Wednesday 28 December 2016

The West of England

The allotment plots at the Eden Project. Inspiration!
"Where shall we go this autumn?" I asked. "We need to visit the Eden Project in the autumn, having seen it in spring and summer," was the reply. And so was born the latest adventure ... Cornwall is so easy from our home in south Lincolnshire: train to Birmingham New Street and change there for a connection the rest of the way. What else to do to fill up the week? Bath, I thought. We loved the Thermae Bath Spa when we went there in the spring of last year, and Bath is always worth a visit. I like to make bit of a tour of these trips, going out one way and back another, so we could return from Bath via London at the end of the stay. Four nights away in two places with some nice long train rides between: so, to the internet with notepad in hand to see what I could plan!

First off, the Eden Project website to see if there were dates to avoid when it is closed or otherwise not suitable: this revealed no issues, so next to to look for accommodation in St Austell, the nearest town with a rail station, and the terminal for the bus to the Eden Project. There seemed to be only one hotel and it was a small one and with good reviews, the White Hart. This needed to be booked pretty swiftly if we were to be able to make the trip, so I quickly looked up the train times on Cross Country Trains' website to ensure there were no expected problems there (unlikely midweek, but wise to check) and booked the hotel for a Tuesday and Wednesday night, to fit round a commitment on the relevant Monday evening, which fixed our Eden visit for the Wednesday.

The Royal Hotel in Bath, where we had stayed before, was offering an inclusive spa break with tickets to the Thermae Bath Spa and a cream tea with Champagne and two night's accommodation, and it was available (just!) for the two nights following our two in St Austell; a close thing: we could not have done it a day earlier or a day later, so early planning is essential. Having booked all that, I then booked train tickets with Cross Country Trains for the Tuesday, with Great Western Railway for the Thursday from St Austell to Bath and for the Saturday to London, and with Virgin Trains East Coast home from London on the Saturday. It all fitted in pretty neatly. I wanted First Class for the "trunk" sections: Birmingham to Cornwall, Cornwall to Bath and Bath to London and then Peterborough, with standard class on the local stretches to and from Stamford at the start and finish. To get good prices I had to compromise slightly, meaning an extra change of train at Plymouth (with standard class from there to St Austell) on the way out, but everything else fitted.

Lunch on the train from Birmingham to Plymouth. I did have
to pay for the beer. The wrap is vegan-friendly for those to
whom this matters. It was very good for anyone!
So off we set on a Tuesday morning mid-November to catch the 10:05 from Stamford, bound for Birmingham New Street. We had standard class Advance Single tickets bought with our Senior Railcards and these cost us very little and came with seat reservations. On the way we bought coffee from the on-board catering trolley, a perfectly decent cup of coffee: things have come a long way in on-board catering. At New Street we had time for a quick tour round the Grand Central shopping centre before going back down to the station for our train to Plymouth. This time our basic catering was included in the First Class Advance Single fare, but with our snack lunch we also bought beer and wine from the trolley, these not being included in Cross Country Trains' First Class complimentary offer. With free wireless internet and socket to charge my iPhone I tended to follow the route on Maps, which added much interest to the window-gazing which occupied most of my journey. My novel remained unread, but I did do a little sorting of photographs.

Between Exeter and Newton Abbott, of course, is the famous coastal stretch including the ride along the seawall at Dawlish and the piercing of many a headland. Fantastic ride:

The sea looked great and the cloudscape very dramatic that day.

At Plymouth we were directed across to the platform where our connection to St Austell was waiting. This was a GWR stopping train to Penzance and called at all the local stations in Plymouth and then crossed Brunel's famous Tamar Bridge into Cornwall, where the signs at Saltash station welcomed us to that special county, which I tend to think of as a country within the UK rather than a county in England, so different does it feel. Loads of schoolboys joined the train at one of the Plymouth stops and the last did not get off until Lostwithiel, an immense daily commute for such a young person, especially in winter when it was dark before we reached his stop.

We left the train at St Austell and it continued on its slow journey down to Penzance, by now, having left Plymouth packed with passengers, with very few on board. This was definitely a train for people leaving Plymouth rather than people going to Penzance! With a little help from Maps on my iPhone we found the way to our hotel, a five-minute walk, and checked in. As is the trend these day, our room had a name as well as a number, Tin Pit Meadow, very Cornish-sounding! We took our time unpacking and went for dinner from the bar menu. The hotel also had a very nice-looking restaurant but we were more than happy with the bar menu. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay at the White Hart in spite of a couple of hitches on the first evening and would wholeheartedly recommend it for anyone visiting Eden by public transport.

When one is used to prices in London, or even in Stamford, the value for money in Cornwall is staggering: the premium gin and tonic menu at £5 a time, for example. It is only prudence that stops one working ones way through the whole list ...

