Monday, 26 December 2016

Very nearly Vevey, Switzerland

"What are you doing for Christmas?" is a standard question coming up to the 25th, but this year, instead of trotting out the perhaps expected, "Spending it with family and friends", I said, "Going cat-sitting in Switzerland.

"Uh... What?"

Yup. This year, when I saw that work gap coming up at the end of December, the first thing that came into my mind was that I could use the time to visit another little corner of the world. A few years back, I stumbled upon and then signed up to a website that matches animal/travel lovers with pet owners who want to get away and know their beloveds will be cared for in their homes. (In case you're interested, it's called and if you do sign up, please say I referred you as then I'll get two free months.) Anyhow, it seemed to me a good time to make use of this again.

And so, voila, I was accepted to come look after a shy rescue cat near Vevey, Switzerland. Yes, thank you, that will do nicely. It looked to be a beautiful house, the cat light work and it was going to be easy to do without the expense of hiring a car.

Much like when I went to Uzès in February, people wanted to know if I'd be lonely or bothered by being by myself. The answer, I now know, is definitely not. Solo travel is one of the most empowering things you can do and, once you've done it, it gives you a self-reliance and satisfaction that will carry you on to further adventures and bravery, in travel and daily life. I recommend it.

If you don't know Switzerland, the first thing you find out is that it's all about trains. Trains and watches. Which means the trains are always on time. Always. They're also clean, comfortable and go just about everywhere. I was on a little branch line that ran twice an hour in each direction, taking you to the top of the nearest mountain one way and down to Vevey (pronounced Vev-ay) on Lake Geneva in the other. From Vevey you can catch a train all the way back to Geneva or on around the lake and it all goes like, well, clockwork.

Montreux, where the jazz festival happens every year and is, as we all know by now, the setting for Deep Purple's 'Smoke on the Water'– Wait, what's that? You don't know this story? Briefly, then. 1971. Deep Purple are in Montreux to record an album. Frank Zappa and his Mothers of Invention are doing a concert. Someone sets off a firework (a big one, presumably), which starts a fire. Everyone thinks at first it's part of the act (no one was too high to worry, man. Like...), finally realise it's for real and get out. The venue is ruined and a song is born.

It's also where Freddie Mercury spent a lot of time, so there's a statue of him on the lakeside. When I went there was also a very jolly Christmas market going on, from where I bought and ate a crepe and a vanilla-custard stuffed croissant. And yes, it was as good as it sounds.

Another day I took the little train up to Les Peiades, where there are – allegedly – ski runs and sledding. Ahem. There was no snow. However, it was still worth the trip. Down below it was a cloudy, overcast day. But we burst through the cloud cover into the most glorious of blue-skies and sunshine. There was great walking and a picturesque mountain restaurant where a chocolat chaud made the perfect drink, while looking out at what looked like a lake of clouds.

I couldn't get over those clouds and the way they created two such different environments – the cloudy, gloomy one below; the sunny, jolly one above – or the way they behaved so much like water. Something about their texture was ever so appealing.

Vevey was worth a day's explore as well, with a few notable highlights, including the house architect Le Corbusier built for his parents on the edge of town. If you love ugly, concrete buildings, then you'll be a fan of his. Personally, when I saw the aluminium and concrete box he'd designed for his mom and dad, and how it was on a narrow strip of land hard by the main road, I couldn't help wondering if he were punishing them or if they just indulged him. I expect that his homes were nicer to look out of than to look on to. I hope so, anyway. I provide two pictures of it here: the entrance and as good a picture as I could get of the whole. To my mind – and I am a lover of houses and their design – it most reminded me of a trailer of the sort you'd find in, well, a trailer park.

Another reason to visit this pretty little city is that it's where Charlie Chaplin spent the last decades of his life and, again, there is a statue of him on the waterfront. In fact, the Swiss seem rather fond of waterside or even in-water statues, and I include a few others I saw in Vevey as well to prove the point.

After that, it was Christmas and I gave myself a day off the sightseeing and just went for a local walk. Swiss suburbia is not all that different from upmarket American small-town surburbia, if you discount the fact that every time you look up, the Alps are all around you. The thing is, it's a sight I just never get tired of. That and the way the clouds behave around them.

Which is why I'm ending with a picture taken from just outside the house I stayed in. Pretty spectacular. This was definitely a stand-out Christmas.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Picardy is perfect in autumn

 A lot of Brits get the ferry over the Channel, drive off in Calais or Le Havre and then... Zoom! They're off down south. The only thing they know about that first bit of France they land on – it's a region called Picardy, by the way – is that, pre the Brexit vote, they could buy cheap booze there.

However, even with the exchange rate going pear shaped for those who get paid in pounds, there are plenty of good reasons to pull up right here.

For a start, there's the food. This is moules et frîtes country and when they say moules, they don't mean the 15 or 20 mostly empty shells you get if you order this dish in London, where it's ridiculously overpriced. They mean an actual bucketful of fresh molluscs at a very reasonable price, which usually includes a seaview for free.

Then there's the vast sky that's an ever-changing picture. We were lucky enough to stay in a seaside apartment with a terrace facing the sea operated by Madame Vacances and every time I looked out at la Manche I was reaching for my phone camera, because it was so amazing – and so different from the last time I looked.

We were based in Cayeux-sur-Mer, a working fishing village that's had a lot of money spent on it recently, so that it now has a very enticing boardwalk promenade and groynes installed to keep the pebbles on the beach from getting washed away. It's also conveniently close to one of Picardy's prettiest towns, St Valery-sur-Somme. Here you'll find a medieval Old Town up on the hill with connections to Joan of Arc (the British kept her in a cell here on the way to burning her at the stake in Rouen) and a very pleasant, canal-side newer town, mostly built in the 18th and 19th centuries, lower down. There's a Sunday-morning market (best buys were the local homemade jams), plenty of good restaurants and two activities worth getting involved in.

The first is the seal-watching boat trips – tickets are bought in the tourist office – and the second is the steam train that will take you via an hour's journey round the bay to Le Crotoy – and back again, of course. Top tip: get off in Le Crotoy, walk the 10 minutes to the harbour and have a prix fixe three-course lunch, then walk back to the station for the return ride.

There was one peculiar thing I noticed throughout our short break and that was the lined-up ducks. We've all heard the phrase 'getting your ducks in a row', but this was the first time I'd seen it. And I saw it more than once. The best suggestion I got was that they were hunters' decoys and that would be a soothing answer, because otherwise, how the heck – and why – would ducks want to line up in this way? Ah, well, one of life's little mysteries. 

We travelled to Picardy for our four-day break on the overnight ferry from Portsmouth to Le Havre with Brittany Ferries, and treated ourselves to a cabin both ways. This is definitely the way to go. For a start, as soon as you board, you feel as if your French holiday has begun (though all the crew speak perfect English) and for a second, the cabin with en-suite facilities provides a place to sleep – of course – and a haven to retreat to, where you can take a shower, nibble on brought snacks, leave your stuff and generally be out of any limelight when you feel like it.