West Coast Train Travel

When we planned our trip to North America we wanted to minimise our plane travel between destinations to allow us to see as much of the country as we could. As part of this we planned to travel from Vancouver to San Francisco by train, with stop-overs along the way to break up the otherwise very long journey.

The Amtrak Cascades leaves Vancouver for Seattle (and beyond) either very early in the morning or in the early evening. We opted for the early morning as the trip along that part of the coast is reputed to be quite spectacular. Unfortunately, we remain in total ignorance, as, despite arriving  promptly, we never made the journey. Amtrak maintained their reputation for unreliability and cancelled our train because the engine had a flat battery. We spent several hours in the cold early morning  twiddling our thumbs before eventually being loaded on to coaches for our shortened  trip to Seattle via the extremely boring main highway -with not a coast within cooee.

DSCN4412After three days exploring Seattle we boarded the Coast Starlight for the next leg of the journey southwards.  We spent a lovely day on the train in the sightseer lounge car listening to the National Parks “Trails and Rails” volunteers who provided interesting anecdotes on the natural and cultural history of the areas we travelled through.

Our next stop over was to be an overnighter in Klamath Falls to break up the night time train ride. We were due in around 9pm but Amtrak struck again and a faulty engine meant we didn’t arrive until midnight – not a problem for the motel though as they appeared used to the vagaries of the train service. Upon waking the next day we cancelled our intended walking tour of the area as the skies had opened up during the night and looked like remaining that way for the next week. Klamath Falls in hindsight was a mistake for a very wet overnighter.

Back to the station the next night at 9pm for an overnight trip to Sacramento, California’s capital – surprisingly this time the train was on time. We opted for the less expensive seat option as the cost of a sleeper (bed only – no bathroom) was ridiculous. However, this wasn’t really a problem as the seats had plenty of legroom and reclined like a first class airline seat. I managed to get a reasonable amount of sleep before we arrived in Sacramento in the early morning – earlier than expected.

We speDSCN4471nt two days in Sacramento then off on our fairly short last leg of the journey to San Francisco.  This part of the trip involved a short, two hour train ride to Emeryville, on the Oakland side of the Bay, then a coach trip in to San Francisco, across the Bay Bridge.

Despite the delays and unbelievable, unreliability of the Amtrak service we really enjoyed the time we spent on the trains. The trains were comfortable, the trip was interesting and after all, we were hardly in a hurry. Disappointing though that we didn’t  get to do the Cascades coastal trip and despite receiving a compensatory voucher from Amtrak it will always be something we missed. Still there is always next time.



Vancouver was my first Canadian city and still my favourite. After our first few months in the USA it was nice to take a break from the intensity and craziness, that I was rapidly associating with the States. I find Canadians, particularly on the west coast, much more chilled in their outlook on life. As we found in Vancouver, they also understand the cafe culture much better than their southern neighbours; a welcome break from bland coffee in soulless coffee chains.

DSCN3511As the city of Vancouver is built on a small peninsular,  there is easy access  to large areas of attractive and vibrant waterfront.   At the northern tip is Stanley Park, which has many interesting walking tracks and also houses attractions such as the Aquarium. We spent some time, over a number of days, walking though the park and around the perimeter. We also enjoyed taking the small local ferries across False Creek to Granville Island and up the creek before wending our way back along the waterfront to the city centre.

DSCN3619Within the city itself we spent some time in the historic and cosmopolitan Gastown area, with leafy streets full of character and the old steam clock, which has chimes that mimic Big Ben’s.  Here we also found one of our favourite coffee shops, Smart Mouth, on Water Street, which lured us back several times. We also spent a day enjoying nearby Chinatown and the wonderful Chinese Gardens.

Outside Vancouver we spent a few days on Vancouver Island, which, for us, was slightly disappointing as, although we drove through some really delightful scenery, the concept of rest areas or somewhere to pull over and admire the scenery was just about non-existent. In common with the USA, there does not seem to be a focus on destination rather than journey, which was disappointing but it didn’t diminish the beauty of the area.  We also spent a bit of time in the mountains to the north of Vancouver. The drive to Whistler in particular was breathtakingly stunning, with craggy mountains dropping steeply into deep blue waterways.

