to the train station and start our journey home. Another amazing destination to add to our list, so glad we came.
 


 

Thursday, 7 May 2015

The Lake District

Trying to beat all the traffic on the M6, we push off at 5.15am for our weekend away in the Lake District and have a great run right through to Lake Windermere. Already there are coaches parked on the outskirts of Windermere, the districts most popular spot, so we push on up the road to Ambleside at the top end of the lake. After our early start and a 4 hour drive to get there, it was time for breakfast and coffee so we stopped at the little Ambleside Pier, content to sit and watch the ferries loading their passengers for a circuit of the lake, and the seagulls ever hopeful for a morsel of food before they depart.

Picking up a map of the various walks around the area, we head for Tarn Hows, reputed for being the most photographed of all the lakes. Even though the weather is overcast and inclined to be drizzly, it is still a very picturesque spot with a man-made 1.75 mile circular path through beautiful countryside with majestic mountain views. It is maintained by the National Trust, and our steep fee of 4.5 pounds for 2 hours parking. Belted Galloway cattle are grazing in the car park, unconcerned with the nearness of people.


                    Tarn Hows in the Lake Districk of UK. Still pretty despite the English weather !!


      Belted Galloway cattle - apparently a rare breed. These ones very used to tourists visiting them.

After our amble around the tarn, we head into Coniston looking for another walk. Parking is often scarce in these villages and once again parking is about 5 pounds for an hour. So as the rain has started to get heavier, we opt for a pint of cider in a local pub (with free parking for customers). Just over 5 pound for a pint of cider and beer, but then we leave the car in the car park and head up on one of the designated walks, climbing up through paddocks of sheep and brightly coloured gorse bush. The walk is all on private property but designated as public footpath - just asking that you leave all gates and openings as you found them. It is still drizzling, but with wet weather gear and umbrellas, we make the most of the day.


          Paddocks with lots of new lambs with their mums - many of them black, and set of twins.


                            Amongst the gorse bushes - making the most of the weather conditions

 
What better place for a baby to shelter from the rain than under mum !
 
We still have an hours drive to Alston where we are staying for the weekend. It is a small town in Cumbria set on the South Tyne river and lies with the Pennine mountains, a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Our accommodation is the Lovelady Shield Country House, an elegant Georgian hotel set on 3 acres and with the River Nent running 20 meters from the front door. The hotel is renowned  for its 7 course degustation menu which has been awarded 2 AA rosettes consistently for the past 5 years. After all our walking, we are really looking forward to dinner.
 


                                        Lovelady Shield Country House - Alston UK



                                             The view from our bedroom window

The meal was amazing - 3 hours spent leisurely enjoying each course with accompanying wines, and yet at the end we didn't feel like we had eaten too much. Chef's amuse (pate), Butternut squash risotto, Carrot and cumin soup, Pan fried salmon, Sorbet, Roast loin of spring lamb, Selection of local cheeses, Passionfruit cheesecake, Coffee to finish - 4 of the courses served with French or South African wine. No wonder they have won their awards.

Next morning after a hearty breakfast we opt to drive for a while as the rain has set in. Narrow lanes link the small villages in the valley, hair pin bends and high hedges - hoping that any oncoming cars are travelling as slowly as we are. We park the car in Alston village and start alongside the road running parallel to the South Tynedale Railway on Isaac's Tea Trail. Passing Kirkhaugh station we continue until we come to the bridge that crosses the line and takes us up onto Alston moor, joining the Pennine Way. Following the yellow arrows defining our path, we walk through some very boggy patches after all the rain, cross a few creeks, and the River Nent before making our descent back into Alston village. It took us nearly 3 hours and a 7.5 mile circular route, helping to walk off last night's wonderful meal.

Next morning, it is time we bid farewell to our hosts and head south towards home. Choosing to avoid the M6, we head east through rolling hills at the top and paddocks of yellow canola (rape) below in the valleys. It's not raining, and the forecast is better than yesterday, the sun trying desperately to burn off the cloud. Its a good run home despite being a public holiday - the best part is it is now a short week. out time here in the UK is quickly coming to an end, and I am glad we made it up to this area for a visit before we depart.