The following morning we sampled the breakfast menu in the main dining room. As is common with smaller hotels there was a buffet for the "continental" items with cooked dishes to order, all included in our room rate. And then off around the town for a quick look at the shops before catching our bus at 10:40 for the Eden Project. As with so many towns today, the centre of St Austell seems a little depressed: several closed shops, several charity shops and low-end retailers, but all the banks are there and the usual chains like Boots and WHSmith. There is hope, and a large newish shopping centre.

The bus station at St Austell is immediately in front of the rail station and there has been a clear effort made to integrate the transport systems there. The departure times of the bus service to the Eden Project even appear in the online departure list for the rail station, this service being considered an extension of the rail service. We boarded and bought our return tickets - showing these at the Eden Project admission desk would give us a worthwhile discount on our admission fee there, part of their effort to encourage people to use public transport. It was certainly low season: none of the outer car parks was in use, just the ones near the entrance to the project. There was no queue for tickets and we were straight in.

The first thing we noticed about being here in the autumn was that we could see things through the trees and shrubs that we could not see when more of them were in leaf. 2016 had a spectacularly colourful autumn, too, and everything looked gorgeous. We wandered around all of the outdoor areas first as rain was threatened, and started with the "allotments" so that we could get some idea of what we ought to be doing in our garden at this time of the year ... Then to the Mediterranean Biome where, once we had wandered through all the gardens, we had a salad lunch. This was, however, a mediterranean salad, and with one starter and one main between two of us we did not need a dessert!

Then off to the Rain Forest Biome which was the coolest we had ever known it, although we still took off our coats as we walked in ... and then as we moved up to higher levels the sheer humidity made us feel less and less comfortable: it is quite amazing how Eden has created this foreign climate in a claypit in Cornwall! We noted that a "cool room" has now been installed for those who cannot cope with the climate and need time out before continuing. A new high-level walkway was being installed in the Rain Forest Biome, the trees having grown so much taller than when the original one was built. There is a lot to learn in this huge greenhouse, but having been here twice before we moved through it fairly quickly this time. If you've never seen it, though, the trip to Cornwall is worthwhile for this biome alone.

Soon after we left the biomes the forecast rain began, although only a very light drizzle. We had seen everything we had come to see and so we caught the "land train" (a tractor hauling a train of - covered - passenger-carrying trailers) back up the hill to the visitor centre and spent a few minutes Christmas shopping in the gift shop before making our way back to the bus stop for the bus back to St Austell. The public bus service is roughly hourly, so it is necessary to plan the visit rather than just turn up at the stop and wait for the next bus, but it works well enough for us. I just had to keep in mind the times of the two most likely buses we'd catch back, together with the length of time it would take to walk back to the stop from the shop. In the event we were in very good time and sat in the shelter waiting for a few minutes.

Light meal in the bar again that evening, and after an excellent night's sleep, check out of the hotel and head to the station for the Cross Country train to Bristol Temple Meads, where we would change for Bath Spa. We travelled First Class again to Bristol, with a light lunch on the train, and our tickets from there to Bath were Anytime Standard Singles so we could spend time in Bristol en route if we so wished. We decided to go straight on to Bath and so on arrival at Bristol sought out the next train to Bath, a GWR High Speed Train which was arriving at one of the other platforms and where we found two seats together without too much difficulty for the few minutes' run to Bath.

One of the great things about the Royal Hotel, Bath, is that it is right opposite the station, so within five minutes of the train stopping at the platform we had made our way down in the lift, out through the ticket gates and across to the hotel and were standing at the reception counter. This is a very friendly and welcoming hotel and we soon felt at home in our little room with all the facilities we could require: even a cafetière and ground coffee in the room! We unpacked and went out to explore the shops: I had one last bit of Christmas shopping to do on this trip while within reach of an Apple shop ...

We also visited a few other shops and dodged a shower or two and then went back to our hotel and again found ourselves perfectly happy with dining in the bar before a relatively early night. I even began writing up this blog post!

Friday was to be the spa day, and we set off after the hotel breakfast to the Thermae spa, handing in our voucher and being given our robes and flip-flops. We have to take our own swimwear and I went with the swim shorts bought in the spa gift shop on the previous visit! Last time we have towelling sandals but this time flip-flops were provided and we were allowed to keep them if we wished, which we did, so I now have Thermae-branded footwear to match my swim shorts. The two hours which are included in our ticket is actual spa time: extra time is added to allow for changing etc, and by taking a break in the café another half-hour was added, so although this could never be called a cheap activity it is good value and you never feel you are paying too much for what you get. We had plenty of time in the hot spa baths and in the steam rooms: this time I avoided the eucalyptus scented steam room but I spent plenty of time in the other three, with a warm shower in between - there was plenty of chance to close the pores by walking up to the rooftop pool, before opening them again by getting into the water.

