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 !!!!
 

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Reykjavik - Iceland

This is one place I had no idea what to expect. A very popular destination from the UK, particularly in February ands March which are the best months for a chance to see the Northern Lights. An early flight out of Luton flying the length of the UK and over Glasgow before turning north west and making for Iceland. First impressions out of the plane window were very flat, very white and very cold looking. On landing, it hadn't changed much from that. It had started to snow and was registering 0 degrees, with a wind chill making it into the negatives. We had booked a car for the couple of days and after the briefing on road conditions and warnings of the wind factor (strong enough to blow cars doors off if not opened carefully), we sat for a moment and wondered how we would manage with the snow falling, the wind howling, the icy roads and driving on the right!!!!

It's a 40 k run from the airport at Keflavik into the capital of Reykjavik, good roads most of the way but barren landscape. Miles and miles of flat ground, very rocky soil and white snow. As they have just finished their Winter, there is nothing green to be seen - so far it is rather bland. There are snow covered mountains in the distance, but the cloud is low so they are hardly visible. Then suddenly Reykjavik comes into view and things improve.

 
Reykjavik town with its eclectic and colourful houses
 
After checking in to the hotel, we  headed off for a walk around the city to get a feel of the place. Towering high above the landscape we could see the cross of the Hallgrimskirkja church and what a marvellous piece of architecture it is. A lift ride to the top for 360 degree views of Reykjavic and the surrounding area. No stained glass windows but still remarkable inside in its simplicity, and a stunning church organ made up of 5275 stainless steel pipes. Imagine polishing them!

 

                      The impressive Hallgrimskirkja church by day and by night

                                      
Beautiful interior in its simplicity. No stained glass windows but an amazing 5275 pipe organ
                       
After lunch, we grab our bathers and headed to the Blue Lagoon. It is a geothermal spa located in the middle of a lava field, the water temperatures are 37 - 39 degrees and it is rich in minerals of silica and sulphur. Buckets of white silica mud are available for the use of the bathers, so men and women alike cover themselves hoping to receive the benefits of the minerals. Sadly, I don't really think it made much difference to our wrinkles.

 
A popular way to spend the day in 0 degrees - swimming!

 
A bar provided selling champagne, beer or hot chocolate


                        Facials with the white silica mud - trying to improve the complexions

 
A stunning setting. Blue Lagoon geothermal lagoon - Iceland
 


Next day we headed up into the mountains to the villages of Geyser and Gulfoss to see the hot spring geysers and waterfalls. Passing through spectacular scenery, and well salted roads, it was an easy trip. Eruptions have  been recorded up to 70 meters, though not reaching that the day we visited, were still impressive. But was it cold!! The wind was blowing at 20 metres per second (70 ks per hr) and no matter how many layers we were wearing, it wasn't enough. We were able to stand so close to the geyser, much closer than Australian regulations would allow. No OH&S here.
 

Waiting .....

Getting there ......

Thar she blows and we are only 4 metres from it!

From Geyser it was a short hop to Gulfoss where the waterfall was is full flow with the melting snow after Winter. Bus loads of tourists and private 4 wheel drive tours were everywhere - a very popular destination. By now it had stopped snowing, the sun was shining and the weather definitely on the improve with clouds clearing to beautiful blue skies.

 
4 wheel drive -  Iceland style
 
 
The rugged beauty of the Iceland country

 
Watery sunshine makes for amazing lighting

 
Waterfalls at Gulfoss in their prime with the melting Winter snow
 
Our last day was spent wandering around the foreshore and taking in our final sights of Reykjavik. Time for a little shopping and a coffee. Overnight it had snowed  snow quite heavily and all the trees and gardens had now turned white. Down on the waterfront is Reykjavik's famous sculpture named Sun Voyager. It is of a dreamboat, an ode to the sun and represents the promise of undiscovered territory, and a dream of hope, progress and freedom. Looking across the water to the snow covered Mount Esja, it really was a spectacular sight.
 

 
Sun Voyager sculpture on the foreshore at Reykjavik
 
 
Snow covered tree branches

 


                           The ideal place to leave Pete for an hour whilst I shop for souvenirs.
 
