The dramatic landscapes of Wales never fail to disappoint. My photo journal from a recent weekend adventure in the Elan valley and the north-west Welsh coast showcase some of the contrasts and colours of this wonderful little country.
I hadn’t originally intended to post about this trip, as I found myself in Wales a few weeks back for a trail race – and I figured most of you would aren’t here for quirky race reviews (although let me know if not, and I will try to oblige!).
But I ended up taking a handful of photos I loved and I wanted to share them with you. Maybe they’ll inspire your own Welsh adventure.
We were ultimately heading for the north-west Welsh coast but stopped on the way in the Elan valley. This stunningly beautiful series of reservoirs set amongst the rolling, heather-covered hills of mid-Wales feeds much of the Midlands with water. A lovely friend of mine introduced to this area a few years ago, and it’s stayed with me ever since. We spent an afternoon dodging showers and tramping round the Garreg-du reservoir, reminding ourselves why we love this little country so much.
Our base for the weekend was Hendre Hall camping and glamping in Llwyngwril – more specifically one of their little glamping pods. Seriously, I couldn’t recommend this place enough – the pod was great (the perfect compromise between creature comfort and life in the great outdoors), and we looked out over the railway line and beach beyond. And boy, were we glad we’d gone for the pod over our slightly-ratty old tent – in typical Welsh fashion it rained pretty much all the weekend … in August.
Our weekend was mostly all about completing Race the Train – a epic 14 mile trail race that follows the route of the Tallylyn steam railway, starting in the little seaside town of Tywyn. It was all about mud, mud, more mud and glorious Welsh landscape. With a bit of running thrown in for good measure. Trail running friends, you’ll love this race.
Madness aside (I’m never going to pretend this is a normal way to spend a Saturday afternoon), Tywyn’s a town with old world charm and some stonkingly good places to eat. We ended up the Salt Marsh Cafe twice – once for carb-loading on their homemade pizza and burgers, and later for a quiet drink. It’s a fun, cosy space with lovely staff and a mouth-wateringly good food and drink menu. As a post-race splurge we indulged in three courses of delicious at Proper Gander, where they somehow manage to turn out incredibly refined local dishes from a kitchen the size of a cupboard. Importantly, in a state where I was woofing down cereal bars post-race like no tomorrow, their portions were reassuringly satisfying and we left very full and very happy.
Our last stop on our whistle-stop weekend was just outside Builth Wells. It’s landscape of lush green valleys, peppered with little stone farmhouses and shy sheep. High up, the hills sing with purple heather and damp pools reflect the vibrant vegetation. Yes, it was damp and grey, but no, it didn’t disappoint. It’s always a good day for a walk in Wales.
If you’d like a little more inspiration for a Welsh adventure of your own, try my guide to three unmissable stops on a road trip around Wales – complete with pictures to prove the sun does actually shine in Wales from time to time (just not always when I’m there).
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Pretty half-timbered houses, cobbled streets, fantastic food – Troyes is the perfect place to break a journey or stop for a weekend if you’re travelling in France.
This past month has taken us on a bit of a French adventure. Living in the UK means that travelling to France by road can be just as easy – if not easier – than flying, and besides which, it had been a while since I’d last been on a proper road trip.
So we packed up the car for a jaunt to the continent. As we had a long road ahead of us, it made perfect sense (or rather it was the perfect opportunity) to make the most of our journey and weave in some interesting stops along the way. The curious traveller in me loves pouring over a map and picking out places that sound interesting … which is precisely how we ended up in Troyes.
Troyes happened to be the perfect half-way point between our channel crossing and our final destination in the Alps, but also sounded enticingly interesting. I’d heard that it was beautiful, but a bit of exploring online left me none the wiser when it came to the city’s charms. Rather than letting this put me off, there was only one thing to do – go and find out more.
Tell me about Troyes
Troyes is a historic town in the heart of France’s Champagne region. It’s a region littered with well-groomed vineyards, perfect sandy-coloured hilltop towns and decadent Champagne houses. But Troyes adds a colourful juxtaposition, with an old town centre full of teetering half-timbered medieval buildings that wobble three and four storeys high in winding little streets packed with cafes, restaurants and shops. The river Seine winds languorously through the town, with colourful flower boxes topping every bridge. It’s undeniably pretty, and a surprising contrast to it’s surroundings.