                                           The rolling hills and dales of the Pennines
 


                           Everywhere there are paddocks of canola growing, a glorious sea of yellow

Friday, 1 May 2015

Prague

Our special weekend has arrived - we are off to Prague to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. It starts with an hours drive to Stansted airport as EasyJet don't do a Luton-Prague route. Stansted is a much larger and much nicer airport than Luton, more modern and spacious. Valet parked the car and time to check in. With a nearly 2 hours to wait, what better way to start the weekend than with a bottle of champagne at one of the airport bars.

Another smooth flight in clear skies, a Mercedes Limo (special occasion!) to meet us at our destination and soon we are arriving at our accommodation for the 2 days - Residence Agnes. A small boutique hotel renowned for its service, 5 minutes walk from the heart of town. We are greeted by Mikayla and whilst completing our reservation, we were offered complementary drinks and nibbles, so far the friendliness of the staff living up to its reputation. Up on the 4th level of the hotel, we have an attic room with complimentary wine and fresh flowers awaiting us, and a complimentary mini bar - it was a lovely welcome.

Prague is the capital of the Czech Republic, and is nicknamed "the City of a Hundred Spires". The heart of its historic core is the Old Town Square which we reach in a short stroll. It is surrounded by Gothic churches, baroque buildings, cafes and people everywhere. We hadn't realised it was such a popular tourist destination. On one side of the Old Town City Hall is Prague's medieval astronomical clock - first installed in 1410, making it the 3rd oldest astronomical clock in the world and the oldest one still working. On the hour as the bells ring out, it performs "The Walk of the Apostles" - a clockwork show for the hundreds of tourists gathered below.



 
Old Town Square - packed with tourists by day ..... 

                                                              .... and long into the night.


                                                     6.00am - while most people are still sleeping

We walked from the square to the Vltava river which has numerous  bridges joining the Old Town and the New Town. The Charles Bridge is the most famous, an old stone Gothic bridge adorned both sides with 30 statues of saints and with towers at both ends. It is a pedestrian only bridge and by 9.00am, you can hardly move for the tourists crossing the river. Along with the masses of people, there are numerous artists, performers and vendors selling their wares and entertaining the crowds. It is an interesting walk across, somewhere you could just sit and people watch for hours. It is beautifully lit up at night, the saints giving an ethereal effect and a lovely romantic stroll  with fewer tourists around.


                        The Charles Bridge in the background - Pete and I stopping to watch the swans.



     


                                       Horse drawn carriages down the pretty tree lined streets

Essential for a few days in Prague is a good pair of walking shoes as many of the streets and pavements are cobbled. It is no place for stilettos (and yet we saw a few gingerly making their way along)!! Horse drawn carriages are a popular way to see the Old Town, clip clopping their way down the cobbled streets, as well as vintage car rides. And Segway tours are all the go with dozens of locals touting for your business. We opt to pound the pavement as we usually do and spend the rest of the afternoon zigzagging the alleyways and bridges enjoying the sunshine and our new surroundings.



        One of the largest statues and close up of the bottom half - amazing detail



                                        Lovely archways leading down to the cobbled streets of Prague

Next morning after a hearty breakfast, its time to head back across the river and up to the top of the hill to Prague Castle. It's a good constant uphill walk but we follow the crowds and are soon at the top for the best views over the city. It is the official residence and office of the President of the Czech Republic so therefore has 24 hour guards at the entrance with a change of guard ceremony daily at noon. After a few hours wandering around the cathedral and beautiful gardens, we stop for a well deserved drink at a small café perched on the side of the hill with a view to beat most. Looking down across blossoming trees and green gardens, you can see the river and its bridges and across to the Old Town.
 
 

                                  
       Different views of Prague Castle.                        The decoration is etched into the stucco.



