Liechtenstein – Prince’s Way Walk and Vaduz Castle

_MG_5974Another month, another country to conquer and this August we headed with our friends Matt and Kendall from New Zealand, to Liechtenstein.

This tiny, 25km long principality where Swiss German is spoken, is nestled between Austria and Switzerland and uses the Swiss Franc. Our main destination was the small mountain village of Gaflei, and to get here once we entered Liechtenstein we had to drive up winding mountain roads._MG_5850

The climb began after Vaduz, and the roads got progressively narrower after Triesenberg. Hairpin corner after hairpin corner, narrow one-lane roads and gradients which made us fear the car would start to roll backwards took us through storybook villages and higher into the mountains.

Finally we made it to the carpark
_MG_5893at the end of the Gafleistrasse, which sits at about 1400m. From here there are many signposted walks, and we chose to do part of the “Fürstensteig” or “Princes Way Walk”. The first half of the 6km loop is essentially all up, but offered breathtaking scenery to help us forget all about sore legs or puffing lungs.

Some parts of the trail traverse ledges along steep cliff faces, and even have cables stapled into the mountain side to hold onto. This walk is not for those with vertigo or a fear of heights! Once we rounded the side of the mountain, the terrain instantly changed from grey rock and shingle to grassy meadows and dirt tracks. From our vantage point at about 1650m, we could clearly see the Three Sisters peaks towering above spectacular valleys and a shepherds hut which must be inaccessible in winter.

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Once we reached the highest point of our loop, it was time to meander downhill back to the car park. We had a musical accompaniment for this journey, as we walked through meadows which were home to cows wearing bells around their necks.
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After just over 2 hours of hiking it was time to head down the mountain in search of lunch. We arrived in Vaduz, the capital of Liechtenstein to lunch menus in the order of 30 euros a main… luckily the supermarket was open on a Sunday so we could have some albeit expensive, bread and cheese instead!

Before leaving Liechtenstein, we checked out the famous Vaduz castle. We weren’t able to enter the grounds or the castle itself, as it is private property and home to the Prince of Liechtenstein. It was built in medieval times, and purchased from the Roman Emperor in 1712 at the time the family of Liechtenstein purchased the countship of Vaduz (events which followed resulted in Liechtenstein becoming a principality).

_MG_5993We found Liechtenstein to be very Swiss, but are impressed with its network of hiking and mountain biking trails as well as its natural beauty. It seems like a good place for a day trip or weekend mountain escape, and we won’t discount the possibility of a longer hike there some day.

A day in Zurich

IMG_5772One of the fantastic things about living not only in one of the most central European countries, but in the south of Germany is that we have multiple international borders within a couple of hours drive.

We had time for a short day trip this month,_MG_5756 so we chose to zoom down to Zurich, in Switzerland. It took about 1hr 45 to drive there via the motorways. Apparently there is an annual toll fee one must pay to be allowed to drive on the Swiss motorways. We found this out after the fact, and luckily not from a toll controller as we would have been fined about 500 francs!

Upon arriving in Zurich we drove around for a bit, confused by all the signs pointing to the Centre… until we realised each suburb has a “Centre”. Zurich has a river flowing through it with the clearest water, which also bubbles up into fountains where the water is safe to drink (unusual in Europe).

_MG_5730We begun by strolling down Bahnhofstrasse – one of the most expensive shopping streets in the world. We are sure the designer label and jewellery stores are indeed expensive, given the price of our coffee! Even so close to the border, Swiss German is spoken. I was able to fumble through with shopkeepers speaking Swiss to me and me speaking German back, but I had about as much success understanding overheard conversations as I would have had they been in Russian.

Further away from Bahnhofstrasse is a hilly shopping suburb with cobblestoned streets and a variety of clothing, accessory, chocolate, gift and gourmet stores. We wound our way through this part of town down to the lake which is wide, glassy and beautiful. Tree lined and dotted with sailing boats it was soothing to the soul to stroll along its shores.

For a different perspective of the city we headed to the trendy Zurich West End, where an old viaduct has been converted into modern cafes, wine bars, slightly off beat labels and a large indoor market hall.

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Having packed sandwiches for lunch, and forked out 50 euros on coffee and a couple of chocolates (when in Switzerland…) as evening fell we headed back over the the border in search of a meal which wouldn’t cost more than a weeks’ groceries!

Stockholm stories

At the end of May we ventured a little further from home, boarding a plane to Sweden. Well actually, we boarded a plane for a ridiculous 35 minute flight to Zurich where we had to change to fly to Stockholm!_MG_5530

Stockholm was a fantastic experience although it was cold. Really cold. We arrived to 10 degrees and chilly winds, which were soon accompanied by ice cold rain.

Stockholm is an archipelago of 14 islands, with a superb public transport system (trams, subway and ferries) and a number
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Our apartment was in the hipster Sodermalm area which was brimming with cool. Pop up bars, no-reservation cafes, food trucks and skateboard parks were frequented by young people in skinny jeans and over sized sunglasses.

To the north of Sodermalm is the central city and Gamla Stan (the old town). We were actually in Stockholm for me to run the marathon, and on Saturday I joined over 20,000 other runners in pounding the pavements through the centre of Stockholm, past many of the famous attractions such as the Royal Palace.

McdsAfter finishing my first marathon freezing cold, soaking wet and deliriously happy, we slowly made our way through town. Although I was exhausted, the multi story shopping malls and modern glam of the inner city did not escape me. Our first mission – despite the vast traditional, international, modern, fusion and downright delicious offerings in Stockholm – was to McDonalds. Scandinavia is the only place in the world where you can get gluten free burgers at Mcdonalds, and I did not just have one.

With as little self-powered movement as possible, we shuffled across the road that evening to catch a movie on the big screen – the first in probably over a year. In Sweden, television and movies are not dubbed (although they have Swedish subtitles), so we could enjoy some English media. English is widely spoken in Sweden, and we never had a problem communicating. As we noticed the night before, the sun didn’t set until after midnight, and rose again at about 3am. It is bizarre waking up in the small hours of the morning to bright daylight!

_MG_5412On Sunday it was sightseeing time! First stop via a ferry ride was Skansen, an open air museum with installations from various regions of Sweden throughout the ages. We wandered through villages of wooden houses from the 1700s, bought coffee from 19th century shops selling grains and cotton and enjoyed a view of Stockholm from the botanical gardens. In addition, Skansen has a zoo with Icelandic animals. The moose were probably the most impressive, with their graceful movements, impressive height and colossal antlers.

