Travel and travails

Travel has never been my favourite thing. In fact, it is a lot of ‘travail’ (work, or laborious effort, in both French and English). Don’t get me wrong – I love finding myself in new places. It is the process of getting there that I’m not keen on, especially when airports are involved. Let’s face it, in these days of low-cost air travel, ongoing terror threats, and the evolving Covid rules, it’s a lot of work.

But when you are denied something, it takes on a particular allure. With husband up at least three ski vacations on me, during which time I had stayed home and looked after the ménagerie, I decided it was time to get my wings back.

The Greek islands have always been among my favourite places, and I happened to find a yoga retreat taking place on one of its more remote islands, Amorgos. It would be a ‘petit voyage, the kind I like best. A short flight followed by a ferry, with a stopover on another island. Easy peasy, right?

Travel is an acquired skill. And like any muscle, it needs work. Even organizing a weekend away becomes challenging if you haven’t done it in awhile. It was not my intention to bite off more than I could chew for my first solo trip in two years. But I suppose if I had thought too long about the complexity of traveling before the season began and while Covid rules were still in flux, I would have stayed home. Thankfully, I leaped before I looked.

First was the chicken-and-egg question of where to start. A quick google showed that connections were available, if not necessarily direct. The yoga retreat had a spot left, so I decided to start with that. Then I realized just how complex it would be to get to that island on that particular date, especially without going through Athens. I’ve been there before and wasn’t especially enamored of spending time in that huge city again, nor of taking a prop-engine plane to the islands. The 9-hour car ferry ride from Athens didn’t appeal either.

Our go-to airline for travel in the EU is easyJet. It’s a low-cost airline, with all the inconveniences of having to pay for everything à la carte, from bags to seat selection, but it does offer direct flights to secondary airports. So when I found a flight to Santorini, close by if not exactly at my destination, I grabbed it. Unfortunately it took off at an ungodly hour (another joy of EJ) and from Geneva, a 3 hour train journey from us, which meant I’d have to go the day before and book a hotel. No worries – I always love an excuse to go back to my former stomping ground and have dinner with a friend.  

Then began the problem-solving part. The regular ferry connections I’d counted on were only just starting up in April after being closed for the winter, and in the end it was impossible to get to Amorgos without going through Naxos, and on different days. So I booked a night in Naxos and the ferry the following day. Slow travel appeals to me, and I liked the idea of doing a bit of island hopping.

It all worked out in the end but there were a few bumps along the way. First, departure at 6:00 a.m. from Geneva. Who would have imagined this many people would be willing to get up this early? I got through the notoriously long easyJet bag-drop line after 45 minutes and was advised not to waste any time getting to my gate. I soon learned why: it was at the furthest end of the airport, a jog at the best of times, not to mention while lugging a computer bag and additional carry-on. (What, me travel light?). I reached the gate just as the plane was boarding, with no time to stop for the toilet never mind a coffee, and made it to my seat. By then all the overhead lockers near me were taken so I had to schlep my carry-on to one near the back of the plane. So much for paying for up-front seating!

We took off on time and the flight was fairly smooth for the first two hours – just as well as I’m a nervous Nelly and it had been two years since I’d last been up in the air. But as we got closer to our destination the turbulence began. The Greek islands are known for high winds in April, so it seemed sort of par for the course. We began our bumpy descent and I saw the reddish toned mountains of Santorini begin to rise by the windows. Then, without warning, the engines went into turbo, we changed direction and began sharply going up again. A few minutes later, the captain stated what was now obvious: he had decided to abort the landing due to wind shear. There was nothing to worry about, it was perfectly normal, they were just going to do a little spin around the island and try the approach with a head wind instead. Unfortunately it was too late to order a drink. But I lost no time on landing (which we managed on the second try) to order a prosecco and toast my arrival in Greece over a late breakfast.

I took a taxi to the port to await my ferry. The high winds were blowing a haze of dust from the Sahara over the island, which gave it a post-apocalyptic air, even though it was fairly sunny.

