Aosta: crossroads of France, Switzerland and Italy

Aosta can deceive, presenting you with a significant amount of industry as you enter. But it would be a mistake to write the city off.  A closer look reveals a rich history, with monuments and remains dating back to at least Roman times. Stay and explore Aosta and you will be able to discover the Arco di Augusto; a grand arch, dating to the First Century, a Roman Gate, Roman Theatre and even the remains of a Roman Amphitheatre. Later buildings of note worth a visit, are the Collegiata dis Orso and the Cathedral. Looking at the city up close will reveal that the inscriptions on the buildings are almost all in French. This region held on to its French Provençal dialect for a long time.

Roman Theatre

On my visits to the city, I’ve wandered around savouring the feeling that only being in Italy can bring. I’ve wandered around taking in buildings, doing some window shopping interspersed with real shopping before stopping at a café to enjoy a Cioccolata caldo (Italian hot chocolate) and a Tiramisu. Here I’d sit and do some people watching.

Porta Praetoria
Aosta occupies an important strategic position in the Aosta Valley, with three major Alpine crossing routes passing through the city. The oldest two being the where the roads Petit (Little) Saint Bernard Pass from France and the Grand Saint Bernard Pass from the Swiss Valais. Since the 1960’s the road from the Mont Blanc Tunnel also comes down to Aosta.

Roman bridge

Roman bridge, Aosta

Lift to Pila

Lift to Pila

The valley in which Aosta is located is named after it, and so is the Region. The Aosta Valley has some highly rated ski resorts including Courmayeur and La Thuile. There is even a ski lift bottom station in Aosta where you can board one of the gondolas to be whisked up to the resort of Pila. If your aspirations are for a bigger resort then Cervina the resort on the Italian side of the Matterhorn is not too far away as well.

Getting there:

The nearest railway station is Aosta. Book a rail ticket there with RailEurope.
Flixbus also stop here on their Amsterdam to Milan route.

Don’t sweep this under the (Brussels Flower) carpet

The biannual Flower Carpet was on display in Grand Place this weekend, with an African theme. I hadn’t actually visited it before, so made my way to see it, before Rover opened up another fun night for the Brussels Summer Festival.

Flower Carpet, Brussels

I was well and truly underwhelmed. My partner who is mad on flowers wasn’t even impressed. The carpet is made up of around 750 000 flower heads packed tightly onto plastic sheets. When temperatures rise they have to be watered. With temperatures pushing 40 degrees Celsius the battle to keep them fresh looking was being lost.
Wilting flowers

Like any other display laid out in Grand Place, the only way to take in the full scope is to climb up to a viewing platform. The official platform was the First Floor balcony of the Hotel de Ville. Cost 5 Euros. I gave that a miss and used the money to buy a beer to share with friends on the first floor of Paon Pauro also overlooking the square.

Flower carpet, Brussels

I didn’t enjoy the flower carpet. I just kept thinking about rotting flower heads, and the lines from the Funeral Service. I was also wondering what was the environmental impact of growing flowers just to kill them rapidly over a space of four days.

That is not to say you wouldn’t love the Flower Carpet. Perhaps I’ve been spoilt by all of the other breathtaking art and events that can be experienced in Brussels.
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Brusselicious art

Belgium cuisine has an excellent reputation. My own view is that it offers the quality of French cooking, without the stingy ‘Nouvelle Cuisine’ portions. In 2012, Brussels is celebrating its food with a series of events falling under the ‘Brusselicious’ umbrella.

Brusselicious art,

Dining events included a meal in the sky which saw diners hoisted on an aerial platform to enjoy food prepared by Michelin Starred Chefs, with unrivalled views over the Belgian Capital. Many other tasty experiences still await gastronomes, the Tram Experience being one that caught my eye. A tram has been fitted out as a mobile restaurant to allow diners to sample delicious Belgian foods as they trundle between place Poelart and the tram museum and back, and enjoying the views as much as the food.

