10 Things I Didn’t Expect in Beijing, China

People had mixed reactions when I told them my boyfriend and I were going to China. They ranged from congratulatory and enthusiastic, to puzzlement and even cautionary. My sister, who’d live in China for a year, was predictably the most excited for us along with a colleague who’d also visited some years ago. But more commonly, people either perplexingly asked why we wanted to visit China or worse still, told us how much they disliked the country. The descriptions ranged from “dirty” to “it’s like India, but without the warmth of the people.” Ouch.

I wasn’t deterred by the negativity, in fact, I got even more excited as the trip got closer. While my boyfriend and I had been to Europe just five months earlier, it was more holidaying than travelling. This time, neither of us had been to the country before and we had no idea what to expect. Our first stop was Beijing, which I’d been told represented old China. Just weeks before we departed, television screens were filled with a city glowing orange with pollution. Media portrayal included mass population, poverty and a dismal human rights record. 

Our flight from Perth, Australia to Beijing via Singapore landed around 3pm and by 5pm, we were exiting a subway station and walking along a footpath to our hotel in the Wanfujing district. The atmosphere was peaceful, with only a few cars and people around as the sun began to fade. The street names were in English, and we easily reached our hotel after 10 minutes. It was nothing like India.

The four days that proceeded were incredible. I didn’t fall in love with Beijing immediately, but I quickly absorbed and enjoyed all that was around me. History, culture, food, excellent transport, bikesharing, art, the absence of Western media (a true holiday when you’re a journalist), the open spaces and public places. It didn’t resemble anything I’d imagined from television or people’s stories. Many of these themes continued throughout our three week China trip, and I loved the country even more than I’d anticipated. 

Here’s what struck me most in Beijing, to the point where I began this blog post on our journey because I wanted to counter the narratives I’d heard before we left. I’ll concede we stayed in the central tourist areas, did a lot of research and preparation before we left (such as downloading city and subway maps), and also love being out of our comfort zone. But even without these things, it’s hard not to be impressed by China’s capital. 

Things I Didn’t Expect in Beijing

1. It Wasn’t Crowded

Were there a lot of people in Beijing? Yes. Train stations were busy, and roads were filled with vehicles often coming to a standstill. But I never truly sensed I was in a city of 21.5 million people (almost the entire population of my home country Australia). I didn’t see any exceptionally large crowds and never felt boxed in. Beijing was far less busier than New York for example, and train stations were no different to London’s Kings Cross. The most common question when I returned from China was “It was really crowded, right?.” No, it wasn’t. This is probably linked to my next point. 

2. Sprawling but Not Dense

While my boyfriend and I flew into Beijing, our journey into the city centre was by train. Departing the airport, there were masses of tall apartment buildings but sprawling areas of greenery between them. This became less so as we got closer to the city, but it was immediately evident Beijing is a city of highways that has developed outwards rather than upwards, much like Los Angeles or Paris. Even in the central tourist area we were staying in, our hotel only had 12 floors and was one of the taller buildings in the area. The city was also very flat, making it the perfect concrete jungle to explore on foot. 

3. Organised

Beijing had a level of organisation that rivals Ikea or The Container Store. Many places had a clear entrance and exit, even in a small area like bag check or cloak rooms. This may partly be because of security checks at the entrance (see my next point), so wanting to control the flow of people. But the subway system was excellent. Exits are clearly marked A,B, C and so on (identical to Hong Kong) and often divided further into B1, B2 and so forth so you have an exact reference point to meet somewhere or reach a location. If only more cities would adopt this system! Traffic is mostly cars with a few buses, tuk tuks and scooters. The scenes got a little hairy at some intersections, but drivers largely followed the rules. 

4. Security

I’d expected the military presence we saw around tourist locations like Tianamen Square, but I didn’t anticipate the level of other checks. Our hotel had a passport scanner and staff checked our visas, we had to show our passports when entering the train station, staff scanned my body with a hand-held metal detector at most checks, and sometimes my handbag would go through an x-ray machine only to be scanned again five minutes later. There were security cameras across the city, and I later saw a news story about how China is introducing live facial scanning technology. 

5. Lack of Pollution

There’s no denying pollution is a huge problem in China and Beijing is no exception. However, I was surprised (and somewhat concerned) that at no time could I sense it. I could clearly see the dull, hazy grey band of smog across the horizon, but I could never smell it and my breathing felt the same as it did in Australia. After a day of sightseeing in Beijing, I didn’t feel any dirtier than after a day walking around New York City. When my boyfriend and I tried to raise the topic of air quality with our Great Wall tour guide, who’d quit journalism over having to write pro-government stories, he told us Beijing simply had ‘fog.’ 

 Beijing: the pollution was visible on the horizon but my breathing didn't feel affected.
Beijing: the pollution was visible on the horizon but my breathing didn’t feel affected.

6. English Prevalence 

One of the biggest shocks in Beijing was seeing numbers in English! Everything from platform numbers to bus numbers, times and prices. I felt ignorant but then recalled my experiences catching local buses in Thailand. As mentioned, we did largely stay in the tourist areas of Beijing, but the prevalence of English continued throughout our trip. It gave me confidence we could catch buses across China. Many street names had English and Chinese characters too. Spoken English was a different story, ranging from fluent to none at all. A few times we asked for help with directions, and young people would apologise for their ‘bad’ English before clearly explaining where we needed to be. My Mandarin comprised hello, thank you, water and cheers. 

7. Punctual 

As well as the clear organisation of train stations, roads and attractions, much of Beijing operated like clockwork. Trains departed to the minute, our hotel breakfast closed exactly 10.30am, lights went off in market areas at precisely 10pm and our tour guide for the Great Wall of China met us at exactly 7am. For the rest of our trip, it became a game to see whether boarding for a train opened exactly 20 minutes before departure (in almost every case, it did). A friend of my sister’s, living in Beijing, warned us that planes in China were often heavily delayed but of our four internal flights, we only were late once departing 15 minutes after the scheduled time. 

 A Beijing train station: Trains left to the minute and the train number was easy to identify, thanks to English characters. 
A Beijing train station: Trains left to the minute and the train number was easy to identify, thanks to English characters. 

