My trip to France, Switzerland & Italy

What a week! I just returned from a visit my Swiss-French former flatmate in the region of Savoie, France. Me being me, I was seven hours early for the flight and still caught it by 20 seconds. Should have skipped those drinks…

 

France

Laurent’s parents had a house next to a busy road down in Bonneville, but we spent the week in their weekend home on the mountain overlooking the town. Isn’t the view of the Alps beautiful?

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Formerly a small hamlet, Chantal and Rene now own the surrounding 19th century buildings.

On my first day we visited the medieval village of Yvoire, situated alongside Lake Geneva. Visitors aren’t permitted to drive, which keeps the place looking as it always did. Because it was February most of the shops and restaurants were closed. Known for its beautiful flower decorations, I missed out on seeing it in its full regalia. However, the colder season meant we had the place to ourselves.

On day two we went hiking into the Alps. Despite the snow, I didn’t need a cardie and even caught the sun! In winter the mountain goats are kept indoors and their milk is made into cheese. Such a magical place.

I was eager to try as much French food as possible, so Laurent’s mum Chantal made beautiful meals every night. What struck me the most about my stay was that all our meals were fresh.  Tarts and jams was made from the abundance of fruits growing in the garden, mushrooms were picked from the forest, and INCREDIBLY smelly cheese made by local farmers.

I’m not a city girl by any means, but I felt vaguely ashamed to be British. Every meal has a ceremonious feel in France; a world away from the one day a year  – Christmas – my family eats together. Nobody fiddled with their phones, or absent mindedly watched the TV. We lingered for hours, muddling through in broken French and English,  drinking  spirits René had made with plants from the garden.

Because Laurent and me were staying in the chalet usually reserved for tourists, the shelves were packed with books. Before bed I would skim through a book of ABCs, with pictures of objects apparently essential to toddlers. These included shallots, whiskey, and and artichokes. Are you messing? In fact, I saw my first ever artichoke in France.

Laurent was adamant I couldn’t visit the Alps without giving skiing a try, so I reluctantly headed to La Croix Fry, which is a small part of the La Clusaz ski station. I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that I might be really good at skiing. Well, it turns out I am MERDE. I drank wine and ate beautiful tartiflette to console myself.

Later in the week we visited Bordeaux, which  I liked but Laurent and his family weren’t fans of. When pressed, they explained that tourism – which primarily relies on the ski  industry – has changed the region a lot over the years.

On the way home our car was caught in a pollution protest; we couldn’t work out the reason for all the dirty looks!

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A little less cultural, we We went bowling and to a pizza party at a friend of Laurent’s house. Incredible pizza with plum tart and even more incredible chocolate mousse! Anyone would think I didn’t have to perform a burlesque act in a few days…

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I’ve often heard it said that French people are rude. I’ve never found this to be the case. Whenever I go abroad I make the effort to learn basic words and phrases, meaning locals are always appreciative and enjoy your efforts, because who wouldn’t be charmed by ‘I am a toilet?’ If in doubt, just grin and hope for the best!

 

Geneva 

As the nearest airport to Savoire is Geneva, it was easy to pop to Switzerland for a visit.

Laurent kept banging on about the Jet J’Eau, Geneva’s answer to the Eifel Tower in the form of a 140 meter fountain visible throughout the city. Situated alongside Lake Geneva, it’s the pride and joy of Geneva. When asked whether I could touch it, Laurent replied that ‘someone once touched it and got their arm blown off’, which endeared me to it immediately.

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After the excitement of spotting a €1400 pair of pantalons (ARE YOU MESSING?), we passed an afternoon wandering around Geneva’s lovely old town.

We went on a hunt for some sort of sacred tree, but gave up and admired the world’s longest bench instead.

Switzerland is expensive, so I wouldn’t go there for a holiday. Also, how unreal is this cake?

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Italy 

Poor Laurent made the mistake of telling me just how close we were to Italy, and after a lot of badgering I got to visit my third country in a week!

I wasn’t prepared for the 55 euro fee to take the tunnel through Mont Blanc, let me tell you. But once I laid eyes on the quaint hamlet of Entrèves, I fell in love.

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Our destination was the pretty town of Aosta.

I was keen to eat as much as possible during the visit, but had to think strategically consider which foods would physically fit in my stomach. Can I tell you a secret? The pizza wasn’t that great.

The gelato though – wow. Because the Italians were So. Bloody. Cool, I opted for pistachio flavour to help me give out very-bloody-cool-vibes. It was unreal and I am fully repentant for telling my Italian friend that gelato couldn’t possibly be better than Ben & Jerry’s.

Italy was cheaper than I expected. No doubt the big cities are more expensive, but here I bought a big bottle of Limoncello for less than 7 euros.

For the final couple of hours before sunset we drove aimlessly through the valley, overlooked by the Italian Alps. We had done so many things during the week, but wandering through about 48  of those tiny villages set on impossibly high mountaintops was the most I’ve laughed in a long time.

