So, half a year has passed since Boot and Bike last blogged. This morning I cycled in a pleasant 20 degrees, under a soft blue sky, peppered by puffy white clouds and, whilst January’s post appropriately eulogised about the snow, seasonal meteorological milestones are far from the only changes in a rather eventful six months.
Winter to summer; south to north; rural to urban; Trent to Clyde; level to hilly: a list of almost polar opposites. Throw in some other seismic events, such as a landmark (for ominous reasons) general election and it’s been quite a turnaround.
So having swapped the safe and leafy lanes of the Trent Valley for the edgier banks of the lower Clyde (inadvertently, I’ve always found myself within striking distance of some of our great rivers, now I’m literally in touching distance) and with a couple of months of housesitting, a further two confined to a camp bed until the furniture arrived, plus six week’s of marking thrown in for good measure, what’s the verdict so far?
Wonderful! Although deliveries, deadlines and essential domestic installations have restricted possible outings, having a cycle path outside the front window was always a large part of the deal and, so far, it certainly hasn’t disappointed.
15 minutes into town one way, 10 minutes into the countryside the other, all level, traffic-free, bordered by the vibrant shades of midsummer wild flowers, with rabbits, foxes, herons and even the odd deer for company; absolute bliss.
The Dear Green Place doesn’t usually feature on the lists of the most cycle-friendly cities and there is still a long way to go, but armed with a cycle-specific satnav and a good waterproof jacket (my priority clothing purchase), it is perfectly possible to get from A to B using traffic-free, or less busy roads, enjoying a different perspective on the city into the bargain.
Being appointed a paper girl by the Glasgow Women’s Library has not only been my most creditable achievement so far – narrowly beating my growing expertise at flat-pack assembly – but has also provided the ideal excuse to navigate my way around the streets delivering their publications and sampling some decent coffee en route: indeed, I can feel a “Best Coffee and Cake’ post coming on.
This morning’s jaunt round the cosmopolitan bars and delis of Shawlands was complemented by a sunny lunch in the exquisite Hidden Garden at the Tramway – spoilt only by a massive gull stealing the last quarter of my toast, before having the audacity to return to clear the plate it had knocked off the table!
Welcome to Glasgow, where even the gulls are gallus.
A perfect day to enjoy the wonderful Hidden Garden – just watch out for the gulls
Yes, I admit it’s difficult to justify driving hundreds of miles in a rather ancient, high emission vehicle on a site dedicated to walking, cycling and sustainable travel, so I’ll get my apologies (if not justification) in first.
Driving, indeed, is something I avoid wherever possible, especially in vehicles where some kind of technical nous is required to work out how to operate the locks, or open the doors. Nonetheless, after spending a few enjoyable stays in a (static) VW camper, I decided that it might be time to swap the rigours of nights under canvas for the greater comforts of a bed – as well as cooker/fridge – in a metal box.
Given that everyone else I know seems to be back at work, the small vans and people carriers of Spaceship Campervan Rentals seemed to fit the bill. Painted in what appears to be the same livery as used by Easyjet, they don’t exactly have the charm or appeal of a VW, but their size was ideal for me and, although the top line relocation deal of £1 per day from Edinburgh to London was somewhat disingenuous (considering the scratches, dents and scrapes adorning the paintwork, taking out the excess reduction bond at an additional £15 per day turned out to be an essential option) and fuel economy was not nearly as frugal as claimed, I managed to secure train travel to and from both locations at reasonable cost and the full package still worked out at reasonable cost.
Fortunately, I had read through Spaceship’s website and was aware of its rather bizarre geographical understanding – ‘Edinburgh’ actually turns out to be Cowdenbeath, over the Forth Bridge in the Kingdom of Fife: an aberration dismissed with weary acceptance by my ‘Yes’ supporting taxi driver as all you could expect “fae them in London that doesnae ken or care anything about Scotland.”