8. Clean

I didn’t expect Beijing to be like walking in a trash can, but the absence of litter was noticeable. Roads, footpaths and public spaces were clean and tidy although – as with most capital cities – I suspect this wanes further away from central areas. The notable exceptions were public toilets (see below) and The Great Wall of China, which in some areas was littered with plastic drink bottles and empty food wrappers.

9. Public Toilets

I relax my obsession with staying hydrated when travelling but it wasn’t a problem in Beijing or the rest of the five cities we visited in China. Public toilets were everywhere and well sign-posted. As a local resident told us, you simply need to follow your nose. And bring toilet paper if you want some. Like the extensive labelling of exits at train stations, I wish other cities in the world had as many public toilets as Beijing did! 

10. Accessibility 

Beijing deserves a solid congratulations for having accessibility that, in parts, is better than my home city. I know this, because I’d debated whether to take a backpack or suitcase to China and I was glad I chose the latter. It was effortless to walk along footpaths, get around train stations, and enter accomodation. The prevalence of ramps and lifts was impressive and I recall hauling my suitcase up a lot less stairs than I did in Europe just five months prior.

When we left Beijing after four nights for Xi’an, I felt like I’d just begun to discover a city. I wasn’t ready to leave and was glad we’d return for a final night at the end of our trip before flying home. My expectations certainly weren’t low, but I was surprised by just how much I liked Beijing. It set the tone for the rest of our trip, which my boyfriend and I consider is one of the best we’ve done to date. Are you considering a trip to China’s capital? Check out My Must-See Attractions in Beijing.

QUESTION: Which place has surprised you most in your travels?

Italy’s Incredible Cinque Terre: My Guide

About a year ago, my boyfriend and I sat down with a giant piece of cardboard, a handful of Sharpies and our laptops. We’d booked return flights to London to see one of my best friends get married and we had month afterwards to explore Europe! My dream was to cycle through French vineyards while my boyfriend wanted to visit Cinque Terre. I’d never heard of it. “It’s in Italy. It looks cool!” he said. He showed me some photos on Instagram. It looked incredible so it went onto our list.

Our plans progressed and in May this year, we boarded a train in Nice, France and five hours later arrived in Cinque Terre. It was a surreal moment, disembarking at Monterosso’s small train station at sunset and towing our suitcases along the beach path to our guest house. The days that ensued were absolutely magical. 

If you’re looking for spectacular scenery, dramatic architecture and a relaxed village vibe, Cinque Terre delivers it all. Bonus: Italian food and wine! 

Orientation

Cinque Terre (“Five Lands”) is on the northern Italian coastline, about two hours north-west of Florence and 450 kilometres (280 miles) north-west of Rome. It comprises a string of five coastal towns, each a few kilometres apart. Cinque Terre is a national park and was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1997 for its outstanding cultural value, along with nearby Portovenere and several islands.

 Corniglia: the only hilltop village in Cinque Terre. 
Corniglia: the only hilltop village in Cinque Terre. 

From north to south, Cinque Terre’s towns are: 

  • Monterosso: the biggest, made up of Old Town and New Town (about 10 minutes walk between them). It has a large beach area. 
  • Vernazza: arguably the second most popular village, and rivalling Maranola for most beautiful. Probably the most photographed, thanks to being an easy hike from Monterosso. Vernazza has an iconic pier and castle. 
  • Corniglia: the only town without direct beach access, it’s instead perched high on a hill. For that reason, it has the least number of tourists. Considered the most quant and peaceful. 
  • Manarolo (shown in the cover photo): another popular choice, often considered the most beautiful.
  • Riomaggiore: the most southern village in Cinque Terre, so the first one you’ll reach if travelling north along the coast.

 Vernazza: the village has an iconic castle (top right) and pier.
Vernazza: the village has an iconic castle (top right) and pier.

It’s worth noting the nearby towns, as they’re important for getting your direction right on train travel: Levanto is north of Monterosso and you’ll find La Spezia and Portovenere south/south-east of Riomaggiore. 

where to stay

My boyfriend and I found this one of the most difficult things to decide when planning our visit. Thankfully, a colleague had just been to Cinque Terre and recommended we stay in Monterosso’s Old Town. He said it was beautiful, and the only village big enough to handle the influx of tourists without feeling too crowded. He was spot on! Make sure you book accommodation as soon as you can. We were travelling in the shoulder-season and had limited options when trying to book three months in advance!

 Affittacamere Irene: view looking left from our window.
Affittacamere Irene: view looking left from our window.

We got a double room at the perfectly located Affittacamere Irene for 4 nights (Via XX Settembre 16, Monterosso | €130/night). It was one of four rooms at the family-run guesthouse and very spacious, just a minute or two from Monterosso’s bars, restaurants and bakeries. Our host was running the guesthouse for her mother and personally showed us to our room, along giving us an introduction to the region. She provided some great dining recommendations too! The complimentary snacks, tea and coffee were enough for a light breakfast before hiking and the small fridge was handy too.

If you’re struggling to pick a town, consider these factors:

  • 1. How much luggage do you have? 

Make no mistake – Cinque Terre is steep. While the main street may be wide and comparatively flat, guesthouses may be several flights of uneven steps so taking a cab (if available) isn’t an option. We had a 23kg (50 lb.) suitcase each but thankfully our accommodation was a 10 minute, flat walk from the train station. Corniglia is on top of a hill but the train station is at sea level. It’ll take you at least 10 minutes to go down the stairs, let alone going up with a bag! If you’ve just got a weekend duffel, you’ve got more options. 

 Corniglia: perched on a hilltop but the train station is at sea level, via a lot of stairs! 
Corniglia: perched on a hilltop but the train station is at sea level, via a lot of stairs! 

  • 2. How many bar/dining options do you want? 

Monterosso is the biggest of the towns, so if you like to explore different venues over a few nights, this is a good bet. We didn’t actually make it to the New Town area during our four night stay because we had so many local choices! We spent less time in Vernazza and Manarola, but there were multiple dining spots on offer too, both by the water and at higher lookouts. Corniglia is the smallest town although one of our favourite bars was here (see “drinks” below). Riomaggiore is the only village we didn’t eat or drink in, but only because it didn’t work with our hikes. 

  • 3. Will you spend more time hiking or beaching? 