Brusselicious art
This post is about the accompanying art work that go with the Brusselicious. The five metre high sculptures come in five varieties: Brussels Sprout, Chocolate, Beer, mussels. and  fries (frites). The idea is similar to the Cow Parades staged in other cities (in fact Brussels was host to a Cow Parade in 2003.

Local artists were asked to make a statement about Belgium using one of the five foods. The pieces were originally displayed at locations all around Brussels. Before realising that they were to be relocated to Parc Royale at the start of July, I went out on Villo! bikes to discover them all.Brusselicious art

At least one makes an environmental statement, another was inspired by a Jacques Brel song, and  another was influenced by Magritte. My favourite though is the cone of fries by Oli-B. I first saw one of his poster art pieces in my street in Brussels. Now he is mainstream as evidenced by his appearance in the Brusselicious art as well as making the cover of the August edition of ‘Agenda’.
Anyone wishing to visit the sculptures can find them all in Brussels Park Royale until 23 October 2012.

An overnight(mare) bus trip

Rrrurrr, rrrurrr, rrrrurrr! I can feel the vibrations through my whole body. Opening my eyes, the tailgate of a Renault Scenic fills my field of vision. I close my eyes and wait for the certain collision. I think of a joke I heard a long time ago. “When I die I’d like to go quietly in my sleep, like Grandpa. Not like everyone else in the vehicle. They died screaming”
My body is moved mysteriously to the left. Opening my eyes one more time, I see the Renault Scenic receding on my right and realise I’m not dead.

My plan had been to take the overnight bus from Brussels to Chamonix and get enough sleep to be able to snowboard the next day. The way things were going I’d get no sleep except that of a more permanent variety.

 “There seemed to be only one rule: “Never slow down to below 100 kilometres per hour!”

View from a bus

The events described took place in the dark, when my camera wasn’t to hand.

Our Polish driver weaved in and out of the Paris bound vehicles on the auto-route for the next ten minutes. There seemed to be only one rule: “Never slow down to below 100 kilometres per hour!” I must have been watching too many movies and could no longer separate the big screen from real life. Either way our coach would drive until it was almost touching the vehicle in front, before veering sharply to the left or right depending on where there was a gap large enough to accommodate a 50 seater coach. It didn’t matter whether or not the other traffic was passed on the inside or the offside.

“Meanwhile a number of passengers were pulled aside for interrogation.”

After ten minutes of Paris Auto-route dodgems, the driver actually took the decision to lift his foot from the accelerator and depress the brake pedal. The bus slowed down, left the auto-route and eventually negotiated the spiral ramp to the Paris International bus station.
We were greeted by armed Police and Customs Officers with a sniffer dog. They boarded the bus and checked our passports before instructing us to get off the bus and remove our bags from the cargo area under the bus. Meanwhile a number of passengers were pulled aside for interrogation. I’m not sure if anyone got arrested but the process was protracted. Eventually, we boarded the bus and departed Paris an hour later than the scheduled time.

“I relaxed and went into the very light overnight bus journey state of sleep”

On this leg of the journey the second driver took the wheel. I watched closely to see if he had also been threatened of dire consequences if he touched the brake pedal. My confidence was restored when he demonstrated driving test book driving skills. Perhaps they had defused the device in Paris? I relaxed and went into the very light overnight bus journey state of sleep expecting to be woken by an announcement over the bus PA system to say that we had pulled into a Service Station for a rest stop and that anyone leaving the bus must return within 10 minutes.

“Swiss Border Control gave us a repeat of our experience of the Paris Bus Station, except this time we had to wait outside in the freezing night air.”

Instead, I had a relaxed doze until the Swiss Border. It seems the bus had been delayed so much that the rest stops could not be afforded. Swiss Border Control gave us a repeat of our experience of the Paris Bus Station, except this time we had to wait outside in the freezing night air. Then it was on to Geneva, followed by some more shut eye until I found us climbing the elevated road leading up to the Chamonix valley. I alighted the bus outside Chamonix Train Station at half past eight in the morning as per the timetable. I had managed to arrive having managed enough low quality sleep to go snowboarding.

