Brussels, Belgium

Brussels was a 1½ day transit stopover on the return home from Portugal via Hong Kong.  As it so happened it coincided with New Year’s Eve so we were keen to see how the Bruxellois celebrated.

We arrived on a pretty dour day and found the financial and political centres deathly quiet as you would expect during this time of year.  We spent an hour wandering through the EU Parliament buildings before heading over to the bustling main historical square – the Grand Place with the surrounding streets and quaint alleyways.  This was where we were easily able to spend most of our time.

The Grand Place is the main attraction in the city centre and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1998.   The square is dominated by the 15th century Flamboyant Town Hall, the neo-Gothic Breadhouse and the Baroque guildhalls of the former Guilds of Brussels. All that I will say is that you will be left awestruck by the architecture.   Manneken Pis, a fountain containing a small bronze sculpture of a urinating youth, is a famous tourist attraction and symbol of the city.  To be honest I felt this was somewhat overhyped as the sculpture and fountain are actually quite small and were dwarfed further by the throngs of tourists surrounding it…

However it was the delights of the cuisine that caught us absolutely.  The endless gorgeous shop displays of chocolate and pastries were out of this world.  We sampled the local beers, the cafes and dined at a couple of restaurants.  Brussels cuisine is pure quality – we didn’t come across a poor eating experience once during our short stay. It was just such a pity that the stomach could only hold so much!

With time being limited we decided to concentrate our visit to the city centre and to leave the more time-consuming attractions to a later (post covid) time.  The exception was a visit to Brussels landmark building – the Atomium which is just west of the city.  The Atomium is a jaw dropping model of an atom which just happens to be a whopping 102 metres tall. The sculpture was made to welcome visitors to the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair – to a new and atomic age to Belgium and is an accurate depiction of an iron molecule except that it is about 165 billion times larger!

Unfortunately the weather wasn’t kind for the New Year fireworks and I suspect many people – like us decided to stay in rather than venture outside in the cold wet conditions.

If you would like more information about this destination please do not hesitate to contact me.

Manneken Pis Statue in chocolate!!

Dubai & Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

For some reason we had delayed visiting UAE – passing up many opportunities over the years to stopover for a few days to check it out.  However our trip in late December was perfect – not intolerably hot and also a chance to see in the New Year in Dubai with their famed fireworks display.

First stop was the capital Abu Dhabi and its financial district skyline of futuristic skyscrapers.  This is best viewed from the Emirates Palace luxury hotel which is located beside a dazzling bay and is pretty much magnificent in every way.  The visit is an experience – from wandering the interior and the stunning grounds to the latte with its’ amazing gold leaf mosque artwork!

Next stop was Ferrari World indoor theme park with the renowned Formula Rossa – the world’s fastest roller coaster.  From 0-240kph in 4.9sec  Geoffrey passed up the opportunity to trying it out – or perhaps passed out would have been the result if he had.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi, opened to much acclaim in 2017 and is an art and civilization museum.  We enjoyed the visit – the exhibits were interesting and the complex wasn’t so large that we weren’t able to appreciate what the museum was trying to convey to the visitor. 

Of course the highlight was the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque – especially beautiful from sunset.  It’s construction included artisans and natural materials from many countries including New Zealand.  It was an unforgettable and moving visit.

The drive to Dubai is around 140km but it’s all highway and with petrol at around $1 / litre it’s a fairly quick taxi ride!   Unlike Abu Dhabi, Dubai has a great rapid transit rail network making getting around the city a breeze. We did the city tour visiting the main sights including a sand-bashing activity, a rock-rolling 4WD ride over and around sand dunes.  Dubai’s shopping malls are inescapable and the massive Dubai Mall is probably one of the largest in the world which includes an aquarium and underwater zoo.  The nearby Burj Khalifa – the world’s highest skyscraper at 830m was the perfect structure to produce the most amazing fireworks display that we had ever experienced.  And Geoffrey and I have seen a few.

