13. Lugano, Switzerland

Where there are people willing to talk to me without getting paid for it

Lugano is a slightly unusual entry in my ever expanding list of adventures. I didn’t come here to see a thing, or a sight, I came here to visit a couple of friends and chill out for a few days. Besides my day trip to Monza (see previous post), I did very little during my three nights here, which was perfect.

The highlights of this quiet period included a warm stroll along the side of the lake with Cristina (who cooked me the best meals I’ve had on my travels so far), watching utterly bonkers Italian TV gameshows, and my first ever ride on the back of a scooter, during which the terror of impending doom was blunted by the sights of the mountains and the aforementioned lake.

Lugano itself is a relatively small town that typifies my Swiss experience – stunning views, fresh air, a generous splash of character, and ridiculously expensive (although not having to pay for accommodation or most of my food certainly helped with that). A very pleasant experience that rounds off the Swiss leg nicely and leaves me with fond memories of this gorgeous country.

DSC_6692

No, we did not climb those steps.

A big thank you to Cristina and Francesco for putting up with me for a few days, and when I eventually settle down and get a place of my own, the invitation for a reverse trip will always be there for the both of you. Eventually.

12. Autodromo Nazionale Monza, Italy

Cathedral of Buzzy Feelings

Occasionally, during my journey, I will have the opportunity to fulfil a lifelong dream, and finally see or experience something I’ve been wanting to see or do for a very long time. Today was one of those days, as I fully indulged my passion for motor racing, and visited one of the most iconic and historical motor racing venues in the world – Monza.

Even if you’re not particularly fond of people trying their utmost to guide big lumps of metal around glorified circles as quickly as possible, the magic and history of the circuit here at Monza, just north of Milan, is instantly recognisable, and practically inescapable. Famous corners with poetic names such as Parabolica, Ascari, and Lesmo, scenes of thousands of passionate Italian fans flooding the track to celebrate a Ferrari victory, these are well known images to die-hard and casual fans alike, and now I can say, I was there.

Granted, the day wasn’t all about being all giddy-eyed whilst walking around the track and listening to the mesmerising tone of Ferraris and Lamborghinis. In fact, my day started with a highly unwelcome 8am stroll up a steep hill towards the train station in Lugano, Switzerland, where I was staying at the time. What followed included getting lost in Milan station, spending half an hour in a crowded, sweaty car rental office because they’d hideously overbooked, getting lost again walking to the car park where the car was stored, waiting for them to finish washing the car before I could get in it, getting lost again coming out of Milan, going down the wrong Autostrada, and spending what seemed like three weeks queuing to enter the track.

But, once I was inside, all that stress was quickly replaced by a wondrous buzzing feeling, created by millions upon millions of pounds worth of road car, GT car and Formula Renault, sat proudly in the pits, waiting for their turn to roar around the iconic track.

DSC_6694DSC_6698DSC_6699

Having gawped at the cars from up close, it was time to take my seat, which was located, well, anywhere I wanted. My ticket got me into the circuit, and after that, I was free to wander to whichever section of the track I wish, and sit down anywhere that wasn’t already occupied by a fellow petrolhead.

DSC_6710

Having watched the start of the Formula Renault race from the main grandstand, which was quite exciting, I opted to move further down the main straight, just before the first chicane, to watch the start of the main spectacle – the 3-hours of Monza GT Race. The spot I had chosen seemed to be an unpopular one – too far down the straight to see them cross the start/finish line, and not far enough to be on top of the inevitable melee into turn one.

No more than five seconds into the race, however, and I was rewarded for my choice of location by a massive crash that took out ten cars and saw the race red-flagged for half an hour.

DSC_6782

The Bentley (middle) gets a great start and tries to squeeze between the front two cars…

DSC_6783

…but in doing so, runs the Lamborghini onto the grass.

DSC_6785DSC_6787

Facing the wrong way with 44 other cars heading towards it at ever increasing speeds, the Lambo tries to recover…

DSC_6790

…but not everyone in the packed field can get out of the way in time, and chaos ensues…

DSC_6794DSC_6796DSC_6799DSC_6800DSC_6803DSC_6832DSC_6836

(please forgive the low lighting in most of those shots, I got all excited and forgot to adjust my shutter speed)

Needless to say, my empty grandstand wasn’t very empty for much longer.

After everything had settled down and the race had restarted I opted to take some pretty pictures of the pretty cars going round other parts of the pretty track, and then I was done, heading home before the similarly inevitable melee getting out of the circuit after the conclusion of the race.

