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.