Dubai and Abu Dhabi are unique places in the world – unreal cities in the middle of the desert and nothing like you will experience anywhere else on the planet.  Certainly a  bucket-list destination visit but would we be keen to go back there anytime soon.  Probably not.

If you would like more information about this destination please do not hesitate to contact me.

Abu Dhabi financial district skyline

Zurich, Lucerne & Jungfrau, Switzerland

From Hong Kong to Florence required a connection and we decided on Zurich where we also took the opportunity to stopover for a couple of days.  Being December we were expecting it to be old but it was actually quite pleasant and of course quiet at this time of year.

We did our usual hop-on, hop-off bus tour and tested the local transport which proved easy, convenient and efficient.  We strolled around the Old Town and lakeside and generally just explored the city’s sights.

In the afternoon we took the train to Lucerne and spent a few hours there.  The train ride is less than an hour and cheap and leaves frequently so no need to book.

The following day was the full day trip to Jungfraujoch – one of Europe’s highest-altitude train stations, set 11,333 feet (3,454 meters) above sea level in a UNESCO-listed wilderness, and dubbed the Top of Europe.  The tour starts with a scenic coach trip leaving from central Zurich and journeys south through Switzerland’s scenic Bernese Oberland to Lauterbrunnen.  You then board the train to Jungfraujoch where you disembark and enjoy the many activities and attractions there. The Alpine Sensation is a visual-experience moving walkway that transports you past presentations showcasing the Jungfrau Railway’s history and an Ice Palace glacier walk to see ice sculptures. Then head to the Sphinx Observatory for stunning panoramas over the Aletsch Glacier, and the Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau.

It was actually incredibly impressive and a must do if you have a day to spare in Zurich.

If you would like more information about this destination please do not hesitate to contact me.

Train to Jungfraujoch station – 3,454 m

Villages of Provence, France

The only way to properly see the famous lavender fields and the historic villages of Provence is by car which we picked up from Marseille.  As it was May we knew it would be relatively quiet as the lavenders don’t start to bloom until late June.

The first stop was Aix-en-Provence, a university city of around 140,000.  Our hotel was close to the Cours Mirabeau which is the heart of town and adjacent to the old town.  This is a beautiful historic area and we spent several hours just strolling the markets and shops, checking out the numerous cafes and restaurants. Especially stunning was the old Town Square  with its 16th-century clock tower and the nearby St Sauveur Cathedral.

The following day we drove to Gordes, considered as one of 7 most beautiful villages in France.  Built on the foothills of the Monts of Vaucluse, its houses and buildings of white stone root themselves into the sharp cliff of the mountain.  We spent a couple of hours here strolling  through the narrow streets and taking in the views of the surrounding countryside.

Close by is the 12th century Abbaye Notre-Dame de sénanque – a Cistercian abbey well worth a visit especially when the lavenders are in bloom.  It is still an active monastery.

The village of Roussillon is renowned for being sited in the heart of one of the biggest ochre deposits in the world with its magnificent red cliffs and ochre quarries. There are a couple of informative short walks through the old ochre quarries which Geoffrey raced through!  However we spent most of our time there just having a relaxing drink admiring the surrounding views.

Our next village Sault was our most disappointing stop.  It was getting towards the end of the day and the weather began to turn.  There are stunning views of the lavender fields to be had when in bloom, but it was April, and the village was cold, wet and largely disserted.

First stop next day was Lourmarin village and the local market was open which was a bonus.  There was a 15th Century castle nearby set within a large poppy field which is was stunning sight so typical of Provence.

The road to Valensole Village travels through the picturesque lavender countryside and where you will find some of the best photo opportunities.  The Plateau of Valensole is also famous for its truffles. The village itself is yet another example of beautiful old houses set in the colours typical of Provence.

