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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08 Dec 2013

Loco2

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Last evening I booked rail tickets from my local station in Staffordshire to Milan, via London and Paris. Usually (this is the third time in 18 months I will travel this particular route and, as a lover of long-distance European rail travel, I’ve also journeyed to Munich, Venice, Vienna, Ljubljana, Budapest, Geneva, Lausanne and various destinations in France and the Low Countries over recent years) I refer to Seat61 for advice first, then book from Paris/Brussels to my destination on Rail Europe fit in the outward and inward connections on Eurostar and finally try to find the most reasonable fares to and from London on one of the many UK rail ticketing sites; a process at which I’m now reasonably adept, but which involves juggling four or five open webpages simultaneously and can be time-consuming.

This time I decided try out a new site Loco2  that allows travellers from the UK the opportunity to buy tickets direct from their local station to hundreds of European destinations.  Verdict: completed the entire process, including registering, paying by credit card and printing tickets in a twenty minute window between finishing dinner and the start of Borgen.

Admittedly, as I can be rather obsessive about checking connections, as well as ensuring I  find the best available price, I had previously checked the above sites earlier in the day and I still booked the journey in three stages (to catch the early Eurostar I have to leave the day before and stay overnight in London, so this made booking it as one single journey slightly more complicated) but being able to do so on a single site and with one payment, was far quicker and far easier – and the price wasn’t bad either, at £51 each way first class between Paris and Milan

So, well done Loco2 for an innovative and efficient site and thanks, as always, to Seat61 for continuing to provide everything anyone needs to know about train travel. I’m now looking forward to my week’s snowshoeing at the end of January in beautiful Abruzzo, smugly satisfied that I can take as much equipment as I can carry, without baggage penalties, as well as having the luxury of sitting back in my first class seat enjoying the snow-covered Alps on my way there.

And by the way, unlike Ryanair et al, on Loco2 apart from a credit card charge, there are no hidden extras and no nasty add-ons.

 

 

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06 Nov 2013

Autumn: even more depressing than usual this year?

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I must admit that autumn is my least favourite season. I always mourn the end of summer; dark mornings and evenings hamper my cycling time and make walking and running over my well-trodden cross country route well nigh impossible, while I equate falling leaves and withering flowers with death and I’ve never been a great fan of fireworks and bonfires.

But while I accept that not everyone, fortunately, shares my depression at the onset of winter and, indeed, for many, the russet kaleidoscope and misty vistas make it their favoured time of the year, for everyone with any kind of concern for our wildlife and environment the last few months have, arguably, witnessed the most worrying and threatening period in living memory.

dorsetoct2007 047

Economic austerity is now being used effectively by politicians and others as a convenient excuse to justify scaling back and abandoning necessary environmental measures, such as withdrawing subsidies for solar energy and blaming so-called ‘green taxes’ for high energy bills.

Meanwhile, according to the  UN  the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen to record levels, again,  while all corners of the planet face increasingly unpredictable and destructive weather conditions.  However, politicians across the globe, from George Osborne, to Canada’s Stephen Harper and the avowed Australian climate sceptic Tony Abbott, have become increasingly vocal in their attempts to rubbish the idea of man-made climate change, contending that we currently cannot afford to indulge in the luxury of environment concern.

Well, we don’t need to look too far to find the influence of the fossil fuel sector, desperate to preserve their profits from their carbon-heavy polluting industries and only too happy to sponsor mouthpiece politicians in Westminster and Washington: climate scepticism now joining creationism as the poster boys for the most irrational politics of the 21st century.  Meanwhile, over the last five years, Canada and Australia have swum against the tide of economic austerity on the back of their reserves of dirty oil and gas, abandoning any pretence of environmental concern in favour of making a fast buck or two.

But even more alarming is how much of the population have been taken in by the disingenuous argument that we cannot afford green measures – particularly given that the truth is we simply cannot afford, either environmentally, or economically, not to move to more sustainable forms of energy.  Recent polling shows categorically that concern about the environment and support for green measures have fallen considerably over the last six years; tragically at the very time when it is needed more than ever.

Unfortunately, not only are we enduring the least green government ever – any party who awards the environmental portfolio to the hapless, odious and useless Owen Paterson deserves nothing but contempt – but neither can we look for any real environmental leadership anywhere else within traditional politics, with one or two honourable exceptions, such as Caroline Lucas and Mary Creagh.

But, however depressing the situation, we cannot allow ourselves the luxury of sitting back, hopelessly accepting there is nothing we can do.  We are dealing with the future of our planet and nothing – not economic activity, not international terrorism, as a recent poll in the Guardian confirmed – is more important than that.