Monterosso has the biggest beach area, made up of public and private facilities. Vernazza and Manarola have small harbours to swim in. As Corniglia is perched on a hill, beach access is possible but not easy. The town to train station stairs would be torture after a day of hiking and there’s no ferry access. Riomaggiore has a rocky, pebbly beach but the town is an excellent base for hiking, as you can continue further south to Portovenere.

 Riomaggiore: the southern-most village, photo taken from the ferry at dusk.
Riomaggiore: the southern-most village, photo taken from the ferry at dusk.

The best advice I can give is that ultimately, it doesn’t matter where you stay. None of the villages are particularly big, they all have similar facilities and the Regionale trains between them are cheap (€4), fast and frequent. If you like bigger towns and have a heavy suitcase, go for Monterosso. If you want the most quant and least touristy village, head to Corniglia. I felt Vernazza was overcrowded with tourists, but this may change at night once daytrippers have left. Manarola was a magnet for Instagrammers but honestly, most of Cinque Terre is selfie-central. It’s shame we only transitted through Riomaggiore! I’d possibly stay there or in Manarola next time, mostly to explore alternate hiking routes. My boyfriend said he’d happily return to Monterosso. 

what to do

Hiking

If you’re mildly active, you’ve got to do at least one hike in Cinque Terre. There are popular hikes, each 1-3 hours, connecting each of the villages as well as more challenging, professional paths. These footpaths have actually connected the villages for centuries. The most popular walk is the simple, two-hour hike between Monterosso and Vernazza. It’s a perfect introduction to the region and one of the most memorable experiences of my life. 

 Vernazza (with Monterosso in the background): you'll get this view when hiking to Corniglia! 
Vernazza (with Monterosso in the background): you’ll get this view when hiking to Corniglia! 

My boyfriend and I were keen to hike as much as we could, and we did four journeys in three days (each one harder than the last!). The scenery was jaw-dropping and breathtaking at almost every step and meeting travellers from all around the world was a bonus. Our daily routine became a morning hike, leisurely lunch, an afternoon hike and apertifs (see “drinks” below) before returning to Monterosso for dinner. I’ll do a separate, detailed post about our hikes shortly but in the interim, this website has detailed, accurate advice: www.incinqueterre.com/en/trails-advice.

Beach

Make your Cinque Terre trip a real vacation by spending a day at the beach. As mentioned, Monterosso has the biggest beach area (both private and public facilities) but you can reach the water from any of the villages with varying levels of difficulty. We spent an hour or so sunbaking on rocks at Vernazza, but in Manarola it was too chilly to swim in the small harbour. The beaches are more rock than sand, so bring a towel. 

 Vernazza: the view from the castle tower.
Vernazza: the view from the castle tower.

Churches

Whether it’s a sanctuary, monument or plain old church, each village has at least one place of worship. I saw two – a church in Vernazza we awkwardly walked through to get to a beach and another on our hike between Riomaggiore and Portovenere. I’ve seen enough churches and temples in my travels for a lifetime, but if this is your thing you’ll some options in each town.

Cooking classes

I love taking cooking classes abroad and Cinque Terre would’ve been exceptional! I looked into local schools and found most classes were around €130. When researching this post, I did see the cafe Nessun Dorma (see “where to eat” below) offered a pesto making course for €35. Amazing! If you offer or have taken a cooking class in Cinque Terre, please comment below.

where to eat

 Ristorante Ciak: the best meal I had in Cinque Terre!
Ristorante Ciak: the best meal I had in Cinque Terre!

Cinque Terre is in Italy’s Liguria region which is famous for its pesto! You’ll find the short, twisted trofie pasta on most menus, as the shape is apparently well-suited to the famous basil sauce. Sadly, pesto contains parmesan so I couldn’t try any but I ate a lot of other food! Spaghetti pomodoro, minestrone, salads, bruschetta, focaccia and dairy-free gelato! The menus were seafood heavy too, with anchovies a local specialty. The meat dishes are a great option if you need a break from carbs. 

You won’t find McDonalds or sushi anywhere, and pizza is only occasionally on menus. I chuckled at the number of restaurants with signs saying “NO EGGS!,” referring to Americans’ love of a cooked breakfast. You’ll receive a bread basket everywhere – it’s included as part of the €2-3 per person service charge.

Our favourite places were: 

 Bar Terza Terra: lunch & drinks with a view! 
Bar Terza Terra: lunch & drinks with a view! 

  • Monterosso: Ristorante Ciak (Piazza Don Minzoni 6) served the most gobsmackingly delicious meal I had during my entire visit. I couldn’t finish my gnocchi (€14) so staff kindly packed it to go. Local white wine was €19 a bottle. You MUST eat here! 
  • Vernazza: We had a post-hike lunch at Al Castello, perched high near the iconic castle overlooking the town and sea. The food was fine, but it was the views and value that were impressive. We paid €14 for a bottle of house white and €8 for spaghetti pomodoro.
  • Corniglia: We walked past half a dozen restaurants before reaching the exquisitely located Bar Terza Terra. It was like we were on a private island, tucked around a corner with only a dozen other people taking in the incredible scenery. We had multiple Aperol spritzes (€6) paired with assorted bruschetta (€7) and focaccia (from €2.50). A real highlight! 
  • Manarola: I’d go back to Nessun Dorma in a heartbeat! This entirely outdoor venue is exceptionally popular due to its stunning views of the town. It was full of Instagrammers but was surprisingly good value given the setting. They had a range of drink and platters combinations from €11-20, focaccias at €6-7 and of course Aperol spritzes. This venue alone is worth a day trip to Manarola. 

drink

 Nessun Dorma: Aperitifs overlooking Manarola.
Nessun Dorma: Aperitifs overlooking Manarola.

We arrived in Cinque Terre after four days in France’s best vineyards but that didn’t stop us from guzzling Italian vino. While you can’t compare Grand Cru with the local Cinque Terre wine, we truly enjoyed everything we drank. My boyfriend and I ordered mostly local white wines, which were around €15-20 for a bottle and €4-8 for a glass. On one occasion we tried an €8 bottle of house white, which surprisingly good too. Beer lovers, there’s options for you too. 