We really enjoyed our month in Vancouver. It is a lovely city – one of my North American favourites. I would love to go back not only to explore more of the surrounding wilderness but also to wander it’s city streets and waterfront again.DSCN3893

The Windy City

In March, we spent a month in Chicago.  The day we arrived the weather was relatively warm and sunny. but that was almost the last we saw of anything resembling warmth. From the next day the weather got progressively colder until a week later it was snowing heavily and I was wearing my thickest winter clothing.

I guess the time of year and the weather had a large impact but for me Chicago was not the vibrant, dynamic city I expected. For a start, it was much smaller than I had realised – about 2.7 million people. The biggest attraction for Chicago seemed to be it’s unique architecture, which is ceDSCN2930rtainly interesting. I can appreciate an interesting building and there are quite a few to be seen. However, there is only so much excitement you can get out of looking at interesting buildings (unless of course you happen to be a rabid architect).

We did a few city walking tours, braving snow and freezing temperatures and learned quite a bit about the city and it’s history. on the worst day we did a tour which took us through some of the connecting underground passages through the city – miles of them, which residents use to avoid the weather above for most, if not all, of the day.

I understand that in the warmer months there are a lot more outdoor activities in the parks and along the river banks, which would have added to the ambience of the city. We saw little of this. What we did see were a lot of apparently homeless, depressed and often disturbed people (separately and combined). It was in some way bizarrely entertaining to watch these people parading their personal issue for the benefit of all and at full voice. Always at the back of your mind though is their, edgy intensity and the fact that the country allows, no condones, the carrying of guns. Not a recipe for total peace of mind.

In our last week we visited Wrigley Field toDSCN3391 watch a Cubs baseball game. Given this is a summer sport it was odd to sit shivering in the stands in our big winter coats watching the fog rolling across the ground towards the end of the game. Regardless the Cubs won and the match was good fun.

We enjoyed our time in Chicago although a month was probably too long for us, in this city, at that time of year. Albeit, it did give us time to see the weather eventually warm up, cloaking the city in early spring colours, which improved things enormously.

Skiing in Alta

DSCN2560Having decided to spend several months home exchanging around the USA and Canada we started our journey with a month in Salt Lake City during the peak of the ski season. After some research and consideration of the absolutely woeful snowfalls received earlier in the season on the west side of the country, we elected to go with Alta as our resort of choice, as it seemed to offer the best chance of reasonable snow coverage.

I am not the ski fanatic in the family. Indeed, up to the point where we headed for Salt Lake I had been on skis about half a dozen times over a period of 15 years. While I looked forward to spending a bit more time on skis in an attempt to improve my somewhat shakey beginnings, it was not without a touch of trepidation as I had not been near a ski slope for at least 5 years. Still, l the optimist in me pictured me swooshing effortlessly down the slopes after very little time on my new skis.

On our first day we rode the chairlift to the top of the beginner’s area. That’s where I lost it. This gentle green slope looked to me like a steep double black run down the side of a giant mountain, my brand new skis wouldn’t turn at all (no fault of mine of course) and I was not really feeling that great. I had a few unsuccessful attempts at conquering the terrifying mountain while feeling, by this stage, dizzy and a bit sick, and dissolved into tears. I was eventually “helped” off the slope by the very enthusiastic ski patrol (scarier than skiing down I think) and I didn’t ski any more that day. Nor did I ski for the next week as, although I didn’t know it at the time, I was succumbing to an especially nasty virus.

After a week spent rugged up in front of the fire feeling sorry for myself I headed back to the slopes for round two.  By this time I had decided that I needed to really go back to basics and elected to have a private lesson with Holley, an instructor who had been particularly recommended for frightened old ladies like myself. Holley was about my age, with a lot of experience and not only understood my fears, she was gentle enough to give me confidence but tough enough to move me forward. By the end of my lesson I was almost happily skiing down the green slopes that had totally intimidated me the previous week.

I sMargaret at Altapent another week practising and progressing on to some of the other green slopes and then went back for another lesson to consolidate my control. Once again Holley was exactly what I needed and after lesson two I was confident enough to tackle a few bluish/greens. By the end of our month I was a much happier skier and really starting to enjoy myself.

We both loved our time in Alta, it is not a large resort but it had a good variety of well groomed beginner and advanced areas, the ski school was perfect for me and relatively inexpensive.  It is also one of the few resorts that doesn’t allow snowboarders, which makes the skiing much more relaxed for us beginners.

By the end of the month we had done a lot of skiing and my transformation from raw beginner means that I will now look forward, with less trepidation, to our next skiing adventure.