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Skansen is on what is called the “museum island” of Djurgarden, although there are museums all over the archipelago. After crepes for lunch, we headed to Vasa – our favourite museum of the trip. Within this museum is housed the huge wooden Vasa warship, which sunk in the Stockholm harbour in 1628 and was only salvaged in 1961. Aside from the massive, largely intact viking ship in the middle of a building, the 4 stories of educational journey visitors are taken on was amazing. We read about the building of the ship, the faults which caused it to sink, the lifestyles of the locals at the time, where the supplies for such ships came from and all about life on board for the sailors. _MG_5598We learned about finding the ship after hundreds of years, and the dangerous salvage mission. It was fascinating to learn about how experts needed to dig tunnels on the ocean floor and carefully float the ship. There were scale models as well as entire rooms set up as various areas of the ship, so that visitors could experience what it would have been like inside. Explanations not only of the decorative features of the ship but also of how conclusions about the colours of paint used were drawn and of other artwork of the time, really helped to add context. An entire floor was dedicated to the science of preservation and we learned about the difficulties in drying and preserving the various materials on board. It took over 15 years for the initial drying period, during which time 1.5 times its weight in water was removed. The drying process continues today, and over the last 5 decades advances in technology have seen more and more sophisticated preservation techniques being applied to the ship. The technical section finished with a delightful exhibition of skeletons and human remains found on board, along with forensic explanations about the identity of the people.

MtballsWe emerged from the specially temperature and light controlled environment of the vasa museum some hours later, and made our way back to the main island. Here we visited a restaurant named Unter Kastanjen for some traditional Swedish fare. Everything on the menu was available gluten free, so I even enjoyed some garlic bread along with my Swedish meatballs. Since our table was earmarked as gluten free, James’ burger also came on gf bread therefore I was able to eat from his plate much to his annoyance and my delight!

Whilst wandering the streets, I will admit that there were a few moments where I simply had to sit on the side walk, since my legs, post-marathon, refused to walk another step. Plenty of cafe stops and rests saw me battling through, and after dinner we still managed to cram in Fotografika – the photography museum. Here were installations from a variety of photographers, with an interestingly diverse range of styles.

_MG_5664After a deep and dreamless sleep, our last day in Stockholm arrived far too soon. Our first mission was to visit the library; well worth a bit of a trek out of the main city. This architectural masterpiece, designed by Gunnar Asplund has a rotunda as its centre, meaning that when one stands in the middle of the room they are surrounded by circular walls of towering bookshelves. I could have stayed there all day._MG_5662

_MG_5691The amusement park in Stockholm was also included in our 3 day pass, so we took advantage of a couple of sunny hours to ride the rollercoasters and play arcade games.

Later that afternoon saw us back in the old town, where unfortunately the Royal Palace was closed but the Nobel Peace Prize museum offered some interesting insight into Nobel, the prize and previous winners.

After checking out the cute boutiques,_MG_5676 stopping for “Fika”, the Swedish tradition of coffee and cake at 3pm (gluten free cake? No problem!) and admiring the water one last time, it was time to head to the airport.

Sweden has a different feel to Central Europe, and seems to be a mixture of Old-World Europe and modern Anglophone/American culture, with its own special touch of eccentric Scandinavian custom. Our action packed 4 days in Stockholm were exciting, refreshing, inspiring and wonderful. It was just a little bit of a relief however, to leave the Krone behind and return to Euros!

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Extravagance, elegance and experience! From United Arab Emirates to France in March

This month, James travelled overseas alone to Abu Dhabi, where he had the perfect holiday. After months of daily _MG_4275 German courses, homework and study being fitted in around his other part time job, not to mention the short days and icy temperatures, he was well overdue for a break and what a place to spend it. James’ parents Michael and Jennene were in Abu Dhabi for a conference, and since it is only a 7 hour flight direct from Stuttgart (like flying Auckland to Perth), it was an opportunity not to be missed for James to catch up with his parents after nearly a year of being away from home._MG_4354

After the ancient cities of Europe, Abu Dhabi was like another world, one where the line between fantasy and reality is blurred and the level of opulence is realms beyond any other country we had ever visited. James was awestruck from the minute he landed, with the scale of the buildings, the brightness of the lights, the modernness of the interiors and the sheer luxury which was everywhere. The streets could have literally been lined with gold and noone would have blinked an eye.

All of this luxury comes at a price however – which James learnt on the first night after ordering a single glass of whiskey…and receiving a bill for 75 euros! The hotel where the Brosnahans were staying was directly over the famous Formula One track, and they breakfasted whilst watching Ferrari’s zoom around the track below them. James and his mum visited Ferrari world, riding the roller coaster and ogling the cars.

A highlight of the trip was a visit to the Sheikh Zayed mosque. The mosque itself covers an area of 12 square hectares, and was intended to be a symbol of unity, to represent_MG_4270 the cultural diversity in the UAE and the world. Materials and pieces of art from many different countries are included in the _MG_4197design, notabu dhabi james least the huge chandeliers made from Swarovski crystal, imported from Germany. The carpet in the main prayer hall is over 5,500 m squared and is one single piece woven from wool sourced partly from New Zealand.

Marble and precious stones abound inside the mosque, with inlays of pearl and gold everywhere. In order to enter the mosque tourists must respect the religious and cultural beliefs of the local community, therefore James was required to don a full length garment to hide his bare legs.

A day trip saw the family plus some friends from the conference, including a good friend Justin from New Zealand, visit nearby Dubai. Here the Mall of Dubai held hours worth of entertainment, with an aquarium (complete with sharks) in its midst. Other sights included the Gold markets, spice markets and a boat tour along the Dubai “creek”, as well as a view of the world’s tallest building towering above the other skyscrapers.

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At first distracted by the shining attractions, James later did notice that this sparkling oasis is still in the middle of a desert. We wonder what life would be like when the majority of daily life is conducted indoors, and main attractions include shopping (especially important since a lot of emphasis does seem to be placed on wealth and status in these cities). On the road between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the unspoken seedier side of the UAE was evident, with poverty stricken immigrants lining the streets, on their way to 15 hour work days and certainly nowhere near the clean, beautiful streets of the main cities. _MG_4425_MG_4433

In general, 5 days in the sun and heat, relaxing by the pool and partaking in the extravagant lifestyle that is life in the UAE, were a complete delight for James. He returned home raving about Abu Dhabi and we can’t wait to go together one day! Seeing his parents after so long was also fantastic and he enjoyed every minute of his holiday.

