Travel

Tour du Mont Blanc - Day Ten (Tré-la-Champ to Les Houches)

If the guide books are anything to go by then most hikers who are intending to walk the full route often do so in 11 days. Due to the availability of our schedule, we only had 10 days. Therefore we decided to combine the last two days together to make it a rather difficult ending to an already challenging walk.

Tré-la-Champ - Refuge La Flégère

 Day 10! 

Day 10! 

To begin our mammoth day we left Tré-la-Champ at the crack of dawn before anybody in the refuge had woken up. This is a great time for walking. The early morning mist whispers through the trees, everything is dewy and the forest is silent. As we made our first ascent climbing over huge boulders we realized that this section's terrain was unlike any other section of the walk so far. Half way through the forest we startled an ibex which jumped out in front of us, breaking the silence. The route is varied but generally fairly steep and as you emerge from the tree line you see the gigantic rock climbing wall of Aiguillette d'Argentière with it's sheer monolithic walls.

 Cloudy pinnacle.  

Cloudy pinnacle.  

This final day is also unique in the fact that it involved climbing up and over metal ladders that have been bolted into the rock face. As you near the top of the ascent to Tête aux Vents a series of ladders emerge which for the unsteady walker may seem a terrifying obstacle. Despite the engulfing drop into the abyss on your immediate left, the ladders are secure and not particularly tough unless you have vertigo!

Reaching the top you are faced with a variety of paths to take with a signpost that clearly states the way to take (and also which some numpty has decided to write his name on with a marker pen). Why is it that people feel the need to write their names with marker pens on signs and toilet doors etc? I can almost understand it in the city but what sort of hiker gets up in the morning and thinks 'waterproofs, check, lunch, check, mountain safety kit, check...marker pen, check?' It seems even the mountains are not free of brainless gits!

A diversion at Tête aux Vents to Lac Blanc on a sunny day is a great wander off of the main route. Lac Blanc is a high elevation lake that is crystal clear and surrounded by snowy peaks. Some friends of ours from Alaska showed us a picture they had taken a few days previously and it looked incredible. However, cloud surrounded us and we continued on to Refuge La Flégère and ski country.

 The wife storming up the ladders! 

The wife storming up the ladders! 

Refuge La Flégère - Les Houches

We had every intention of completing the full route to Les Houches on our final day but then we didn't intend on getting lost half way along the route. On approaching the general area of the refuge the landscape changes dramatically. This is ski country. Bulldozers were digging up land, trucks were transporting materials and to make matters more confusing it was very cloudy. With the ski lifts closed and the punters gone it can only be described as a work zone and trucks are constantly changing the landscape (and knocking down signs).

 The beer that never tasted so good

The beer that never tasted so good

After a few fruitless attempts to find the right route we descended on a path down to Chamonix before heading to Les Houches feeling only marginally defeated at not being able to complete the last few miles on the right track. Down in Les Houches, we met other hikers from the walk (who comfortingly for us) told us they had also gotten lost at the top so we didn't feel so bad.

Setting our tent up in the same field we began in Les Houches you get the 'full circle' feeling and lots of nostalgia for the endurance of the past ten days. Sitting at a table of a local bar with a pint of beautiful bubbling beer, my wife and I talked about the trail with other hikers who had been with us at various points during the trek. The trail changes you although I'm not entirely sure how.

Perhaps it's just the feeling of completing a 170km journey that has over 29.000ft of ascent but you get a huge sense of accomplishment and beer has never tasted so good.

 The final campground! 

The final campground! 

Tour du Mont Blanc - Day Seven (La Fouly to Champex Lac)

If there is a day that people choose to skip on the tour then it is this one. The route from La Fouly to Champex is said to be the most unentertaining/easy section of the hike that can quite simply be bypassed by taking a bus from one town to the other. For us, skipping a section wasn't an option, we wanted to walk the whole way.

