27 October 2010

In praise of the vaporetto

For regular visitors to Venice, vaporetti are old hat. They're the large water buses that lumber up and down the Grand Canal and back and forth to the various islands in the Venetian lagoon.They're as ubiquitous as the old London Routemaster bus used to be, and just as convenient. What I found odd, though, was the number of people I've spoken to who had visited Venice but never bothered to use this basic and important form of transportation.

Some people confuse vaporetti with water taxis, which are plush and comfortable but very expensive – about €30 for a journey in the centre. And far too many visitors still think that the gondola is the only way to travel on the water. (It would be if you fancy squandering €70-80 for an hour's ride and feeling a bit silly when other tourists gawp at you.) I had one gondolier badgering me and refusing to believe me when I said they were too expensive and that I had no intention of going in one. He then dropped his price to €60, which I'd rather spend on dinner, frankly.

Vaporetti, on the other hand, are big, functional and not very attractive, but they get you around the city and beyond in a scenic yet practical way. Some have an open section at the front, where you can get views of both sides of the canal. Others have the same in the rear. Then there's a central part that's under cover with seats and an open-sided covered bit. Once you've had a few journeys on these, you'll head inside for the comfort of a seat rather than be exposed to the elements. Having said that, my first view of Venice was from the open section in the middle, where even the relentless rain couldn't obliterate the beauty of the city.

Unless you're in Venice for only a few hours, it's definitely worth getting a transport pass which will give you unlimited journeys within a set period. As a single journey on a vaporetto costs €6.50, regardless of distance, this makes sense. Venice Connected is the city's transport site where you can book tickets in advance (and it's in English).

I had a 72-hour pass that cost me €28. It paid for itself in five journeys, two of which I had to take anyway to get to and from the bus station at Piazzale Roma to catch the Treviso airport bus. I ended up taking about 14 journeys in total, as it became much more
fun to walk out to the further reaches of the city, such as Cannaregio, and then relax on a vaporetto for the journey back. It was so easy to pop over to the cemetery island of San Michele, or the church and bell tower on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. Even the Lido was only 20 minutes from Piazza San Marco.

The final vaporetto journey back to the bus station was on a fine evening, when the sun was just beginning to set. The open section at the rear was empty, allowing us to enjoy the golden views in peace. Now that's the way to take your leave of this glorious city.

03 October 2010

Guidebooks vs the web

Guidebooks – past their use-by date or still an important part of travelling? We never tire of debating this, especially as more apps arrive that promise to take the place of physical (and heavy) books.

I was intrigued by an article in the Observer celebrating all the wonderful apps you can use if you happen to pitch up in a place without a guidebook. The writer makes some very good points, but misses a few others. The most important is, of course, access to the web. While he mentions the fact that roaming costs are coming down in Europe, they're still terrible for European users visiting North America. And not everywhere has 3G, as I recently discovered in Montenegro. (Luckily I had my trusty guidebook to read when the hotel's dodgy internet access conked out again and again.)

If you're travelling throughout the UK and you have an iPhone, it can be enlightening and entertaining to explore a new place using only your phone (not so much on a BlackBerry, though). But when I'm walking through a continental city and I want to stop for a coffee, out comes the guidebook for a relaxing read – and one I can share with the people I'm with. I have turned up in places unexpectedly and tried to find decent maps and info on my BlackBerry, but found it a frustrating experience.

There are arguments against guidebooks, of course, one obvious one being that they go out of date in seconds. But I take great pleasure at looking at my shelves of books that remind me where I've been and where I'm off to next. As far as I know, there isn't an app for that.

05 August 2010

London on two wheels

It's been a week now since London introduced its bike hire scheme, and thousands rushed to register as a member. I was one of them, on my computer at 7am on 30 July to get in there early. Everything went smoothly until the website crashed just as it was processing my payment. So far, so expected. Things were bound to go wrong with such an ambitious scheme, weren't they?

