Wednesday, August 30, 2006


Another long weekend. Fresh from our long weekend in the French Alps, we had a four day weekend in Scotland. On Friday night we flew out of London City airport (a first for us!) and into Edinburgh. August is Fringe Festival month in Edinburgh and we were arriving on the last weekend of it.

We arrived in town around 10:30pm and found our accommodation. There was so little available when we were booking, but we finally settled on (had no choice but) two single rooms in a hostel. Well at least a hostel in summer. For the rest of the year it is university accommodation. It was, however, well located just down the hill off the Royal Mile.

Edinburgh was in party mode - the Royal Tattoo had just finished and many Fringe shows were just getting started. The ticket booth was shut, but we walked around and found a comedy show in Underbelly on Cowgate. The show was Girls Behaving Badly - a somewhat crass, mildly witty, series of stand up routines by five women - including a British Indian, Scot and an Aussie. We had a beer and headed back to our beds.


Today we hired a car to have a look around Edinburgh before heading north for the weekend. First stop was a coffee shop for take-away breakfast and a walk up Arthur's Seat. Arthur's Seat is an inactive volcano in the centre of Edinburgh. It was a great walk up with hazy, but rewarding, views of the city and the Firth of Forth.

Next was a look at Roslin chapel, eight miles south and most recently made popular by The Da Vinci Code. The ceiling and pillars of the chapel have amazing patterns and carvings. The chapel is well presented and they have resisted the urge to cash in on the Da Vinci popularity. In the chapel there is no mention of it at all - you have to wait for the gift shop.

North out of the city and over the Firth of Forth. We hadn't really a plan of where we were going or where we might stay for any of the next three nights. But this time we are prepared...

Read more about Scotland Camping before we return to Edinburgh.


This afternoon we return to Edinburgh to return the car and fly back to London. We left ourselves a bit of time to have a look at Edinburgh Castle. The castle reminds us very much of the Tower of London except it is perched on a big rocky crag that dominates the city. Inside the castle walls we did a guided tour and were impressed by the understated nature of the buildings. The most appealing building is St Margaret's Chapel, which is the oldest building in Edinburgh. It is a small, but very cute chapel on the inside.

Click on the photo below to see more Edinburgh

Scotland Highlands

Heading north out of Edinburgh we crossed the Firth of Forth and headed east to St Andrews. St Andrews is, understandably, a golfing town, but it does have a lot of history associated with it. The remains of a huge cathedral are atop one of the cliffs. This cathedral would have been incredibly large and would have had a prime position in the town. We stop in the town for some lunch and a look at the golf course before setting off again.

As I mentioned we didn't have solid plans for this trip, so we were uncertain as to where we should head to setup our camping gear for the night. We drove west towards Stirling and a campground called Witches Craig. What a fantastic campground! It was nestled in the base of the Logie hills and had great facilities. The tent was up in no time at all and we headed into Stirling to find some dinner and have a look around. Finally we settled into a local pub called the Rob Roy for a few beers, mingling with the locals and a round of songs by the karaoke DJ. There was a good little Chinese shop next door and we took that back to our tent for our first camping dinner.


The next morning we awoke to a perfect, but a little windy, day. We left the campground and went to the Wallace monument which is located high on top of a hill. The monument is to Scottish icon William 'Braveheart' Wallace. It shows his rise from resistance fighter to resistance leader and famous battles with the English such as the Battle of Stirling Bridge and the Battle of Falkirk.

On the road again we headed west to Loch Lomond, the loch with the largest surface area. We first turn off at Dryman and stop at Balmaha to have lunch overlooking Lomond. The eastern side of the loch is less populated and much more quiet than the touristy southern and western edges. We head back out around the bottom and up the western side to Luss. Luss is a simple lakeside town, but it is a major stop for the tourist buses on their route up to the highlands.

Click on the photo to see more of central Scotland

We continue along the loch on a narrow windy road up to Crainlarich. Along the way there is a cute little waterfall just off the main road. As we head towards Glencoe we can definitely tell that we are entering the highlands. The mountains are steeper, the scenery is amazing and the number of cars and tourist busses has dramatically dropped. Just before Glencoe there are the Three Sisters mountains, of course not the Australian ones, but the Scottish ones. Our destination for the night is Fort William, which is one of the larger towns in the highlands. There is a campground just out of town in Glen Nevis. Glen Nevis is the valley that leads up to the base of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the country. It is a bit of a drizzly evening, but we setup the tent and head back into town for a pub dinner.


