Friday Thought #92 Travelling by train

Europe is a wonderful continent, endlessly beautiful, with ever-changing landscapes and enough different languages and cultures to fill a lifetime. However if you only ever travel by car, the majority of the scenery you will pass by will all blend into one, fairly uninspiring blur; edge of the motorway, fairly mundane and not worth writing home about. Now of course motorways are incredible, without them cross-country travel would be a nightmare at best, but there is no question that it is not the way to really see a country. You need to get off the beaten track, and while that may mean meandering off the main roads and winding your way through those B roads at a snail’s pace, a wonderful alternative is to travel by train.

Since moving to Austria, we have discovered the joys of superb, and remarkably reasonably priced, train travel, and these days we try and cover most of our long journeys by train rather than by car. For a start, it’s so much more enjoyable; you’re not stuck in a tiny box, or in traffic, you can walk around, eat in the restaurant and go to the bathroom at your leisure! You don’t have to concentrate; you can read a book, watch a film, catch up on work, or even go to sleep. But finally, and the best part for me, is that you become privy to, albeit only by a glimpse, secret parts of the country that only those privileged train passengers get the opportunity to see.

I recently travelled from Innsbruck to Geneva by train, crossing pretty much the entire country of Switzerland in the process, and what a delightful experience it was. Switzerland is a truly stunning country, with landscapes to rival the most impressive across the World, and what better way to see these beautiful lakes, mountains and villages? Why from the comfort of your train carriage, earphones in, gently rumbling through the countryside with not a care in the world!

The photos were taken with a phone whilst on the move, but hopefully they will capture some of the beauty and tranquility of the journey.

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Friday thought #83 Early season skiing – making the most of what little snow we have!

So I hear that North America is getting a huge amount of snow at the minute, however sadly this is not the case here in Europe. Winter teased us back in November and as ever the snow canons were blasting 24 hours a day, a few meagre pistes were opened and skiers hit the slopes in their droves. But since then we have had literally no precipitation, just bright blue skies, sunshine and well below freezing temperatures. So I can’t complain, this weather is gorgeous, and we have been determined to make the most of what we’ve got.

Those in charge of the ski areas have done a superb job of getting resorts open, and the cold temperatures have helped the manufactured snow stick brilliantly, so with zero off-piste or back-country touring potential, why not make the most of the magnificent sunshine and the spectacular ‘half Autumn half Winter’ scenery and hit the pistes?!

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Very respectable coverage considering we’ve had no snow!
Not a bad lunchtime view...
Not a bad lunchtime view…
A 14km track leading from Austria across the border to Switzerland. I love popping over the border for lunch!
A 14km track leading from Austria to Switzerland. I love popping over the border for lunch!
Yeah lower down the snow really does run out! Although there's something really fun about skiing along next to grass...
Yeah lower down the snow really does run out! Although there’s something really fun about skiing along next to grass…
When you get tired of the pistes, why not have a go on the airbag?
When you get tired of the pistes, why not have a go on the airbag?
Ah lovely...
Ah lovely…

Friday thought #49 Money vs lifestyle

I’ve written about this before, but it’s a subject I think about a lot. Whether through choice or necessity, the vast majority of people work either very hard, or an enormous amount, and I would never criticise anyone for the lifestyle choices they make. Everyone is different and everyone has their reasons for the decisions they make. Right from an early age I knew that a standard lifestyle was never going to be for me. The thought of working in an office terrified me and I always leant towards seasons abroad or travelling.

I spent the summer between finishing school and starting university in France, which set the standard for the next 3 years. I think once you’ve had the taste of an outdoor, slightly alternative lifestyle, it’s hard to ever imagine going back to a ‘normal 9-5 job’. I found out that what made me happiest was being outdoors and being barefoot. Whether that was in the mountains or on the beach didn’t matter, it was the fresh air and the outdoors that I loved. I discovered that I was a simple person who didn’t need much, as long as I had the outdoors, I didn’t feel trapped, I was happy.

And I’ve never really looked back, I found ways to make it work in France, and carved out a pretty good life for myself as a teacher in Switzerland. I’m happy to work hard, and when I put my mind to it I think I do a damn good job, but leaving home at 6am every morning, sitting in a traffic jam and driving for over an hour each way just to get to work, wore me in to the ground. Wrong or right, I knew that I wasn’t happy anymore, so after a few years of this I knew I had a choice, accept it or change it. Many people do this for their whole working lives, and I admire them for it, it shows a lot more commitment and dedication than I will ever have, but I knew it wasn’t for me and despite how much I enjoyed my job, I knew this lifestyle was never going to make me happy.

