What is Europe’s best theme park?

by Dave Allan-Petale

Let’s be honest, the prospect of going to any theme park is a bit naff. You have to drive to the middle of nowhere, pay a king’s ransom to get in and then spend most of your time either queuing for every ride or looking for your lost friends and family who are probably stuck in a separate queue.

But regardless of all of this, I do love them.

I’ve been to both of the Disneylands in the USA and done a fair few of the other big names like Busch Gardens and Six Flags. Australia and Asia are into theme parks in a big way but I was surprised by how many there are in Europe, the home of high culture and the freezing cold. I’ve sampled a few, such as Thorpe Park outside London, and found they stack up to the best in the world.

But which one is the best?

dave asterix

Me looking pretty happy at Parc Asterix!

Parc Asterix.

Hands down. I went there with Carmen and had an absolute ball. Carmen lived in Paris with a French family many years ago and we were in the city of lights for her host mother’s birthday. We had a spare day – I wanted to go to Euro Disneyland – but Carmen’s host sister insisted we go to Parc Asterix. She simply said ‘Zeus’ over and over again, which was confusing – but seemed sophisticated and French – so I went along with it.

If you don’t know the story of Asterix, let me explain.

Asterix is a comic book character who lives in a small village during the Roman occupation of Gaul (what France used to be known as). Asterix and his best friend Obelix (who has superhuman strength from falling into a cauldron of magic potion when he was just a little baby) have a series of crazy adventures throughout the Roman Empire which are educational as well as bloody hilarious. There are more than twenty volumes in the series and they are well worth a read, even if you’re old and grey.

Our heroes! Obelix is the big one (don't call him fat!) and Asterix is the little guy

Our heroes! Obelix is the big one (don’t call him fat!) and Asterix is the little guy

I loved the books as a child and must confess I still flick through a few now and then. But I wasn’t expecting much from Parc Asterix. Disney has a menagerie of wild and crazy characters in cool situations that lend themselves perfectly to rides and games. But Asterix? What could an illustrated, albeit humorous, version of the ancient world serve up? Well, this for starters:

Lots of freakin’ rollercoasters. Lots of them.

There was a twisty one that rolled along a metal road, an old school style wooden one that cracked and creaked and warped as the cars sped across its spars and a really fast one that made us feel a bit sick.

But the big daddy of them all was Zeus.

The headline act. A super fast, twisting behemoth of fear and ancient Greek resentment.

I may have complained about it previously, but I think queuing actually has its good points.

I don’t mean that I enjoy the annoying act of waiting. I don’t. But standing in a slow moving line beneath a rollercoaster that whizzes past every thirty seconds leaving a doppler smear of people’s screams ringing in your ears builds suspense better than Hitchcock. Every 20 people ahead of you in the line that get into the cars bring you closer to the moment of truth. ‘Is this too dangerous?’ you ask. ‘Can I back out now without seeming like a wimp?’

Then it’s your turn.

With Zeus, you lower yourself down into the still warm seat of the carriage (hopefully the very front one!) and let the metal restraint snap into position. No turning back now. The attendents waive you off with a bored salute and the pneumatic pistons on the track kick the rollercoaster into motion. Zeus has you in his grasp. Up and up you go, higher and higher, closer and closer to the big drop. And then…

I won’t spoil it for you. Go yourself. You won’t regret it!

What you need to know

How to get there: Parc Asterix is about s 30km north of Paris on the A1 motorway if you drive. There’s a shuttle bus that leaves from the Louvre and trains from Charles de Gaulle airport.

Costs: 44 euros for 12 and up and 33 euros for 3-11 year olds.

When to go: We went on a sunny day in spring. It was still too cold for the water attractions but the crowds were lower so we go on to the rides pretty easy. Summer is definitely the busy season! For more information about safety travels, feel free to visit uber coupons for existing users.

The delights of French food

by Carmen Allan-Petale

Ah, French food. Try as I might, I haven’t found anything that quite beats it. When we recently visited the country the food once again didn’t disappoint – we didn’t have a single bad meal.

One of the best things about French food is that it’s so simple. The French have a way of cooking nothing but meat and two veg and yet it’s still a very tasty delight.

The French way - meat and two veg (plus frites) done like no other!

The French way – meat and two veg (plus frites) done like no other!

