24 hours in Chamonix: Solo travel, hiking, and buffet breakfasts

It was on the Wednesday of this week that I spontaneously decided I was going to take a trip to Chamonix on the Saturday. Something about getting stuck into the mountains, without signal and social media, really appealed to me. So I went ahead and booked the hotel. Alone. And it actually turned out to be one of the best trips I’ve ever had.

Don’t get me wrong; a few years ago, I would never have gone for a weekend in a foreign city alone. I would have waited and waited for the right time for my boyfriend or my friends, and the right time would never have materialised. I would have resented my (ex) boyfriend for not wanting to do the things I wanted, and would have felt frustrated by spending all my weekends in London/Cambridge.

But at some point, I realised that waiting for the perfect moment is the easiest way to ensure it never actually comes. Cheesy, but true: life is too precious to let it happen to you rather than going out and chasing it.

And there are benefits of traveling alone. You can be completely spontaneous with travel plans; I changed both my outbound and return journeys to extend my trip. You can selfishly pursue the activities and style of travel that please you; which, for me, involves wandering around for an extra 10 minutes to find a special restaurant rather than going for the first one you see (loads of people would HATE this when hungry!). Waiters and bartenders tend to be really nice to you, and you might get some free drinks out of it. Similarly, other travelers are more likely to strike up a conversation; I met a lovely Scottish couple on my way to the cable car this weekend, and they gave me loads of ideas for future travels! But most importantly, travelling alone allows you to really spend time with yourself and clear your mind. If you don’t often take time for yourself, then you might find that solo travel offers a great opportunity to actually figure out what you want and how you feel about different things. If nothing else, it’s character building.

Anyhow, back to Chamonix. I’d heard a lot about this little French town, but mainly as a base for skiing in winter. What I didn’t realise was just how much character it has in summer too. The main attraction for me was the hiking; I’m not a very skilled hiker, but I’d read that you could see some really beautiful spots within 2 hours walk of the cable cars that left Chamonix. I pretty soon realised that was an understatement; you’re hit by natural beauty the whole time you’re in Chamonix, and you don’t have to walk far from the cable car for breathtaking views.

The hike I ended up doing was from La Flegere cable car to Lac Blanc, a lake known for it’s vivid turquoise waters. Unfortunately, as it was only the start of the summer season in Chamonix (early June) the mountain was covered in snow still, and the lake completely frozen over. Nevertheless, the hike was still completely worthwhile, with a 1.5-2 hour ascent characterised by the huge mountains visible on the other side of the town. It was the first time on a hike where I truly appreciated the journey as much as the destination; despite the fact that I was completely unprepared for the thick snow (I waded through tit in running trainers), and didn’t pack enough food, as google told me that there was a cafe at the end point.

 I’d love to go back in summer when the lake is melted and vivid blue. All of the hikers on the way up and down were super friendly, the route itself wasn’t too busy… and it was impossible not to feel a little thrill in my heart whenever I looked up to see such awesome mountain peaks.

Post-hike I was starving, and pretty much stumbled into the first place in the town centre with decent Google reviews. La Calèche serves “traditional” regional cuisine, and was perfect, warming comfort food after spending half the day up in the mountains. I started with snails, went on to a traditional dish based around wild mushrooms, pasta and smoked sausage (REALLY good) and finished with tiramisu. If you only ate in one place in Chamonix, and were looking for a taste of local cuisine, this is where I’d recommend.

That said, the culinary highlight of the trip was a little Italian place called Casa Valeria. There’s no wonder this place has won awards for its food because this pizza was absolutely PERFECT. I’d go as far as to say it was the best pizza I’ve ever had outside of Italy, and I’m definitely going to go there again when I’m next in Chamonix.

The third and final place I LOVED to eat at in Chamonix was actually my hotel. Which is pretty understandable given just how great of a spot Alpina Eclectic is. What I LOVED was that the restaurant there offered gourmet quality fish with mass-dining portion sizes. Check out the volume of gravlax in the starter below. The tuna steak that followed was also triple the usual portion size for that quality and price.

The buffet breakfast was a stand out, too. I was really surprised to see that it was comparable (in terms of choice and quality) to the hotels I stayed at in Bali, rather than any others I’ve visited in Europe. Just check out what I ended up fuelling up on pre-hike.

