Swimming in Nice

Even though we packed a lot of organised activities into our time in Nice we did other things too.

One afternoon we put on our swimmers and headed for the beach. Many European beaches are at least semi-private. I think the worst ones are where you have to pay just to get on the sand/pebbles but in Nice there’s one enormous stretch of beach called the Bay of Angels. It has a 6km promenade that was built by the English many years ago as it was they who popularised Nice and the surrounding towns as a holiday destination. They came in winter to enjoy the milder temperatures and often on doctor’s orders for the clean, dry air.

The Nice beach is pebbles, although once you go further west the beaches become sand. Every hundred metres or so the beach alternates between public and private. The private sections have rows of beach chairs plus often a bar or restaurant. The two we checked out (at the very eastern end of the beach) were about 20 euro to hire a beach lounge for the day. When we went down to ask we found that both places had no beach lounges available for hire but it was possible to sit for free in the more shaded undercover area at the back and so we did that and took turns going into the water.

Unless you’re set on sunbathing, sitting up the back in the full shade is a much better option and few other people seem to want to do it. The chairs are comfortable, it’s not as bright and it’s cooler – and free! We only ordered two drinks each in the couple of hours we were there and the prices weren’t terrible either. So if you’re looking for a place in Nice to avoid the heat give it a go!

France: Nice

We arrived in Nice after several hours in a train carriage that had all the sights and sounds of an unruly crèche. A family with four small children and two adults plus about a dozen bags of toys and belongings sprawled across the eight seats in front of us, with the parents allowing the kids to hang over into the aisle and block the passage of people trying to walk through. When one woman, trying to get past, tripped over a child’s leg and landed heavily on the foot of the offending mother it seemed like appropriate karma. Very satisfying to watch, it was.

Aside from that our journey was uneventful and it was nice to spend half a day in airconditioning after the 37 degree heat of Lyon.

We caught a tram from the train station to our Airbnb apartment and discovered that it was 104 steps up to the fifth floor and it was definitely the smallest apartment we’d ever had. It did have aircon though and a tiny balcony that looked over the rooftops.

The balcony was so small that we had to shuffle the table forwards and backwards to get both of us out there.

On the first night we relaxed with our usual plate of cheese, ham and some cheap wine and planned our stay. Luke booked us into a variety of activities.

1. A walking tour of the old city. We did this on our first full day. It was €14 each and the tour guide was an Australian girl who had lived in Nice for the last ten years. She was obviously very knowledgeable about the city but had a kind of clipped way of delivering the information which made it all seem very rote-learned.

My favourite thing on the tour was a baroque church that was so over the top it sort of came out of bad taste into cool kitchness. It also had chandeliers.

2. A small group evening visit to Monaco.

It ended up being a very small group – just Luke and I and our driver, Antonio. He was great and full of information about Monaco and how it runs. I didn’t really know much about Monaco before we went so it was somewhat eye-opening.

The thing we both liked most was the cars.

Antonio dropped us off at the casino after a drive around the race track and royal residences. In front of the casino normal people hang around looking at cars and hoping to see someone famous… I guess? I couldn’t think of any other reason.

Not actually terribly attractive.

We went for a walk and had a look at the opera house and then looked down from a viewpoint onto the decks of some of the super yachts that lined the harbour. How annoying to be rich enough to own a super yacht then have plebs watching you eat your dinner!

We had a drink and then dinner at Cafe de Paris, an open air restaurant next to the casino where you can watch the fancy cars and fancy people walk past. The food was actually pretty good for somewhere so busy, and very nicely presented.

After dinner we stepped into the Monte Carlo Casino foyer and there was an art installation featuring a maze of playing cards.

We met up again with Antonio and boggled at the fact that people who are rich enough to come to Monaco would actually want to go there. It’s not a particularly attractive place and the main goal seems to be to show off. Saudi princes get their sports cars flown there for their two week holidays just so they can drive them around town at 10km an hour. The whole thing seemed to represent the worst of humanity but at the same time it was certainly interesting.

3. Nice food tour!

We always like a food tour. We had a very pretty and vivacious woman named Marion as our guide for this tour through the markets and stores of Nice’s old town.

We walked through the market and some speciality shops and Marion bought samples of fruit and pastries then stopped at a restaurant to have a drink and try various things.

Then we walked on to buy wine and try socca, a local chickpea pancake, plus an onion tart, both of which are traditional street food.

We finished at a store that sold gourmet olive oils etc and tried some samples then finished with a table full of cheeses, meats and fruits.

I wish I’d taken more notes throughout as Marion was very knowledgeable about cheeses and wines. I’d definitely recommend this tour to anyone interested in French food. Google ‘the French way tours’ for more information.

