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Archive for the ‘Travel and Tourism’ Category

It’s a lovely, chilly autumn afternoon here and after a busy morning of garden work it’s nice to settle down inside and look through some holiday photos from beautiful, sunny Brittany last spring.

After somehow tearing ourselves away from Perros-Guirec (this still seems like a mistake.  Why did we ever leave?  Why I am not there at this exact moment, eating galettes and going for bracing daily swims?), we made our way to Saint-Malo.  Saint-Malo is a walled city best known for having been almost totally destroyed by Allied bombardment in 1944 (chronicled in the Pulitzer Prize winning novel All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr), although generations of Canadian school children also remember it as the birthplace of the explorer Jacques Cartier, who sailed from Saint-Malo to “discover” Canada and claim it for France.  Nowadays, it is also a major transportation hub, on the TGV line from Paris and with a port that welcomes British ferries and many, many British tourists.  After the tranquility of Perros-Guirec, it was a jarring change to suddenly be surrounded by so many (rather obnoxious) travellers.

So, I did the only reasonable thing: after checking into our AirBnB within the walled city, I hopped the boat to Dinard, a resort town just across the estuary from Saint-Malo.  One of the main reasons I wanted to go to Brittany was to explore the GR34 walking trail that follows the coastline.  I’d done a lot of walking around Perros-Guirec and was excited to now explore the trail around Saint-Malo, in a region known as the Emerald Coast.  Starting off with the beautiful 3 hour walk from Dinard to Saint-Malo was a great way to stretch my legs after a morning spent travelling and escape the daytripping crowds in Saint-Malo.

The next day, there was yet again more walking.  We caught the bus (the public transportation around Saint-Malo was excellent!) to Saint-Briac-sur-Mer, a little town to the west, and walked from there back to Dinard.  It was a stunning trail, with lots of variety and some extraordinarily beautiful points jutting out into the ocean.  The weather wasn’t great but it was properly atmospheric with lots of wind, a touch of rain, and a beautiful contrast between the bright sea and the dull grey clouds above.

This part of France is full of reminders of the Second World War, which, as a history buff, I found fascinating. Brittany had a strong resistance movement and there are tributes to the Maquis in many villages. And, as we walked along the coast, we came across many old bunkers, part of the German’s “Atlantic Wall”.

For a break from the sea, we spent the next day exploring the charmingly picturesque village of Dinan further inland.  We visited on a Monday, when most of the shops are closed, so we missed the tourist crowds that are usually there are enjoyed having the quiet, beautiful streets largely to ourselves.

For our last day in Brittany, I’d hoped to visit nearby Cancale but the weather was a bit unpredictable and the wind was extraordinarily strong so we stuck close to Saint-Malo, walking instead along the beach outside town and over to Pointe de la Varde east of town.

I did, although it may not sound like it, also spend some time inside the walls in Saint-Malo.  The town itself didn’t do anything for me – like most reconstructed cities, it feels a bit soulless – but I enjoyed walking the walls in the evenings, taking shelter from the winds on the sunny-south side of the walls and watching the locals play pétanque, and, of course, eating delicious local Breton specialties in its restaurants.

I don’t think I’d return to Saint-Malo (I’d stay in Dinard instead) but it was still well worth seeing and the places I was able to visit while using it as my base cemented my love of Brittany.  I’m already plotting to return and hopefully explore the western part of the region – after all, the GR34 trail covers the entire coast and I’ve only gotten to do little parts of it so far.  There’s a lot left to see!

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Despite growing up with plenty of exposure to all things French, I have never been a Francophile.  My holiday dreams have always looked further east, to central Europe, or north, to the UK.  But the one area of France that has always captured my imagination is Brittany.  Every Breton I’ve ever met has always enthused about its beauties and mentioned how much it rains.  Being a true Vancouverite, nothing could be more enticing to me than the promise of rain and people who share my love of it.  And then when I heard about the great GR34 trail that follows the Breton coastline, I was hooked.  It was time to go to France.  It turned out to be the perfect destination (especially since it was so easy to add Giverny to the itinerary as well).