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Although Abu Dhabi certainly counted as a country for our goal of visiting a different land each month…. I wasn’t there so we needed to get me across a border as well! In the last weekend of March we headed to Strassbourg in France. From Stuttgart, Strassbourg can be reached in just over an hour with the TGV however this convenience does not come cheap. We instead took advantage of the Baden Wurttemberg ticket which allows us both to travel on all commuter transport in the state for 24 hours, for just 28 euros. We set off from Tubingen at 7am and 3 hours later crossed the border into France (our ticket got us as far as Kehl, from where it is just 10 minutes to Strassbourg). It was a stunning sunny day, perfect for exploring the pretty Alsace town. Even the main train station was distinctly more French than German, however we were relieved to find that German and English are spoken widely. I have never met such friendly French people as I did in Strassbourg and was grateful for the hospitality of the cafe owners, shopkeepers and tourism operators .

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After strolling through the old town and stopping off at the numerous chocolate shops, we stopped at a cafe, where we enjoyed a coffee and a spot of people watching in the sunshine. Having stimulated our appetites we proceeded directly to lunch – at a creperie of course! Being able to enjoy both a savoury and a sweet crepe was as always a treat for me since the French make their ‘Galettes’ with gluten free buckwheat flour. Afterwards we made our way to the Cathedral… but not before picking up some macarons from a very sweet and elegant patisserie.

The Strassbourg Cathedral is a magnificent site, and was the world’s tallest building until 1874. Its gothic architecture is so intricate, and thousands of carved figures adorn its sandstone outer walls. Inside the wonderment continues, with high curved ceilings, stained glass windows and an astronomical clock.

In complete contrast to this building from the middle ages is Strassbourg’s more modern claim to fame – the headquarters of the European Union and Parliament.

We took the quintessential covered boat tour, which cruised along Strassbourg’s canals and took us past these sights. The Parliament building holds an amphitheater with 750 seats, and is surrounded by gardens which create a wall of green. The court of human rights of the EU is also here, and is a symbol of conciliation and peace. We floated past the Rhine Palace, Fisherman’s Quay and half timbered houses – which used to be like furniture; non-permanent fixtures to be moved around at will. Many of the buildings along the canals have a rich history, having over the years housed hospitals, then convents, then schools, then prisons. The four canals along which we rode are on two levels, and we had to go through Locks where 360,000 litres of water flows in to raise the water level 1.8 metres, allowing boats to access the next level of canals. We passed under many covered bridges where gunners took their positions during battles throughout time – the bridges were covered not to protect the gunners from the elements however, rather the gunpowder!_MG_4591 _MG_4594 _MG_4597

The waterways have many stories associated with them and form part of Strassbourg’s identity. One such example is that the washing of the rich was done upstream of the poor, but if something from the rich escaped the washerwomen and floated downstream, they had to pay the poorer women to get it back! The old tanneries next to the water which are now closed in, used to have open roofs to dry the skins, and criminals were tortured in cages hung from the bridges around the city. The contrast of medieval history, centuries old buildings and churches (with tombs dating back to 1180) with the modern concept of the European Parliament mean that Strassbourg has an interesting and ecclectic collection of sites. Combined with its German influences and French culture, mixture of locals and tourists and of course the crepes and macarons, this gem in the Alsace is certainly a place we will visit again.

Making the most of our travel ticket, we crossed the border again and headed slightly south back into the Black Forest, to stay the night in Freiburg. We didn’t check out too many sights in this attractive student town, but I ran in my first European race which was a real experience! I have never run in an event with so many participants, where for the first few kilometers it was impossible to find elbow room and where I was never wanting for company.

_MG_4626_MG_4661This March update has been somewhat delayed… thanks to the adventure that has been moving house! That story deserves a blog post in itself, but suffice to say we have been kept extremely busy and are looking forward to our next mini-break overseas.

Love in Lucerne

This month, we had a weekend away to a place quite special to us. Four years ago we were on holiday in Chapel BridgeEurope in winter, and whilst visiting Lucerne, we were suspended in a private Gondola above the snowy Swiss landscape when James proposed to me. We were also married in December (two years later, in NZ on a hot summers day) so it was the perfect time now to go back for our wedding anniversary.

_MG_3459For once, we managed to make our train connections so it was a very relaxing trip from Tubingen to Lucerne, taking just under 4 hours with two quick changes. Our hotel upgraded us to a Junior Suite as an anniversary present, no small thing given the prices of … well… EVERYTHING in Switzerland! We arrived in the evening and didn’t have to venture far from our hotel to find wine and Italian food, so it was a good start!

Lucerne is one of the most picturesque cities I have ever visited, with its charming wooden bridges and centuries old houses, serene lake, abundance of fairy lights and of course being surrounded by snow capped _MG_3503mountains. Even the train station is magnificent! Similar to many European towns, the “Old Town” is a collection of cobblestoned alleyways and market squares, although these are lined with high end watch, chocolate and fashion stores which ooze sophistication. There are two wooden footbridges bridges running across the river which separates the Old town from the New town. The most famous of these is the covered Chapel bridge, built in 1333 as part of the town fortifications. As well as the ceiling being adorned with colourful paintings about historic events in Lucerne, the bridge is interesting because of its connection to the “water tower”. This existed before the bridge, and has been used for everything from a torture chamber to a gift shop, but not as an actual water tower. _MG_3510

While we were in Lucerne, the snow had not yet arrived for the season so we couldn’t ski or toboggan like during our last visit. We did however take a 10 minute train around the lake to the Hergeswil Glassworks. These have been in existence since 1817, when they produced craft glass like that in Venice. Soon they were producing glass for industry such as bottles _MG_3426and jars, and during the war provided many jobs to create preserving jars and similar essentials. The Glassworks were a representation of the social system of the time, with the workers being very separated from the upper class owners in their work, their pay, their living conditions and even a physical wooden railing in the director’s office where they went to collect their wages. In 1975 the factory stopped being able to compete in the market and was nearly closed down. It has however been preserved as a historical location and produces beautiful glass pieces once again, such as platters and wine glasses. We visited the museum, which was a unique exhibition. Visitors enter at timed intervals, so that they have the place to themselves. Only one room or section of a room is lit up at a time, and a voice-over narrates the story of the Glass Works as  the visitors walk through. As the light fades from one exhibit, it starts to illuminate another, guiding the visitors through. Doors opened automatically and it felt a little like being Alice in Wonderland! _MG_3433

After the museum, we ended up in the factory where we could watch workers blowing glass and creating the actual products for sale.

