Don’t Let it Bring you Down: French Open Weekend


Friday 27th May
After leaving work I made my way to St Pancras so I could catch the Eurostar. I had misread a message from Victoria which nearly caused complete chaos on my arrival. It was 23.30 by the time I arrived at the station and as it was late I decided to get a taxi. Fortunately the queue was long because by the time there were only a handful of people ahead of me I heard someone shout my name. I looked up and to my surprise saw Victoria standing there. Victoria had told me she would meet me at the station but I’d not read the message properly and had therefore nearly gone straight to our accommodation.

I briefly met her friend Omar and we then got a taxi together. We walked the final section because the driver got lost even though we could both see where to go on Google maps. The streets smelt of urine and it was very late by the time we arrived at our Airbnb. It was quite a small bedsit in need of some (a lot of) tlc, especially the bathroom. With a bit of work it could have made a pleasant studio for an artist. Instead once we had made our beds (a sofa bed and a single mattress) it looked like a squat.

Saturday 28th May
As my alarm went off it felt a nice change to have woken up in the country I was visiting but after just over 5 hours sleep it was still a bit of a struggle. The shower helped to revive me a bit and Victoria got up once I was done. We’d booked a day trip to explore the Champagne Region and had no difficulties in finding the pick up point which was near the Louvre. Once we had checked in, we even had some time to wonder down to the Seine

We grabbed seats at the back of the mini bus and I promptly fell asleep as Victoria successfully captured on video. When I did eventually open my eyes the scenery was very pleasant with wheat fields on one side and vineyards on the other. Occasionally there were large cemeteries and it wasn’t until our tour guide pointed them out that I realised they were for soldiers from First World War.

Our first stop was the lovely village of Hautvillers. We wondered along what appeared the main street, passing various “Champagne Houses” as we made our way to the small church which contained the Grave of Dom Perignon. Our guide explained how Dom Perignon had mastered the technique for creating champagne which is still used by most companies.

We continued on to Verzenay so that we could visit a Lighthouse which had been built to promote the local champagne. First we visited the museum which explained the work carried out in each season and whilst the audio guide was good I skipped a lot of the sections because some were quite repetitive. Next we climbed the 100 steps to the top of the lighthouse and then wondered around the gardens.

Our next destination was Reims where we had the opportunity to get some food before a visit to the Cathedral and then ultimately the whole reason we’d done the tour, a trip to one of the Champagne Houses to sample their Champagne. We had lunch at Le Grande Café and were joined by two others. I opted for the tagliatelle with snails in a cheesy sauce and I have to admit it was really tasty though I’m still unsure what snails actually taste like. We made our way back to the coach and briefly stopped off at the Vranken Pommery Champagne House.

We continued to the GH Martell Champagne House which is now a museum as the production has moved to a site with more space. First we were given a tour around the cellar and our guide gave us a history about how Champagne is made and explained some of the techniques that were used in the past. I was aware that Champagne was created using different blends of grape however I didn’t appreciate how much the Champagne can vary. After the tour we were taken to an elegant lounge and got to sample three different types including a rose. Whilst it was good to try the different styles we believed we were going to the famous Moët Champagne House and it was disappointing that the information we had on our itinerary differed from our schedule. It would also have been nice to have tried Champagne from other companies rather than only experiencing one

We arrived at the Cathedral which had been severely damaged during the first world war. This included the smiling face of one of the angels at the entrance, which was faithfully reconstructed after the war and the roof which has also been repaired. European Cathedrals whilst grand all now feel much the same to me now and there wasn’t an obvious draw so Victoria and I left to look around the souvenir shops and were able to try a free sample of the pink biscuit that is often dipped in Champagne.

Pretty much everyone on the bus fell asleep on the way back and eveb though one of the passengers had been 20 minutes late we arrived in Paris earlier than expected. On our way back to our accommodation we stopped off at a creperie called Crêperie A l’Etoile d’Or and both inadvertently ordered the same dish but were both happy with how good it was. Unfortunately (or rather fortunately for my waistline) I didn’t have room for one of the Nutella filled chocolate crepes.