(For another example from the Spaceships’ school of eccentric geography, take a look at their advice on planning a trip to the north of England, when they begin by suggesting you head to the south coast at Canterbury! History and understanding of the difference between England and Britain are not too hot either: terming the monarchy as English, on the same page, might prove rather incendiary to both sides in the referendum debate.)
I digress and, as it happens, the staff at Cowdenbeath were friendly and helpful and the view of the iconic railway bridge as I drove over the Firth of Forth, almost worth the 40 minute train ride out of Edinburgh.
My original intention had been to theme the journey round the topic of the referendum,travelling between the two ancient capitals, united for 300 years and looking at what links and divides them, by way of some of England’s historic cities including Durham, York, Lincoln and Norwich. In the event, practicalities like Friday afternoon traffic, an under performing engine and total fatigue from ‘a different day, another location’ rationalised the itinerary somewhat.
Durham, York, as well as Oxford were duly visited and the depressing assessment is that so much is similar in these ‘heritage’ centres, the difficult task is to find any real difference, certainly in their shops and tourist offerings. Each one of them deserves much more than the single afternoon I was able to spare: allocate at least a day, forget the shops and concentrate on what is actually unique in each city, whether that be the cathedral, castle, colleges or theatre.
Instead, I found the real highlight to be the diverse topography of country and coast. England has some lovely landscapes – routinely ignored by its own nationals in their rush to reach the tourist traps of the Lakes and Cornwall – from the stone-clad cottages dotted across the moors of north Yorkshire – idyllic in the sun, unforgiving in winter – to the water colour beaches of the Norfolk coast. And don’t forget the south east. It’s not all London and commuterville: you might only be 40 minutes from the centre of the capital, but the rolling hills of the Chilterns and Downs and extensive woodlands of Surrey are attractively bucolic and provide some of the most quintessential English vistas found anywhere in the country.
An undoubted plus was the discovery of more excellent and individual campsites. Three in particular stand out:
Mortonhall in Edinburgh; not normally my kind of place as it is large and contains caravans, but it is well run, staff are attentive and informative and the site combines easy proximity to the city with a beautiful parkland location.
Highside Farm in Middleton-in-Teesdale; small, immaculate, surrounded by exquisite countryside and situated on a working farm, complete with inquisitive hens and affectionate springer spaniels.
Town Farm near Ivinghoe; only 40 minutes from London, but surrounded by the sumptuous landscape of the Chilterns and the Ridgeway.
For someone not generally enamoured with driving, I completed the week with considerably more empathy and understanding for those who have to live their lives up and down Britain’s roads: sure there are plenty of idiots, but there are many more sensible and considerate drivers. I also developed a much greater appreciation of out-of-town supermarkets, park-and-ride facilities and coffee outlets (yes, you read correctly; coffee chains!) After spending hours trundling along boring roads in unending traffic, it really did surprise me how relieved I was to find a reasonably clean toilet, petrol, drinkable coffee, WiFi and unfailingly pleasant staff, all in one location.
As ever, the positive experiences outweigh any negative ones, so thank you, in no particular order, to the non-judgemental ex-traffic policeman who gave me important advice about my front tyre, the manager and staff at Costa in King’s Lynn for their local advice and rather good coffee, Pedro at Euston for his excellent cortado and Richard and Stephanie at Highside for looking after their visitor so well.
Final verdict: interesting, lucky with the weather and glad I finally did it, but in future, I reckon I’ll stick to my boots, bikes and tents.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A bicycle cafe! Sounds like my Elysium: a vision of freshly-brewed coffee, artisan baking, all kinds of bicycles and bike memorabilia in an accessible urban space – where you can even park your own bike right next to your table. Probably a delusion though, I mean no one place could actually provide all my favourite things; could it?