In fact, in the 17th century when spices were popular, French modernised cuisine by moving towards fewer spices and more herbs and creamy ingredients.

And if you’re a vegetarian you may as well steer clear from French cuisine altogether as the French love their meat! Before I did my exchange programme in France the exchange organisation advised against any vegetarians making a trip to the country because of difficulties housing them with a non-meat eating family.

Inside a French deli - which had a selection of meat, cheeses and wine - très bon

Inside a French deli – which had a selection of meat, cheeses and wine – très bon

So without further ado, I thought I’d write about some of our recent foodie experiences on our latest trip to France.

Raclette

Raclette is very popular in the Alps and is also a Swiss tradition – back in the day farmers used to melt cheese next to the campfire and before eating it with bread.

The modern raclette - an electric grill. All ready to eat with the potatoes being kept warm on top of the grill

The modern raclette – an electric grill. All ready to eat with the potatoes being kept warm on top of the grill

Now days when you eat raclette you take a slice of cheese, put it on a tiny tray and hold it under a raclette grill. The cheese melts and they you can pour it onto your plate and eat it with sliced meats (charcuterie), potatoes and gherkins. Delicious.

Raclette is perfect after a winter’s day skiing on the slopes of the French mountains. It’s a hearty meal and warms you up to the tips of your toes – and not to mention fills you up!

Yummy cheese from a raclette being poured. Delicious

Yummy cheese from a raclette being poured. Delicious

Galette des rois

Translated as ‘cake of kings’, this is a traditional cake the French eat on the 5th of January to celebrate the Twelfth Night – 12 days since Christmas eve. But the local people love the cake so much that it’s sold in the shops until the end of January.

The name of the cake is derived from the Three Wise Kings who brought presents to Jesus when he was born.

In the north of France, the cake consists of flaky puff pastry layers with a centre full of frangipane. It gives it an almond taste and as a result the cake’s quite rich.

The delicious galette with its crown and being cut to be served

The delicious galette with its crown and being cut to be served

Not only is the cake traditional – the method of eating it is traditional too. First of all, the youngest – me in this case – has to get under the table and delegate which order each guest is served. Then everyone eats and the person who finds a little trinket in their slice, normally a tiny baby Jesus, is crowned the King and gets to wear a golden crown for the rest of the day.

Mickael was the King of the galette!

Mickael was the King of the galette!

Typical French restaurant

Of course, French food is steeped in tradition but go to any typical French restaurant and so too is the service. We went to the Boullion Chartier on our recent trip to Paris – un restaurant typique de France.

The waiters inside

The waiters inside Boullion Chartier

The restaurant is over 100 years old and the food is simple French fare. Think roast duck with honey, lamb chops with frites and snails as an entree. Unlike some pretentious French food, the price tag isn’t high at around €10 for a main meal. If you go, make sure you enjoy the homemade Chantilly cream alongside one of their desserts – it’s delicious!

Me about to chow down on a bun filled with homemade Chantilly cream... yum!

Me about to chow down on a bun filled with homemade Chantilly cream… yum!

The waiters are typically French – they’ll take your order without any fuss and write it down on the tablecloth in order to remember it. Your food is brought to you quickly and without fanfare. But don’t ask for ketchup or you might be pooh-poohed for eating like a child. When you ask for the bill they add it up with a few more scribbles on the tablecloth. Typical French style – voila!

The waiter's notes on our tablecloth

The waiter’s notes on our tablecloth

Skiing at St Foy Tarentaise

by Carmen and Dave Allan-Petale

When the bone-cracking chill of Britain’s winter got too much for us we decided to embrace an even colder place – the ski resort of St Foy Tarentaise in the French Alps. Dave had never been skiing before and had to learn but Carmen rediscovered the thrill of speeding downhill and skiing along winding mountain paths. Watch her adventures here:

Skiing for the first time and conquering the downhill demons

by Dave Allan-Petale

I am intensely annoyed. I cannot believe it has taken me 31 years to learn how to ski. The thought of all the winters I could have spent sliding down 45 degree slopes with the wind in my hair and the ground running beneath me is more than I can bear.

I turned down the chance to go on a ski trip when I was in high school and never once thought of heading to the mountains in the four years I’ve spent living on Europe’s doorstep. But all that is going to change now that I’ve got a taste for it.

