Archive for Booting

05 Sep 2014

Out on the Edge

No Comments Booting, Tours
Rolling pastures framed by the deep blue sea in the background: Galloway in miniature

Rolling pastures framed by the deep blue sea in the background: Galloway in miniature

Having previously visited the most southerly and south westerly points of three of the four countries that make up the geographical feature that is the British Isles (better make sure I get this correct as there may well be some seismic changes to what is meant by Britain and the UK in constitutional terms over the next few weeks) it seemed sensible to exploit a promised window of fine weather before autumn encroached and venture to the furthest point of my one remaining unvisited peninsular; the Mull of Galloway.

Enticed back by the tranquility, contrasting landscapes and dark skies I discovered earlier in the summer and now bolstered by a bigger tent, more efficient cooking gear and a more ordered storage system, I left the heavy rain and leadens skies of a Midlands’ bank holiday morning to a-getting-better-the-further-north midday.

Portobello Beach, looking directly over to Ireland

Portobello Beach, looking directly over to Ireland

Usually a long, tedious, and sometimes dangerous journey from Dumfries west along the A75, the imminent end of the late summer bank holiday ensured the heavy traffic was in the opposite direction and Stranraer was reached in an unhurried and impressive two and a half hours.

80 miles from Dumfries and a similar distance from Glasgow, Stranraer can seem like a lonely last staging post on the edge of the choppy waters of the North Channel (even the local accents sound more Ulster than Scottish), but  closer study of the buildings back from the harbour and the names of the streets, evince something of how the town grew in importance as a seaport to Ireland from the early years of the 19th century, after the 1801 Act of Union. But, its location in a rich pastoral agricultural area has been equally important and the town’s connections both with the sea and the dairying industry are well illustrated in the interesting local museum: a useful and informative diversion, should the weather turn inclement.

North Rhinns Camping lies around five miles north, in the midst of its eponymous peninsular, surrounded by undulating pastureland and, essentially, it provides everything I look for when I camp. Pitches are secluded, well away from neighbours, contain a picnic bench and campfire standing and are located sensitively around a patch of lovely, native woodland that also acts as a natural windbreak during the frequent squalls that descend on this exposed piece of land. Crucially, facilities are scrupulously clean and very well equipped. The site welcomes tents, with room for a couple of small campervans – as a result, another bonus is that it tends to attract some original and effective conversions of standard small vans.

North Rhinns sunset

North Rhinns sunset

While, in theory,  the quiet local lanes should provide perfect cycling routes, few of the locals seem to cycle and neighbourhood drivers tend to hurl their trucks, tractors and 4x4s around with little thought for any other road users. Winds are often fierce and gradients will test the best maintained gears and brakes. That said, local businesses offer a warm welcome to cyclists, with plenty of helpful advice and tourist information offices are awash with leaflets and maps showing a selection of cycling routes.

Breezy, sunny days are, in any case, perfect for coastal walking and here the Rhinns of Galloway comes into its own. Portpatrick lies a few miles south of the campsite and its pretty harbour marks the western end of the Southern Upland Way (SUW). The 200 plus miles of this coast-to-coast trail take in dramatic coastlines, bleak moorland and challenging hills on the route across the southern Scotland and the first three miles or so, up to Portavaddie Lighthouse, is a great introduction, both to coastal walking, as well as the diversity of scenery on this toughest of long-distance walks.

Views take in the Antrim coast and further to the north, the jagged peaks of Arran, as well as the hump-like Ailsa Craig. However, after the SUW leaves the coast to head eastward, and although the route round the the west side of the coast is designated by the council as a core path, the going is often difficult over rocks and bracken, with no clearly defined trail.

Heading north on the first section of the SUW

Heading north on the first section of the SUW

Fortunately, the local rotary club has already taken matters into hand and, on the east side of the Rhinns, marked out a path along the side of Loch Ryan, linking Stranraer with the start of the Ayrshire Coastal Path at Glenapp. This, in turn, now joins up with another marked route, The Mull of Galloway Trail between Stranraer and the southerly tip of the Rhinns (and indeed of Scotland itself) at the Mull of Galloway.

The Mull, lonely and exposed, with its historic lighthouse and foghorn perched bravely above the treacherous rocks, is a fascinating place to take stock, look around and plot location – the outlines of the Isle of Man, Cumbrian and Ulster coasts are visible on clear days. But it is the sensation of being at the tip, surrounded by the dominant elements of sea and wind, that remains uppermost as you imagine the singular lifestyle of lighthouse staff as they performed their vital work before the days of high-tech communications.

Although not yet logged on OS maps, the route is clearly marked and, as it heads northwards, towards Drummore and Sandhead, passes along and above dramatic coves and inlets that are the equal of any found elsewhere along the western coasts of our isles. Along the way you are more likely to meet a few sheep or cattle than a fellow human: but remember, solitude does come with inherent dangers and this coastline can be bleak and exposed, with steep gradients and slippery rocks.

The foghorn at Carrickcarlin Point, Mull of Galloway

The foghorn at Carrickcarlin Point, Mull of Galloway

Inland, the shorn fields of pale yellow, with their stacks of harvested hay reflect the last days of August and the ripening hedgerows promise a bumper harvest of brambles and rosehips. Despite the bright sunny days and even at this far western outpost, evenings now darken and cool well before nine pm: another  accurate barometer of the dying embers of summer.

 

So, Galloway 2014, the verdict:

Still characterised by its 1950s-style roads and telegraph poles, luxuriant rhododendrons and unspoilt coves and inlets that could recreate the setting for a Famous Five adventure.
Yes, it is being discovered, but slowly and, so far, in a largely positive way: the lonely moors, expansive forests and often deserted coasts now sit alongside something for the foodies (Castle Douglas), an annual literary extravaganza (Wigtown), as well as the legendary artist communities of Kirkcudbright and surrounding harbour towns.
Galloway has always offered fresh air, breathtaking scenery and dark skies; keep away from the caravan parks of the Southerness tip and you will still scarcely see a crowd, but you can find a good coffee, gourmet food and challenging culture, without too much effort.

The lighthouse still keeps a look out on the Mull

The lighthouse still keeps a look out on the Mull

 

What if?

Call it misplaced nostalgia, or cheesy emotion, but just wish, for a moment, that Beeching hadn’t axed the Dumfries to Stranraer railway  line and the boat train (possibly with a steam special in the holidays) still wound its way westwards, along the coast, through the forests, over the Loch Ken and Stroan Viaducts……..   Just a thought, although a sad one, nevertheless.

 

Recommendations:

Campsites; Ken Bridge Hotel, nr New Galloway, North Rhinns, nr Stranraer
Cafe/Restaurant; the Schoolhouse, Ringland, nr Kirkcudbright ( and D’Nisi’s cafe in Stranraer does a decent flat white)
Interesting shops; Designs Gallery, King Street, Castle Douglas, In House Chocolates also in King Street, Castle Douglas
Museums/galleries; Stranraer Museum,  George Street, Stranraer, art galleries in and around Kirkcudbright 
Information point; Tourist Information, Harbour Street, Stranraer

St Medan's Cave

St Medan’s Cave

East Tarbet Bay

East Tarbet Bay

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31 Mar 2014

Snowshoe in Scotland

No Comments Booting, Tours

Record levels of snowfall in the highlands of Scotland over the last two winters – depths of over 250cm earlier in the season easily exceeded those at the recent Sochi Olympics – have boosted Scotland’s snow sports’ sector and led to unprecedented visitor numbers.

 

More snow than Sochi

More snow than Sochi

Along with the thousands and boarders and skiers hitting the slopes have been an increasing number of pioneer snowshoers, with the sport proving particularly attractive to those new to the thrill and excitement of snow sports.  According to Jeff Starkey, head of Ski Patrol at Nevis Range, near Fort William, in the West Highland region of Lochaber: “One of the real appeals of snowshoeing is that almost anyone pick it up easily.” And, with equipment and instruction on offer at the resort, the sport has attracted many new participants in the last couple of seasons.

Nevis Range, famous for its lift-serviced off piste area in the Back Corries, including Coire Dubh, Summit Corrie and Coire an Lochan. http://snowsports.nevisrange.co.uk/Back_Corries.] is not just a leading Scottish snowsport centre, but is one of the premier visitor attractions within the Highlands. Situated in the shadow of Britain’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis, the centre also encompasses two other mountains, Aonach Mor, the eighth highest in Britain, and Carn Mor Dearg. Constructed along the north face of Aonach Dor is the Nevis Range mountain gondola system, the only one of its kind in the UK

Sit back, as you are effortlessly transported form 300 to 2150 feet, and you can enjoy the breathtaking views of the Scottish Highlands, including the Great Glen, Ben Nevis, and surrounding areas. On a clear day the spectacular vistas extend as far as the Inner Hebrides. Indeed, the location is so special that each visit to Nevis Range, even if only a few weeks apart, can seem very different because of changing seasonal colours and weather conditions.