DSC_6847DSC_6853DSC_6863DSC_6877DSC_6906

To witness race cars driving round a track as famous and as steeped in history as Monza is a memory I will never forget as long as I live, and to say “I was there” not just at a race in Monza, but right in front of a huge incident at the start of a pretty important race, gives me The Pang all over again.

A fantastically enjoyable day, even if I did get lost again trying to drop the car off in the evening.

11. Geneva, Switzerland

Pretty(ish) in pink

It was always going to be difficult for wherever followed Lucerne to impress as much as that Swiss jewel did, and despite its best efforts, Geneva just didn’t quite hit the mark with me.

Having spent a couple of days there, one gets the impression that Geneva is more interested in bankers and businesses than tourists and travellers, the swathe of fancy hotels and wallet-burning restaurants a constant reminder that this is an expensive city in an expensive country. So expensive, in fact, that Domino’s pizza became my preferred option not because it was an occasional treat, but because it was the cheapest hot meal I could find.

But while the city itself may be overpriced and not as pretty to walk around as some, it does have its highlights.

Wander away from the city centre on a fine spring day, and Lake Geneva contributes towards an enchanting blend of blues and greens, making a stroll along the shoreline a refreshing, if a tad windy, experience.

The colourful theme is extended in its parks, too, including the whites and deep purples of Parc Moynier in spring bloom, and the unexpected pinks of the flamingos strutting their stuff at the Jardin Botanique.

DSC_6614

DSC_6620

Despite these spectacles, it’s hard to get away from the price of absolutely everything – from food to hotels to even a single ride on a tram, although the hotel I stayed in helpfully gave me a free pass for the public transport system for the duration of my stay. So unless you’re not concerned about money, I can’t really recommend coming here.

DSC_6635

DSC_6639

Geneva offers plenty of ways to unwind, from a friendly game of chess…

DSC_6659

…to some close-up bird spotting in one of its parks.

10. Lucerne, Switzerland

Stairway to heaven

Lucerne is a town that the more time you spend there, the more you love it. Quite an impressive feat considering the moment you step off the train and cross the bridge, you’re greeted by spectacular views of lakes, forests, and mountains.

DSC_6563

Most places I visit during my travels will follow a similar pattern of wandering around, taking in the sights and sounds, and then having a bit of a rest in the evening while I compose my thoughts and share them with both of my adoring fans.

Lucerne, however, is different.

On more than one evening I found myself leaving the warmth and comfort of watching YouTube videos in my hotel room for no other reason than simply heading back to the lake’s shore and staring in wonder at my surroundings.

Never was this more relevant than on my final evening there, when I braved walking through the snow storms (according to the hotel receptionist, it was the first time in 20 years that it had snowed there in April) to sit on a bench on another side of the lake. My patience and wet nose were rewarded by the unforgettable sights of the sun setting over the back of the town, bathing the mountains in yellows and golds, my only company being the occasional dog-walker and the gentile lapping of the water against the shore.

20170418_195718

But it’s not just the scenic backdrop that impresses, Lucerne’s pride in its history and heritage shine through in its architectural preservation, making the old town an enjoyable location for a picturesque stroll, despite the presence of numerous well known shops. The wall that separates the old from the new is an attraction of its own, but it also allows the town to show off its party piece. If you’re willing and able to climb the 259 steps from street level – the steepness of most making the descent just as tricky – to the top of the tower, then you’re in for a treat. Take in the panoramic view of the town, with Mount Pilatus and Lake Lucerne in the background, and you’ll soon forget your burning thighs. Add a well-timed flurry of snow, and we have what I’m confident will be one of the most beautiful views of my entire journey.

DSC_6584

However, all this beauty comes at a price, which is, well, the price. Lucerne, in keeping with the majority of Switzerland, is not cheap. A sandwich and drink at a local supermarket will cost you around 8-10CHF (£7.50-8.50), a Big Mac meal is a little over 15CHF (£13) and my chicken and chocolate enchiladas – which tasted a lot better than they sound – at the fairly average quality mexican restaurant I dined at on the first evening set me back 33.50CHF (£28), and I wasn’t even full.

If you’re planning on travelling on a budget, I wouldn’t recommend spending a whole lot of time in this part of the world, but, while you’re enjoying one of the finest lunchtime views you’ve ever seen, you really won’t care that much.