Well yes. As soon as I entered Siempre Bicycle Cafe last week, all my habitual cautious pessimism evaporated as I sensed the heady aroma of roasted coffee, noticed the cool retro cycling prints and was warmly welcomed by the friendly staff. Invited to look around, things just got better: in addition to the combination of my favourite object and drink of choice, the cafe also offers bike maintenance, aims to attract and encourage women cyclists and stocks singular gear that is perfect for cycling but doesn’t look like cycling kit.
Located in Glasgow’s West End, right next door to Kelvinhall Subway Station, the cafe defines itself on its locally-sourced and organic produce, such as Tapas breads and Dear Green coffee. It’s open from 6.30am, providing healthy breakfast options to hungry commuters and the cafe space can be hired for special occasions and celebrations.
And outside, once current construction work is complete, will be transformed into an inclusive space where commuters can leave their bikes, diners can relax in the sun and kids can learn to cycle.
Siempre is not just for cyclists though. The spacious interior is equally pram and luggage friendly and the free, fast in-house WiFI, makes the cafe ideal for impromptu meetings, as well as social and work related net surfing.
Combining my love of coffee, cake and bikes in some form has always been one of my life ambitions. While my aspirations remain firmly in the dream category for the moment, I’m more than happy to enjoy Siempre’s excellent realisation of three of my favourite things.
On your bike, on foot, en route to and from the subway, to Kelvingrove or the Riverside, pop into Siempre and see how a derelict and unused city building can be transformed into a vibrant and co-operative urban space.
Any initiative that encourages and facilitates more people to cycle has to be positive and, when it also includes creamy flat whites, melt-in-the-mouth fudge and freshly baked bread, what’s not to like?
Well done Siempre, I’m already looking forward to my next visit.
Even the grey, raw dawn didn’t detract from the splendour of St Pancras as I dragged my damp baggage out of the Euston Road drizzle sometime before five am. Despite the early hour, it was clear Eurostar’s “cheap” deals were proving popular as the terminal was busy and the queue for the the only coffee outlet already snaked into the departure lounge. However, Cafe Nero’s young baristars coped resolutely and the short wait enabled me to strike up a conversation with the guy in the tiger suit (who everyone else was staring at, but wouldn’t talk to) cycling to Andalucia for MacMillan Cancer Support – hi Cathal, hope it went well. You can read more about his challenge here
Although it seemed difficult to believe, this was my first Euro tour for nearly three years; injury and the increasingly pernicious demands of a depressing day job interfering with my travel plans in the interim. This time, I had chosen to travel during the day, in order to enjoy the scenery, heading initially to Turin, before eventually stepping out into a warm Florentine evening with the Renaissance facade of Santa Maria Novella straight in front of me.
Thursday May 10 2012:
Florence: the city that first took my breath away as a 16 year old and now, still as beautiful, but inevitably, even more crowded than I remember it. The Albergo Duilio hotel is interesting in a quirky kind of way – a traditional building, small, but very clean, with a clever, en suite wet room, in an almost perfect location within walking distance of city, but away from crowds and, in Vincenzo, an extremely hospitable and helpful host. It also provides an ideal Italian breakfast: a voucher for coffee and pastry at the cafe across the road, the Cafe Communarde.
So, I start my first day in Italy proper with a velvety cappuccino, standing at the bar alongside some tasty Italian airline crew. Suitably invigorated, I cross the road to the Arno and stroll along towards the Ponte Vecchio.
Even at 10 am it’s packed and, after a quick wander across to take in the views, I head back and up towards the Uffizi to sniff around the plethora of tours available. Deciding to trust my own (fading) knowledge of Renaissance art later on, I head into the Piazza della Signoria and marvel at the statues – yes I know this David is a copy, but Neptune and Perseus are awesome and the Rape of the Sabine Women finally persuades me my hopeless school Latin wasn’t totally in vain.
One of Florence’s key attractions is its compact centre and, after securing a late afternoon slot at the Uffizi from the booth at Orsanmichele (no queuing and no additional charges) I head up past the Cathedral and stop for a few moment to look at the Duomo and Baptistry.