The Nevis Range at its most spectacular

The Nevis Range at its most spectacular

And once you arrive at the top, just to rub it it and make your friends really jealous,you can send  your post cards from the highest post box in Scotland; one that also boasts its own special stamp.

Jeff Starkey recommends first heading off underneath the Great Glen chair in the direction of Rob Roy.  “This will take about 20 minutes. Then traverse around into Coire Dubh to the Braveheart chair return, which will take around an hour. From Braveheart the return traverse on into Coire an Lochan will take about 30 minutes and you’ll be rewarded with impressive mountain scenery and some wild feeling terrain.”

Jeff advises snowshoers to have a chat to the friendly Ski Patrol team who are on hand to provide information on the conditions across the mountain, as well as well as any help needed with routes and locations.

However, although Jeff is keen to advocate snowshoeing as a sport for all, he is equally quick to remind everyone to make sure they are always properly equipped and stay within their physical and navigational capabilities.

“Scottish conditions can be challenging, weather conditions can change quickly and everyone needs to be aware of avalanche risk.”

Taking advantage of Nevis Range Equipment Hire, situated at at the gondola base station, I kitted myself out with shoes and poles and set out for the day.  It has five sets of adult sizes, which you can reserve in advance by calling Nevis Range, that cost £15.50 per day to hire.  (You’ll also need a gondola ticket, costing £11.50 for each adult.)

There are plans to increase the amount of snowshoeing equipment available for hire, if interest in the sport continues to grow. It is also now possible to buy  snowshoes in many of the major outdoor equipment stores throughout the north of Scotland.

Snoeshowing: the best way to enjoy the winter scenery

Snoeshowing: the best way to enjoy the winter scenery

Having some knowledge of the mountains around Nevis Range through summer hiking, I was immediately impressed with the territory I could access, simply because of my snowshoes. Although reduced from its record midwinter depths, there was still considerable snow coverage and, despite a fairly heavy mist, the visible scenery was still breathtaking.

Nevis Range certainly caters for its visitors, with a host of attractions and amenities, including the Pinemarten Cafe Bar and Snowgoose Restaurant. Both have amazing views, are perfect for coffee, lunch or afternoon tea and use local produce, particularly the superb meat and fish from the surrounding locality, wherever possible.

The Pinemarten also showcases Nevis Range’s concern for its surrounding environment. Built during the harsh winter of 2010/11, care was taken to utilise natural products where possible and the builders and contractors were mostly small local businesses. The timber facing is Lochaber larch from the sawmill seven miles away. At the same time, a woodchip boiler was installed to provide heat and hot water for the base station. Supplied by a local firm right next door on the access road, it is a state of the art system which is intended to lower the centre’s carbon footprint while being very efficient at keeping everyone warm.

Skiers, boarders and snowshoers will often find themselves sharing the gondola with experienced climbers on their way to the many challenging winter routes in the surrounding area, as well as handgliders and paragliders. Nevis Range is also a major mountain bike centre, home of the world-famous world cup down hill. http://bike.nevisrange.co.uk/index.asp

And just as you may be surprised by the snow cover enjoyed in the Scottish Highlands, predictably negative preconceptions about capricious Scottish weather are also not wholly accurate.

Alpine conditions in the Highlands

Alpine conditions in the Highlands

“We’ve had our fair share of calm, Alpine days here this winter,” says Heather Negus, head of marketing at Nevis Range, “while the south of the UK was being buffeted by high winds and floods. The weather can be volatile – what’s called ‘four seasons in a day’ around here – but as it changes very rapidly, it’s rarely totally bad for the whole day.”

The development of Lochaber as a major tourism centre, drawing visitors from across the world, throughout the year, is reflected in the growing choice of accommodation options now available in the area.

From luxurious hotels to small bed and breakfasts, modern hostels, comfortable guesthouses and traditional inns, all tastes and budgets are catered for. And for hardy types who think nothing of pitching their tent, whatever the weather, remember Scotland allows and encourages responsible wild camping – and the Fort William area also boasts several dedicated campsites that are open throughout the year.

With Lochaber extending from ‘Summit to Sea’, the region is home to some of the finest and freshest seafood and wild game available anywhere in the world. Smoked salmon, speciality cheeses and venison are among some of the perennial favourites and can be sampled in a number of award-winning restaurants in Fort William and surrounding villages. Alternatively, if you want to experience local traditions, including a range of live music with your food, try one of the many historic inns and pubs in the area, some of whom brew their own beer. Have a look at:

http://www.outdoorcapital.co.uk/food-and-drink to see what’s on offer.

A newcomer to the restaurant scene, rapidly gaining a reputation for good food in an interesting environment, is the Michelin-listed Lime Tree http://www.limetreefortwilliam.co.uk/relaxed-dining-at-this-fort-william-restaurant.htm which also contains a gallery showcasing local artistic talent, national touring collections and contemporary art exhibitions.

Fort William certainly earns its title of the ‘Outdoor Capital of the UK’ and you will be spoilt for choice for alternative activities.  As well as snowsports, winter climbing and mountain biking, Nevis Range also offers high wire adventures for adults and children, while along the nearby coasts you can try your hand at sea kayaking, white water rafting and canyoning.  Find out about more at:  http://www.outdoorcapital.co.uk

But the West Highlands is not just about adrenaline rushes. Lochaber was once the heartland of the clan system before the Highland Clearances forced much of the population to move south, or across the seas.  Glencoe, scene of the infamous massacre, is only a few miles away, and maps and books charting the history of family names and tartans are widely available. The West Highland Museum in the centre of Fort William http://www.westhighlandmuseum.org.uk showcases some interesting aspects of life in the West Highlands, including a section on the 17th century Jacobite Rebellions and a visual history of the Commando HQ in nearby Spean Bridge, which trained members of special forces from around the world during World War Two.

Head west from Fort William (best enjoyed from the train) along the Road to the Isles to Mallaig   http://www.road-to-the-isles.org.uk  and you will pass Britain’s highest mountain, deepest loch, shortest river and arrive at its most westerly station.  Look in whatever direction, the scenery is superb and, as befits one of Europe’s last wildernesses, the wildlife equally so.  From Mallaig a 30 minute ferry crossing will take you on to the romantic Isle of Skye.

The magnificent mountain hare

The magnificent mountain hare

Take a wildlife safari to spot some iconic wildlife, including pine martin, red deer and red squirrel, as well as the charismatic ‘Heilan’ Coo’; cruise along the Caledonian Canal, or further afield to the Inner Hebrides; travel to Ardamurchan, the most westerly point in mainland Britain, with its beautiful Egyptian-style lighthouse, along pristine beaches where you are more likely to be observed by a dolphin, eagle or otter, than another human being: you will be spoilt for choice. Again,

http://www.outdoorcapital.co.uk has full details.

And finally, you can’t come to Scotland without sampling its famous national drink: whisky –  just don’t spell it with an ‘e’! Not only does Nevis Range offer great snowshoeing, scenery and Scottish hospitality, one of Scotland’s oldest distilleries is right on the doorstep – in fact it’s right under the Ben itself and Britain’s highest mountain appropriately gives its name to the amber nectar it produces. Take a tour, see how whisky is distilled and taste a wee dram before you leave: http://www.bennevisdistillery.com

 

HOW TO GET HERE:

With international airports in Glasgow and Edinburgh and several airlines operating directly into Inverness, getting to Scotland is easy. It takes around 2-3 hours to drive from Glasgow and Edinburgh and about 90 minutes from Inverness. Regular bus services run to Fort William but, the most romantic way to reach the Highlands is by train.  An overnight sleeper runs 6 days a week from London to Fort William, so you can relax and fall asleep as you leave the capital, waking up in the Highlands next morning.  Alternatively, it’s easy to get to Glasgow from virtually anywhere in the UK and, from there, the  West Highland Line takes you along coasts, lochs, mountains and through the mystical Rannoch Moor on its way to Fort William and then on to Mallaig – no wonder it is regularly voted the best rail journey in the world.

Find out everything you need to know about travelling by train to Fort William at: http://www.seat61.com/WestHighlandLine.htm#.Ux4tVFw8PHg

 

USEFUL INFORMATION:

www.nevisrange.co.uk  has full information on all its facilities

www.outdoorcapital.co.uk contains an exhaustive list of information about Lochaber, including accommodation and food and drink

www.visitscotland.com tells you all you will ever need to know about how to get to Scotland, where to stay and what to do once you arrive

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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18 Feb 2014

Snowshoeing in Abruzzo

No Comments Booting, Tours

Not many people would expect to find an incredible winter wonderland on the same latitude as Rome but, there again, not many people know anything much about Abruzzo, a mountainous area of great beauty about 130 miles due east of the Italian capital.