And so back to the hotel briefly. The champagne and cream tea which were part of the package would wait until later: first we walked out to the Royal Crescent to visit the restored Georgian home at 1 Royal Crescent, where we learnt a lot about Georgian high society and fashion as well as about the design and use of these fantastic houses. Anyone with the slightest interest in the way Bath has developed really must visit this place, and the associated Museum of Bath Architecture, for which a joint ticket may be purchased, which we did. After the Royal Crescent we returned at dusk to our champagne and cream tea, enjoyed at a quiet corner table in the bar area. Being a station hotel in the centre of a small city the bar and restaurant are always bustling (but not really packed; we always found a seat). Another brief turn around some of the shops, some time in our room (more blog-writing) and then time for a light supper in the bar (having had the cream scones earlier!) and to bed.

On our final day we were not due to leave bath until after noon, and the morning was spent visiting the Museum of Bath Architecture, with a leisurely walk there, partly along the riverbank, and back through some of the streets we had not yet seen. The hotel had kindly looked after our luggage which we then went to collect and caught our train to London. I had planned some time in London on the way back so we were in no hurry to get from Paddington to our train home at Kings Cross and we spent a little time at the British Museum - mostly buying a few more Christmas gifts at the gift shop. Warning: the cloakroom charges per bag and there is a maximum weight of bag: we had to decant some of our contents into boxes for which we were then also charged more. If you're used to free or cheap cloakrooms or lockers this can come as a bit of a shock, but we'd been before and knew we were taking a chance of being surcharged - it was not so much the cost as the faff of emptying a quarter of each of two cases to make up an imaginary third case, all of which had to be undone to repack when we left just before closing time.

Finally the good old number 10 bus to Kings Cross from right outside the museum (this bus gets us there from almost anywhere we need to be in London!), a short wait in the Virgin Trains East Coast First Class Lounge at the station, and the 18:30 fast train to Peterborough to wait for our little Cross Country train home. Brilliant holiday, with lots of new stuff as well as lots of familiar places. We'll be back in Bath, and have joined the hotel's loyalty scheme: it is so good and so well located, and there's a lot of Bath we still have not visited.


Thursday 17 November 2016

Rising to the challenge!

A couple of years ago I had to attend a residential meeting in Yorkshire, which I managed to do by train and bus in spite of a clear expectation that everyone would drive there, a house miles from the nearest town. My Bishop does seem to like setting me a challenge, and this autumn the meeting was held at a country house hotel in Market Bosworth, famous only for the battle in which King Richard III was killed, although a very pleasant little town. Last time I had been in that part of the country I was 21 years old and driving a minibus full of other members of the Aston Steam and Rail Society to visit the (since deceased) Revd Teddy Boston at Cadeby Rectory, over forty years ago.

But how would I get there without the car? Quite simply, as it turned out, and this is where the internet has really made travelling to new places so much easier by public transport: by searching for "buses to Market Bosworth" I was easily able to download the timetable for the bus service from and back to Leicester, Arriva route 153, and Leicester is a quick through train ride from my home in Stamford. I worked and enjoyed coffee on the train to Leicester and took in the scenery on the bus ride.

Driving is probably quicker, to be fair, but I do try not to clog up the roads and present hazards and pollution to everyone I pass unless I have no choice. I have written into my rule of life that I shall walk, cycle or use public transport whenever possible, and although it is not always possible, it is not as difficult to avoid driving as many people think. And I met people, and spoke to some, and I enjoyed a walk across Leicester city centre between the rail station and St Margaret's bus station, and the views across the Leicester countryside from the top deck of the bus, turning a necessary journey into a joyful adventure.

Tuesday 15 November 2016

A Day in the Garden

Cambridge is an easy day out from our home in Stamford and there is a lot to see there, so many day trips are possible without boredom ever setting in. While the rail station in Cambridge is a bit of a walk (or a cheap and simple bus ride using a PlusBus ticket bought with the train ticket) from the city centre places of interest, one destination for which the station is really well-placed is the University Botanic Garden. The Botanic Garden is, of course, of academic interest for some but it also just a lovely place to visit, a pleasant day in beautiful gardens with some interesting plants and, as a bonus, a really good cafeteria, too!

Travelling on Cross Country Trains' 10:00 service from Stamford towards Stansted Airport, we arrived in Cambridge at about 11:00 and simply walked straight ahead out of the station, and right opposite the end of the station approach road is an entrance to the Botanic Garden. There is an admission charge of £5 for adults, well worthwhile for a day's activity but perhaps not for a quick hour or so. We arrived just at the right time for coffee and then explored the gardens, beginning with the hothouses, and broke off in due course for an excellent lunch, sitting out in the sunshine, and then resumed our exploration. We learnt a lot about the history of rose-growing, and a lot about fenland plants, relevant to our own lives and to Cambridge. We looked in more detail at some things than at others, but to some extent I think we saw everything there and eventually were tired enough to need to return home! The more energetic of my readers might like to go into the city centre shopping or sightseeing after visiting the Botanic Garden (and using the bus would make this less energetic than it sounds!) but for us it was time to make our way back down Station Road to await our train.