Aperitif is something I’d heard of but not experienced. Consider it Italy’s cocktail hour, enjoyed pre-dinner with snacks such as chips, nuts or crackers. 

Recommended bars: 

  • Monterosso: La Balena Blue (or “the Blue Whale”). Our host suggested this place but it took us a while to find because the signage was quite small. I liked that Italians were drinking here, and people would simply drop in and say hello. A few people had their dogs with them. 
  • Corniglia: We had lunch at Bar Terza Terra, but I’d return just for drinks. And the scenery! 
  • Mararola: I’m repeating myself, but go to Nessun Dorma. You could stare at Manarola all day.

 Corniglia: Post-hike Aperol spritz at Bar Terza Terra!
Corniglia: Post-hike Aperol spritz at Bar Terza Terra!

 Wine list: a sample of local wines and prices (click to enlarge).
Wine list: a sample of local wines and prices (click to enlarge).

getting around

The Regionale train is by the far the easiest way to get between towns. The services are fast, frequent and only €4 per trip. Be sure to check the last train times (around midnight) to avoid being stranded after dinner. Click here for the timetable.

 Ferry from Portovenere to Montorosso (€18): it stops at all towns except Corniglia and takes about an hour.
Ferry from Portovenere to Montorosso (€18): it stops at all towns except Corniglia and takes about an hour.

A ferry also connects all the towns except Corniglia, and goes further south to Portovenere. The ferries are less frequent, every hour or so, and more expensive (€18 one way Portovenere to Monterosso) but it’s a nice way to see the villages from the water. Click here for the 2017 timetable.

Of course, you can walk between the towns too with each only 1.5 – 4km (0.9 – 2.5mi) apart. The villages themselves are best explored on foot due to their small size and steep inclines. 

getting there

The nearest major cities are Milan (220km/135mi) and Genoa (130km/80mi) in the north, and to the south-east Pisa (100km/62mi) and Florence (170km/105mi). As mentioned, Italy’s capital Rome is about 450km south-east of Cinque Terre (or a five hour train ride). The simplest way to reach Cinque Terre is to fly or catch a train to one of these cities, and then catch another train.

 Train: I became obsessed with photographing Cinque Terre's railway tunnels. So beautiful! 
Train: I became obsessed with photographing Cinque Terre’s railway tunnels. So beautiful! 

We travelled from Nice, France to Genoa (3 hours) and then onto Monterosso (1 h, 15 mins) which was €24.90 each, for both journeys. We pre-booked our tickets using the excellent website Loco2. Italian trains are frequently delayed so be generous with connection times. We were delayed by 20 minutes a few times and saw others delayed by 40 minutes. You could also hire a car but we found the train services were more than adequate.

 Manarola: the main street between the station and seafront.
Manarola: the main street between the station and seafront.

money

You’ll need Euros (€) for Cinque Terre, as it’s part of Italy. I was surprised at how affordable the area was, given it’s touristy and somewhat remote. For example, a basic pasta was often €8-10 and focaccias at a bar started from €2.50. Be warned: there’s only a couple of ATMs in each town, and they were frequently out of service. You can pay for trains and maybe half the restaurants by credit card, but smaller grocers and hiking fees for example were cash only. 

language  

I used our train ride to Monterosso to brush up on my Italian (learnt in Rome, 2006 while backpacking). English was widely spoken in Cinque Terre but to varying degrees. Either way, it’s polite to know the basics. Download the free app Duolingo to learn Italian, otherwise here are some essentials: 

  • Hello/bye = ciao (“chow”)
  • Thank you = grazie
  • Please = per favoure
  • Excuse me/pardon = scusi
  • Do you have a table for two? = Avete un tavolo per due?
  • May I have..? = Vorrei..?
  • White/red wine = bianco/rosso vini

other tips

Don’t buy stamps from postcard vendors. They’ll cost you €3 each (on top of the card) and are actually part of some private courier service. Instead, search for a post office here.

I left Cinque Terre feeling I’d had a once in a lifetime experience. The walks were spectacular and the villages, although touristy, were as unspoilt as the scenery. It was a fantastic way to stay fit while travelling and inspired me to explore much more of Italy and its regional cruises. To my boyfriend – thank you for choosing such a stunning, memorable destination! 

QUESTION: Where’s your favourite place in Italy?

Three Days in Beaune, France

Have you ever had a travel vision you desperately wanted to make reality? For a year, I’d dreamed of cycling through French villages and drinking chardonnay. Yes, I’m utterly city-centric but vineyards don’t grow downtown. When my boyfriend and I had the chance to spend five weeks in Europe earlier this year, experiencing regional France was at the top of my list.

I didn’t know much about French wine or whether small towns even existed nowadays. I googled France’s best wine regions (particularly for chardonnay) and cross-referenced a few wine websites. The town of Beaune, Côte-d’Or in east central France was repeatedly mentioned. To be sure this is where I wanted to holiday, I typed Beaune into Google Images and immediately liked what I saw. Vineyards, villages and greenery. There wasn’t a single skyscraper in sight! 

My holiday dream was edging closer but the final element was cycling. I searched for day tours and found a highly rated company offering a full day of biking through local wineries, along with lunch. It looked perfect! We booked a three night stay in Beaune and three months later, my holiday dream became reality.

orientation

Beaune is the wine-making capital of Burgundy (Bourgogne, in French). The town is semi-walled, with most hotels, restaurants and attractions contained within or close to its 2.5 kilometre ring road. The town centre loosely comprises Beaune’s famous Hospices (also known as Hôtel-Dieu), Place de la Halle (town square) and nearby Place Carnot (park). From here, you’ll find Rue Monge and Rue Carnot with cafes and shops, while Avenue de la Republique and Rue de l’Hotel Dieu are direct routes out of the town. 

Beaune’s train station (Gare de Beaune) is outside the walled section, about 10-15 minutes walk from the Hospices. 

 The view from our hotel window: I was living my travel dream!
The view from our hotel window: I was living my travel dream!

