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.
If outrage about the recent carnage of cyclists on London’s streets, can be sustained and channelled into a long-term campaign for safer roads, then the deaths of five riders in just over a week may not be in vain.
Sickeningly, if predictably, the ensuing debate has, again, centred on cyclists ignoring red lights or not wearing helmets, or not being sufficiently visible to drivers. Unfortunately these are only symptoms of the real problem that is repeatedly ignored, or deflected, by those with the power to change, not just the architecture of our roads, but also the culture of those who use them.
Loudest and most repugnant of the reactions has, again, been those of the capital’s ‘Cycling Major’ Boris Johnson. This is the man who, on taking office in 2008, cancelled the proposed congestion charge in the west of the city, allowed fares to rise and aggressively prioritised the smoothing of traffic flow as his key transport policy.
Here is the key to the battle for survival that is now the everyday experience for those using London’s roads and streets. Johnson’s policies have aggressively increased the number of private cars on the roads – added to the surfeit of heavy vehicles involved in delivering materials to the mass of building sites around the city – while high fares and falling incomes have been two of the most important factors in encouraging more people to cycle commute.
With the increase in bikes and vehicles now colliding head on in the streets of London, the inevitable effect is seen in the rise of casualties on the most vulnerable road users. Appallingly, 69 pedestrians died on London’s roads last year: a little-known and tragically ignored statistic. And all Boris can offer are a few blue-painted stretches of road that many cyclists consider actually increase the risks they face.
These problems are exacerbated, but not confined to London. The death toll of cyclists and pedestrians on rural roads – and in provincial towns where cyclists are often regarded as dangerous eccentrics – is also shockingly high and in many places around the country it is simply impossible to walk or cycle along ring roads and by passes.
We have to redesign our roads and streets for the benefit of all road users and to ensure the safety of the most vulnerable. But along with hard design – segregated lanes, low speed limits, car-free zones, more public transport – we also, equally, need to change the prevailing culture of those using our roads.
Too many drivers, and some cyclists, regard their form of transport as a form of entitlement – to go where they like, how fast they like – and, in many cases, see their vehicle as a statement of their power and status. This culture has to change and, as reasoned debate has not worked, then far more drastic penalties for those breaking the law have to be introduced and enforced. Cases, such as that recently, where a driver who has killed two cyclists received only a short driving ban, are derisory and will do nothing to improve road safety. Responsibilities, of course, come with rewards and European-style transport infrastructure has to be accompanied by harsh penalties for cyclists, pedestrians and drivers who disobey the law.
If the carnage on our roads was a disease it would be taken seriously and regarded as a national scandal. We need to start by accepting the roads are there for all road users and not as a circuit for those with the strongest nerve. Until we positively discriminate in favour of the most vulnerable and the most sustainable, Boris’s bluster will remain as ineffective as it is repugnant.
While reluctant to draw any more attention to the latest utterance of that tiresome publicity junkie, Eric Pickles, it is an unfortunate fact that the ‘right to park’ is one issue that generates raised blood pressure in this part of Middle England, even among supposed advocates of sustainable transport.
Mr Pickles’ latest suggestion that motorists should be able to park on double yellow lines for up to 15 minutes has, rightly, been ridiculed, not only by pedestrian and cycling groups, transport experts and safety campaigners, but also several retail spokespeople and even some motoring organisations.
But while this is merely the most recent instalment of Pickles’ unrelenting campaign to remain poster boy for the lazy, selfish, unfit disciples of entitlement and overconsumption in our society, it does raise some interesting, and depressing, insights into the attitude of many towards both car ownership and their ‘right’ to park wherever is most convenient to them.
One of the more heartening set of statistics that has emerged in recent years for those of us trying to improve and encourage sustainable transport throughout the country, has been the fall in overall car ownership. In particular, the results of the last census in 2011 show a marked increase in the number of car-free households. Indeed, in Inner London, the majority of households are now car free, while in Glasgow that figure rises to 65%.