It’s not a huge city, and you can comfortably explore in just a few hours. This makes it a great stop if you’re travelling south to the Alps or the Mediterranean from the UK or northern Europe. It’d also make a great base to discover the surrounding area which includes the Fôret d’Orient national park, home to vast lakes as well as diverse woodland that’s perfect for walking and cycling.
With only a quick overnight stop for us to make the most of, we embarked on a whistle-stop tour (of sorts, invented on the spot) of Troyes’ highlights.
What to do in Troyes
The old centre of Troyes is loosely ringed by the Boulevards Gambetta, Victor Hugo and du 14 Juillet, and by the river Seine as it snakes it’s way through the city.
(At this point I’d like to clarify that I didn’t make these names up or steal them from a school French textbook – Troyes really does have the most quintessentially French sounding street names!)
The very centre is largely pedestrianised, and I’d recommended navigating your way to the Place Maréchal Foch to begin your explorations. From here, enticing winding streets disappear off in all directions, beautiful buildings look down on your from every angle and there’s a vibrant, lively feel with the street-side cafes full – in the early evening – with locals and visitors enjoying a last coffee of the day or a sneaky apertif.
The streets east of Place Maréchal Foch are amongst the prettiest, with ancient buildings and characterful restaurants and cafes woven amongst little squares and upmarket shops. Alongside Boulevard Gambetta you’ll find the verdant Jardin du Rocher and Jardin de la Vallee Suisse, a pair of pretty parks lush with vegetation in contrast to surrounding buildings.
Head west towards the river and you’ll find the delightful Mairie with colourful formal gardens laid out in front of it. Keep going in this direction and you’ll stumble across the monumental Cathedral of St. Pierre and St. Paul, a cluster of stunning gothic churches including the Basilica of St. Urbain as well a some of the city’s oldest university buildings.
There was plenty to keep us occupied for a few hours. Troyes in a town that’s best explored slowly, and on foot. There’s great architecture details to be found, an attractive riverside and an abundance of lively cafes in which to soak up the traditional French atmosphere.
Where to eat in Troyes
Much as I could quite happily have spent our short visit munching my way through as many of this city’s establishments as possible so that I could share them with you, sadly common sense prevailed and instead I’m making one outstanding recommendation.
You’ll find plenty of smart-looking looking restaurants around Place Maréchal Foch, Rue Urbain VI and Rue Champeaux. They mostly offer typical French dishes, with appetising menus du jour advertised on chalkboards where the resturant tables spilled onto the street. But we were looking for something a bit more unusual that a bit of online research had hinted at.
Just before 7pm we headed to Les Halles, the old covered market building close to the town centre. In the square outside was just what we were hoping for – a big, red double-decker bus.
Claire & Hugo rolls into town most weeknights, and some lunchtimes (check their Facebook page for more details as their schedule seems to vary occasionally). They park up, put up pretty little cafe tables and umbrellas outside and proceed to cook incredible hand-made burgers, desserts, and quite determinedly, no chips.
We couldn’t have wished to find anything better. Their menu was genuinely interesting, with fantastic burger toppings (Parmesan on a burger just happens to be the greatest thing I’d never tried) and delicious side salads that outshone most burger joints I’ve ever visited. No chips meant oven-roasted, local Charlotte potatoes with just a touch of salty butter. Home-made pannacotta with ginger, nectarine, raspberry and mint was an absolute delight. And all this, for less than €30 for the both of us, including drinks. I’d go back to Troyes just to try it all again.
We only had a few hours in Troyes before heading off to our Airbnb a few kilometers out of town, and then on towards the Alps. But this delightful little city really charmed me, and felt surprisingly alive and very French even during the peak of the European-summer-holiday-season. There’s a great feeling when leaving a place you’d be happy to return to again, and would even go out of your way to revisit – and that’s how I felt about Troyes. I’ll be back one day, and I hope to enjoy it just as much.
Have you discovered any hidden gems en route to other destinations? I’d love to hear your stories (and borrow some inspiration) below.
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If you’re travelling by road, as we were, Troyes can be reached from junction 23 of the A26 autoroute. It’s about a ten minute drive to the city centre. Parking can be found on Boulevard du 14 Juillet at a rate of about €1 per hour. If you’re heading back to the autoroute, you’ll pass through a commercial centre on the outskirts of town – fill up on supermarket petrol here to save a generous amount compared to motorway service stations.
