Sunday, 14 April 2013

A note on train travel...

In all honesty I didn't knowledgeably choose train travel as my preferred method of transportation around Europe. Instead it came about as a direct result of my sheer ignorance of budget airline carriers and the shiny advertisements for Eurail passes (they promised maps and fancy looking tickets okay!). Despite not having researched it fully the first time around, let me tell you now that it is certainly not a bad thing. I have since discovered that although train travel can be a bit arduous and not overly comfortable, it is decidedly more pleasant to spend 5 hours on a high speed train than 2 hours traveling super economy in a flying tin can.

Traveling by rail allows you time to read, write, play a few games of solitaire or poker and best of all it allows you the freedom to get up and stretch your legs whenever you want! Air pressure ear pops are limited to trains that pass through tunnels or climb up mountains, the seats are bigger and usually less cramped plus you get to see some absolutely amazing scenery along the way.

If you get the right combination of deals (Eurail, railpass etc) you can also very easily make train travel the most cost effective solution for your grand tour. Investigate how many times you will be traveling within one country, how often will you be using international rail services, how close are the stations to your hotel, how frequent are the trains? You can use these questions to ascertain whether or not a rail pass is best for you or if its better for you to buy your own point to point tickets.

I talk about this now because it was at this point of my journey that our painfully disrupted train trip from Nice to Milan, involving faulty train carriages, canceled seat reservations and angry Italian mothers, led to a chance meeting with two lovely ladies, a deck of cards and a train trip of raucous card games and laughter. It reminded me of how much fun I have had on my train trips. What it boils down to is simple, you have nowhere else to be and you can't help what time you arrive, so you can just sit back and enjoy the journey (Remind me to tell you about some of my ...Err... less relaxing train journey's sometime).

Two final points...

Buying your tickets in advance through the local rail company (Trenitalia in Italy, TGV in France, Renfe in Spain or Deutsche Bahn in Germany etc) is usually cheaper than leaving it until the last minute or going through a third party provider. So if you have the nouse I suggest you attempt it yourself.

Be aware of your alternatives and try not to hinge your entire journey on one train leg being on time. You are well aware of how the trains in your home town are frequently delayed, so be aware that it is the same in the new city you are visiting and it is no one else's fault but your own that you only left yourself 10 minutes to change trains.

Train travel around Europe is by far the most comfortable and satisfying way to get from amazing A to beautiful B! (Yep I came up with that one all by myself) and who knows, you might end up sitting opposite a new friend*.

*Disclaimer: New friends are not guaranteed. I take no responsibility if you are seated next to a... less than desirable... train buddy. If you are seated next to an undesirable, I suggest you swiftly occupy whichever senses are being assaulted (I have been known to shove my nose in a bottle of orange juice to achieve this).

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Boats, beaches and babes!

Welcome to the French Riviera! This beautiful cluster of unique cities and towns on the sunny south coast of France has recently decided to become a regular stop over on my (increasingly frequent) trips to Italy. This is partly because it provides me with more than a fleeting glance at the ocean and partly because it is actually a pretty long trek from Paris to Rome. On this particular visit I was especially excited because it was the fortunate location of a much anticipated rendezvous with my good friend Nikki!

Right! Lets start with the aptly named city of Nice. This town reeks of that old school 1920's charm that throws your imagination back to the glitzy upper class soirées of yesteryear! The promenade showcases some fantastic examples of delicately aging architectural beauty from that era so I highly recommend a leisurely late afternoon stroll (in the warmer months of course) along the promenade. I also advise this for those who appreciate the rhythmic crash of waves and the tangy scent of ocean air whilst marveling at the sparkling art deco gems that puncture the seafront. Once you are done strolling, a dip in the sea never goes amiss. Nice's famed pebble beach will be jam packed in the heat of a summers day but if you can steal yourself a spot on the rocks then it is worth the hassle. The pebble beach was certainly an adjustment for me (Australians are notoriously snobby when it comes to beaches and I am no exception) but the sound of water washing against pebbles was surprisingly relaxing... Even if it did take a few attempts to get comfortable on the rocks. If a leisurely stroll or tanning session on the beach aren't you're thing, then you can always spend your Euros on the Avenue Jean Médecin. With a lovely collection of high street labels and a Galeries Lafayette, my shopping needs were all satisfied. The seaside is always a big draw card for me so Nice will always have this going for it... Even if there is a lack of sand.

The "Conversation à Nice" statues that line the Espace Massena lighting up at night to guide people on their shopping adventures!

Day tripping to Monaco is probably one of the easiest and touristically (is that a word) rewarding day trips I have ever done! A short (barely half an hour) train trip along the stunning coastline from Nice and you are in the quirky Principality of Monaco. This is a whole different country so make sure to add it to your count (because everyone will ask how many countries you went to and you want to impress). Despite being such a small country it really packs a tourist punch! A visit to the Prince's palace is a must If only to add to your photo album of stunning vista views and uniformed guards ceremoniously changing shifts. Next on the "to see" list is Monte Carlo Casino. Having experienced the intense neon chaos of Las Vegas casinos, I expected something just as affronting when I entered Monte Carlo Casino. What I found instead was an exquisitely crafted building with tall ceilings and elaborate furnishings. The shiny slot machines that line the walls and alcoves provided some low level sparkle but essentially it is the building that grabs you by the face and spins you around in gawping circles. I found that all the modern gambling paraphernalia looked out of place in the casino despite the fact that this was the building's original purpose. Even if I did feel a little classless wearing flip flops and a singlet, I found the experience to be incredibly exciting... I was even excited by my inevitable €20 loss to the one armed bandits.

Although Monaco is small enough to walk around, keep in mind that it is very hilly (avoid learning this on a stinking hot summers afternoon) and there is no metro system to speak of so confusing buses are your only real public transport option. To avoid the pain of near vertical footpaths, I definitely recommend that you utilise the tourist bus. An adult ticket costs €18 which is on the more pricey end of the cost spectrum, but consider the time and energy that would be consumed if you walked from steep incline A to painful hill B... (Yes this is my lazy side talking). The small open top bus takes you to all the big ticket destinations including the Monte Carlo casino, Place du Palais, Musée Océanographique and the Jardin Japonais, with the added bonus of a tour guide giving you fun facts about the city and helpfully pointing your camera towards things you didn't even know were important (sort of).

The mist rolling in over the cliffs onto an otherwise sunny Monaco, the main town of Monaco and the beautiful gardens in front of the Monte Carlo casino.

St Tropez is a strange place... It is essentially a smaller, more expensive version of Nice... Boats, shopping (strictly window if you have any type of budget) and a surprisingly small amount of decent eateries in the lower end of the budget are a plenty in this town. St Tropez is definitely a place to visit when you aren't still struggling from your shopping blowout in Las Vegas and New York. If I'm honest I didn't find a lot to do in St Tropez this time around so I probably can't comment on it from a tourist perspective... But it certainly provided a lovely backdrop for my holiday hangout with the beautiful Nikki and a great location for the shooting of the girls' music video (featured below).

The streets of St Tropez filled with designer labels, keen shoppers and art aficionados... Also boats...

An extended trip to France should include a trip to the sunny southern city of Nice... And conversely, any trip to Nice should include a day trip to Monaco! St Tropez and Cannes are of course optional... But not advisable if you are on a budget.

Shanwah's lovely links:
Check out the babes I mentioned earlier (and my filming technique) in St Tropez!