Greek ferries are not known for being the most organized mode of travel. Several private companies operate different lines and there is little communication between them. The biggest ones are from Athens; smaller lines operate between the islands. The port in Santorini is not a nice place to wait. A couple of sticky-tabled cafés were open and swamped with tourists. There were no signs indicating anything about departures or arrivals. I went to the nearest office of the ferry company I had booked – now dragging my suitcase along with my two smaller bags – and asked about the departure for Naxos. “You wait there,” said the woman, pointing to an open shelter where a few people were congregating. Off I went. There were no seats but it was only an hour until the scheduled departure.

Thus began a wait that stretched into 2 ½ hours. Europeans don’t tend to talk to each other, unless in an emergency, so I could only wait and watch the others for signs. The crowd grew. Cars began to queue up just in front of the passenger area, some with the courtesy of switching off their engines, others continuing to blast diesel exhaust. As our wait grew longer, I was thankful for a nearby group of American tourists, one of whom seemed to know what was going on. Information was loudly exchanged. The ferry to Naxos was late. In the meantime another one arrived, apparently going to Mykonos, and we stood watching as several enormous trucks were off-loaded. Then began the slow on-boarding of cars.

I felt oddly calm, without my usual impatience. As we settled in for the wait, I began speaking French with the people in front of me. Turned out they were from the Ottawa valley, in Canada. We watched as a short man, mid-twenties and dressed in the same kind of gear as everyone else, arrived and began shouting at people to have their tickets ready. When the ferry was finally in the port, I nearly dislocated my shoulder dragging my bags up the steep ramp. Thankfully there were plenty of seats, and working toilets. It was a large catamaran, and the ride was smooth despite the choppy sea. Two hours later we arrived in Naxos, the sun was beginning to set and a driver waiting to take me to my hotel outside the main town where I settled in and enjoyed an early dinner. There were only a few other guests as the place was only just opening for the season. The next morning I took a short walk down to the beach and felt the peace of my destination infuse me. It already began to feel like the journey was worth it.

Another ferry ride, this time on a pitchy boat that took four hours to cross the choppy Aegean, got me to Amorgos later that day. By the time I checked in with the other retreat members for our opening circle, the sun was setting and the candle-filled room overlooking an inspiring view of the sea and mountainous islands felt like a homecoming.

We enjoyed a week of yoga, walking, sunning (with one dip in the still-chilly pool), relaxing. With lots of good food and drink – it was not THAT much of a retreat! – before the next leg of my trip: back to Naxos for a day, where I discovered the beautiful old town with its Portara, temple or gate of Apollo, while dipping my toes in the beautiful white sand beaches. The next ferry was quick – just an hour to Mykonos, where I spent a final night before heading back to the airport.

But it wasn’t over yet! I had two more EJ flights to Milan and then Manchester, where I would meet with my family for a week in Derby and Wales (more to come in another post). That particular leg of travel through Italy brought new joys, one of which was filling out the EU passenger locator form. That oddly devious document, which may be a reflection of the European Union itself, was an exercise in the absurd. Meaning that it was not made for my reality: French national, living in Switzerland, transiting from one EU country to another to visit family in the UK. ‘Originating country’ was one thing but what did they mean by ‘final destination’? Aside from the philosophical aspects of the question, I literally did not know what to put. Manchester? My return flight to Basel? For some reason, possibly down to Brexit, the UK was not an option. So I put Switzerland, obviously not part of the EU but still within the realm of its imagination. Then, after spending considerable time and effort to fill in and download the bloody document, no one even asked for it when I went through customs. Nobody asked for my Covid certificate either.

However, for some reason it was a requirement that passengers on all flights to and from Italy wear an FFP2 or N-95 mask – a first (and hopefully last) for me as I found it hard to breathe. Arriving in the UK, no masks were required at all, so I binned it with joy.

Now I am home and recovering after so much moving about. But my travel muscles are back in shape and I’m already starting to think about our next trip.

How about you? Still hunkering down, already back in circulation or with travel on your horizon?

BTW, if you like the photos, I post a lot more on Instagram. Feel free to follow!