       Our chilled beer stop with a view back from Prague Castle looking back across to the Old Town

The way down is a lovely shaded meander through the Petrin Gardens where I have to stop at the biggest magnolia tree I have ever seen. Prague has many pieces of sculpture scattered throughout the city, some modern, some old, some funny and some very serious. A thought provoking one we came across was a monument to all those who were repressed under the communist regime.
 
 
"The memorial to the victims of communism is dedicated to all victims not only those who were jailed or executed but also those whose lives were ruined by totalitarian despotism"
 
 
                                      An interesting and somewhat different fountain ......? We all know what sort of contest they are in!
 
 
                                                          Now that's a magnolia tree!
 
 
                           Not sure what this one was representing either - certainly a talking point.
 
We had a lovely dinner out that evening to celebrate our anniversary, a restaurant on the banks of the river overlooking the Charles Bridge and watching the various cruise boats meander up and down the river. We opted to forego the dessert and look for one of the pastry vendors in town to try a Czech speciality - Trdelnik - a pastry rolled in sugar and spice and roasted over coals. But the weather had changed, the drizzle had started so we headed for the hotel - the pastry could wait till tomorrow. On arrival back at Residence Agnes (as with each time we walked in the doors) we were greeted with the offer of a drink - water, beer or wine. Declining, it was off to bed.
 
Our tableside view
 
Today was our anniversary and breakfast was great as usual made even more special with a bottle of Piper Heidsieck. We had a celebratory drink with our host Frank, who then offered us a complimentary airport transfer as a gift. We checked out of the hotel leaving our backpacks for storage for the day. It was spent walking through the markets, watching the various entertainers, smelling the wonderful aromas of ham being cooked over the coals, and the dessert. We finally got our pastry - not too heavy, not too light, just sweet, and we didn't even take up the offer to have the inside lined with chocolate!! The weather was changeable and went from sunshine that was burning our skin to heavy showers with everyone running for cover. Even when we returned to the hotel mid afternoon to get a brolly (this is after we had checked out in the morning), we were still greeted like family and offered a drink. I have never known of this level of service before.


                                       A Czech speciality - Trdelnik - roasting over the coals
 
 
                 An interesting busker at the Sunday markets ! Yes - there was a clear gap between them
 
As we had a late flight out of Prague back to Luton, we found ourselves a lovely little restaurant just down the road from our accommodation. We had walked passed it many times on our way home and it always seemed to be packed with diners, so figured the food had to be good. Chez Marcel - it was only 5.30pm and we were the only patrons so far that evening. The meal was the best we had taken in Prague (and the others were very good), beef and lamb that melted in your mouth. As passer byes stopped to read the menu outside, we kept giving them the thumbs up sign and soon had a few other diners joining us. As a result of the walk-ins, we were given a glass each of traditional Czech liquer -  Becherovka. Wow - Slivovitz on steroids!! As Pete had an hours drive to Luton at the end of the flight, I drank his as well as my own. What a way to end an amazing weekend in Prague. It has topped our list of all the destinations to where we have travelled this past 12 months.  
               

               Now that's a bottle of red. Pete at Chez Marcel - our last dinner in Prague. 

 
A shot from the Charles Bridge looking south
 
We had been looking forward to Prague for a long time and it didn't disappoint in any way. The city, the people, our accommodation, the service - it will long be a favourite spot of ours.

 
 
 
     

Monday, 27 April 2015

A quick trip to Geneva

Getting away on the first flight out of Friday morning we head to Geneva. We are leaving clear skies around Luton, but unfortunately the forecast for Switzerland is not so good. Despite that, it was a smooth flight and as we descend through the cloud, we can just make out the shoreline of Lake Geneva - bordered by both Switzerland and France. The surrounding land is lush and green, with large areas of yellow crop and perfectly ploughed paddocks ready for planting.
There to meet us are Chantal and Fredy (Micromegas) from our Sail Indonesia Rally and how wonderful to see them again. Having sold their catamaran after 5 years cruising the world, they have retired to their home town of Geneva and are transitioning back into land living again.