La Fouly - Issert

Heading out from La Fouly after a poor night's sleep in the pouring rain we were definitely tempted to pursue a bus but after warming our rain jackets in the dryer on site we felt ready to start another day. The route continues through the campsite onto a wooded, downhill track that gradually winds down to the valley floor. Good views are to be had here but continuing poor weather conditions meant that all we could see was cloud. Continuing along a well trodden path which eventually leads to a road is one of the more exciting sections of the walk. As you head towards the town of Issert, it's fun to stroll amongst the quiet houses admiring the piles of logs everybody has accumulated to heat their homes in the winter months.

 Issert

Issert

Issert - Champex-Lac

 Reach the rabbit and you're there. 

Reach the rabbit and you're there. 

Walking through Issert is one of the only sections of the trail then can be slightly misleading. Signs disappear momentarily and you are left second guessing whether to continue through the town or take one of a series of left tracks uphill as described in the guide books. Ensuring you stay on flat land through the town will lead you to a path on the left just beyond the last buildings of the town. After a long walk from La Fouly this is not an easy climb to Champex. It can only be described as a steep forest path that seems to be endless when you are carrying a large backpack. Notes of interest include wooden sculptures to keep the mind occupied that are situated every few hundred feet up the path (when you reach the large carved rabbit, you have made it to the top!) We met 6 elderly gentleman half way up the track who had a combined age of well over 550. Despite the fact that they were seasoned hikers, I was determined that there was no way that they were going to overtake us on this steep climb.

Champex-Lac

Champex is a popular ski resort with as the name suggests; a large lake. Entering the town you can tell it's Swiss, mainly because the menus on the street inviting you into the restaurants offer hamburgers for the meager price of 28CHF! If you are looking for camping then continue to walk along the edge of the clear, blue lake and on to the other side of the town. The campsite is the last of a group of buildings on the right hand side of the road and it cost a gigantic 30CHF a night for two people with one tent. The campsite itself is a three tiered, lush grass lawn and it is comfortable to sleep on. The amenities are ok and there is a drying room which is a savior in wet weather. Camping in Champex can save you a few pennies, especially if you are planning on eating in a restaurant where you will spend no less than CHF20 for a main course.

 Champex-Lac

Champex-Lac

Tour du Mont Blanc - Day Four (Refugio Elisabetta to Courmayeur)

Note that for this day we did not take the traditional route due to inclement weather. The official TMB route is said to be a glorious journey with incredible views. However, when we undertook this section the rain was pouring and the visibility low. Therefore we took the variant route through Val Veny.

 Refugio Elisabetta - Refugio Monte Bianco

 Wait, is that blue sky!? 

Wait, is that blue sky!? 

Descending down from Elizabetta in the early morning mist makes you realize how close you are to nature. The rain was pouring, our packs were heavy and our boots were soggy but the river ran wild and the air was fresh. The path (which can be observed from the Refugio) runs straight down the middle of the valley and at the end of a very straight track there is a split. The right path leads uphill and is signposted Courmayeur, the left path leads straight on across the bridge and is labeled Monte Bianco. The latter is the one to take in bad weather. Although it's not an incredibly exciting journey, the views are still spectacular with huge cliff faces to look at the whole way down.

 Cloud shrouded mountains on the way to Courmayeur

Cloud shrouded mountains on the way to Courmayeur

 Refugio Monte Bianco - Courmayeur

 Day four in the rain! 

Day four in the rain! 

Again, this route should not be taken in preference to the standard route except in bad weather. There are no real notable viewpoints, it involves quite a lot of road walking and you have to be on the lookout for cars going way too fast. On reaching Courmayeur, it is more pleasurable. Whilst having the alpine feel of towns we had already passed, Courmayeur also feels very Italian. Narrow winding streets, cobbled stones, miniature balconies, pizzerias, coffee shops and wine bars all contribute to this feeling. With no campsites near Courmayeur and the possibility for wild camping off the cards we decided to book into 'the cheapest hotel in the town.' The place whose name escapes me now cost €57 per room, per night. Despite the fact that it was a shared bathroom and the decor hadn't been changed since the Romans were around, the balcony was cracking! Hungry for food, we strolled the streets in the hope of a cheap and cheerful meal. We were surprised to find plenty of options for main courses under €15. Courmayeur caters for a high society, especially during ski season and yet there are many hotels that are very reasonably priced. You can tell that the town is used to a rich crowd as intermingled with all the cute Italian stuff is Prada, Gucci and Fashion for Dogs. And real estate, lots and lots of real estate.

