Sweeping through Normandy to Omaha Beach

Anyone who has explored the beautiful back roads of Normandy will understand why Hitler’s tanks struggled there.

The roads and lanes of this historic area of north-west France are generally pencil-thin; more suited to bicycles than anything else; and bordered by tall, dense and tangled hedgerows.  

As you pass through towns, the roads can sometimes be so narrow it feels almost possible to reach out and touch the buildings on either side.

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Partly shaped by modern warfare, some of Normandy seem monotonously flat, with huge swathes of agricultural and grazing land, broken by church steeples rising above towns and villages.

As the centenary of the end of World War I approaches, we’ve reflected on our sweep through Normandy’s beaches, bunkers and cemeteries.

It was a stunning Spring day and the fields of yellow rapeseed, apple orchards and dairying land were a far cry from the region’s past military role.

Driving from Paris, we stopped first at Armien to check out the city’s famous cathedral, sitting on a ridge overlooking the mighty River Somme.

Built between 1220 and about 1270, the Gothic cathedral is said to be the 19th largest church in the world – and the biggest of its kind in France.

Armien was fought over during both the First and Second World Wars, suffering considerable damage and being occupied several times by both sides.

The 1918 Battle of Amiens was the opening phase of the Hundred Days Offensive which led directly to the Armistice with Germany that ended the war.

Armien was also heavily bombed by the Royal Air Force during the Second World War.

From Armien, we pushed through the Normandy countryside to the historic cities of Caen and Rouen, before hitting the famous sands of Omaha Beach.

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Caen has a popular museum dedicated to the World War II D-Day landings, while Rouen boasts prominent quays on the river Seine, an historic city centre, and magnificent gothic cathedral.

Much of the city area south of the cathedral also has its own World War II story – flattened by Allied bombing raids and completely rebuilt.

We wandered through the city centre which was occupied by the English during the Hundred Years War and where the French heroine, Joan of Arc was tried for heresy and burned at the stake in 1431.

At Omaha Beach, we visited the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial (main photo) high on a clifffront facing the British channel.

This is quite a remarkable memorial, featuring the big areas of white crosses so common along the Normandy beaches.

From here, we swung along the shores, heading for the Opal Coast and the channel ferry port of Calais toboard a hovercraft for Britain.

France 1

Review: The Brocket Arms

We hit the jackpot with the Brocket Arms.

As part of our series about life in small villages, we decided to head for the east of England and spend time at Ayot St Lawrence in rural Hertfordshire.

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Ayot St Lawrence had it all: history, solitude, community and stunning scenery – yet still within day trip distance from London.

Although off the regular tourist trail, the village was picture-postcard beautiful, surrounded by rural estates, walking trails and horse studs.

As well as the village surrounds, there were long, meandering gravel lanes, lined on all sides by greenery and tangled hedges.

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While in the village, we also decided to review the Brocket Arms, a local pub with its own impressive history. 

Supposedly built in the 14th Century, the timber-framed pub is said to have been the ‘monastic quarters’ for the Norman church until the Reformation. It is also supposed to have been a stop-off point for pilgrims travelling to nearby St Albans Abbey.

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And here’s our frank review of the Brocket Arms:

Q: Was the booking process simple and problem free?

A: Yes. We used a few comparision websites to find the best price, then booked online with one of them. The process was straight-forward and easy.

Q: Did the Brocket Arms communicate after the booking?

A: Yes, the hotel checked by email that everything was okay several weeks before our visit. This was appreciated. Friendly hotel staff also helped us arrange our travel from Heathrow airport. The Brocket Arms also has an active social media presence.

Q: Does the Brocket Arms have street appeal? 

A: It sure does!. The hotel is a stunning old building that sits perfectly in its olde England surrounds. It is surrounded by tree-lined laneways and is in a beautiful village setting.  

I realise it’s cliched, but time seems genuinely to have stood still at this wonderful old inn. 

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Q: How did check-in go?

A: It was astonishing. The friendly, welcoming hospitality at The Brocket Arms, quite frankly, was like nothing we have encountered anywhere.

And it started the minute we arrived. We were earlier than expected, but staff took our luggage from us and ushered us inside for a complimentary cup of coffee while our room was finalised. The formal check-in took place smoothly and efficiently when it suited us.

Q: How was accessibility, particularly for senior travellers.