Champagne, Churches and Courage

In early February, after several months in London and with very itchy feet we once again loaded the car and drove off for a few months of wandering.  Our first stop was a week in a small renovated, ivy covered, stone cottage in the village of St Agnans in the heart of the Champagne district. From there we had easy access to the surrounding vineyard covered countryside and the cities of Reims, Laon and Soissons.

Reims has two large and interesting churches; the Notre Dam Cathedral and the Abbey of Saint Remi. The Reims Notre Dam is, like most others, a large, spectacular building with an impressive interior. The highlight of which is the stained glass windows in the apse designed by Marc Chagall in 1974. The Abbey of St Remi is
another large church with a fascinating history and interior. The church holds the relics of St Remi housed in an ornate 6th century crypt. Adjoining the Abbey is a wonderful museum that traces the history of the area from paleolithic times.

DSCN4294In nearby Soissons the church of interest was the Abbey St Jean de Vignes, an 11th century building on the city outskirts. The church is largely in ruins, as it was systematically torn down following the French Revolution, m
erely because it’s architectural style went out of fashion. In the centre of the city, the Soissons Cathedral, modelled on Notre Dam de Paris was also worth a visit.

Leon, also nearby, is a medieval walled hilltop town, that has another large and impressive Cathedral Notre Dam, rising majestically above the ramparts and dominating the small old town centre – both well worth a visit.

AsDSCN4442 well as the several churches and the obvious necessity to imbibe Champagne’s tipple of choice and sample the fabulous local pate, there are also strong connections to the WWII French Resistance movement. We spent some time in Tergnier, which houses the Musée de la Résistance et de la Déportation de Picardie , which documents the history of occupation and resistance in the area. In Reims, we visited the Musee de la Reddition (Museum of the Siurrender), where the Germans signed the surrender to the Allied Forces on 7 May 1945.

Both museums, along with the many war-graves littering the countryside, hold poignant and powerful reminders of the horror that engulfed the country for several years. I find it difficult to comprehend the reality although in many ways I am thankful that I can’t.

The countryside of northern France will always hold it’s own unique charm for me but the constant reminders of the devastation of the past will inevitably fill me with sadness.


After several weeks travelling down eastern Spain we elected to spend some time in Morocco instead of immediately travelling north. As often happens, despite thinking we had done the research and were prepared our arrival in Morocco had a few hiccups. Firstly when we arrived off the ferry we were waved through by the officials until, just as we were about to leave the port area we realised that we had not purchased the necessary car insurance.

030Doing so became a bit of a confusing nightmare of visiting and revisiting in turn several officials across the port area who appeared to not fully understand either what we wanted or what they were there to do – as we were to discover not unusual for Morocco’s bureaucracy. We thought we were going to fail at the last hurdle but we eventually got our insurance and headed out of the port area for our next surprise. We had not landed in Tangier as expected but were actually in Tangier Med, a port area several tens of kilometres up the coast.  Still it was an interesting drive in and our introduction to stopping (many times) at inner city round-abouts to allow sheep and goats to be herded through.

During our month in Morocco we visited the cities of Tangier, Rabat, Casablanca, Marrakesh, Meknes and Fez as well as several small towns. Generally, we felt that after having seen one city there was not an astounding amount of difference between the others. The medinas and souks, while interesting, were largely the same from one place to another – mazes where one could easily become lost but with similar merchandise and the ever present touts . The most interesting for us was Marrakesh, as a more dynamic and modern city and the real disappointment, Casablanca, a squalid and dirty city with not much to interest at all other than the Hassan II mosque on the water. Hardly the romantic ideal of the movie.

The small towns on the other hand held much more interest. These had life and character that were sadly missing in the larger cities. Our favourites were Essaouira, a small fishing town on the western coast as well as Ouarzazate and it’s surrounds. Both were friendly welcoming towns with less of the constant touting that nearly drove us to distraction in the larger, more commercial areas. Our stops in these smaller towns were a very welcome interlude to the hustle associated with the city areas.

There were several constants that made relaxed travelling for us difficult in most areas. While the locals all appeared friendly to begin with it was made very obvious early on that the welcomes and offers of help all had pecuniary interests attached – quite aggressively at times. This attitude extended down to the smallest child – nothing for free. I took to carrying sweets to hand out rather than giving money to the children as this more often than not was not retained by the children.