9 miles.

 Winding streets of Courmayeur

Winding streets of Courmayeur

Tour Du Mont Blanc - Day Three (Les Chapieux to Refugio Elisabetta)

Les Chapieux - Refuge des Mottets

 FREE campsite at Les Chapieux! 

FREE campsite at Les Chapieux! 

There is a shop in Les Chapieux that sells local cheese and fresh bread and it is open from 7:30am. I would highly suggest stocking up there. We bought a fresh crottin of goat cheese, a sizable baguette, two croissants and two apples in readiness for the day for only €8. The route to Refuge des Mottets used to meander along the road but it now cuts along the hillside on the other side of the river, past plenty of cows all donning bells around their necks and hence making the whole experience feel very alpine. The cows were in the process of being moved from one side of the bridge to another and gruff farmers in wooly jumpers were to be seen shouting angrily at some of the more uncooperative bovine beasts in the bunch.

 Cows on the move in the sun! 

Cows on the move in the sun! 

Refuge des Mottets - Col de la Seigne

Refuge des Mottets is great. It comes into view at the end of the long valley from Les Chapieux. It's a perfect spot for a brew before making the ascent up to the Col. Although a cup of England's finest is rather on the expensive side at €2.50 a pop, the refuge is well worth seeing due to its museum like display of old cheesemaking equipment decorating the walls. As you sip on your caffeine and look up you can see a Swiss flag flying in the wind and beyond it the vast hill that awaits you.

 Looking back down the valley from Les Chapieux

Looking back down the valley from Les Chapieux

The Cicerone guidebook describes this section of the hike up to the Col as 'not arduous' but I highly doubt Mr. Cicerone was carrying camping gear up the hairpin paths. I also doubt that he had a near gale force wind blowing in his direction as he made his ascent. Signs advise the hiker that it takes two hours to get to the Col, which isn't far off depending on the size of your bag (and your calves). Helpfully for the hiker, the path does get less steep the further you ascend but to counteract this the wind gets stronger. Or it did when we went up. Reaching the top you'll find a stone edifice showing distances to far off cities and a small, crumbling wall to shelter behind whilst you eat fresh goat cheese and bread. Standing on the top, the view is incredible. On the edge of two countries, you can look ahead towards the wild Alps of Italy whilst looking over your shoulder at the French valley you have just climbed. That's providing you're not shielding your face from the wind and murmuring expletives.

 Goat cheese and bread on the top. €3! 

Goat cheese and bread on the top. €3! 

Col de la Seigne - Refugio Elisabetta

After the 'not arduous' climb up to the Col, there is relief in the form of an abundance of downward paths into the valley beyond. If Refugio Elisabetta is your destination, ensure that you take the paths leading downhill and not the one to the right that continues uphill, even though it may look the more obvious route. The web of paths eventually mold into one and it descends all the way to the Refugio, which can't be visibly seen until it's right under your nose. It's a pretty impressive sight, the only building in view it commands your attention. Whilst wild camping is not permitted in Italy below 2500ft (and the whole area is), you can pitch a tent as long as you are not in view of the Refugio. I know you can because I asked. Eating in the Refugio costs €25 for what is a really good three course meal. Alternatively you can stay half-board for €45 per night. Under normal circumstances we would have camped but the weather was terrible and Refugio looked excellent! This seems to be one of the more popular Refugio's and it's not hard to see why. The Italians are good hosts!