And there was so, SO much more. Freshly prepared pancakes and eggs, sausages, bacon, mushrooms, quiche, pastries, breads, and juices. All of this was made extra special by the fact that you could enjoy it with a gorgeous view of the mountains. In fact, the reason I booked Alpina Eclectic was that every single balcony bedroom offered a view just like this one.Plus, the sauna, hammam and jacuzzis all had that viewpoint too.. pretty relaxing, right? I think it’ll be even more special when the town is dusted in snow at Christmas…

It’s safe to say that Chamonix is a bucket list destination, and I’ll be hitting it again when ski season hits (maybe sooner…?). I can’t wait to wander through the cobbled streets all wrapped up warm, with a mulled wine in my hand.

That said, it wouldn’t be fair to close this post without mentioning the one downside of Chamonix, which you might have already heard about. That is the price of staying there. I was fairly flexible budget-wise for this trip, given that I had some travel benefits from work. However, I still gasped when I saw how much a room at the hotel would cost during an off-peak weekend. And that’s not even starting on the meals, which ranged from 9 euros (very cheap) to 30 euros (not!) for a main. Most glasses of wine seemed to cost upwards of 7 euros. Compared to some beautiful nearby locations in France, this was not cheap!

On the other hand, my return journey with Ouibus was under 40 euros return, with air conditioning, WiFi and charging stations… so if you’re based in Geneva or somewhere with super cheap flights to Geneva (sometimes this is the case for London!) you might make back what you spend on a good hotel in travel costs.

Have any of you visited Chamonix before? What did you think; is it worth the price?

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A foodie weekend in Porto

I’ve just come back from a weekend in Porto, Portugal, and I just could NOT wait to share how much I loved the city and the food there.

We started with a free walking tour; one of my favourite ways to start a trip to a new city. Our tour lasted three hours, and we packed in some of the top attractions in Porto, whilst our guide narrated through 500 years of Portuguese history and gave us a real sense of the local culture. Of course, there was also plenty of time to take photos (and even a coffee break in the middle), and the guide gave us some tips on where we might want to go the following day.

After the tour, we stopped at Muralha Rio to eat, where we enjoyed a leisurely lunch of fish with a view of the river. One item on the menu that was consistently a good pick in Porto was the grilled sardines; such a cheap and fresh locally-sourced option.

Then was the time to hop in an uber to port tasting. Ubers are super cheap in Porto; – 5 euros for a 15 minute journey – so it really did make sense to uber rather than testing out the public transport.

There are plenty of port tasting options in Porto, and even riverboats that offer the tour with a ride, but we picked Graham’s based on several recommendations. For 20 euros, we experienced a small group tour around the caves, as well as a tasting of 3 different ports (ruby or tawny, depending on preference).

I was surprised by how much I learnt on the tour, and how interesting the whole process of making port is!

Two of my favourite facts from the tour:

– Port has to be made from grapes grown in the Douro region, where it is actually the difficulty of growing in the soil that produces the super-sweet grapes in a smaller volume than for other wines.

– Tawny port is matured in smaller barrels, causing more of the pigment to seep into the barrel and it to take a lighter colour. It also tastes more honeyed and smokey, unlike the fruitier red port.

We finished up the evening at Graham’s with an amazing view onto the river from the Graham’s terrace. We had eaten earlier, so we didn’t stay for dinner, but I would highly recommend this for anybody else as the food and the view both looked impressive!

Most importantly, however, the port we tried was absolutely delicious, and it was such a great experience to try so many different types with an experienced guide. We also bought some wine to enjoy back at the Homeaway apartment later that evening, where we watched the tail end of the World Cup match that Portugal was playing in.

img_4762The second day, we decided to hit the beach and hopped straight in an uber to Matosinhos. The beach here was more rocky than sandy, but there were several beach clubs on the waterfront for breakfast, deckchairs to lie out on (for free) and we spend the morning exploring the rockpools and wildlife within.

Following that; back to the town. I climbed the Torre dos Clérigos to get a view of the city whilst the rest of the group relaxed below, and then we spent the afternoon enjoying the extensive choice of shopping available.

When our feet were tired from shopping, we regrouped at Mateigaria for some Pastel de Nata. We were told that this is the best place in Porto to enjoy the distinctive custard tarts, and they were certainly the best ones we tried!

Warm and soft and the perfect mix of vanilla and cinnamon. I definitely regret not bringing some home with me! They also had some of the best-looking iced teas, coffee and cocktails I saw in Porto! The prices were also shockingly good. 1 Euro for a tart and 70 cents for an espresso.