Once we were home I realised that the Champions League Final between Real and Athletico Madrid was on the free sports channel, and felt very content as I watched it with a beer. Victoria went to bed so I turned the commentry down which made no difference to my enjoyment because I’d not fully understand what the French commentators were saying. I was getting in to bed when Athletico equalised towards the end but despite feeling tired stayed up to see Real Madrid eventually win the match on penalties.

Sunday 29th May
Victoria was up first and after my late night from watching the football I initially struggled to get out of bed, not that I was feeling overly snug as the mattress I was on wasn’t the best. Once we were up we found out Victoria’s friend Omar, who had volunteered to drive us to Monet’s house, was running over an hour late because he’d set his alarm for the wrong day.

We therefore decided to walk to a nearby bakery called Horaires where I ordered a Pain au Chocolat and returned back to where we were staying. Shortly after Omar arrived and we made the hour long journey to the village of Giverny where Monet’s house and garden were located. By the time we arrived we had long missed a tour Victoria had organised for us around the gardens and it hadn’t been possible to book us on a later tour.

We saw that there was a free tour through the house and it seemed there were others waiting. The lady was from America and despite speaking in clear English said something none of us quite caught about the group being small. Ultimately it meant we ended up sitting on the sofa for an hour as she described the tour of the house, without actually taking us on it. Some of what she said would have been interesting if we had been in the house but instead it meant nothing and all felt a bit weird.

Before going in to the house we decided to walk around the flower garden and arguably the more famous Japanese garden which was used in a lot of the art work. Both had been designed by Monet and we saw and walked over the bridge famous from his painting now “Bridge over a Pond of Lilies” and saw other aspects of the garden immortalised in his paintings.

After we had explored the gardens we walked around the house and some of the facts the lady had told us had stuck in my brain. Most of the house had been left how it had been in Monet’s time but the paintings he had once kept in his study and in other rooms have now been replaced by copies. Perhaps we would have spent longer in the house and the gardens with a guide but as it was we seemed to have seen everything quicker than I expected.

We had a late lunch at one of the restaurants near the house before calling in to the tourist information centre to decide where else in the area we could visit. Ultimately we decided on the ruins of a castle called Chateau Gaillard, one of the oldest Norman castles and a historic village called Venables which Victoria wanted to visit because she had a work colleague whose family was historically from there.

Chateau Gaillard was in a particularly stunning location on top of the hill and the ruins added to the dramatic scene. Victoria and I explored the grounds which were free whilst Omar moved the car and eventually joined us. We then drove down the hill in to the village which looked pleasant but rather than getting out decided to continue the journey to Venables.

We arrived in Venables and aside from a small church it didn’t appear there was anything else to see. The village didn’t even appear to have a shop so after walking to the Welcome sign so Victoria could get a photo we returned back to the car and started the journey back to Paris. The traffic was particularly heavy and so we didn’t arrive back until quite later than planned.

Victoria and I then walked to a sushi restaurant which was relatively close to where we were staying but by the time we had finished the rain which we’d seen forecast on our mobiles in the run up to the holiday finally struck with avengement. We held off leaving the restaurant as long as possible but it was clear the rain wasn’t going to pass so we ran. Once home we were both soaked and put the heading on full blast to dry out. This time it was my turn to fall asleep first as Victoria had to finalise her future travel plans.

Monday 30th May
Visiting Roland Garros had really been our whole reason for meeting up because we had previously done Wimbledon and Melbourne together and I was excited when I woke up (despite the rain) because we were finally going. After showering I went to the shops to buy us ingredients for baguettes and to give Victoria space to get ready because our apartment was very cosy (small).

My phone indicated that there would be a clearing of the clouds and so once we were ready we made the journey to the historic venue. By the time we arrived it was raining harder than it had been when we left and we huddled under my umbrella as we waited in the queue to get in. Once we were we made way to Court One because that was where one of the singles matches we had tickets for was being played.