9.7 miles

 The route onwards to Italy from Col de Seigne

The route onwards to Italy from Col de Seigne

Tour du Mont Blanc - Day Two (Les Contamines to Les Chapieux)

Les Contamines - Col du Bonhomme

The Cicerone guide book I have suggests that the gradient to begin this day is more difficult than Les Houches to Col de Voza but I am inclined to disagree. The route to Col du Bonhomme is long and fairly challenging (especially with a 15kg bag on your back) but the way is varied and feels more like a mountain path. Whilst still steep, there are steps up's, protruding rocks and Roman slabs to maneuver your feet around thus making the walk interesting and less demanding. The route from Les Houches on day one is simply a road on an incline. Not good for the feet.

 The route to La Balme

The route to La Balme

 La Balme

La Balme

As you rise up through the valley the eyes set view upon two refuges, the second of which is called Chalet la Balme which serves a nice cup of tea with a great view down from where you just walked. This is well worth a stop considering the next leg of the journey is considerably more challenging. Leaving Chalet la Balme behind and feeling refreshed from the tea, the track continues to rise more steeply to the top of Col du Bonhomme. The view from here is arguably the best of the day and a great stop for a picture. Our picture was taken by a lad we met at the top named Dustin who turned out to be just one of the friends we made during the ten day hike.

Col du Bonhomme - Col de la Croix

 The route up Col du Bonhomme

The route up Col du Bonhomme

Admiring the view from every angle there are two paths to take from Col du Bonhomme, one to the right and one to the left. The left path is the one to take and it continues immediately uphill to the next Col - Col de la Croix. By the time the second Col is reached, you've gained 2500m of elevation and conquered the highest point in this section. The refuge just past the Col appears all of a sudden almost out of thin air, perched on the hillside of the valley you are about to descend providing you are taking the standard TMB route and not the variant route. We didn't make a stop but refreshments are available should you need them and apparently they are pretty good!

 Col du Bonhomme! 

Col du Bonhomme! 

Col de la Croix - Les Chapieux

 Col du la Croix

Col du la Croix

It's all downhill from here. Literally. Taking the path left of the refuge begins the long winding route to Les Chapieux. Les Chapieux cannot be seen from the top (and can only just about be seen from the bottom!) and there are no signs until you get much further down the mountain. Just as you think there can't be any civilization in the valley, the small hamlet can be seen from the stone bridge that crosses the river. The best thing about Les Chapieux is that the camping is FREE and it is situated in a large field behind the tourist information office, you literally can't miss it. If you do miss it you must be a halfwit. The Auberge de la Nova is large and many people stay and eat there. We met up with our Italian friend from the previous night's camping and made a new friend from Chicago. The best thing about hiking is that you meet so many different people.

 Les Chapieux just peeping out! 

Les Chapieux just peeping out! 

Even though we were taking the opportunity to camp for free we still needed to eat. We had the set menu of a three course meal involving soup, beef cheeks, cheese and pannacotta all for €22 per person. We went to bed with full bellies. Can't say fairer than that.

11 miles.

Tour Du Mont Blanc - Day One (Les Houches to Les Contamines)

 Les Houches - Col de Voza

Setting off early is the key to any successful hike so we packed up the tent, threw on our packs and gallantly walked to the start of the trail. With only a small divergence into the bakery to buy €1 croissants and a tuna sandwich we set of for Col de Voza, our first milestone for the day and the highest point at 1653m. I consider myself to be a relatively fit thirty year old hiking enthusiast, a middle of the road kind of guy. With that in mind, the first section of the walk is not easy. It is an uphill climb, on a road, for two hours. It's pretty steep at the start, it's pretty steep in the middle and then steep at the end. Nevertheless, it certainly elevates quickly and there are grand views down to the valley where Les Houches is situated. A wonderfully positioned picnic table near the top of the Col is a perfect spot from where you can ravage a recently acquired tuna sandwich.

