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On top of the world

January 13, 2014 Leave a comment
The only way to Hotel Plein Ciel in winter is via cable car and then through the snow on foot or by ski.

The only way to Hotel Plein Ciel in winter is via cable car and then through the snow on foot or by ski.

Perched high up at 1,800 meters in the Chablais Alps, lounging on a deck chair soaking up the sun’s rays with 360-degree panoramic views of the Dents du Midi (Teeth of the South) and Dents Blanches (White Teeth), it’s easy to understand why Hitler built his Eagle’s Nest high in the peaks above Berchtesgaden, Germany, and why Bavaria’s ‘mad’ König Ludwig had ambitious plans to build his last residence at Falkenstein.

In the Alps it’s all about the feeling of being on top of the world and far away from cellphones, wifi and civilization. I feel completely removed from the outside world bar the occasional jet stream overhead reminding me that I’m just a stone’s throw away from Geneva’s international airport as the crow flies. Besides the occasional jet engine, there’s little sound apart from the circles of ravens and the odd eagle gliding effortlessly above and the dim sound of a ski lift and a whish of skis. The only way for humans to get here in winter is by cable car from Champéry.

The former cable car station is now the Hotel Plein Ciel, perched on an 1,800-meter-high mountain top overlooking the town of Champéry.

The former cable car station is now the Hotel Plein Ciel, perched on an 1,800-meter-high mountain top overlooking the town of Champéry.

Looking at the old cable car perched on the mountain top outside the Hotel Plein Ciel at Planachaux, 1,924 meters high in the French part of the Swiss Alps, it’s a reminder that getting to the top wasn’t always as easy as today with the super-modern cable car that can carry 125 passengers up in just six minutes. This area of the French Swiss Alps, bordering France, was once undiscovered. Today, it’s part of the massive Portes du Soleil skiing area which combines parts of France and Switzerland and, yes, like its name suggests it’s sunny. This is also home to the Chavanette or the Swiss Wall, a one-kilometer ‘orange’ (more difficult than black) ski run with a vertical drop of 331 meters starting at 2,151 meters above sea level.
The Hotel Plein Ciel is a gem of a find. Many chalets and hotels in the Alps claim to be perched on mountain tops but when you arrive turn out to be in a village with the mountains as a backdrop. This place actually lives up to its website promises.

To get there is a bit of confusion (we are in the French part of Switzerland after all where ‘la confusion’ from its bigger neighbor seems to have flowed across the border!) but once you’ve discovered where to park your car, leave your luggage and rent your skis you can settle down and enjoy a magnificent trip by cable car up the mountain. What makes this place feel like a real adventure is that you can only reach it by cable car and after 5 pm the hotel is completely inaccessible in winter. So, once you’re there for the night, there’s no chance to leave. When you disembark from the cable car, you can either brave the 15-minute trek on foot down to the hotel (as you soak up the views, the chances of slipping are quite high!) or ski your way down in just five minutes.

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Stunning 360-degree views of the Dents du Midi and the Dents Blanches in the French Swiss Alps.

The hotel itself is super-cozy and homely with spectacular views and friendly staff who lend an informal relaxed vibe to the place. In the dining room, there’s a fireplace to gather around and make new friends and plenty of reading material (only in French), board games and a billiards table. If you’ve been out on the slopes all day, you can warm up in the sauna before dinner which is a very laid-back affair. It’s a good idea to take the half-board package which includes a set three-course menu. On the evening we stayed there was tartare of smoked omble chevalier (a local ‘noble’ fish from Lake Geneva), duck and a delicious lemon tart. If you don’t eat anything on the menu, the chef will offer you an alternative. During the day, try Marcel’s cheese fondue or a planchette (wooden board with cheese or meat) on the spectacular rooftop wooden terrace to soak up the mountain views and sun. It’ll be hard to drag yourself back to the ski slopes.

All in all, Hotel Plein Ciel is the perfect get-away-from-it-all weekend escape in the French Swiss Alps, for skiers and non-skiers alike.