Instead, we should look to the growing army of activists, from No Dash for Gas to the heroic alliance of decent, ordinary people opposed to the invidious badger cull and those brave enough to blow the whistle on the illegally killing of our indigenous wildlife who, through organisation, resourcefulness and courage, have faced down intimidation and the threat of arrest to bring home to the public just what is happening in and to their countryside.

And it is these brave and committed people who offer a optimistic chink of light, even to this self-confessed pessimist in this dark and dismal autumn. We need to look at the protests taking place throughout the country, read the majority of comments about fracking and the cull, even within media outlets that usually support the establishment and do whatever we can to continue our fight to preserve and protect our environment and those who live in it.

We won’t have the luxury of a second chance.

 

 

 

 

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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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20 Mar 2013

Review of Cicerone Guide: The Rhine Cycle Route

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My first reward when receiving this guide was to discover that, not only was there a networked cycle route following the entire course of the Rhine, but here was a detailed route guide, complete with background information, advice on general and bike specific preparation, plus help with food, accommodation and general services en route.

Cicerone's new guide: The Rhine Cycle Route

Cicerone’s new guide: The Rhine Cycle Route

Tracing the route of a river, from its infant source through to its final entry into an estuary, or the sea, has always fascinated me, particularly in analysing how that river has affected habitation and human activity along its course. When that river is the Rhine and its 1300km course passes through six countries, following its route will provide a unique insight into a variety of different cultures, as well as an appreciation of how the Rhine has shaped and influenced the great events in European history over the centuries, from the Romans, through internecine Medieval conflict to the Second World War.

For cyclists, particularly those embarking on a long-distance ride, complete with packed panniers and other equipment distributed across their bikes, the idea of a route following a river has instant appeal as, by definition, it will be downhill all the way. As the Rhine’s source is located high among the Swiss mountains – conveniently accessed by a bike-carrying train – then this route provides the mouth-watering prospect of free-wheeling down the steep early stages, before enjoying some relatively easy pedalling along the flat agricultural land of the Netherlands towards journey’s end at the North Sea.

The topography also makes this route suitable for cyclists, who as long as they possess a reasonable degree of fitness, do not necessarily have to be experienced or super fit. Indeed, the comprehensive, non-technical advice contained in this guide is particularly well-suited to enthusiastic, would-be cycle tourers who  have not previously completed a long-distance ride.

Plenty of pictures and maps to keep you on the right route

Plenty of pictures and maps to keep you on the right route

As with all Cicerone guides, the Rhine Cycle Route is amply illustrated with photographs of many places of interest, as well as containing a wealth of vital maps, showing the best passages through urban areas and detailed sections outlining each stage of the route. And even allowing for its 250 pages, its compact size makes it ideal for convenient stashing in the back pocket of a cycling shirt.

Sadly, I was a little disappointed with some inaccuracies in the section detailing how to reach the route by rail. Given the wealth of detail elsewhere, clearly based on painstaking research, this might seem like an over pedantic moan, but as getting to the start of a cycle route should always been done in as carbon-friendly method as possible, it would be a shame if this discourages some people from taking the train to the start.

It is perfectly possible to book in advance and take your bike with you on the same Eurostar service. It costs £30 and this service has been available for several years (although not from Ebbsfleet or Ashford). Alternatively, you can turn up on the day with your bike, pay £25 and, in 80 per cent of cases, it will travel on the same train: if not, Eurostar guarantees it will arrive at your Eurostar destination within 24 hours. Bikes don’t have to be boxed and Eurostar no longer carries boxed bikes in the luggage areas

The recently updated Eurostar site has a user-friendly page on cycle carriage  For all matters relating to train travel here and in Europe, do always refer to Mark Smith’s indispensable Seat 61  as this also includes up-to-date information on the growing number of TGV and other high-speed services that are now carrying bikes – Seat 61 I suggest, would be an invaluable addition to the appendix of this and similar guides.

Nerdy train details apart, this is a useful guide to an enticing route and one that has certainly whetted my appetite for a mountain-to-coast ride down the Rhine

 

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27 Jan 2013

Ways to get More of Us Cycling, Part Two: Burn Calories, not Carbon

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I promised some positive suggestions to encourage more people to get on their bikes last time, so what can be more agreeable than talking about food, and its many connections with cycling?

Squares of coconut ice, yum! And small enough to fit into your saddlebag

Cycling has a long association with food and nice places to consume it. The earliest organised cycling groups, such as the Clarion Club, routinely structured their rides round the availability of refreshment stops en route and the pattern continues today: the excellent independent cafe in my village recently extended to seven day opening largely because of the demand from the Sunday morning pelotons.