Troyes is also served by high speed rail services from Paris, with direct trains from Gare de l’Est taking as little as an hour and a half. Check out the SNCF website for more details.
The Jungfrau, Monch, Eiger. There are few more iconic alpine peaks. The wonderland Bernese Oberland in Switzerland is home to all three, alongside the magical Lauterbrunnen valley and elegant ski resorts of Mürren and Wengen. My travel guide shows you how to pack in the absolute highlights of this region into a perfect seven days.
There are few places ever I’ve wanted to explore more than the Bernese Oberland. I remember being mesmerised as a small child by photos of the Lauterbrunnen valley, as my Dad projected his old slides onto our living room wall. And as I slowly started to explore more and more of the Alps, a yearning remained – to visit this mythical region of Switzerland that I’d heard so much about, but could only imagine.
Whilst the name Bernese Oberland (or Berner Oberland to Swiss-German speakers) might not ring any bells, the extraordinary peaks and valleys of this area might be more familiar. From the imposing Eiger to the majestic Jungfrau, the magical Lauterbrunnen valley to the picture-perfect alpine resorts of Wengen and Mürren, breathtaking lakes Thun and Brienz to the cultural melting pot of Interlaken – it’s a bounteous region of rugged cliff faces, snow-capped mountain tops, sparking blue lakes and flower-filled meadows.
You could spend a lifetime exploring these mountains, but you’ve got to start somewhere. So I bit the bullet, booked some flights last summer and set out to explore some of Switzerland’s grandest summits and most enchanting valleys. It didn’t disappoint. Whilst you can’t possibly pack in all the wonderful places to visit here into one week, I want to share my recommendation for a perfect seven days in the bewitching Bernese Oberland. Enjoy!
7 day itinerary
Arrive in Interlaken and explore the town. Stay in Interlaken. Day 2
Visit Schynige Platte for an overview of the Bernese Oberland. Stay in Interlaken Day 3
Head to Harder Külm and travel to Lauterbrunnen. Stay in Lauterbrunnen Day 4
Explore the Lauterbrunnen valley, Gimmelwald and Mürren. Stay in Lauterbrunnen Day 5
Visit Wengen and Kleine Scheidegg. Stay in Grindelwald Day 6
Discover alpine lakes at Bachalpsee. Stay in Grindelwald Day 7
Depart Grindelwald via the lakeside town of Thun
How to get to the Bernese Oberland
Any of Switzerland’s major international airports make a good starting point. Geneva and Zurich are a few hours by road and rail, and Bern is even closer. If you’re travelling by road from elsewhere in Europe, as you might expect the motorway network is fast and efficient, with Interlaken well-signposted a good 100km or more out.
How did we do it? We flew to Geneva with from London Gatwick with Easyjet, ready to pick up our next mode of transport.
How to travel in the Bernese Oberland
Despite its wild mountains and deep lakes, the Bernese Oberland is surprisingly easy to travel in. The Swiss know a thing or two about transport planning. Travelling by road or rail is your best option, and both are thankfully easy here.
For drivers, Interlaken is only 45 minutes by motorway from Bern, and once you’re off the motorway each of the valleys are well served by well-signposted A roads. The mountain resorts of Mürren and Wengen are both car free – it makes a lot of sense once you see their mountainside locations. However, the long stay car park in Lauterbrunnen can take of your car for a few days whilst you make the most of the multitude of other ways to reach these pretty towns.
On the other hand, Switzerland is a rail traveller’s dream. The mountains and valleys of the Bernese Oberland are interlaced with railway lines served by frequent and punctual services. There are regular services to Interlaken from major Swiss cities, including Bern and Zurich, and international connections too. You can reach almost every mountain town and sizeable village in this region by train – but I’d recommend booking in advance wherever possible to save on what can be pricey tickets.
How did we do it? We rolled our transport and accommodation into one with the help of the lovely people at Blacksheep campervans. We hit the road in our own little VW Caravelle for the week and took advantage of being able to park up in our campsites.
Where to stay in the Bernese Oberland
There’s three main options when it comes to accommodation in this part of the world; upmarket hotels, homely hostels and campsites.