You hear the phrase the most beautiful village in France so often in Provence but Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, in my opinion takes that accolade.  The village is built on platform terraces a hundred or so meters up the side of a limestone cliff and there are amazing views of the village from the road.  I would have loved to have spent more time there to take on the challenging walk up to the 12th century Chapel Notre-Dame-de-Beauvoir. It was probably not as far or difficult as it looked, and as well as seeing the chapel you also get lovely views across the rooftops of Moustiers.  But it was getting late in the day so it will have to wait for next time!

Our final stop was the Lake of Sainte-Croix.   This is actually a man-made lake that was formed by the construction, between 1971 and 1974 of a reinforced-concrete arch dam by the name of Dam of Sainte-Croix.  But you would never know – the waters are a beautiful emerald-green and it is used extensively for swimming, windsurfing, canoeing and kayaking, catamaraning, pedalo boating and fishing.  You can get some great photos of the Gorges from the Galetas bridge at the Northern tip of the lake.

I would love to return to Provence in July / August but I’d be fearful of the crowds.  The very narrow countryside roads could make driving a nightmare and parking at the villages almost impossible.  But the scenery would be totally out of this world.

Til next time then. If you would like more information about this destination please do not hesitate to contact me.

Valensole Plateau

Lyon, France

The car trip from Avignon to Lyon was virtually all motorway so it wasn’t a particularly interesting road trip – albeit it was quick!  They have these large service centres every 25km or so you don’t have to exit the motorway if you need a comfort / fuel / lunch stop.  This saves travel time but it does mean you may miss an interesting town en route and instead end up eating at some over-priced, mediocre and crowded pit stop.   Still, it does the job…

The obvious highlight was the ornate Basilique Notre Dame sited atop of Fourviere hill with its majestic views of the city.  On a clear day, Mont Blanc, the highest point in Europe, can be seen in the distance.   We then took the funicular down to Vieux Lyon (the old city) and spend a few hours exploring the interesting winding alleys, restaurants and shops.

Once we arrived in the city it took us a good 40 minutes to return the rental due to the traffic congestion so it wasn’t a great introduction to the city.     However our hotel was located in the heart of Lyon, a stone’s throw from Place Bellecour.  As we usually do when we first arrive in a new city we purchased a hop-on, hop-off bus tour.  These are inexpensive and a great way to quickly orientate yourself as well as having great views from the double-decker.  They also serve as great transport to getting around the city especially if you have the time.

Geoffrey, fresh from his London Marathon a couple of weeks earlier, also explored the city by running along the banks of the Rhone and Saône rivers while I explored the premium shops around Rue de la République.  There are also a number of interesting markets around the city and Geoffrey mentioned the utterly modern, cool Confluences Mall situated near Lyon’s revamped docks area that he ran past. 

Although Lyon is the 3rd largest city in France you can easily cover its main attractions over a few days and it is only 2 hours by fast train from Paris and even less from Marseille. 

Definitely worth a visit.

If you would like more information about this destination please do not hesitate to contact me.

La Saone River

Marseille, France

Marseille was our starting point for our visit to road trip through Provence.  Being early May we would miss the crowds and the heat (great!) but also the famous lavender fields that Provence which start to bloom from mid-June.  That would be for another time…

We stayed within walking distance of the Vieux-Port (Old Port) which is the Marseille’s cultural heart and main focal point.  It’s a great place to stroll along the markets and restaurants and bars.  On the north side stands the modern and hugely impressive Museum which houses exhibitions considered world-class.

The city’s most striking landmark is the Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde, which is visible from all over the Marseille.  If you’re fit you can walk there.  We purchased a hop-on hop off day bus pass which included a stop at the basilica with breath-taking views.  We then spent the several hours just slowly walking back down and through the interesting neighborhoods back to the Port.  Lunch was had at one of many well-priced seafood restaurants surrounding the port.

Island hopping half day cruises are also a popular activity but we decided to leave that for our next visit when we had more time.

Unfortunately we were somewhat limited in our options during our short stay as it was May 1st (Labour Day) and virtually everything (including all public transport) shuts down in the city.  This also coincided with the very noisy yellow vest protest which we stayed well away from.