Today we wake up to a mildly overcast day. We get in the car and head north through Spean Bridge (I only mention this because I like the name!) up to Fort Augustus, which is at the southern tip of Loch Ness. Loch Ness is much like any loch, except that it is very deep and the largest loch by volume, which lends itself to the stories of monsters of the deep. The Loch Ness Monster 'Nessie', is (by all evidence presented to us by shops in the town) living in the loch. However, being somewhat shy, she usually just swims underwater, keeping her allure and mystery by breaking the surface only when a shakey, poorly-focused camera is pointed her way. Kelly and I have a look over the loch and take a few photos, but unfortunately, due to our superior photographic ability, we don't catch a glimpse of Nessie. Back on the road we go around to Invermoriston, which has a nice walk through a gorge that leads onto Loch Ness.

By lunch we reach Loch Duich, our main destination for the day. Loch Duich is a peaceful and scenic loch that leads out to the Isle of Skye and the ocean. Perched on a small rocky island in the north of the loch is Eilean Donan castle. It is well kept and apparently the most romantic castle in Scotland. It had a turbulant past, starting as a defensive castle against the vikings, then becoming a stronghold for the area, before being occupied by Spanish troops in 1719. The castle was recaptured that year but was demolished by Royal Navy frigates. It was restored in the early 1900s and has been in films such as Highlander and The World is not Enough.

We have lunch at the castle and look around inside. It is a very nice castle and it has wonderful views over the loch and on a clear day the Isle of Skye. Leaving the castle we drive along Loch Alsh and across the bridge to Isle of Skye. Unfortunately time is getting the better of us, so we can't sample much of the Isle of Skye but we had south to Ardvasar, where we can catch a ferry across to Mallaig on the mainland. While waiting in Ardvasar Kelly and I have an ice cream and watch a seal swim about just off shore.

Off the ferry at Mallaig we drive towards Glenfinnan. The road winds through gorgeous rainforest and weaves its way over and under the rail line. The West Highland Railway trip by steam train between Fort William and Mallaig is supposedly one of the most scenic - we see it by road however. One interesting point on the railway is at Glenfinnan. There is an arched viaduct that has 21 arches at a height of 30m and it has been made very famous by the Harry Potter movies, where it was filmed with the Hogwarts Express crossing over it.

Not too far down the road is Fort William, where we head back for a late dinner and our tent.


Today we need to make the drive back down to Edinburgh. If we had had more time in the highlands we would really like to have climbed Ben Nevis. But there was no way that we were equipped for a 5 hour hike in dense fog. Instead we walked up Glen Nevis, which is a peaceful valley and creek near the campground we stayed in. It was a really nice walk.

All to soon it was time to hit the road. We took a slightly different route back to Edinburgh, via Doune. One thing that Doune has is the castle used in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. We stopped and had a look at the castle. From there it was straight through to Edinburgh via Stirling.

Back in Edinburgh we had a look at the castle before heading out for our flight. Read about Edinburgh.

Click on the photo to see more of highland Scotland

Monday, August 21, 2006

The French Alps

For Kelly and I, July was spent seeing a few stages of the Tour de France and following the coverage on television. Seeing parts of the Tour was one of the things that we definitely wanted to do in our time over here.
So when Dave floated the idea of a cycling weekend in the French Alps, we jumped at it. A weekend in the Alps was tempting in itself, but the opportunity to cycle some of the climbs of Le Tour was too good to miss.

We flew into Geneva, on the Swiss side of the Switzerland/France border and hired a car for the drive down to Grenoble and Bourg-d'Oisans. It took four border crossings to leave Geneva!! From landing and entering Switzerland, walking through to the French part of the airport, driving the car out of the (French) airport onto Swiss soil, through Geneva and over the border into France.

Our drive went late into the evening, through a large storm around Grenoble, and we reached our accommodation in the little village of Venosc around 1am. Dave had found some neat rooms in a B&B chalet, Chalet Michelle, which is run by ex-pat Brits, Brian and Michelle.


Arriving in a storm, late at night, we didn't know quite what to expect waking up in the morning. I'm sure that Dave and I were thinking it was going to be a wet ride, but neither of us really wanted to admit to it the night before. It is fair to say that Kelly and I were just amazed at the spectacular views and glorious day that we awoke to. The skies were a perfect blue, sun beating down and the chalet just had the most amazing views up, down and across the valley. Karen, Kelly, Dave and I sat down to an ample breakfast and just absorbed the view from the chalet verandah.

I hired a nice carbon fibre Trek from the well stocked local cycling store. Now, I haven't ridden a road bike since leaving Australia in December and otherwise I only rode in Brugge, so I am quite anxious about riding a Tour de France climb and being on the bike for 4-plus hours. It was time to see how the gym cycling classes prepared me.

Alpe d'Huez is an amazing ride. It is a constant climb with a number of switchbacks, some more challenging than others. Dave's climb was marred by a flat after switchback 11, but he quickly recovered. I took it at a steady pace and reached the top feeling really good. Riding Alpe d'Huez makes you realise just what history and prestige it holds for the Tour.