Straight on the phone, then, to a helpful but not entirely clued-up Transport for London staff member. At least he managed to get my membership sorted and told me the key would arrive within a few days. A week went by – nothing. Back on the phone. They said I hadn't paid for access. Oh, right. Access (daily, weekly or annually) isn't the same as usage (the most quoted one being the first half hour being free). So I've set up an automatic thingy that means I can hop on a bike as often as I like within 24 hours for only £1 – assuming my journeys were less than 30 minutes. As I planned to cycle only from the Tube station to The Independent's office in Kensington no more than three times a week, I thought that was the best option. No journey would take more than half an hour.

I insert my new black key into the docking station near Queensway Tube. Red light. Even if you're not familiar with the system, you can assume that a red light doesn't bode well. Back on the phone. (By the way, use the 020-8216 6666 number from your mobile rather than the expensive 0845 number.) Problem with the system, madam. Can you try again in two hours? No I can't, as I have to be in work in 10 minutes. I trudge through Kensington Gardens in a bad temper, wishing I could swoosh through it on a bike.

I get the chance on my lunch hour. Hurrah! It works. I pootle along Kensington High Street, dock the bike at a station, nip into the supermarket, pick up another bike with my shopping and return to the office. Later, when I'm going home, I cycle through Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, ending up at Speaker's Corner before I reluctantly dock the bike and head into the Tube at Marble Arch. If Oxford Street hadn't been such a nightmare, I could have gone on and on and on...

Yesterday morning, I try the bikes at Lancaster Gate. Obviously a popular spot, as only two bikes are left. Neither would accept my key. More swearing. I stomp through Hyde Park towards the Serpentine to the next docking station was, all the time on the phone to a TfL staff member. Thousands of people have registered, madam, and only a few have had problems. Yes, and I'm one of them. But I cheer up when my key works and I get a bike. Lovely ride through the park to the office. And then another lunchtime bike ride. Great exercise. Who needs a gym?

Leaving the office to go home, I insert my key. Red light. A man beside me tries his key. All the bikes are dead. We walk to two other stations. Red lights. He gets on the phone to TfL. They've been having problems ... could take up to two hours. Another bad-tempered trudge through the park.

I know a scheme like this would be full of glitches, and I'm not the only frustrated one. But much as London Mayor Boris Johnson annoys me, I have to admit his bike scheme is an excellent idea. I love the Boris bike, and I'm now officially a fan. Just get the sodding thing working properly, please.

20 July 2010

Home comforts

Renting a house or a flat for a holiday can be a leap in the dark. What can you reasonably expect to find in your home away from home? How much are you expected to lug from your own house if you're flying with a stingy baggage allowance? I've had a few experiences in recent years that have either restored my faith in humanity or made me want to bash some heads together. I have a lot of admiration for the two young travel writers involved in the Gran Tourismo project (grantourismotravels.com), in which they're spending a whole year staying in self-catering accommodation. While it's a fun and glamorous thing to do, you do end up missing the strangest things.

Little touches make all the differences. Last summer I rented a studio flat in Antibes that was only seconds away from the beach. The English owners, Louise and Paul, thoughtfully leave beach towels, a beach bag and even a sun parasol for their guests. And, unlike some owners, they're very happy for people to leave food behind for the next guest. (What does happen do all those half-drunk bottles of milk and partially used tubs of margarine?) Louise and Paul also provide fresh flowers and keep the store cupboard stocked with cooking essentials such as olive oil. That's one of those things you can't take for granted. (Their property is at www.holiday-rentals.co.uk/83543. I recommend it heartily.)

The little flat I rented in Dubrovnik this past spring (see earlier post below) was remarkably well equipped for such a small place. There was even a kettle, which, as most British travellers will know, is a rare as hen's teeth in the self-catering world. What I liked especially was the bottle of Croatian brandy left on the sideboard. I kept to the unspoken agreement to have just one tot and leave the rest for the next tenants. (That wasn't too difficult, as the brandy wasn't a patch on my uncle's homemade firewater. But you get my point.)

Sometimes you have to think creatively. A flat I rented in Corsica had fantastic views of the sea and the mountains from the balcony, but no table. That made eating out there a bit awkward. Luckily someone had dumped a load of small dusty café tables just around the corner, with no obvious owner in sight. Surely they wouldn't mind if I borrowed a table for the week. I returned the table at the end of my stay, but I did make a point of telling the tour operator that the owner really should provide one himself.