From the slopes of the Apennines to the Adriatic coast

From the slopes of the Apennines to the Adriatic coast

Nestled along the Apennine spine, this is an area of proud traditions, historic hill villages and simple, delicious food.  It also boasts snowy peaks, pristine pistes, abundant sunshine and an impressive winter sports season between January and April.

And just as Abruzzo is not generally regarded as a winter sports destination then, equally, my recent holiday would not fit the prototype of the traditional winter sports holiday.  I spent a week in early February at Kokopelli, a traditionally restored farmhouse perched on a hill overlooking the quintessential Italian village of Serramonacesca. Come the spring its extensive olive orchard will be dotted with delightful canvas bell tents, as well as a retro VW campervan.

You’re more than welcome to pitch your own tent, whenever in the year, but if camping in the snow isn’t quite your thing, there’s a comfortable, private, en suite room in the farmhouse and I spent the week in the cosy converted barn, complete with private, heated shower/toilet and fully equipped kitchen, snug under a luxuriously warm duvet each night in the pretty bedroom. Have a look here.

The heated barn: perfect for a winter stay

The heated barn: perfect for a winter stay

Run by two ex-pat Brits, Jacqui Dixon and Kev Price, now gone native in Abruzzo, Kokopelli is a low-impact, eco-friendly site and offers something different to visitors, whatever the season. Both Jacqui and Kev are experienced outdoor enthusiasts and will tailor an individual package for you, based on your budget, experience and ability level. They’ll guide you along their favourite routes during the day and introduce you to some old and romantic, vaulted restaurants in the evening.

“We’ve become real snowshoeing disciples and want to spread the gospel to as many people as possible,” explains Jacqui. “Abruzzo is ideal territory for snowshoeing, with superb, unspoilt scenery, good snow cover and plenty of sunshine. We know the area, can show you the best tracks, provide equipment, lifts to the slopes, instruction and all kinds of local information.”

Passo Lanciano, around 20 minutes drive from Kokopelli, boasts spectacular vistas, with the Adriatic coast easily visible on clear days, and is renowned for its good snow cover.  It certainly lived up to its reputation on my first day, as we parked the car, strapped on our snowshoes, or ciaspole as they’re known to the locals,  and simply clambered over three feet of snow at the side of the road on to deep, undisturbed powder.

 

Pristine pistes and sky to match

Pristine pistes and sky to match

The sky was a deep cornflower blue and with the temperature hovering around five degrees centigrade, it was soon time to shed some layers as we quickly worked up a sweat on the initial (and steepest) climb of the day. Take to the mountains, mid-week, early-season in Abruzzo and you pretty much have the slopes to yourself. The handful of skiers ascending the lifts were enjoying freedom from queues and miles of uncluttered, well-prepared pistes. Meanwhile, Fin the dog effortlessly led the way along the route, in between performing his very own canine-style Winter Olympics of rolling, burrowing and sliding down the snow.

Although quiet on a sunny Thursday morning, Passo Lanciano does not lack facilities, and its chairlift, eight ski lifts, 16 slopes, ski school, hotel and bars more than cater for the many locals and visitors from around Rome who, with their families, take to the slopes on winter weekends. And there are two extensive cross country circuits, as well as the many snowshoeing routes.

Nearby La Maielletta is a smaller resort but is served by several drag lifts and Blockhaus Italian Ski School  provides a comprehensive range of equipment for hire, as well as ski lessons for all ability levels.

Fin waits for the lift

Fin waits for the lift

Situated at the northern tip of Majella’s main crest, this is wolf country. You may not be lucky enough to glimpse this noble creature, but you could well spot some of the mountain hares, chamois, wild boar and magnificent raptors with whom it shares its habitat. On our way back, Jacqui pointed out a sanctuary for rescued wolves in Pretoro:

“Although terribly sad to see these majestic creatures in captivity, remind yourselves they are there because, for various reasons, they are unable to be returned to the wild,” she explained.

Abruzzo’s mountain resorts contain many attractive hotels, bars and restaurants and facilities are generally of a high standard.  However, one of the unique attractions of staying in this part of Italy is the opportunity to sample the hospitality offered in traditional villages, where many of the old stone buildings, often dating back to Medieval and Renaissance times, have been sensitively restored into comfortable hotels and restaurants.

A particular favourite is  Brancaleone  a converted seventeenth century farmhouse, perched in a spectacular setting in the nearby hilltop village of  Roccamontepiano. Our evening here, sampling the delicious menu, and enjoying impeccable service in front of a roaring log fire, was the consummate way to round off a superb Saturday in the snow.

Lunch always tastes better after a morning in the snow

Lunch always tastes better after a morning in the snow

But, this is Italy, where, whatever the location or size of the establishment, you will always be sure of delicious food, cooked traditionally and slowly from top class, often home grown, ingredients. This is the land, not of fast food, but of good food. Agriturismo Tholos – ‘custodian farmers’ who specialise in growing, cultivating and safeguarding the agricultural biodiversity of the grains, legumes, fruit and vegetables indigenous to the Majella – are common here and you can try some of their produce at Tholos in Roccamorice.

Abruzzo, indeed, is renowned for the variety of its dishes, so even between neighbouring villages there is often a wide diversification in recipes. From wine to truffles, olive oil to cheese, in Abruzzo you can look forward to a mouth-watering experience, often in an unusual setting. If you fancy some divine ravioli on your way back from the slopes, stop off in Pretoro, at I Rintocchi, a restaurant (literally) in a cave!

Later in the week, I took a day away from the slopes and explored some of the charming hill villages dotted around the region. Guardiagrele, with its displays of traditional, decorated iron work, proved an excellent place to pick up some delightful and unusual souvenirs.

Sunrise over Monte Amaro

Sunrise over Monte Amaro

Two days on,  as I luxuriated in temperatures of 15 degrees centigrade in Pescara, along the same Adriatic coast that is clearly visible from the peaks of Passo Lanciano, I reckoned that Abruzzo, in early February, was the ideal location for some snow, sun and sea. Throw in delicious food, good wine and warm hospitality and you have the perfect package for an unforgettable snowshoeing holiday.

 

FURTHER INFORMATION:

Snow resorts;

General Information for Abruzzo snow 

Other Majella resorts  

 

Food;

More information on Abrruzzo’s cuisine  

 

Getting There;

Serramonacesca is around two hours’ driving time from Rome and about 40 minutes from Pescara

Regular coaches run from Rome’s Tiburtina Station to Chieti and Pescara http://www.arpaonline.it/arpaonline/en/?page=or_peroma

Ryanair flies from London (Stanstead) to Pescara

If you have the time and like to travel sustainably, you can take the train from London (with a change in Paris) to Turin or Milan and then on to Rome or Pescara. Use Seat 61 to plan your journey

Kokpelli will pick up from Chieti and Pescara for a small cost and will help you with all the information you need to travel to Serramonacesca.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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10 May 2013

By Train to Kokopelli

No Comments Biking, Blog, Booting, Cities, Tours

So, just back from another wonderful week at Kokopelli combined with a few days either side in some of Italy’s most iconic cities.

For me, the best way to get to Kokopelli (or virtually anywhere else in Europe) is by train. There are several reasons for this but, essentially, by taking the train you can make the journey a positive part of your your holiday . So, instead of enduring the abusive security process, punitive  baggage restrictions and the in-your-face travel experience that is flying, you can look forward to a comfortable, relaxed journey aboard some of Europe’s fastest and most technically advanced trains, with spectacular scenery flashing by your window.

Kokopelli at sunrise

Kokopelli at sunrise

Kokopelli is an eco-friendly campsite, run on the principles of self sufficiency and low environmental imprint.Therefore, if you are  environmentally conscious and concerned about your carbon footprint, it makes little sense to fly there. According to Travelfootprint London to Rome by air creates 240-350 grams of co2 per passenger km travelled, compared to 50-75 grams by rail.

Taking the train means you can take your bike

Taking the train means you can take your bike

As most Kokopellites love the outdoors, they will often have equipment like skis, snowshoes, cycles, tents, walking and climbing gear. Unlike aircraft, trains have  no baggage restrictions. Eurostar has recently altered its conditions for cycle carriage and now transports bikes, without bike bags, if booked in advance. This is well worth the £30 cost to avoid faffing around adjusting handlebars and pedals, particularly if you are touring with panniers. If you live near St Pancras you can also send your bike on to Paris/Brussels in advance which costs less. Have a look at Eurostar’s bicycle carriage and information about taking bikes on trains throughout Europe.