With the whole day ahead of us, we travelled into the city and drove around all the beautiful old historic buildings as well as the more modern and impressive embassies. Geneva is home to more international organizations than anywhere else in the world, and is headquarters to the United Nations and the Red Cross. We walk along the lakeshore to the famous landmark - the Jet d'Eau shooting 140' into the air - it symbolizes Geneva and Switzerland's strength and vitality. We learn the history of Geneva and how it grew from a small settlement to the impressive international city it is today.


                                         The Jet d'Eau - Geneva's famous landmark behind us




        The memorial to the assassinated Empress of Austria (Sissi) - stabbed to death at this very spot.


                                         A scale model of Geneva - 13 years in the making

After a few hours of sightseeing, its time for lunch so we head to France. Geneva is described as sleek, slick and cosmopolitan and that it certainly it, but as the cost  of living is so high in Switzerland, many locals cross over the border into France to eat and do their shopping. Leaving Switzerland it is only a short drive to Yvoire, passing through rolling green hills, vast paddocks of yellow Rape (Canola), perfectly ploughed acres of rich fertile soil ready for planting and acres and acres of vineyards. It is such picturesque countryside, dotted with villages of chalets like houses with pitched roofs, shuttered windows and colourful planter boxes. Like the UK, the countryside is coming alive after the winter and as well as daffodils, tulips of every colour can be seen. We stop to eat at the Restaurant du Port in Yvoire and have a lovely meal of fresh fish, chips and salad with a chilled glass of local wine.


                                   Pete and Fredy outside the Restaurant du Port at Yvoire - France.

 
Our lunch stop - looking across Lake Geneva to Switzerland
 
After a leisurely lunch, we headed back south along the lake, across the border back into Switzerland stopping at small villages along the way to purchase bread and wine for dinner. Through Geneva then north up the other side of the lake to Chantal and Fredy's house at Nyon - almost directly opposite where we had stopped for lunch at Yvoire. Time to sit and chat about mutual friends, other cruisers, what they were doing and where they all were. The afternoon rolled into the evening, and soon we were dining on our French bread and fondue, more wine and kirsch, followed with fresh berries and cream. It had been a wonderful day - a long one for us with a 7.00am flight so time to retire and get some sleep.
 
Next morning after a sleep in and late breakfast, it was back in the car and heading north along the lake towards Lausanne and stopping in the very pretty town of Morges. We parked the car and wandered along the waterfront and through the tulip gardens. I have never seen such magnificent colours, and combination of colours of tulips before, many of them in full flower, others still waiting to open. We stopped in at the yacht club where Chantal and Fredy had kept their first boat for many years, and of course had to have a glass of local wine.
 
 


                                     Flower bed at the yacht club - Morges, Switzerland


                                    Myself and Chantal at the Yacht Club for a pre-lunch beverage.









 






 
              Just some of the amazing colours of the tulips in the gardens at Morges - Switzerland
 
After a lunch stop in town, we headed up through the Jura Mountains to the Vallee de Joux where Chantel had spent her childhood. The road is closed in the winter months, in summer it becomes a mecca for hikers, horse and mountain bike riders. Back in France and nestled in the centre is the Lac de Joux. Popular with windsurfers and sailors in the summer, and frozen over for the ice skaters in Winter. The countryside is rugged and unspoiled, the small villages down in the valley filled with watch-makers - many of the names I have never heard.
 
 
                            Pretty countryside as we leave the lake and head up to the mountains
 
 
                                   At the top of the Jura Mountains looking over Lac de Joux
 
On our descent from the top, we stop for a last coffee at La Mainaz Hotel - a great vantage point looking towards Mount Blanc. Sadly the cloud was sitting at the same level as the peak, but it was still an amazing view. Back in the car and winding down the mountain we cross back into Switzerland, the border being almost at the airport. It's time to say our goodbyes to Chantal and Fredy and our thanks for a wonderfully full 2 days with them. Our French had improved and Fredy's English also, great food and a fun time. A bientot - we hope.
 
                                                          Just one last tulip shot !!!!