DSC_6575DSC_6573DSC_6565

9. Nancy, France

aaaaaand breathe…

Nancy is a fairly quiet town, which has provided the first opportunity for a bit of down time in the otherwise hectic world of travelling, but besides a couple of notable attractions, there isn’t really much here.

After spending the day catching trains from Ypres to Nancy – including a fairly underwhelming couple of hours perusing the streets of Luxembourg City – it was time to relax, unwind, and take in the sights of this Eastern French town.

The best place to do such a thing is at its main attraction, Place Stanislas. Despite the grandiose buildings around each of its sides, the square has a very calming atmosphere, attributed mainly by the lack of vehicles, and the soft hum of French diners enjoying a plate of escargots as the sun sets over the Western corner. It’s a welcome contrast to the tourist-laden Bruges and Ypres, and if you’re willing to dine just slightly off the square (but still have a view of it), it’s not quite so hideously overpriced either.

Merely a stone’s throw away from the Place Stanislas is the Parc de la Pepiniere (written without its necessary accents as I still haven’t fully got to grips with my new fancy Chromebook), where joggers, cyclists, and people who just want to sit on a bench and watch pigeons undertake questionable acts converge and get lost in its serenity. It’s not the biggest, most beautiful or most colourful park in the world, but it’s the perfect place to unwind for an hour or two as you watch the (mainly French) tourists take selfies next to statues whilst the welcoming chimes of the Basilique Saint-Epvre ring in the background.

However, besides the park and the square, there isn’t a whole lot to admire about Nancy. It’s not an especially photogenic town, and there isn’t an awful lot of things to do here, and I can’t help but think that the only reason I’ve enjoyed my three days here is because it has provided a natural calmness to my travelling experience.

I therefore wouldn’t recommend choosing this as a sole holiday destination, unless ambling about in a quiet French town for a week is your thing, but as a quick stop on a tour of Europe, it’s well worth popping in for a day or two.

DSC_6561DSC_6555DSC_6551

Look! Mum! More flowers!

8. Diksmuide, Zonnebeke, and Ypres

Lest I Forget

After the charm and colour of Bruges, it was time for my travels to take a very different, very emotional course. I’m not travelling round the world just to ooh and aah at pretty things, I’m doing this to learn about it. I want to know more not just about its cultures and sights, but about its history, and the events that helped shape it, for better or worse, into what it has become today.

The main reason behind including Belgium in my trip was to learn more about its role in World War I, and pay my respects to those who fell during it. This desire has led me to three locations in the past few days, the first of which was a hole in the ground just outside the village of Diksmuide.

DSC_6464

This wasn’t just any old hole, though, it was the last remnant of the trenches used in Belgium in World War I. A final, chilling reminder of what soldiers had to live through, as they prepared themselves for almost certain death.

DSC_6468DSC_6459DSC_6455

Besides a small tourist centre at one end, and a few informational signs situated near to it, there is little here to distract from the harsh simplicity of your surroundings. You’re standing in a six-foot ditch, held together by sandbags (albeit reconstructed concrete ones), and there’s a river on one side of you, and fields on the other, and that’s it. On a suitably grey and chilly day, it was a poignant reminder of this awful phase of human history, knowing that a hundred years ago, men barely old enough to drink beer were standing in the very same spot, getting ready to go over the top and face a barrage of German bullets.

DSC_6463DSC_6458DSC_6456DSC_6454DSC_6446DSC_6441DSC_6462

After visiting the site of the final moments of too many men, it was time to head to Tyne Cot Cemetery, near Zonnebeke, to pay my respects at the final resting place of thousands.

Be prepared, because when visiting this cemetery, one cannot help but be moved by the sheer number of people remembered here. Nearly 12,000 graves stand, side-by-side, in haunting silence (unless you happen to have arrived at the same time as whatever the Dutch for sixth-form school trip is), marking the bodies of the fallen.

DSC_6504DSC_6501

Tragically, around 8,300 of those bodies couldn’t be identified, and are simply marked as “A Soldier of the Great War”. These brave men not only sacrificed their lives for their country, but, in most cases, their very identities as well.

DSC_6505

As if standing in a field surrounded by thousands of graves wasn’t moving enough, the eastern boundary of the cemetery houses the Tyne Cot Memorial, a list of names of those who have no known grave, or whose bodies could not be recovered. Around 35,000 of these names line the memorial, a number that is difficult to comprehend even when standing next to it, let alone while sitting in the comfort of wherever you are right now reading this.

DSC_6491DSC_6486DSC_6499

Note: The T.E. Hayward in the first picture is, as far as I’m aware, not a relation.