Getting there/around

Beaune is two hours by train from Paris, stopping in Dijon (€23, 90 minutes, first class) then transferring to a regional train (€4.40, 20 minutes, to Beaune). When transferring in Dijon, don’t be alarmed if your train isn’t listed on the display boards. Ours left from a separate platform outside the station. An information officer pointed us to an exit, and told us to follow the orange line on the ground for two minutes. Sounds odd, but this will be helpful if you visit! We pre-booked all our tickets before leaving Australia via the excellent website Loco2

When in Beaune, it’s easy to get around on foot as the town centre is flat and fairly compact. If you’re towing a suitcase, be aware of cobblestones and high kerbs. I didn’t see many taxis, however we never had a need for one. There a few car hire companies near the train station which we considered, but ultimately didn’t need. 

What to do

1. Wine tasting/education

Wine is the key industry in Beaune and you’ll see it everywhere – from vineyards to wine bars, the heavy concentration of wine stores and even a wine museum! However don’t expect to visit wineries or vineyards without a tour or appointment. Many are family-run and they don’t have the facilities or time to open to the public. This is slowly changing, but like much of France, tradition here is very strong.

My favourite experiences were: 

  • Wine Stores

If you want to immediately immerse yourself in wine, visit Domaine des Vins in the town centre. There are six red and white wines available by the glass, or just browse the extraordinary range. We got a crash course here on local wines the first day we arrived, with one of the owners explaining the different villages and characteristics of the wines they each produced. There are many other wine stores in Beaune, but Domaine de Vins is the only one I saw offering tastings. Prices varied from €6 to €15 for a glass. Address: 16 Place de la Halle (near the Hospices). 

  • Bike & Wine Tour

We booked a full day cycling and wine tour with Bourgogne Evasion (€137/ AU$200 each). After some difficulty meeting our guide Florian (we didn’t realise the tourism office had temporarily relocated as the confirmation email went to my junk folder), we were driven 15 minutes to the top of a hill for our briefing and bike set up. It was a beautiful sunny Friday and we were lucky to be the only ones booked on the tour that day.

 Bike & wine tour: the best way to experience Beaune's wine region.
Bike & wine tour: the best way to experience Beaune’s wine region.

Over 24km, we cycled through towns including Meursault and Pommard, getting a fascinating political and social history along with wine education. We learnt about viticulture, the strict French regulations and the different appellations from regional to Grand Cru. It was like we’d biked into the National Geographic channel. 

We saw a castle, had wine tasting plein air, enjoyed a leisurely two-course lunch at a restaurant and visited two wineries. An unexpected highlight was stopping at a vineyard along the road and comparing the different rows – you could see the varied approaches taken by different winemakers. 

 Bike & wine tour: my travel dream became reality the moment I saw this!
Bike & wine tour: my travel dream became reality the moment I saw this!

There were one or two steep hills and while the website says it’s an easy ride, I would rate it as moderate. However, there was no pressure to rush your day. The number of people who greeted our guide Florian as we cycled through the villages is evidence of his popularity and experience. For both myself and my boyfriend, this tour was one of the best days of our entire five week trip. I highly recommend it! More info & bookings: http://burgundybiketour.com

  • Wine Tasting – La Cave de l’Ange Gardien

This was the most wonderful and surreal afternoon. For €10, my boyfriend and I sampled three whites and three reds over three hours with a fascinating lesson in the art of wine tasting and French wine. We booked almost by accident, walking downstairs into the modest cave  and being told they could do a lesson on Saturday at 3pm. Our teacher Nicola was witty, charming and extremely knowledgeable. If you’ve got the time, do it! Address: 38 Boulevard Marechal Foch.

  • Bar hopping 

Of course, you could educate yourself in Beaune’s wines simply by drinking them! There are plenty of bars, cafes and restaurants offering a wide variety of local wines. It was common to be given complimentary nuts, chips or other small snacks with your drink, especially when ordering a pichet (250ml). Prices varied greatly, so there’s something for every budget. See the drink section below for specific recommendations. 

Lastly, we didn’t make it to the Musee de Vin (Museum of Wine) or the labyrinth wine cellars of Patriarche, which our tour guide had recommended. But they’re on my list for next time!

 Hospices de Beaune: providing free healthcare for the poor in the town centre from the mid-1400s.
Hospices de Beaune: providing free healthcare for the poor in the town centre from the mid-1400s.

2. Hospices de Beaune (Hôtel-Dieu)

You can’t miss the hospices in the centre of Beaune. Built in 1443 as a hospital for the poor, l’Hôtel-Dieu is the heart and pride of the town. I was skeptical – how interesting could an old hospital be? But my expectations were greatly exceeded. After buying our tickets (€7.50 adult), my boyfriend and I walk through the hospices using the free audio guide and map. The history, architecture and artifacts such as uniforms, tapestries and equipment were impressive. The insight into medieval medicine was also an eye-opener. We spent just under an hour here. 

Opening hours: 7 days, 9am – 6.30pm, with last entry at 5.30pm | http://hospices-de-beaune.com

3. Saturday markets

Buying a baguette in France has been one of my life goals. I bought one at a supermarket in Paris, but the experience didn’t feel very authentic. I’d made sure our stay in Beaune included a Saturday so we could experience the weekly market! On a Saturday morning, the town centre is taken over by sellers offering everything from meat, cheese and fresh produce to baskets and clothing. The produce was excellent quality. We enjoyed fresh mandarines, berries, olives and bread along with sun-dried tomato tapenade and pastries.

 Saturday market: I bought a fresh French baguette here and achieved one of my life goals! 
Saturday market: I bought a fresh French baguette here and achieved one of my life goals! 

If your French is rusty, some sellers speak English but you could equally say Bonjour and point at items with a polite s’il vous plait. Nothing was too pricey, although we did pay €10 for a large handful of tapenade. The ensuing picnic in our hotel room was magic. Bring cash.

 Saturday market: this was one of at least a dozen cheese stands!
Saturday market: this was one of at least a dozen cheese stands!

 Saturday market: if only our hotel room had a kitchen. 
Saturday market: if only our hotel room had a kitchen. 

4. La Moutarderie (Mustard Mill)

The last thing I expected to do in France was a mustard degustation but given Beaune’s proximity to Dijon, I shouldn’t have been surprised. I’d actually walked past La Moutarderie without realising it on our first day, as the exterior is quite modest. There are three spaces inside – the old mill, the current production area and the tasting zone. We tried to book a tour but the times didn’t work for us, so we just did mustard tasting instead. What an experience! The range of flavours and chatty, happy staff member explaining the varieties were excellent. While I was disappointed we couldn’t do a tour, the tasting alone was worth it. And it was free! There’s also a vending machine wall of mini mustards for €1 each – perfect souvenirs or gifts! Address: 31 Rue du Faubourg. 