Our couple of days there had all too quickly come to an end. We had handled the weather conditions as well as the right hand driving,  and seen some amazing landscapes. We never did get to see the Northern Lights as even though the days cleared to blue skies, the evenings clouded over with little to no chance of seeing them. Certainly a different landscape to the rolling green hills of Europe but truly a stunning country and a most enjoyable couple of days in a unique part of the world. 

Thursday, 16 April 2015

The Cotswolds

It's a weekend away in the car without a plane trip involved - just for a change. A 2 hour drive SW from Luton towards the Welsh border brings us down into the very picturesque area of the Cotswolds.  Rolling green hills with quaint little villages dotted all around us and the first of the spring daffodils appearing in the paddocks. We stayed at the Four Pillars Water Park at South Cerney, set on acres of lakes and open countryside. The weather had been typically English, grey skies and rain so the walks around the lakes were muddy and mushy, but still nice to get out and walk amongst the daffies.


                           The Four Pillars Water Park Hotel - looking from the far side of the lake

Making the most of some dry hours, we headed off to visit our first Cotswold village of Bourton-on-the-Water. Voted as one of the prettiest villages in the Cotswolds with the River Windrush meandering through the heart of town, the water is abundant with birds and ducks - all hopeful of being fed by the many tourists around. The trees lining the banks were just starting to break out in flower after their dormant winter and made a very picturesque setting. There are numerous stone bridges crisscrossing the river, making the village known as the Venice of the Cotswold.


                                                            Bourton - on - the - Water


                                                  Just the start of the spring blossoms.
 

                               The River Windrush running right through the middle of town.

Next morning we headed closer to the Welsh border down to the Forest of Dean and into the little town of Cinderford where my great grand mother grew up. I was trying to chase more information on the family and locate the house - St. Annals. All I had was the memory of a photo with the family all seated on the front steps of the home, and the knowledge that it was now owned by the local council and used as an Information Centre. I also knew the Brain family had owned 2 coal and 1 iron mine and were very influential people in the town. We located the house very easily, a grand stately home, 3 levels and in very good condition. It was next door to the Methodist church, which the family had also owned at the time. As luck would have it, inside the council were holding an open day on the history of the area and original residents. On mentioning my relationship to the  'Brain' family, all sorts of people came forward with information and were happy to chat about the knowledge they had. We heard how Trafalgar mine was the first ever to use electric power, and the first game of floodlit football was played at the colliery. Then the story of how the family used the church next door as very comfortable stables for their horses. Eventually when they moved from the area, the Methodist church purchased the premises back and the council acquired the family home. A couple of hours later, with pages of historical notes and photos, and heads spinning with information, we were taken on a tour of the village and the remnants of the once great Trafalgar Colliery. It was a great day of discovery.

 
St. Annals - Home of the Brain family

 
The church next door which were the stables

 
Standing stones - all that is left of Trafalgar Colliery

Our second day was to discover more of the local area and we started with a walk from Lower to Upper Slaughter. Awful names for such picturesque towns, but it has something to do with the old English name for muddy place - nothing sinister. The River Windrush also runs through the two villages and a winding lane just under a mile long joins them. The cottages along the way are all built of Cotswold stone, some of their foundations actually in the water.


                                A stately English home but imaging trimming those hedges !!


                               A pretty scene along our walk between Upper & Lower Slaughter

 
Cottages made from Cotswold stone

 
We spent the rest of the day going from one village to the next - Stow-on-the-Wold, Burford and Bilbury, all so quintessentially English with their cottage gardens of jonquils and daffodils, and some with thatched roofs. Life seems to move at a slower pace in this small corner of the world.

Our last morning was spent with a visit to Broadway Tower, an 18th century tower build mainly for decoration than purpose. It is 65 feet high with a spiral staircase from ground to the top, giving spectacular views stretching across to the Welsh mountains. Because of its great vantage point, it was used in the wars by the Royal Observers Corp to track enemy planes over England. By now the weather had reverted to the usual English cold, damp, windy conditions so it was time to get back into the warmth of the car and head for home. A wonderful couple of days in a beautiful part of the UK.

                   
                                                                  Broadway Castle


                                    Looking west over into Wales and trying to look warm !!