We had to get up super early the next morning, so we spent our final night in a more chilled manner. We found a restaurant on the riverbank within earshot of some live music, and once again tucked into some grilled sardines and cod whilst watching the sun go down.

Porto might have been the best weekend city break I’ve ever had, and the value for money and quality of food is astonishing. If you like seafood, coffee, port or pastries then I would really recommend a visit. The beautifully tiled buildings and waterfront location also make it a location not to miss. There are also tons of cultural hotspots and museums we didn’t have time to check out; so the city definitely has potential for another, longer trip!

Following this trip, I’m looking forward to spending more time in Portugal. Have you got any recommendations? What did you think of Porto, for those of you who have been?

Three must-try restaurants in Barcelona

It’s been two weeks now since my trip to Barcelona, and my love of the city has not faded. To be blunt, it’s hard not to appreciate the value for money you can get in Barcelona restaurants when you’re living in Switzerland!

We hit a LOT of food places in a four day trip (I mean… three to four spots a day) but I’m going to squeeze the trip into my top three for the sake of the post

Best value for money and seafood – La Paradeta

This place is actually one of several in Barcelona, but it definitely does not have that “chain” feel. More like a fish market; you queue, pick your seafood and cooking style, pay by weight, and then wait eagerly for your red buzzer to go off so that you can pick your fish up from the kitchen. The prices were good, the seafood was great, and we really liked the casual, non-pretentious vibe of the place.

Hidden gem and tapas – El Atril

I found this place via Google and Tripadvisor, but none of my friends or coworkers who had lived in Barcelona knew of it, and so I was a bit worried that it wouldn’t live up to expectations. My fears soon proved unfounded as we had some truly incredible food here – I went for octopus whilst my friend went for some incredible truffle pasta (which was INSANE that dish). The vibe of the place was also very much that of a independent, ‘hidden gem’, and it fuses Catalan and other cuisines.

The bill at the end of the meal was also the smallest one from throughout the entire trip; half the price of one of the restaurants near Las Ramblas and easily twice the quality.

Best for gourmet dining – Fismuler 

Both the food and the atmosphere in Fismuler are spectacular. This restaurant is technically linked to Hotel Rec Barcelona, which is why we chose it as an easy option for our first night, but it is also the sister restaurant to Fismuler in Madrid.

The service was incredible, as was the live music. This was the kind of place where even the palette cleanser and bread blow your mind. It’s just a shame that the atmospheric lighting in the restaurant stopped me from capturing the quality of the food.

I went for the steak and finished with the French toast which was the best take on French toast I have EVER had; including the one I had at L’Atelier Joel Rubuchon in London, which, by the way, was OUT OF THIS WORLD (seriously, if you’re near Covent Garden at a lunchtime you HAVE to get their lunch menu).

The point is, this meal was really very, very special. From the cocktails and whiskey and bread to the mains and desserts and the waiter and chef who came over to make us feel welcome – it was all perfect. If I went back to Barcelona I would definitely go back here, even if I didn’t stay in that area again.

The other thing you MUST try whilst in Barcelona?

So, actually, my final recommendation for Barcelona is not food, but is a cycling tour of the city. We used Free Bike Tour Barcelona, who ask that you tip your tour guide at the end rather than pay a set price.

On this tour, I got to see most of the top sights in the city centre in a morning with an experienced guide. Barcelona is a very bike-friendly city, so the tour is also accessible for even a less confident cyclists.

A cycling tour allowed us to cover lots of ground in just half a day and help us decide which areas we’d want to spend more time in for the rest of the trip. Plus, the amazing guide, Nora, filled us in on the history and context of the sights we were seeing, and helped guide us on the quickest routes through the city.

 

 

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The view from the Hotel Rec balcony with a glass of local Cava is one I will not soon forget!

 

Lakeside dining in Annecy, France

You may have observed a lack of activity on this blog recently, and that this post is a little different from my last ones. There is a reason for this change; three weeks ago, I relocated from London to Geneva!

The change has kept me busy, but also prompted a shift in my priorities somewhat. Whilst I still am *very* much interested in food,  and creating recipes packed with protein, I am altogether MUCH more interested in using my new location in Central Europe to get my travel on! I’ve been challenging myself to try new things and see new sights every weekend.

Three weeks into the move, I have hiked up the Saleve, swam in Lake Léman, and, most recently, ventured out to Annecy in France. Today, I’m going to share my experiences of this most recent trip with you, as well as giving my opinion on the restaurant we ate at, La Boussole (spoiler alert: I’m definitely going back).