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As darkness fell we stopped at one final town with actual civilization, Villeneuve, which lies on the Dora Baltea river. We drank at the only bar in sight, which was full of Italian men Laurent was intimidated by and a barmaid who seemed perplexed by what on earth a vodka with orange juice could be.

I am very lucky to have such an accommodating friend who will willingly drive me hundreds of miles (sorry – I mean kilometres). Staying with locals as opposed to in a hotel is such an enriching experience. Without the Dumonts, I would never have learned so many facts: how French people pour milk BEFORE the cereal, and how washing powder boxes contain toys for kids, and the effect global warming is having on the ski industry.

Instead of a hotel where the only conversation would be about the crap water pressure, we spent hours comparing idioms. ‘I have the peach’, I explained, was the French equivalent to ‘I’m full of beans.’ The Dumonts stared blankly, before bursting into a five minute fit of laughter. Beans?! Being full of Mexican jumping beans, I argued, made sense. But peaches? Give me three peaches, and maybe we could talk.

It was no use, so I chuckled into my home made peach jam every morning.

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I hope you enjoyed un petit peut of my trip! I’d love to hear your travel tales in the comments below.

 

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The Vaguely Alternative List of Things to Do in Llanberis, Wales

Having grown up nearby on the Isle of Anglesey, Llanberis is my absolute favourite place in the world. When I have mates from Liverpool visiting, I always bring them to here.

Situated at the foot of Mount Snowdon, Llanberis boasts the highest point in Wales (obvs). At any given time the summit is chokkers with tourists, where they’ll admire this cracking view:

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…unless it’s foggy and wet, in which case they’ll have wasted four hours.

You can catch a heritage steam train up for a hefty £37, and I’m not being funny, but it’s a bit of a cop-out unless you’re old or disabled. However there’s no guarantees you’ll nab a seat even if you’re old, as this elderly man found out when the train was too full of fat people.

Another little titbit: in 2011 a man was jailed for driving his 4×4 up the mountain in gale force winds not once, but twice.

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This Tweet from back in August gave me a right chuckle as well, after a helicopter burst into flames on the summit:

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Anyway, back to it.

I feel for all these tourists, because there’s so much more to Llanberis than a big rock. So, to make life easier for those of you visiting Wales, I’ve compiled a selection of my favourite and vaguely alternative things to do in Llanberis.

My boyfriend had never been to Llanberis, so our recent visit began at legendary greasy spoon Pete’s Eats.

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Pete’s is always packed full of travellers, all of whom look like they deserve a 2000 calorie breakfast. We, on the other hand, did not.

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With our bellies full, it was time to do some exercise. Maybe.

Go on – show me an English high street with better views.

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But first, we popped in to The Snowdon Honey Farm & Winery. It’s run by a lovely old Welsh couple who let us sample various alcoholic concoctions, fuelling us for our mission to the waterfall.

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Having visited Llanberis countless times, I decided this was the day I would finally find the waterfall. I failed, again – even by following the ‘waterfall’ signs – and ended up walking along the train track instead (not advisable).

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Down at the lake i.e. Llyn Padarn, you can hire a row boat for about 6 quid, or take the Llanberis Lake Railway around it. You can even get in the water for a kayaking lesson, among other water sports.

If you want to experience a mountain without having to actually climb one, you can take a bus deep inside the Electric Mountain, which my mum assures me is brilliant and cracking value at £8.50 per adult.

There are plenty of things to do for free in Llanberis, too, my favourite being feeding the ducks.

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I’m smiling but I’m actually quite scared.

Walking to the other side of the lake you’ll pass my favourite spot, Dolbadarn Castle. I camped and got steaming drunk here last summer, and it’s the best place to watch the sunset from.

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Once you’ve hit the other side of the lake, there’s a cluster of attractions to keep you occupied. The National Slate Museum is actually better than it sounds, whilst the Quarry Hospital Museum is also interesting, housing some of the original equipment from the 1800s (I like to play dead in the mortuary).

Another of my favourite spots is the Vivian Dive Centre, best visited at sunset when you have the entire hidden lake to yourself. The water is so blue it looks like a tropical lagoon. It’s worth noting that although anyone is free to enter, this lake is bloody deep so don’t be doing anything stupid like jumping in (although cliff diving is popular).

Right next to the dive centre is this spot:

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Climb right to the top of the tracks and you’ll find spectacular views from the Dinorwic Quarray and buildings and machinery from bygone days.

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Look closely and running alongside the road, next to the reservoir, you’ll spot a dragon cave.

Though not to everyone’s taste, I’ve saved my favourite ’til last. Located up in another quarry on the outskirts of Llanberis, near the Siemens factory, is an abandoned WW2 bomb store. It took us three attempts to find the place, which involves crawling through fences and various downright dangerous misdemeanours. It’s one of my most beloved spots.

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There are plenty of nooks and crannies to explore, including the interior, made possible be whoever keeps forcing the door open with an angle grinder (cheers). It isn’t for the faint-hearted: take torches, because you won’t see a hand in front of your face otherwise.