 Tuna sandwich eating spot

Tuna sandwich eating spot

Col de Voza - Bionassay

As an Englishman with a terrible hold on any other language except my own I have no idea how to say Bionassay, so I either plump for Beyoncé or Beyond the Sea. However it is pronounced, one can't deny that it is a huge glacier that fills the view for most of this section, slowly luring you in with it's icy, glistening majesty.

As well as being a hiking route, the TMB interlinks frequently with a bike trail therefore you can expect to be dodging cyclists at various points along the route. We stopped to talk to a traveling band of of bike enthusiasts who were attempting to ride up a hill far too steep for comfort. I exchanged stories about our routes so far with a German man who had leg muscles the size of Munich. I described how our bags felt like they were filled with rocks and he laughed. With him stretching in his Lycra and I averting my attention from a potential view of a budgie smuggling, he boasted that he was cycling about three million miles a day. After a few minutes of comparisons regarding effort, I had been reduced from feeling like I was conquering Everest to acting like I was complaining about taking a short stroll from the kitchen to the lounge! Not to mention that this guy was in his late fifties and physically fitter than me, our interaction came to an end with his sarcastic comment of 'perhaps one day you'll be a man and get a bike!' I bid the leg-flexing German goodbye and only fleetingly hoped he fell off his bike into a pile of cow dung.

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Bionassay - Gruvaz (via Le Champel)

This section evens out under foot and passes through two tiny hamlets of Le Champel and La Villette of which the former has a Gîte that is open all year round if you so desire to retire for the night. Passing uniquely built houses with flowers on every corner you would have to do really well not to enjoy this stage of the walk. Nearly all villages along the TMB route and especially the ones in France are accompanied by a spring that continually splashes out fresh, cold water that can be taken advantage of by the thirsty hiker. We stopped here to replenish our bottles.

Gruvaz - Les Contamines

 Home of the man who found Neptune! 

Home of the man who found Neptune! 

The last slog of day one is generally flat and pleasant with only the occasional hill to keep you in check. After passing through a dense wooded area with copious amount of red ants, the trail brings you to the small hamlet of Tresse which is where Alexis Bouvard was from. If you hadn't heard of him then don't worry neither had I but it turns out he was pretty famous around these parts from 1767-1843. He was the man who discovered Neptune which I found quite entertaining considering by this point the huge bag on my back was telling me that I'd in fact walked to the outer echelons of the solar system myself. Hauling our feet the last mile to Les Contamines which involves a mean uphill struggle right at the end, we were greeted by an aesthetically pleasing, quintessentially French, alpine town. Diving into the local supermarket for much needed sustenance we noticed yet again that this town has lots of amenities for the traveling walker. Whilst we munched on our food we looked up at some of the perfect, wooden hotels and contemplated our next move to find the campsite. The campsite (Camping Le Pontet) turned out to be a 40 minute walk from Les Contamines therefore taking our total to 12.5 miles for the day. At €14 for the night plus the option of a three course meal at the campsite for €15 each we decided that this was the place for us. Having dinner at this campsite I would highly recommend. You are sat round a table with people you don't know and eating enough to keep you full for a week. We sat with an American couple, 3 French blokes and a guy from Italy. Despite the language barrier from our side of the talking block we met some great people who all enjoyed walking, traveling and laughing at my terrible attempt at speaking French.

 

12.5 miles.

 Les Contamines

Les Contamines

Tour Du Mont Blanc - Day Zero (Geneva - Les Houches)

Intro

To explain very briefly (and it doesn't take a genius to work it out) the Tour of Mont Blanc is a winding, circular hike around the 15,771ft massif that is the mountain of Mont Blanc. The snow covered, glacier-ridden peak is the highlight of a range that includes some of the most impressive mountains not only in the Alps, but in the world. Much in line with many other long distance hikes, the tour attracts huge numbers of people who aim to traipse the 110 mile (approximately) journey every year. Most walkers who attempt this feat generally stick to the summer months of July and August when the trail can be unbearably overpopulated. Also, the majority of people choose to stay in hotels or refuges for the entirety of their stay. Whilst a comfy bed can ease aching body parts at the end of long walking days it can also hike the price of the trip (no pun intended) to astronomical proportions - a great luxury if you have the funds but not really feasible if you don't. Based on the above, we decided that if we were going to actually enjoy the trail we would have to go in September and if we were going to afford the trip we would have to spend a considerable amount of nights in a tent. The official guide books for the trail are great but they don't go into great detail about camping options, so here is our experience.