Enjoy some retail therapy among Milan's designer labels either side of your stay

Enjoy some retail therapy among Milan’s designer labels either side of your stay

Kokopelli is situated roughly in the middle of Italy, so going by train means you can combine your trip with some city visits: Turin, Milan, Bologna, Rome, Florence, Naples; the choice is yours.

The train can also be much cheaper, particularly if journeying overnight: if travelling as a family or in a group, prices in couchettes can be as low as around £30 per person. And remember, an overnight fare includes your accommodation. You also waste less time as you are travelling  when you are normally asleep and kids invariably love sleeping on a train!

But the best reason for travelling by train is simply that it is better. Instead of detracting from your holiday experience, it adds to it. Rather than wasting time in soulless, indistinguishable airport terminals, you get to experience life in other countries as well as the chance to engage with people.

May 1st, Kokopelli style!

May 1st, Kokopelli style!.

On one journey the Italian family at the same table “forbade” me to go to the buffet and insisted I share their lunch of bread, mozzarella, tomatoes, prosciutto and local wine: something of a contrast with your typical Ryanair experience.

So, how do I organise train travel  to Kokopelli? Well, the good news is that it is actually ridiculously easy;  you do not need to move from your computer screen, there are no concealed extra charges and planning the journey can be an exciting way to involve all members of the family/group.

1. Make sure you consult  Mark Smith’s indispensable SEAT61  as this gives every possible source of advice on routes, destinations, booking tickets and just about everything else.

2. The nearest major station to Kokpelli is Pescara – liaise with Jacqui and Kevin about transfers etc – so look at the information on how to travel there.  But you may want to combine your trip with visits to other places in Italy, so look at all the options here.

3. Decide if you want to travel during the day or overnight: if I’m travelling on my own I tend to go during the day as individual sleeping accommodation is only available in first class and because I  enjoy the trip though the Alps. But, if travelling as a family/group and if time is at a premium, overnight can be the better option.

 

Milan-Turin-Paris TGV

Milan-Turin-Paris TGV

4. I book tickets in three stages: direct with EUROSTAR for London to Paris, with RAIL EUROPE for Paris to Turin/Milan and ITALIA RAIL or TRENITALIA for any other journeys within Italy. Booking just under two months in advance I paid £69 return on Eurostar; £116 first class Paris-Turin return and the most expensive of my five first class tickets across Italy cost €29 for a three hour journey from Pescara to Bologna. Often the best deal was the first class offer.

5.If you have a currency card, such as CAXTON FX use it to pay for the tickets billed in euros and you won’t attract any conversion charges.

6. You will have to change stations in Paris from Gare du  Nord to Gare de Lyon. The easiest way to do this is by metro, using the green D RER line. Tickets cost €1.70 at the time of writing, so make sure you have some loose euros and cents, although the machines do give change. Eurostar information desks sell books of metro tickets and provide maps of Paris. The metro is easy to use; just follow the signs and use the destination information to check  you’re going in the right direction. There is only one stop, Chatelet les Halles, between Gare du Nord and Gare de Lyon.

Finally, on French and Italian long distance trains the standard of on board accommodation is generally excellent. However, despite commodious luggage racks at the end of each carriage (Virgin take note) Italian and French travellers seem to prefer to lug their cases to their seats! Do make sure your luggage is clearly labelled as French police boarded the train at the border to check this on my return journey.

Bon voyage; buon viaggio!; enjoy the journey, it’s part of your holiday.

The Train Bleu, Gare de Lyon

The Train Bleu, Gare de Lyon

 

Postscript: arrived back safely last night, having left Milan at 6am. Journey went like clockwork – TGV was actually held up at one point on the Italian border, but made up so much time it arrived at Gare de Lyon seven minutes early – only downside was last lap home from Euston to Lichfield Trent Valley. The concourse was packed, as was the train, with many passengers without seats and only their good humour and the diplomacy and  good sense of the train manager avoided any serious incident. Arriving at my destination, a busy stop on West Coast Main Line, is like stepping out into the third world: there is no lift over the line, the station was closed (London Midland deem it unnecessary to man the premises after 7pm) and those of us having to wait for lifts/taxis got soaked as there is no shelter.

The joys of UK’s privatised rail network; and to think these train operating companies take millions of our tax money every year, but that’s another story….

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01 Apr 2013

Balloch to Helensburgh: Three Lochs Way, Stage 1

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Dumbreck sunrise

Dumbreck sunrise

Mid March; the best time of the year for walking, according to many experts and so, happily, it proved for me. As much of the country shivered in the face of vicious easterly winds and and a blanket of snow covered the south coast, this Glasgow morning dawned clear and bright, with a sharp frost soon levelling into a perfect, early spring day.

I was on my way to Balloch to try out the first stage of a relatively new trail, the Three Lochs Way, linking Lochs Lomond and Long, the Gare Loch, with a stretch of the  Firth of Clyde  thrown in for good measure. The route begins in Balloch, travels west to Helensburgh, then north to Garelochhead, continues up to Arrochar, before finally winding its way to Inveruglas at the north end of Loch Lomond.

It’s a low level trail, with few steep gradients and, as it generally follows the course of the West Highland Railway, it’s possible to walk all sections as linear routes and use the train to get to and from the start/finish points. The first section is ideal for this, as both Balloch and Helensburgh are termini on Glasgow’s suburban rail network. It’s perfectly possible to walk the route in either direction: just buy a return to either station, then a single from the other to Dalreoch and the rest of your return ticket will take you back to the city.

Over the hill to Helensburgh

Over the hill to Helensburgh

My preference is to start in Balloch and walk towards Helensburgh. This way, you enjoy the unmatched experience of leaving the loch and views of Ben Lomond behind you, just as the coastal vistas over Kintyre come into sight: a unique joy, whatever the time of year.

My other reason is equally hedonistic, but for gastronomic reasons. Finishing in Helensburgh provides the ideal reason to visit my favourite cafe in the area; the Riverhill Deli and Cafe in Sinclair Street. The coffee bears comparison with anything north of Turin and their delectable cakes and pastries, including the incomparable millionaire’s shortbread, are the perfect way to cap a marvellous day in the outdoors.

Head out from Balloch station and turn left at the information centre. Walk along the street until you reach the roundabout and take the the third turning into a quiet, residential street. You will soon see a footpath sign pointing left, take this and walk along the track crossing the footbridge over the A82.

A snow-capped Ben Lomond looks over the loch

A snow-capped Ben Lomond looks over the loch

This is known locally as the Stoneymollan Road, an ancient drove and coffin route and it leads uphill to a plantation gate. Walk through the plantation and turn right after about 800 metres at the T junction, before heading north round the edge of the plantation.

Until this point, the route follows well marked paths, but the next part is not on a defined track and it is strongly advisable to have a map and navigational aids. The route now veers off to the west though the trees. You must follow the red and white tape on the trees which marks the route over the burn and up the slopes of the Killoeter Escarpment.

Volunteers regularly check that the tape markers are in place, but if any are missing, or if you wander off route, you will need to be able to navigate yourself through this section using a map or compass.

Finally, after about 300 metres of climbing uphill when the end of a forestry road comes into view (from this point onwards the trail follows obvious, well-marked paths), follow it to the T junction. Turn left to continue to Helensburgh, but a short detour to the right takes you to the highlight of this section, the views from the top of Goukhill Muir. It’s only a short climb to 281metres, but the panorama compares with vistas normally only enjoyed from far higher summits.

Island footsteps to Balmaha

Island footsteps to Balmaha

A few clouds had invaded the previous unbroken blue of the sky, but Loch Lomond glinted tantalisingly in the sun, protected by the solid mass of Ben Lomond, its peak wrapped in a thick layer of snow. The line of islands below looked like giant stepping stones en route towards Balmaha and the blue of the loch was almost tropical in its intensity.

To the north, the snow-covered peaks of the Arrochar Alps jutted dramatically into the midday sky and, turning westwards, the Gareloch shimmered like a dark ribbon below the Rosneath Peninsula. Few viewpoints serve up such sumptuous rewards and reaching them usually requires much more strenuous effort.

The heather was dry and, and a sheltered spot just off the path was a perfect place to stop for some lunch, before beginning the descent to Helensburgh. The majority of the route now follows a newly-constructed path and provides more fine views as the town and the Firth of Clyde come into sight, spoiled only by the mess of what appears to a scrapyard surrounding a cottage on the outskirts of Craigendoran.

Helensburgh and the Firth of Clyde

Helensburgh and the Firth of Clyde

Emerging at Hermitage Academy, you are a couple of miles out of Helensburgh and another advantage of completing the trail in this direction is that, should the weather turn inclement, or time be at a premium, you are only metres away from Craigendoran Station and half-hourly trains back to Glasgow.