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Image by Nick Catford

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Of course, this adventure technically involves trespassing. However, local kids and urban explorers have been visiting for years. If you’d rather let someone else do the dirty work, you’ll find plenty of reports and photos here.

I would recommend staying a couple of days in Llanberis, maybe at the hostel above Pete’s Eats or The Heights bunkhouse, which is a great spot to chill with a beer after a long day.

The main thing I would say is to explore. Ignore all the advice I’ve just given you and do your own thing. Follow your nose, and you’ll find the lush picnicking spots Trip Advisor won’t tell you about.

What are your favourite things to do in Llanberis? Have I missed anything out? And most importantly, have you found the secret lake? Let me know in the comment section!

Why I Would Never go Elephant Trekking Again

Grief-stricken back in 2012 after a breakup with who I thought was the love of my life, I impulsively spent a lot of money on a last-minute flight to Thailand. It was in the middle of nowhere a couple of hours from Bangkok that I fell in love with elephants. Trekking through the jungle towards a river, we splashed each other and it dunked us into the cold water where we’d fall off and climb back on. It was a magical experience I would do anything to relive.

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The rest of our trip was organised by tour group Contiki, and the first of our island-hopping stops was Koh Samui. To kick off our stay we were taken on a pre-paid elephant trek.

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Samui elephants are not native to the island and are there purely to fuel the demands of the tourist trade. I could tell instantly the elephants weren’t well cared for and the experience was dismal. Chains hung from their necks and ankles, and their ears were damaged from the bull-hooks used to force them along the track when they hesitated. I found myself with a bad taste in my mouth in a country referred to as ‘The Land of Smiles’.

I so clearly recall thinking it wasn’t right and to this day am ashamed I didn’t refuse to get on. Although I should have listened to my gut, I didn’t know what I know now about the treatment of captive elephants.

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The Land of Smiles

But the fact is that wild elephants need to be tamed before they can be ridden. The taming process is brutal, and accomplished when the elephants are very young. In a process called phajaan, or “the crush”, the baby elephant is snatched from its mother and tortured to completely break its spirit. Beaten into submission with clubs and pieced with sharp bull-hooks, they are simultaneously starved and deprived of sleep for several days.

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Photojournalist Brent Lewin won a Science/Natural History Award of Excellence for this image at the Pictures of the Year competition, exposing how the babies are prepared for elephant trekking.

A British tourist was recently killed whilst elephant trekking on Samui in front of his teenage daughter. When the elephant’s mahout – handler – climbed down to take photos he was attacked by the elephant’s tusk, leaving the elephant free to go on the rampage. It threw the tourists of its back, trampling the man and stabbing him in the chest with a tusk and killing him instantly.

Now aged 23 and wiser, I would have made a point of refusing to get on and letting everybody know about it. The industry thrives because tourists all want to ride elephants or watch them do tricks, paying good money for the privilege.

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Likewise, through research I would have learned the Tiger Temple had long been accused by animal rights activists of mistreating the tigers for commercial gain and even trafficking some of its animals. I should have wondered whether a wild animal, even one the size of a dog like a monkey should be kept on a leash.

I learned about an elephant named Tyke, kept in captivity for many years before finally killing her trainer and escaping from a circus in Hawaii. Bolting down the streets of Honolulu, police fired 86 shots until she eventually collapsed from her wounds and died. Her bid for freedom and disturbing final minutes can be seen here, whilst the documentary Tyke: Elephant Outlaw  elaborates on the correlation between wild animals treated as entertainment and them paying the ultimate price.

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Tyke

If you’re determined to interact with an elephant, there are a select few sanctuaries where they are are treated with respect and free to behave as they would in the wild. The Elephant Nature Park sanctuary is tucked away in the beautiful jungles outside of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, with a mission to protect & care for mistreated elephants rescued from the tourism and logging industries. You can feed them fresh fruit out of the palm of your hand, watch them play in the mud, accompany them on walks and even help give them a bath – which in my opinion sounds brilliant!

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Taking a bath at the ENP looks just as satisfying as elephant trekking (source).

We all know the ivory trade is illegal, but many of us are still ignorant about the socially accepted abuse of elephants. Keeping such a majestic creature alive for monetary gain is equally as cruel, and need to spread awareness of elephant trekking to eradicate this treatment.

If an elephant camp in south east Asia claims to be “responsible” with its animals, you should still be sceptical. Remember the process used to train them is often the same, and even if they’re now treated with kindness it’s the fear of being stabbed used to motivate them to work.

The elephant has been a cultural icon of Thailand since ancient days, a symbol of fortune renowned for its intelligence. It’s easy for me to say this being from a prosperous country, but what Thailand doesn’t see is the good fortune it has in being able to share its land with such incredible animals.

Everybody has the right to make their own decision on whether animal trekking is an essential Thai activity, but neither should they be under any illusions: tourists who pay to ride elephants support the continued exploitation of wildlife.

I don’t know whether that elephant in the river really was enjoying itself, as I do recall a bull-hook, but I often find myself hoping so. I could tell the elephant on Samui wasn’t happy, and I wish it could know how sorry I am.  I will never forget either of them.

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