A: For such an old building, accessibility was especially good. There were no real steps from the car park to the front door and, once inside, the few steps between the bars were clearly marked and relatively gentle.

Our accommodation was in a separate building across the courtyard – and it was particularly accessible, with level floors, ample room and easy access to the bathroom.

Our bags were able to be wheeled on the carpet with ease. This was important to us, as a wheel on our Travelon bag had somehow come adrift at Heathrow airport.

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The bars and restaurant at the Brocket Arms feature delightful beam ceilings, but we found no problems with headroom.

Q: Was the bedroom big enough?

A: There was plenty of space in the room, which featured a large, Queen-sized bed and a modern ensuite bathroom, plenty of storage space and sufficient room for bedside tables.

There was also complimentary high speed wifi, that worked perfectly in our room; and tea and coffee-making facilities.

Q: Was the bed comfortable?

A: Extremely. The room was quiet, there wasn’t much passing traffic and we slept soundly.

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Q: Were other facilities adequate?

A: Although we didn’t us it, there was a modern, flat-screen TV.

Q: Did the room have enough charging points?

A: The Brocket Arms room easily catered for our seven electronic devices. There were plenty of charging points, including some on either side of the bed, ideal for using mobile phones as alarm clocks.

Q: Was the bathroom to the expected standard?

A: There was a good-sized en-suite bathroom with overhead shower. The bathroom featured fluffy towels and luxury toiletries.

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Q: Did you get breakfast?

A: Breakfast was included in the room rate. The breakfast room was comfy; the food was superb (loved the full English) and, once again, the staff made us feel like part of the family.

Q: Were there any problems with the hotel?

A: No. The Brocket Arms is a remarkable village hotel that takes you back to a past age; allows you to feel part of a village community; and also provides the utmost in luxury, technology and outstanding service – including ease of accessibility. 

The customer service provided by the staff during our stay was extraordinary. 

Nothing was too much trouble; everything was done with a smile; they went out of their way to make us feel part of the local community; were only too pleased to help with information about Ayot St Lawrence – and even invited us to a surprise birthday party for the owner.  This was a wonderful occasion that drew a big crowd of local residents.

We will long remember sitting and chatting with locals residents late into an enjoyable evening

Duration of stay: Three nights

Location: The Brocket Arms is located at Ayot St Lawrence in rural Hertfordshire.  It is about 25 miles from central London and can be reached via the M1 and A1 motorways.  It can also be reached by rail from Welwyn Garden City, Harpenden and St Albans stations.

Our Age-friendly rating:

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9/10 From our experience, The Brocket Arms caters well for all ages.  The adjacent accommodation area was extremely accessible, with simple room layout and straight-forward entry.There were a few steps inside the bar area, but they didn’t worry us – and were gentle considering the age of the premises

Overall 

Whether you a making a day trip from London or looking for a quaint setting in an historic English village, the Brocket Arms is outstanding.  We couldn’t recommend it more highly.

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Apes and flying farmers may face a steep hurdle

We met our first Ape at Ravello, on Italy’s Amalfi Coast – one of the most glorious parts of our planet

While exploring a hillside pathway – barely wide enough for two people – we were startled by a car horn.

The honking came from an Ape (roughly prounced ‘A – Pee’) a tiny vehicle used to haul lemons, chestnuts and vegetables from some terraced farms along the steep valleys above the Amalfi coastline.

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This three-wheeled vehicle complements mules and the farmers themselves – known as ‘contadini volanti’, or the ‘flying farmers’, who climb the steep heights to visit the groves.  

However, locals sadly pointed out that the efficiency of the Apes, mules and farmers is gradually proving no match for competition from cheaper, less aromatic lemons from abroad.  

For some years, this competition has been driving prices down and applying pressure to Amalfi’s vertical farmers to abandon terraces previously cultivated for generations.

Naturally, it’s feared that this could lead to the collapse of dry stone walls and an increase is erosion along a stunning coastline famous for its pastel-coloured villages sitting in narrow, V-shaped valleys.

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The dry stone walls were built stone-by-stone by the ancestors of today’s farmers who went on to plant and tend for many thousands of lemon trees.

However, some local residents now fear that, if maintenance is reduced, the walls may not last.

Add the inevitable summer bushfires in the Lattari Mountains, some clear-felling of land and the ageing of the remaining lemon farmers – and you have further problems for the terrace walls that have been a bulwark against erosion for centuries. 