Otherwise, turn right and follow the main road into Helensburgh. At one time regarded as the ‘Brighton of Glasgow’, the resort is renowned for its substantial Victorian villas and tree-lined streets.

I was too early in the year to enjoy the blossom that infuses the town later in the spring, or to re-visit the Hill House, one of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s most iconic designs. But I was happy to sip my excellent flat white and sample the said shortbread in Riverhill’s convivial atmosphere before heading the few metres back to Helensburgh Central for my return to the city.

The Gare Loch and Rosneath Peninisula

The Gare Loch and Rosneath Peninisula

 

Information:

Details of the Three Lochs Way:

Trains to and from Balloch, Helensburgh and Craigendoran: 

Map: OS Explorer 347, Loch Lomond South

Please remember: although gradients are fairly gently and tracks are good, one section of this route is currently pathless. It is strongly advisable to have a map and navigational aids and be confident in your ability to use them. If you are unsure and/or you cannot follow the marked tape, always re-trace your steps.

 

 

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30 Oct 2012

The Dolomites: a different winter wonderland

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You don’t have to ski to enjoy the snow. Forget the flight, pass over the pistes, cut your carbon footprint and take the train to the Dolomites this winter.

Sunrise over Pedraces

Winter activity holidays don’t have to mean downhill skiing. Later this winter I will return to my particular winter wonderland, the Dolomites, to enjoy the snow, but without the queues and unsightly lifts. And, with the added bonus of a relaxed rail journey there through some of the world’s most spectacular scenery, free from airport hell and flight guilt.

Like most other visitors, I was immediately captivated by their vibrant colours and spectacular shapes when I first experienced these dramatic mountains. Tucked away in the northern corner of Italy, the area (known as Trentino/South Tyrol) benefits from a unique combination of Germanic/Latin culture, history and cuisine and five years ago the Dolomites were, deservedly awarded UNESCO world heritage status.

Santa Croce Church and Refugio

But the natural and unaffected character of the area is another, equally persuasive, magnet that draws me back to these mountains every winter. Although the region boasts over 1,000km of piste, the Dolomites are not the exclusive preserve of downhillers. The people are welcoming and genuine and the hamlets of South Tyrol are as far removed from the archetypal, commercialised ski resort as is possible to imagine.

The unspoilt villages of Arabba, Pedraces and Corvara in the dramatic Alta Badia region lie in a stunning mountain setting and provide a perfect base for snowshoeing, cross country skiing and winter walking: three excellent cardio-vascular activities that take you in close and personal to this winter wonderland, but with a negligible impact on the environment.

Winter Wonderland

Snowshoeing is much easier than it looks and within minutes of leaving the villages, you will be tracking along rivers, through woodland and across winter pastures. Higher up, waymarked trails give access to remote, snowbound landscapes normally only reached by mountaineers. Make sure you visit the tiny Santa Croce church, 2045m asl, high above Pedraces. Next door, the original Santa Croce Hospice, built over 500 years ago to accommodate pilgrims visiting the church, is now a mountain refugio (tel:+390471839632). Take a well-earned lunch break, enjoy the wholesome food and wonder at the fabulous mountain vistas.

Cross country skiing takes a little longer to master, but Corvara alone has 17kms of woodland and riverside routes below the magnificent Sella Massif. Winter walking (bring good hillwalking boots, or “four season” if you intend to use crampons) will soon take you far away from the pistes into a remote winter panorama with only its equally magnificent fauna for company: the brilliant blue skies and pristine white landscapes cleverly camouflage the arctic hares and silver foxes, but it is not unusual to spot golden eagles and chamois.

Sunset on Santa Croce Rock

Another bonus is that no expensive, specialised equipment is needed. Other than boots, pack waterproof outers, warm jacket, hat, gloves, layers and sunglasses. Snowshoes (around five euros per day) and cross country skis can be hired from sports shops in the villages, such as Sport Kostner in Corvara (Col Alt 34, 39033 Corvara, tel:+390471836112).

How to get there:
One of the key highlights of a holiday in the Dolomites, for me, is the journey itself: boarding the overnight train in Paris, travelling through the Alps, then lifting the blinds up next morning to the delightful medieval roofscapes of Verona and Padua. And a more prosaic advantage is that you can take as much footwear, bulky outer gear and extra layers as you can carry.

Sun, snow and rock: Pedraces

Eurostar’s www.eurostar.com carbon neutral trains whisk you to Paris Nord in just over two hours and return journeys start around £60. One useful, but little-known, hint for those outside the capital: discounted fares to London can be obtained through www.raileasy.com or the “Eurostar” section in www.seat61.com Remember to enter your destination as London International and not the terminus you arrive at.

Leaving the wonderful new St Pancras station www.stpancras.com mid-afternoon, it is possible to reach the Dolomites around lunchtime the next day on the overnight “Stendhal” service, departing Paris Gare de Bercy at 20.33, arriving Venice at 9.34 next morning. The return train leaves Venice at 19.57, arriving Gare de Bercy 8.19 next morning.

Use Mark Smith’s indispensable www.seat61.com (it’s worth a look even if you don’t travel by train) for inexhaustible details of routes, fares, booking instructions, connections, maps and even advice on the best way to travel between different termini in Paris.

As well as providing a superior journey experience, travelling by train can be cheaper, depending on type of accommodation and number of travellers. While it can be expensive for one or two people in a first class sleeper, six people sharing a couchette can travel for as little as £33 each, one way, booking well in advance and taking advantage of discounted fares. Remember, the price also effectively includes overnight accommodation as well as journey cost.

Venice has two stations: Mestre, on the mainland and Santa Lucia in the city centre. Tickets are valid to and from either station. Many of the hotels in the Dolomites offer transfers from Venice (Marco Polo) airport: get off at Mestre and take one of the frequent buses from outside the station. Journey time is about 15 minutes and details are available from the airport’s website:http://www.veniceairport.it/page/servizi/trasporti/treno?m=01020201#The site also contains a wealth of details about Venice and surrounding area, including how to reach the mountains by public transport http://www.veniceairport.it/page/turismo?m=1500002

Where to Stay: Collett’s Mountain Holidays www.colletts.co.uk offer a range of accommodation in hotels, hosted chalets and self-catering properties in Arraba, Pedraces and Corvara. Collett’s are renowned for their love and knowledge of the Dolomites and their flexibility, offering snowshoeing, winter walking and cross country skiing. They are a particularly good choice for anyone holidaying on their own as they attract an eclectic mix of ages, families, groups, couples and individuals, offer a sociable “office hour” each evening and serve meals in a communal atmosphere.

For independent travellers, the Hotel Melodia del Bosco Runccac, Runcac
8, 39036 Badia/Pedraces www.melodiadelbosco.it offers warm hospitality, wonderful Mediterranean and Tyrolean food and helpful, multi-lingual staff. Run by the Irsara family and extensively renovated two years ago, it occupies a stunning position, has stylish en suite rooms, a whirlpool and provides guests with extensive local knowledge.

 

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19 Sep 2012

The West Highland Way

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For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to walk  the West Highland Way (WHW). Indeed, even before the route was conceived as a long distance footpath (LDF), the thought of walking from the edge of Glasgow to the heart of the Western Highlands stirred my anticipation. There are plenty of other LDFs, some nearer, some longer, some more technically difficult, but none can compare in terms of drama, romance, scenery and diversity of landscape. For anyone who believes that the best way to travel is under your own steam and combines this with a feeling for history, a love of literature and a passion for the great outdoors, trekking from Scotland’s largest city, along the banks of her most iconic loch, past the head of her most historically (in)famous glen, to the slopes of her highest mountain, on routes laid down over the centuries by soldiers, drovers and emigrants, the WHW would be difficult to better.

Mountains, lochs and woods: a classic scene from the WHW

Thursday September 6th dawned damp and drizzly and, following a short, but efficient, luggage hand over at Milngavie station and the obligatory “start pic”, I was on my way. I’ve done all the first part of the section – as far as Dumgoyne – and some of the remainder before, but it was still a thrill to walk past the Craigallian Fire and visualise the depression days of the 1930s when it was a beacon of warmth and companionship to the many who tramped the hills for recreation, or as a semi-permanent escape from the iniquities of the Means Test.

A 12 mile, relatively flat, segment looked nothing compared to the demands of the later stages, but mid afternoon coffee and cake In the Drymen Pottery was a welcome end to the day’s walking, particularly as it had been raining steadily for the last hour. The Clachan Inn though, was a slight disappointment. It was clean and the staff eager to please, but maybe the restrictions that come with the tag of Scotland’s oldest pub, make it difficult to cope with the demands of a full house of walkers – wet wayfarers all turning up at roughly the same time put a strain on the shared facilities – and restricting cooked breakfasts, even a bowl of porridge, until after 9am scuppered any plans for an early start.

