Monthly Archives: March 2015

Tour de France

When we were in Mongolia we made friends with two French couples. Thomas and Jess were on our tour to the Gobi desert, and their friends Max and Armelle met up with them afterwards and then were in Beijing at the same time as us. As often happens when you get on well with someone on the road, details and invitations to “come and stay if you’re passing our town” were swapped. After our stay with Heidi and Olivier in Switzerland, the south of France seemed a logical direction to proceed and so we invited ourselves for a visit…


Max and Armelle live near Aix-en-Provence (that’s pronounced ‘eks’ like X), a pretty town in south-eastern France. We had the Friday afternoon to explore the historic centre before meeting them for dinner. The food was excellent and we were amused by the amount of discussion with the restaurant manager over the choice of wine (much longer than was taken over the food!). Max assured us that it wasn’t usually so long but I think we’ve got them rumbled…

Aix-en-ProvenceAix-en-Provence (clockwise from top left): Cathedral of the Holy Saviour; this fountain on Cours Mirabeau is fed by a hot spring hence the thick covering of moss; the historic centre is full of elaborate doorways; lavender is a popular product of the Provence area

The following morning we set out on a clifftop hike around some of the calanques on the coast south of Aix near Marseille. These steep sided inlets into the limestone rock are a unique feature of the Mediterranean coast. The path was pretty steep at times but the views were beautiful and it was nice once again to be out in the sun and fresh air.

Yachts in Calanque de Port MiouYachts docked in Calanque de Port-Miou near Cassis

Beside Calanque d'En VauMax, Armelle, Andrew and I on the pebbly beach beside Calanque d’En Vau

Next day the weather wasn’t so good so we had a relaxed morning, a leisurely Sunday lunch and a short walk before going to the cinema to watch ‘Citizenfour’, the documentary about Edward Snowden and his path to making the revelations about government surveillance. Even knowing the story we found some of it was very shocking and it’s definitely worth a watch if you get the opportunity.

Sunday lunchSunday lunch – “helping” Armelle make lemon meringue pie while Max roasts sea bream


Next stop was the small medieval town of Carcassonne. Being big fans of the board game we had to check out the real place. We thought that we’d taken just about every possible mode of transport during our two years on the road, but getting to Carcassonne added to the list. The train links from Aix-en-Provence are not very direct and Max recommended that we look into car sharing where you pay for a seat in the car of someone already doing the journey. It turned out to not only be faster but also much cheaper.

Carcassonne La CitéLa Cité, Carcassonne

The old walled fortress known as La Cité appears to be almost completely medieval, but what we see today is largely due to heavy restoration works carried out in the 19th century. We enjoyed wandering the quaint streets, spotting details like wall plaques and nosing around in the heavily tourist oriented shops. Across the River Aude lies the less old but still historic Bastide area which was a walled town in its own right formed in the 13th century.

Chateau ComtalChateau Comtal is the castle within the fortress city

Carcassonne cathedralCarcassonne’s gothic former cathedral in La Cité, Basilica St-Nazaire, is small but filled with stained glass and decorated on the exterior by ugly gargoyles

Because the town is so small it was easy to get out into the countryside and put some miles under our boots. We did a very long round trip walk to the Lac de la Cavayere, past still sleeping vineyards but with the lanes lined with blossom, spring was definitely in the air. The lake is artificial and obviously heavily used for water sports in the summer but we saw practically no one else and found it a peaceful place to stroll around.

Vineyard near CarcassonneLooking across a vineyard towards La Cité


From Carcassonne it is a short hop to Toulouse. Known as the ‘Pink City’ because of the distinctive colour of its many brick built buildings, it is also the home of our friends Thomas and Jess.