There are times, though, when luck isn't on your side. A couple of winters ago I was in Italy staying in a hotel's new self-catering annex, which was considerably larger than a standard hotel room. In exchange for the space I got a completely empty kitchen. Not a cup, nor a spoon – just empty cupboards. I had my travel kettle and mini espresso pot (well, I was in Italy) but I pleaded with the manager to lend me some cups and cutlery from the restaurant. Nothing doing. I bought cups and nicked some teaspoons from a nearby café. (That's two admissions of theft in one blog.) I left with a bitter feeling and was furious that the manager didn't think anything was wrong about not letting guests know about the state of the accommodation. "That's what happens in Italy," he told me. "Everyone brings their own things." That's utter rubbish and completely at odds with my own experiences of self-catering in Italy. A word of advice: don't rely on the hotel's website to tell you what's in the kitchen. Ask beforehand.

23 June 2010

Driving to France and need a stopover?

As a veteran of numerous driving holidays in France, I often get asked about the best way to break the long journey to the south, south-west or south-east. While some people prefer to collapse in an anonymous Formula One hotel on the outskirts of a town, others like something with more character. Everyone has their favourites, and here are a few of mine.

1. Azay-le-Rideau
This village in the Loire Valley is just past Tours. It's an enchanting little place, with a small square with a couple of decent restaurants. There's also a very good restaurant called Les Grottes a few minutes' walk from the centre. But Azay's star attraction is its chateau, a Renaissance confection that sits on its own island in the Indre river. It's worth a visit during the day, and the same ticket will give you entry into the nightly son-et-lumière show, which is a delight on a balmy summer's night. The Hotel de Biencourt (www.hotelbiencourt.com) is cheap, cheerful and within view of the chateau.

2. Bourges
It's almost in the dead centre of France, and about a six-hour drive from Calais. Time your journey right and you could squeeze in a late-afternoon swim in the pool at the Hotel Les Tilleuls (www.les-tilleuls.com). The hotel is just outside the centre of this attractive walled Gallo-Roman town and by the time you've refreshed yourself with a swim, you'll be ready for the 15-minute walk into town for dinner.

3. Orléans
If you've survived driving round the périphérique in Paris and feel you need some time to recover, then Orléans is just another 90 minutes south. It's a pleasant town on the Loire, with a lively pedestrianised area. Head to the streets around Rue de Bourgogne for an apéritif and dinner among one of the many restaurants in the traffic-free area.

4. Lyon
It's a bit of a schlep from the Channel, but Lyon is one of the great overlooked cities in France. Too many people zoom past it in the rush to get to the south, but it's worth a weekend break in itself. It's rather like Paris on a more human scale. The central Presqu'Île area has a big range of hotels and lots of parking, and it's only a hop across the bridge if you want to explore the old town. If you're around for only one evening, walk up to Rue Mercière, a pedestrianised street parallel to the Quai St-Antoine by the river Saône, where there's an excellent choice of restaurants.

There are plenty of others, such as Clermont-Ferrand if you're travelling east-west. I've also stopped at Dijon, which I have to admit disappointed me. I'd be interested to hear if anyone else has any favourite stopovers in France.

15 June 2010

Train power

After a mad few months watching ash clouds and British Airways strikes wreck everyone's travel plans, I couldn't help but feel incredibly smug when I took the train to France a few weeks ago. No worries about disruption, nor any of the usual annoyances that come with flying. No having to take half your clothes off or keep liquids separate. No worries about keeping to within miserly baggage allowances that threaten to charge you the earth for exceeding them. Just a simple stroll through an X-ray machine and straight on to the train.

Two hours and 20 minutes later, I arrived in the Gare du Nord in Paris, with plenty of time to catch the RER to the Gare de Lyon and buy a baguette, cheese and some saucisson at a local supermarket. Then a leisurely journey of two hours and 40 minutes to Avignon on the TGV, made more pleasant by my picnic lunch. I remember a train journey I took a few years ago, watching an elderly Frenchwoman spread a little red-checked cloth on her fold-down tray before she carefully spread some pâté and cheese on to a baguette. They take lunch seriously, the French, even on a train.