 

Friday September 7th and the sky glowered threateningly, but, unfortunately, although the rain kept off for the first part of the morning, when the heavens did finally open, many were at the top of Conic Hill hoping to enjoy the dazzling views over the south end of Loch Lomond. However, the umbrellas at the Oak Tree Inn kept out the rain and by the time I had completed the first afternoon mile alongside the loch, the rain had eased and the mist was lifting.

The banks of Loch Lomond

This, however, was to contribute to my first, major, faux pas of the trip. Shedding successive layers of waterproofs as the sun appeared shyly in mid-afternoon, I dropped my map wallet and failed to notice until a couple of miles further on. Although I jogged back, there was no sign of it –  another walker had picked it up and handed in at the next campsite, which although very kind of him, was not too much use to me as I was going in the opposite direction and had no means of getting back there. And, as just reward for my stupidity in leaving my holiday details in the wallet, I had no idea of how to get to the rest of my accommodation! Fortunately though, a combination of Andy’s efficiency in the Absolute Escapes office in quickly emailing the details and Fiona’s kindness in giving me a new map, ensured there was no lasting damage.

Fiona was my host at my next overnight stay, near Rowardennan. Her home, Coille Mhor – comfortable, commodious, with a luxury exclusive bathroom and breakfast to die for –  was everything the first night was not. This, plus her family’s willingness to go the extra mile for their guests, laid down a challenging marker for the rest of the accommodation en route.

 

Ben Lomond

Saturday September 8th: just a glimpse of brightness on the way past the Rowardennan Hotel, but enough to lift the cloud off the summit of Ben Lomond, at least for the moment. This, the WHW veterans had warned would be the toughest stage; not in terms of exposure or altitude, but because of the obstacle course that is the 2-3 miles north of Inversnaid. With this in mind, I made good pace first thing and took advantage of the wide forestry tracks to arrive in Inversnaid by lunchtime. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before the path, slimy with recent rain, began to swerve up and down, over rocks and tree routes, at times about to seemingly splash into the loch itself. It was torturous going and, making good use of my new map, I used Island I Vow as my landmark and vowed not to stop until I was at least level with it.

On and on, the path veered one way, then another, and progress continued at snail’s pace – even the fit-looking lads with military-style gear didn’t overtake me with quite the same verve by mid afternoon – until I met a mountain biker travelling in the opposite direction. Taking the opportunity for a few minutes chat (not least to find out how he intended to deal with the hurdles to come) he reassured me that the path would level out in about 400m and, sure enough, round the corner of a delightful, sandy bay, the route stretched out, wider, straighter and flatter.

View from the head of Loch Lomond

Climbing up from the head of the loch, it was clear that the broad leaf woods of the shore were now behind me; in front loomed the muscular peaks of the Southern Highlands. This stage of the route also sees the most optimistic, or ambiguous, signpost of the walk. “Beinglas 2 miles” it says. Well, an hour and a half later, after the longest two miles I’ve ever walked, finally, the foot of Glen Falloch came into view. Tonight’s accommodation, at Beinglas Farm, delivered more than it initially promised: keys only on deposit, bags dumped in a communal shed didn’t auger well, but the chalets were very comfortable, food good, staff attentive and Murray’s semi win was available on TV.

 

Sunday September 9th was always going to be my big day. My itinerary said 12 miles along Glen Falloch and Strath Fillan to Tyndrum which, compared to the exertions of the previous day, looked relatively straightforward. Today’s forecast looked better than tomorrow’s, so up and out early, I made Crianlarich before midday, hurtled on to Tyndrum by early afternoon and, after picking up the bus/train times, took the plunge and headed off for Bridge of Orchy today, instead of tomorrow morning.

West Highland Way flora

In the event, all went well; the two Glaswegian veterans who marched me along at their lively pace, kept me entertained with their tales of past WHW exploits, the mist and drizzle didn’t really descend until the last 40 minutes and it was a pleasant surprise when the hotel and station came into view a little after 4.30 pm. At closer quarters, however, the hotel isn’t quite as welcoming to walkers – transport information was wrong, my companions found their booked accommodation did not materialise and a coach load of tourists seemed to be offered considerably warmer hospitality than us disparate wet walkers.

Fortunately, however, my accommodation lay in wait at Ewich House, back at Crianlarich. After bussing it back to an enormous fish and chips at the Rod and Reel  Ian picked me up and drove to the 200 year old farmhouse he and Deb have sensitively restored into a marvellous guest house, enjoying an unrivalled location, modern facilities – the imaginative en suite, complete with organic toiletries that soothed my aching muscles, took my vote – wonderful hospitality and a breakfast to rival Coille Mhor’s. All this, plus Ian and Deb’s commitment to operating in the most environmentally possible way, places Ewich House firmly at the top of my must-revisit list.

Bridge of Orchy

 

Monday September 10th: As I now had the luxury of taking the train to resume where I left off in Bridge of Orchy, I could digest my porridge at leisure and savour the scenery, albeit briefly, from the magical West Highland Railway.

The climb over to Inveroran that had looked daunting last evening, now proved to be an enjoyable hike, providing views back to Beinns Dorain and Dothaidh and then on to Loch Tulla and the Inveroran Hotel.

“You’re going to get wet,” advised an elderly gentleman at the gates to Forest Lodge, and, true enough, by the time I approached Black Mount, all wet gear had been put into use: by the landmark Ba Bridge, as the photos prove, the rain was driving straight into the camera lens. Rannoch was certainly living up to its reputation as a vast, inhospitable wilderness, miles from any semblance of civilisation. But for me, the feeling of being at the edge of the world, with nothing but my foot power between me and shelter, was absolutely exhilarating and I felt nothing but respect for the few brave birds and hardy species of flora that survive in this hostile environment.

The bleak beauty of Rannoch Moor

The damp was beginning to take its toll and I was already cold as I first glimpsed the Kingshouse Hotel from the crest of the ridge. As its outline became more definite, I thought of the generations of travellers, climbers and walkers, for whom it had offered a beacon of shelter after hours, or maybe days, of exposure to the elements. Kingshouse deserves its legendary status, but it is slightly disappointing that it its uncontested location has led to a complacency in maintaining standards of comfort. Tradition and character are rightly valued, but should not be excuses for sub-standard, shared facilities, ill-fitting windows and tepid water.

 

Tuesday September 11th: opening the curtain to a handful of deer grazing insouciantly under the window partially compensated for a chilly room (and not being able to share Andy Murray’s first major victory) and a wonderful full rainbow lifted the spirits before the rigours of the Devil’s Staircase. This was definitely  leather boots territory and I had good reason to be grateful to my trusty Meindls as we splashed along paths suddenly transformed into raging rivulets.

Glencoe sunset

This was a four-seasons-in-ten-minutes day and the combination of squally hail followed by blinding sunshine, slowed progress. However, the regular shafts of sunlight supplied some great picture opportunities over the Mamores and the descent into Kinlochleven was frequently spectacular. Although hardly a conurbation, I found a return to shops, banks and take aways, comforting, but slightly sad at the same time. However, some enjoyable pub grub, entertaining company and a decent bottle of wine, helped make this the best evening, so far.

 

Highland grandeur

Wednesday September 12th marked the last day of the walk, and perhaps as a reward for our efforts, it dawned bright and crisp: ideal conditions to showcase Highland grandeur at its best. The forest climb was strenuous, but soon repaid by stupendous views back over the Leven valley and the mountains beyond. The remains of Lairigmor provided a suitable wind break/sun trap – and in my dream world, an ideal location for a WHW B&B offering cakes and refreshments to hungry walkers!

As the afternoon wore on, the miles predictably seemed to get longer and, even as the bulk of Ben Nevis came into view, it was still a salutary reminder that there were over six  miles left. But the mountain path eventually turned into the forestry track and the long descent into Fort William began; the campsites of Glen Nevis finally followed by the guest houses and B&Bs on the outskirts of town.

The track past Lairigmor

But, the WHW was still to have the last laugh: reaching the original obelisk, we found the official end of the way has now moved to the town centre. Eventually, we all made it and, while some retired to the pub immediately to celebrate their achievement, the long walk back to Glen Nevis for a welcome shower and snooze, made the return into town that bit harder later in the evening, although aching limbs and weariness were soon forgotten in the happy celebrations.

 

Epilogue:

So, despite my misgivings about my foot I made it, without any apparent ill effects and feeling considerably fitter at the end compared to the beginning. Seven days of historical, emotional and cultural connections in an environment of such beauty that frequently took your breath away, added to some considerable kindness from complete strangers, new friends, good company and camaraderie combined to make the experience all I hoped it would be; plus some more.