4. A tour of Cannes and Provence.

Another small group minivan tour. This time, sadly, we didn’t have the van to ourselves.

Our driver was a young and bubbly woman from Hungary who had pretty good English but occasional words were a puzzle until context made them clear. For example I thought she had said that Italians had brought ladder making from Italy until eventually I realised it was leather making. Our guide also had to shout to be heard by the people in the back seat, which meant we were caught in the crossfire in the middle row and the commentary was unceasing and quite repetitive. Luke’s a pretty patient person but even he was getting sore ears by the end of the day.

First we stopped for 40 minutes in Cannes. Obviously as a film editor, it was a bit of a pilgrimage for Luke although not terribly exciting when there was nothing going on.

Next we headed to several small villages in the hills.

it is hard to believe people lived up here for centuries and had to walk hours down to the valleys and coast to buy supplies. Not to mention getting building materials up the mountain.

We visited three villages. In the first we toured the Fragonard perfume factory. It was sort of interesting but when we came out into the village for five minutes afterwards it was so pretty I wished we had time there instead.

We stopped at another tiny village for a rather rushed lunch then a final village that was where Chagall lives and is now a centre for fine arts… and tacky crap. It was very pretty though and extremely busy.

We found a quiet spot and watched a storm roll in over the hills of Provence.

There was so much lightning that Luke managed to capture some video of it on his phone and posted it to Instagram.

We made it back to Nice by 5pm and had a quiet evening on our balcony.

Lyon Walking Tour

On our second full day in Lyon we joined a free walking tour. It started with a look at one of the more well known boulangeries in the old town.

Many of the pastries that Lyon is known for are nut-based, like the slice of tart below.

Our much-too-large group then moved to Rue de Bœuf, home to several Michelin-starred restaurants.

Next we walked through some of the treboules, private laneways that cut under buildings and between city blocks. Originally created to let people reach the river more directly, these alleys were vital to the Resistance during the war.

They’re kind of hard to photograph but they often opened up into tiny courtyards or atriums where ancient stairs and passages could be seen.

We heard about the history of the city, from ancient times to now and looked at another of the huge murals. I couldn’t find a map anywhere online but our guide had an old one that I photographed in case any reader wants to see more of them.

Map-mural-Lyon-2018

We walked past an Irish pub and later Luke and I went back to have a croque monsieur each. The only other food the pub served was fish and chips and the bar tender talked and sang loudly to himself almost the whole time we were there. Appropriately mad, I suppose.

We probably saw and did a lot more on this day but I’ve left the writing-up for a week and now I’ve forgotten what else happened.

After a last meal out that evening we packed up our things ready to move on to our next stop – Nice!

Lyon

On our way to Lyon from Geneva we found ourselves asking… why are we going to Lyon? We’d had the impulse to add it to our itinerary so long ago that we’d forgotten why.

Lyon is the second biggest city in France and we knew almost nothing about it. Food seemed to be the main notable thing, according to the blogs posts I’d read and the YouTube clips we’d watched, although we were a bit hesitant about the bouchons, restaurants that served the local traditional fare – fare that used every part of the animal. Tripe, liver and all that sort of thing featured heavily but fortunately there were other things to choose from.

First we checked into our hotel, a Best Western that gave us a tiny room but it was air conditioned (thank god – Lyon was our hottest destination yet at 37 degrees each day) and the location was perfect. Just across the river from the old town and around the corner from many galleries and restaurants. Although, to be fair, if you’re in Lyon you’re near restaurants. The city has more per capital than any other city in France… maybe in Europe.

Our first impression of Lyon was very good. It is a vibrant city where things are in good repair and, despite the heat, we were keen to get out and see it so we took a walk to Les Halles for a look around the food counters then lunch – a croque monsieur (the best we were to have during our stay) and some French wine. A very nice waiter gave us some advice on what to see in the city.

On our first full day we used a Lyon Pass. €25 for 24 hours and it included all museums, galleries and public transport. Here’s what we chose to do.

1. A ride on a city explorer train-car thing.

Like a bunch of little carriages towed along by a little train thing. To be honest, I think they look stupid and probably annoy the locals but it was included in the pass so we took it. The commentary wasn’t great, the volume was too low but it wasn’t a bad way to spend 40 minutes while we waited for the fine art gallery to open. Also we got to see the largest mural in Lyon.

The city of Lyon commissions huge trompe-l’œil murals and they are fantastic. Unfortunately they’re pretty spread out so we only saw a few but they’re really worth seeing. I couldn’t find a map online so here’s a photo of one if you happen to go to Lyon and want to find them.