The nursery slope at St Foy Tarentaise. Terrifying!

The nursery slope at St Foy Tarentaise. Terrifying for a beginner!

I wrote about my fears of learning to ski a few weeks ago and must say many of them came true (save for broken bones) when I went to ski school in St Foy Tarentaise in the French Alps. I fell over quite a lot and well and truly embarrassed myself a few times.

On the first day I put my skis on at the nursery slope and slid over to the magic carpet; a sort of conveyor belt that takes beginners up the teeny tiny range where they can learn this slippery art. I reached the moving belt and fell arse over head with my skis in the air and my ego splattered all over the snow! Not a good start.

But my instructor coached me through the worst of the wobblies and by the end of the first day I could slide along and turn to the left and right. I felt like one of those newborns you sometimes see on nature programmes standing up for the first time.

I imagined David Attenborough’s voice narrating my first run down the slopes. ‘…and here, this red-headed buck is taking his first slide into a new world. Watched by the elders of this tribe he navigates carefully down the slope. But his legs are unused to this trial of strength. Luckily, an orange net has snagged him at the bottom, saving him from the precipice.’

Up we go!

Up we go! This is our mate Mags, her husband Roy and nephew Cameron – the daredevil snowboard crew

By day three I could slide, swing and stop on a threepence. Now it was time to go on the chairlift and face THE MOUNTAIN. It was a very peaceful journey gliding over the snow covered treetops and watching the elegant skiers and snowboarders down below as they  cut up the surface with bored aplomb. It didn’t look very scary from the chairlift but when we stood at the top of the run the mountains were as steep as a London fine dining restaurant bill.

Our French ski instructor Claire (who learned to ski age 2 and is a champion downhill racer) told us ‘puuut your skis in ze snow plough and have ze control. We go now, alleee!’

'I'm sorry, you want me to go down now? But it's so peaceful up here...'

‘I’m sorry, you want me to go down now? But it’s so peaceful up here…’

We took a run called Plan B from the first chair lift back down to the resort and zoomed along at the very edge of control. I loved the feeling of the snow sliding under my feet and the acceleration as we navigated the twists and turns. But the final run back down to the bottom was like fighting the boss in a computer game. It seemed to plummet away like an avalanche and I felt my knees go a bit weak at the sight of it.

My momentum carried me over the lip and I went sliding to the left and picked up speed. I then rounded out and turned onto the right, before whizzing along again. I swung to the left  and took another run down the slope, speeding faster and faster till I had to turn to the right, the cold air roaring in my ears as the snow slashed away under my sliding feet.

Then I was at the bottom on flat ground, panting like a racehorse and flushed with excitement. ‘Again?’ Claire asked.

Hell yes.

Now that I can ski I feel more accepted by my ski fanatic father-in-law Keith. The moustache helps too I think

Now that I can ski I feel more accepted by my ski fanatic father-in-law Keith. The moustache helps too I think

Exploring the Swiss village of Nyon

by Carmen and Dave Allan-Petale

We spent three days in Geneva, Switzerland last week and had a great time exploring the city’s charms. But we get itchy feet, even on holiday, so we headed to the little neighbouring town of Nyon. Check out our video below – Carmen’s parents make a guest appearance!

Learning to ski the hard way

by Dave Allan-Petale

I have never been skiing. I can’t ice skate. When I tried a skateboard at a mate’s 8th birthday party I fell on my face and got a bloody nose. Balance is not my thing.

But I married into a family of skiing fanatics who spend every waking minute either reminiscing about ‘that time in Falls Creek’ or planning ahead for another alpine adventure.

My father-in-law is so obsessed the sport that it was with unconcealed horror he accepted a novice skier into the family. In fact, I think he used the words: “No son of mine will not be able to ski.”

So no pressure then.

Like a lamb to the slaughter, I’m heading to the slopes in France at Sainte Foy Tarentaise with my wife, the in-laws and our mates who are also ski obsessed. I will be the caboose on their high speed ski train, and if I don’t pick up the skill I’m bound to get left behind.

Great.

I'm more used to the gentler slopes of a British  common

I’m more used to the gentler slopes of a British common

I saw snow for the first time when I was 15. I was on a coach tour of western Europe with my grandfather and sister and had reached the Italian Alps which were draped in a fine layer of pure white. The driver stopped and we tumbled out into the fresh air, scooping up handfuls of the stuff and having a snowball fight. I didn’t realise you needed powder snow to make the right kind of snowballs and ended up bruising my sister’s shoulder with the weapon-grade missile I created. So not a good start.