In the area:

Les Bains du Val-d’Illiez: large indoor and outdoor thermal bath fed by three springs which are rich in sulphur, calcium and magnesium set in the valley below Champéry and surrounded by the mountains.
Portes du Soleil ski area: covers 12 resorts in Champéry and Les Crosets in Switzerland and Morgins and Champoussin in France.
To get to Hotel Plein Ciel and Planachaux: Access via the cable car to Planachaux at Champéry which is approx one hour from Geneva.

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France’s ‘best-kept’ secret?

November 11, 2012 Leave a comment

Located on the confluence of the Rhone and Saone rivers, Lyon’s main attraction is its location in France – close enough to the Alps and the Mediterranean coast.

Ask most people if they know anything about Lyon and they will probably give you a blank stare and mumble something about “plenty of wine and cheese” and move on quickly to the next subject. With a population of around two million, Lyon is the third largest city in France and often considered one of its most important, and wealthiest, economic centres.

Yet, it is very much overshadowed internationally by its better known big brothers – Paris which, as the capital, lures tourists by the millions each year, and Marseilles, which is the starting place for many visitors headed to the Mediterranean coast.

So what does Lyon have to offer visitors? Well, if it’s French culture you are after, this is probably as authentic as it gets. International tourists – bar a handful of golden oldies who disembark from the Rhône river cruise boats, food afficionados who are in the know about the city’s rich culinary heritage and some Asians who pass through on a group tour – are few and far between.

Click here to read the full article published in The Sunday Times of Malta.

Wine and dine your way around Europe with Eurail

October 7, 2012 Leave a comment

Wine and dine your way around Europe from Portugal through Spain and France.

Start in Lisbon
Often called “City of the Explorers”, flanked by the Atlantic Ocean and one of the world’s most historic cities, Lisbon is the perfect gateway to Portugal. And there’s no better place than the Bairro Alto old district to sample freshly caught bacalhau (cod). Salted, smoked or grilled, it’s often said that the Portuguese can serve their favorite fish in more than 365 ways, one for each day of the year.

Seafood has been a staple of Portuguese cuisine for centuries. Often simply served with olive oil and white wine vinegar, they sometimes fire shrimp or chicken  up with spices like peri peri (small chilli peppers). Wash down fresh sardines, octopus, lobster or sea bass with delicious local wines in the lively Docas area at the Santo Amaro docks.

North to Porto
From Lisbon head north to Porto, Portugal’s second city, world-renowned for its port wine and UNESCO-protected old town. After trying out the port wine cellars on the Gaia hilltop, head downtown for a traditional dish of tripas à moda do Porto (tripe with white beans). This has been an important local dish since the 14th century when the locals had little else to eat. After a stroll along the beach in the Foz district, try Porto’s most popular ‘sandwich’ snack, a Francesinha (Frenchie).

If time permits, take the train from Porto’s old São Bento station to Pocinho which passes through the spectacular Douro Valley, complete with vineyards, tunnels and bridges. Don’t miss Régua’s old station, once the most important in the region.

Wake up in Madrid
Head back to Lisbon and hop on the overnight train to Madrid. Around ten hours later, wake up refreshed to explore the Spanish capital, as famous for its history, culture and architecture as its food. The city attracts people from all over Spain, so it’s a good place to try out Spanish dishes from the Basque, Andalusian and Galician regions. Besides its traditional meat stews, Madrid is also the place to try the popular tortilla de patatas (potato omelette). Leave some space for churros dipped in hot chocolate sauce.

Tapas in Barcelona
Two and a half hours later disembark the AVE high-speed train in the vibrant city of Barcelona. Perched between the mountains and sea, and home to Gaudi’s architectural masterpieces, Barcelona is a cultural hotbed. Get a taste of its heady nightlife and trendy restaurant scene by taking a tapas tour or visiting the city’s cava (sparkling wine) bars.