Made it! End of the Way, September 12 2012

Highlights – the whole route, but if I have to choose:

  • the gorgeous broad leaf woodlands on the banks of Loch Lomond
  • the ravishing red berries drooping from the rowan trees along the route
  • crossing Rannoch Moor – walking along its western edge and then home on the railway on its opposite side – feeling very insignificant in the midst of such an awesome wilderness, with my respect for the engineers and navvies who built the roads and railways reinforced
  • being lucky enough to enjoy breathtaking views of the Mamores and Ben Nevis on a clear, sunny autumn day
  • getting my kit list just about right and now knowing my waterproofs and boots do actually deliver what they promise
  •  Ewich House  – fantastic facilities, stunning location, warm hospitality and a tariff that doesn’t unfairly hammer single guests – the kind of B&B I would love to offer!

Some walking companions along the route

Advice:

  • if your luggage is being transported, seriously consider taking two types of boots – multi-activity shoes are ideal for the early stages, but I would have struggled without my leather boots on the final two days
  • look carefully at your schedule – particularly the stage over Rannoch – and don’t be afraid to make minor amendments, depending on weather conditions and personal fitness
  • get copies of bus and train timetables – particularly between Crianlarich, Tyndrum and Bridge of Orchy – as you can use the buses and trains to travel between start and finish points, if you amend your itinerary
  • check all your accommodation stop-overs carefully before you confirm – use websites or, better still, personal recommendations to get some idea of their facilities and atmosphere
  • remember to book in advance if you want to take the steam train (now universally known as the “Harry Potter” train) from Fort William to Mallaig at the end of your walk – I didn’t get round to this in Glasgow and lack of WiFi en route, meant it was fully booked when I finally accessed the site

 

Thanks to:

Absolute Escapes for organising my trip – and, in particular to Andy for sorting out my lost accommodation details, and Fiona at Coille Mhor for donating me a new, indispensable map.

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31 May 2012

Kokopelli, Abruzzo, Italy

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The bus from Rome was busy enough to be interesting, but neither too crowded nor, other than the girl across the passage with the ill-fitting headphones, too noisy to be oppressive. So far, my public transport options in Italy had ticked all the boxes: clean, efficient, punctual, cost effective with, oddly, the TGV coming in from France the only late arrival on my journey so far.

The first stop was Chieti, just inland of the Adriatic, around two hours east of Rome. Here I was to meet Jacqui and Kevin who would take me the 20 km or so to Kokopelli Camping on the edge of the Majella National Park.

Twilight at Kokopelli

Their website and my communications with Jacqui had convinced me that theirs wasn’t an ordinary campsite. And, arriving at sunset, with a simmering orange sky strewn behind jagged, snow-capped peaks, I wasn’t disappointed. Indeed, looking round from the 360 degree panorama, even in the fading light it was possible to make out traditional stone villages, limestone crags, cherry trees struggling under the weight of their fruit and rows of healthy green tomato plants lining the hillsides.  But equally obvious was the absence of any hook-ups, motor homes, manicured uniform plots or campsite queues and only the howling of a few village dogs interrupted the twilight chorus of birdsong.

The Corno Grande - highest peak in the Apennines - from Kokopelli

Next morning, Kokopelli produced some more pleasant surprises: daybreak revealed a stunning vista of delicious shades of green that seemed far too lush for a latitude on par with Rome and Barcelona and a short walk down to the village of Serramonacesca unearthed some delicious cheese and ham and an excellent bottle of local wine from its two shops, plus a classic macchiato from the village bar.

Kokopelli is a labour of love for both Jacqui and Kevin, escapees from work-life imbalance in the UK, who want to share their love of climbing, walking, cycling, running and all things outdoor in this beautiful locality, with those of a similar outlook.

Wildflowers of the Majella

“We live a self-sufficient, minimal impact lifestyle and aim to share it with like-minded people,” explains Jacqui. Food is grown organically, water heated by solar power and everything possible is re-used, composted or recycled. As such, holidaying at Kokpelli is more about joining in with a compatible community, than spending time on a campsite.

Even the accommodation options are novel:

Camping: Kokopelli style

“You can bring your own tent and/or bedding, or if it won’t fit in your bag, use one of our options,” advises Jacqui. And, as a long-time exponent of  pop-up tent rage, the  Strawberry Hills canvas bell tents on offer, complete with duvets and Bedouin rugs, were certainly appealing.

However, my home for the week was to top even these opulent tents. Rosemary is a T25 VW Camper, now peacefully retired after a lifetime of travelling across Europe.

Rosemary: enjoying a well-earned retirement

With her comfortable double bed, heater, sink, cooker and even her own expresso maker, my problem was to drag myself up and away from her delights every morning – she also boasts a large awning and can sleep another two adults “upstairs” in her pop top, for those who prefer not to get too friendly.

But, if you simply can’t entertain the idea of sleeping under canvas, or in a campervan, then there is also a converted room in the barn, and a family en suite room in the house.

Another stunning sunset

Showers and toilets at Kokopelli would grace a boutique hotel and there is a host of other facilities, ranging from hair dryers to a well-equipped cooking and dining area.

Given its locality and Jacqui and Kevin’s expertise, Kokopelli is a haven for all kinds of outdoor activities: you can hike from the door to the summit (2,800m) of Mt Amaro,  test your stamina and cycle skills on sweeping mountain roads, or  choose your own spectacular, deserted crag for a range of climbing challenges.

And, if all this is not enough to keep you occupied, then the Adriatic coastline with its alluring beaches is only a few kilometres away.

Looking towards the Adriatic

But Kokopelli is not just about adrenaline-fuelled adventures. An injured ankle impeded my plans to spend the week hiking through the national park, but enforced rest enabled me to appreciate the variety of wildflowers and butterflies, range of birdsong and darkness of the night sky. A short ramble to the village of Roccamontepiano was rewarded by a glimpse of a young deer in the woods, a deserted house among the olive groves and a delicious cake from the village bakery.

Throughout history the Majella has been renowned for its spirituality and as a refuge for hermits, monks and others seeking peace and reflection and the remains of many hermitages and monasteries are found throughout the area.

The hermitage of San Onofrio (Photo by Andy Reynolds.)

Today its sense of solitude and of being at one with nature is still very evident.

I’ll bring my boots when I return to Kokopelli and maybe my bike too, but I will definitely also take some books, my camera and binoculars and factor in time to sit, to observe and to contemplate.  History, culture, landscape, food, climate: Kokopelli is a special kind of place.

 

 

 

 

How to get to Kokpelli: buses run regularly from Rome’s Tiburtina Bus Station and take about two hours to Chieti and the same route will take you from Chieti to Pescara where there is a main line railway station with links to the rest of Italy.

For rail travel to and from Italy, check out:  Seat 61 and my Tips for Travelling to Italy by Train

Read about the the rest of my tour of Italy 2012, including travel, accommodation, cafes and shopping,

Kokopelli details facilities, prices, etc

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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30 Apr 2012

Leave the car and visit the Knoydart peninsula: by boat, boot or bike

No Comments Biking, Booting, Tours

Forget stressful airport transfers and illogical sat nav instructions: be cool and arrive at your destination by boat. Visit the Knoydart peninsula in North West Scotland: inaccessible by road, so boat, boot or bike are your default modes. It’s remote, stunning, has four Munros and is a haven for walking, diving and photography, but it also offers top class cuisine and is famed for its hospitality, culture and community spirit.

Sunset over Skye

Across the Sound of Sleat from Skye, Knoydart is actually part of the mainland. However, unless you walk, or mountain bike from Kinloch Hourn you need to arrive by sea. Known as the Rough Bounds, it is one of the last real wildernesses in Western Europe. In 1999, the Knoydart Foundation , a partnership composed of local residents, the Highland Council and the John Muir Trust, was set up to “preserve, enhance and develop Knoydart for the well-being of the environment and its people”. Today, it is a thriving community, home to about 100 residents who welcome visitors to share its rugged beauty and enjoy its relaxed, genuine way of life.

As you can’t drive into Knoydart, why take the car? It is perfectly possible to reach Knoydart by public transport, the most civilised option being the overnight Caledonian sleeper:  board at Euston, or stations through the Midlands, wake up in the southern Highlands, then breakfast in Fort William before catching the West Highland Line to Mallaig.

West Highland Railway

Frequently voted one of the top railway journeys in the world, this 42 mile ride takes you past Britain’s highest mountaindeepest loch and shortest river, before reaching its most westerly station. Travel between April and October and the steam engine, Jacobite  will power you across the 21 arch Glenfinnan Viaduct, immortalised in the Harry Potter books, past the monument to the 1745 Jacobite rebellion and alongside the iconic silver sands of Morar, the setting for the films Highlander and Local Hero.