A few links (none sponsored) in case you are thinking of traveling to the Greek islands:

  • Ferryhopper, a service that lets you book any of the different companies, with relative ease.
  • Naxos, an island well worth a visit — amazing beaches
  • Amorgos, more wild and remote but perfectly doable, especially in season

Eins, deux, tre…

Our recent holiday was a Swiss three-in-one special. We started out in our German-speaking Central Switzerland, moved on to French-speaking Vaud, then to the Canton of Valais where a mix of both French and German is spoken. Finally, we spent a few days in the Italian Canton of Ticino, wrapping up what felt like a whirlwind tour of Europe without crossing any borders.

I was hesitant when planning the trip. Our week in northern Germany earlier in the summer had reminded me how many things can go wrong when you travel. With our daughter’s trip from the UK having been cancelled twice already due to Covid, and our first time together in over a year, we didn’t want to take any chances. Thankfully, Switzerland offers a lot of different experiences in one tiny country.

Okay, they’re not THAT different. Lakes and mountains are usually involved. But within that mix, which I happen to love, there’s quite a lot of diversity.

Leukerbad Therme (Loèche-les-bains in French) is a mountain resort high in the Valais famous for the thermal baths. It offers some pretty spectacular scenery with a wall of cliffs surrounding the town. It also has some rather unusual history with the springs dating from Roman times and, more recently, a rather checkered past: in 1998, it became the first Swiss town to go bankrupt! (In a country not exactly known for fiscal mismanagement, somehow the president of the commune got sent to prison).

None of this had any impact on our holiday, although I must say that like many thermal towns, there is a confusing array of public and privately run establishments, with various hotels attached. The main one, Leukerbad Therme, is public and you can go and use the baths for a fee regardless of where you’re staying. It was a huge, maze-like place, with many different pools and areas and little indication in any language of how to access them. We still had a lot of fun exploring though. Everyone but me enjoyed the crazy water slides (I backed out when I found out they were closed tubes where you were in the dark). Madeline, our daughter, had a minor mishap inside one of the tunnels when she bumped her head and got a rather massive egg on her forehead.

It’s the only egg she’d have anything to do with being vegan. This made booking hotels and restaurant a little challenging, as the cuisine in the mountains is notoriously cheese-and-meat heavy. Thankfully I found a place that offered ‘vegan options’. It was a smaller hotel with a good kitchen and service with a personal touch. They laid on quite a good breakfast spread for her and had a few different non-animal choices each night at dinner too. Despite some confusion at check-in over their Covid status (she and her boyfriend were vaxxed in the UK and had not yet acquired the correct documents for Switzerland; a new law having just come into effect in the days before), we were given a warm welcome. The restaurant was rather good too, with an extensive wine list. No affiliate links on this blog but I can heartily recommend the Hotel Waldhaus.

Our next stop was Locarno, in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino (Teissin in French). It is on beautiful Lake Major, half of which is in Italy. We rented a place just outside the city, in Ronco Sopra Ascona, with fabulous views overlooking the lake. I had not been to Locarno before; it is less of a city than Lugano, with more of low-key vibe. Just across from our beautiful rental were a couple of tiny islands, one of which houses Ticino’s botanical gardens, called Isole di Brissago. We took the ferry across one day and spent a wonderful few hours wandering around the lush greenery, capping it off with lunch.

There is something sort of laid back and old-fashioned that I love about the Italian cantons in Switzerland. I guess the vibe is similar to northern Italy, which I also love. Our rental was in a residential area perched high up for the views. All of the houses here have names. There is statuary on the roofs.

The weather was only middling during our time there but our last day was magic. It was nice to end our vacation on a high note with a swim at the Lido. We kissed our daughter and her boyfriend goodbye the next morning and put them on the train back to Geneva.

Our last leg was the Simplon mountain pass. It seems I’d worried about the drive  over the mountains somewhat needlessly. Unlike the train, it was relaxing and scenic. It seems that the hairpin curves and twistier roads are actually lower on the mountain. Once you get to the top the views are rather open. We enjoyed a quick stop to admire the views before heading down the other side.

We returned to Aigle (Vaud) to celebrate our son’s birthday before heading home the next day.