It was also difficult to take photos anywhere as there was complete  aversion to 004_01having photos taken either for free (you can take my photo but you have to pay) or altogether. Meaning that in any public place you were often abused for pointing a camera even if only taking general scenery shots. At one attraction I was abused by the public guards for being insolent enough to point a camera in their direction. – not that I argued as they had big long sharp pointy things. I eventually became very secretive when taking photos and it took a lot of the enjoyment out of it.

On top of this, at the entrance and exit to each built up area (and often while driving through) there was a constant police presence. We were stopped several times, most likely because we were driving a GB plated right hand drive vehicle. Initially this was a bit of a novelty but the constant pulling over and answering what were largely stupid questions or being told we had broken some law that the locals were all obviously not observing became a bit wearing. At one of these stops we were told we had been speeding (not obviously true as we were slower than the prevailing traffic) and would need to pay some very large fine. Eventually we convinced the officer we actually had no money on us to pay (luckily) and he let us go with a severe warning.

After a month of various adventures including, camel trekking in the desert and 039exploring the ancient Roman ruins of Volubilis, we took away some wonderful memories of Morocco. Thankfully the good memories will largely override those of the constant hustle, the instant unfriendliness of the touts when they realised they weren’t getting handouts and the aggressive  attitudes to photos.

Camel Trek into the Moroccan Sahara

125One of the things we wanted to do while in Morocco was to really see the desert. After some consideration we elected to do a camel trek out of Merzouga with a locally based company, Merzouga Excursions.

We wanted to go by camel, as four wheel driving didn’t seem at all appropriate – camels are after all evolved for the desert and do minimal damage to the dunes. We also wanted a more traditional camp rather than a sterile air-conditioned tent and Merzouga Excursions offered this for a very reasonable price.

Once in Mezouga, south of Errachidia, we were met by our tour guide  Hassan, who introduced us to our camel leader, Ali Baba, and our trusty steeds, Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix.  The entire setup was small but very professionally run. We set off around 3.30 with Ali leading the way on foot. Apparently you need to actually lead the camels as it is the only way they will  go where you want.

We spent an amazing hour and a half slowly making our way through the rolling dunes taking in the wild beauty of the area and desperately trying to capture some of it in photos. We eventually arrived at the traditional bedouin campsite in time to rest our tender nether-regions and to take even more photos as the sun descended.

181Ali, our guide, transformed himself into Ali, our chef, and we dined on traditional bedouin food sitting around the campfire under a ceiling of brilliant stars.

In the morning we rose early to watch the sun come up over the dunes, a truly magical sight watching the changing colours on the gently rippling sands.

Then it was time to contemplate the necessity of mounting and sitting on those *!*#&*! uncomfortable camels for another hour and a half. We fleetingly contemplated walking back but eventually summoned the courage and mounted up.

The ride back through the dunes with the sun slowly rising and the colours changing around us luckily took our minds (largely) off our backsides. For several weeks however we bore the scars and it was some time before I could sit comfortably and without thinking horrible thoughts about our camel friends.

263It was a truly wonderful experience, made more so by our guides, and one I would not have missed.  However, if I never get anywhere near a camel again it will be way too soon.


Spain – the good, the bad and the ugly.

My first real experience of Spain, as with most things in life, wasn’t quite what I expected.

Travelling from France into Spain I immediately saw a difference in the road systems. Spain has very good multi-lane roads and highways with generally good wide roads. The exception of course are the older parts of the city areas, which can be extremely narrow and difficult to navigate.

We had heard horrors of the driving in Spain but in general we found the drivers very patient both with the intricacies of the traffic and the fairly tentative English drivers (us). Although they do seem to have a blatant disregard for traffic lights (red only means stop if there is nothing obvious in your way – and no police around) and other road rules, they seem to do this in a non-aggressive and strangely safe way (most of the time).  We certainly had no major concerns from other drivers during our driving travels through Spain.

Generally we found the towns and cities clean and very people friendly. The exceptions seem to be the prevailing smells of sewer around the manhole covers in a few of the larger cities (a bit off-putting in eating areas) and the seeming unwillingness to clean up after the many dogs (particularly in Barcelona and Valencia).  In many parts of Spain there was also significant evidence of the recession, such as derelict developments, that detracts somewhat from the overall picture of a clean and well-managed environment.