It is always disturbing to see the number of people awaiting the Birmingham-bound trains at Cambridge in the afternoon, but although the trains tend to be packed leaving Cambridge, a lot of people leave at Ely and there is soon plenty of space: Ely is not very far, and these trains, along with those to Norwich and to Kings Lynn, form part of a frequent local service for people who work or study in Cambridge, without whom things like the Botanic Garden would not exist for us all to enjoy. It could be worse: you could be stuck in the dreadful Cambridge traffic queues on the streets and highways!

I'll let my photographs speak for themselves about the wonderful things we saw on our grand day out in Cambridge!

Thursday 10 November 2016

Mediterranean Sunshine, part 4: Le pont d'Avignon

LGV platform at Avignon TGV station
Avignon is one of those towns where the station for high-speed trains is outside the town with a local train service linking it to the central station. Being a brand-new station SNCF had taken the opportunity to indulge in some spectacular architecture and produced a stunning main building for the high-speed line. A curious design, it has just one platform to serve the TGVs in both directions, and there is no canopy over the platform but numerous doors into the long, curved air-conditioned building that houses all the station's facilities, with a subway under the main line to reach the platforms for the ordinary trains that take passengers to and from Avignon and beyond.

As we arrived in the blazing sun and the highest temperature so far, our local train was waiting for us and we were soon on our way into town. Our hotel, Le Cloitre St Louis, was a short walk from the station and was in a building which has had a complex history but began as a Jesuit seminary and had a real monastic feel to it. Modernised sensitively it still felt like a monastery. Our room was huge, and again it was a shame we were not staying longer. We unpacked and went to find the rooftop swimming pool, small, but uncrowded and very welcome with temperatures in the mid-thirty degrees. After shower and change of clothes we made our way into the town for dinner and a stroll to find the famous Bridge of Avignon where people were reputed to have danced and which ends midstream in the Rhône. We picked our way through the narrow streets around the Papal Palace and out onto the riverbank where we saw the bridge floodlit, and then returned to the huge area of outdoor restaurants in the main square and settled on one of them for supper. We walked back to our hotel a long way round: by now it was a little cooler and we need not hurry.

In the morning we had breakfast looking out into the quadrangle in the middle of the main building of the hotel. We checked out but were not leaving until mid-afternoon and were able not only to leave our luggage but to use the swimming pool, too, which we did after our exploration of Avignon. It was even hotter than the day before; not having visited anywhere tropical, this was the hottest weather we had ever experienced, so we opted to do just one thing that day before swimming and catching the train home, and that one thing was to go onto Le Pont d'Avignon.

We strolled there through the streets which now looked so different from the night before, with the shops open and the outdoor restaurants mostly closed, and we made our way to the free ferry to the opposite bank of the river. It was loading as we arrived and the queue was short enough for everyone to board. The crossing gave a great view of the bridge, and on the opposite bank we walked along with many a good view. A café at the end gave us a chance to take a rest and consume yet another iced tea, the signature drink of this holiday! Then we walked over the modern bridge which took us (all the way!) back to the town side of the river and to the entrance to the old bridge which has a fascinating history tied up in legend and the story of the Church in Avignon: I'm not going to relate it here but encourage readers to go and see it for yourselves - it's an easy ride from London!

Last-minute rooftop swim!
We walked out along the bridge which is narrow and not at all suitable for dancing. Apparently the people never did dance on the bridge but at one time did dance under it, "sous le pont," not "sur le pont;" an easy mistake to make! And so back for our swim, change into out travelling clothes and off to the central station for the local train to Avignon TGV where the Eurostar train was to whisk us back to London en route for home. It was a little late, delayed by a late-running Paris TGV in front of it: do not let anyone fool you into thinking that only British trains have that problem; we have travelled a lot in the UK and in Europe and in our experience our railways are no worse or better than anyone else's, including the much-celebrated Swiss railways.

Avignon TGV station
Boarding the train is fuss-free on the way back, but I have to say that the air-conditioning simply meant that the temperature was tolerable in the shorts and summer shirts we were wearing! On the way back, a light tea is served soon after Lyons, and then dinner later, again a very decent hot meal, and then at Lille Europ the train stops for the security checks that were made at St Pancras on the way out. Everyone leaves the train with luggage and goes through passport control and the usual searches. While we were off the train it was searched by the security guards and then we all re-boarded just as if we were travelling from Lille. The train was on the move again in about an hour. This stop is a bit of an annoyance, but we took the opportunity to change our clothes because we were fairly sure that in London the temperature at night was going to be considerably lower than in Avignon in the afternoon! It was not cold when we left the train at St Pancras, but I was glad to have put on slightly more substantial clothing - this was a matter of thinking ahead and having our London outfits easily to hand at the top of our cases when we packed them before leaving the hotel.

We stayed overnight in London at a hotel near Euston, a bit busy but OK. We had open tickets for the return and could leave at any time, and we had arranged to meet some of our family in west London for a celebration lunch at the amazing Hedone restaurant at Turnham Green, for which you really must read my Trip Advisor review! And then home a little earlier than the usual train, First Class all the way, thanks to the deals made for us by Great Rail Journeys Independent. As we so often say, we shall have to return, and indeed go further, into Monaco and Italy, perhaps. One day ...