If hotel travel is your thing you’ll find Interlaken, Mürren and Wengen packed full of places to stay – from alpine style chalets in the mountain resorts to palatial-looking establishments encircling the common at the centre of Interlaken. Most are independent businesses with the exception of one of two in Interlaken, giving you a chance to experience something a little different. You’ll also find a couple of large hostels in Interlaken with mostly dorm accommodation, and a smattering up in the mountains. Try the Swiss Youth Hostel Association to find out more.
Then there’s my favourite option, camping. Whilst there are plenty of reasons why you might not be keen to camp in the mountains, the joys of camping here outshine any downsides by a country mile. The locations and views are breathtaking, the sense of peace immense and the joy of waking to the sound of tumbling waterfalls just beyond your pitch is immeasurable. It’s also by far and away the easiest and best-value accommodation you’ll find in Switzerland.
Isn’t Switzerland expensive?
In a word, yes. But it really depends what you want to do. We love to walk and trail run, and had our own transport. Couple this with camping and it can be a surprisingly budget-friendly trip, with campsites costing between €20-€40 per night for two people (depending on whether you have a tent or campervan). The major expenses you’ll find here are a train travel, cable car travel, hotel accommodation and eating out.
If you’re happy to seek circular walking routes, where you’re not reliant on public transport, exploring these alpine peaks and passes can be free. And given that the area isn’t renowned for great eating out, opt to self-cater if possible and take advantage of the two large supermarkets in Interlaken (Migros and Lidl) to stock up on the basics. There’s also a good supermarket and better value-for-money eating out to be found in Grindelwald.
What to do in the Bernese Oberland
Day 1: Interlaken
You’ll want to begin your adventures in Interlaken, the centrepoint of the region. This funny little town is one of the oldest resorts in the world and a transportation hub set in the lowland plains that stretch between Lake Thun and Lake Brienz. There’s plenty to stroll and see – the centre may be packed with hotels, shops and lost-looking tourists but there are pretty squares to be found in Unterseen, peaceful paths down by the river and enticing views up into the Lauterbrunnen valley. Think of it as a gateway to an alpine wonderland. Make yourself comfortable on day one, get settled in and get ready for exploring on day two.
Day 2: Schynige Platte
To give yourself a real feel for the area, spend your first full day on a journey to Schynige Platte, one of the impressive peaks that stand sentinel at the entrance to the Lauterbrunnen valley. From the top of Schynige Platte you can look down not only on the town of Interlaken, nestled between lakes Brienz and Thun, but also the Lauterbrunnen and Grindelwald valleys, with the mighty Eiger and snowcapped Jungfrau as a larger than life backdrop.
Schynige Platte can be reached on foot in a day if you’re confident tackling some steeper climbs and tricky paths near the top. Alternatively, take the quaint mountain railway from Wilderswil. Snaking up the mountain, it first passes through fields and then forest until it breaks through the trees at the intermediary station of Breitlauenen. The station alone worth is stopping at, the charming old building and waiting room haven’t been renovated in living memory. The most joyous experience here though is to watch the lovely station master at work, whose main priority appears to be ushering free-range chickens and sunbathing cats off the line whenever the bell rings to warn of an approaching train. The train crawls around rocky outcrops on the final few kilometres of the line until it breathlessly takes one last turn towards the station at the peak and the magnificent view to be found here.
If you spent yesterday walking, you’re going to want to give your legs a bit of a rest before tackling higher mountains during the rest of the week. Today is the perfect day to take in Interlaken from a different angle.
Harder Külm is a smaller peak on the opposite side of the plain to Schnige Platte. There are lots of trails to explore on foot– all gentler than the yesterday’s climb – or you can take the old-fashioned funicular all the way from the centre of Interlaken to the viewing platform and café at the top.
Head to Lauterbrunnen in the afternoon and find your bearings in this little village of timbered chalets surrounded by alpine pasture. The valley of a thousand waterfalls is beyond spectacular, with cascades at every turn and steep cliff faces stretching high up from the meadows below. Stroll to the Staubbach falls on the edge of the village, where a short but steep path will take you underneath the waterfall itself, and if you’ve got time book a tour of the legendary Trummelbach falls – hidden within the walls of the valley itself.