Having just returned from a breezy hour and half ride this afternoon, what kept me going through a sharp shower and some tricky road conditions was the prospect of a hot cup of tea and some delicious black jack millionaire’s shortbread (my baking, Dan Lepard’s recipe) on my return to a warm kitchen, with the aroma of slow-cooking chicken wafting from the Rayburn.

Yes, I know obesity is one of the most pressing problems facing us as a society but, let’s face it, obesity is not generally the result of treating ourselves to a few pieces of cake every now and again, particularly if it is home-baked from fresh, natural ingredients. The appalling level of obesity in the UK  today is more the result of an imbalanced diet largely composed of processed food, combined with an inadequate level of activity.

Cycling is one of the best ways to combat obesity as it can be enjoyed by virtually all age groups, it gets people out in the fresh air and is best appreciated in a social setting, so also encourages inclusivity. In addition, as a sustainable form of transport with no associated fuel costs it ticks the environmental and economic boxes as well.

But fighting obesity is not just about eating less; it’s about eating the right amount of good food and balancing that with burning an appropriate amount of calories. Trying to lose weight is a long, hard process and, despite what the ‘wonder diets’ say, there are no quick fixes, or miracle cures.

Homemade chocolate truffles

There always needs to be a light at the end of the tunnel, a treat at the end of a long, hard slog. Cycling burns calories, not carbon, and we should continue to celebrate its close connection with coffee shops and tea rooms: a calorific treat, in agreeable company at the end of an active day, can be an ideal way to encourage more people to take to two wheels.

This Friday it’s my turn to host the local Sustran’s volunteer group and, after a 20 odd mile circuit checking signage and considering improved re-routes, it’s back here for copious amounts of tea and coffee, fresh ginger and coffee, cake, freshly baked biscuits and what’s left of the mince pies – a true Boot and Bike Bake Off.

Just off to collect some eggs from my neighbour’s ultra free range hens who appear to have colonised my garden as well.

 

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30 Oct 2012

The Dolomites: a different winter wonderland

No Comments Booting, Tours

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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16 Jul 2012

Cycle the Trossachs National Park

No Comments Biking, Tours

Greener and leaner – think pedal power, and no petrol costs – doesn’t have to be meaner. Cycling may be the car-free, guilt-free way of exploring the spectacular Trossachs National Park, one of Scotland’s most beautiful regions – but it also gives you the chance to sample, en route, the best cakes and coffee to balance the calories expended.

Riverside Museum, Glasgow

Book well in advance, reserve a bike space at the same time with ScotRail  and a single from the Midlands or South-east England to Glasgow can cost as little as £11.50. The process is user-friendly, far more transparent than the average budget airline – and it disproves some negative preconceptions about public transport and bikes in Britain.

Glasgow, known for its museums, shopping, architecture and café culture, is also a surprisingly cycle-friendly start to the route. Check out Glasgow Cycle Map  and use it to tap into the city’s dual legacy of disused railways and canal paths. These comprise a traffic-free route that takes you to Loch Lomond in barely 90 minutes from the Squinty Bridge.

Loch Katrine

Heading west, away from the loch and its coach parties, the gradients steepen through Drymen, towards Aberfoyle, and the beauty of the Lochs and Glens (Sustrans Route 7) becomes obvious as you enter the magical, wooded Trossachs. Cyclists keen to enjoy the braes without the weight of heavily-laden panniers can take advantage of luggage-transporting services.

Cycle touring equals flexibility, allowing a detour to the captivating Loch Katrine. The birthplace of Rob Roy, it also supplies Glasgow’s water – and the system of aqueducts running 34 miles to the city is understandably regarded as a wonder of Victorian engineering. Interestingly, it also freed Glasgow, long notorious for bad housing and poor health, from the scourge of cholera long before any other major British city. In summer, it is possible to combine an 18km circuit of the loch with a steamship tour on the Clyde-built steamship, SS Sir Walter Scott.

Glen Ogle Viaduct

The route then shadows the southern shore of the Highland-esque Loch Venachar to Callander, before heading north to Strathyre. There, the Inn at Strathyre provides a warm welcome, hearty food and regular, impromptu entertainment in the bar – which, for those who want to keep in touch with the wider world, has Wi-fi access. The cosy B&B has a range of double, twin and family rooms and will happily provide packed lunches.