Saturday 29 October 2016

Grand Designs via Grand Central: a Grand Day Out

Interesting laundry equipment at Grand
Designs Live: one of the innovations on show
 When I open the Saturday newspaper and all the bits fall out of the wrapped magazine section, they normally go unread into the recycling bin, but a couple of weeks ago a brochure for the Grand Designs Live exhibition at the National Exhibition Centre managed to achieve a stay of execution by catching my eye. In a few years' time I shall need to think about getting my retirement home into shape and some inspiration from such an exhibition might be worth having, Further, it was at the NEC which is easy to get to, and it was open on my day off ... Tickets were ordered online (and downloaded and printed at home, as is becoming the norm for exhibitions), and then train tickets, standard class, off peak, ordered from Cross Country Trains.

Although the obvious way there is via Birmingham New Street to Birmingham International, the NEC's station, the online booking engine came up with a route via Coventry which shaved about 4 minutes off the outward trip at the cost of an extra change of train, and although I would not normally bother, this would be an interesting ride on a line I'd never used before, so we resolved that if we were on time into Nuneaton we would go that way, and if late we'd stay on board our Cross Country train to New Street and change there in the normal way. It was on time, and we had coffee and biscuits from the trolley on the way to Nuneaton.

The Nuneaton - Coventry line was closed to passenger traffic when I lived in Birmingham in the seventies but opened, serving Bedworth as well, not long after. It is now a full-fledged local service with several intermediate stops, although the single-coach train struggles to cope with crowds at the Coventry Arena stop on match days. For us, it transported us smoothly and comfortably to Coventry where we boarded a Virgin Trains Pendolino for the short trip to Birmingham International.

The show itself was fascinating. Lots to see and many ways to empty ones bank account. It was extremely useful not to be in a position to order anything for several years because that prevented us bing sucked into the "exhibition discount if you order today," except on the wines which we were persuaded to try ... and only just managed to avoid buying. I have to say these were really good but we had not come to buy wines but to get ideas about our future home, which may well have wine in it, but not yet.

Using off-peak tickets meant that we arrived at the show late in the morning, so we had lunch there and then, finished with all we wanted to see by late afternoon, made our way to New Street to await the first off-peak train home. A little stroll around the Grand Central shopping centre above the station, a visit to the Ian Allan book and model shop, and a longer visit to House of Fraser easily filled the time - never fear a long wait for a train at New Street for there is no shortage of things to do in central Birmingham.

We bought sandwiches and Le Froglet wine at M&S at the station for our supper on the way home and boarded our train. Although we were travelling on open tickets we did have seats reserved on the first off-peak train because we know these can get rather busy. A grand day out, with brochures and purchases from the exhibition (we fell for a lavatory brush, believe it or not, at exhibition-only price, of course!) and from the city centre shops as we made our way back across the meadows to our current home.

Mediterranean Sunshine, part 3: The Côte d'Azur!

Trailing our luggage we walked through the early morning streets of Marseille and climbed the impressive flight of stairs to the station, flanked by sculptures representing the African and Asian countries of the former French empire, of which Marseille was the principal port. We were not travelling so far, however, and were looking for the train to Nice for our next stop.

We were in good time and easily found our train which was waiting for us at the indicated platform. This was not a TGV, and the first class coach had compartments: we had not travelled in one of those since our trip to Switzerland two years before! No catering on board, but we were travelling between breakfast and coffee time, so that was not a problem.

The journey took us out of the city and then along the Mediterranean coast with frequent glimpses of the sea, always azure and sometimes in little rocky coves and at other times great sweeping bays. Main roads or winding little roads accompanied us from time to time and we passed through, and occasionally stopped at, towns along the way, some of them well-known such at Toulon and Cannes. In due course we arrived at Nice and stepped off the train into the baking heat of another French Riviera town.

Our Edwardian Travel-themed room at the Nice Excelsior
The Nice Excelsior Hotel was close to the station, just a few metres along the street that actually emerges from a tunnel beneath the station, in the direction of the seafront. We were there in a few moments and although well in advance of check-in time were told that our room was almost ready and we could wait in the lounge if we wished. This we did and were soon taken to a beautiful room decorated with murals of the town and with furniture modelled on trunks and packing cases, a hotel with a real travel theme! The room was at the back of the hotel with a balcony overlooking the courtyard garden and we began to wish we had more than one night booked here.

We asked for advice on where to find a good cup of coffee and set off for the recommended café in a little square near the main shopping street. We liked it so much that we returned later for supper, no English spoken but really friendly personal service, and the proprietor turned out to be the father-in-law of the lady at the hotel who had recommended him. Newly in business he was very enthusiastic and was serving mostly local people, mostly on the pavement outside, which was where we also sat.

Fortified by coffee we set off to look around the famous Nice flower market and then bought a light picnic lunch which we ate in a pleasant park where we could sit in the shade of trees to avoid the full sun.