Day 4: Lauterbrunnen, Gimmelwald and Mürren
Whilst the rock faces and steep sides of the Lauterbrunnen valley look impregnable from below, there are little paths and mountain railways that wind up to the hidden villages perched up on the high alpine pasture.
This side of the valley can be explored on foot or by a combination of cable car and railway with a little walking in between. From Stechelberg, a few kilometres walk from Lauterbrunnen, you can follow a steep walking route or take a speedy cable car to the idyllic village of Gimmelwald. All picture-postcard Swiss chalets, luscious gardens and alpine cattle, Gimmelwald is alpine charm personified. Meandering a little further uphill takes you into the larger resort town of Mürren, where you can explore pretty streets, take a breather in one of the many welcoming cafes and restaurants and enjoy fantastic views of Wengen and the Jungfrau across the valley.
You can return to Lauterbrunnen by mountain railway – the same way skiers and visitors to Mürren’s many hotels arrive – or take a long but gentle route on foot back down into the valley through woodlands and pasture.
Having seen Wengen in this distance yesterday, today is a chance to properly explore it. Wengen is the home of world-class skiing and a pretty smart town to boot. A steep walk of a couple of kilometres will take you from Lauterbrunnen to the centre of town, or take a quick train ride if you prefer.
From here, you’re approaching the awe-inspiring triumvirate of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau mountains. A train will take you all the way from Wengen to the snow-capped peak of the Jungfrau, or you can opt for some more spectacular hiking. We chose the latter and followed the lush, green route of the infamous Lauberhorn piste to Kleine Scheidegg, a railway mid-station at the cusp of the Lauterbrunnen and Grindelwald valleys, to take in the unbelievable views.
P.S. Find out more about beautiful walks from Kleine Scheidegg in 4 breathtaking walks in the Bernese Oberland.
Day 6: Grindelwald
A full day in Grindelwald is a chance to pack in one last peak – ironically named First. There’s a cable car from the resort centre to this mountain top, with unrivalled views of the Eiger. It’s another dream hike if you’ve any life left in your feet, with more steep paths twisting their way through pasture and deciduous woodlands.
A short and relatively flat walk will take from First to Bachalpsee, a hidden gem at the top of Europe. A crystal-clear, azure blue glacial lake is nestled in the folds of the mountain, and will take your breath away. Watch the water trickle down in little rivulets into the flower drenched meadows below, and pick your way along rocky paths to some of the high alpine farmhouses tucked away from view.
It’s time to say goodbye, and promise you’ll be back. Make the most of a morning in Grindelwald if you can with a short stroll closer to town. If you’re heading back towards one of Switzerland’s transport hubs opt for a stop in the pretty lakeside town of Thun if you can. With colourful buildings packed in the medieval centre and traditional Swiss covered bridges galore, it’s a way to experience a different side to the Swiss landscape and culture.
The practical bit
We flew to Geneva from London Gatwick with Easyjet at the end of July 2016. We hired a VW Caravelle campervan for the week from the lovely folks at Blacksheep Annecy (actually located in the charming little French town of La-Roche-sur-Foron, about half an hour from Geneva airport). From here we drove to Interlaken to begin our adventure.
Three wonderful little campsites were our home for the course of the week;
Camping Jungfrau, Unterseen, just outside Interlaken
Wales might a small country, but it punches above it’s weight when it comes to dramatic landscapes, fantastic walking and charming towns. It’s the perfect location for a road trip – with wonderfully diverse regions only a short drive apart. My travel guide shares my secrets for visiting the wild Gower, coastal Pembrokeshire and and marvellously mountainous Snowdonia.
I love a road trip. There, I’ve said it.
You can take the glamour of air travel and the speed of train travel, but for me there will always be something magical about travelling on four wheels. It cries out for spontaneity, for exploration and for taking that next turn “just because it looked interesting…”.
A road trip is an exhilarating way to explore a long way from home, but it’s also a brilliant way to see what’s just outside your door. Being based in the south of England, for me this means that wonderful Wales is only a few hours away by car. This pretty little country, home to breathtaking mountains, rugged coastline and colourful towns, is virtually on my doorstep.