It’s difficult to keep a space even for a few minutes, but Brunelleschi’s masterpieces retain their magic, even after five centuries.
On a hot, sunny day, the next logical stop is the marvellous Mercato Centrale, whose stalls groan under the weight of cheese, ham and plump fresh vegetables. To get there, however, I have to negotiate the street stalls with their equally tempting array of leather goods and scarves, but fortunately I’m hungry, so for now anyway, I avoid the lure of a gorgeous Gladstone bag and follow my stomach to the food market.
After an afternoon nap, I’m back at the Uffizi for five pm. It’s busy, but not oppressively so and, although it’s difficult to secure an unrestricted view of Primavera, or the Birth of Venus, it’s empty enough in the early rooms to see the works of the Lippi family and and also, later on, to compare the Italian masters with the more realist school of Northern Europe.
There’s never any a definitive length of time you should spend in a gallery, but an hour and a half seems about right: just enough to take in the depth of art treasure on show, but not too much to be overwhelmed.
All these marvels have made me hungry, again, so it’s back over the Ponte Vecchio in search of some sustenance. Found my way to Il Rifrullo busy, but not with tourists and aperitivo buffet (€7 with drink) so good I doubt I’ll need any dinner.
From here it’s a short hop to Piazzale Michelangelo: where else to watch the sun setting over Florence and the Arno?
Friday May 11 2012:
The day starts well: another excellent coffee and more interesting airline guys. I try out a dummy run to the station in advance of tomorrow’s early start, waylaid en route, by a visit to the city’s English bookshop. More seriously, I find myself drawn back to the street market and, in particular, the leather stalls. I can be very persuasive when I want to convince myself I really need something, so force myself back on track to today’s first port of call –
This is my first visit and I spend the rest of the morning and early afternoon enthralled by the masterpieces adorning this Dominican church. Masaccio’s fresco of The Trinity, Giotto’s Crucifix, Filippino Lippi’s frescoes for the Capella di Filippo Strozzi, before you even reach Ghirlandaio’s altar. A few more steps, another masterpiece: in some ways this is the highlight of revisiting Florence and the experience is marred only by a handful of brash American women taking photographs when specifically instructed not to do so.
A late lunch, a further selection of sumptuous leather bags and another plausible salesman – it would make more sense to wait until the final day of the holiday, but will they have these bags in Turin? – followed by a couple of hours reading in the shade.
Five pm and it’s cooled sufficiently for me to head back to the Campanile.
I still have a tiny instamatic print of the rooftops of Florence, taken on my school trip, its faded colours looking almost naive in today’s digital age. Today, the vistas taking in the domes and towers of the city, the Arno and its bridges and the surrounding Tuscan hills, are still stunning, their unique shades highlighted by the lowering sun.
This evening’s photos are sharper, but also the final confirmation I need another memento of Florence’s beauty to remember this visit. So, back to the leather stalls, momentarily panic when I can’t find the one I want, out with the credit card and then collapse into nearest bar, racked with guilt and the frightening realisation I have already spent the equivalent of Italy’s national debt on a leather bag.
However, every cloud and all that because, despite its dowdy decor and basic furniture, this place does a mean glass of rosario, the buffet is equally good and, it’s 1€ less than last night. Unfortunately, in my initial hysteria, I completely forgot to memorise the name of the bar.
Saturday May 12 2012:
All too soon, my two days in Florence have come to an end and, just after 7.30 am, I thank Vincenzo for his hospitality, grab a quick coffee – clearly too early for the pilots today – and head for the station.
After my first visit I vowed I’d come back. Now, I mean to return again, maybe in the winter, maybe as part of a wider tour of Tuscany and its hills and towns. But, I will come back. Florence has that effect on me.