For a relaxing approach, we chose two different towns to stay in, each for four nights.  We started in Perros-Guirec and it quickly became one of my favourite places I have ever been.  We had perfect weather (no Breton rain for me on this trip!) and absolutely perfect accommodation at the wonderful Villa Les Hydrangéas.

After a long travel day from Giverny (via Paris), we arrived in Perros-Guirec in the late afternoon to find the locals taking a dip in the surprisingly warm ocean.  For water lovers, this was an excellent first sign.  As we talked to people throughout our stay, we discovered that the water apparently stays quite warm year-round and many locals swim – or at least walk in up to mid-thigh or waist, doing companionable strolls through the sea with friends – each day.  Such a life!

We had no vigorous agenda for our stay – just lots of walking and relaxation.  The most popular walk is from Perros-Guirec to Ploumanac’h, one of the more famous spots on the Pink Granite Coast, so we did that on our first day, walking there along the coast and then back through a valley and then small villages.  The entire day was stunning.

The next day we took a taxi to Port Blanc and walked back to Perros-Guirec from there (about 16km).  Most guidebooks recommend a car for Brittany and I can see why – the public transit is pretty dire in some regions – but we got along quite well without one.  One of the most enjoyable things was chatting to our taxi driver (we had the same one take us to Port Blanc as had picked us up in Lannion and brought us to Perros-Guirec on our first day) and learning about his love of the region and what had brought him there.  My mother is fluent in French and, while I stumble embarrassingly when I try to speak, my comprehension is very good (thank you Canadian school system), which made France by far the easiest destination I’ve visited in a long time.  Not surprisingly, you get a lot more out of a destination when you can speak to the locals!

On our final day in Perros-Guirec we visited the town’s market and then went for a “little” 4 hour wander through neighbouring villages until we found ourselves again at Ploumanac’h, from where we walked back along the coastal path, retracing our steps from our first day.  Then we went for a dip in the ocean, just as warm as the locals had promised it would be!

And the food, as you would expect in France, was excellent.  We ate some delicious galettes and had a marvelous dinner in town, but mostly we enjoyed simple picnics with stunning views, both on our walks and for dinner.  Our hotel room had a terrace with a sea view where my mother and I would retreat with some wine and food in the evenings and congratulate ourselves on the excellent decision making that had brought us to Perros-Guirec.

All in all, it was a spectacular destination.  Not only was the scenery extraordinary and the walking wonderfully easy along well-maintained trails, but the entire region was pristine.  Everything was so clean – the water, the forests, the buildings – and the diversity of wildlife was fantastic.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard as much birdsong anywhere else I’ve visited.  Bretons are proud of the natural beauty of their region and work hard to keep it that way, as well they should.  As much as I love my mountain holidays, Perros-Guirec has me convinced that seaside escapes are just as restorative, especially out of peak season.  I’m still half-amazed my mother and I managed to tear ourselves away so I have no doubt I will be back one day.

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It’s a lazy, rainy Sunday here – so welcome in the middle of hot summer – and it seems like the perfect time to sit down and share some photos of the lazy, rainy time I spent visiting Giverny back in May.

Monet’s gardens at Giverny are world-famous and well-loved, welcoming more than 500,000 visitors each year.  Within day-trip distance of Paris, the tiny village of Giverny explodes during the day as tourist arrive, filling the gardens and the village with garden-lovers from all over the world, only to contract again in the evening to a sleepy place where only two restaurants are open.