After lunch came to walk up the hill to the viewpoint at the Parc du Chateau - a long climb but a café at the top where we discovered the delights of iced tea. The view over the Port de Nice (basically a marina) on one side and back over the city on the other was amazing. We could look along the whole length of the beach, the Avenue des États-Unis and the Promenade des Anglais right along to the airport with its runways marking the other end of the sweeping bay. Stunning view, well worth the climb. We spent some time here and then made our way down, the short way down to the seafront, and then walked along the Avenue des États-Unis and the Promenade des Anglais. The beach and the promenade were busy but not crowded and we walked some distance enjoying the sunshine and seeing this famous seafront. It had been only a few weeks since the dreadful terrorist murder and there was a heavy presence of armed police: I'm not convinced that they made me feel any safer. I felt as safe as I do anywhere else anyway.

Eventually we felt we had walked enough and we found a bus stop with a service to the railway station, which was, of course, almost to the door of our hotel, so we waited for the bus and rode back. On the way we passed a closed street with new tramlines being laid: it is not only in the UK that the value of trams is being rediscovered, and this will be the second tramline in Nice, the first already being in service.

After a shower we returned to our little café for supper and then strolled through the shopping streets (safe enough from spending too much at that time of the night!) back towards the seafront until it was time to return for bed, ready for departure the following morning. We'd have spent some time in the bar at the hotel but for some reason it was closed that evening, and that was the only evening we had.

Breakfast was not such a hurried affair as the previous day and we had time to enjoy our room for just a a little longer before setting off on our very short walk to the station for our next train, a Paris-bound TGV to Cannes for another day at the seaside. As this was only a short ride we were travelling standard class, and our seats were on the upper deck of a duplex carriage, so we had even better views of the coast.

Cannes station is rather curiously built underneath the inner relief road of the town - I expect the railway was the only "gap in the urban fabric" into which the road could be fitted - but although it mean that the platform area was rather dark and drab, the building was new and bright and airy. There were left-luggage facilities at the station and so we left our suitcases there so that we would be free of them for our day visit to Cannes. It is a short walk through interesting streets from the station to the seafront, and the seafront at Cannes is amazing. There is a lot of beach, sandy here rather than the pebbles of Nice, but most of the beach area is private, belonging to the hotels fronting the road behind the beach. Also along the seafront roadside is a long row of the most exclusive clothes and accessory shops I have ever seen. There is money here: living in Stamford I am used to seeing Ferraris and Bentleys every day, but only in Cannes have I seen two Lamborghinis parked together at the kerbside ...

We did get on a beach in Cannes, there is a public section and it was not overcrowded so we had our usual walk along the waterline. We visited the gift shop at the arts centre which is the centre of the famous Film Festival, and in the very hot weather discovered a real liking for iced tea!

Soon it was time to head back to the station, recover our luggage and board the Paris-bound TGV for our next overnight stop, Avignon. It was a real joy to enter the air-conditioned interior of the station and to relax on the train and watch the coastal scenery go by, retracing our route of the previous morning; was it really only yesterday? Then in the outskirts of Marseille, our train turned north and followed the Rhône valley. We were on our way to Avignon.

Wednesday 12 October 2016

A funny thing happened on the way to York ...

Virgin Trains East Coast breakfast
I went to York a little while ago for a training course. It was well timed for arriving by train and when I went to book my tickets with Virgin Trains East Coast I was going to do as I often do, book First Class, but look up the standard fare and just claim that on expenses, but when I did all that I found that the First Class Advance fare was actually the cheapest available at the time I needed to travel! So that was what I both booked and claimed, and the included breakfast really was free ... and it was the new menu with better egg and a fresher feel to the whole thing.

Train home from York

For the way back I did have to pay a little more for First Class, but taking into account the included dinner with wine, the extra was well worth paying, quite apart from comfort, space and free wifi. I arrived at York station for my train home earlier than anticipated and had a while to wait for the booked train (with Advance fares I have to travel on a specific train, on which my seat is reserved) and looked in vain for a First Class Lounge, for in spite of York being Virgin Trains East Coast home city and having a famous great station there is no lounge. Plenty of seats on the platform, and that was where I awaited my train. The platforms at York are of enormous length and can easily take two inter-city train sets each, even the bay (terminal) platforms can take one full-length train. You do not feel cramped at York!

Dinner on the way back, a varying menu

And so home, with a change of train at Peterborough after dinner, an easy journey.

Friday 7 October 2016

Mediterranean Sunshine, part 2:
Exploring Marseille

Swordfish steaks on sale direct from the fishing boats at
Marseille quayside
Breakfast at the Grand Hotel Beauvau in Marseille was in the room adjacent to the bar where we'd had supper and had a similar view of the quayside below. Before breakfast I had taken a stroll along the quayside looking at the well-known fishermen's market with fish on sale the like of which we seldom see caught around England: huge slices of tuna, swordfish and shark, for example, and some unidentified shellfish, too. There was no fish in the continental breakfast but we did have lots of fruit and, of course, croissants and coffee. And then off for a walk to explore Marseille.