The next day we picked up our rental car from the airport (which is 24km from the city)  to start our main road trip to Provence and Lyon.

If you would like more information about this destination please do not hesitate to contact me.

May 1st Labour Day Yellow-Vest protest

39th London Marathon

This was Geoffrey’s 10th Marathon and undoubtedly his most memorable to date.  London is quite different from the other large marathons in that the major sponsor is Virgin Money Giving, meaning that the event is so charity focused.  Around 75% of the nearly 43,000 runners raise money for charity.  In total, more than £1 billion has been raised since the first London Marathon event in 1981 and it is now the largest single one day fundraising event in the world.   Over to Geoffrey …

What a fantastic event.  The crowd support along the route was incredible and the thousands of volunteers made this an enjoyable experience for the athletes.  The weather dawned perfectly cool to start with temperatures rising only slowly during the run.  The world No.1 Eliud Kipchoge was also running which was a good omen for me.  His last event was Berlin the previous year where I also ran and where I broke the 4hr mark for the first time.

I felt good right from the start but often this is due to the excess adrenaline.   It can sometimes catch you out as you run too fast and then pay for it dearly over the last 10kms.   But the training had gone really well so I wasn’t too concerned.  There’s also a marathon mantra which you repeat to yourself time and time again during the run – Trust Your Training!

At the half-way point I still felt great but I was a little concerned that I was now more than 3 minutes under my goal time and I prayed that I hadn’t overdone it.   At 25km the first signs of leg cramp hit me and I immediately cursed myself for ignoring my pre-race strategy.  From this point to the end would all be about management now just to get me to the finish.  I immediately slowed down by 20sec / km and concentrated on improving my hydration and nutrition intake.

The last 17km were probably the hardest I’ve ever run in my life.  I hardly noticed the screaming crowds after that – the fantastic sights – Canary Wharf, Tower of London, Whitehall Gardens, London Eye, Big Ben, Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace were just a blur.  But the total concentration meant I was able to manage a steady consistent pace – and to cross the finish line in a new personal best, Boston Qualifying time.

Absolutely magic.

Undisputed Marathon GOAT

Geneva, Switzerland

Our France itinerary had allowed for a day trip from Lyon and as we considered the many temping options it was soon obvious what our choice would be.  Although the train trip was a little longer (2hrs each way)  we could take in the relaxing sights from our carriage before our arrival into Geneva, Switzerland.  We just couldn’t resist the opportunity to see this most famous of cities – a powerhouse of numerous international organisations (the UN, Red Cross), and a huge global financial centre.  What makes Geneva tempting for a day trip is that it is so compact – you get off the train and you can access the main sights, the waterfront and Old Town by foot.  Geneva also has an excellent bus and tram system so you are able to easily tick off many other main attractions in a few hours.

Highlights were St Pierre Cathedral and the views of the city from its north tower, the European headquarters of the United Nations and the symbolic Broken Chair sculpture nearby.  The Jet d’eau is probably Geneva’s most famous landmark – this massive fountain (situated on the left side of Lake Geneva) jets 500 litres water per second to a height of 140 meters.  Don’t miss the nearby L’horloge fleurie or the outdoor Flower Clock.

It was a beautiful day so there was time for a relaxing lunch along one of the many lakeside restaurants as well as some shopping in some of the many interesting shops.    Probably more browsing than actual shopping though as Geneva is ranked as one of the most expensive cities in the world!

If you would like more information about this destination please do not hesitate to contact me. 

View of Jet d’eau from St Pierre Cathedral North Tower

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon was the second stop of our Portugal trip and we instantly noticed the big city feel compared to the far more quaint Porto.  Lisbon, like Porto, is a coastal city bursting with culture and with seemingly endless things to see and do (and eat!!).  You could easily spend a full week here.  We just had 3 days so this was a city which we marked down to return to at a later date.