The journey back was via Lille, so I had a good few hours to get some work done on my laptop, eat more cheese and saucisson, this time washed down with some wine. Then back on the Eurostar and home – which is when things fell apart, as my local train was cancelled and I had to get a cab. Trust Britain to let the side down.

Yes, I know French trains aren't infallible. Just after Christmas 2009, heavy snow created havoc on the Eurostar services in and out of London. Funnily enough, I was set to take the train down to the Pyrénées a few days later, but the gods had been working overtime and got things back to normal by that time. Similarly, when the Channel Tunnel caught fire in September 2008, I happened to be on the Eurostar that had left 90 minutes earlier. And even on this most recent train journey, the French railway workers were going on strike the day after I left France. And, the day before I left Britain, thieves had stolen copper cable on the line between Paris and Calais and caused massive delays. Either I have the most amazing luck or there's some impish force at work whose sole purpose is to disrupt other travellers. I prefer to think it's the former.

Check out train fares and timetables at www.raileurope.co.uk

19 May 2010

Rip-off London

It's not often I get to spend a day out in London purely for fun, but I managed to have one yesterday that showed the best and the most annoying sides of the city. I had a gig to go to in the evening, but thought I'd spend the day going to the museums I rarely have the chance to explore at a leisurely pace.

First up was the Science Museum, which I hadn't been to for about 15 years. It was swarming with schoolchildren, of course, but their enthusiasm was infectious as they threw themselves into the hands-on exhibits with great glee. The sea of children carried on to the Natural History Museum, which I just popped into briefly to marvel at the impressive great hall with that fantastically massive dinosaur skeleton. I was saving myself for the V&A, whose beautiful marbled interior and elegant gardens almost eclipse the exhibits. Then managed to squeeze in 45 minutes at the National Portrait Gallery, where the room exhibiting the great and the good of the 20th century is one of the most enthralling of all gallery rooms.

Ended up in Soho, as I was going to the album launch at Ronnie Scott's for my friend Sarah Class. (Have a listen at www.sarahclass.com.) This is where the annoyance comes in. London drinks prices being what they were, it made more sense to order a bottle of wine than individual drinks for the two of us. A bog-standard merlot for £17 was just about palatable.

Then the bartender gave my change, which came to 87p rather than the expected £3. I asked him what was going on. "That's the service charge," he said, obviously in a huff. "What service charge?" I asked. "Since when does it apply only to drinks?" He pointed to the tiny print at the bottom of one page of the drinks menu, which was barely visible in the gloom of the club. "But it's discretionary," I said. "Why do you add it automatically?" "You have to tell me not to add it before I run it through the till," he said, as if it were the most sensible thing in the world. "But I didn't know it was there!!!" "Yes, well, this happens all the time," he shrugged.

It happens all the time, but the club insists on maintaining this sneaky policy and robbing the punters of any goodwill that might exist. On the one hand, London gives generously with its world-class free museums, and on the other it takes it back with cynical practices. This happens all over the world, I know, but it's more irritating when you can't even escape it at home.

16 May 2010

Well fed in Montenegro

For the first time in living memory, I wrote an article about travel and didn't mention the food. Extraordinary, I know, but I just ran out of space while writing about my recent walking holiday in Montenegro for The Independent. What's even more unforgivable is that I'm Serbian and was brought up on the same food, which I absolutely adore and am always banging on about how great it is.

I think one of the reasons why the cuisine didn't get a mention was that the holiday was organised on a half-board basis, which meant dinner at the same hotel every night. Much as I enjoyed the Hotel Rivijera in Petrovac, the menu did veer towards the "international" side, as if the tender digestive systems of its guests were too refined for hearty peasant food. So that meant pork chops, veal chops, steak – food that could appear anywhere. One evening they asked if we had any requests. "Cevapcici!" I chimed in, as I was pining for spicy meat rissoles. Luckily they were equally enjoyed by the English guests in the party.