Toulouse - the Pink CityThe ‘Pink City’ (clockwise from top left): Basilica of Saint Sernin; even the half-timbered buildings are pink; the magnificent Capitole is home to the town’s government; Place Saint-Étienne

After a first evening spent catching up and sampling Aligot, a kind of extra cheesy mashed potato that can be pulled into very long strings when it’s hot, and yes it is just as tasty as the description sounds, we headed into the city for a walk around its sights. We began on the top floor of the Galeries Lafayette department store for a bird’s eye view of where we would be walking…

Beside the River Garonne in ToulouseWith Jess and Thom beside the River Garonne, with La Grave Hospital in the background

We weaved through the picturesque streets passing both of the city’s UNESCO World Heritage sights, the Basilica of Saint Sernin where we also caught part of the organist’s practice, and the Canal du Midi which runs from Toulouse to the Mediterranean Sea. By the time it started to rain in the late afternoon we’d covered a lot of ground and were ready to collapse into the corner of a well chosen bar to watch the England vs France Six Nations game. Thom is a big rugby fan (and player) whereas we didn’t even know who the favourite was, nevertheless it was a very exciting game with lots of tries, though we kept getting distracted by the highly amusing drunk man on the next table who kept asking us questions and promptly forgetting the answers!

Church of the JacobinsReflections inside the Church of the Jacobins. A mirror is installed around one of the pillars to make looking at the ceiling easier

Our timing was impeccable not just for the rugby but also because the Toulouse Exhibition Hall was hosting a Salon Vins et Terroirs, a big wine fair. We rented a glass for a euro and then went around the different stalls tasting the wines. Ostensibly it’s so you can decide whether to buy or not but no one takes your credit card details so we had a merry old time guided by Thom whose wine knowledge is far superior to ours. As an added benefit, a quarter of the hall was taken up with artisan food producers so we bought some meat and cheese plates to make a picnic of it. Heaven!

Salon des VinsCheese, meats and samples of red wine at the Salon Vins et Terroirs


Paris is the most logical northwards step from Toulouse but we’ve already been there and, much as we love the city, we fancied something different. There is a slow but direct train north-east to Dijon and we read that it was an interesting place so we bought tickets. When Max heard our plans he was really pleased as Dijon is his hometown and when he found out we hadn’t yet arranged accommodation he promptly rang his parents to see if they could host us. Serge and Edwige not only graciously agreed to allow two almost strangers to stay in their spare room but also fed us extremely well and gave us lots of information on what to see in the town.

Dijon Museum of Fine ArtsOur highlights of the Museum of Fine Arts were the Tombs of the Dukes of Burgundy and the room dedicated to the Burgundian sculptor Pompon

Dijon’s Museum of Fine Arts is one of the oldest museums in France but has been recently refurbished and it shows. The exhibits are well placed, the information boards are useful and it’s an all round pleasurable experience for a half day visit. The first few rooms are themed around the Dukes of Burgundy who lived in the palace which now houses the museum, after that there’s a bit of everything with a highlight for us being the animal sculptures by François Pompon, a Burgundy born sculptor who lived a century ago despite the modern look of his works.

Dijon market buildingDijon’s market building on the afternoon before market day

We’d fortuitously planned our visit over one of the market days (held on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday) and you know how much we like markets. The market building, called Les Halles, was designed by local boy Gustave Eiffel (he of the famous tower) and a few years ago was slated for demolition by the local council until a massive outcry from residents earned it a restoration instead. We’re very glad as it was a fascinating place to walk through, full of fresh vegetables, meat and fish, cheeses, cooked meats and baked items. We picked up a baguette and some of the local specialty jambon persillé (ham terrine in a parsley jelly) for our lunch.

Dijon marketFresh goods for sale inside Les Halles

After the market we picked up the ‘Owl’s Trail’, an enjoyable walking route linking the town’s most significant sights. It’s named after an owl carved into the external wall of the Notre Dame church.