The train is routinely packed, but comfortable and on time. The trains also provide excellent storage space for large items of baggage at the end of each carriage – Virgin Trains, take note. Despite this, most of the Italian passengers seem intent on keeping their luggage, no matter how large or heavy, right beside them on their seats!
Rome: a city I’ve always wanted to visit but, until now, never quite arrived at. Termini station is log-jammed, but despite the crowds, the information booths are well-staffed and helpful and I’m soon making a (lengthy) walk to a peripheral platform for my first taste of Rome’s suburban transport system. And, it doesn’t disappoint: 1€ fare, fast trains with adequate space every 15 minutes, what’s not to like?
I emerge out of Trastevere station to chaotic arterial traffic and a burning sun. Fortunately, the Hotel Roma Trastevere is only a few metres along the Viale di Trastevere and I’m able to park my expanding baggage until check in. Unfortunately, I forgot to ask for a map, so spend a rather pointless three hours mooching about in the immediate vicinity of the hotel. However, a tiny Arab cafe provides good coffee and an enormous sandwich and the views from the hill behind the main street open up right across the city, heightening my anticipation of what is to come.
This hotel is, in direct contrast to the Albergo Duilio, modern andrather soulless in its public areas. However, the bedrooms are roomy, with a small balcony and the exquisitely tiled en suite the kind of facility you look forward to in a decent hotel. And, it supplies a readable map.
So, after a short rest and shower and, armed with said map, I set off to investigate Trastevere after dusk. Quickly realise that if I had wandered a further few hundred metres earlier on, my lunchtime options would have included a cafe, bar or restaurant at every corner along the Via San Francesco. But at least it ensures I intend to make the most of Trastevere, now I’ve actually found it.
The Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere is thronged with families, tourists, street artists and people of all ages enjoying the balmy evening. It’s animpressive church, thought to be the first place of Christian worship in Rome and I nip in quietly, trying not to disturb the on-going Mass. Mosaics of saints and a series of panels by Cavallini are stunning and well-worth a future visit for a closer look.
From the piazza it’s a short hop to Via Moro 15-16 and the divine La Renella. Considered by many to be the best bakery in Rome, its wood-fired ovens produce a delectable range of pizza al taglio, focaccio and biscuits that attract a most diverse range of customers; people waiting for a bus, priests, workers from nearby shops and well-dressed couples on their way for a night out in the city. Take your slice of pizza with you, or eat it at the long bench along the width of the bakery. It’s not salubrious, but at less than €2 for a delicious portion of pizza ai funghi, with mozzarella and pomodoro, I’m not complaining.
Originally the artisan area of Rome,Trastevere’a narrow streets, closeted squares, trattorias, cafes, bars and night clubs are now some of the most popular areas of the city, for residents and tourists alike. Even past nine pm, it’s still possible to browse a bookshop, or look round a boutique between sipping a cocktail and enjoying some traditional and (for Rome) reasonably- priced cooking in traditional and unpretentious restaurants.
Sunday May 13 2012:
Benefitting from a comfortable and uninterrupted night’s sleep, I’m up and about early, determined to make the most of my only full day in Rome. The hotel breakfast (usual unappetising stuff at an extra €6) is easily resisted, so I grab a decent enough cappuccino and pastry at the bar next door, before catching the No8 tram into the city.
In less than 10 minutes, I’m stepping off the tram in Largo di Torre Argentina. My plan is to see the Pantheon and Piazza Navona, check out the best coffee and also take in a few of the beautiful, small churches in the Centro Storico before it gets too hot and crowded. It’s hardly ambitious, but I’m not going to see all that Rome has to offer in a day and, part of the thrill of visiting the Eternal City, is to discover the wonders of the little, unheralded churches found on almost every corner of the city centre.
The Pantheon doesn’t disappoint and, standing for a few moments to appreciate this magnificent building, it is impossible not to wonder how it continues to stay up, without any apparent arches and vaults.