Wandering through the food market at Cetinje, the former royal capital, I noticed how seasonal vegetables dominated, just as they had in the markets of Belgrade and Dubrovnik I had just visited. We make a fuss about seasonal food in Britain, because we've become so far removed from eating what's appropriate for the time of year. The reality of seasonality is that the markets in the Balkans were dominated by various types of cabbage and not a lot else. Personally, I'd rather have good-quality home-grown food than expect to eat strawberries in January, even if the diet is limited. Besides, the type of long green cabbage leaves in season at the moment are perfect for the springtime version of sarma, a mixture of pork, beef, onions and garlic wrapped up in cabbage leaves (rather like dolmades).

There was still plenty to drool over in the market, though, including stall after stall of fresh cheeses and others heaped with the Balkan version of prosciutto. They would have made a great lunch for our walk in Mount Lovcen national park. What we did have, though, was burek, a filo pastry pie filled with cheese or meat which we'd bought in Petrovac. It was our morning ritual to go to the wood-fired bakery and get two portions of burek, which were still delicious several hours later when we stopped for a picnic lunch on top of a mountain or in the midst of an olive grove.

We had one day off from walking, and that's when we finally got our only chance to eat in a restaurant. Thank God it was an excellent meal. It was warm enough to sit outside on the terrace at Cafe Mediterraneo in Petrovac and savour my octopus salad and a glass of local Vranac red wine. There were so many more dishes I knew we were missing out on, but they'll have to wait for the next time.

04 May 2010

Trapped in Dubrovnik

I've spent a lot of time in the countries that make up the former Yugoslavia, but I'd never had the chance to visit Dubrovnik until last month. Yes, I know it's a major oversight for a travel writer not to have visited the "Jewel of the Adriatic", especially a writer whose parents were born in Croatia. But I finally managed to squeeze in three days there while doing some travel writing in next-door Montenegro. And I have to say I was left disappointed.

I couldn't shake off the feeling that Dubrovnik existed for one reason only: to process as many tourists as possible before chucking them out and waiting for the next batch to come in from the cruise liners and tour coaches. Plenty of cities function in a similar way, but I felt that this desire to wring tourists dry pervaded the air of Dubrovnik. Its undeniable beauty is breathtaking but it's soulless.

It's not a particularly expensive place if you're used to London prices. Gorgeous plates of fresh seafood can be had for less than £10 each. (Try Lokanda Peskarija by the harbour or Kamenice in the market square, both in the walled old town.) And the biggest bargain was the flat we rented from Holiday Rentals (www.holiday-rentals.co.uk/p96216), which charged only €165 for three nights for a small but well-equipped one-bedroom flat right in the old town. You can do Dubrovnik on the cheap if you rent a place of your own. But saving money isn't particularly my point.

What annoyed me was the disorganised way the various tourist bodies went about their business. The tiny tourist office just off Stradun, the old town's main street, had no knowledge of timetables or fares for the boats that head off to the many surrounding islands. You have to go to all the separate quaysides for that. I had done a lot of research and I speak the language, and I still couldn't get the information I needed. It was only April, but staff were already grumpy. (I'd hate to see them in the height of summer.) And the so-called Tourist Centre near an entrance to the old town is merely a collection of shops, neatly confusing people who naturally assumed they could pick up some tourist brochures for free.

It's a city with many museums and attractions, almost all of which charge admission. No problem with that. After all, they have to pay for the maintenance of these historically vital sites. But most cities have some sort of city pass that combines admission for selected museums and even transport. If Dubrovnik has such a pass, it was doing its best not to advertise it.

I had booked three nights, thinking that wouldn't be enough time to see everything, as well as an island or two. Two nights would have been more than enough. The highlights were the time spent away from Dubrovnik, namely in the pretty village of Cavtat further along the coast and the island of Lokrum, a short boat ride away. A spell of bad weather put paid to boat trips to more distant islands.

The city has many fans, I know, but I'm afraid I'm not one of them. Does anyone have a more heartening experience of the place? I'd like to know.

25 April 2010

Back to Belgrade

I have a soft spot for Belgrade, home to numerous members of my family and a place I visit every year. But I'm aware that it can be an acquired taste, as much of its history has been obliterated by countless wars over the centuries. Its new town is a concrete city of communist-era tower blocks, like many in Eastern Europe, but the old town still has plenty of charm. I was hoping there was enough to captivate my husband, who was making his first visit and meeting my family, few of whom speak English. Just smile a lot and eat what's given to you, I told him, two things he was able to do effortlessly.