Owl trailThe ‘Owl’s Trail’ – a pavement marker and the statue that the trail is named after, it’s good luck if you touch it with your left hand and make a wish

Mustard ProductionIt wouldn’t be a visit to Dijon without mustard. The Edmond Fallot shop had a production machine set up as well as tasters of traditional Dijon mustard and all kinds of strange flavours, from pain d’epices (a bit like gingerbread) to cassis (blackcurrant liqueur)

It felt like a bit of a whistlestop tour but we both really enjoyed exploring some of France away from the capital city. From Dijon, we’re ready to move on to our fourth country this month!

Switzerland Round Up

What photo takes you right back to Switzerland?

Sledging at Grindelwald

We had a lot of fun and amazing views on our day of sledging – it was a highlight for me and for Andrew.

Summarise Switzerland in three words.

  • Beautiful – with spectacular scenery, picturesque villages, and well preserved historic cities, Switzerland is a feast for the eyes
  • Orderly – clean streets, punctual trains, busses that are timetabled to connect with each other, Switzerland runs like clockwork
  • Expensive – all that beauty and efficiency comes at a price though. Most things are eye-wateringly expensive. Fortunately for most of our stay we were hosted by our wonderful (and generous) friends Heidi and Olivier.

You really know you’re in Switzerland when…

…you see people walking through the capital city with skis over their shoulders.

What one item should you definitely pack when going to Switzerland?

Your outdoor gear. You’ll definitely be wanting to take advantage of all the outdoor activities.

Andrew’s Switzerland Highlights

We’d always had the idea to travel overland through Europe in the back of our minds so we could visit friends, making a nice, slow end to our two year trip. Our first stop was a few days with long-time friends Heidi and Olivier in Bern, Switzerland. There’s a bit of overlap with Julie’s highlights, but here’s the list of my favourite moments..

Old Bern and the Bears

After meeting Heidi and Olivier for coffee, cake and lunch when we first arrived in Switzerland, we had a few hours to ourselves in the afternoon to explore the UNESCO listed old town of Bern.

Bern old town, Switzerland

The main street that runs the length of Bern’s beautiful old town is full of things to see: clock towers and fountains separate the traffic, lined with old buildings

We loved aimlessly wandering through the cobbled back streets of the old town in the cool, crisp snow-filtered mountain air. We popped our heads in the cathedral whose spire dominates the skyline, and we also found the Rathaus or town hall.

The Bern Minster, Bern Switzerland

Bern Minster’s mighty tower reaches high above the old town, here viewed from the River Aare

Heidi was very keen that we visit the bears, and we weren’t quite sure we’d heard her correctly.. bears? did she mean the grizzly kind? in Bern? really?

Bern Bears, Switzerland

Yes, there are grizzly bears in Bern! A very excited woman explained that this was the first day of the year that all 3 bears had come out together after their winter hibernation. Just like Julie after a long sleep, they were a little bit grumpy!

Sledging in Grindelwald

It made Julie’s list and had to make mine too because it was so much fun! Sure, pulling a heavy wooden sledge uphill for 3 hours was tiring (and I nearly gave up after a particularly steep bit near the top), but the gruelling climb made the descent all the sweeter..

Sledging in Grindlewald, Switzerland

The 3 hour uphill hike was pretty tough, but just look at the views!

Julie sledging, Switzerland

I think we’ve found Julie’s winter sport!

I was surprised how little control I had – I remember trying to stop pretty soon after we set off as it’s the first thing you do when learning to ski or snowboard, and I couldn’t! It was easier to turn than to slow down or stop, perhaps that’s why it’s so much fun!

Gruyères and the H.R. Giger Museum

Sometime before we started this trip I’d read an article about the Swiss artist H.R. Giger whom I’m pretty sure you may not have heard of either, but whose vivid surrealist dreams were the inspiration for all of the alien elements of Ridley Scott’s 1979 science-fiction horror masterpiece Alien, which I’m pretty sure you have heard of.