If you have a few minutes to spare, drop into the Mallaig Heritage Centre  beside the station, where the imaginatively presented exhibitions tell the history of the Rough Bounds and show the rapid transformation of Mallaig into a busy fishing port after the railway was completed in 1901.

Head towards the harbour and, keeping to the left, you will arrive at the public steps on the small boat pier. Here, a small boat will take you on the last leg of the journey, across Loch Nevis to Knoydart. Doune is on a rocky headland on the western edge of the peninsular and the accommodation is run by two couples, Martin and Jane Davies and Liz and Andy Tibbetts and their families. Doune Stone Lodges offer fully catered, comfortable double or twin rooms, en suite toilet, shower and porch, while the Doune Bay Lodge is designed for larger families, clubs, corporate events, and consists of eight rooms, open-plan living area and kitchen.

The setting is idyllic, with unforgettable sunsets behind the Skye Cuillins to the west, and the absence of mobile reception and power-thirsty hairdryers and trouser presses adds positively to its unique ambience. The lodges are effectively and sensitively equipped: warm duvets and invigorating showers – particularly welcome after a bracing day in the hills.

Doune Dining Room  is one of only seven institutions currently holding the Destination Dining Award for providing the best of food in the finest of settings. Everything is home-made, seafood is caught locally and Jane and Liz’s organic gardens provide most of the vegetables and soft fruit. While meat eaters can tuck into locally-produced lamb and venison, my vegetarianism was expertly satisfied, with a sumptuous nut pate and mouth-watering desserts particular highlights, and fully catered means exactly that, with breakfasts, packed lunches and evening meals all included.

Ladhar Bheinn

Three Corbetts, added to its four Munros make this hill-walking heaven, particularly for those who seek peacefulness and solitude.Ladhar Bheinn, at 1020m (3,346ft) is the highest and most dramatic mountain, although like many peaks on Knoydart, it is difficult to access. Martin and his team are generous with their local knowledge and, by using their boat Mary Doune, it is possible to sail to many mountain approaches.

That said, it is not necessary to go stratospheric to enjoy the beauty of Knoydart. Sailing from Doune, we headed north along the Sound of Sleat with Sandaig Islands clearly visible in the distance. Turning east into Loch Hourn, our progress was observed by some bored looking seals basking in the April sunshine, while Alastair, our knowledgeable skipper, identified Beinn Sgritheall as the snow-clad peak dominating the northern shore.

Barrisdale Bay

Scrambling ashore on Barrisdale Bay, it was impossible not to be moved by the still beauty of this sandy inlet. From here to Inverie, the “capital” of Knoydart is a trek of about eight miles through a spectacular mountain landscape. Passing the Barisdale bothy and campsite, the route climbs steadily along the pony path through Mam Barrisdale, until, at the top of the path, the cylindrical outline of Loch an Dubh-Lochain appears on the horizon. From here it is a relaxing stroll along the Inverie river to the Old Forge pub  in the centre of the village.

Loch an Dubh-Lochain

The Old Forge, the most remote pub in mainland Britain, is much more than just a pub. It has won many accolades for its beers, wines and locally-sourced food and also provides a rewarding coffee and slab of cake, as you relive your walk, climb or dive. But it is also the undoubted hub of the community; the stock of musical instruments in the bar testament to its famed reputation for impromptu entertainment. Its website  is a treasure trove of local information, advertising local jobs, advising on hill-walking routes and listing local accommodation.

Staying on Knoydart can be as lavish or basic as you want to make it. It is possible to wild camp on the beach, backpack in a bothy or indulge in a luxurious b&b. Match your requirements to the surprisingly wide variety available  – check out the Knoydart Foundation and Barrisdale and forget any excuses for not experiencing this magnificent corner of Britain.

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25 Apr 2012

Sulovske Skaly: Slovakia’s best kept secret

No Comments Blog, Booting

Climb, hike and cycle among the rock towers, gorges and ravines of this beautiful but unknown part of Slovakia – but hurry before everyone else discovers Sulovske Skaly too.

The Sulov Area

It was hot and dusty and, as we jumped from the train, I half-expected some Henry Fondaesque assassin to ambush us at the isolated junction. But we were in Slovakia not the Wild West and Branko, our in-house translator, assured us, correctly, that the next train would arrive in five minutes.

Slovakian trains may be crowded and functional, but they are regular, cheap and punctual and 30 minutes later we gasped in collective amazement at the spectacular rock formations straight in front of us as we finally arrived in Sulovske Skaly  a “rock city” made up of contorted slabs of limestone around two hours north west of Bratislava.

Even for those able to differentiate their Slovakias from their Slovenias, this region remains undiscovered. Lower in altitude than the better-known Tatras to the north-east, its rock towers, needles, windows and gates, separated by deep waterless gorges and ravines, form a national nature reserve, deservedly popular with Slovakian walkers and climbers. Its forested and round-topped limestone ridges are also much more typical of Slovakia’s mountains than the Tatras, but you’ll find little tourist infrastructure and few English speakers.

Penzion Sulov

Our base, Penzion Sulov, was an attractive self-catered, wooden chalet, equipped with hot showers, comfortable double bedrooms and even a tennis court, and represented amazing value at a week’s cost of only 70 euros each, particularly as it also boasted satellite TV and more than enough space to store and dry the plethora of equipment needed for a hiking/climbing holiday. Situated only five minutes’ walk from the starting point of the climbs and hiking routes, this accessibility put it in a class of its own: no driving hassle or petrol costs, simply get your kit and walk out the door.

The hiking trails offered something for everyone, with expertly-marked paths, colour-coded for difficulty levels ranging from gentle rambles to strenuous hikes. Although elevations peaked at around 800m, some ascents were steep and, with handrails and ladders in strategic points, hikes often resembled via ferratas.

Maniska Tiesnava Gorge

But, with spectacular views from the highest ridges, plus outstanding rock features, castle ruins and a relatively unspoilt ecosystem, this region offered many of the best elements of hiking, concentrated in a compact area easily reached by foot or cycle.

Make sure you visit the 13 metre high Goticka brana (Gothic Gate) rock formation, admire the views from the ruins of Sulovsky hrad (castle) and see the Sulovsky vodopad (waterfall).

During the last 20 years, the Sulov area has developed into something of a paradise for climbers and, today, it is regarded as one of the most interesting areas in Central Europe. For our rock fiends the climbing proved to be a revelation, surprising even the veterans with the quality of the bolting and testing grades on the often bizarre-shaped rocks. And, uniquely, we were the only Brits, as apart from a lone American, our fellow climbers were exclusively Slovakian.

The Súľov rocks are famous for a remarkable collection of plant species, including some very rare orchids. In general the region, although rural, is relatively uncultivated, resulting in delightful meadows of pastel-coloured wildflowers. We didn’t manage to meet the resident lynx, but the forests echoed to the clatter of noisy, brightly coloured birds, while surreal looking butterflies and cleverly camouflaged leaf frogs remained unperturbed by our presence.

Butterfly in meadow

Around a mile away was the hamlet of Sulov, with its brightly painted houses and attractive old church. Its small general store supplied us with enough provisions for the first couple of days and the family from the small bar in the village centre went out of their way to cook us a hearty Slovakian dinner of gulas (goulash) and bryndzove halusky (potato gnocchi) on our first night. But this is an area not yet geared up for tourism. Bars and cafés, although welcoming, were thin on the ground and did not routinely offer meals without prior notice. Coffee was, however, universally excellent.

We self-catered and, from outside the chalet, there was a fairly regular bus service to the nearest town, Bytca. Slovakian buses , like their rail counterparts, are clean and punctual, if rather basic. Towns in this area tend to be an odd mixture of some ornate traditional buildings, interspersed with bleak blocks of Stalinesque flats, along with some pioneer outposts of McDonald’s and Tesco.

Bytca offered little for foodies, but Branko did lead us to one gem: Expresso-Jadran (Micurova, 369/8, 01401 Bytca), a small, unprepossessing café near the bus station. Owned by Branko’s fellow Bosnian, Kurtovic Hasan, a refugee from the civil war of the 1990s, it offered a bewildering range of delicious home-made ice cream and some seriously scrumptious pastries, particularly a mouth-watering sour cherry strudel, to accompany its strong, heady espressos.

If you want a cheap, peaceful, safe holiday with a range of outdoor activities for all ages right outside your door, in a beautiful, undiscovered, part of Europe, then visit Sulovske Skaly before everyone else does. Don’t go if you need wall-to-wall tourist infrastructure, upmarket restaurants, clubs and bars, fast food and western consumerism.

How to get there

Sulovske Skaly may be unsung, but it’s easily reached.Take the train (use Seat 61  for info on rail travel throughout Europe). Slovakia, nestling cosily between Vienna and Budapest, by rail is a breeze, more civilised and, with group bookings and unrestricted luggage, can be better value.

Map of area

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