I gave ice skating a go once in Vienna - look, one hand!

I gave ice skating a go once in Vienna – look, only one hand on the rail!

But I’m determined to make skiing a success. A few months ago, or was it six (?), I went along to a ski training centre at a golf club in leafy West London. For an extortionate amount of pounds I got to strap on a pair of skis and take turns with a middle aged man on an angled bit of wet Astroturf that was like a giant treadmill. A young English bloke coached me through ‘the snow plough’, which involves angling the skis in at the front and out at the back so you can slow down or even stop. I mastered this, just, only to be told what I had learned was in fact useless because no one ever does the snow plough and it’s really a last resort, kind of like using the hand brake on the motorway.

According to Carmen, the only cool way to stop is by using the ‘hockey stop’.

So I’m sure my snow plough skills will come in handy.

I've been training hard for apres-ski for many years.

I’ve been training hard for apres-ski for many years.

I’ve neglected to go back to the ski centre and learn more things I will supposedly never use on the ski fields, so I’m going to have to take lessons when we get to Sainte Foy. I don’t mind though. The experienced ones can go off and do black runs or whatever while I muck around on the baby slopes having the occasional espresso.

I really do hope I can pick up the knack because from what I have been told (over and over and over) is that skiing is amazing fun. I guess it’s like anything, trial and error, though error in this discipline means falling flat on your face in the snow. Or worse. Wish me luck.

But don’t say break a leg.

Why you should cross the English Channel by train, not ferry

by Dave Allan-Petale

What is the best way to get to France from Britain? It’s only a short distance after all. Flying is a great option, especially now we have flights that are cheap as chips and seem to leave every 10 seconds from a bagful of airports. But what if you want to take your own car? There’s not much better than a road trip, so putting the wheels on a car ferry seems to make perfect sense…but does it really?

Crossing the channel took forever

I recently went to France and Belgium with a mate and we paid a king’s ransom to put our car on board a ferry. The journey took five hours. Five hours crossing the ditch from Portsmouth to Caen, ploughing through the water at a snail’s pace. Once we made it to dry land it was simple enough to drive off the ramp and get on with our lives. But it struck me that surely there must be a quicker way.

A highlight of the ferry trip was seeing the Royal Navy base at Portsmouth – you can spot HMS Victory in the background, the famous ship Lord Nelson commanded during the Battle of Trafalgar

It was only on the way back to Britian I realised how wrong it had been to take the car ferry to France. We booked a return passage through the Eurotunnel, which proved to be a much better experience. You drive up to the terminal at Calais and the machines recoignise your number plate from a pre-booked ticket and then waive you through to customs. Brilliant. From there you drive onto a car train, whack on the handbrake and sit tight until you reach Britain.

You emerge in Folkestone and can continue onto the motorway to London or wherever else you want to go in the UK. Job done. We paid £80 for the car train and £180 for the car ferry. The car train took about 50 minutes and the car ferry five hours. A vast difference. Next time I go to Europe with a car I’m driving it onto a train. If anything, that is just way cooler than being stuck on a bobbing ferry.

From the ashes: Ypres’ beautiful restoration

by Dave Allan-Petale

Ypres in Belgium is Europe’s newest medieval town. That may sound like an oxymoron, but it’s true. The town was razed to the ground by the violence of World War I and then rebuilt, brick by painstaking brick, until its historic glory was restored.

The view from the Belfy of the the historic Cloth Hall – during the war there was nothing but trenches, mud and destruction as far as the eye could see

The Menin Gate war memorial is one of Ypres’ highlights, as is the haunting Flanders Fields Museum in the historic Cloth Hall, which was almost totally destroyed by shelling before being rebuilt.

A painting of the Cloth Hall ablaze during WWI (left) and the Cloth Hall today, rebuilt exactly as it was before the war

Ypres itself is focused around the Market Square which has scores of restaurants and bars looking out over the cobblestones. The Cloth Hall and Menin Gate war memorial are  lit at night and an evening stroll through the city’s streets is a great way to admire the architecture (after a few Belgian beers of course!).