HR Giger Museum, Gruyeres, Switzerland

The entrance to the museum is just inside the walls of Gruyères castle and while there is a sign and some artwork outside, if you didn’t know what it was you might miss it! (Photo credit: Limping Cyclist)

Giger worked on the sets for the movie Alien, and was part of the team that won an Academy Award for Best Achievement in Visual Effects. I’d read quite a bit about his work and the museum so I knew what to expect, and it didn’t disappoint.

Entrance foyer, H.R. Giger musuem, Gruyeres, Switzerland

The entrance foyer of the H.R. Giger musuem. Understandably we weren’t allowed to take photographs. (Photo credit: Josie Borisow)

Giger was a prolific artist, and most of his work explores the same biomechanical otherworldly evolution – the organic forms resemble a distorted or contorted humanity often augmented or shackled by machinery. Always dark, usually foreboding and sometimes sexually explicit. Olivier remarked that Giger might have had problems with women which was an astute observation given Giger’s early life.

We all liked the museum, but I think it’s fair to say that I enjoyed it the most. I remember the first time I saw Ridley Scott’s Alien, and even knowing there’s an alien in it (because of the title), the suspense, special effects, and feeling of being hunted by something so much more adept still frightens me when I think of it.

One question that isn’t answered by the museum is this – why is it in the grounds of the idyllic Gruyères Château St. Germain? Because Giger bought it in 1998!


Yes, it made Julie’s list but it was a highlight for me too! Olivier was especially happy that we’d asked to share both fondue and raclette with them, though he suggested not on the same day..

Raclette, Bern, Switzerland

The modern apparatus for raclette where everyone gets their own “coupelle” or small pan to grill the cheese with. You know it’s done when you can easily pour the cheese over boiled potatoes and pickles. Delicious!

It’s a wonder to me how the Swiss retain their athletic figures, but then I quickly remember that the country is perfect for winter sports and summer hiking..

Hiking from Wattenwil to Thun

Speaking of which, on our last day with them, Olivier took us south for a hike through the rolling hills of Wattenwil to Lake Thun.

Hiking in Wattenwill, Switzerland

Spectacular views of the Alps, and not too far from where we were sledging just a couple of days before

Hiking in Wanderweg, Switzerland

Swiss Alpacas

We even made some new friends with these curious alpacas!

It was an overcast day but that didn’t spoil the views or our enjoyment.

Geneva Motor Show 2015

The main reason for stopping in Geneva for a day or so was to visit CERN as we’re both fascinated by science and discovery, but as soon as we arrived in Bern I saw posters for the 85th International Motor Show. A quick check of the entrance fees and I found the tickets are half-price for the last 4 hours of the day, which is probably Julie’s limit of looking at cars!

85th International Motor Show, Geneva, Switzerland

The lower halls of the 85th International Geneva Motor Show 2015

Koenigsegg Regera, Geneva Motor Show 2015, Switzerland

The first car we saw was the brand new Koenigsegg Regera and was Julie’s favourite. I hadn’t heard of Koenigsegg until the 2014 movie Need for Speed where the Agera R is the central supercar and this is their latest model – it’s so new that this is the first one they’ve made and it’s only about 85% complete!

Porsche 911 Turbo S, Geneva Motor Show 2015, Switzerland

Nothing new from my favourite marque Porsche at this year’s show, but plenty of Porsches throughout the floor demonstrating body kits and performance upgrades. This is my dream car – the 911 Turbo S (991)

Edag Light Cocoon concept, Geneva Motor Show 2015, Switzerland

We really liked the concepts on display, like this Edag Light Cocoon, which has lights inside and a waterproof fabric stretched over it. I wonder if it’s hand wash or dry clean only?

BMW and Jaguar staff dancing, Geneva Motor Show 2015, Switzerland

At the end of the show some of the larger stands turned it up to 11 and put on a little dance show! BMW at the top and Jaguar at the bottom

I visited the London Motor Show with my dad and my brother a few years ago so I knew largely what to expect, but I think the variation and the concept cars surprised Julie and in the end she enjoyed it as much as I did.