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In September 2010, a fatal mudslide hit the enchanting Amalfi Coast village of Atrani.

In the aftermath, an early warning escape route was  established through the tangle of cobblestone lanes and streets in the ancient village.

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As we wandered through this unbelievably beautiful area on our most recent visit, we noted the ‘Escape route’ signs and the pedestrian-only routes to the sea through huge arches.

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There’s also talk of ground sensors and remote-controlled cameras in the hills.

The Amalfi Coast is one of the ‘must-see’ destinations of the world and, hopefully, the possibility of stone walls ever substantially falling into disrepair may remain just that – only a possibility.

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However, if possible, we can all probably help ward off problems by seeking out bright-yellow Amalfi lemons for our shopping basket.

Note: the writer was flown to Europe courtesy of Scoot Airlines

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Plan your luggage needs carefully

Giving lots of advance thought to your baggage is becoming more and more important for airline travellers.

The number of airlines charging for check-in luggage has accelerated the trend toward flying with carry-on bags only.

And that, in turn, has led to passengers stuffing as much as they can into overhead cabin bins.

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Carry-on bags have got bigger and bigger, stretching cabin luggage limits.

Even in new-age planes with particularly big overhead bins –  it isn’t certain that you can stow your cabin bags near your seat.

To overcome this problem, travellers are tending to rush onto the aircraft leading to unsightly jostling for prime positions at the boarding gate.

On some of our most recent flights, we saw people literally running down the jetway to board early, just to get overhead luggage space near their seats.

So, it’s wise to prepare for the liklihood of your cabin bags ending up at one end of the plane, while you are seated at the other. This is important to consider if you need to get to medication, iPads, laptops etc during the flight.

If you are like us and usually opt for multiple airlines, it’s also smart to examine check-in baggage requirements across all companies – even it you have a single ticket only.

For example, in Spring we flew from Sydney to Athens with Scoot Airlines, which had a generous baggage allowance.

However, we had to keep in mind the fact that, on alighting, we were off to Crete with Aegean Airlines, which wasn’t as generous.

It’s also common sense to make use of the discounts for paying online.

This doesn’t stop with baggage fees. With some airlines, it can be cheaper to print your boarding pass at home, instead of the airport.

Travel packing

Airline review: easyJet

What do you look for in an airline – safety, cheap fares, reliability, comfort?

Some experiences, like our Reviews of Scoot Airlines long-haul flights, delivered all that, plus a lot more.

UK-based, easyJet, has also long been a favourite of ours for flights around Europe – but we decided to put it to the test again to see if anything had changed.

To start, we checked to see how the cost of easyJet tickets compared to other airlines on our planned leg from London, UK, to Athens in Greece. For the day in question and our preferred time, easyJet was the cheapest we could find.

That decided, we went to the easyJet website and booked two tickets on the flight of our choice from London’s Gatwick Airport. The site was easy to use (no pun intended) and the process was straight-forward – we chose two tickets; provided our information; bought two seats and booked-in our single bag of luggage.

Q: Did easyJet communicate after tickets were booked?

A: Yes, right up until the morning of our flight. We also kept an eye on the airline’s online flight tracker which regularly updates information.

About three weeks after booking, we renewed a Passport, which meant that we had to slightly change information on one of our tickets. Some airlines charge a fee for making changes, but easyJet did it free of charge and re-issued the ticket.

Q: How was check-in?

A: Smooth. After catching a bus from London Victoria, we went straight to the north terminal at Gatwick Airport, where easyJet has an enormous bag drop area, with both self-service and staf desks. Doing the bag drop was easy and fast.

Q: How was the airport experience?

A: Gatwick is a fairly big airport, but the arrival/departure boards were easy to follow. Then it was on to security and into the departure area.

There can be a lengthy walk to the gates along that terminal at Gatwick, but there are signs along the way that indicate how long it will take to reach each gate.

Like many airlines, easyJet allows each person only a single item of cabin-luggage, so we’d left room in a carry-on bag for Sue’s handbag.

Q: Were there any problems boarding?

A: No. However, these days, so many people are travelling with carry-on luggage only that, regardless of the airline, it can be difficult to find room in overhead lockers near your seat.

The trick, therefore, is to be among the first on the plane when boarding. So, we waited close to the gate and made sure we moved quickly down the jetway to the plane. Our flight was on time; we quickly found our seats; and claimed space in the overhead locker above us – ready for the three-and-a-half hour flight to Athens.