It’s not yet crowded, but busy enough to share the view of Raphael’s tomb:
“Living, great nature feared he might out vie Her works, and dying, fears herself may die.”
Pieto Bembo’s inscription sums up, not just the impact of the great artist, but of the Pantheon itself.
I want to savour the memory of the Pantheon before it merges with the other sights I hope to see, so head east along to the Plazza San Eustachio to try out what is generally regarded as the best coffee in the city, at its eponymous cafe.
This tiny shop, selling all things coffee on one side, with a bar on the other was already crowded with locals and other tourists. Quickly learning the etiquette, I’m rewarded with the best creamy cappuccino I’ve ever tasted. It’s so good I almost order another, but promise myself that abstinence now will be rewarded later with a chance to sample their macchiatos.
Suitably rejuvenated, I walk back towards the Piazza Navona and, although the square is already filling with people,
the magnificent Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi still draws my eye and I’m hard pressed to drag myself away from Bernini’s magical fountain celebrating the four great rivers of the world.
It now hits me (better late than never, I suppose) that trying to visit churches on a Sunday morning is not my greatest-ever idea, given that I don’t intend to participate in Mass and, after a disappointing stop at La Caffeteria – coffee very good, but pretentious service and silly prices – stroll down Via del Corso past the bizarre Palazzo Venezia and thence along to Arco di Tito.
My next visit will concentrate on Classical Rome, as opposed to the Baroque centre, but today even just looking in on some of the ancient monuments, it is humbling to think of them in a historical context. How appropriate then, that on this sunny Sunday morning in May 2012, the entire length of the Via dei Fori Imperiali is packed full of children playing a mini-football tournament in the shadow of the Colosseum, the most famous arena of all.
Monday May 14 2012:
Pack up my goods and chattels, leave in the luggage room and head back into the city. I start with the Jesuit church of Sant’Ignazio and wonder around the spacious interior, gazing at the amazing Baroque ceiling showing St Ignatius entering paradise and trying to reconcile that with my understanding of the contribution to humanity of Ignatius and the Jesuits. Ignatius, of course, isn’t actually buried here: he’s in the Gesu church a short stroll away that, conveniently, can be easily reached via San Eustachio cafe.
Decide that, despite the shortages of time, I can’t really leave Rome without at least seeing the Vatican. So, head back to find a bus – not sure which bus, but follow the priests and nuns congregated round the a particular stop and, happily, this piece of inspired logic delivers me safely to St Peter’s Square in under 15 minutes.
Seeing the Sistine Chapel is high on my list of “to-dos”, but that will have to wait for another visit. On this sunny, but fresh morning – ideal for my kind of sightseeing, but the Italians are swaddled in scarves and down jackets – I’m content to wander among the colonnades in Bernini’s best-known piazza, taking in the extent, both of the square, but also the beauty of the Basilica and its dome.
Back in the city, I make a point of seeing the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome’s only Gothic church and home to a host of art treasures. Filippino Lippi’s fresco of the Assumption in the Carafe chapel takes my breath away and I’m thrilled to stand for a few minutes in front of Michelangelo’s Christ Bearing the Cross.
But, unfortunately, that’s it, my time in Rome is up and it’s off to Tiburtina station to catch the bus to the Abruzzo the next stage of my travels.
I say my goodbyes to Kevin and Jacqui as they drop me at Pescara station – very impressive modern building with good catering outlets and lots of lovely escalators to transport me and my ever-more-heavy bags. The sun’s out and Pescara, which looks almost like a resort on the Cote d’Azure, becomes another destination awaiting a return.
Another comfortable, civilised train journey – just how will I cope with Virgin and London Midland after this? – but the weather worsens as we head north and, by the time we reach Bologne, it’s as grey and dull as November in the Lake District.
Fortunately, the HotelInternazionale/en is well within trolley-bag distance of the station and I’m able to check in immediately.This is the most luxurious of the hotels on my trip, and today its comfortable room and plush ensuite are a welcome treat for my end-of-holiday shabbiness and constantly throbbing ankle.