Marseille would be the only place we would stay for more than one day and we'd had no plan for it on our arrival but reading the information provided by the hotel had set us up for the day's activities, although we would, as we usually do, allow them to develop as we explored. One disappointment was was that MuCEM -  Musée des Civilisations de l'Europe et de la Méditerranée - was not open on Tuesdays, sot hat would have to await a future visit. There was, however, no shortage of other things to see. We began by walking along the north quay of the Vieux Port, amazed at the size and sophistication of some of the super yachts moored there and interested by the architecture of the flats overlooking the marina. We climbed steeply up to explore the old Panier district with its narrow streets, and walked around the outside of the Cathedral but did not, on this occasion, venture inside.

MuCEM museum with the cruise ship terminal beyond
We had lunch at one of many little restaurants built in the vaults under the cathedral and accessed from the road running along the quay, and we went down to the modern quayside where there was a substantial cruise ship moored and where the museum was located. All of this part of the town is quite new, some built on reclaimed land, and has been part of what has lifted Marseille from its reputation for crime and squalor to the smart tourist destination that it is today.

One place we had to visit, mainly for the view, was the church of Notre-Dame de la Garde on the other side of the Vieux Port and on top of a very high and steep hill, a building which dominates the view for miles. It was a long way up and the weather was very hot, but there is a bus, and it starts from a stop by MuCEM which was, as the museum was closed that day, not busy ... so an easy ride up the hill!

From the level of the car park and bus stop there were fairly breathtaking views over the city and the sea, but the church itself involved a climb up many more steps and the view was greater still. We visited the two shops, one spiritual and one souvenir, at the church and spent some time admiring the views from all around. Like all decent churches with lots of visitors, this one had excellent catering facilities and we enjoyed a drink and a snack lunch here before walking back down into the city.

The view over the city from Notre-Dame de la Garde
The walk back took us through a park and back to the quayside where we'd been the night before. We wanted to visit the soap museum gift shop to buy souvenirs for people at home, and we found all we needed here - real souvenirs of a part of the life of Provence and Marseille that we'd discovered while here. We'd bought our postcards in the city centre in the morning, and we returned to out hotel to write them and then posted them just before the post office closed in the hope that they might arrive back in Lincolnshire before we did (they did).

Although we had read a few menus while out we ended up back at the hotel bar for another salad supper, paid our hotel bill and did all the packing we could before retiring to bed, because our next train was another early morning one! This time we would have time for breakfast but only if we were completely ready, and took our cases into the dining room with us (I've never done that before!). We waited for the doors to the dining room to open, went in and sat in the window and enjoyed another great breakfast before walking back to the Gare St Charles, and so begins the next chapter, which I'll post in due course!

All my photographs can be seen on Flickr, and the Trip Advisor reviews can be found by following the link in the right-hand column.

Sunday 18 September 2016

Mediterranean Sunshine, part 1:
“If It's Monday This Must Be Marseille”

When I used to buy the British Rail Timetable in the seventies it always came with an International section and I used to look though it in hope that one day I'd be able travel abroad on some the exotic sounding trains: the Orient Express, the Rome Express, etc.. I remember seeing the coaches in London Victoria for the Night Ferry train to Paris (the only through train between the two capitals before the Channel Tunnel opened) and hearing about the Golden Arrow all-Pullman day service to Paris. When I first visited Brugge by train via the Dover-Oostende jetfoil I was excited to see that the train next to mine at Oostende station was going to Moscow – and that was still in the days of the Soviet Union.

Our Eurostar train at Marseille St Charles, being prepared
for its journey back to London
With the frequent fast Eurostar services to Paris and Brussels now available via the Channel Tunnel, and the disappearance of the named Pullman trains, a bit of the excitement of continental travel has vanished. Long-distance trains are now more frequent and tend to have generic brand names rather than exotic names of their own – although our own dear Night Riviera (to Cornwall) and Highland Chieftain (to Inverness) are among the exceptions. A year ago Eurostar tried out an occasional direct train to the French Riviera, and this year the frequency of it was increased: daily in the summer, a few times a week in spring and autumn, once a week in the winter. Never more than daily and with facilities a little different from other Eurostar services it seems to me that this train is crying out for a name, but it has not been given one. Perhaps I should make one up: “the Direct Eurostar to Marseille” is a bit prosaic!

We had a holiday booked to Switzerland at the end of the summer, but that was cancelled by the tour operator and I decided to fill the time instead with a trip to the South of France on the direct Eurostar to Marseille. It was to be an exploration, a tour, and we would move about and see several places but with no real agenda so that we could also relax, for we needed a rest. The week was the last of the summer timetable with daily trains, so we had some choice of when to travel, and having looked at what we'd like to do I rang Great Rail Journeys to arrange it for us, for they offer independent holidays as well as their own packages and they'd given me a discount voucher in compensation for the cancellation of the Swiss tour. I could also trust them to find good hotels and good prices on train tickets. Slightly nail-biting, the tickets are sent only ten days before departure and meanwhile we bought our Euro currency (at greatly inflated price just after the referendum result shook the financial world) and checked our passports and insurance. A couple of short breaks in England meant that I was not just pacing the floor while waiting for the day to dawn!