Monday, 16 February 2015

3 days in Marrakech

Finally our long awaited trip to Marrakech had arrived. Flying out of Gatwick meant a 1.5 hour train trip to the airport, but it was warm and comfortable inside the train as the snow lightly fell outside. Most of our flights away have been under 2 hours, so this one being over 3 hours was long to us. Marrakech is located in the northwest corner of the African nation of Morocco and at the bottom of the Atlas mountains, and yet the Sahara desert is only a few hours away. A real mix of cultures from French to Arabic and African, our school knowledge of French being put to the test.

We stayed within the medina at a Riad, a traditional Moroccan house built around an interior courtyard and as we had arrived late into Marrakech, we opted to eat in the first night trying local cuisine and a lovely chicken tagine. Our lodging was just a few minutes walk from the main square - Jemaa El Fna. By day it was filled with stalls selling freshly squeezed orange juice (orange trees growing down the main street wherever you looked) and snake charmers aggravating the reptiles and enticing people to take a photo - only one! A second photo costs more!!! Monkeys dressed in dolls clothes and encouraged to 'go to passers by' for yet another costly photo experience. It was entertaining watching the innocent tourist think they could just take a quick snap then get chased and hounded to pay the price. More stalls selling silverware, ceramics, fabrics, herbs and spices, oils and lotions, beanies and fez of all colours as well as an assortment of entertainment.

 
Dinner at our Riad in Marrakech


                                              Place Jamaa El Fna - the main square just

                               An entrance into the medina - the old walled city in Marrakech

 
Walnuts, almonds, figs, peanuts - all locally grown

 
Cobras and Vipers captivating the tourists

 
Vendor selling his bread - very tasty too.

And then there is the Souk! A labyrinth of alleys where one is destined to get lost. Prices are set by bargaining between the buyer and the seller and all trying to entice you into their stall by offering the best price and the best quality.


          Alleyway after alleyway, stall after stall of amazing colours and sights .... and people.

 
and they just go on!

 
Anyone for olives? - shame we don't like them.
 

 
                                         The most amazing displays of lamps and lanterns

 
100% manual wood lathe - locals call it the Berber Black 'n' Decker! 
 
After a day of walking miles, it was nice to take a bottle of local Moroccan wine up to the terrace top of our Riad to sit and relax. We were only a few minutes walk away from the noise and hectic pace of the square and the Souk but it was so peaceful up on the roof. 
 
 
Waiting for the wine to arrive. Just nice to take the weight off our feet.

 
Our roof top view across Marrakech
 
One day we hired a driver to show us the local area surrounding Marrakech. Thankfully his English was very good so we had a running commentary throughout the day. It didn't take long to get out of the flat surrounding area of the city and we were soon heading up towards the snow capped Atlas mountains. We passed acres upon acres of olive groves and orange orchards, all flourishing and a major export for Morocco. With an endless water supply from the mountains, the peaks being covered in snow even through Summer, everything was so lovely and green and the soil looked very fertile We wound our way up through the Ourika valley to a point where we were stopping for lunch. This was the end  of the road for cars - all villages further on up the mountain could only be accessed by donkey or foot. We were introduced to a local guide who took us up a path of sorts, an unexpected mountain climb to the waterfalls and a great vista back down over our base. Nothing like some strenuous exercise to get the blood pumping in the cold mountain air. Back down and another delicious tagine for lunch.

 
A view looking up through the Ourika valley. Restaurant tables set up near the waters edge.

 
Waterfall stop on our walk

 
The snow capped Atlas mountains

That evening, we had booked ourselves into the Medina Spa for some pampering. First the steam to open the pores, then we lay on marble tables (cushioned) and drenched with buckets and buckets of warm water. This was followed by an all over body scrub with fragrant soap, washed off and then another scrub with rock clay mineral. While this worked its wonders, our feet were scrubbed and massaged. Drenched again with another few buckets of warm water, dried and then a 45mins body massage with fragrant oil. Moroccan tea to finish - the only part we didn't enjoy. The experience was amazing and we floated back to our Riad for sleep.

Our 3 days was at an end and after breakfast, time to bid farewell to our hosts and make our way back to London. Clear blue skies all the way and a great view as we left the African continent, across Spain, the tip of France, the islands of Jersey and Guernsey and into the UK.