So I chose to change it. Me and my boyfriend made the rather life changing decision to hand in our notices and move to Austria. We knew we wanted to stay in the mountains, but we needed something more, something different. I’ve realised that there are 2 types of people, those who seek the path of least resistance, and those who constantly seek something more challenging. Neither is to be criticised nor celebrated, as both are perfectly acceptable life choices, indeed I often envy those who choose to keep things simple, life is complicated enough without adding in extra issues like language barriers and trying to get your head around an entirely new country’s social system. But I’ve discovered that it’s those extra barriers that keep me going. As much as it’s a very tempting prospect on paper, I’ve had to admit to myself that I don’t want to settle for the easy path. An cruisey job which pays well sounds like the dream, but I thrive on new challenges, on throwing myself in at the deep end and on feeling a bit terrified.

Quitting your job on a whim and moving to another country is never going to be the best decision financially, but you need to decide how much money you really need and what is going to make you happy. My commute has gone from waking up before dawn and a 2 hour round trip in a car, to a 10 minute cycle along a river and flexible working hours. I’m so much happier and I’m so glad we made the decision we did. You only get one shot at life and sometimes you have to stick your neck out and take a risk. If it works, brilliant, and if it doesn’t, well at least now you know!

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Welcome to Innsbruck, Austria, where time and lifestyle take precedent over money…

Friday thought #47 Being a tourist in Chamonix

With only a couple of days to go until I leave Chamonix for good, it seemed only right to do some of the tourist things that I’ve never got round to doing in my almost 9 years here, plus some of the old favourites that I will never get tired of. August is by far the busiest time of year in Chamonix, with wall to wall people lining the already crowded pedestrian streets and a permanent line of cars trying to park in the town centre. These last 2 weeks of the summer are especially busy with the world famous ultra marathon ‘Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc’ looming; there are runners literally everywhere and the town is absolutely at capacity, but every now and again you just have to brave the crowds and even embrace the overwhelming busy-ness of it, because people come here for a reason. It’s amazing! Some of my highlights over the last couple of weeks:

The endlessly spectacular Aiguille de Midi:

If you ever get bored of the views from the top of here, there’s something wrong with you…

View down the famous arête and across to Switzerland from the top of the Aiguille de Midi
View down the famous arête and across to Switzerland from the top of the Aiguille de Midi
Looking down the Chamonix valley towards Les Houches across the Bossons Glacier
Looking down the Chamonix valley towards Les Houches across the Bossons Glacier
Majestic Mont Blanc with climbers in the foreground just finishing the Cosmiques Arête
Majestic Mont Blanc with climbers in the foreground just finishing the Cosmiques Arête

The tramway du Mont Blanc and hiking up to the Tête Rousse mountain hut This is the start of the classic route up to Mont Blanc and a path well travelled by many thousands of people. A beautiful day out:

The Glacier de Bionassay on the way up to the Tête Rousse hut
The Glacier de Bionassay on the way up to the Tête Rousse hut
The stunning Tramway du Mont Blanc, over 100 years old, how on earth did they build it in 1907??!
The stunning Tramway du Mont Blanc, over 100 years old, how on earth did they build it in 1907??!
So many ibex en route, we lost count
So many ibex en route, we lost count

The Lac D’Emosson funicular

An incredible 3 part ride from the tiny Swiss town of Le Châtelard up to the Emosson dam and reservoir. Two incredibly steep funicular railway rides with a beautifully quaint and spectacular open air train ride in between. Absolutely worth a visit.

One of the 2 incredible funicular railways
One of the 2 incredible funicular railways
Setting off on the tiny tourist train
Setting off on the tiny tourist train
Rounding the corner to catch our first sight of the Emosson dam
Rounding the corner to catch our first sight of the Emosson dam

Friday thought #46 The wonder of the EU

It’s a commonly discussed fact amongst Brits that ‘70% of Americans don’t even have a passport’. Whether or not this is factually correct nobody is really sure, but it’s one of those ‘facts’ that everybody seems to know, most likely because living in Europe, the thought of not owning a passport is utterly ridiculous.

2 months ago I think I would probably have agreed, how could anybody live without owning a passport? Flying is so commonplace for us Brits, and with our country being so small, to fly pretty much anywhere means to leave the country. Our passports are somewhere close by at all times. For many years I lived in France and worked in Switzerland, so crossed the border twice a day without giving it a second thought. But I must admit that spending some time travelling around the States has made me view the no passport issue in a completely different light.

The USA literally has everything you could ever need with regards to landscape, climate and sports. It has coastlines and beaches, mountains, deserts, lakes, snow and sun; meaning that every sport from skiing to surfing is possible somewhere in the States. Within Europe, if you wish to ski, you need to fly to a country which has mountains and snow, if you want a beach holiday, countries such as Spain or Greece are an obvious choice. People in Europe take it for granted that they can jump on a plane and in less than 2 hours be in a completely different climate, scenery, culture and language. But what they forget is that the entire continent of Europe could fit neatly in to the outline of the USA with an enormous amount of room to spare. The distance from one side of Montana to the other is approximately 560 miles. As a comparison, if you were to start in Milan, Italy, and drive north east for roughly the same distance, you would cross Switzerland, Lichtenstein and Germany, finally ending your journey in Prague, deep in the heart of the Czech Republic. That’s 5 European countries versus not even leaving one of America’s 50 states.