What surprised us was how busy the city was – we were there supposedly there during one of the quieter tourist winter months.  We ended up spending a lot of time in traffic and probably bemoaned the fact that we should have acquainted ourselves more with the city’s excellent metro network!  We were perhaps a shade unlucky as there were a number of big events in town including the annual and very popular El Corte IInglés São Silvestre de Lisboa 10km running event which immediately drew Geoffrey’s interest.

A good place to start is to take the famous Lisbon 28 tram which connects Martim Moniz with Campo Ourique, and passes through the popular tourist districts of Graca, Alfama, Baixa and Estrela.  This is the classic Lisbon tram journey – riding in a quaint yellow tram as it screeches and rattles through the sometimes impossibly, narrow streets of the city.  The trams are delightful – dating from the 1930’s – yet they are still an integral part of Lisbon’s transport network.

A highlight was the ferry across the River Tejo and the bus to the Cristo Rei – Lisbon’s Statue of Christ.  Inspired by Rio de Janeiro’s famous Christ the Redeemer statue, the 110m-high Cristo Rei was erected in 1959 and the views across to the city are stunning.

We also did a day trip to Sintra – probably one of the most popular day trips in Portugal.  However be warned – getting there by train from Lisbon was easy – but the crowds and congestion once there overwhelmed us.  Just getting to the main attractions was a mission and the queues for the palaces were so long that we preferred to spend our time wandering the fabulous grounds. There was a particular highlight though – the 403 bus to Cabo da Roca. Cabo da Roca is a wild and rugged headland that marks the most westerly point of mainland Europe.  The spectacular, desolate scenery adds to the allure of the location and it was a welcome respite from the crowds.

There is an endless variety of exquisite Portuguese cuisine to sample.  There pastries are famous – especially the custard tarts – Pastel de natas. We also stumbled upon an extremely popular seafood restaurant called Ramiro.  The menu is all fresh pure seafood with bread & butter being the only side – nothing else!  If you’re into fresh clams, shrimps, prawns and crab this place is definitely for you.

If you would like more information about this destination please do not hesitate to contact me.

Exploring Lisbon’s delights up close

Porto, Portugal

Porto was the start of a one week visit to Portugal (which included Lisbon) and we were glad we started from here. Porto is beautiful and we loved it.  We travelled over the Christmas period and it was blissfully quiet.  The downside is that many of the businesses were closed but we found that we were still able to do and see everything we wanted to.  The historic centre is a UNSECO World Heritage Site and we spent a day just strolling up and down the hilly, narrow cobblestone streets exploring the town and its many attractions. It was great not competing with the crowds and the weather was cool, sunny and calm.

We spent a day ticking off the main city attractions including the Clérigos Tower, Livraria Lello bookstore, Porto Cathedral, São Bento Train Station, the Café Majestic, McDonald’s (considered the most beautiful in the world!). We then rested the legs and took the historic tram which provides a slow rickety scenic tour from the city all the way to the North Atlantic Ocean.

If you walk across the Ponte Luizi there are stunning views of Porto from the Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar.  The Ponte Luizi (or Dom Luis bridge) is only one of the famous beautiful bridges which crosses the Douro over to Gaia.  At its construction, its 172 metres span was the longest of its type in the world.

The 6 Bridge Cruise is also a popular 1 hour excursion but this wasn’t operating while we were there.

We spent a day exploring the famous Douro Valley wine region described as one of the most beautiful wine regions in the world.  The landscapes are breathtaking in places. Douro Valley is really mandatory for anyone who visits Porto.  There is nearly 2,000 years of winemaking history in the region so it’s worthwhile going with a tour with a well-informed guide.  Of course, port wine, (one of Portugal’s internationally famous exports) is named after Porto.  Being off-season there was only one other couple so essentially it was as good as a private tour.  The tour includes visits to wineries, a boat tour on the Douro River and a splendid a la carte lunch.  There are various options to explore the valley by river cruise or by train.  However by land offers you more flexibility for where you can stop and visit some of the historic sites.

If you would like more information about this destination please do not hesitate to contact me.

Liberdade Square, Porto City Centre