So … on a Sunday afternoon we made our way to Stamford station. It was a slightly awkward start because the line between Stamford and Peterborough was closed for maintenance, but a good coach service was laid on and its timetable published so it did not affect us a great deal and when we arrived at Peterborough we went straight to a train to London and took our seats in First Class – a huge advantage of booking through a tour operator was that we had fully-flexible first class tickets at an affordable price which we could never have booked ourselves. We had to carry our itinerary with us so that we could prove we were on an inclusive tour if we were asked, although we never were. The usual Sunday tea with sandwiches and cake was served on the train to London.

The Eurostar leaves London at 07:19 in the morning, so we spent the first night of the tour in London. I had asked for good hotels, and our room at the Radisson Edwardian Grafton exceeded all our expectations: it was a pity we were only staying one night! Up early in the morning we were given take-away coffee and a muesli bar as we were too early for breakfast, although London was already waking up as we walked along Euston Road to St Pancras International to check in – we knew that there would be a proper breakfast on the train. The usual procedure at St Pancras: insert ticket in gateway, put luggage on conveyor along with pocket contents for searching, take it all back again, show passport to both UK and French border officers (this time stare at camera for an automated check of passport photo, too, with our EU electronic passports – I wonder what will happen to those now) and sit and wait for boarding to begin.

When we arrived on the platform I was delighted to see that our train was composed of one of the recently-refurbished Eurostar sets in a very smart white-and-dark-blue livery, and I looked forward to seeing how the interior would differ from the trains we had used before. Not only was it smarter, cleaner and more up-to-date in style, but there were handy new features such as USB sockets for charging our smartphones etc as well as standard UK and continental sockets and, handiest of all, free wireless internet (so our smartphones were well worth charging!). The train staff were dressed rather more informally than usual, in T shirts with seaside holiday symbols: this was clearly a train for the leisure market!

We had not been travelling long when the continental breakfast was served: fruit juice, croissant, optional yogurt and coffee, of course. These Eurostar trains are very fast indeed and as we ran beside the M2 and M20 through Kent we were more than twice as fast as anything on the motorways!

Cheers! Starting the wine while waiting for the main course
On our journey to Marseille I wrote quite a lot of of my preceding blogpost; iPhone plugged into USB port to provide our “where are we?” map, and MacBook plugged into the mains socket for typing the blog! Soon through the tunnel and into France we stopped briefly at Lille and then plunged on past Paris (no longer do trains crawl through the suburbs; there is now a high-speed line by-passing the city) and on to the Rhone valley. Lunch is served in time for those travelling to Lyon to eat before they arrive, and this was a new experience for us on a Eurostar train: the catering on Paris and Brussels services is either breakfast like the one we had already enjoyed on this trip, or a very light meal of bread and cheese, but this was a cooked meal with a choice of main dish. We opted for stewed beef. Bread rolls and individual bottles of red wine, and of water, accompanied the meal with a cold dessert. It was delicious and filling.

The weather had been gloomy most of the way, but began to be sunny by the time the train stopped at Avignon. Our stop was the last, Marseille St Charles, and donning our Panama hats and sunglasses we stepped off the train into blazing sunshine with a brilliance and heat that were breathtaking. This was to be our weather, with a small exception, for the rest of the week, and we had packed on the assumption that it would be. The train ride had been an exciting start to what would turn out to be a wonderful holiday.

Marseille is a very hilly city and the first task on leaving the station was to carry our baggage down the substantial flight of steps into the street below, our hotel being on the quayside at the Vieux Port, a walk of about fifteen minutes, plotting our way with maps downloaded to our smartphones before we left home. Our hotel, the Grand Hotel Beauvau, was extremely comfortable and our room overlooked the Vieux Port, which is now a very busy marina full of yachts and still a fishing port and the terminal for ferries and pleasure cruises out to the islands. We checked in, took our cases to our room and went for a walk along one side the Vieux Port, up to a park overlooking the whole port and the old part of the town – we passed a soap museum (yes, really) and discovered that soap is a significant part of the history of the region, along with the famous Provence lavender which scents much of it.

Back at the hotel we repaired to the bar, again overlooking the marina, fell for the advertised cocktail, and ordered a salad meal for supper. As we sat looking out over the quayside a dramatic electric storm began, with lightning spectacularly lighting up the sky and the hills and sea, and the people on the quayside hurried for cover – handily the new public artwork of a flat canopy with mirrored ceiling was right outside, near the steps from the metro, and there was space under it for everyone who wanted cover. And so to bed, and Tuesday is another day!

I'll be describing the rest of the week soon, and meanwhile all my Trip Advisor reviews are available via the link in the right-hand column, and my photographs are on my Flickr album.