Q: How was the aircraft?

A: Our plane was an Airbus A320 and was spotlessly clean and tidy. easyjet, we believe has only a single class, which was comfortable enough.

Q: Were the seats comfortable?

A: Seating was the usual Economy-type and, overall, the flight was reasonably comfortable and relaxing.

Q: How was the cabin crew?

A: Efficient, professional and polite.

Q: Did you land at Athens on time?

A: We arrived at Eleftherios Venizelos airport exactly on time. Both the take-off and landing were smooth – and there were no problems leaving the plane or collecting our luggage.

Age-friendly rating

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8/10: From our experience, easyJet is more than just a huge no-frills carrier well known for offering particularly cheap tickets on European flights. We were also impressed with its communication, customer service, efficiency and reliability.

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Review: Hotel Schloss Fernsteinsee

It was a misty October afternoon in the Tyrolean Alps of western Austria.

Light rain was falling as we moved along the motorway that had carried us from Italy, headed for Hamburg in northern Germany.

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Daylight had started to fade as we passed the city of Innsbruck and our good friend and trusty driver, Gert, was looking for somewhere to pull in for the night.

“Ah ha”, he said as we rounded a curve, crossed an arched bridge over a lake and stopped beneath a sight that could only have been described as extraordinary.

Peering at us through the mist and low cloud was a stunning castle that dominated the hillside like something from a fairytale.

“Our hotel” said Gert with a smile, as we gazed in amazement at the scene before us.

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Fernstein Castle has guarded the road to Bavaria since at least 1288.

At the foot of the Fernpass, the castle rises from alpine forest overlooking two clear-water lakes only a few kilometers from the glaciers of the Zugspitze, Germany’s highest mountain.

The location is simply incredible – on a trade route that has been important since Roman times; ringed by knife-edged Alps; and leading to the Mieming Plateau, an area beloved by hikers.

We discovered later that Fernstein Castle is actually alongside the Claudia Augusta Road, an historic Roman route that was built in 15 BC and is still visible today.

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Originally a military installation, many of the oldest parts of the castle are in ruins, but the site is now the Hotel Schloss Fernsteinsee – a grand step back in time with a combination of opulence, history, majesty and modern conveniences.

The hotel is the centre of a 280,000 square metre nature reserve, with modern alpine-style units scattered among the forest, running streams and emerald-green Fernsteinsee.

Our two-bedroom unit was in the Villa Lorea annex building and was bright, roomy and modern, with free wifi; a kitchenette; en-suite bathroom; minibar; and flat-screen TV.

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Everything was accessible; we were able to drive right to the front door, there were minimal stairs; an easy-to-use door lock and level floors.

Breakfast was included in the room rate, giving us the opportunity of sampling one of the most stunning dining areas imaginable – with superb antique furnishings, lighting, fittings and awesome artworks on the walls.

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The food was tasty and ranged from international delicacies to products from the castle’s own farm.

There were also plenty of homemade Austrian pastries and ice cream.

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Photo courtesy Hotel Schloss Fernsteinsee 

Although we didn’t use the facilities, the Hotel Schloss Fernsteinsee is apparently well known for its Wellness centre, that includes a Finnish sauna and massage service.

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Steady rain prevented us from exploring much of the nature reserve, but we took a quick look at the Fernsteinsee and the stables which, at one stage, were apparently able to hold between 30 and 70 horses.

Age-Friendly rating

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8/10: From our experience, the Hotel Schloss Fernsteinsee is suitable for guests of all ages. There was a short walk between the dining area and our annex. However, it was possible to drive almost to the door.

The hotel itself is located only metres from the motorway.

The Fernsteinsee is quite close to the hotel, but visibility appeared good along much of the shoreline.

The balcony in our unit was solid, with level flooring, high wooden rails and a secure lock on the door.

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Austria has quite a few superb castles and we’ve been fortunate to see some awesome ones, including Schloss Schonbrunn; the Hofburg Imperial Palace and the Hohensalzburg.

However, as impressive as each of those are, none have the striking forest and mountain location of the Fernstein Castle.

Hotel Schloss Fernsteinsee and its castle are at Nassereith in western Austria, in the Tyrolean Alps about 53 kilometres from Innsbruck.

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It offers a truly remarkable experience

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