It is fascinating to watch the molten liquid glass (a mixture of sand, minerals and old glass) being wielded by the workers, poured into moulds, beaten into shape and solidified to create recognisable forms of plates and glasses. _MG_3422There were no delicate figurines being made here as there are in Venice, but it was no less impressive to watch the strength required for some of the massive creations, and interesting to see how easily a piece could be ruined by not pouring the liquid just right. To the side, was a place where I could blow my own glass ball… yes, it may be touristy but I couldn’t resist! I had to blow surprisingly gently, and the difficulty was in turning the stick evenly and quickly so that my ball wasn’t lopsided.

Towering PeakWe of course rode up the Gondola, for nostalgia. The view from nearly 2000 metres up Mt Pilatus is stunning, and we enjoyed a peaceful walk together through the snow (not enough for the pistes to be open, but still enough to be magical). Crunching snow underfoot, green pine trees overhead, the blue water of the lake, the pitched roofs of the town in the distance and mountains as far as the eye can see.

What better place to take a breath and recharge?!_MG_3471

In the evening on Saturday we went out for dinner to celebrate our anniversary. The “Thai Garden” was beautifully presented, with live background music, water features and three different dining areas. The food and experience lived up to the reputation… as did the price. Compared to Germany, Switzerland is extremely expensive, however we found the prices to be similar to Auckland in a relative sense. For example a coffee in Auckland can easily cost $4.90, and it cost 4.90 francs in Lucerne. If you are earning in dollars and pay for your coffee in dollars, vs earning in francs and pay for your coffee in francs, that’s pretty similar. Of course visiting Switzerland with dollars (or in our case, euros) means it is very expensive!

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On Sunday we leisurely wandered around town, Lion of Lucernechecking out a craft market and visiting Lion Monument (a tribute to the loyalty and bravery of the Swiss Guard during the French Revolution, carved in 1820).

A stroll around the edge of the lake, watching a lone fisherman on the water, children playing on the tree lined avenue and a mixture of tourists and locals going about their day, was the perfect way to end a relaxing weekend together in Lucerne. After leaving on Friday afternoon, we arrived home on Sunday evening – we are so lucky to be able to just pop to another country for weekend away!_MG_3485 _MG_3460

Homes away from home – places we laid our heads whilst travelling

It’s said the journey is often more important than the destination, and in our case it has certainly been a huge part of our travel experience. That is, while we’ve visited some incredible countries, seen some inspiring views and ticked off a number of bucket-list worthy sites, we’ve also had a lot of fun in between.

Completely unexpectedly, some of the places we stayed have been so interesting I decided they should be shared in a blog post!

In Las Vegas, we were so fortunate to be offered a suite in the Hilton Elara Grand Vacations complex by my Uncle Pete. We kept our backpacks zipped in their slightly less “I’m a young backpacker travelling on a shoestring” looking covers and recycled our one nice outfit a number of times whilst staying here! With a stunning pool (complete with cocktail bar), an on-site Starbucks and direct entry to the next door shopping mall we felt as though we were in a movie. Playing at being fabulously wealthy was fun for a few days, but sadly we had to move on!

_MG_0682A weekend at Lake Powell involved sleeping on a house boat – a new experience for both of us! This long boat had a lower level with a lounge, kitchen, bathroom and bedroom plus an upper open-air deck. In the 40+ degree heat in the middle of the desert, the best place to sleep was outside on the deck. Sleeping under the stars, surrounded by red rock and isolated from civilization as the boat gently rocked us to sleep was a magical experience.

When we drove down the Pacific Coast Highway from San Franciscocasita to Los Angeles, we stayed over in a tiny beach community – Grover Beach. Here we were warmly welcomed by our airbnb host, and shown to our room which was actually a converted garden shed! On the outside it looked like any other shed sitting in someone’s back garden, but inside was a cosy oasis with a comfortable bed, couch, movies and good Californian wine on the house.

In Latvia when we attended the wedding of our friends Agnese and Rudi, we were invited to stay in a traditional chalet out in the country. _MG_1489These wooden log cabins with sloping rooves were in a picturesque setting, dotted around a central meadow in which we lit a bonfire to dance and sing around. The cabins themselves were warm and spacious, with bunk beds in the bedroom. Our bunch of rowdy kiwis piled into the loft however, laying out sleeping mats side by side and having a good ol’ sleepover!

Upon arriving in Warsaw, we gave a taxi driver our address and he drove around the block a few times before he was convinced this was the place. It turns out our accommodation is a boarding school during the year, and rents its rooms out during the holidays. We made our breakfast in a commercial sized kitchen, showered and brushed our teeth in a bathroom with rows of sinks and mirrors strangely reminiscent of primary school bathrooms and slept in little single beds. The walls were adorned with children’s art work and the large old building could easily have been the scene for an Enid Blyton book.

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Poland offered another surprise, when our airbnb apartment in Krakow turned out to be above a sex shop. Unsure of how exactly krakowto get to our apartment we hung around outside awkwardly until the seedy looking man standing outside asked if we were here for the “hotel”. “Yes..?” we tentatively replied, and he directed us upstairs to what was luckily the right place! It was a great apartment where we were just renting a room. Our hosts were lovely people and we enjoyed their company but it was still a little strange to be ducking into the doorway with the sex shop sign and to see a constant stream of men entering and exiting the lower level via the same staircase we were using!