It wasn’t to be. I could not enter my apartment to get my snowboarding gear, or the keys to the ski locker. The requisite keys had been locked in my apartment! Reminds me of a saying from another film, ‘Forest Gump’; “Shit happens!”

Disclosure: I have travelled on the same service to Chamonix on numerous occasions prior to this, without incident. The most harrowing event being witnessed in a film on the on-board DVD player.

How cool is this art? Ice Cool!

On my recent snowboarding trip to the French and Swiss Alps, Grindelwald was one of the resorts I explored. There had been very little snow since the beginning of January, but on the plus side, it had been very cold all month and most days were sunny.  It meant that the ice sculptures from the contest held between the 17th and 22nd January 2011 were still in pristine condition, They had not melted and had been buried under snow over a week later.

The event was the 29th staging of the contest. There were other sculptures scattered around the ski area as well as these in Grindelwald itself.



British entry




Austria / Japan?


Does anyone know who won as I was more focussed on my snowboarding?

Living the dream

Five months living in Chamonix, it had to be just that. Getting up, eating fresh croissants from the boulangerie, then all day spent riding some of the best terrain in Europe. Every Saturday, I shopped for fresh organic fruit and vegetables in place Mont Blanc, bought kilos of Tomme de Savoie cheese and found one euro “vin chaud” . Being a member of the public library (mediatheque) was a massive plus. I could borrow not only books, but CD’s and DVD’s and it had free WiFi. At night I would get to know the locals over a glass of beer, occasionally attending their parties.


The flat below me was home to a twenty something baker who worked nights, below that was a Chemist’s Shop. On his days off he’d share drinks with friends and play music. But the apartments were lacking efficient sound deadening. Most weeks between the hours of 2 am and 4 am, I would be wakened by the strangest beats on the planet. I’d drag myself out of bed get semi dressed and make my way to my neighbour’s apartment and practice my French for, “Would you mind turning down the volume?” Sometimes polite, sometimes angry and sometimes adding “I will call the police”, depending on how upset I was. Next day, I’d be too tired to catch the first lifts.

I’d like to say more, positive and negative. What I will say is; “It was living the dream”.

This post has been entered into the Grantourismo HomeAway Holiday-Rentals travel blogging competition.

Bílý who? Bílý Potok! Czech Republic

Bílý Potok means white brook in Czech. It is a town in the Liberec District, North of Prague, close to the Polish border. We saw the rocks of Frýdlantské cimbuří  (Frýdlantské battlements) from the town and decided it would be great to hike up there.


This is the other stream. Guess what? This is called Černého  Potoka or Black Brook.Still climbing up through the trees.



Granite outcrop on the way up. There was a metal ladder leading to a view point on top.


Still climbing.


Frýdlantské cimbuří  (Frýdlantské battlements). Apparently first climbed in 1912. (900m)


Again. You can see the metal access ladder installed in 1978.


Trees damaged by pollution.


I love interesting rock formations.


Oh yes, I pretty partial to these as well.


We stayed at a camping site in the town, the chalets for rent were booked up, so we stayed in a large frame tent belonging to the owner. No time wasted erecting and dismantling our tent and it was much more spacious. The town itself was not what most would consider to be pretty. A lot of industrial decay in evidence. It does have its own railway connection though,


Not shaken, but stirred – a weekend in Martigny

We were there for the 50th birthday party of George, a friend of Joelle, from her time in Prague. Following on the theme of the last post, although this is not a Gran Tourismo competition entry, we stayed with locals and celebrated with them. We stayed at the top floor apartment of George’s sister with views from her kitchen looking North at the imposing château de la Bâtiaz. The balcony and windows on the other side were equally as impressive with the “V” of South to the Col de Forclaz carving its way between the high Alps, towards Chamonix. It was mid October the grapes had been harvested and there was already snow on the tops of the surrounding mountains. It pleased me to see even more snow falling over the course of the weekend.