You can't help but feel a sense of responsibility when you show someone a place you love. I felt a bit like Rebecca West did in her monumental travelogue Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, when she hoped her husband would take to the Balkans the way she had. She was lucky, as was I. For a start, we were staying within metres of Sveti Sava cathedral, one of the biggest Orthodox churches in the world and whose large domes form a major landmark of the city. Even though the interior is still unfinished, you can't help but be impressed by its scale and beauty.

As in most cities, there's a list of tourist sights you shouldn't miss. We wandered to the centre towards Knez Mihailova, a long, wide, pedestrianised street full of shops and cafés and which is rarely empty. It leads to Kalemegdan, the enormous park that sits at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers. Hundreds of Belgraders gather here after work to sit on the grass or stroll by the museums, cafés and the zoo. The most touristy patch is Skadarlija, a 19th-century cobbled area that was the bohemian quarter. Nice place to grab some lunch, which in our case was a huge plate of cevapcici, one of my favourite meat dishes.

After a day of being in the east, we took a bus to what was the frontier of western Europe. Zemun, which sits on the other side of the Sava, was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire until 1918. Now it's a suburb of Belgrade, but the Austrian influence is unmistakable in the architecture. Things get more Slavic along the banks of the Danube, however, which is lined with floating restaurants and bars called splavovi. It's party central in the evenings, but on this lazy morning it was blissfully quiet and peaceful. And it was too early for mosquitoes, thank God.

All the touristy things done, we settled down to enjoy the family experience – plenty of delicious food, laughs, jokes and conversation that flowed in spite of my husband's lack of Serbian. As is his wont, my uncle brought out his guitar and we sang loudly and inexpertly along to English pop songs of the 1960s. (Funny how easy it is to forget the lyrics after several glasses of wine.) It was a fun couple of days, full of warmth and pleasant surprises for my husband who now understands why I have to come back to Belgrade every year.

21 April 2010

CNN is rubbish

It's been a weird week trying to follow reports of the volcanic ash cloud as I've been travelling through the Balkans. I had the fortune to miss the ash cloud by two days, and now I'm trying to keep abreast of the news in Montenegro where the wifi is a bit dodgy and the hotel offers CNN Europe instead of BBC World. What a load of tripe CNN is, and what terrible journalism it sends around the world.

Its big angle was the fact that one of its producers was stuck somewhere in Eastern Europe and was trying to get back to London. "Desperate Odyssey" was the subtitle as the producer told of having to pay $800 for a taxi from Warsaw to Berlin. While the rest of Europe was squeezing on to coaches and trains with standing room only, or stuck in transit lounge limbo and sleeping on benches, this bloke was actually offered a hire car to drive to Holland. But he didn't fancy driving a Golf with "a really small engine". As someone who has driven a 700cc Chevrolet Spark around Serbia and Croatia and back again, I can't help but be scornful of this delicate flower of a CNN producer. So this "Desperate Odyssey" was merely code for "Feeble excuse for a story". I'm sure plenty of other travellers stuck around the world have more cause for desperation.

And don't even get me started on their annoying news presenters (sorry, anchors) and their dreadful questioning methods of poor hapless experts. And the adverts that they run every four minutes for airlines no one was able to use. Come back BBC World – all is forgiven.

04 April 2010

Comedy at Altitude

For the third year in a row, the Altitude Festival in Méribel has given skiers something fun to do at the fag-end of a ski season. This comedy festival founded by Marcus Brigstocke and Andrew Maxwell is a brilliant idea, and I wish I'd been able to spend more than one evening there this year. I was able to catch the fantastically funny Micky Flanagan, the not so funny Nick Doody and the guaranteed laughs from the Improv Allstars.

The festival itself stretches over a week in late March when comedians, musicians and DJs descend (ascend?) on the French resort that will for ever be a corner of England. As the cream of the English middle classes have thoroughly colonised the resort, there's plenty of juicy material for the comedians to sink their teeth into. Here's a conversation we overheard outside a café: "I'd love to go skiing in America, but the trouble is Daddy doesn't own any resorts there."