After many hostels and various airbnb apartments, we chose to spend our nights in Stary Smokovec at the Grand Hotel. This historical hotel still looks as it must have in the 1900’s, with high ceilings, glittering chandeliers, sweeping staircases and wooden balconies. We spent rainy afternoons playing pool or using the internet in the common areas which were just so inviting with their plush armchairs and huge windows affording views over the valley. We didn’t have to leave the hotel as full board was included and it had its own spa complex.grandhotel-smokovec-23

In complete contrast to this wonderful hotel, our hostel in Ghent was the stuff of nightmares. Although the place itself seemed ok, despite the 5 flights of stairs to get to our room, the trouble started when we turned out the light…you know that feeling that something is crawling on your skin? It usually starts with an itchy bite, or having seen a mosquito, or being too hot and is usually all in your head. Not this time! Our beds were literally crawling with bedbugs, tiny, disgusting, scuttling little things which were on our sheets and pillows, running over our bodies and feeding on our blood. We were out of there quick smart!bugs

Many of the apartments in France, Italy and Greece were in buildings hundreds of years old, and we had to summit hundreds of tiny stairs in narrow staircases to reach our accommodation. I can’t imagine how people with large wheelie suitcases manage! This was however preferable to the old fashioned elevators on offer. Running up the middle of the buildings would be a narrow cylinder within which was an elevator. When the doors opened we could see a tall rectangular box hanging from ropes and a pulley system. It was barely big enough for one person and their bag, and it looked like a coffin on its side. We took the stairs.

Using the toilet in Greece was a novel experience! Because their plumbing systems are so old, they aren’t able to cope with the large demands put on them by a growing population and a booming tourist industry. Toilet paper must under no circumstances, be flushed! It was difficult to remember this but it had to be used, then put in a bin next to the toilet. Most often a bin without a lid. The toilets didn’t smell too good in Greece.

Our favourite airbnb apartment - in Provence

Our favourite airbnb apartment – in Provence

In addition, we of course stayed in many hostels and airbnb apartments. Sometimes we barely slept thanks to snoring (how can one person make THAT much noise??) or slamming doors, other times, such as in Vilnius our hostel was a warm cosy sanctuary. Here we hung out in a comfortable, clean common room with travellers from all over Europe and the U.S., sheltering from the rain and catching up on emails and the news. I think the most important things we learned about hostels were to always take earplugs and check the beds thoroughly!

Airbnb apartments aren’t always what they seem online, and we’ve stayed in some quirky places with neck-breaking stairs, stifling loft bedrooms and no wifi. We now know: include “air conditioning” in the search filters, check if there is wifi and get excited about the unexpected!

For the last while we’ve had our own flat in Ludwigsburg, thanks to my Aunt and Uncle, and now that we are moving to Tuebingen we have started the apartment search. In the meantime we’re staying in a boarding house with beds commandeered from the nearby hospital – with adjustable mattresses so they can be propped up into sitting positions. Its quite awesome really!

The Black Forest (not just a cake)

IMG_3518Feeling a little cooped up, James and I decided to take a mini break last week, to the Schwarzwald (Black Forest).

Armed with our Baden Wurttemberg pass – a rail pass which allows us to use any of the regional (read: slow) trains in the state, we set off on Thursday evening and within three hours our train was pulling into Triberg station. Triberg, well known for the invention of the cuckoo clock, is a small town surrounded by forest, where Josef Keller first created the Black Forest Gateau, where some of the first tourist hiking trails were set up and home to the highest waterfalls in Germany. IMG_3517Our guest house provided not only breakfast, but a “Schwarzwald Card” which gave us free transport on all networks within the Black Forest as well as admission to a few top spots. This turned out to be fantastic value, as we used about 100 euros worth of trains in the area in two days.

 

On Friday morning we visited the Triberg falls, a series of waterfalls over 163m high. We could hear the chatter of the water as it cascaded playfully over rocks, into deep pools and through crevices, making its way down the hillside. The falls themselves are surrounded by a nature park with various marked trails. We hiked up the steep hill, able to cross the falls twice over purpose built foot bridges. After coming back down we could continue along a trail which brought us out at the edge of Triberg, and had a number of points of interest along the way back in such as ancient churches and of course, Cuckoo Clock shops!

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After browsing the shops we hopped aboard a train which travelled along the Schwarzwald Bahn route – a network of rail with about 35 tunnels and picturesque views of dense forest, towering pines, open meadows and small villages with wooden houses. Our destination was Titisee – a slightly bigger town on a beautiful lake. Nestled in the forest, with quaint shops selling traditional clothing and foods, cafes upon the water just made for whiling away the afternoon and boats for hire to enjoy the lake, Titisee is another gem where we felt miles away from the busy “real world” of central Europe. We took a walk around the edge of the lake, enjoying the view and the fresh air as well as our luck at not getting rained on!

Our afternoon was spent at an amazing pool complex on the outskirts of town. In this indoor complex we found a wave pool and 10 different water slides! The slides were amazing, and we spent hours running up the stairs and flinging ourselves down the various chutes on tubes. One was a speed slide, with a nearly vertical drop (James got up to 37km/h), another where we started off easy, dropped suddenly and were shot up the side of a massive halfpipe, swinging down the other side and out.
Many a time we got ourselves stuck going backwards through twisting chutes and we alternated between doubling and going it alone. When we’d had enough of the slides, we went through to the adjoining wellness area where we floated around in a quiet warm water pool, lay on massage jets and swam through to an outdoor area. The roof and walls here were glass, so I can just imagine how serene it would be when its snowing outside. With loungers, a pool bar, a cafe and an R16 entry criteria it was bliss. Another area had saunas, steam rooms and jacuzzis.. maybe we’ll have to come back in winter!

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We enjoyed a meal of schnitzel and locally caught trout on the water front before taking a train back to Triberg. Here it was too late to catch a bus – luckily a local woman informed us that at this time of night, you have to call the bus an hour ahead so that it will stop at the station. Otherwise we would have waited for its scheduled arrival in 45 minutes time! It wasn’t raining and only a 15 minute walk up the road to our hotel, so we weren’t too put out.

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The main street in Triberg

An old fashioned steam train in the Black Forest

An old fashioned steam train in the Black Forest

The next morning stiff and sore from hiking, sliding and swimming we gingerly crept into the breakfast room. Abandoning ideas for another days hiking, we instead boarded a train bound for Baden-Baden, near the edge of the Black Forest and on our way home. This spa town is a complete contrast to the rustic feel of the Southern forest, and used to be popular amongst wealthy Russians for its casinos and its healing waters. There are ruins of ancient Roman baths here and two modern baths still offer the traditional experience.