I started my trip this year in Giverny, going there directly after landing in Paris (where I connected with my mother who had started her trip a week earlier in the Czech Republic).  Staying at a cosy B&B within the village, I got to relax in its quiet bird-filled garden and stretch my legs after a long travel day by walking the path between Giverny and the nearby town of Vernon.  After airports and airplanes, it was such a relief to walk through fields and be surrounded by flowers, fresh air, and, delightfully, cows.  Then it was back to the B&B to laze in the garden until dinner and read Mad Enchantment, Ross King’s excellent history of Monet’s paintings of the water lilies.  I love being able to match my reading to my holiday destination and this was the perfect choice.  Reading about Giverny and Monet’s life there added so much to my experience of the village and the house and gardens.  Stopping to see the family grave in the small cemetery, all the names of his family members meant so much more to me because of what I learned about them in the book.

The next morning, with our pre-purchased tickets in hard, we showed up at the gardens right at opening time.  We strolled around the water garden (devoid of water lilies in mid-May), posed on the wisteria-laden Japanese bridge for the ubiquitous photos, and enjoyed the general calm of the gardens before too many others arrived.

We then made our way to the gardens surrounding the house, where row upon row of irises were in full bloom.  There was a light mist of rain that morning, which made the vivid blues and purples of the irises stand out more than they would have in full sun.  Iris are one of my favourite flowers so, for me, this was absolutely the perfect time to have visited the gardens.

After spending the bulk of the morning in the gardens, we visited Giverny’s small but well-curated Impressionist Museum, strolled about the village, and spent another lazy afternoon back in the B&B’s garden.  I absolutely loved staying in Giverny for two nights and not having to rush about like the many day trippers we saw visiting, who seemed too worried about catching their buses and making it to their next destination to enjoy the many small charms of the village.  It was such a pleasure to be able to see everything in a relaxed manner, especially after so many years of looking forward to visiting. And it set the laid-back tone for the rest of our time in France, when we left the following morning for the stunning Brittany coast.

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Life is getting very Christmas-y around here.  Last night was my office Christmas party, today I’m off to a concert, and the Christmas cookie reserves are steadily piling up.  But as the year draws to an end, I am also reminded that I never shared any photos from my trip to Germany and Austria in the autumn.  So, for anyone looking for something to do on a wintery Sunday afternoon, here’s a glimpse of how I spent my holiday.

We (my mother and I) flew directly from Vancouver to Munich and arrived during the first weekend of Oktoberfest.  We only passed through the city enroute to Austria but there is nothing like being surrounded by hundreds of people all dressed in lederhosen and dirndls to help put you in the holiday mood.

The first stop of the holiday was the village of Söll in the Wilder Kaiser region of the Austrian Tirol.  We spent 5 days there hiking and enjoying the beautiful scenery, and it was spectacular.  I would go back in a heartbeat.  We had ideal late September weather – if anything it was a little too hot – and the hoards of summer visitors had thinned out to just retired German tourists and us.  It was perfect.

Regretfully, we eventually tore ourselves away and headed to Germany.  We spent the next few days based in Stuttgart, which proved unexpectedly delightful.  The city was hosting its famous Oktoberfest-esque Bad Cannstatt festival and, as this was the 200th anniversary of the festival, there was a special celebration happening in the city’s historic centre the entire time we were there.  We would go out and spend the days exploring the suburbs and local hills and then come back to the city to enjoy the festival in the evening, taking advantage of the food stalls to enjoy a glass of local wine and some of the regional delicacies for our dinners.  We also managed to fit in an opera at the city’s famous opera house – the season opener, no less.

We were in Stuttgart over the weekend and on the Saturday we took the local commuter train to the suburb of Esslingen.  It’s a beautiful medieval city which thankfully survived the war relatively undamaged.  We had a lovely morning strolling about, enjoying the market and especially enjoying the wine bar at Kessler Sekt.  It was a popular stop for everyone after the market and the crowd overflowed from the courtyard out into the street.  I am not sure I have ever found a better definition of civilized life than friends and families drinking sparkling wine in the streets on a sunny Saturday morning, with children running around and babies dozing in their strollers.  Suburban life in Germany always looks good to me but this was particularly idyllic.