We made our way up the steps and entering the arena saw that the covers contained huge puddles. We huddled in the gangway as we waited for news and as the official app was giving no information besides sales of towels and other tat I started to look on Twitter. Eventually we decided to leave the court when it was clear play wouldn’t be starting anytime soon and went in search of a cafe.

On our way we stopped of at Suzanne Lenglen Court where a gangway had been opened to allow non ticket holders to get a photo. We were desperately trying to stay warm, especially Victoria whose finger had gone numb due to the cold and we were also both feeling quite tired and bitterly disappointed. We weren’t allowed in Philippe Chatrier to take photos and so visited the shop and then the museum. The museum was fairly interesting and contained items collected over the years but the trophies had been removed. It was whilst we were in the museum that the Twitter account announced that for the first time since 2000 there would be no play all day.

We made a fairly hasty exit and on our way home stopped at the Eiffel Tower which was shrouded in fog. We eventually got in, cold and wet. Neither of us had much enthusiasm to do anything else in the day but as it was our last evening together I suggested a dinner cruise. I still hoped that to some extent the day could be salvaged and we rested in our accommodation for a few hours until it was time to leave.

We arrived at the meeting point in plenty of time and at the same time as two other couples. One guy was standing there and explained to is that due to the rain the pick up point had been changed. We had no chance of getting to the new location in time which just added to the disappointment of the day. We made the journey anyway and rather cruelly saw the boat pass us just as we arrived on the river bank. We followed it for a while but eventually accepted there wasn’t a second pick up point.

It had been raining continuously for 24 hours and now hungry as well as wet, cold and drained ordered a starter from one of the restaurants on the river bank. Slightly more energised we returned to the pick up point so we could join a later cruise. It seemed the whole day had been against us and I think we both half expected to get turned away however we were allowed on and given a seat.

Shortly after we took our seat a group joined with a small dog which shook its wet body over the seats. I like dogs but this was probably the final straw for me. I found an attendant and pointing at the dog going woof woof and then imitating sneezing I got us moved to the other side although unlike some tables we were still not even given a bottle of water (some had champagne) and no one took any drink orders.

Even though it didn’t do the full route it was a really lovely experience and we still got to see the Eiffel Tower lit up and a replica of the Statue of Liberty. The 3 course meal had been good and I was able to add foie gras to a growing list of French foods I’d had over the previous few days.  The journey home was, fortunately uneventful though we still required the heater on full blast once we got home. It had

Tuesday 31st May
Neither of us wanted to get out of bed because we could hear the rain still pattering against the window. With chores to do such as laundry and posting some items back to Australia Victoria eventually made the first movements. I shortly followed. Rather than waiting at the launderette we went to another local bakery to get breakfast before I went back home and Victoria went back to the launderette.

We then both spent quite a bit of time sorting out all our clothes before we left together for the final time. The plan was to go to a roof terrace cafe in the Galeries Lafayette shopping centre and we went via the post office. We arrived at the shopping centre and to my horror I realised I’d left my train snacks at home. Whilst Victoria did some shopping I dashed back and we met up again an hour later. The hardest part of my journey had been finding my way out of the huge shopping centre.

The lunch was average, but more importantly it was nice to spend some time together when both of us were relaxed, not wet and not in a hurry to get somewhere. We walked to some of the shops together before eventually I had to say “see you soon” without knowing when that will be. I was sad to go, part of me wanted to stay but as Victoria rightly pointed out I should have been glad to be leaving. It is true that it was only our companionship which had been any type of light or joy by the end of the trip and I hope Victoria has better luck on the rest of her travels. As for me, I return to Paris in less than a week before going to Bordeaux for Euro 2016.


Living for the Weekend: Milan

Saturday 14th May

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Jayde said “Hey Johno, do you wanna go to Milan for the weekend?” I couldn’t say yes quick enough even though it meant I’d miss the last Watford match of the season. During our first meeting in Athens I’d rather unsocialably cradled my phone as Watford hung on to beat Newcastle so it was slightly reassuring that travel can on occasions trump Watford.

