Saturday, 5 October 2013

European road trip Calais-Geraudot

Two things happen when you tell pub landlords in France that you’re from Wales. They shout ‘Ahhh Rugby!’ and then there’s a lock-in. So here I am in the passenger seat of a Citroen Bellingo, hungover as hell on the road to Switzerland.
We’ve  just spent 3 brilliant days in France as part of a road trip to various destinations in Europe which are by now whittled down to 3 countries as we only have 2 weeks and really don’t want to rush things.

Wamin, Frnace
As a couple, we have roles on this trip. Sally is the designated driver and in charge of camping gear and I’m in charge of cooking, locations and destinations in general. So my first job was to decide where to stay for the night and punch the address into the Sat Nav. Easy.

Not easy. No one told me that there’s more than one Saint Quentin in France so an hour into the journey we realise we have driven a whole hour in the wrong direction and end up in a little village called Wamin right in the countryside of France which really is rather beautiful. Getting lost has never been so much fun and here I discover that Sally’s French is  brilliant and we manage to buy all the essentials; Fuel, wine and cheese.

Back on track we drive for 3 hours south to Saint Quentin where we pull in for the night in one of France’s many municipal camping sites. These are dotted all over France, well sign posted and are absolutely brilliant if you’re travelling through the country. They provide a cheap place to pitch up (this one was only €8) with fantastic facilities such as hot showers, toilets and an indoor space in case it rains so you can take your food over and sit under cover. All of the facilities are spotlessly clean and a far cry from some of the campsites at home, especially the festival variety! Many of them also have outdoor or indoor pools. The French really know how to look after mobile holidaymakers. If this were the UK, these sites would have been sold off to private developers long ago and the beautiful parks now the site for ugly, generic apartments.

The following morning we head towards our first ‘proper’ destination on the trip.
Geraudot is in the Champagne-Ardenne region of France, and as the name suggests, there’s plenty of the stuff around.
Driving towards the town of Geraudot, you know you’re in a really special place as the land opens to rolling countryside, forests, lakes, farmland and smallholdings producing cider, honey and champagne every few miles.
Pitching up at L'Epine Aux Monies campsite opposite the lake, again we realise how well the French do campsites.

Excited, we dismantle the bikes from the rack and go for a spin around the lake. You can see why it’s referred to as a beach, with its soft, grassy shores and pure, clean water.
The following morning we cycle around the huge local reservoir and marshland, which is a national park full of protected wildlife where storks roam freely with swans and herons play happily by the water on the little islands dotted around the lake.

Cycling by the lake, Geraudot

A 30k drive down the road took us to Ville Arc, one of the many villages on the champagne trail in the Ardennes region.  We pass miles upon miles of vineyards, stunning chateaux and quaint villages. Driving through the maze of narrow streets, hidden courtyards, and intimate houses cut from stone, we pass scores of champagne makers and can almost taste the grapes in the air.

Yet getting your hands on the stuff is quite difficult. We didn’t realise you have to book an appointment to get a tour of one of the vineyards and they are so exclusive that I guess you’d have to roll in with a lot of cash to buy cases , not  just a few bottles like we were looking for.

Lucky for us we couldn’t be bothered to cook at camp that evening and so walked to a local pub/restaurant up the road called Bar Les Templiers.
Walking into the bar we realised it was more of a working man’s pub than a restaurant where no one spoke English but the beer was flowing. Perfect.
Making the effort to speak French, no matter how bad it is, really does gain you a little respect from the locals. Noticing the landlady was drinking some of the local champagne from a bottle encased in ice, we jumped at the chance to try a glass.

Ville Arc, the champagne village
Before long we were on our 2nd bottle, perched at the bar with the landlord and his wife, Sylvie.  The bubbles had had their desired effect and Sally’s French was in full swing, even my very limited French seemed to improve! The party had definitely started, so Sylvie locked the pub and put her favourite French crooner on full blast, while her husband got out his French rugby gear and started blowing on a horn.
Now THIS is how you should drink champagne in France! Aware that we actually needed to be able to walk back to camp, we tried leaving, but Sylvie would have none of it and insisted on more champagne (on the house) and dancing. Her husband asks us to write down our date of birth then disappears to a back room behind the bar. He comes back with a book each for us to keep as souvenirs on our travels. Both books were printed on our respective years of birth containing the town’s general news and statistics from that year. This is quite possibly the most bizarre but wonderful parting gift we’ve ever been given and we promise to treasure and look after them.