By the time we got back home to our corner of Lake Lucerne, it felt like we’d been away for a very long time. Which is everything you want in a holiday, n’est-ce pas? Non è vero? Ist es nicht?

Renaissance

It has been a long, wet, unseasonably cool summer. We had the odd nice day here and there but there’s no denying that this was the summer that wasn’t. Yet here we are at the end of it and it feels like a bit of a rebirth is going on.

The clouds have finally cleared and the wild weather that wreaked havoc around here this summer ‘seems’ (I’m couching that one in every disclaimer possible) to be settling into something more stable.

It has been exactly one year since we arrived here in Central Switzerland and finally, like the weather, I am feeling settled too.

On my terrace, the lavender is making a bit of a comeback, like many of the plants that were so battered by the summer storms. The fields are all around us are beautifully green and groomed. I can hear the tinkle of sheep bells just above us and am looking forward to seeing our nosy neighbours again soon.

The swallows have returned and provide endless entertainment as they swoop around.

Our family is enjoying a bit of a renaissance, too. Today, we will be reunited with our daughter for the first time in more than a year. The vegan vet is flying here from the UK where she has been hard at work over the past year since graduating. And in a week’s time we will all meet at my son’s place on the other side of the ‘Rostigraben’, the cultural divide between German- and French-speaking Switzerland, along with my French father-in-law.

How many missed occasions will we be celebrating? Various birthdays, Christmas and the new year, unnamed holidays cancelled as flights shut down between the UK and Europe over the past year. Finally, we are all double-jabbed and ready to roll! There will be bubbles and a very nice cake, then a bit of a holiday here in Switzerland.

For now, I will be kicking back and enjoying the remains of summer as we begin our second year here. Maybe even get my paddle board out again. Fingers crossed we will sail into a lovely Indian summer.

How are things with you?

Inexplicable chaos ensues

I have posted before about my love of Swiss trains. They are efficient, clean, on time. You can go almost anywhere in Switzerland by train, from quick connections between major cities to airports and mountain resorts. You can bring your bike, your luggage or your dog (for a price). All pretty well hassle-free.

Best of all, trains cross borders. I used to travel regularly from France to Switzerland and once took the tilting train all the way to Venice. Surely it was not unreasonable to imagine we would have a similar experience in Germany?

Wrong. We took the train several times on our recent trip to Northern Germany, and every single time the train was late. Even when it was on time they managed to lose time along the way and arrive late. Plus, the experience of the German train system was confusing, uncomfortable and generally less than pleasant.

I’m not complaining. I mean, we are just coming out of a pandemic here in Europe. Being able to travel again, even while wearing masks, is a privilege. Besides, Germany had just experienced some terrible floods in the west and while this did not directly impact our journey, the whole Deutsche Bahn network was affected.

It started with our first connection from Basel to Hamburg. An earlier train had been cancelled and therefore ours was packed to the hilt. This is where I made my first mistake. Assuming that because no one books seats on Swiss trains that this would be the case on German ones. Wrong again. Virtually all of the seats had been prebooked for various legs of the journey so we found ourselves scrambling, laden with luggage, from one car to another looking for seats.

Basically, booking a ticket on a train does not reserve you a seat. That is a separate process, one that is rarely used in Switzerland except for large groups. So we bounced around for a couple of hours until the controller finally found us two seats that were still free (for which we had to pay for a reservation — go figure!). Except they were only free until the next stop, when new travellers boarded and claimed their seats. So we moved again. It seems that the German system is a little wonky also when it comes to the reservation system, so even the controllers don’t know if seats are free or not.

We had plenty of time to joke about it. ‘Do Better’ was my husband’s suggestion when I asked what DB stood for (Deutsche Bahn). And we amused ourselves with finding different names for the train we took, an ICE (Inter City Express). Hence the title of this post.

I vowed not to fall victim to the musical chairs game again. So for our trip to Sylt on the North Sea, we also reserved seats. In first class for good measure. All good, right? Wrong.