The early morning journey to Gatwick was as painful as ever as I forced myself up at 3.15 and walked to the bus stop where I waited for a bus which never came. Whilst I wasn’t exactly running late it meant I could have had an extra 30 minutes in bed though as it was Jayde and I both arrived at the airport at a similar time. We even had time to grab a bite to eat. There was mild drama when as we boarded it emerged that the plane was smaller than expected (which meants our designated seats were outside) so we and a few others were both separated though thankfully weren’t put on another flight.

We caught the bus in to the city centre and as it was late morning decided to find somewhere for lunch. Trip adviser suggested a pizza place called Mister Panozzo which had a good rating, was cheap and didn’t appear to be that far. We had expected thunderstorms however the sun was shining so we decided on a walk which took us past the Piazza Duca D’Aosta near the Grand looking Central station and a small local market. We had a brief look around the busy market before escaping the crowds and continuing our journey.

Mister Panozzo looked like a chain with its mascot however it appeared to be one of its kind. The staff were really friendly and even gave us a free starter of cheesy garlic pizza bread. I ordered the chef’s special (chef decided what ingredients to use) which came with loads of mushrooms and whilst I ate a few, I picked the majority off and hid them under my napkin. It was however, despite the mushrooms, very good.

After leaving Mister Panozzo we made our way to the hostel. When we arrived we were told the room wasn’t ready but we were able to check in and to leave our bags in storage. We left the hostel and walked towards the part of the city centre that included most of the historical buildings.

First we arrived at the Duomo (Cathedral) and walked around the outside towards the Piazza del Duomo. The queue to go in to the Cathedral and up to the roof terrace was particularly long so we made a conscious effort to return early the following day. We walked across the Piazza and made our way towards the famous shopping centre Quadrilatero d’Oro. Near to the Quadrilatero d’Oro was a place called Cioccolati Italiani selling gelato which came in flavoured cones or in between a bun. We were still full from lunch but checked the opening times so that we could make time to return later in the day.

Next we walked towards the castle (Castello Sforzesco) however a combination of me and Google maps meant we didn’t quite take the most direct route. It was possible to walk through the castle grounds for free so we walked through the castle court yards and the Parco Sempione gardens to the Arco della Pace. We then took a slightly different path back to visit the Santa Maria seller Grazie which we believed contained the iconic “The Last Supper” painting.

It didn’t cost anything to enter the church so we entered and hunted around. The artwork and decorations were quite ornate however each was greeted with a underwhelming “hmm must be in the next section” reaction. Eventually there were no sections left to explore and asking in the shop realised it was in the building next door. We arrived at the ticket office and were told there was a 3 month waiting list to enter so made our way back to the hostel.

On our way Jayde noticed to a large crowd and pointed. I had somehow missed the mass of people and before I could respond the crowd were making high pitched screams in excitement. We wondered over and saw an elderly guy neither of us recognised come out of the shop but obviously realised he wasn’t why a huge group of school girls were so excited. Next we saw a sign saying Antony Di Francesco but were still none the wiser though when we googled him he appeared to be Italy’s Justin Bieber.

We returned back to the hostel and quickly realised that whilst the reception looked fancy and the website implied it would be as good as the 180 Hostel in Berlin the reality was very different. Firstly there were no locks on the dormitory doors but also building work meant our dorm was partially separated from the next room by a large net curtain. Our other room mates, a young couple from Canada who understandably freaked out when they realised their belongings would have no protection because the advertised lockers were also far too small for their luggage. I rested on my bed and waited for Jayde who advised the shower facilities were tight on space which I then discovered for myself.

We walked back in to the city centre to get gelato from the parlour we’d seen earlier and which just happened to be on a website I’d stumbled across when I was looking for recommendations. I ordered it as a kind of ice cream sandwich with Nutella, salted caramel and chocolate with hazelnut however I’d been severely tempted by the cone filled with melted milk chocolate.