From Stuttgart, we headed to Heidelberg.  My mother has wanted to visit ever since her university days, when her German professor was forever reminiscing about the city where he had studied.  It’s a beautiful town but I’m happy our stay there was short.  It felt overrun with tourists compared to where we had come from.  Stuttgart was busy but it was full of German tourists who had come for the festival – the city doesn’t rely on them.  Heidelberg, on the other hand, felt tailored for visitors rather than locals.  Even worse, there was a football match taking place that had pulled in huge crowds of English fans.  There were local police stationed near every sports bar and Irish pub in town, looking confused by the rowdy public drunkenness of these visitors.  There were a number of them on our train the next morning and they were certainly in a great deal of pain by that point.  But the city was beautiful and I would not be at all averse if someone wanted to gift me one of the villas down along the river.  

From Heidelberg, we went south, back to my beloved Freiburg.  This was my 3rd time in the city and the first time I had entirely good weather.  It’s supposed to be the sunniest city in Germany so I knew eventually I’d get my timing right!  Freiburg is a vibrant university town and a wonderful base for exploring the Black Forest.  We went on some beautiful hikes in the nearby hills but also just enjoyed the city, with its lovely twisting streets, excellent shopping, and laid back atmosphere.  It was the perfect place to end the trip.

It was a wonderful two-week holiday and I’d recommend all of these destinations (even Heidelberg).  The highlight was Söll but Stuttgart was a very pleasant surprise and I will always, always take any excuse to return to Freiburg.

Now to start planning my 2019 trip…

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I popped over to Victoria this weekend for a mini summer holiday.  It only lasted from Saturday morning to Sunday afternoon but it was a wonderful break and incorporated all the things I love about going to Victoria: stunning island scenery from the ferry, amazing floral displays at Butchart Gardens, excellent food in Victoria, and, of course, fabulous book shopping.

Russell Books, one of my all-time favourite bookshops, is located in central Victoria and I spent a happy couple of hours there on Saturday afternoon, sifting through my favourite sections.  Every fifteen minutes or so you would hear another delighted patron exclaiming over some find or the sheer variety of books on offer.  Deservedly so.  My hard work was rewarded and I can home with a respectable haul:

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Window on My Heart by Olave, Lady Baden-Powell – how to resist something this random?  The autobiography of the wife of Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, who was herself very heavily involved in the Scouting and Guiding movements.

A Time to Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor – PLF’s travel memoir about his time spent in monasteries.

P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters edited by Sophie Ratcliffe – There were shelves and shelves and shelves full of Wodehouse but I chose to go with a collection of Plum’s letters.

Nairn in Darkness and Light by David Thomson – a memoir about growing up in Scotland in the 1920s.

An Italian Odyssey by Julie A. Burk and Neville J. Tencer – I am fascinated by the Via Francigena but there are so few books about it.  This memoir about walking the Italian portion of the route is one of the few out there (alongside Like a Tramp, Like a Pilgrim, which I picked up earlier this year).

Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay – slowly building up my collection of GGK, having read them all first from the library (as usual).

The Pebbled Shore by Elizabeth Longford – I learned about this when reading My History by her daughter, Antonia Forest.  Longford sounds absolutely fascinating and I can’t wait to learn more about her life.

The Smell of Summer Grass and The Gentry by Adam Nicolson – both excellent books that I’ve been meaning to add to my library since I first read them. 

A Change of Appetite by Diana Henry – I can now safely return the library copy that I keep checking out.

A very good day’s work, as far as I’m concerned!  And also just a nice summer break in a lovely city.

Sunset Outer Harbour

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Europe Trip: Malcesine

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After a wonderful week in Tuscany, I headed north to Lake Garda to spend three nights in Malcesine. How surreal to pass through so many places I’ve dreamed of visiting – Florence, Bologna, Verona – without stopping. The fates obviously did not want to make me feel bad so responded with pouring rain. Instead of envy, I just felt pity for the poor tourists arriving in Florence who had to venture out of the train station into the streets where rain was falling so hard it was bouncing a foot after hitting the ground.