From here the trail follows the old Callander to Oban railway, where your steady ascent may well be monitored by an unimpressed red squirrel. About 10 miles on, the path crosses along another 19th-century engineering marvel, the 60m-high Glen Ogle viaduct, now the exclusive preserve of walkers and cyclists.

From Killin, eastwards along Loch Tay, it’s only a short stretch to Aberfeldy where The Watermill  easily wins the prize for best re-fuelling stop en route. Voted Scottish Independent Bookshop of the Year 2006, it has a café that takes its coffee very seriously. Here, you can relax in peace with a book, a newspaper and a tempting selection of cakes.

Falls of Dochart, Killin

It’s an easy ride along the pretty Tay Valley to Pitlochry, home of the Festival Theatre and just a 90-minute train journey from Glasgow, where you began. The comfortable and friendly Glasgow Guest House is ideally located between the Burrell Collection and Mackintosh’s House for an Art Lover in the city’s Southside. Cycle to both and enjoy a few hours, or more, among some of Glasgow’s best cafes and bars. Alternatively, try out the off-road routes at nearby Pollok Park, or leave your bike at the guest house, take the train into town and take in the art, architecture, culture and wit (not forgetting the shops) of the Second City of the Empire.

Four days, 150 miles, roughly equal expenditure and consumption of calories for £350: it is possible to cut your carbon, stay relatively solvent but still indulge.

Destination Pitlochry

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22 Jun 2012

2012: Could it really be the Year of the Bike?

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Despite the endless rain and generally miserable weather, the early summer of 2012 has seen some positive developments, as far as cycling is concerned. Indeed, adopting the maxim that there is no such thing as bad publicity, it’s been quite a successful year for the bike, in many ways, so far.

On yer bike

Two massive bike rallies, the London ride and Scotland’s  Pedal On Parliament in April, the effective offensive against Addison Lee cabs and the odious sentiments of its CEO, the brilliant Times’ Cities fit for Cycling initiative, and the ‘Love London, Go Dutch’ campaign  that gave cycling issues such a high profile in the London mayoral, election have all kept cycling, and the need for greater safety for cyclists, in the headlines

Indeed cycling world champion and odds-on favourite to be Britain’s first gold medallist in the London Olympics, Mark Cavendish, has added his voice to the fight for greater protection for cyclists and called on Britain to adopt Dutch-style laws on harsher penalties for drivers

The contrast between the Netherlands – where riding a bike to travel from A to B is regarded as perfectly normal – and the UK – where cyclists are frequently regarded as collateral damage by motorists convinced of their “entitlement” to unrestricted use of our roads – could not be more stark, particularly for those trying to negotiate our crowded city junctions, or narrow country lanes.

A fellow Sustrans volunteer, recently back from a tandem holiday in the Netherlands made the following observations:

  • bicycles everywhere, ridden by all age groups
  • school teachers with bicycles, schoolchildren in tow, each wheeling their bicycle
  •  huge cycle racks at stations; bicycles parked at bus tops; outside shops; everywhere you look!
  • the city of Leiden; the centre was full of people and bicycles but hardly any cars!  It was busy yet so quiet
  • can you believe this: first time we went out – on the tandem – we approached a ‘Toucan’ style crossing.  Though well away from the crossing, I was getting ready to stop and put my foot on the ground – but the car had already stopped!! Cyclists seem to have precedence – cars always let you across first!!  Its another world!
  • well maintained cycle paths too – often 2-way – either side of the roads, with excellent signing
  • most of the bicycles are traditional ‘sit up and beg’ style with all kinds of goods attached front and rear – including children and girlfriends riding on the rear carriers!

It’s the culture that’s so different: cyclists are regarded as vulnerable people who have an equal right to the highway – and it applies to pedestrians as well.

But while more recent reports confirm the benefits of cycling to everything from the environment  to the economy  the lessons we should be learning from the Dutch still appear to be falling on deaf ears. Norman Baker, the Local Transport Minister may claim that: “Right across Government it is accepted that there is a hard-nosed business case for investing in sustainable local transport, and that includes cycling and walking.”

But his colleague, Mike Penning, the Road Safety Minister, refuses to even consider changing the law: “Making a motorist automatically at fault for an accident with a cyclist, unless he or she can prove otherwise, would be unfair where someone is driving entirely responsibly — or when there is an accident where no one is to blame.”

This lack of logic – championing the advantages of cycling on one hand, but refusing to do anything to make it safer for the majority of people – is perhaps most clearly illustrated on the streets of our capital. On the face of it, cycling would appear to be enjoying a renaissance in London  – up 70% in some places, with the so-called Boris bikes proving very popular – but the incidence of cycling injuries has also risen  and the general profile of users of the cycle hire scheme tends to be young, well-off and male.