The vast sum of people commemorated at Tyne Cot is a visual reminder of the sheer scale of death that this terrible conflict saw. It’s easy to make one angry at the world, and question the necessity of an event such as WWI when standing amongst these fallen, and easier still when you consider that all these names only account for roughly 0.5% of the combatants to have perished during The Great War, and that doesn’t take into account the deaths of everyday civilians.

The last leg of my tribute to the fallen saw me standing at the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres. Built in the 1920s, despite the locals protesting against their town being turned into a giant memorial site, the Menin Gate pays tribute to those who passed through the town, only to go on and lose their lives in battle, and their bodies never to be recovered. In total, there are some 55,000 names carved into this impressive stone monument, which despite its size, still wasn’t big enough to house all the names it needed, hence the memorial at Tyne Cot Cemetery.

DSC_6514DSC_6520DSC_6524DSC_6519DSC_6526

But whilst the size of the structure and quantity of names were overwhelming, I was there mainly to see one small part of it in particular. Stanley Arthur Hayward, who served in the 13th Battalion, Canadian Infantry, was my Granddad’s Great Uncle. On 13th June 1916, at just 25 years of age, he went over the parapet at Sanctuary Wood, east of Ypres. Tragically, Stanley was killed by machine gun fire the moment he went over the top. He never even made it into battle.

DSC_6536DSC_6534

My emotional few days was wrapped up by the playing of The Last Post. Every evening at 8pm, just like it has done every day since 1928, the Last Post Ceremony is held at the gate, honouring those who made the ultimate sacrifice to help us become who we are today. It was a fitting final tribute to what has been an episode of my travels that has left me so drained, I’m turning in for the night before some of my ex-colleagues even start their night shift in the casino.

Still, tomorrow I’m travelling to a town that sounds like a woman born in the 1930s, via a country nobody knows anything about, so it will be back to business as usual.

7. Bruges, Belgium

The city that kills calves

Bruges is a delightfully pretty city, and a thoroughly pleasant opening gambit to my world-conquering adventure.

Most places on my itinerary are there because there is something specific I want to see, whether it’s a ramble in the Alps, tiger-spotting in India, or the biggest statue of Buddha in the world. Bruges, however, is one of those rare exceptions that finds its place on my list because it’s just a generally really nice place to be.

The thing that makes Bruges (Brugge, to the natives) so pretty, and that has contributed to its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the uniqueness of its buildings. Owing mainly to their age, every building, whether it’s a grand church in the centre of town, or a humble house in a quiet neighbourhood, looks different to every other building. Even when observing rows of houses on the same road, each one is pleasing to the eye in a way that differs from the ones either side. Throw in some very pretty little parks, a smattering of quaint shops, and a fooking enormous medieval bell tower on the main square, and you have a city that is a joy to do nothing more in than grabbing a camera, wandering round and getting lost in all day – which is exactly what I did.

DSC_6434

In fact, the generally relaxed ambience and variety of structures seem to be the main reason people come to visit – and dear lord do people come. Even on a Tuesday morning in early April, the centre of Bruges was laden with hoards of tourists striking silly poses on canal bridges and generally getting in my way. If you’re the kind of person that doesn’t like mingling with the constantly-open-mouthed masses, then I can only imagine what this experience would be like in the summer. Nevertheless, besides the aforementioned Belfort (it really is massive), there aren’t any singularly notable attractions here, so if you’re looking for an activities holiday, this might not be the ideal location for you.

If, however, you enjoy very pleasant strolls through very pleasant neighbourhoods, then this is right up your picture-postcard-beautiful alleyway. After somehow surviving damage in both world wars, and following significant restoration efforts in the last 50 years, Bruges’ historical, clean, relaxed atmosphere is well worth a visit, even if, like me, it’s only for a day.

DSC_6432

Bruges has provided an excellent start to my trip around the word, and now I’m even hungrier to see the rest of it. For now though, I need to lie down for a couple of hours, as my calves are far from happy with the amount of walking I’ve just done.

DSC_6438

Look! Mum! Flowers!

DSC_6436

This is a windmill. I’m not sure what else to put here.

DSC_6428

This is where I had lunch, luckily it was open.

DSC_6419

Sometimes it is the size that counts.

DSC_6418

For some reason there were a lot of chocolate shops.

DSC_6408

If you want to pay a man in a silly hat far too much money to give you a lift round the city centre while you take in the smell of horse shit, you can.

DSC_6385

The rather beautiful Minnewater Park.