Opening hours: 9.30am – 6pm Monday to Saturday, closed most Sundays | http://www.fallot.com/

 La Moutarderie: we spent an entire hour tasting mustards, including walnut, blueberry and balsamic flavours.
La Moutarderie: we spent an entire hour tasting mustards, including walnut, blueberry and balsamic flavours.

Food

French cuisine dominates most of the eateries across town – this is serious meat and cheese territory. Being a lactose-intolerant vegetarian was a challenge (which I’d expected), especially as most menus were in French. As my bike tour guide explained “We are happy to do vegetarian and no dairy… but we just don’t know how to do it!.” Thankfully, the French do beautiful big salads with luscious dressings. If you’re picky or have allergies, try connect to wifi and Google Translate menu ingredients. Anchovies were quite common, as was raw salmon and of course, cheese (fromage)! The bread baskets filled with slices of fresh, delicious baguettes were constant, and quite a lifesaver. 

If you’re not familiar with French food culture, there aren’t many places with ‘grab and go’ options. I didn’t see takeaway coffee during our entire stay, and you won’t find fast food outlets or sushi to go. Bakeries are the exception, and I did surprise my boyfriend by bringing him a lemon tart one morning. 

 French cuisine: Beaune is serious meat and cheese territory.
French cuisine: Beaune is serious meat and cheese territory.

Dining out can therefore get a little expensive with restaurant salads around €12-18 and mains from €15. Meat and cheese platters were prolific and good value for two people grazing. I saw one sandwich shop which was probably more casual and affordable, but the cooler weather meant getting take away and sitting outdoors wasn’t an option for us.

You’ll find plenty of dining on Rue Monge and around Place Carnot, as well as all along Rue Jean-Francois Maufoux, which becomes Rue Maufoux and eventually Rue du Faubourg Bretonnière.

My suggestions: 

 La Lune: an exceptional dinner, fusing French and Japanese cuisine.
La Lune: an exceptional dinner, fusing French and Japanese cuisine.

  • La Lune (32 Rue Maufoux): It’s not your typical French fare, but this was one of the most memorable meals during our entire five weeks in Europe. La Lune is Japanese and French fusion: think asparagus with sweet miso, grilled mushrooms and an excellent wine list of course! Book ahead as the venue is small – you can contact them via Facebook. 
  • Les Negotiants (7 Petite Place Carnot): This venue in the centre was packed with people drinking and eating on a sunny afternoon. The staff were so happy and helpful (they smiled at my mediocre French) and service was prompt. We returned a few days later for a casual lunch on a rainy Sunday and enjoyed the cosy atmosphere indoors, along with seeing local families and friends dining. 

If you need groceries, there’s a small store in the centre called Casino Shop and there’s an Aldi within walking distance too. 

Drink

We drank a lot of wine, by the glass and by the bottle! As mentioned, you’ll often be given bread or small snacks such as nuts or chips with your order. We found this was most common when ordering a pichet (250ml) of wine. I wish I could return to Beaune just to experience its wine lists all over again! 

  • La Dilettante (11 Rue du Faubourg Bretonnière): this wine bar was full at 2pm when we arrived thirsty and a little hungry. We tried again 15 minutes later and got a table, and spent an hour or two sampling most of the wines available by the glass. There was a limited afternoon food menu – I had a simple green salad while my boyfriend had a chicken gratine, and we shared the bread basket. It was a fun spot with plenty of take away wine too.
  • Brasserie Le Carnot (18 Rue Carnot): a large bistro with a large undercover, al fresco area too. Again, it was the staff who made us feel welcome here. We ordered a few pichets and enjoyed the generous complimentary snacks.  

 La Dilettante: a cosy space for wine, food and friends.
La Dilettante: a cosy space for wine, food and friends.

shopping

Most retail is concentrated along Rue Carnot, Rue Monge and surrounding Place Carnot. The majority of stores were closed on a Sunday, but you’ll otherwise find some homewares, souvenirs and small clothing stores. Sephora is the most commercialised store you’ll find, while Minelli is a French shoe franchise (where I picked up some great ankle boots in Paris!). Of course, wine stores are everywhere.

For food shopping, the fromagerie Alain Hess boasts 200 types of cheeses, along with condiments, crackers and other gourmet items. I was astounded at the variety and would have purchased so much if we had a bar fridge or extra suitcase! As mentioned under food, you can get general groceries at Casino Shop (4 Rue Carnot) and there’s an Aldi.

Where to stay

We stayed at Hotel Abbaye de Maizières (19 Rue Maizières), a 4 star hotel in the town centre for about €200/AU$300 a night. I’d been immediately enchanted by its striking cellar and history – the property was owned by monks from the 13th Century until the French Revolution! The luxury linen, plush robes and Clarins toiletries were lovely. If the room had a bar fridge and wine glasses, it would’ve been perfect!

 Abbaye de Maizieres: historic and beautiful.
Abbaye de Maizieres: historic and beautiful.

The location was ideal with most attractions, restaurants and cafes within five to 10 minutes walk. We’d hoped to dine in the restaurant, but found it was mostly quiet. The hotel is about 10 to 15 minutes walk from the train station which we handled fine with our large suitcases. 

 Abbaye de Maizières: the cellar restaurant and lobby .
Abbaye de Maizières: the cellar restaurant and lobby .

Language

Do yourself a favour and learn a little French before you go. Sometimes, I would speak French and receive a response in English but my efforts were always appreciated. Here are some basics, remembering the French don’t usually pronounce the last letter or two of their words.