After a week on my own, I was nice to meet up with my mother (who’d been in the Czech Republic and Germany while I was gallivanting in Tuscany).  It was still pouring rain when we arrived in Malcesine mid-afternoon, but that just gave us an excuse to settle in at a bar with a glass of Prosecco and catch up with each other.  And when the rain broke, we got to see just what a beautiful place we’d landed in.

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The next day the weather was perfect so first thing in the morning we took the cable car up to the top of Monte Baldo. I’d been praying for good weather since we booked our stay in Malcesine but never allowed myself to hope we’d get such a perfect, almost cloudless day. We enjoyed a beautiful morning walking around, enjoying the views in every direction, and relaxing in the sun with our mid-morning coffees. My mother broke her ankle at the beginning of the summer so that ruled out any hiking this trip but I’d love to go back one day and explore the trails.  The dusting of snow on the top of the highest mountains made the views all the more beautiful.

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From the cable car, we went directly to the castle, the town’s other main tourist attraction. The castle is more impressive from a distance but it did have one great charm: a wedding had just taken place and the lovely (Scottish) bride and groom were still having their photos taken on the castle grounds:

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The next day, we took a boat across the river to Limone, where it was market day. Limone wasn’t anything special but a boat ride is always enjoyable. It had picturesque areas but was so overwhelmingly, unrelentingly touristy that I couldn’t stomach it. It was a relief to grab the boat back to Malcesine.

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Mostly, we just enjoyed Malcesine. We walked along the lakeside promenade, ate leisurely lunches in sunny squares, and enjoyed practising our German (the majority of tourists here are German-speaking and the entire tourist industry is geared towards them – there is even a Tyrolean bakery). It was a wonderful break before heading into the bustle of crowded Venice.

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Europe Trip: Tuscany

Tuscany 5The centrepiece of my trip to Europe this year was a walking tour in Tuscany.  Given that I’d never been on a walking tour before – never been on any kind of group tour whatsoever – I was nervous.  I didn’t really know what to expect but the tour offered me a chance to see more of Tuscany that I could have ever seen travelling alone so I decided to take the chance.  And I’m so glad I did because I had an absolutely wonderful time!

Tuscany 1Based at an agriturismo near the town of Buonconvento, south of Siena, each day our small group of 8 (7 walkers plus our guide) would head out to explore a beautiful new area and –inevitably, in Tuscany – a hill town or two.  We walked sections of the Via Francigena, the pilgrim route that runs from Canterbury to Rome.  We saw grape vines heavy with fruit just waiting to be turned into the region’s famous wines and finished one of our walking days with a tasting at a winery.  We saw charming village after charming village.  We explored Pienza, the ideal Renaissance city as envision by Pope Pius II (and the only really crowded tourist place we saw on our travels).  We met truffle hunters in the woods, who were just emerging successful with several prized white truffles to their credit.  We visited a monastery after a long day’s walk and listened to Gregorian chanting in the cool of the church.  We were enchanted by the spa town of Bagno Vignoni and relaxed in the outdoor thermal pools at one of the hotels. 

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Tuscany 2There is no better way to explore a place than on foot.  Walking through fields and forests, vineyards and villages, I had the time to take in my surroundings.  I realised Tuscany is far more lush than I’d ever imagined it to be, with everything from oak trees to cacti happily growing in its rich soil.  I never got tired of the daily view of cyprus and olive trees.  I marvelled at the old stone buildings we passed and stopped trying to count the number of churches we saw after realising that even the smallest villages have four or five.

Tuscan DoorsMost of all, I thought how lucky I was to be able to have this adventure.  I met wonderful people, saw amazing, unforgettable places, and, most importantly for a vacation, left my normal life far behind.  It was relaxing, inspiring, and everything that a good holiday should be. Tuscany 4

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