The day began with the 45 minute drive from Geneva to Annecy turning into an hour and half as my parents disagreed over directions and took every wrong turn possible. With two kids in the car, it was a little stressful, but the discord withered away as soon as we got our first glimpse of the lake.

Both the town and lake were captivating; with panoramic view of the lake and mountains in one direction, and shady cobbled streets full of life and noise and vibrant little restaurants in the other. I took the chance to stock up on fresh olives and bread from the market, as in Geneva, shops aren’t open on Sundays.

Having quickly toured the town, we jumped back into the car for a further drive along the lake to our lunch reservation.  I had booked La Boussole at the Hotel Beauregard due to the views it promised of the lake, and was not let down in this regard. We were sat outside, where the ambience and backdrop almost made me want to return to Hotel Beauregard as a guest for a weekend…

As for the food; my father and I went for a set menu; at 28 euros for three courses, and a supplement for an additional cheese course, it was very reasonably priced. In fact, the bill at the end came to the same total as a touristy diner we had visited the previous night in Geneva to keep the kids happy (ie serve them chicken and chips), making La Boussole worth a trip out of Switzerland in and of itself.

I started with the sardine on toast, and went on to the delicate poached sea bream in minestrone with pak choi and edamame. Both were light, subtle dishes, whilst leaving me completely satisfied. The Chardonnay the waiter suggested also paired beautifully.

Having taken our fill of the “healthier” parts of the meal, my father and I went wild on desserts. We shared both a cheese platter and cafe gourmand (because when in France…), and then enjoyed the mojito-inspired strawberry dessert that came with our set menu. The kids were very happy with their little tubs of icecream and marshmallow bunnies. I also spotted a range of of beautiful chocolate-y desserts being taken out to other tables, which I’d love to return to try. I did have to be rolled out of the restaurant, but it was definitely worth it.

Following the meal, we drove about 500m down the road to the local beach to while away much of the afternoon in food comas, intermittently entering the lake to cool down.

Truly, it was a divine day trip from Geneva, and I plan to return again as soon as possible!

Butternut squash soup; a celebration of slow food

I love to rise early on the weekend and make the most of every hour of sunlight. As one of the many office workers in London, I tend to see the weekend as a narrow window in which I must pack as many “productive” activities as possible. Sunday evenings, however, are truly downtime. The busier my weekend, the more I need that “me time” on Sunday evening to unwind. That is where “slow food” comes in.

Slow food, to me, means taking the time to source fresh, local ingredients, and really savour the ritual of cooking without worrying too much about the result. It means setting aside the time to roast or simmer, instead of worrying about efficiency. Slow food can feel like a real luxury (being able to spend two hours in the kitchen), but it is also one of the cheapest forms of self-care. There is something really special about being fully engaged with your food.

This kind of cooking and preparation can also be a fantastic bonding experience with friends and loved ones; at least once a month, I spend a day with a friend visiting local markets, and picking up fresh produce to cook together later. There’s nothing quite like getting cold and rained on whilst you pick out fresh bread and veggies, before going home and drinking copious amounts of tea whilst you watch a dish come together from the ingredients picked out earlier. It also works well if the visiting party brings tupperware, so everybody can have leftovers the next day!

Anyhow – this dish is a huge homage to the concept of slow food. Unlike other butternut squash soup recipes, it requires roasting the butternut squash for at least 25 minutes beforehand. You could choose to just chuck the butternut squash in with the other veggies and boil before blending… but taking the extra time to roast it in cinnamon, olive oil and honey truly brings out it’s flavour.

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Ingredients

  • 1 butternut squash, 1 carrot, 3-4 mushrooms, 1 stick celery
  • 1 onion, 1 clove garlic, 1 fresh chilli (deseeded)
  • Fresh basil
  • Salt, cinnamon
  • Vegetable stock cube
  • Light coconut milk (or full fat if you’d like it thicker/creamier)
  • Olive oil, honey/maple syrup
  • Bread, to serve

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Steps

  1. Cut butternut squash in half. Coat with generous amount of olive oil, cinnamon, and salt. Drizzle over a little honey (or maple syrup). Put in oven at 200c and roast for 25 mins or until soft. When it is cooked, remove from oven, and chop into cubes without skin.
  2. Chop, and then sautee onions, garlic and chilli in a generous amount of olive oil.
  3. Add chopped carrots, celery and mushrooms. Season with cinnamon. After a few minutes, add in cubes of butternut squash. Keep stirring on low heat for another 5-10 minutes until vegetables have softened further.
  4. Now add 1/2 cup boiling water and stock cube. Allow to simmer for 10-15 minutes. By the end of this process you want your carrots and celery to be soft through.
  5. Finally, stir in the can of coconut milk and add a bunch of fresh basil. I like to add about 20 leaves, but I am a BIG fan of basil. If feeling hesitant, add less now and use more as a garnish later.
  6. Now put the mixture in your blender and blend away! The longer you leave it, the smoother it will be; so don’t keep it going for too long if you like a thicker soup.