 The view from the Ouibus! 

The view from the Ouibus! 

Les Houches

 The excited wife

The excited wife

Taking a 'Ouibus' from Geneva airport in Switzerland to Les Houches (very reasonably priced at €19 per person) was our choice of transport to the trail. The journey takes about an hour. Les Houches is a sensible starting point situated close to Mont Blanc, five miles south of Chamonix. Along with Chamonix it is probably the most popular spot to begin the anti-clockwise route. We camped for the night in Bellevue campsite on the south entrance to the village from the highway near the TMB trailhead. At €13.50 for two of us we snapped up a spot on the green grass, pitched our tent and went to explore Les Houches. More importantly we went to have our last beer for 11 days; a crazy, addled last minute decision of mine to build some will power! The main street is wonderfully neat and orderly, dotted with a mixture of bakeries, hotels, clothing stores, restaurants and the occasional cheese shop! If a good, cloudy beer and some cracking food is what you are looking for you should go to 'La Delice' where a very smiley English girl will make you feel welcomed. The town has everything you might require before starting a bloody long hike but beware, if you arrive on a Sunday as we did, nearly everything will be shut until late in the day.

 Preparing for the Off

Having slept in Athens airport in Greece the night before our flight to Geneva (different story) we were in need of some serious shut-eye and so made our way back to the campsite to prepare our bags ready for the start of the big walk that lay ahead of us. Guide books can tell you endless amounts of stuff but the best advice you can gain is from somebody who has just finished the trail as you are about to start. This opportunity arrived for us in the form of three guys from three different countries who meandered into the campsite and slumped down next to our tent having taken their last few steps of the hike. They told us in glorious detail about the conditions of the trails, the highlights, the details of refuges and campsites along the way, and how they felt at various points during the tour. Therefore, one conversation later we had gained a ski pole (they really do help going downhill) and found out that we could leave anything we don't require at the refuge in Les Houches for only €1 per day! I watched the three friends crack open a Heineken to celebrate their achievement and got into the tent with a mixture of excitement and nervousness. Laying down on my makeshift pillow (which was in fact a crumpled shirt from my backpack) I thought to myself 'tomorrow I'm walking 12 miles with a bag the size of Jupiter and I'm not even having a beer again until I've done that very thing 11 more times.' And so the journey began...

Fix - Back from the brink!

38 Gold Medals and Prizes' I read to myself, tilting the can to see the rim. Fix - the premium lager of Greece, back from the brink of obscurity just in time for the current beer revolution. Being familiar with Greece, my dad used to tell me of a time when Mythos, Heineken and Amstel were not the only beers to be found in certain Greek Islands. There was a time when there was a beer named Fix that disappeared some time during the eighties. Never having been old enough to drink at the time, Fix was just a story to me: a beer with a long history and a sad ending. So in 2016, on returning after multiple years away it is a highlight to see Fix available alongside the other major brands in Greece.

Fix returned back on the scene sometime during 2009 with the help of three Greek businessmen who could be described as jumping on an opportunity when they saw one. Previous attempts in the nineties to resurrect the historic beer proved fruitless but that was in the age of primitive Internet when it was much more difficult to get word around. Therefore, an investment into an already cherished and well-known beverage was always going to be a winner under the right leadership.