We had a fun-filled, jam-packed, cheese-fuelled week in Switzerland. Thanks again to our good friends Heidi and Olivier – we can’t wait to see you both again :o)

Julie’s Switzerland Highlights

We’ve visited Switzerland before as our good friends Heidi and Olivier live there. This time around we had an action packed week in the country, staying with them at their home in Bern for most of the time and ending with a couple of days in Geneva. Here are a few of my highlights:


I didn’t learn to ski as a child and although I’ve tried it as an adult I think I’m too afraid to really get into it. Sledging on the other hand turned out to be much more my cup of tea and we had an absolute blast on the Saturday of our stay.

Views from sledge run above GrindelwaldSpectacular views across the valley above Grindelwald [photo credit: Olivier Kern]

Grindelwald is about a 1.5 hour drive south-east of Bern and is home to the longest sledging run in Europe – a total length of 15km and a descent of 1600m. From the village we caught a bus partway up the mountain to Bussalp where it was time for a fortifying glass of gluhwein (mulled wine) and a slice of Swiss fruit and custard pie on a terrace with views across the valley before hiring our sledges and beginning the hike to the top of the hill.

Gluhwein at BussalpGluhwein to give us energy for the climb! [photo credit: Heidi Kern]

The information website claimed that it was a 2.5 hour hike from Bussalp to the top of the sledging run and while this may very well be true if you’re walking unencumbered, for us it was closer to a three and a half hour uphill slog dragging the sledges behind.

Climbing to the top of the sledge runThe sunshine and views kept us smiling as we trudged uphill

Eventually we reached the top and were able to begin the descent. It seemed a little unfair that it took less than an hour to sledge down the section that had cost us so much energy to climb. As we’d walked up we’d seen others sledging down and seeming well in control of their sledges, we felt much less in command and both ended up ‘off-piste’ at least once.

Sledging at GrindelwaldIt took much less time to get to the bottom than it had to reach the top – Andrew and Heidi zip downhill while Olivier looks concerned as I lay face down cackling like an idiot after crashing my sledge!


At times our stay in Switzerland felt like a bit of a cheese fest which is no bad thing as far as I’m concerned. Most people will have heard of cheese fondue, a famous Swiss dish, which Olivier cooked for us one night. Another local specialty is raclette which Heidi has made for us before and which we enjoyed again. For raclette, melted cheese is used to top boiled potatoes and pickled vegetables. Cheese also featured in miscellaneous breakfasts and lunches during our stay so that we thought that maybe we might need a cheese free few days after we left. Then we remembered that our next destination was France – better just buy a bigger pair of jeans now…

Cheese fondueOne evening we enjoyed cheese fondue for dinner. The purple bits are shallots which cook in the hot cheese as you dip in chunks of bread and are then ready to eat at the end of the meal

One of the cheeses which is almost always included in the mix when making a fondue is Gruyère, named after the medieval town of Gruyères. Although it’s technically a town, with a population of only about 2000 people, Gruyères is smaller than many villages. At its centre is a pretty town square (naturally surrounded by cheese shops and restaurants serving fondue) and at its eastern end is the castle with a fine view down the valley.

GruyèresThe pretty town square in Gruyères

Cheese shopOn the way back to Bern from Gruyères we stopped at a fantastic cheese shop in the nearby town of Bulle


Switzerland’s cities are generally very well preserved and lovely places to visit. Luzern turned out to be no exception to this rule. The compact historic centre is full of half-timbered buildings with paintings on their fronts and is home to the oldest covered wooden bridge in Europe, the Kapellbrücke (Chapel Bridge). The bridge which dates to 1333 was originally 285m long and part of Luzern’s fortifications. In the 17th century painted wooden panels were added along its length under the roof, sadly 81 of these were destroyed by a fire which broke out on the bridge in 1993.