It really is time to leave now while our legs still work but the 
landlord insists giving us a lift back to the campsite.The welcome and hospitality they showed us at this bar was second to none so if you are ever in this area, do drop in and make the effort to speak to them.
The following morning we wake up in the tent with the biggest champagne hangovers ever known to man. We take hot showers, down black coffee and painkillers and set off for Lake Geneva…

Camping L'Epine Aux Monies €30.20  for 2 nights (price includes 1 tent pitch, 1 car + 2 adults).

Facilities: Showers, toilets, laundrette, electricity, bike hire, restaurant + bar.  

To see our camping food recipes just click here.  

Monday, 9 September 2013

European Road Trip - The Beginning

**Over the next 2 weeks, Sal and Nia will be exploring various parts of Europe. Armed with a car, tent, gas cooker and a laptop, they hope to see as much as they can and share it on this blog. They will be writing as much as they can as the journey continues. But when there's nothing published for a few days, please take into consideration that they might not have internet access and probably very very hungover...**

Severn Bridge, Wales. 
We’re embarking on this trip one week exactly after deciding it would be a good idea to pack the car and go camping round Western Europe. It had always been Sal’s dream so off we go, no time like the present.

During the planning stages (in the pub) the excitement led us to think we should do as many countries as we could in 2 weeks, but after calming down a little and realising we actually wanted to enjoy the trip we thought it best to have a rough plan of a few countries that were all en route to the next. We decided that out first night should be in Belgium, which is a 3 hour drive from Calais. 3 hours? A Doddle!

This afternoon before we drove to Dover, we packed the car,  fixed the bikes on to the rack and loaded the dashboard with essentials (Monster Munch and Haribo). Sally  went for a quick shower and I found myself with nothing left to do. Filled with excitement and feeling the need to be on the road, I went for a stroll to to our local town, Canton to visit the charity shops just to see if I could find any interesting travel books  that might add to our trip.
After wading through various tack, chintz and elastic waisted jeans, I finally found a shop that actually sorted their books out in sections.
And there it was, calling me from the ‘Travel’ section; Traveller’s France by Arthur Eperon. First published in 1978 this is one of many books by the well known travel writer who also used to help out the production team on ‘Wish you were here!’. 'If he can help Judith Chalmers, he can help me', I thought.
1978 is the year I was born and tomorrow, on the first day of our trip, it will be my 35th birthday. My God. This is a Celestine Prophecy style coincidence  if ever I realised one, so I pay a whole £1 for the book and thank the lady who likes my Carmarthenshire accent.
I then become Sally’s very own personal audio book in the car on the way to Dover and the content of the book changes the very start of the trip.

Traveller's France by Arthur Eperon

The magical journey the book took us on for those 4 hours driving to Dover made us realise that we were practically ignoring Northern France  even though we were driving through it.
So, inspired by the book which is the same age as me, tomorrow we sail to Calais then drive through small villages where we plan to stop for breaks, lunch, coffees and maybe even a bbq on the way before arriving at our first overnight destination in Chalons en Champagne. Well it is my birthday after all…

Wish you were here!

Tuesday, 30 July 2013


This post has been contributed by Mair Parry Roberts who travelled to Japan with her friend in April 2013.

歓迎 / Welcome 

Having had a few years off travelling long-haul, it was time to re-kindle my love affair with the big wide world and pack the rucksack (ok, now I’m 44 it’s a suitcase!) and head for Japan with my lovely friend who’s in her late 30’s, but looks much younger of course!
We flew with Virgin and let me just say that the seats were maybe more suitable for the Japanese bottom rather than the UK bottom!  I remember having much more room last time but there we are, I’m a stone heavier by now! We paid around £600 for the flight – travelling in April (cherry blossom season) but to be honest, there wasn’t much difference in price between the major airlines. 