Boris Johnson clearly enjoys being portrayed as the bicycling mayor, but if his claim to believe the “cyclised city is a civilised city” is to be taken seriously then he has to do much more to achieve this.His attitude to the notorious Elephant and Castle roundabout – the junction that received most complaints in the Times’ campaign – is a case in point. His blasé response that it was perfectly negotiable “if you keep your wits about you,” might attract some deluded lycra-clad thrill seekers, but will do nothing to encourage women, older people, parents and those who haven’t cycled for years to get back on their bikes.

These are ordinary people, the same kind of people who ride their bikes every day in Holland and Scandinavia; the kind of people we need to encourage to start cycling to work, or to the shops and to regard cycling as an ideal form of transport, not just a recreational pursuit.

If we can start to do this, then 2012 really will be a good year for the bike.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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05 Jun 2012

Tips for Travelling to Italy by Train

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It is incredibly easy to take the train to Italy – or indeed, anywhere else in western Europe – and, when travelling overnight and going direct between city centres is taken into consideration, it can be just as quick and significantly less disruptive than air travel. For example, you can leave St Pancras late afternoon and be in Milan in time for breakfast – this includes time for an evening meal and a comfortable night’s sleep – and this compares very favourably with getting up in the middle of the night, spending a couple of hours in a soulless airport terminal and arriving early morning in another indistinguishable terminal, miles from your destination.

It can also be considerably cheaper (see Fares) especially if you travel as a group with lots of equipment and when the cost of overnight accommodation is taken into account.

But essentially, long distance rail travel is about adopting a totally different perspective about travel by making the journey an integral part of your trip. Sit back, relax, enjoy the changes in culture and landscapes as you travel and your journey will be one of the highlights of your holiday.

Seat 61 : is your bible when travelling by train. Much of the information and references that follow comes from Seat 61, apart from a few points that I have picked up on my travels. Find out the options of how to travel to Italy

Fares: the same principle of booking as early as possible, now obligatory in the UK, increasingly applies in Europe also. By booking about two months in advance, I secured Eurostar tickets to Paris for £36 each way and paid €32 each way between Paris and Turin, travelling by day. If you are travelling as a group, fares can be as low as £38 for a couchette – remember, this effectively includes your accommodation for the night.

I found Italia Rail the best method of buying tickets. You will be billed in US dollars, but any currency charges are more than offset by the savings made. If you don’t want to pay any currency charges, get yourself a pre-paid currency card, like Caxton

Eurostar : now gets to Paris and Brussels in about two hours. Book in advance and be prepared to travel out with peak hours and you can find good reductions (see above).

You will leave from the stunning St Pancras station, so if you leave during the day you can spend some of the money you’ve saved at the Champagne Bar.

Paris metro tickets are available, but only in books of 10. If you don’t need that many, make sure you have some spare Euro coins available (see below).

Changing stations in Paris: you will arrive at the Gare du Nord and,  will need to take the RER Line D to the Gare de Lyon. Pick up a metro map at St Pancras and work out your route. It’s easy enough, it’s the green line D, just make sure you are going in the right direction by checking the last stop – Melun, Malesherbes on your way there, Orry la Ville Coye Creil on your way back to the Gare du Nord – as you go through the barriers and on the information boards.

A few trains to Italy leave from the Gare de Bercy which is one stop on Line 14 to Bercy from the Gare de Lyon.

Buy a metro ticket from the machines (instructions are available in English). Currently, a single costs €1.70.

Catering outlets are generally better at Gare de Lyon than at Gare du Nord (best to go outside to one of the side streets for a coffee).

Luggage and bicycles: most continental trains have large luggage racks at the end of each carriage – use them and put your smaller stuff in the racks above your seat. Remember, if you are going on an activity holiday, you are likely to have a lot of luggage and you will not be charged extra, as you are on planes.

Seat 61 gives information about travelling with bicycles. Folding bikes and those in bike bags can usually be taken on board with you.

Travelling by day vs travelling overnight: it’s your call, depending on your preferences and available time. If there are only one or two of you, it’s usually cheaper by day and the Alpine scenery is stunning. By going overnight, you use sleeping time to travel and it can be very cheap if there are a few of you.

Getting to Kokopelli: choose your option to Milan, then follow the instructions to Pescara from where you can either hire a car, or travel on to Chieti by bus or train. Use Rail Europe’s search engine  for trains or look at the timetable for the buses.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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