French cuisine
Trace the Mediterranean coast around to France, and you’ll come to the unpretentious town of Sète. One of the country’s major fishing ports and home to mussel and oyster fields, try local specialities like moules farcies (stuffed mussels) at one of the restaurants on the Canal Royal.

A stone’s throw from Sète lies Montpellier, fast becoming one of the most popular cities in France for visitors. Spend a day at a cooking school learning how to prepare local dishes like bouillabaisse (fish soup), washed down with some local wines.

The two-hour TGV train journey from Montpellier winds through the Rhône valley, one of France’s most famous wine-growing regions, before reaching Lyon, France’s third largest city. An old Roman city, Lyon has been put on the world cuisine map thanks to Paul Bocuse after whom the prestigious Bocuse d’Or award is named and its proximity to the Beaujolais and the Côtes du Rhône wine regions. Enjoy a hearty Lyonnais meal with delicacies like tête de veau (calf head) and andouillette (intestines) in a local bistro (bouchon) on the touristic Rue Mercière.

En route to Paris, stop off in Dijon, the heart of France’s mustard industry, and capital of the Burgundy region. Once you arrive in the French capital, grab a bottle of champagne and watch the sunset from the Sacré-Coeur hilltop.

Text Alannah Eames Published on The Local on behalf of Eurail.

The lure of the French Alps

June 18, 2012 1 comment

The majestic Alps stretch across an impressive seven European countries – from Italy and Slovenia in the east to Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, France and Monaco in the west. They were formed by the collision of the European and African tectonic plates.

But even if you’ve visited König Ludwig’s castles in the Bavarian Alps, gorged on Apfelstrϋdel in the Austrian Alps, hiked and dined on cheese fondue in the Swiss Alps or admired alpine lakes in the Italian Sϋdtirol, and think you’ve seen it all, a visit to the French Alps will prove you wrong.

The stunning Parc des Ecrins, a must-hike in the French Alps.

Patches of luscious green velvety grass, sleepy villages tucked away into deep narrow valleys, cute log chalets, roaming sheep aside, the French part of the Alps are home to the highest alpine peak – the Mont Blanc at 4,810.45 meters – although I have to admit that when I look at the map, it seems to lie so close to the border that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly which country it is in; officially, though, it’s in France.

Year-round sunshine
What also makes the French Alps unique is its vegetation and climate. “If you’re the sun-loving type, remember the region can boast an official average of around 300 sunny days over 12 months as we have a kind of micro-climate,” says Jean-Claude, owner of the Gite Refuge de la Juliane. The abundance of wild herbs, flowers, shallow rivers and blue skies, confirm this.

Created in 1973, in the heart of the French Alps, lies the Parc National des Écrins – one of France’s largest national parks at 918 square kilometers, and one of its most stunning. It’s marked by steep, narrow valleys and sculpted by the Romanche, Durance and Drac rivers and their glaciers. Craggy peaks soar 2,000 to 4,000 meters into the sky, making it one of the highest parts of the Alps. It’s also home to the elusive ibex and chamois goat-like antelope species, some wolves – which we are told are very timid – and we even spot a harmless grass snake or two on our hikes. Parc des Ecrins is a mecca for skiing – cross-country and hair-raising downhill skiing – and boasts over 700 km of hiking trails. Many of these trails were previously used by smugglers and shepherds before they started to host more leisurely pursuits.

Bourg d’Oisans, 53 km southeast of Grenoble, and the UNESCO city of Briançon are good bases from which to explore the Parc des Ecrins, but we decide to stay in the picturesque area of Pelvoux.

Pelvoux is located in one of the prettiest valleys in the park and is a great base for kayaking, hiking or skiing.

As we weave our way along the scenic route from Grenoble to Briançon, marvelling at the landscape unfolding in front of us, we wonder how Hannibal managed to cross the Alps in 218 B.C. with an army of 46,000 men and 37 elephants without any of today’s modern navigation tools and infrastructure like tunnels, highways and alpine passes.