IMG_3544This includes salt scrubbing, saunas and rejuvenating mineral pools. The town itself is quite large, and has a very pretty pedestrian area with boutique and high end shops, fountains and many cafes. The tree lined streets and impressive houses exude affluence, as do the clientele of the famous casino.

We walked through the suburbs to reach the station of the Merkurberg Bahn in the hills – a cable car to the top of the local mount. This is also a base for a hiking trail network through the forest and hills in the area – a day of hiking followed by an evening of hot pool soaking sounds like a good excuse to come back! The steep ride up in the cable car was fun, and I’m always amazed by the feats of engineering and the original thought which lead to their invention with things like this. At the top we stepped out to a magnificent view of the valley, over which were soaring a multitude of paragliders. We sat and watched them launch themselves off the hill for a while, before meandering along the pathways and checking out the view from the other side.

The cable car brought us back down the hillside, and we trained back to Ludwigsburg where exhausted and satisfied we indulged in some takeaways from a new Asian fusion restaurant. A taste of home after months of meat and potatoes was a welcome change and we felt thoroughly refreshed after our little excursion.

 

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Florence and the Cinque Terre

_MG_2858As a last stop on this segment of our trip, and the last few days of our continuous travel segment, we flew into Florence, Italy.

It is hard not to fall in love with Italy, and Florence was no exception. From the moment we arrived dirty and tired at one in the morning, the beauty and relaxed feel of the city was a relief from the heat and chaos of Greece. Although the Italians are not known for their punctuality (argh!) one can only “go with the flow” and take it as part of the experience._MG_2991

Aside from cobbled streets, red brick buildings, scooters and crawling vines the biggest feature of Florence (Firenze) is its Duomo. In the centre of town is the Santa Maria del Fiore, the largest dome in the world that is built from brick and mortar. The cathedral itself is an ornate work of art, and its dome is no exception.

Many other renaissance buildings and churches are nestled into the historic center, and of course the main attraction for many people is the art. The original statue of David by Michealangelo, a room with walls made from semi-precious stones and paintings which are hundreds of years old are just some of the priceless treasures one can see here. Not having time to truly enjoy a museum visit, we wandered the streets instead, taking a walk over the Ponte Vecchio (an ancient bridge line with gold merchants) and up the hill to the Piazzale Michaelangelo. We were rewarded with a stunning view of the city! _MG_2842

When in Italy of course wine, pizza, pasta and gelato must be enjoyed! The Italians didn’t fail to deliver on the gluten free front as usual, and its probably good for our waistlines that we didn’t stay for more than a couple of days…

On our second day, we took part in a magical “alternative” tour of the Cinque Terre with our friend Sarah from New Zealand. Starting early, we boarded a bus for an entertaining two hour drive north, on which our young and enthusiastic guides regaled us with tales of their own lives as well as the history of the region. We drove past the famous Pisa, and past cultivated gardens and fields – a reminder of the skills that the Romans brought when they invaded and took over most of Italy. We cruised past Lucca, the town with city walls so deep people can ride bikes along them and they used to be roads! As we moved North of Tuscany into the Liguria region, we heard about Byron and Shelley who loved to spend time here. drinking, boating and swimming in what is now called “Poet’s Gulf”.

The Cinque Terre, a World Heritage site consists of 5 fishing villages set into the cliffs overlooking the Italian Riviera. The roads are narrow and they aren’t accessible by bus. Traditionally the trek between the villages had to be made by the dirt tracks set high on the cliff, and it was along this unadultered trail we embarked between the second and third villages, Corniglia and Vernassa. There were no handrails, benches or groomed trails and we certainly felt intrepid as we carefully walked along the narrow uneven dirt trail which passed sheer cliffsides, rows and rows of grapes, small houses and twisted at times through the forest. Our guides pointed out the chestnut trees – a lifesaver for people living (and hiding) here during the war, when no supplies were able to be brought in.

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At the third village the sun was already beating down as we sat on a shady terrace to enjoy a lunch of local delicacies. _MG_2983Anchovies are the pride of the region and we had them prepared two different ways as well as an assortment of other seafoods, and delicious risotto. Moving on we caught a short train to the next village, Monterrosso, where we enjoyed some time to wander and take a quick dip.

After waiting for 40 minutes for our delayed train (typical!) we arrived at the fourth village, Levanto. Here we had a generous wine tasting of one white wine from each of the regions – Manorola was my favourite! Atop a hill I found an old nunnery with a graveyard – except there weren’t graves in the ground, rather long narrow tombs in the wall and family mausoleums. It was a peaceful place but also somewhat creepy!

Having cooled off with another swim, we hopped aboard a boat and cruised around the corner, enjoying the crystal sparkling waters beneath us and the warm wind on our faces. We sailed past the villages we had been in, and ended up in village number one – Manorola. Here we climbed up the steep streets and staircases to enjoy a magnificent view, and had time to poke our heads into little delicatessens and shops.

 

_MG_2936 _MG_2978After a final short train ride, we hopped aboard our bus, tired from a day of hiking, exploring, swimming, learning and sunshine and drove back to Florence.

 

One last adventure awaited us on our day of departure. We boarded our tiny, propeller plane to head back to Germany, buckled in and listened to the safety demonstration. The plane picked up speed on the runway, the engines revved and then…. they quietened, the plane slowed and turned around. Once again, it picked up speed, the engines roared and we were… not off. Soon the captain spoke to us informing us that there was a problem, and we would have to disembark. Florence airport is absolutely tiny, so the next 3 hours which we spent inside its single room were torture. With no announcements made, updates or even drink vouchers the plane full of passengers had no choice but to sit tight until finally, a bus came to collect us. We were taken to the same plane! I guess it had been fixed because this time it took off no problem, and thankfully delivered us safely in Stuttgart.

We will definitely be back for more relaxation, romance and red wine in Tuscany someday!

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Glorious Greece

_MG_2662From the moment we arrived in Athens to the night we left Mykonos, Greece has been a whirlwind of adventure. Another early morning flight saw us arrive in Athens to stifling heat and bright sun, with brown landscape greeting us as the bus headed into the city. By the time we were checked into our hotel (a treat, as we had some loyalty points to use) we were already hot, sticky and dusty – a theme which would continue for the next few days!

After cooling off in the pool, we met our friends Carme and John who had just arrived from New Zealand, to enjoy a traditional Greek meal underneath the Acropolis. The next day we took a walking tour of the main historical highlights in Athens. Ever since my first classics class at age 16 I have been dreaming of seeing these monuments and sights, and to see the towering columns of marble and detailed inscriptions on walls which I had only seen in pictures, was magical.