Beggars, of which there are many in Spain, seem to be tolerated in ways they never would be in many countries. The numbers of beggars seem to reflect the general recession of the country. Seemingly, consequently, they are largely ignored by the local population who seem to be inured to the constant appeals on their purses.  This extends to cafes and bars were beggars and sellers of goods can wander freely through the diners soliciting handouts.

The biggest negative I found  was the very officious and apparently inefficient Spanish police. In Barcelona we watched the constabulary single out, for no apparent reason, a pair of very good Spanish flamenco guitarists that we had been enjoying,. The police stopped them playing to the tourists and not only moved them on they took their money, property and equipment despite strong sentiment in favour of the busking by a large crowd.  We saw similar targeting of buskers in several places – I’m not sure if the local jurisdictions realise that these buskers are generally good value for tourists (with the obvious exception of the piano accordionist).017_03

In Barcelona and Valencia we watched some very inefficient “sting” operations that targeted the illegal fake handbag and sunglass sellers – the police were no match for the (usually) African natives, who could pack up and move on in the blink of an eye.  Strangely the police there don’t seem to understand the concept of an undercover or plain-clothes operation – any wonder the scammers have time to get away when the police come in sirens blazing, in full uniform.

070_01I generally have a lot of time for the police – they have a tough job.  However, I have seen no evidence of this in Spain – they seem to stand around a lot in an attempt to intimidate the local population into submission. The disappointing thing is that while they are standing in one spot the illegal activity continues in another – very sad.

However, these are really minor irritations in a country that has a lot to offer, particularly for wandering travellers.


043_01Our second stop in Spain was the city of Valencia – home to the last two America’s Cups, Moto GP and Formula 1 racing.  The city has some odd dichotomies – in the very new, grand areas around the port and science park, which contrasted with some very depressed and fairly squalid areas adjacent to these shiny new areas.

073_01None-the-less, Valencia has a lot to offer. There are several grand churches and cathedrals to be visited in the historic centre of town. The plazas here also offer a relaxed environment to sit, eat and enjoy the culture.  We found some wonderful tapas cafes that provided a good and varied meal without huge expense.

In the historic area there is a large central market, which is interesting both for the variety of food on display as for the building the markets are housed in. Nearby is the old silk exchange, which has some interesting gargoyles and the very ornate ceramics museum that can be visited by prior arrangement.

061_01In the centre of the city is the river park, which runs for 9 kilometres and provides the focus of many community activities in the city. The park sits in the bed of the old river, which was diverted many years ago because of its high pollution. The city council wanted to turn the bed into a roadway but the residents objected and insisted the strip be turned into a community park and sporting facilities – how right they were.

The river park brings the two sides of the city together rather than dividing it as a road would have done. The park (and the city itself) is a very pleasant and interesting place to walk despite the obvious neglect in some areas.


After deciding to head further south in pursuit of warmer weather, our Christmas and New Year period was spent in Barcelona.

086Barcelona is Spain’s second largest city and was host to the 1992 Olympic games. The city has a good transport system and we made use of this very efficient, clean and cheap metro to get around the city on the occasions when we didn’t wish to walk. Barcelona’s port area is clean and modern and has some lovely areas to just sit and enjoy life – there is also a lot of community activity focussed around the port area.

On Christmas day we watched dancing competitions and a series of swimming races in the port itself. The latter were a mixture of hilarity, with teams of Santas swimming complete with sacks, and more serious racing from other competitors. A bit like a City to Surf in the (very cold) water.

Like most Europeans cities Barcelona has an interesting historic area, which we wandered through many times enjoying the sights and visiting the many old churches. There are several large sunny squares where you can sit and enjoy the local food and drinks, or just watch the world go by. The area is centred along La Ramblas – the main café and shopping street of the city, which also provides some interest.037

Barcelona’s architecture is dominated in many areas by the work of Antoni Gaudi, whose style is seen clearly in buildings such as La Sagrada Familia and open areas such as Parc Gruel. Gaudi’s designs are influenced strongly by the patterns of nature and are quite distinct from any other architecture. It is certainly easy to detect a Gaudi design (or one influenced by his work).

We spent several hours wandering through La Sagrada Familia, quite blown away by the uniqueness of the style and the detail in the design. I find it hard to define whether I like the style or not. There is something about the style that is a bit too grand for criticism although there is an element of just too much detail to be peaceful.

096_01One thing is certain – having seen the grandeur of the work it is not something you can easily forget or mistake for any other architect.