Cast-away in Pelvoux
Pelvoux is about a 30-minute drive from Briançon. Flanked by sharp towering mountains, it’s in a narrow valley dotted with ice-cold Alpine rivers and cascading waterfalls with a handful of sleepy villages and refuges/gites.

Just a few minutes from Pelvoux, 500-meters walk up a hilltop lies La Juliane, a chalet which prides itself on eco-friendly tourism. As we arrive we receive an enthusiastic welcome from Tucket and Saxo, the resident dogs, followed by their owner Jean-Claude. It’s a cosy chalet built out of dry stone and larch logs, powered by hydro and solar energy and where great attention is paid to sustainable tourism. Inside, it’s surprisingly cool and a refreshing respite from the scorching heat outside, without any need for costly air-conditioning.

Hiking from the La Juliane chalet with Jean-Claude and Tucket.

There are plenty of sign-posted treks from here including La Condamine at 3,000 meters from where you can, on a clear day, spot the peak of the Mont Blanc. Or you can opt for a trek to an Alpine waterfall or glacier. Dinner is a social affair – we sit together with Jean-Claude and his wife Agnes and our fellow guests for a wild-herb infused aperitif (which tastes so good that you forget its alcoholic content) and a hearty home-cooked meal of wild herb soufflé, soufflé with rabbit liver and rabbit in a delicious olive-infused sauce, all topped off with pana cotta. It’s the perfect end to the perfect hike: hearty healthy food with the chance to share experiences and anectodes with our fellow guests and get an insight into French culture.

One of the gems of the French Alps
No visit to the French Alps is complete without a stopover in Briançon, a spectacular town perched 1,300 meters high and a popular start and finishing point for a stage of the Tour de France in July. It’s also the birthplace and home of many an Alpine sportsperson. Famous for its UNESCO-protected Vauban fortifications, its walled medieval town with cobbled streets and candy-colored houses, and intimidating fortresses, you can easily spend a day or two here. The dramatic military fortifications bear witness to the strategic location of this town, close to the Italian border, during previous centuries as a defence post.

The stunning medieval city of Briancon hosts some of the best Vauban fortifications in France and is a frequent stage visit during the Tour de France.

France’s ‘Catalan’ corner

June 3, 2012 2 comments

One of the gems of ‘French Catalunya’ – Collioure.

Before visiting this little corner of France bordering Spain, Pays Catalans, I was unaware that the Catalan influence had spilled over to France. In fact, due to the history of this picturesque region, the Catalan connection in the French Roussillon province goes back centuries.

However, while the Spanish Catalans still retain a strong identity, the French Catalans have been more integrated into French culture and society – only around 100,000 Catalans still live in Pays Catalans and speak their own dialect; the rest speak French.

Driving down towards the Pyrenees, past Montpelllier, we finally see the sea. But, it’s not quite the picture of the Mediterranean that you imagine. Instead, there is a series of estuaries on one side of this flat, swampy looking stretch of land. However, there’s hope – in the distance, the majestic Pyrenees loom. Heading towards Canet, the landscape and uninspiring concrete holiday homes are not very appealing. There are heaps of activities from wine tasting to horse riding to kite surfing and kayaking, but at a first glance it just looks boring.

Slightly disappointed, we arrive in Canet-Plage which is where we’re going to base ourselves for the next few days. Canet has a long sandy beach but the town itself is nothing special, with its characterless cement-lined façade, unappetizing takeaway restaurants and lack of soul. However, for a family holiday it is probably an excellent choice – for its swimming-friendly beach with the mountains in the background and variety of activities.

Canet-Plage is a great base from which to explore neighboring gems – the stunning old towns of Collioure and Carcassonne, and you can also venture across the Pyreneesto the Spanish side to Costa Brava to explore places like Salvador Dali’s holiday favorite of Cadaqués.

For romantics and creative spirits alike
Collioure (pronounced Caulio) is a small town just 30 minutes drive from Canet Plage. With just a small text about it in our guidebook, we thought it would be a nice place to visit and enjoy some fresh fish French Catalan-style.

