Tuesday, 29 March 2011

The Alps - A White Wonder

As though transported 3,000 miles from a Caribbean beach and lifted 2,500 metres onto the Alps, untouched snow glistened in the sun with greater ferocity than a cloud-bare sky at night. Surely the stars felt slightly threatened by this temporary frozen wonder.

The sun shone in full spirit as if challenging itself to remove the white carpet from its stage below – yet this complex structure defied its rays reflecting all energy back – defiant to win this fight til dusk when mist filled the valleys reminiscent of a Swedish steam room. By nightfall Les Deux Alpes is drowned by cloud – creating a haze that formed a ghostly awe to the mountain village.

What makes a holiday – or a vacation?

Brits will deny a vacation exists; while for an American a holiday is a vacation. However I disagree entirely – a holiday is a part of life; as an individual you’re existing day to day just without the dramas of work and expectations from an employer; while a vacation – to me – is turning your life upon its head, doing everything differently and forgetting or blocking out everything that happens day to day. Exploring who you are as a person: re-evaluating your priorities and making decisions for where your life goes next. Taking that lead in the direction of your steps.

Les Deux Alpes

Les Deux Alpes is about a 2-hour bus ride south of Grenoble airport with the option of flying EasyJet from London Gatwick for just £50 return (inclusive of additional bag in hold). Organising a group of nine through self-booking is no easy feat but certainly worth the price tag!

The 1.5 hour flight to Grenoble will get you to the mountains within a few hours and here presented by an awkward and erratic uphill climb gripping to the side of the steep rock until arriving to a very brisk, dry and cold thin air. Here, we were dropped just a 30 second walk from our Hotel – Le Cret.

Le Cret  - a 3 star fully catered (or B&B) chalet – appeared as a traditional montagne maison with the exterior dressed part in wooden cladding and the roof exploiting a sharp upside down V. On entering we were hit by the warmth both of the interior and its owners. Roberto greeted us with a friendly and knowing hello – within 30 minutes we had stored our bags in our rooms and were slouched across the multiple sofas in front of the television as though we were in a home away from home. http://www.hotel-le-cret.com

Monday, 14 March 2011

Berlin - a fresh new European capital

Third time in Berlin and the experience gets richer and easier, while traveling on business the leisure opportunities are immense when immersing yourself with the locals. Berliners are certainly a mixed bunch more often than not comfortable speaking English and keen to interact with visitors (or tourists)!

The city is incredibly cheap for an international and capital city; it's also incredibly simple to navigate and is still small enough not to be at the mercy of a stampede of people on every walk way like that of London or Paris.

Steeped in a rich yet morbid 20th century history this ancient yet incredibly young city is still growing up and out. Rebuilding and restoring architectural artefacts affected by the war while constructing monumental pieces in memory of the dead and classy artistic structures that make Berlin a fascinating fusion of new architectural concepts. The sheer determination and commitment of Berliners whether german or otherwise demonstrates their courage to raise from the ashes a confident and proud diverse community that the rest of the world can look towards.

Berlin proudly exploits it's diversity and individuality - committed to supporting and caring for all it's people as citizens or visitors. Unlike the impersonal touch of London and Paris germany's capital feels like a close knit community little different to a small seaside town or country village.

Perhaps the most striking aspect is the cost, Berlin is cheap. Here you can leave behind preconceptions of expensive European cities - instead here there's no overt exploitation of visitors wallets. There are a few areas - like by Check Point Charlie where you'll be minimally ripped off - but most bars and restaurants will charge you a reasonable price for it's meals making it a pleasant funding experience.

Zoologischer Garten is a fantastic and lively shopping district with simple eateries, Nollendorfplatz has a vibrant and exciting gay scene, Alexandrplatz is the perfect entrance to the sightseeing experience here in Berlin. Explore further out beyond U2 and you'll gain similar experience of inclusion.

Take time in Berlin to speak to locals; treat yourself to local cuisine and breathe the past of world wars. This city is like no other - and with so much development there is much to look forward to here!

Friday, 4 March 2011

Venice - a weekend around water world

Venice - a city of water, history, architecture and romance. Taking to the airways on board a very national British Airways flight departing early on a Saturday morning; following a 40 minute drive from home - and a challenging navigation to the parking point - we arrived in the city of love by midday.