 Windsurf for €50? Nah, grab a Fix for €1

Windsurf for €50? Nah, grab a Fix for €1

To give a brief history of Fix, it is named after Ioannis Fix who is said to have moved to Greece for personal reasons from Germany. Depending on the sources you read he either decided to start making beer to please the German influence in Greece at the time or he simply found himself working in a brewery by chance, only to have the foresight to think 'with a plan and some intelligence, I can compete here.' Whatever the correct story is, one thing is for sure - Ioannis Fix was a man ahead of his time. After a modest start he took off in the 1850's beer scene (whatever that looked like!) By the 1860's, he had moved to new premises to deal with the demand. By the 1890's he had moved again. The beverage named after the man who started it continued to win awards and be a celebrated lager across Greece until well into the 1970's. Unfortunately, a mixture of poor management and the introduction of new beers on the market ended the production of a Greek classic during the 1980's. Just when the lager looked destined for the great beer cemetery in the sky, along came three men with a plan.

Since the Fix revival in 2009, this malty beverage, under the guidance of Olympic Brewery has been exported nationally on a huge scale and in some cases internationally as it had before it's sudden demise. On the islands, away from the craft brewers of the mainland, at least there is an option available to rival Mythos and Alfa (made by Heineken!). At least now it is possible to get a lager that doesn't totally fizz your face off at the first sip. Specifications say that it should taste of apples and bananas, I definitely get fruitiness from the bevvy although there is a definite taste of cloves in there. Whatever, I hope Fix continues to be productive, long live Fix, Yamas!

Kefalonia, Kefallonia, Cephalonia, Kefallinia

Kefalonia is a Greek island in the Ionian Sea which is part of the Mediterranean. There are about a gazillion ways to spell Kefalonia (Kefallonia, Cephalonia, Cephallonia, Kefallinia just to mention a few) and depending on the sources you read, all of them are right/wrong. With that in mind, Kefalonia is a wonderfully aesthetic island that towers from the water with a certain dominance that immediately commands your attention. Approaching from the east it's huge, wild, undeveloped cliffs plunge into the sea like a scene from Jurassic Park. From the air the vast, vibrant greenery hardly seems to reflect the island's intense dry season due to a dense canopy of trees layering the ground as far as the eye can see. To say that it is pretty would be a huge understatement. Being the largest island in the vicinity, Kefalonia holds prime position in an Ionian chain straddled by Lefkas to the north, Zakynthos to the south and tiny Ithaka alongside it, which from above looks like a baby whale swimming alongside it's mother.

  • On approaching
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Landing at any airport is always a bit scary. Even with clear skies and no turbulence I'm always left wagering with the forces that be and saying to them 'if you get this plane down safely I'll be a good boy forever and ever' whilst gripping onto the arm rest so tightly that I'm in danger of cutting off my circulation. Suffice to say, I'm not keen on flying. However, this flight was different. Not only was the weather perfect for flying but the view of Kefalonia appearing out of the haze surrounded by the reflective, bright blue color of the Mediterranean Sea was enough to distract even the most nervous of flyers from hoping the pilot knows where the runway is.

  • On airports

Despite the size and ever increasing popularity of the island, Kefalonia's airport is the size of a small box with 'airport' written on it. If you have ever seen the Guinness world record of 'most people in a Mini Cooper' attempt then you can easily conjure up an image of the baggage return room at Kefalonia airport. Being English in a room full of English people only makes matters worse. Normal, well rounded people turn into luggage monsters desperately close to seeking the sun yet held at the final hurdle by a hot, crowded room whose staff work on Greek time (which is approximately 15 times slower than British time). If nothing else, it's entertaining to watch.

  • On driving

Hiring a car is easy on Kefalonia and you can expect to pay around €50 a day for a car that is just about big enough to swing around a cat. Deals are offered if you require one for multiple days. As opposed to England but much in line with the rest of the world, Greeks drive on the right, although based on experience you could say they drive in the middle. Taxis overtake on blind corners and scooters carrying anywhere between 1-4 people pretty much just have their own set of rules! Hairpin bends (usually on the side of mountain cliffs with sheer drops) are commonplace and you can guarantee you'll meet a large bus in the most awkward of spots whose driver doesn't slow down but simply speeds up, forcing you to squeeze as close as you can to the edge in the hope of staying alive. As with most of the islands, don't expect clear signage and be prepared to get lost in the backstreets of small towns. With all that in mind it's well worth hiring a car! The views are incredible.