It started out fine. We got to the Dammtor station in Hamburg on time for our scheduled departure. As in Switzerland, there is an information panel on the platform showing the train configuration, and our wagon was supposed to be on the end of the platform where we were waiting. Except when the train arrived it was the opposite end. So we lugged our bags to other end of a very long train to discover….chaos. We boarded the train but couldn’t find our seats. People were standing in the aisles looking confused. A harried controller was running around trying to help people who did not look happy.

As everyone was speaking German, I was at sea. Husband, who speaks the language reasonably well, also seemed confused. So as soon as I got a chance, I asked the controller if he could help us, apologizing and asking if he spoke English. He did. In fact, I think he was happy to help some lost-looking English speakers as the disgruntled German passengers were getting nasty. It turned out that one wagon of the train (ours) had broken down, so all of the people booked into that car were without seats. Thankfully he found us a free compartment in second class which we gratefully accepted.

On the return from Sylt, the train was far less full so the seats we had booked were sort of unnecessary. But the train lost time between stops, waiting for unexplained amounts of time. At one point, an announcement was made in which I understood a few words: kinder (children), spiel (play) and polizei (police). It seemed that a group of children were playing football on the track and we had to wait for the police to come and remove them.

Train travel is slow travel. We weren’t on a tight schedule, and the whole beauty of the train is being able to read, watch the scenery and relax. But German trains are old, for one thing, and not comfortable for long trips. Infrastructure needs updating. Electrical systems are lacking. For example, there was nowhere to plug in and charge our phones.

Our last journey from Hamburg to Basel was another story. We had booked the Night Jet, a special train with sleeper cars that travels between European cities overnight. First class to boot! There was even a car and compartment number on our tickets, so I was fairly confident we wouldn’t have to scramble.

Arriving on board, the controller scrutinized our reservation with an expression that did not bode well. The compartment we had booked through the Swiss website simply didn’t exist!

As the train left the station, we stood waiting for what seemed like an eternity while they tried to figure out where to put us. Finally we were led to our sleeping compartment. It was on the upper level, with access via narrow stairs that were highly impractical for navigating suitcases, and inside were two bunk beds under a sloping ceiling. The space was so small we could not both be standing up at the same time, or at least not without being intimate. The beds were made with pillows in the far corner, so that we would be sleeping in a sort of tunnel, our feet towards the window. Being claustrophobic, I immediately switched this around so my head was near the exit. Even husband, not normally worried about such things, insisted we keep the blinds up so we wouldn’t feel quite so closed in.

There was a small sink where were able to perform ablutions before going to bed. Several bottles of water had been provided, along with glasses and some unchilled frizzante. But the toilet was down stairs and down the hall, so I kept my liquids to a minimum.

Not long after we turned out the lights, husband was asleep. One of his gifts, aside from his sense of humour, is the ability to sleep just about anywhere. However, although I was on the lower bunk and less exposed to the problem, I was unable to sleep with the lights from passing towns making a strobe effect. So I got up and closed the blinds.

Then, just as I was nodding off, the gentle movement of the train doing its thing to lull me to sleep, we hit a bunch of curves. The old train strained against the tracks, groaning and jerking as the contents of our compartment began to rattle. We hit a particularly tight curve and the cupboard doors in the compartment flew open, the bottles fell off the sink and the glasses came flying out. I got up and managed to stash everything so it wouldn’t move again.

Sometime later I was finally about to fall asleep again when the compartment door, despite being locked, flew open, filling it with light and exposing us to the (thankfully empty) corridor. I got up again and double-locked it. After that, it’s all a bit of a blur. At one point during the night, the train stopped somewhere for a quite some time and then performed some sort of manoeuvre. When it got going again, instead of being at the end, we were at the front. It was actually a bit better after that as it seemed we travelled more or less in a straight line.

Still, the Night Jet was bit of a nightmare. Only I didn’t get to sleep long enough during our 8-hour trip to actually have one.

When we arrived in Basel, I did a little namasté of gratitude.

However, the inexplicable chaos continued. When we got home, an ice (ICE?) storm with massive hail stones had just happened, wreaking havoc on our little town. Nothing too serious, thankfully, but here is what happened to the exterior blinds on one window in our apartment.

Have you ever taken a memorable train trip?