Kapellbrücke, LuzernLuzern’s Kapellbrücke zigzags across the River Reuss; only around 30 of the bridge’s paintings now remain

Luzern's historic centreLuzern’s historic centre (clockwise from top left): colourful riverfront buildings; painted building; clock tower in the city walls; an impressive shop sign

Unfortunately the city walls don’t open until Easter but it was worth the walk up to them for the view across the town and down to the lake.

Lion MonumentOne of Luzern’s stranger sights is the statue of a dying lion dedicated to the memory of the Swiss Guards who lost their lives defending King Louis XVI during the French Revolution

In the afternoon we ventured out onto Lake Luzern for a one hour round trip cruise (Rundfahrt in German which tickled our childish sense of humour no end). Although it was a bit hazy the mountain views were beautiful.

Cruise on Lake LuzernA beautiful afternoon for a short cruise on Lake Luzern


We considered moving into Heidi and Olivier’s spare room but eventually decided that we ought to move on so we headed to Geneva for a couple of nights. One of the things which Geneva is famous for is CERN – the European Organisation for Nuclear Research – and Andrew discovered that it’s possible to take a guided tour there, it’s even free!

'Wandering the immeasurable', CERNThe ‘Wandering the immeasurable’ sculpture is the first thing you see when you get off the tram at CERN. It is engraved with great discoveries in physics from throughout the ages

After checking in at the reception, our group was met by our guide Anastasis, a computer scientist. He gave us some background on why CERN was set up (to create a centre for science in Europe after WWII and be a place where different countries could collaborate) before leading us to the 600 MeV Synchrocyclotron, CERN’s first particle accelerator, built in 1957 and decommissioned in 1991. It now serves as part of a very fancy audio visual display to explain how particle accelerators work.

Synchrocyclotron at CERNCERN’s first particle accelerator, the Synchrocyclotron

We’d read that final preparations were in progress to restart experiments in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). I knew that the huge particle accelerator is an important part of the science done at CERN, and certainly the highest profile, but I hadn’t realised that basically everything is centred on those experiments. Our next stop was at the control centre for the ATLAS detector, one of four points where the data from the particle collisions is collected and analysed.

ATLAS control centreATLAS detector control centre, the mural on the side is one third the real size, and the actual detector is 100m below ground

Anastasis’s explanation of the data collection was even more mind-blowing than the idea of tiny fundamental particles whizzing around and banging into each other. When the collider is operational, thousands of collisions happen every second generating 40TB of data. This is a staggering amount of information – equivalent to 8,500 DVDs every second. Fortunately the clever folks here have algorithms to sort it and filter that 40TB down to 300MB which is still quite a lot but can at least be feasibly stored.

Guide at CERNAnastasis explaining data collection at CERN beside a lego model of the ATLAS detector

I could go on for ages with the fascinating stuff that we learnt on the tour but I’ll finish with our favourite fact from the visit: when a proton is zooming around the particle accelerator at close to the speed of light it has the same mass as 6.5 mosquitos. We’re going to think of that every time we swat one from now on!

Two Years!

Two years ago today we set off from a train station in the north east of England for the biggest adventure and experience of our lives. A year later we were in Bangladesh, one of our favourite countries so far and we’d planned as far as Japan – the furthest either of us have ever been away from home.

1 year in, Joypurhat, Bangladesh

1 year in. 17th March 2014, Joypurhat, Bangladesh – waiting for a bus to Paharpur (photo credit: Roman, a very kind student we met on the train)

Today we’re in Carcassonne in the south of France, and with a little tinge of sadness we have just booked our final train tickets to the UK. When will it end, we hear you ask? Keep reading to find out!

2 years in  - us in Switzerland

Time for another “spot the difference” competition in the comments! Here we’d just arrived in Switzerland to stay with old friends – thanks again for a fantastic time Heidi and Olivier :o)

Thanks once more for following and commenting (hint ;o) on our adventures..