Here’s my favourite – the theme was books!

2. The fine art museum.

It’s on a plaza that has a terrific fountain. There are many terrific fountains in Lyon but in this one fine mist comes out of the horses’ noses and they look very fierce.

The museum has a pretty impressive collection that spans over 2000 years. My favourite of all was this one. A painting of a photography session is a pretty unusual subject and even though photography had a huge effect on realism, this painter captures a lively and detailed scene, which the photographer probably did not.

We didn’t look at everything because I can’t handle looking at a thousand paintings in one day plus we didn’t have time.

3. Confluence Museum.

Next we headed down to the southern end of the central peninsula to see the new Museum of Confluences. We didn’t really know what to expect, we had just read that it was an interesting building.

Which it was. Turns out it’s a science and natural history museum. Good displays and a surprising number of Australian Aboriginal artifacts. They were part of every single room and probably second in number only to French artifacts. If anyone knows why this is please leave a comment because we found it a bit odd.

4. Next we took a bus then a metro train to the Old Town to visit the Miniature and Cinema Museum. It was a bit of a strange one. Everything in it had been collected by a man who made miniature scenes but the majority of the collection was Hollywood memorabilia and every item was original and had been used in films.

Lighting from The Fifth Element, probably my favourite item.

There were whole scenes from Perfume in the basement, then costumes, models, puppets and animatronic creations. Some very old and some very new.

5. One of the last things we did was catch a funicular up to the church at the top of the hill behind the city. The funicular ran through a tunnel, which was a bit of a disappointment but the view over the city from the church was very good.

By this point I wasn’t feeling great and I’d also noticed a few people with dogs in the Old Town and they’d had tight muzzles on their dog’s mouths in the extreme heat. Dogs can’t cool themselves if they can’t pant and some looked quite distressed. I couldn’t say anything to these people because I didn’t speak French and this, combined with being tired and hot, really upset me. I’d had enough and even though Luke could’ve done more we ended up going back to the hotel for a rest.

In the evening we tried to fit in a river cruise but the boat wouldn’t go with less than 20 passengers and so we missed out. We took a walk through the old town and had dinner at a charming restaurant that was totally over the top in terms of decor but did lovely food and had a great waitress who spoke excellent English.

We didn’t end up going out for dinner until about nine pm and didn’t finish until eleven. Finally we are getting used to these late dining hours!

At many places in France a two or three course meal is offered for a set price so we had an entree, main and dessert but none were too big or heavy and it was very nice to sit over dinner for a couple of hours, especially in an air conditioned room.

Next: more Lyon and then we arrive in Nice.

Last Day In Lauterbrunnen.

We had left ourselves a free day in Lauterbrunnen to see things in the area that caught our eye. First up was a Swiss culture festival that was being held up a nearby mountain.

We caught the usual assortment of trains and cable cars and arrived at Männlichen on a bright and sunny morning.

It turns out that there’s nothing but a hotel, playground and viewing point at the top, plus a herd of cows with bells to make it all one hundred percent Swiss. You could hear everyone stepping out of the cable car station making ‘oooh’ noises because the scene was just so pretty.

Wildflowers everywhere, snow-capped mountains all around and Grindelwald visible down the valley in the distance. We took some photos and had a wander then made our way to the hotel, where all kind of Swiss things were happening on the deck.

Alpenhorn!

Whip cracking demonstration. I don’t know if it’s actually easy or he was just really good at it.

We watched for a while and took some photos but it was all pretty similar to the music we’d seen in the last two days so we headed to our next activity, a cog-wheel train to Schynnige Platt. Even though this train had been on the map as an activity, it had looked pretty short and so we expected it to go to a low plateau where the Alpine Botanical Garden was reputed to be.

It turned out to be probably the most scenic ride we took in our whole time there! The sides of the little train were open, which meant it was much better for taking photos and videos (no reflection) and it took about forty minutes to get to the top.

There was not a whole lot there but we had a quick look at the Alpine Garden and then sat and had some lunch at the hotel. It was a perfect day with amazing visibility and pleasantly cool at that altitude.

If you go up Schynige Platt go to the top level of the hotel restaurant.

We had thought about trying to make it to Trümmelbach Falls afterwards but ran out of time so Luke visited them the next morning before we left while I packed my bag.

View from the Schynige Platt railway

We were very sad to leave the Bernese Oberland. By far our favorite place that we’d visited so far and it had raised a very high (unfairly high, some would say) bar for Geneva to reach. I don’t often go to countries and think that I would happily move there but Switzerland makes the list. One day we’ll come back and see it in a different season and visit more of its cities. One day!