So I thought I’d share my three favourite locations perfect for a Welsh weekend getaway. Or, if you can manage a longer stay they’re only an hour or two away from one another (so you can sandwich them together for a week or more of adventures). Wales may be close to home, but it still feels like an adventure.
From the vintage charms of the seaside resort of Mumbles to the glorious expanses of golden sand at Rhossili, there’s plenty to keep you occupied on the Gower peninsula. Just a short skip and a jump from the bustling city of Swansea (where Saturday night on the town is quite an experience), you’ll find this peaceful corner of the Welsh countryside. Within a short drive of city centre you’ll find hidden coves, lush heathland, ancient castles and windswept clifftops that’ll take your breath away.
It’s a surfers paradise, and a walkers one too. You can spend days exploring the many miles of coastal path, or bask in the glory of a British summer with a day at the beach. Oxwich bay is a gem that’s tucked far from the madding crowds between heather-carpeted headlands.
For something a bit different, make your way to the small village of Rhossili. Don’t be put off by the rather extortionate parking charges – I promise it’s worthwhile. Head off along the seemingly unexciting grassy headland until all of a sudden the landscape opens up in front of you. To your right, a breathtaking stretch of sandy beach extends into the distance – it’s been rated one of Europe’s best beaches, and it’s not hard to see why. To your left, at the far end of the headland sits the Worm’s Head, an oddly-named but ruggedly beautiful tidal island that adventurers can reach by scrambling across the rocks at low tides.
Where to stay in the Gower
Base yourself in Swansea – there’s heaps of good value accommodation and the Gower is only a twenty minute drive away. It’s a great stop en route to Pembrokeshire if you’re taking a longer trip.
Head west as far as you can go in Wales and you’ll reach Pembrokeshire. Tucked away from the hustle and bustle of South Wales it’s home to stunning sandy surf beaches that rival anywhere in Europe, and charming fishing villages where the way of life has changed little in the past one hundred years.
It’s perfect country for hiking and cycling, so to make to the most of your visit you’ll want to explore on two feet or two wheels. The coastal path, close to the picturesque village of Trefin and ports of Abercastle and Porthgain, is spectacular and makes a great day’s walk. Sandwich with a pub lunch and a little meandering inland to make it a circular route.
If sand and surf is more your thing, Whitesands bay is only a few miles away and one of Wales’ best-kept secrets. There’s fantastic camping on the headland with views over the expanse of silver sand below.
At the end of the day, head to Solva harbour for sundowners and to watch fishing boats and yachts make their sedate way up the estuary for shelter overnight. Alternatively St. Davids, Britain’s smallest city, is only a few miles away. It’s a cosy little market town packed with picture-perfect cottages and pleasant pubs for whiling away an evening – just what you need after a long day on your feet.
Where to stay in Pembrokeshire
For a truly magical getaway, try Lottie the Lorry tucked away in rural Pembrokeshire. Having travelling the world, she’s come to rest on an idyllic farm near St. Davids. This bohemian, converted lorry is a comfortable, cosy holiday home for two with breathtaking views over the Welsh countryside.
Watching the sun rise over the misty fields beyond, and the stars overhead as we barbecued on our own terrace was beyond wonderful. We stayed in the lovely Lottie for two nights in August 2015 and booked through Quality Unearthed.
Snowdonia is the holy grail of hiking in Wales.
Aside from it’s namesake Mount Snowdon, there are countless peaks and valleys that you could spend a lifetime exploring and never tire of. Whether you’re visiting for the first time, or returning for new adventures, I’d recommend seeking out some of the less well-known mountains and walking trails.
My favourite is Cader Idris to the south of region. A steep path winds through the wooded hillside above the valley floor and eventually opens out onto pasture high above the treeline. Here you’re greeted by babbling streams running through the vibrant coloured heather underfoot, steep rock faces and tumbling stone paths than climb higher and higher. The crowning glory is the stunning tarn that sits surrounded by jagged peaks. It’s the closest I’ve ever felt to the Alps at home.
Where to stay in Snowdonia
We chose the remarkable St. Curigs Church, a few miles from Betws-Y-Coed, for a stay with a difference. A converted stone church, St. Curigs Chapel offers bed and breakfast as well as a bunkroom in one of the most spectacular buildings I’ve ever been lucky enough to stay in. The four-poster bed and hearty Welsh breakfast aren’t bad either.