My mate Jim and I met Corporal Tim Kelley who is a medic in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps – he got leave to attend the Remembrance Day events and was good enough to have a few beers with us afterwards to share some stories

We stayed in a B&B called Demi Lune which is run by a local family. One of the owners, Peter, told me how his great grandfather and grandfather were involved in the reconstruction of the town after the war, and pictures of them are proudly displayed on the hotel’s perfectly restored walls.

Demi Lune is a short walk from the action on the Market Square and very good value for money. We paid 81 Euros for one night in a twin room (including cooked breakfast). There is free wi-fi and lots of information available on local attractions including cycling tours of the World War I battlefields.

A photo of Demi Lune owner Peter’s great grandfather and grandfather – they are carving a stone lion that is part of the Menin Gate war memorial

The bathrooms are an interesting feature. They are ensuite style, but sit inside the bedroom shielded by low walls, sort of like an open plan office with partitions. I’ve never seen this style of room before and Peter explained it was the best way to preserve the character of the historic house. Fair enough considering what it took to rebuild the place!

B&B Demi Lune is in a beautifully restored Belgian house – this is the reception area with the rooms upstairs

On our way out from Ypres we went to two historic places. The first was at the site of an old church in the town of Passendale, which saw vicious fighting in 1917. Beneath the church is a dugout, a type of bunker sunk deep into the soil to protect it from shelling. What a nightmare it must have been to live down there.

The dugout was dark and cold – men lived here for months at a time. It was a relief to walk back up into the light

We then drove to Hill 62, a place thousands of Canadians soldiers died defending. There is a restored trench system you can walk inside to get a true sense of what it must have been like on the Western Front. The Sanctuary Wood Museum is run by a man who has found a ridiculous amount of detritus from the war and put it on display. World War I may be nearly 100 years ago but in Flanders Fields it’s still very much a daily part of life. It’s a fascinating place I will definitely be returning to.

Trench system at Hill 62, surrounded by deep shell craters and pocked with bullet holes

Remembering the ANZACS

by Dave Allan-Petale

I stood at the Menin Gate memorial in Ypres, Belgium and observed two minutes silence for the dead of the Great War on Remembrance Day. It was a beautiful, moving thing to do. I was there to honour the memory of my grandfather, George Monkhouse, who fought on the Western Front with the ANZACs (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps). He is a man whom I have no memory of and only know through family legends and relics like photographs and dusty medals. But I got shivers down my spine when I saw the places he’d been and felt somehow connected to him.

A grave at Villers-Bretonneux

The first place I saw that was part of George Monkhouse’s campaign was Villers-Bretonneux, a small town outside Amiens that saw a fair share of action. It was captured by the Germans then retaken by the allies with the Australians leading the way. Thousands of men from downunder fell in the fields surrounding the town. Their sacrifice is honoured in several small plots on the outskirts and with the Australian War Memorial, which stands on a hill with an amazing panorama of the area. The green escarpment rolls like a gentle sea across the horizon.

We drove away from Villers-Bretonneux and across the border to Belgium, arriving in Ypres well after dark. The town was full of veterans, relatives and tourists who’d come to pay their respects at the memorials. Ypres was a strategic town during WWI and tens of thousands of men died in battles around it. On the morning of Remembrance Day a parade was held leading to the Menin Gate where Prince Phillip of Belgium and many other dignitaries from Britain and the Commonwealth laid wreaths and said prayers. The last post was played, echoing through the silent city streets. I couldn’t help but have red eyes at the end.

The acoustics inside the Menin Gate projected the bugle playing The Last Post so clearly it was like we were right inside it – the silence afterwards was almost deafening

My grandfather left no letters, told no stories. I don’t know if he had friends who perished or what anguish he suffered. But my visit to the battlefields of France and Belgium has brought me a real appreciation for what he did. He came from halfway across the world, more than 20,000km, to fight for people he didn’t know. Thankfully he was lucky enough to return home otherwise I wouldn’t be around today.

Seeing row after row of graves and all the names etched into the cold stones of the war memorials is incredibly sad. If anything it is a kick in backside to live as well as you can, because if you don’t there are tens of thousands in Flanders fields’ graves who’d gladly swap places.

Church spire at Albert in France – during the war the statue at the top was knocked over by a shell and was nicknamed ‘the hanging virgin’ by the troops