After we’d gorged ourselves on the gelato we waddled to the underground and caught a train to the San Siro. Considering it was the last match of the season and a match between AC Milan and Roma two Italian heavy weights I was slightly surprised by the lack of numbers making their way to the ground though that did make it a more pleasant journey. I got goosebumps when I caught my first glimpse of the famous ground and brought a scarf as a memento. I think Jayde was excited for me though was no doubt bemused by my reaction.

We climbed many floors of steps and took our seats just in time for kick off. I had expected the ultras to generate an intimidating atmosphere but they were relatively placid and smoke bombs and flares were kept to a minimum. The match itself was pretty comfortable from a Roma perspective and AC were rather painfully a shadow of their former glories. Their defending was so calamitous they even gave away an indirect free kick after the goalkeeper foolishly picked up a back pass. It’s quite rare these days and as far as I’m aware not even Watford have done it in the past 15 years.

Totti came on and got a standing ovation from all 4 sides of the stadium but there was little for us to cheer and with Napoli winning Roma couldn’t sneak 2nd their small number of traveling fans were rather quiet. We decided to leave when Roma made it 3.0 around the 85 minute shortly after AC missed a chance to grab a consolation. As soon as we were outside the ground we heard a cheer followed by overly loud celebratory music considering. It’s a shame the “I Rossoneri” (red and blacks) hadn’t scored earlier in the match because it would have ignited the atmosphere.

After leaving the ground we followed the crowd and went slightly off course but found the train station. When the train came in the platform was busier than when we’d arrived and the we somehow squeezed on to the train. Fortunately the stops were close together and we were able to generate some space after the first stop. We walked back to the hostel via the Cathedral though both agreed it didnt look as spectacular as we had expected. We arrived back at the hostel and I fell asleep

Sunday 15th May
There had been occasional loud conversations in the corridor and the room next door, which was hardly a separate room because it was only partially separated. Both had woken me up and even though I’d had so little sleep the day before I just couldn’t get back to sleep so got ready and waited for Jayde who got up a little while later. After leaving our bags in the stored luggage area we had the free hostel breakfast before catching a tram to the city centre.

The queue moved quite quickly and we had a look around the inside. A service was taking place which gave it a moving atmosphere and it was grand as I’d expected however I was more interested in climbing the steps leading to the roof terrace. Unfortunately both of us had seen different signs and ended up walking around the Cathedral before finding the entrance. Luckily the queue was shorter than the one to buy tickets and we were quickly climbing the tower.

I had expected one viewing platform however instead we were able to walk all over Cathedrals roof and therefore got good views of the city from both sides though my attempts to spot the San Siro failed. It was certainly something I’d recommend doing and it was obvious why it is one of the highlights of Milan.

We took the stairs back down and as we were in decent time stopped to get a final slice of pizza from a nearby restaurant. The slice itself seemed as big as a normal pizza and I imagine i had the look of a kid in a sweetshop. We decided to walk back to the hostel and after collecting our bags caught the underground train to the central train/bus station.

Throughout the day we had done a good job of going at a relatively relaxed pace whilst ensuring we weren’t running late and preferably staying well in the Green, ahead of time zone as we were when we reached the bus. We were therefore able to catch an earlier bus to the airport and I napped on the uneventful journey doing the same on the flight.

When people asked what I’d done at the weekend, they probably didn’t expect me to say I went to Milan. It had certainly been an unforgettable weekend and did feel slightly surreal. I had 5 blisters on my feet and after walking 40,000 steps on the Saturday alone my legs were aching but I’d do it all again. It is so quick to get to some historic places in Europe from London and rather ludicrously some can cost much less than a train I once caught to Liverpool.

What a Wonderful World: Snowdonia


“Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder” or so the saying goes. It certainly feels very appropriate as I attempt to write a piece about “The Most Beautiful Place on Earth” to me. I’ve been to some wonderful countries and have had many unforgettable experiences in some beautiful locations however I’d never truly considered this question until now because they were all wonderful for different reasons.