The comedians didn't exactly make mincemeat of their audience – things were too good-natured for that – but there were plenty of jokes about the sort of kids who spend the season in Méribel not bothering to learn a word of French. Speaking of French, the festival is the only bilingual comedy festival in Europe, which means there is a smattering of French comedians. Then there's the Franglais Chaud show, in which I was told Al Murray was especially entertaining. In fact, so many aspects of the festival sounds so appealing: live music during après-ski, gigs in slopeside bars, jib sessions in the town square. (That last one I did see, and it was hilarious watching most of the participants falling off the rail.) It's definitely a hugely entertaining way to round off the season, and one of the few things that make you wish winter would never end.

28 March 2010

Courchevel discovery

Since I returned to skiing several years ago after a 20-year hiatus, I'd been trying to avoid the obviously English parts of the French Alps. You know the sort: you'd be lucky to hear a word of French, and the people around you think they're in a snowy outpost of Fulham. I love France too much to have a lot of patience with an anglicised version of it. Then again, there is some fantastic skiing to be had, even by a skier as mediocre as I am. When the Association of British Travel Organisers to France (Abtof) invited me on a press trip to Courchevel last week, I decided to put my rampant francophilia to one side and have a go.

We were staying the Pierre & Vacances residences in the Hotel du Golf, which is right at the foot of the slopes in Courchevel 1650. You can walk out of the hotel, hop on the cable car and ski back down again. I know this kind of thing is old hat to more seasoned skiers, but it was a revelation to me. And if you were feeling too lazy to ski over to Courchevel 1850 (as I was), a quick bus ride gives you even more extended runs and more expensive coffees. I'd heard that the higher you go in Courchevel, the higher the prices. I'd heard correctly. Five euros for a coffee at the Café de la Poste. For that you get a view of the slopes and some seriously good people-watching under blue skies. Worth every centime.

The other journalists were real skiers, not rubbish ones like me, so they were off exploring the other parts of the Trois Vallées, mainly Les Menuires and Val Thorens. I was happy to pootle about Courchevel, with its large number of lovely wide cruising runs in shades of anything other than black. We'd meet up in time for a beer on the terrace of the hotel by the slopes and catch up on the day's news before heading off to another gastronomic experience. One evening was spent in La Tania, the neighbouring resort built for the 1992 Albertville Winter Olympics. Sweet little place, with a Michelin-starred restaurant, Le Farçon tucked away in a corner. Unpretentious place, exceptional food. The meal ended with a hay sorbet. Yes, a sorbet with the distinct flavour of hay. It sort of worked.

The climax of the trip was a night at the Altitude Festival at Méribel, a comedy festival set up three years ago by the comedian Marcus Brigstocke. That deserves a blog to itself, which will come shortly.

02 March 2010

Coming soon ...

I've decided to relaunch my blog after neglecting it for many months, and I intend to keep it up on a regular basis. Since my last post I've had quite a few memorable trips, and I've also made great progress on my Balkan travelogue.

Last September I explored the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna for The Independent, taking in Bologna, Parma, Modena, Ferrara, Ravenna and Rimini, and the resulting article was runner-up for Best Newspaper Article at the Italian Travel Writing Awards in February 2010. I was so chuffed to get the award, especially as the trip was quite arduous and squeezed in a lot of regions in a comparatively short time. And I was given 3kg of pukka parmigiano reggiano from a local cheese-maker. Gorgeous.

I followed that up with a few idyllic days in Provence in late October, where the temperature reached 25C as we wandered through the Vaucluse, Bouches-du-Rhône and ended up at the quayside in Marseille. I'll be making a return visit to Provence in May.

A ski trip to St-Lary in the French Pyrenees rounded off 2009. You can read about it in greater depth in The Independent, but, briefly, it was a bit of a disappointment because of a distinct lack of snow and a surfeit of rain. Still, as I had the luck to celebrate New Year's Eve there, it was a fantastic time, and the village is incredibly pretty. The French do New Year's Eve so well – high spirits, partying in the streets all night and no public drunkenness. Astoundingly civilised.

I'll be able to make up for the lack of snow by squeezing in another ski trip to Courchevel and Méribel in mid-March in time for the Altitude comedy festival. I won't forget to blog this time.