Firstly we visited the Tomb of the Unknown soldier, to watch the changing of the Guards. We had a refresher on the founding history of Athens, including the battle of marathon and its occupation by various empires (Persian, Ottoman etc). The Temple of Zeus, although in ruins and with only a few columns left is still a majestic site. It’s base, standing in the centre of what used to be a sanctuary, once held 104 columns of marble which supported the colossal temple.

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Checking out the Parthenon

As we began our way up the winding road on the Acropolis, we came across an Ascelope sanctuary. Ascelope was once a medicine man, struck down by Zeus for his power to bring people back to life. His legacy lived on however in these sanctuaries, where people came to stay overnight. They would dream of Ascelope’s snake and their dream determined the treatment they would be prescribed.

Further along the path was the theatre of Dionysus – with its marble seats, statues of characters and masks and well designed stage it was easy to imagine the ancient greeks enjoying plays here. Although perhaps not in the August heat! The nearby Odeion; the music hall, still hosts concerts year round, as its amphitheater design provides such good accoustics._MG_2668

Nearly at the top, we saw the temple of Nike – the little godesses of victory. Finally we rounded the corner to enter the Parthenon via the road so many ancient greek travellers, visitors, priests and towns people had entered before us. The Parthenon, although smaller than the Temple of Zeus, is in better condition and was remarkably well maintained until the 17th century when it was bombed by the Venetians. Here we noticed the friezes along the tops of the columns, depicting stories of battles and various important myths. One of these was the birth of Athena – when Zeus learned of a prediction that his mistress was going to give birth to a son who would defeat him, he swallowed the mistress. Nine months later he had a pounding headache, and Hermes split his skull with an axe…. out jumped a fully formed Athena, who had been banging on the inside of his head ready to be “born”!

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The Parthenon has a subtle feature which makes it all the more pleasing to the eye. It has no straight lines. The columns are all built on a slight angle, so that if they reached for 2 km they would meet, and the floor itself has a curvature. This is all purely for aesthetic reasons, and it works! Around the corner from the Parthenon is a smaller temple, where we saw the gifts of Poseidon and Athena to the people of Athens. These two initially fought over the right to rule Athens, and Poseidon struck his staff into the ground to create a spring of water for the people. The god of the sea’s gift was not well received however, since the water was salty. Athena then planted a seed and an olive tree grew – a much better gift, therefore she won the city of Athens.

We were fortunate enough to be staying nearby the Panathenaic stadium – the home of the modern olympics in 1896. Standing on the podium here was pretty cool!

stadium 1 stadium 2Our journey in Greece continued from Athens via ferry. We embarked from the port of Piraeus at 7:30am, and 7.5 hours later berthed at Thira, Santorini. Although we could have taken a local bus, after the early morning, long ride and with the heat and our packs we decided we would take a taxi to our accommodation. We were staying in the quiet village of Imerovigli – a few km away from the main town of Thira.We were ushered into a shared van, paid 20 euro up front and were driven into Thira. Where we were dumped! I checked the name of the hotel and the address with the driver, but he assured us it was “just up the road”. Once we started walking up the congested pedestrian road it was clear we weren’t in the right place. We stopped to ask at a bar, which turned out to be run by a British man. Rolling his eyes when he heard about our driver, he said “welcome to Greece!” after which he gave us a seat, water, charged my phone, connected us to the wifi and rung our hotel for us. They wouldn’t come to collect us, so we had to keep going ourselves. We piled onto a bus which was so full with people we couldn’t move, and sat sweating and trying to breathe as it drove up the hill towards Imerovigli.

Here we got out, and asked at a car rental shop where our hotel was. They hadn’t heard of it they said…. we kept walking, but after seeing no sign of it, finding no street signs and having no cellphone reception, we stopped into a restaurant to ask. Yes, this lady had heard of it… but it was too far away to walk. We could take a taxi or a bus? At this point, hot, tired, flustered and despairing I explained that we had already tried both those options, as well as walking and asking people but we just could not get to this hotel. The kindness of strangers was well and truly in force that day – as she summonsed one of her employees to put our bags in the car and drive us there herself. Once we arrived, the manager was nowhere to be found…. she turned up 5 minutes later, after having driven to Imerovigli to find us since the car rental shop had rung her, telling her to come collect her guests!

Luckily the serene view over the caldera (crater of the volcano) made it all worthwhile. Our studio was exquisite, and away from the bustle of the town we felt completely at peace as we watched the sun set over a glass of wine.

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The next day we met up with Carme and John again – who had just got engaged! This happy news set the mood for the day, and we set off upon the dirt cliff top trail which connects all the villages. We couldn’t walk fast in the heat, but enjoyed the views and plenty of breaks, before arriving in Oia two hours later. From this cute little village with its boutique shops, we headed down about 250 steps, sidestepping donkeys along the way! Just around the corner was Amoudi Bay – a spectacular swimming spot where we sunbathed, lunched, swam and jumped from the cliff into the clear ocean. We thought the water in France was clear! The Aegean is another step above.

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After climbing back up the stairs and catching the bus back to our accommodation, we enjoyed dinner together in Thira, where we were able to check out a few of the shops as well. A lazy last morning was followed by an excursion to Red Beach – created by a landslide and surrounded by red rock, this small beach is novel but not as pristine as Amoudi Bay. That night there was a fireworks display over the volcano, and we had been invited by our new British friend to reserve a table at his cocktail bar. After a delicious meal in Imerovigli, we tried to catch the bus to Thira for the 9pm start. DSC05344The time ticked by and no bus arrived, so we started to flag down cars…. a couple did stop, but they weren’t going in our direction. Many probably weren’t keen to take on 4 disheveled looking kiwis! Luckily a bus finally arrived, and we made it to the bar just on time. People were lining the streets for a view, so we felt privileged to have our front row table, where we enjoyed fabulous cocktails (John and James enjoyed their shared melon ball complete with sparkler, fruit kebabs and pink straws the most!) and watched the half hour display depicting the eruption of Santorini. Because the fireworks were being let off on the volcano a few km away from where we were, the sound took a long time to catch up with the light, so often the fireworks were finished by the time the booming reached our ears!