  • Hello/good day: Bonjour
  • Hello/good evening: Bonsoir
  • Yes/no: Oui (“we”)/Non (“no”)
  • Please: S‘il vous plaît
  • Thank you: Merci
  • I would like..: Je voudrais… (“voo-dreh”)
  • What is..?: Quell est..? (“kel-eh”)
  • Have a nice day: Bonne journée (said as a farewell)
  • Do you speak English? Parlez-vous anglais? (“on-glay”)

Other tips

Lots of businesses will close for lunch between 12pm and 2pm, including the post office La Poste. Many of the shops in the town centre close on Sundays too. Opening hours are usually in 24 hour format, such as 900 h to 1730 h. If you want to make the most of the Saturday market, get accommodation with cooking facilities. I desperately wanted to roast asparagus!

Overall, Beaune was everything I’d hoped for and it was refreshing to spend time in a place which hadn’t succumbed to modern pressures. The French approach to dining – quality produce, smaller portions and taking time to eat is a lesson we could all embrace. I loved learning about French wine, viticulture and the history of the region. After my wine tasting lesson, I’ve never looked at a glass the same way again! Merci Beaune pour une parfait vacance!.

QUESTION: Have you had a travel vision you were obsessed with? 

Bali for Beginners

My first trip to the Indonesian island of Bali was with my Dad when I was about 10 years old. My parents told me it was a reward for learning to swim – in reality, Dad probably wanted some time out and was granted a getaway if he took one of his four young children. I was so excited, having heard about all the wonders of this exotic place. The famous Waterbomb Park, haggling with street sellers and all the different Fanta flavours. Oh, and room service!

I had an incredible time but it was more than 15 years before I returned. Honestly, Bali wasn’t attractive. Hoards of Australians were going there thanks to the advent of budget airlines. The thought of spending any holiday surrounded by people from my home country was unappealing, especially if they’re wearing ripped singlets, swearing, and snapping their fingers at local workers. But with a permanent job and not much annual leave, in 2012 I decided to give Bali a go. I booked a four night trip with my boyfriend, sister and best friend and you know what? Bali exceed all expectations! 

Massages, sunshine, some stunning beaches and top quality dining – I couldn’t believe I’d had Bali on a blacklist for so long! I’ve since returned twice with my boyfriend and once for a family vacation. With Bali only a three hour flight from Perth and airfare deals from AU$150 return, it’s an affordable and rewarding destination for a short break. 

 U Paasha in Seminyak: sunrise on the hotel's rooftop before a complimentary yoga class
U Paasha in Seminyak: sunrise on the hotel’s rooftop before a complimentary yoga class

If you’re considering a trip to Bali, here’s my advice for first-timers:

1. Where to Stay

Bali is really diverse. You can stay by the beach, in the middle of a forest or right next to nightclubs. The most popular tourist areas are Kuta, Legian and Seminyak which are all beachside and close to the airport, along with Ubud which about an hour inland. For a first-time visit or short break I’d recommend staying in Legian, especially if you’re with a group or on a budget. For romance or food, Seminyak is best but rest assured, it’s only a short AU$1-2 taxi ride to get from one to the other anyway. If you have a week, you could spend half your time in Legian or Seminyak and then head to Ubud for total relaxation. 

Here’s a bit more detail about each area:

Kuta & Surrounds:

  • Kuta: is the most touristy part of Bali. Plenty of bars, nightclubs and cheap accommodation. 
  • Legian: slightly north of Kuta. Still touristy but fabulous proximity to the beach and decent  nightlife.
  • Seminyak: is renowned as a place for couples or those who want to relax. It’s foodie heaven, full of private villas and boutique shops too. It’s the most chilled of the three tourist areas but a little more expensive. 
  • Canggu: is further north still. It’s less developed but getting more tourist attention, with restaurants and beach clubs popping up. 
 Monkey Forest in Ubud: hold on to your valuables!
Monkey Forest in Ubud: hold on to your valuables!

Greater Bali:

  • Ubud: the most popular inland destination. There’s no beach but it’s ideal for retreats, culture and nature-lovers. It’s also home to the famous Monkey Forest (pictured above). About an hour’s drive from the airport.
  • Nusa Dua: is more exclusive and up-market, about 45 minutes from the airport. This is where you’ll find most of the top hotels and resorts. I’m yet to make it to Nusa Dua, but hope to try the all-inclusive experience one day.

There are other areas in Bali I haven’t covered such as Sanur, the Gili Islands and Jimbaran Bay. But this is Bali for beginners! More on those in future editions. 

2. Accommodation

 O-CE-N Hotel in Legian: the view from our apartment's front door! 
O-CE-N Hotel in Legian: the view from our apartment’s front door! 

You can spend as little or as much as you like in Bali. Accommodation is plentiful, mostly cheap and the service is wonderful. Many hotels include a free buffet breakfast with toast, cereal, fresh tropical fruits, some Indonesian food such as nasi goreng (fried rice) or noodles and an omelette/pancake station. Choosing accommodation as a first-timer can be overwhelming, so things to consider are:

  • Which area is most appealing? 
  • Do you want to be walking distance to the beach? 
  • Is there a pool and how much sun does it get?
  • Is breakfast included? 
  • What do other travellers say about the hotel? 

I consistently find third-party websites such as Expedia and Agoda are cheaper than booking direct, but check the hotel’s website for special offers. However, don’t fall for promotions such as a free welcome drink or massages. These are cheap and readily available around Bali, so they don’t represent great value. Think of them as a bonus, not a motive for your booking. 

I’ve stayed at U Paasha in Seminyak and Ananta Hotel in Legian with my boyfriend, and at O-CE-N Hotel (now FuramaXclusive Ocean Beach) in Legian on a family holiday. I highly recommend all of them for value, location and amenities. I’ve also stayed at Amadea Resort in Seminyak. Service was excellent but it was half hotel, half villas and it felt a little intrusive walking past a long line of enclosed properties to reach our hotel room. The pool area was also average. It was fine – but I’d rather explore other properties. 

3. What to Do

Relax

If you’re only in a Bali for a few days, this is probably your main focus! Grab a book, sit by the pool, and enjoy a cocktail. Go for a walk along the beach or take a local yoga class. If you need a break from the sun, unwind in your hotel room with the mini-bar at your side. It’ll be well-stocked and affordable, with a Bintang or Heineken beer only costing AU$4 or so. 

 U Paasha: Fresh coconuts every day!
U Paasha: Fresh coconuts every day!