Beautiful Japanese Cherry Blossoms

Daunting station but plenty of help! 
There’s a lot of help available to get you into the city centre when you arrive at Narita Airport.  We opted for the express train (around £20 one way) into Shinjuku Station, where we were staying and yes, the station names are in English, so you know which one to get off.  Now I think I’m right in saying that Shinjuku is the busiest passenger station in the world and to say that it was daunting would be an understatement. Not an “I’m scared” daunting, but an “Oh my God, where the hell are we going” daunting! There’s no point getting stressed, just allow plenty of time to go from one place to another and if you do get lost (which you will) just enjoy the ride! Take note, trains depart bang on time!  By the way, look out for the “Time Out” guides for each area in the train stations – they’re filled with quirky “things to do and see".  The Subway is also a great way of travelling and is not as scary as it looks!

Subway map - not as scary as it looks!
Peace amongst chaos...
Tokyo is a magnificent city but what struck me was the peace, order and serenity there.  Even though there are huge crowds and heavy traffic, it’s really strangely quiet. Everyone has their nose in their mobile phones and they’re way too polite for road rage
There are various districts - Roppongi ( trendy ) and Ginza (shopping) to name but a few, but we stayed in Shinjuku – the area where the lights dazzle 24hrs, where technology shops are in abundance and shopping malls everywhere (make sure you visit the Food Halls - a feast for the senses). Also, look out for the Daiso shops if you want to grab a bargain (ranging from rice bowls, chopsticks, stationery, sweets) to take home as souvenirs. Everything's 105 yen - that's around 70p (damn, everyone knows now how much I spent on them now!)

Bright lights of Tokyo

Expensive hotels, pack your tea bags!
We stayed at the Hotel Sunroute Plaza (around £60 each per night) - a bit expensive, but central.  A lot of hotels charge extra for breakfast, so being my mother’s daughter, I’d packed teabags, breakfast biscuits and dried milk which was a godsend.  
If you're like me and not too keen on Japanese food, there’s plenty of other restaurants there, but we did try a Japanese meal whilst there – honest!  
It's customary to be given a wet cloth before you eat in order to clean your hands. By the way, you don't need to tip in Japan. The food is around the same price as this country, but we bought a picnic to take with us every day – (growing up in the 70's has a lot to answer for!) There's plenty of 7/11 stores or sandwich shops dotted around. We even found a lovely white wine in the 7/11 for around £3.

Typical Japanese dish

Tokyo skyline comes at a price...
Amongst the sights we saw in Tokyo were the Senso-ji temple, the Imperial Palace, the Shibuya crossing (you'll get a great view of the crossing from the Starbucks coffee shop and you don't really have to buy a coffee). We also explored Meiji shrine (where you might even catch a traditional wedding if you're there at the weekend) and the Shinjuku Goyen Park. They have wonderful green parks in the city with the backdrop of the high rise buildings - it's quite a contrast. We splashed out on the final night and had a drink in the Grand Hyatt (location of "Lost in Translation"). The view of the Tokyo skyline is stunning, but it comes at a price - expensive drinks and a cover charge if you're there after 8pm. I do believe you can get the same view in the Metropolitan Government building which isn't too far from the hotel and free! 

Tokyo Skyline

Sayonara Tokyo and hello Kyoto!
We arrived here on the Shinkansen (bullet train), passing the snow covered Mount Fuji.  You need to buy a JR pass for this train here in the UK , then redeem it in any station in Japan. There's a more traditional feel to Kyoto - you're likely to  see ladies wearing their gorgeous kimonos, and if you're lucky you might see a a Geisha girl, as we did walking through the Gion District (but missed the photo opportunity!). Do go to see the 10,000 torii gates at the Fushimi Inari temple - there's a lovely walk up into the mountain with stunning views of Kyoto when you get there. There's also a lovely canal walk near the university - The philosopher's walk. 
        Back onto the bullet train, we headed for Hiroshima - famous for that fateful day in August 1945 when the city was obliterated by the atomic bomb. The Hiroshima peace memorial park and museum is a must. It was quite sobering and to be honest, rather emotional.
Fushimi Inari temple
On a lighter note, another must is a visit to Okonomi-Mura food hall where you can try the local dish - Okonomiyaki. This is a Japanese pancake cooked on a hot plate. 
A short tram ride to the ferry port allows you to visit Myajima Island and walk with the deer (and pinch your food given half the chance!). Here you can see the famous Torri gate in the water - apparently one of Japan's most famous views.
All in all, we'll take away some great memories and experiences from this wonderful, polite, orderly, serene and crazy place. Arigato Japan! ありがとう日本

Torri Gate