Postcard perfect Switzerland

View through the cable car station window.

Switzerland: A Trip To Jungfraujoch

One of the biggest tourist draws in this region is the complex at the saddle of the Jungfrau (young girl) and Monsch (monk) mountains. The buildings are reached by train from Kleine Scheidigg, a village high up in the Bernese Oberland. Another train is required from Lauterbrunnen to get to Kleine Scheidegg.

We rose at 6:15 to catch the first train, which left Lauterbrunnen at 7:07.

The train was almost full and it was the first one of the day! Mostly families and older people – I dare say not many young adults want to shell out the 200+ Swiss Francs that it costs to get here. With our Bernese Oberland Pass we rode free to Kleine Scheidegg and then 99CHF for the last section. Even at half price that’s 134 AUD. Steep in every sense of the word.

The train from Lauterbrunnen to Kleine Scheidegg was extremely scenic with little Swiss cottages and cows dotting the alpine scenery.

There was a bit of a mad rush to change trains and then the second section of the journey was almost entirely through a tunnel.

There is one stop before the top where viewing windows have been cut out and you can get off and look at the view for five minutes.

The Jungfraujoch station is underground and from there you can enjoy a range of thrilling attractions including a huge snow globe.

This sits in a tunnel lit with edelweiss flowers.

Weird but cute. There’s also some wooden statues in this long hall.

Then a ramp with a moving walkway that takes you past historical scenes and tributes to the workers who died during the construction of the tunnel. The whole thing was the brainchild of a Swiss millionaire who made his money on trains and wanted to achieve a great engineering feat.

There is a snow-carving gallery within the Aletsch glacier. It’s not very big but it is cute.

There are also several restaurants on different levels. We went to the cheapest and got hot chocolate in a paper cup for $10. Crikey!

The main reason for going to Jungfraujoch is undoubtedly the view so we’d been crossing our fingers all week as storms had been predicted and so far we’d only seen one shower.

Fortunately our luck held and the views were spectacular.

We’d taken warm clothes but I wish we’d had gloves. Still, we survived without and enjoyed ourselves. There is a section where you can walk out on the snow and even go for a hike but we weren’t prepared for that.

The viewing platform sits at 3571 metres above sea level, the highest either of us has ever been while still standing on the ground. Luke had a few moments of lightheadedness and I felt a little tingle in my legs but otherwise we were fine.

Last stop was a look through the world’s highest Lindt store. As we still have piles of chocolate from the class we did there was no need to buy anything.

We only stayed for an hour and a half but it was a spectacular 90 minutes and we were glad we went.

Back down to Kleine Scheidegg where we hopped aboard a train to Grindelwald, a town Rick Steves describes as tiny but which has grown hugely since he first visited.

The cog-wheel journey to Grindelwald is stunning.

The town of Grindelwald sits, as Lauterbrunnen does, in the shadow of large peaks, in this case the Eiger.

We hadn’t eaten much so we wandered up the main street to find some lunch. Everything looked expensive but we settled on a restaurant that did a cheap (ish) sandwich for 7CHF. But what sandwiches!

Also Luke kindly let me eat all his pickled onions and gherkins. What a gentleman!

Tired of hauling backpacks full of clothes around, we decided to head back to Lauterbrunnen and ended up having a nap, but not before seeing a noticeboard advertisement for some traditional folk entertainment at the local campsite. That was our evening sorted!

We wandered down to the campsite at about 6pm, keen to get a seat at the campsite restaurant as it had excellent reviews online.

We both ordered the small size of our chosen dishes.

Mac and cheese with potatoes, ham and a side of apple sauce.

We could’ve both survived off Luke’s plate for days.

We walked around the campsite for half an hour to aid our digestion and to ensure we didn’t fall into some sort of food coma, then it was time to grab a seat for the evening’s entertainment.

I assume this is the instrument you’re given in Swiss music classes if you can play anything else. Or maybe a punishment?

The choir sounded like the music from the Wes Anderson film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. One of our favourites!

All in all an outstanding day – hopefully the weather holds for our trip up Schilthorn tomorrow!

Interlaken: Buses, Chocolate Making, Cable Cars and More.

Our Bernese Oberland Pass began today so we jumped out of bed at 6:30 to make the most of it. I’ll post more about the pass after we get to Geneva when we work out whether or not it was worth buying.

First activity for the day was catching a local bus to Beatenberg, a little village further up in the hills (I mean mountains… Switzerland’s mountains look like hills because there are even bigger mountains behind them). The bus ride took less than half an hour and we got out a few stops before the end of line and walked along the ridge that Beatenberg sits on, admiring the houses, the view, and enjoying the peace and quiet.