Moin

That’s how you say hello on Sylt, a holiday island that’s been compared to Martha’s Vineyard on the North Sea. In fact, ‘moin’ (pronounced mo-een) is a local way to say good morning, hello and goodbye all over northern Germany.

It’s a surprising place for many reasons. Why? Way up north near the border with Denmark, the island is a mix of Danish and German history, ferry boats, dunes and white sand beaches. It is almost entirely flat, making it a complete change from our usual mountains. It had been two years since I’d seen the sea and we wanted to stay within train’s reach of Switzerland before venturing further afield again. (The train was another story: dedicated post to come!)

We began with a few days in the port city of Hamburg. I’d certainly never spent much time in Germany, even less on holiday, so it was a bit of a discovery. But this city holds a special place in the history our relationship, as the Frenchman spent several months working there in between our initial romance in Canada and my decision to join him in France.

It’s a very green city with a lot of red brick, and interesting contrasts of old and new architecture. Overall, Hamburg reminded me of my hometown, Toronto (before it grew into a megalopolis).

A walking tour was a great way to get to know the city and its history. We lucked into one with an entertaining and informative guide who showed us around the key spots of the port city and brought its history to life for us. We are reluctant tourists who rarely take the time to learn any of this stuff on our own. Mostly we like to wander around and stumble upon stuff. We did that too when we checked out the ultramodern Elbphilharmonie in the Hafen (harbour) district. We booked dinner that night on the terrace of a restaurant just overlooking a live jazz concert in Hamburg’s Hope’n Air series. It was a chilly night but the concert was amazing.

(BTW, I’m adding the links for info rather than any promotional consideration. I find reading other people’s experiences is the best way to get travel tips. If you plan to visit, enjoy!)

We arrived on Sylt (pronounced: zœlt; it seems the ‘y’ in the middle of a word makes a sound like the French ‘œuf’) where the sun was playing hide and seek with a lot of cloud. Unfortunately it did that most of our week there. I’m not complaining: you don’t go to the North Sea for Mediterranean weather, and after the hot summer we had last year, we were ready for some fresh temperatures. However, we hadn’t quite bargained on how wet our own summer in Switzerland would be, so it was a little disappointing to see so much cloud.

Still, we got enough sun to catch the beach a couple of times. One day we rented bikes and went around the north end of the island where we were staying in List all the way through the dunes to Kampen. This is the ritziest part of the island and the cars on the road are proof of it: an uninterrupted stream of Porsche, Audi, Mercedes….and many classic cars. This is one of the humbler ones.

The Germans certainly love their cars. All those big engines with their clouds of exhaust are in stark contrast to the national mania for recycling and ecology. It was certainly odd to be on the island where all of the dunes are protected as nature reserves and can only be accessed via designated cycling and pedestrian paths, while the big cars filled all the parking lots. Even funnier is that cars can only get to the island by train. We saw one train stacked with cars, the drivers and their passengers inside, as they made their way from the mainland to the island.

Two outstanding features of Sylt were the thatched-roof houses and the strandkorb beach chairs. I can forget about owning a house like that; even if I could afford it, I’m not sure how well I’d sleep at night with the risk of the roof burning down. Many of these houses had a system of rods and wires around the roof to prevent fire from lighting. Still, there are some very nice rentals available and if we return, we would definitely go that route.

The beach chairs are another story. These ingenious ‘strandkorbe’ provide shelter from the elements and have little drawers that come out to put up your feet. Unfortunately none was available for rent when we were there. Many of the local restaurants even use this concept to provide patio seating for outdoor dining.

At the end of a week of wind, cloud and rain, we finally got one beautiful day to dip into the North Sea. I love the waves and the salt water. Feeling my toes in the powdery sand again was liberating.

I can understand why this wild and windswept place has attracted people despite the unstable weather. With just a little more sun, it’s the perfect spot to unwind.

The icing on the cake? Cake. We found a little restaurant in Kampen that had a steady stream of people coming in and disappearing into the back. A few minutes later they left with flat paper packages. I discovered the cake counter hidden near the kitchen with a myriad of treats from plum pie to apple strudel — even cheescake!

Moin moin.

How do you say hello?