A sharp exit from Venice airport we stood overlooking a Azure blue lagoon begging to be crossed. A 25euro ticket return, in 3 stops it dropped us at the southern island of Lido. We marched our suitcases to the hotel - like any weekend tourist needing to purchase an exceptionally high priced map to navigate to the hotel. Bags dropped we hurried to the dock to begin our exploration.

Seeming as Venice is a group of water-logged islands; cars or 'land vehicles' are impossible to accommodate. The islands like Lido had cars but owners had very little use for them, seeming as the key mode of transport are boats. Priced at 23Euros for 48 hours - we hoped this would last the duration of our stay.

While we waited for our friends to secure their car North of Venice; we grabbed a bite of lunch - an obligatory pizza - then jumped to the main isle for a bout of tourist sightseeing. Coincidentally on landing at San Marco we received a call from our friends advising they had reached the hotel. So with just 45 minutes we scooted around the main square - witnessed one of the masked costume parades for the annual February carnival before heading back to the hotel.

Our friends had been to Venice just the year before during carnival - by all accounts the city thrived during this celebration with the world famous Venetian masks and historical costumes. Therefore it was of course essential we came highly prepared.

Once back at our abode we glamourised our bodies  - fit to parade the ramantic historical city with masks in hand. As a group of six (3 couples) we enjoyed a meal at our earlier luncheon venue before heading across the lagoon for the carnival party in San Marco Polo square.

While the city is full of vibrancy during carnival a draw back is the sheer volume of visitors - with near nowhere to move you go with the crowd. Be prepared to jostle your way to your intended destination. Though as a pure alien here - who really knows their intent?

The main square played host to entertainment and music, while the back streets were that of dark deep murder mysteries familiar to feverent readers. You can see across multiple small alleys as you maneouvre the turns and witness slight sightings of people - cloaked - hidden - beneath masks - disappearing and reappearing along parallel streets - like ghosts in the night.

Venice is certainly a tourist city, and a very expensive one at that. Don't bother with bottled beer or a glass of fine wine if you'd rather save for your budget. Instead indulge in house wine provided in half litre bottles for just 5 euros. It may not taste great - but if you're British - like me - Wine - is wine!

Due to the limitations in public transport it was essential we left for the boat in good time to return to our island for a beauty sleep. Not only was the city bitterly cold with a damp humidity; but also we had all been traveling since 5am - a long enough day for anyone.

Sunday - breakfast with fresh croissant, bread and coffee - at the dock for 12pm and on a boat for our island hopping adventure. First Moreno - an isle famed for its glass blowing. We stopped at Venice cemetry along the way - discovering how the locals disposed of bodies. An eerie silence filled the island that was imprisoned by a brick wall - any grave robber would struggle for a successful theft here.

Beautifully adorned with plastic flowers; the graves bore names of the dead across a century from the old to new born. Familes etched their names in walls for immortality and had purchsed their own burial rooms that are now crumbling to pieces.

The next stop - glass blowing island of Moreno. On arrival it looked promising; yet on closer inspection there was little to experience except a 5-minute demonstration of the ancient art. Although spectacularly performed by an enthusiastic 'fit' glass blower - his lop-sided bottle didn't win my custom - especially for small items prices 30euro+ and the cheaper items clearly rejects from the manufacturing process. I suppose every small production needs a home!

We left to find sanctuary from the now increasingly grey and wet skies for the main isle. We meandered the streets observing superb costumes among spectacular craft stores. The architecture of the city is phenomenal - clearly considered and not just knocked together.

The biting cold and demanding stomachs requested a rest-stop in a small Italian cafe; food, drink, coffee and we were back braving the streets.

The drizzle continued yet we persevered dazzled by the wandering streets no wider than arms stretched and shops the size of cubicles. Thousands of bridges made Venice the playground of elders who should know better and side alleys met the desires of young men and women seeking to act out a romantic gesture. The Gondola's owned the canals - and at their price - it's of no surprise.

Late evening back in Lido we found a welcoming bar to entertain my need for wine.

The final day our friends departed first thing for their long drive - while we explored the Doge Palace - mesmerised by more architecture, fine art and history through official government chambers - across the Bridge of Sigh; downto the prison quarters and back to San Marco Polo. 12Euro entry each - definitely worth it. Watch the snobby people telling men they can't take bags but happily allowing women to lug their sacs around.

Venice is a tourist city - if we expect anything else; be prepared to be disappointed - otherwise, escape into a world of the world famous masquerade.