Bologne is compact and its characteristic porticos are ideal in the afternoon downpours – Glasgow take note – enabling me to wander about fairly aimlessly without getting soaked. I suss out Bottega del Caffe and convince myself that 200g of their speciality coffee won’t make too much difference to my overweight bags. Their chocolate, disappointingly, is less impressive and a macchiato in the cafe is average at best.
Bologna is now considered by some as the foodie capital of Italy, however, this evening I sample the more basic end of its culinary offerings with a visit to Pizzarie Altero, virtually across the Via Indipendenza from the hotel. Ignore the strip lighting and wait your turn in the queue and you will be rewarded with an excellent choice of pizza al taglio (up there competing with Renella) for under €2 a slice.
Bologne’s history as a hot bed of socialism has always intrigued me and its leftish leanings are still evident in the names of many of its streets and squares and any city with Rosa Luxemburg as a bus terminal definitely deserves another visit – a taste of socialism perhaps might be an appropriate theme to sample its culinary and political heritage in the future?
Tuesday May 22 2012:
Another day, another train journey: this time the short hop (90 minutes) to Turin and the end of my tour. Fortunately, the sun is shining and Hotel Dock Milano (not as plush as yesterday and en suite wet room even smaller than in Florence, but perfectly adequate once I get the safe to work) is right across the road from the station.
Usual story of too much to see and far too little time at my disposal, so concentrate on getting a feel for the city and checking out some of the best cafes. Start by grabbing a sandwich and drink and head for the nearest park and, already, pick up on one novel aspect of Turin’s street life: the mobile book cart, stationed at the corner of streets and squares.
I’m soon on my way to Via San Tommaso, to visit its eponymous cafe, reputably the original home of Lavazza. First impressions are heartening – a little bar packed with non-touristy looking people drinking small cups of coffee.
And the verdict? The macchiato from heaven, the very best I’ve ever tasted; honestly. It’s only two pm and I do want to see more of Turin, so, regrettably, I force myself away from San Tommaso without trying its famous bicerin (cappuccino fortified with brandy) vowing to return this evening.
Given its location on the northern borders of Italy, some of Turin’s most famous cafes have more in common with those in central Europe. Indeed, Baratti and Milano and Cafe Mulassano would not look out of place in Vienna or Budapest. But be warned, although the gelato in B&M and coffee in Mulassano were both excellent, the prices you pay for gazing at their marble fittings and Belle Epoque interiors are high and in B&M be prepared to be treated with contempt by some of its more mature staff.
Continuing my sequence of cheap eats, in the evening I dine at Brek An interesting concept, and very popular with workers, families and sole diners, it’s essentially a self-service restaurant where you choose whatever combination whets your taste buds. My generous portions of pasta, salad, bread, fruit salad, bottle of water, 250ml jug of house red and coffee came in at a very reasonable €13.
Wednesday May 23:
The last day of my tour of Italy and, with some sadness, I cross the road to Porta Susa station just after seven am in time to catch the TGV back to Paris.
Travelling to Italy by train is easy, enjoyable and economic, read my tips on how to go about it.
Coffee: can’t quite decide between San Eustachio in Rome and San Tommaso in Turin, so will go for the cappuccino in San Eustachio and the macchiato in San Tomasso
Gelato: has to be the amaretto flavour in Baratii and Milano, Turin, despite the service
Pizza: no competition here: La Renella in Rome
Hotel: toss up between the style and facilities of Hotel Internazionale in Bologne and the hospitality, original building and location of Albergo Duilio in Florence
Overall: probably re-visiting Florence, but Raphael’s tomb in the Pantheon comes a close second
And: being able to travel across western Europe and around cities, using efficient, clean, affordable public transport, although this always makes returning to the UK’s third word infrastructure eminently depressing
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.