Well, you can’t help but fall in love with Collioure. It’s a beautiful town which became famous as a center for artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse in the early 20th century, inspired by its small, winding medieval streets, imposing castle, Mediterranean-style bay and small sandy coves. There’s also a 14th-century windmill. At night time, it is beautifully lit up and very romantic.

Collioure is also famous for its anchovies which are often considered the best in the world. Plenty of cozy restaurants and bars line its waterfront but it has still retained its intimate charm. However, in the peak summer times, the number of tourists can be a bit overwhelming.

When in Collioure, enjoy the fresh seafood which is cooked up Catalan-style and a drink on the waterfront with the gentle sound of the sea and to admire the beautifully lit up castle and streets. We dined at Copacabana which was excellent, especially the fresh flame-grilled shrimps and crème catalane – a local variation of crème brulee. However, the Catalans traditionally carmelize it with a special iron or under an iron broiler, rather than with a flame.

Collioure was taken by the French in 1642 and, due to its strategic location, its fortifications were strengthened by military engineer Vauban. In 1793 the Spanish besieged the town and the French won it back again a year later.

Shellfish paradise at Bouzigues

Moules farcies in Bouzigues, one of the shellfish ‘capitals’ of France.


Lunch at Bouzigues is a must when in this area. A small pretty fishing village, near Sete, one of Southern France’s largest fishing ports, Bouzigues is famous for its shellfish. Around 500 meters from the waterfront restaurants, you can see the wooden stilts where they cultivate the oysters, lingoustines and mussels etc.

We try the bouillabaisse – a hearty concoction of fish, mussels, shrimps and a massive langoustine, served with toasted bread, garlic butter and gratinated cheese. I choose mussels – which I have been dreaming of for the past two days but, unfortunately, end up ordering moules farcies (stuffed mussels) by mistake. They were delicious but I’m still wondering how they managed to squeeze such a massive chunk of sausage into such a tiny mussel.

Viva la Espana

Crossing over the border between France and Spain, even though we’re still in the “Catalan” region, it’s very quiet on the Spanish side – villages lie deserted, new apartment and holiday home buildings lie unfinished, restaurants are closed and the feeling of recession looms everywhere. However, the well maintained and highly comfortable camping grounds along the Costa Brava are full with, mainly, German and Dutch caravans and tents.

The Costa Brava is everything that you expect from the postcards …. long, never-ending stretches of sandy beaches, turquoise-blue Mediterranean waters, colorful splashes of windsurfers and kite-surfers and abundant hotel resorts, holiday homes, apartment blocks and camping grounds. However, it also has plenty of cultural sites and beautiful spots off the beaten track.

Cadaqués – Dali’s holiday hangout

The white-washed village of Cadaqués on the Costa Brava, one of Salvador Dali’s favorite holiday spots.

On the horizon we spot the white-washed buildings of Cadaqués with its red roofs and azure-blue shutters. At a first glance, it reminds us of a village in the Greek islands.

Cadaqués has long been a haunt of artists, sculptors and writers including Salvador Dali who spent much of his childhood here and kept a summer home here which is still open to the public today; it’s at Port Lligat, a bay next to the town.

In the early 20th century many people from Cadaqués left the sleepy fishing village to emigrate toCuba; they later returned after making their fortune and built large ornate villas in Cadaqués.

This town, even though just two hours from Barcelona and close to the French border, seems completely cut off from the outside world, partly due to its location in the hidden depths of the mountains on one side, and the rolling waves of the Mediterranean on the other.

Where to stay: Le Mas de la Plage et des Pins (Canet-Plage); Les Mouettes (Collioure); Perafita Hotel (Cadaqués); camping on the Costa Brava: Las Palmeras or Nautic Almata.

Don’t miss: Fresh shellfish at Bouzigues; a cortado at a sleepy café in Cadaqués; Salvador Dali’s house near Cadaqués; shopping for handicrafts in Collioure; the medieval town of Carcassonne.

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