Everywhere around Interlaken are spring water fountains where you can fill up your water bottle with cold water. I think my favourite spring that I’ve seen so far was this one in Beatenberg.

So stylish!

If I could say that this part of Switzerland reminded me of another place I’ve been I would liken it to Japan. Equally clean, full of polite people, and the architecture, if you take away the geraniums, is very similar to wooden Japanese houses, only heavier and more ornate.

We bused back down to Interlaken in good time for our chocolate-making class at the Funky Chocolate Club. We were the only Aussies in a group of Americans but they were all very nice and we had a lot of fun.

First we heard a bit about the history of chocolate and where in the world it comes from. Then we tasted everything from 100% cocoa (revolting) and pure cocoa nibs (not bad) through dark, semi sweet, milk, and white. We then learned to temper chocolate to make three blocks of our own.

My favourite part was learning that correctly tempered chocolate twirls in a ribbon rather than dropping straight from the spoon. I got to use my lettering skills to write on our bars. It was harder than it looked!

You’ll probably find this hard to believe, but Luke and I did not gorge ourselves senseless on chocolate and only ate half a handful of bits during the class. Therefore we felt we deserved a hearty lunch at the bierhaus our walking tour leader had recommended the day before.

Specifically Alessandra had recommended the mac and cheese so we ordered one and a salad. It was, hands-down, the best mac and cheese I’ve had on our travels and I would’ve tried over a dozen in the US. This one was topped with fried onions, had plenty of cheese sauce and speck, plus it had a side of apple sauce. I don’t know if I’ll ever eat mac and cheese again without it – one of those unexpected pairings that turns out to be magical. Although we all know cheese and apples are good together… why did I not think of this already?

Next up was a bus ride along Lake Thun to reach a tourist attraction that I wasn’t at all keen on – the home of an ancient monk named Saint Beatus. He was possibly Irish and came to the area to convert the Helvetii and also claimed to have slain a dragon, which the Helvetii seemed to think was totally legit and so this monk lived in a cave and then had a take away shop named after him. This would’ve been pretty handy because the cave is miles from the nearest shops.

The site consisted of a long and steep ramp up to the little cave where the monk lived plus entry to an almost 1km stretch of tunnel that contained a river and stalagmites etc. Luke pestered me to give the caves a go and I said ok (I caved if you will. BOOM TISH) but we only got about 50 metres in before the roof got a bit low and I started quietly crying and had to leave. I was trying to convince myself it would be fine but the further I went underground the more a voice in my head kept saying ‘you are trapped!’ and I had to leave. Luke walked me back down to the gate and I sat outside and read my kindle. I felt totally fine when I got out and Luke went back to have a look but that’s it for me and caves. No more!

The outside was certainly attractive and worth a look. There’s a museum too but we didn’t bother.

We went back to the bus stop and caught the next bus to the base of the Neiderhorn funicular and cable car. The cost of this was included in our travel pass.

The view from the Neiderhorn was gob-smacking in every direction. The Neiderhorn is a long ridge so from the top you can see over the edge on one side and down towards Interlaken on the other.

On all the buses, the funicular, and cable car there’d been hardly a soul all day. That was to change, however, for our next activity. In the meantime we enjoyed looking at this Bernese Mountain dog being a bit lazy and catching the bus.

We don’t blame you, buddy. It’s 30 degrees out there.

Our last excursion of the day was another fantastic spot to see the sights.

Harder Kulm ( or, as we like to call it, Heidi Klum) is a restaurant and viewpoint that is accessible via a long hard walk or a funicular from close to the middle of Interlaken, therefore it is very popular.

We crammed aboard the funicular to make it up in time for sunset and a lovely meal of schnitzel and salad. Despite some bad reviews on TripAdvisor we found the staff very friendly and welcoming. Luck of the draw, perhaps.

The space at the top has a viewing platform that extends out over the valley a little and was filled with people getting their photos taken.

We decided not to linger as we knew the funicular would be crowded on the way down and so we lined up and ended up having a nice chat with a high school girl from the Netherlands who was travelling Europe solo in her school holidays. How wonderful to be a teenager in Europe. In country NSW we had a choice between Queensland and Sydney for our getaways. Yawn!

We walked back to our hostel via a sculpture in town that I wanted to take a photo with – a Bollywood director who had filmed many of his hits in Interlaken. Our walking tour guide had even been in one of the movies as an extra!

We were exhausted by the time we got back to the hostel but I’ve been a complete trooper and finished this entry straightaway. What a champion I am!

A photo of me with an empty bowl. How intriguing!