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  • On food and drink

Authentic cuisine, home cooking and family run restaurants are standard in lots of Mediterranean countries and it's no different on Kefalonia. You'll find no McDonald's here. No Burger King, no Subway, no KFC, no other huge chain that has managed to take over most of the world. Here you can sit at a modest restaurant by the water, order a full meal and still pay less than the average visit to a greasy counter. As a rule of thumb, main courses cost around €8, starters around €4, beer around €3 and a glass of wine for €1! All in all, you can get a comfortably fat belly for no more than €25. Should you go to the supermarket to buy food, it's even cheaper.

  • On history

Kefalonia has a rich and tumultuous history of being invaded and ruled by different countries over the last 2000 years and it only became part of Greece in 1864. Locals argue that the island was the home of Odysseus which makes it famous for anyone who is a fan of Homer (although not Homer Simpson) and it was the setting for the book/film named Captain Corelli's Mandolin which is based on the Italian/German rule during the Second World War.

  • On everything else

Whether you want to lie on the beach all day, visit a coastal fishing village or take a hike to an ancient Acropolis, Kefalonia has a lot to offer. The island has an array of beaches with Myrtos beach being one of the most stunning. Aqua blue water that rushes waves onto bright, white pebbles backed by huge cliffs is the stuff of film sets. Lots of the island's building were destroyed in a severe 1953 earthquake with only the most northern town of Fiskado surviving. Today it is one of the most traditional, natural harbors on Kefalonia and a great place to visit for a bit of food next to the sea. Unlike so many of the other larger Greek islands, Kefalonia caters for tourists and yet doesn't lose it's character which is one reason why people keep going back again and again.

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Chizu - Cheese in Japanese

Chizu is a pocket sized establishment in central Portland, OR. We had read about it before arriving in the city and we were eager to visit. Essentially it is a bar/eatery that serves cheese, wine and beer all encompassed by a Japanese theme. It's Japanese in the sense that everything in the place is minimalist and it is covered with miniature origami birds. Additionally, Portland receives a lot of visitors from Japan who often pick it as a second city to visit after checking out San Fransisco. The brainchild behind Chizu is the man who also owns The Cheese Bar; a cheese shop in west Portland that has over 200 cheeses. I guess he saw a good business opportunity based on the clientele and therefore Chizu was born.

Having now been to Chizu I can confidently declare that it indeed is pretty fun. It's the sort of idea that would work in Portland because the city is so hip it hurts. Hipsters like ideas, specialty food, local product and beer and Chizu has the lot. If Chizu was opened in downbeat country town it would fail worse than a failure who has failed to notice that he had in fact failed. You take a seat at the tiny bar in front of a wide selection of cheeses behind a glass case and pick up a menu that lists all of them on it. It's not restaurant, it's not take out its simply gourmet with a casual feel. You can either choose your own cheese plate and accompanying beverage or you can ask one of the very friendly and knowledgable staff to assist you in making a taste sensation.

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Our cheesemonger (who turned out to be a relative of Benjamin Franklin!) was excellent. I picked the cheese and she provided the customer experience whilst preparing our cheese board with a selection of dried fruit, salted nuts and crostini. Attention to detail goes into the layout of the boards and just enough cheese is given so that you get a few good bites but not so much that it's overwhelming. Considering the potentially high brow connotations that one may have with the eatery the prices were very reasonable - we had four cheeses washed down with two ciders and we paid $25. The fruit and nuts were part of the deal. I think that's a steal.

If we ever go back to Portland, we'll definitely go back to Chizu.