For the celebration of George’s 50th we dined at a Table d’Hote. Located at a house in the next village on the road towards Verbier and the Grand St Bernard Pass. The food was to a very high standard and locally sourced. One of George’s friend’s joked that the Foie Gras was from local geese, that had been anaesthetised to ensure not suffer as they were force fed. The courses were accompanied by wines from the Valais, Switzerland which are amongst my favourite in the world, certainly a very underrated wine region.


Château de la Bâtiaz, HDR


Château de la Bâtiaz


Château de la Bâtiaz


The only car carrying wooden bridge in the Valais (HDR)




One of the many works of art adorning the roundabouts. This one is by Hans Erni.


More artwork in a roundabout

With only a weekend and lots of folks to catch up with, we didn’t have time for much tourist activity, but we managed a walk around the town. We did a little shopping and sat down in a café for a hot chocolate.

The later photos are from earlier visits to the Foundation Gianadda. It is built on the foundations of a Celtic temple found when the area was being developed in the 1970’s. It now houses an art museum with a world class Sculpture Park and regular exhibitions by artists including Picasso, Hans Erni, Rodin. In fact they have a major exhibition every six months or so. The building also houses a motor museum which is included with the admission price.


Foundation Gianadda


Foundation Gianadda


Roman Amphitheatre


There are substantial Roman remains in the town. The amphitheatre being the most rewarding to see. My imagination is always fired by images of fighting gladiators and the less lucky fighting wild animals. I suppose it’s more likely that it was used mainly for the Roman Army to carry out endless drill practice. Either way it is either haunted by the dead gladiators or foot soldiers who were bored to death.

However in the case of the Martigny there is still an event that gets the spectators’ blood racing.  A cow fighting competition is held there early October. Unfortunately I have never witnessed it but this YouTube video gives an idea of the event:

The sound of the cow bells ringing as the cows lock horns gives it a very Alpine feel. NB. No cows were harmed in the making of the video, as their horns are filed down if they are too sharp and a vet is on hand at all times.


Drinking with the locals


A discussion on a Travel Bulletin Board led to my meeting with Karin, a native Municher. I had never met her before, so when I arrived in the city, I phoned and arranged to meet her where Rosenheimstrasse meets the bridge over the River Isar. I parked and phoned her again to say I was at our rendez-vous point. “Where are you exactly?” she enquired? I scanned for a landmark or street sign. “Einbahnstraße” I replied. She laughed, “That means One Way Street!”. I walked towards the bridge and saw Karin dressed in a fetching dirndl. We hugged hello and headed for Theresienwiese via the U-Bahn.
The large tents and insane fun fair surprised me, but there was more to come.  Karin suggested the Augustiner-Festhalle, because she preferred their brew, a great reason at a beer festival!  As we walked there she explained that the Hofbräu-Festzelt attracted the most tourists but revellers often got too rowdy. We squeezed onto a table full of locals, most dressed in lederhosen or dirndls and soon the whole table chatted as if we had known each other years. The oom-pah band played traditional German songs, the beer flowed, we ate pretzels, the singing got louder, more people stood up and raised their glasses. My highlight was 8,000 people singing “Smoke on the Water” accompanied by the Brass Band while we stood precariously on trestle stools holding our litres of beer. A memorable night, thanks to Karin’s local insight.

This post has been entered into the Grantourismo HomeAway Holiday-Rentals travel blogging competition

Cesky Raj rural and industrial

The Cesky Raj, North of Prague has some exceptional rock formations. Covered in “Cesky Raj a bohemian paradise”. This photo essay covers some of the other attractions of the region.


More of the sandstone that forms such picturesque structures.


Traditional house and more of those sandsyone cliffs.


Trosky Castle, symbol of the Cesky Raj


Ski resort at Josefuv Dul a former industrial valley


Old Textile factory


Old Textile factory


Czech trains


Soviet era sign on collective farm