On reflection there does appear to be one place that always gets my spine tingling and that I get passionate about whenever I talk about it. . Wherever in the world I have been I always hear it calling me back. It may not be as glamorous a choice as Þingvellir in Iceland or Milford Sound in New Zealand but to me Snowdonia in North Wales is the most beautiful place on earth.

The Snowdonia area takes its name from its centrepiece Mount Snowdon (“Snow Hill” in Old English) the second largest mountain in the United Kingdom. An extinct volcano Snowdon was formed by volcanic activity over 450 million years ago. The Welsh call the mountain “Yr Wyddfa” (translated as “The Tumulus”) and believe the mountain is the burial mound of the giant Rhitta Gawr who was defeated by King Arthur and whose grave is marked by a cairn.

As you enter the region, where ever you are, you’ll be able to see the range of mountains with the distinctive point of Snowdon (sometimes capped in snow) dominating the already picturesque landscape. As you travel along the twisty mountain roads on clear sky days the views are stunning and as your ears pop due to the altitude it is impossible not to feel small.

If you decide to venture up one of the many foot paths to the summit of Mount Snowdon (or decide to catch the historic steam train) you will be greeted with fine panoramic views of mostly unspoilt beauty. In the distance you can clearly see all the way to the picturesque harbour town Porthmadog, Portmeirion and beyond that, if you’re lucky Ireland.

But travelling through Snowdonia in less favourable conditions can be equally exhilarating for the senses. The grey clouds make a contrast to the greens of the hills and blues of the lakes. As you rise ever higher eventually passing in to the low hanging clouds, the mountains become even more dramatic. The mist adds to the mystical lure and try not to imagine passing through and pretending you’re not part of a ancient Celtic tribe.

Yes it is true Snowdonia can suffer from rain however this helps ensures that on those beautiful hot sunny summer days the lakes such as the alluring Llyn Padarn are full and water still cascades from Swallow Falls as well as numerous other waterfalls. The environment means that the vegetation of Snowdonia is always rich with life and it is home to rare flora and fauna which includes the “Snowdon Lilly” (Gagea serotina) and the rainbow coloured “Snowdon Beetle” as well as a host of birds rarely found in the rest of the UK.

Sometimes man made structures can ruin a scene however in Snowdonia I would argue they have enhanced it. The simple, yet effective dry stone walls, the lovely churches and the small cottages with their locally produced slate roofs, not to mention the occasional coastal castle. If you’re after something older there are ruins dating back to the Romans. Then, finally there are the “Great Little Trains of Wales” which look like miniature model trains as they slowly meander through the landscape leaving a trail of smoke in the gentle breeze.

The world famous Ffestiniog Railway still carries passengers from Porthmadog to Blaenau Ffestiniog. At Blaenau the man made slate slag heaps tower over the little town with their industrial monuments long out of use sitting at the top of disused inclines. The Welsh Highland Railway also departs from Porthmadog carrying people through the Aberglaslyn Pass to the charming village Beddgelert, on to Rhyd Ddu where hikers can climb the route to the summit of Snowdon. Finally the train arrives at Caernarfon which is dominated by its mighty castle, arguably one of the finest in Wales and used as the investiture for Charles, Prince of Wales.

If you fancy seeing the beautiful landscape from a different view you can go White Water Rafting along the Tryweryn river, fly above Penrhyn Quarry on Europe’s longest zip line or hang off Snowdon whilst mountain climbing. If you somehow get bored of the stunning views you can discover the beauty inside the mountains by exploring the disused slate caverns of Blaenau Ffestiniog or perhaps even bounce on a giant trampoline if you want to get close to the ceiling!

As I said at the start, beauty is in the eye beholder. Snowdonia may appear a random choice but it seems this is still an area slightly off the main UK tourist trail. If you want to see variety and scenery rivalling parts of New Zealand, I urge you to stick on some dramatic sounding Celtic music and take a drive through Snowdonia.