Massage/Beauty

I get a massage every day when I’m in Bali. Seriously! Plus a facial or two, and my nails done. In the tourist areas, you’ll find spas right outisde offering full body massages from AU$7 for an hour, while a manicure and pedicure will set you back about AU$8 -$15 for both. The surroundings aren’t flash, service can vary from highly professional to giggling teenagers, but the establishments are hygienic enough and treatments are reasonable quality too. 

Want to splurge (by Bali standards)? Check out BodyWorks in Seminyak, where an excellent 60 minute facial cost me AU$20. A massage at Jari Menari, also in Seminyak, is out of this world with a rhythmic, artistic style that’s almost like art. I had a 90 minute, “Perfect Massage” which cost about AU$50. So did my boyfriend, but he actually preferred the one he got at BodyWorks (AU$27). 

Eat

 Ku De Ta, Seminyak: heavenly dumplings with black sauce!
Ku De Ta, Seminyak: heavenly dumplings with black sauce!

You WILL NOT starve in Bali! Food is everywhere, ranging from cheap bars/cafes serving $2 Bintangs alongside pizza, burgers and some Indonesian dishes right up to world-class dining. There are so many options I’ll do a separate blog post on Bali Eats in coming weeks, but until then, here are a few tips:

  • Seminyak’s informally named ‘Eat Street’ is a foodie heaven. Whether you want Italian, Indian, Thai or Moroccan, it’s all here. I’ve never had a bad meal! Walk along at night and browse the menus, stepping in where ever takes your fancy. My latest favourite is Batik, where I had a perfect tofu red curry (AU$4) and wine ($8) with a view! 
  • Mozaic in Ubud: is one of the best dining experiences I’ve ever had in my life. Six, glorious courses where every mouthful made my jaw drop because there was so much flavour. It was exceptional. 

There are plenty of convenience stores too where I stock up on Indonesian snacks specialties like chilli nuts, seaweed potato chips, cassava chips and BEER. If you’re lactose-intolerant or vegan, there’s plenty of soy milk in Bali too!

Drink

Chances are your hotel will have a mini-bar, a bar by the pool and a downstairs bar too. Bintang is everywhere and really cheap (think AU$4-6 for 700ml at mid-range places). On my trip to Bali last month, my boyfriend and I drank beers with another couple by the beach for about four hours. The bill? AU$100 and that included a pina colada and some fries too! I go crazy for cocktails when I’m in Bali, not just because they’re cheap but because they’re packed full of fresh fruit. Wine drinkers be warned: your options are limited and it’s expensive. Bring a bottle with you, if you must. 

 Bean bags on the beach: one of the cheapest, most comfortable nights you can have in Bali
Bean bags on the beach: one of the cheapest, most comfortable nights you can have in Bali

Day Trips

If you need a break from the massages, mojitos and noodles, there’s plenty of places to check out around the island. Consider the Monkey Forest in Ubud (AU$4 entry) and exploring the local area, or hiring a driver to take you to Jimbaran Bay and watch the sunset at Ayana Resort’s Rock Bar before a romantic dinner. My boyfriend went on a dive trip to U.S.S. Liberty Shipwreck and recommended it. I’ve never made it to the Gili Islands, but several friends have raved about them too! 

 Jimbaran Bay: Ayana Resort has sensational venues, including the famous Rock Bar
Jimbaran Bay: Ayana Resort has sensational venues, including the famous Rock Bar

4. Transport

Taxis are cheap and plentiful. Some will happily use the meter, others will want to negotiate a price before you ride. My preference is metered taxis but for those who prefer haggling, go for it! Tip: ask your hotel for approximate fares beforehand, so you have a rough idea.

It’s easy to walk around Bali too, although footpaths are uneven and not always wide enough for two people. Streets aren’t well marked either, so download or screenshot Google maps before heading out or note the name and address to ask for help along the way. If you want to hire a private driver for the day (such as a trip to Ubud), your hotel can help out. Rates are reasonable.

As for the airport, it’s about 20-30 minutes from Kuta/Legian/Seminyak and costs around AU$10.

5. Currency

Indonesia’s currency is the rupiah (“IDR”). AU$1 = 10,000 IDR and US$1 = 13,300 IDR. 

Prices are commonly abbreviated to 10K, 130K and so on. A trick that helps me convert to Australian dollars is to just mentally put a decimal point before the last number. For example 10K = $1.0, and 130K = $13.0. Other times, prices are written in full. Just ignore the last three digits then put a decimal before the last number. Or just download XE Currency

Taxes usually aren’t included in prices, indicated by “++” after the price. Be warned: they can range from 12.5% up to 21%! Credit cards are widely accepted but if you need cash, ATMs are common too. I’ve never used a money changer but I do keep some Australian dollars in case of an emergency.

 Seminyak Beach: working up a sweat with an 8am walk
Seminyak Beach: working up a sweat with an 8am walk

6. Language

I learnt Indonesian at primary school, meaning I’m actually qualified to write the following paragraph. Indonesian is pronounced exactly as you read it, except the letter “c” is pronounced “ch”. Here are some basics: 

  • Selamat pagi – Good morning
  • Terimah kasih – Thank you
  • Bagus – good
  • Ayam – chicken
  • Ikan – fish
  • Daging sapi – beef
  • Daging babi – pork
  • Nasi goreng/ mee goreng – fried rice / fried noodles
  • Tempe – Tempeh (fermented soy bean cake)
  • Warung – local café

Other stuff

Dress codes are really relaxed. I bring swimwear, shorts, a few t-shirts and a couple of dresses for five days, along with one pair of flip flops and a nice pair sandals for dining out. A maxi dress with flat shoes is perfectly acceptable attire, even for more expensive restaurants. As mentioned, Balinese footpaths are uneven so wedges and heels aren’t advised! For men, boardshorts and singlets are fine during the day and at plenty of bars at night too. Think ‘resort casual’ if dining at fancier places. My boyfriend’s never had a problem in a short sleeve, collared shirt and shorts. 

No visa is required for Australians visiting for up to 30 days, but check the latest government advice just to be sure. 

And that, in about 1000 words, is my best advice to first-time visitors. As mentioned, I’ll do a separate post on Bali Eats sometime because the food scene is huge, ever-changing and delicious! 

QUESTION: What’s your advice to first-time Bali visitors?