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What do you think about the revival of slow foods? Do you have a favourite dish that fits the definition?

Blighty Cafe: The full English breakfast, three ways

image3 (3)So, the last few weekends of my life I’ve been trying to pack every free moment with “personal development”. As a result, I’ve been holed up in cafes all over London, desperately trying not to get kicked out by large groups whilst I’m nursing my third coffee before midday.

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However, just because I want to hog a table to myself all morning, doesn’t mean I don’t want to be fed too. The likes of Costa and Starbucks simply don’t cut it, and I am a true believer in savouring at least two glorious brunches a weekend.

Enter: Blighty Cafe. This sweet spot on Blackstock road has upstairs seating room with plug sockets, whilst also dishing up some of the tastiest food in London. The best part? Their full English breakfast comes in a meaty, vegetarian AND vegan version. Which means that everyone is happy.

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The staff are angelic, they offer some of the more hipster drink options like a turmeric latte, and their pastries (the cinnamon rolls!!!!) looks phenomenal. Check out their location on Blackstock Road, near Finsbury Park station, and come say hi if you see me; there is a 50% chance I will be there! Link to their website here.

Quick & easy chocolate protein pancakes (with blueberry sauce)

I am a HUGE fan of sweet breakfasts at the weekend. Pancakes, waffles, banana bread, and french toast are amongst my favourite meals, but as I don’t want to spike my blood sugar at 8am, and I’m usually enjoying these meals pre- or post- workout, I’d also like them to be full of protein and a little healthier than the pancakes I enjoy in restaurants!

These pancakes are the perfect combo of naughty and nice; they’ll hit the chocolate craving whilst providing you with protein to keep you full for longer. They are suitable for vegans, and packed with potassium from the banana hidden inside.

I prefer using bilberries (European blueberries) to regular blueberries for the topping, as they have more of a bite to them, but you can use whichever kind are available to you. Of course, fresh blueberries or other berries work just as well as frozen, but I find that the frozen are both sweeter and cheaper in the UK.

Ingredients (for 1 person)

• ½ fresh or frozen banana, mashed
• 35g flour
• 1 scoop (25g) chocolate protein powder
• 5g cocoa powder
• 1 egg or 1 tbsp chia seeds soaked in 2 tbsp water
• 1 tsp baking powder
• 1 tbsp coconut oil
• Soy (or other) milk, approx 1/2 cup
• Vanilla essence

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• 1.5 cups frozen blueberries
• 1 tbsp honey/maple syrup/sugar
• Cinnamon
• 1/2 tsp coconut oil
• 1 tbsp water

Method

  1. Put the blueberry sauce ingredients in a hob on low heat and mix gently. Keep an eye on these whilst your pancakes cook!
  2. Mix dry ingredients in bowl.
  3. If banana is frozen, warm in microwave first and then mash. Add to dry ingredients. If using eggs, add yolk to mixture first. Whisk egg white separately and then fold into mixture gently with a fork. If using chia mixture, just stir in. Then add milk of choice, around 1/2 cup per person, until the mixture stirs through with your fork without resistance.
  4. Heat the pan with generous amounts of coconut oil. You can dab away some of the excess with a paper towel afterwards, but ensure that the entire pan is coated.
  5. Add pancakes and allow them to cook at medium heat until bubbles start to appear on the top. Then flip until the other side is browned. Repeat until you use up the pancake mixture.
  6. Keep an eye on the blueberries. When the excess water has evaporated and blueberries form a gooey consistency, remove from the hob and set aside for later.
This was another incarnation of the pancakes, with almond butter, bananas, fresh blueberries and cacao nibs on top.

You could also play around with toppings. When I want to fit in more carbs pre-workout, I’ll slice a banana on top fresh, or fry it quickly in a little coconut oil to caramelize the outside before adding it on top. Almond butter, coconut, and cacao nibs can also all be used to complement the chocolatey pancakes. What toppings would you add?