Many Europeans would consider themselves well travelled, worldly people, after all, they may visit 2 or 3 different countries each year. Yet although it would be an impossible statistic to calculate, I would be very interested to know the percentage of Europeans who have never left Europe. I’d guess the vast majority. Europe contains approximately 50 countries (debatable due to questions such as whether to class the UK as one country or 4 separate ones), the USA contains 50 states. I would hazard that most Europeans rarely leave Europe, most Americans never leave America. It’s really not that different. Europe is made up of countries, the USA of states. It’s a big expense and a long journey to leave Europe and travel to Australasia, Asia, Africa or America, so we tend to stay within the confines of the continent. This is presumably no different for Americans. If you live in Texas and want a ski holiday, why fly to France when you have Colorado just a short flight away?

Being in the States also brought it home to me just how unique the European Union is. I completely take it for granted that despite being British, I’ve lived in France for the last 9 years, worked in Switzerland for the past 4, and am about to move to Austria. No visas needed, no green cards and no need to make a special application. You can move around freely within all the countries in the EU, working and living. In no other place in the World does this happen, and we are so very fortunate that we have this available to us.

Put in perspective it becomes a lot more clear why so many Americans would choose to stay within the States. Europeans must simply count themselves lucky that they have such a diversity of cultures at their doorstep and the freedom to move around amongst them, and cut their American friends a bit of slack!

A comparison rarely considered...
A comparison rarely considered…

Friday thought #30 What to do when visiting Chamonix…?

Having visitors is a perfect opportunity to reflect on what you love about a place and why you choose to live there as it forces you to come up with a suitable itinerary that will entertain, occupy and create lasting memories for your guests. Or maybe it’s just me who thinks that visiting guests need their visit planned out step by step? Others may just choose to wing it but the thought of people flying over to visit, and me having nothing planned for them, fills me with horror! What if they have a rubbish time?! What if it’s your fault?! Maybe it depends on the type of visitor, or maybe it’s my love of organisation…! But whatever the reasons, recent visiting family forced me to consider all manner of things such as; where have they already been? What’s the weather going to be like? What can we do in the rain? How much will it cost? How much time have we got? What would they like to do? Do I need to book in advance? What will we eat? What is there to do?! …… And the list goes on and on.

The first few times people visit, it’s easy. You tick off all the main attractions, the cable cars, the famous walks, the viewpoints etc, but once they start arriving for their 4th, 5th, 6th visit, that’s when you start to scratch around for activities and destinations they haven’t already seen. It’s fine when you live there all the time, if it rains you just stay indoors and potter around, but visitors need a holiday, it needs to be a worthwhile visit.

So I’ve decided to compile a small list of activities and excursions I would recommend for non-skiing, non-climbing visitors to do when in Chamonix, all based on my own experience and the reactions of real-life visitors.

* Take the cable car up to the Aiguille de Midi – the 2nd highest cable car in the World! Look up to the highest mountain in the Alps and look across to tumbling glaciers in both France and Italy.

* Take the historic rack and pinion railway up to Montenvers to see the famous Mer de Glace and visit the ice caves.

* Hike up to the magnificent Lac Blanc, either starting from ground level or by taking the Flegere cable car to give a significant head start!

* Take the cable car up to the Plan de l’Aiguille and hike across the high mountain pass to the Montenvers railway station before taking the train down.

* Either snowshoe or walk up to the Vielles Luges restaurant in Les Houches for lunch or just a vin chaud and a bit of people/mountain watching.

* Book a table at the Cremerie in the woods of Argentiere and hike up with head torches for a memorable alpine meal in wonderful, cosy surroundings.

* Drive up to Plaine Joux, facing Mont Blanc, for a perfect view of the whole mountain range, then take a gentle stroll through the forest to the lake before heading back to watch the parapenters literally running off the side of the mountain…

* Spend the day in nearby Annecy, have lunch in the sun or take a swim/hire a pedalo in the beautiful lake.

* Drive through the Mont Blanc tunnel and pop out in Italy to spend the day in a different country eating delicious, cheap Italian food!

* Jump in the car and head off to explore beautiful central Switzerland – Interlaken and the surrounding area at 3 hours drive is well worth a visit.

These are only but a small handful of the things you can do whilst spending some time in the French Alps. If you enjoy the outdoors and appreciate stunning natural scenery then you will never be bored in a place like this, you just need to be willing to alter plans at the last minute as the weather has a knack of hindering even the best laid plans!

Enjoy!

So many options!
So many options!
Toblerone??
Toblerone??
Top of Europe...
Top of Europe…
Who needs an itinerary when the views look like this?!
Who needs an itinerary when the views look like this?!