While the two budding tour cyclists were making their way up the mountain, Karen and I spent the morning wandering around the small town of Bourg d'Oisans. There were many gorgeous little streets to explore and along our travels we were greeted by a sweet little French boy who immediately greeted us in French (unfortunately my attempt at a French reply was pitiful - every bit of French I knew disappeared right out of my head!!). We then took the more leisurely route to the top of Alpe d'Huez. After a bit of lunch with Liam and Dave at the top - they both looked quite relaxed and pleased with themselves when we met them - Karen and I made our way down the mountain back towards Venosc. On the way we stopped off at the Romanche River which, while looking very inviting, was absolutely freezing!

Feeling pretty good, Dave and I took a side road off the descent that wound up the valley's cliffs, and back down the valley floor. Roads like this one are barely wide enough to pass a car and bike and are too small for race events, but they are spectacularly scenic rides for small groups or tourists like Dave and I. As night falls, we arrive back at the chalet and have dinner at a French restaurant in Venosc and consume a couple of well earned wines.

Click on the photo to see more of Alpe d'Huez


Saturday was another glorious day in the Alps. The plan today is to top Col de la Croix de Fer with a small detour to Col du Glandon. Both of these passes are around 2000m, over 1000m higher than where we start. Today's ride is probably more demanding than Alpe d'Huez as it is a long, sustained climb. Wanting to make it all the way, we set off at a pace that could be sustained for the 3.5 hours of climbing.

The ride from Bourg d'Oisans is a steady climb. In some places the road dips back down into the valley, losing all that precious altitude gain, and back up the other side. It is a very scenic ride, certainly a lot more than Alpe d'Huez. Once we reach the summit the views are well worth the effort. There is a little cafe at Col de la Croix de Fer, but we opt instead for the one at Col du Glandon on our descent. It has to be said that the omelette au jambon was just what was needed to refuel, and the cheeky Leffe beer to wash it down was just supurb.

When the ride up the mountain is a steady climb, the ride down is a glorious glide through the corners - 30 kilometers of it. What a sweet feeling! Reluctantly I have to return my bike today, but I could so easily have kept it for another day or two. That ended to cycling part of the weekend. There are so many more rides on offer around Bourg d'Oisans that you could easily spend a week or more riding.

Click on the photo to see more of Col de la Croix de Fer

Karen and I started our Saturday with a 'short' hike up to the waterfall on the other side of the valley. Our short hike soon turned into a very long 4 hours+ hike up the one side of mountain, up into the valley above the valley we were staying in, along the river that ended in the waterfall and back down the other side. Sights along the way included the base of the waterfall, old stone house ruins, an old bush shack, a wooden bridge that crossed the river which lead to the waterfall, lots of slate rock, the rememants of a landslip that had taken out the track (we had to navigate our way through what should have been a track!), more house ruins, more slate and so many beautiful views.

One of the most amazing sights we saw was the huge chunk of ice we came across while crossing the landslip area. The ice was longer than the length of an average size car and we are guessing just as wide and still very solid. We found out later that the ice had slipped from the glacier at the top of the mountain with the landslip months earlier. After making our way back to the village we had a healthy hiking lunch of crepes and icecream, followed by some browsing (and of course purchasing!) at the local shops.

Brian and Michelle provide dinner for us tonight with ample wine to help recount the boy's cycling exploits and the girl's waterfall hiking and shopping of the day.


Unfortunately we didn't have enough time today to contemplate a conquest of another mountain on a bike. However we did take the gondolas and fernicular from Venosc, up to Les Deux Alps, and further up to the glacier and ice caves at 3000m. Les Deux Alps is a large ski resort town nestled in the valley between two peaks. The skiing area is huge in winter and in summer it has many mountain bike tracks.

On one of the peaks there is a permanent glacier and an ice cave. The ice cave is a series of tunnels with ice sculptures throughout. It was a fun experience - almost child like. The view from the peak gave an amazing sense of the enormity and expanse of the French Alps.

All too soon though, we had to leave and retrace our drive back up to Geneva leaving our little village and cycling back in the Alps. What an amazing trip! I'm sure that I will think back on the achievements and quaintness of the area for a long time to come, each time wanting just one more day to cycle in the Alps....

Click on the photo to see more of Les Deux Alpes

Monday, August 07, 2006

London Zoo

Kelly has a soft spot for animals, I think that we all know that. We went to the London Zoo to have a look at all of the animals on show. The zoo is in north London, just next to Regents Park. We caught the bus there, with a packed lunch.

Most of the old favourites were there: Giraffes, Zebras, Penguins, Meek rats, Butterflies, Kangaroos, Hippos, Birds etc, etc. We had a great day looking around at all of the animals, something that you don't get to see much of in central London. The giraffes are amazing. Even though they aren't in a natural habitat, you can get very close to them.

This is an Okapi, which we hadn't seen before. They live in the dense rain forest of Central Africa. It looks like a cross between a zebra, a horse and a giraffe with a stumpy neck that goes forward instead of up.

Click on the photo below to see more.