Santorini was a lovely island, more dusty and desert like than I had imagined, but with alot to offer.

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The next day we caught our ferry to Mykonos, an island of which we had no expectations due to its reputation as a party spot, but we are so glad we made it there. Unlike Santorini, the island is surrounded by proper sand beaches, where people hire loungers and while away the afternoons with drinks in hand. Spoilt for choice, we were able to find a beach which had a good balance of young people, music and a bar, but was not the raving party of the famous Paradise Beach. In the town itself, I was surprised to find that the houses have a completely different look to those on Santorini – although still white and made of stone, instead of the curved dome roofs, these were all square with flat roofs.

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_MG_2801We very appropriately got lost wandering through the tiny streets of Mykonos town – which was designed as a maze in order to confuse and slow down pirates _MG_2810trying to pillage the town.

Just when we thought everything was beginning to go smoothly again, we checked into the airport at Mykonos for our 10:30pm flight only to find it had been delayed by over an hour. By this time we were no longer surprised!

 

 

 

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Sunshine in the south of France

_MG_2468For the past two weeks, we have been taking a breather in France. Spending 5 days in one place felt amazing, and where better to kick back and relax than Provence? Getting there wasn’t easy – somehow our short flight to Clermond-Ferrand followed by a train ride to Aix en Provence turned into a 12 hour ordeal… a theme which did continue somewhat for our time in France. Absolutely nothing was on time, shops didn’t open at their advertised hours, trains and buses ran on different “special” timetables which were only advised on the day… it seemed as though a lot of France was enjoying their summer holidays as well, so we just had to go with the flow.

As a result, we spent more time sunbathing on our apartment terrasse, meandering through the local markets and lingering over crepes at photo (12)lunch than we did on day trips and sightseeing. This turned out to be perfect, and allowed us to soak up the charm of Aix en Provence. We were staying right near the famous Cours de Mirabeau with its spectacular fountain and line of lively cafes. Aix is nicknamed the “City of a Thousand Fountains” and although the exact number (60? 100?) can’t be agreed upon, they sure are everywhere. We stumbled upon many of them in tiny squares or small streets, as well as the larger more well taken care of features in the centre of town. We walked up a hill to Cezanne’s studio, where the famous artist painted so many of his masterpieces, and tasted olives, sundried tomatoes, cheeses and fruits in the morning markets.

 

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We did stray a little further afield, when we made a trip to Avignon. This medieval city is beautiful, still surrounded by its old town walls and with an incredible cathedral in its midst. A short bus ride away was the magnificent Pont Du Gard. _MG_2496This bridge which is part of the Nimes aqueduct, is a remnant of ancient Roman times and is in fact the highest of all aqueduct bridges. Despite being built over 2000 years ago, it still towers above the Gardon river and is a World Heritage sight. As we rounded a corner, we were struck by this 3-leveled structure with its arches; an amazing feat of masonry and engineering especially considering the time in which it was built. The Romans used stone blocks carved in quarries, then attached to rope and pulley systems to construct the bridge – no mortar was used so they have held fast and not shifted in all these years. The aqueduct itself used to supply water to the whole region, with wealthy households having running water, pools and water features and the towns having a constant supply of water via fountains which also overflowed to clean the gutters and streets. A strictly monitored water usage system was in place to avoid corruption and it is estimated that each household in the area used around 1000 litres of water a day. Today that volume is more like 400.

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After walking across the bridge, we had the opportunity to swim underneath it! The popular swimming spot was teeming with families, and despite not having much time I couldn’t resist a quick dip. Swimming in clear cool water and looking up to see this ancient structure above me was surreal.

In front of the Pont du Gard

In front of the Pont du Gard

Testing the water

Testing the water

The summer is well and truly in swing in France, so after our stay in Provence we packed up again and headed in search of the ocean. As our bus drove along the Promenade in Nice, we gazed at the bluest sparkling water we had ever seen. The Mediterranean is something else – so clear you can nearly see the bottom, so blue it looks like a postcard, the perfect temperature for cooling off without freezing and so salty you can float with no effort. We enjoyed a couple of lazy afternoons alternating between soaking up rays on the beach and jumping into the sea. Although there are plenty of sections of the beach owned by restaurants which rent out sun loungers and prime spots, we toughed it out with our towels in the free areas.

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From Nice, it is not far to the principality of Monaco – just a 20 minute train ride. Looking for something different, we hired bicycles and rode there ourselves! And what a wonderful decision that turned out to be. There are three roads between Nice and Monaco – the Grande Corniche, the Moyenne Corniche and the Basse Corniche. As their names suggest, they are the high, middle and low roads. The Grande Corniche is apparently a hairy clifftop road, where Grace Kelly and Cary Grant drove along in “To Catch a Theif”. Grace Kelly (Princess Grace of Monaco) was also killed in a car crash near here, and there are roads and monuments dedicated to her all along the way to Monaco, as well as in the country itself. The Moyenne Corniche still involved some steep climbs, and we opted for the Basse.

_MG_2596_MG_2597 _MG_2603Having cycled in Auckland, I have a fear of all vehicles with a motor anywhere near me whilst I’m on a bike, but here I had no reason to worry. The drivers were so considerate, waiting patiently behind us on narrow sections, driving slowly around us with a wide berth, and doing it all with a smile – not the slightest hint of irritation, rude words or gestures. Even the Basse had a few hills, but it was still a pleasant ride with the most spectacular views. As the sun shone down on us, we breathed in the fresh sea air and made plenty of stops to savour the views of gorgeous coastline, shimmering ocean and colourful villages.


When we arrived in Monaco, we all of a sudden found ourselves in an underground network of tunnels and roundabouts, from which we emerged in the middle of Monte Carlo. Since Monaco is such a small piece of land, they have to make the most of their space! We immediately felt under dressed and out of place as we realised we were right outside the casino and near the main shopping streets with their designer offerings. People were dressed as though they were attending functions, looking composed, glamorous and expensive as they wined and dined, took photos and shopped. We were sweaty, in shorts and t-shirts and wheeling bright orange hire bikes. We high-tailed it down the hill to the beach where we managed to find some (just!) affordable fast food, and did a bit of exploring before putting our bikes on the train to go back to Nice.

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Our time in France has been a mixture of old-world charm, modern elegance, delicious food and wine, slow paced and full of sun. Now we head further south, to Greece!