But yes, I hear you cry, that’s in the cities where they have buses, trains, the underground – and, in any case, you can’t compare London with anywhere else in the UK. Life is very different out here in the rest of the country. Too true, and as someone who owns a car, not because I want to, or indeed, enjoy driving it, but because I live in a place with negligible public transport, I am only too conscious of this.
But the point is, as clearly shown by this article even in Inner London where a majority of households are now car-free, infrastructure and transport policies are still, overwhelmingly, being designed round the needs of private car owners. So the requirements of pedestrians and cyclists for safe areas to walk, cycle and socialise continue to be subjugated to the demands of motorists, when instead we need far more than even a level field policy to try to redress the current imbalance in favour of private motorised transport.
This is not a war on the motorist. I am a motorist, but I make no apology for trying to discriminate in favour of the less powerful (and less destructive) pedestrian and cyclist in order to achieve a safer, healthier, more environmentally friendly and more inclusive approach to transport in this country.
Despite what Clarkson and co might try to imply, there is no divine right to own and drive a car. In the UK at the moment, more than 25 per cent of adults do not have access to a private car – mostly for financial reasons, but also because of disability and age-related issues – and the majority of them are excluded from all kinds of employment and leisure activities because of this.
And, in spite of Eric Pickles’ best efforts, there is also no divine right for motorists to park their vehicles in the most convenient places for them. One man’s (or woman’s) accessible parking spot is another’s obstruction or source of danger. Parking on pavements and cycle lanes is potentially dangerous and often makes it impossible for those for whom they were designed to use them safely, or indeed at all.
The last thing we need is an escalation of the simmering conflict between motorists and cyclists we already see in some places. But, if we are serious about trying to emulate the cycling culture of The Netherlands and Scandinavia, then we have to accept that our road space is not big enough to provide safe areas for walking and cycling, while still indulging motorists with the belief that they have a greater claim to the roads, as well as the licence to park wherever is most convenient to them.
The Government could start by belatedly recognising that Eric Pickles is just about the worst mouthpiece possible if it really is serious about trying to improve the nation’s health and fitness (its promise to be the ‘greenest-ever government’ now being totally discredited). Far stricter sentences also need to be introduced and imposed on those who kill and maim other road users through carelessness, inattention and breaking existing laws, such as mobile phone use.
But, above all, those of us who are motorists, but say we are in favour of encouraging more sustainable transport need to put up, or shut up. We can’t have our cake and eat it.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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….
If there is one topic that is bound to engage anyone who attempts to travel sustainably, it is the question of how to convey bicycles on public transport. What is more more interesting though, is how opinion on the best way to do this divides the cycling community itself.
This was brought home to me last week during a discussion with fellow Sustrans’ volunteers over Eurostar’s cycle carriage policy. I must admit I was genuinely surprised by the venom directed towards Eurostar’s ‘new’ policy of charging £30 to convey bikes in a dedicated space.
The reaction intrigued me because, having transported my bike this way last year, I certainly didn’t regard it as a ‘new’ policy. Yet the discussion was apparently stimulated by a request from a cyclists’ organisation to support its opposition and lobby Eurostar to reinstate the previous method of carriage where bikes could be conveyed, free of charge, in suitable bike bags.
It seems strange that since the policy changed as far back as 2008, it has only emerged as an issue now – perhaps Eurostar’s new user-friendly website has made its conditions of carriage clearer? However, there is no denying that transporting a bike is problematic and is further complicated by the plethora of conditions and methods of carriage among the different companies in our competing privatised rail system.
Ideally, I long for the days of the old guard’s van, where you could turn up and wheel your bike on board, without any prior reservation or special ticket. Similarly, I also look back with affection to the same days when you could pitch up at the booking office and buy a reasonably priced ticket without having to book it months in advance online. But, unfortunately, those days are gone and, however reluctantly, we have to make the best of the current system and continue to lobby all operating companies for more bike spaces on trains.
Having transported a bike regularly on trains throughout the UK over recent years, I admit I always fear the worst case scenario where, despite having a bike reservation, there are no spaces left, or on smaller trains, the designated space is already occupied by wheelchairs and buggies. Generally, in my experience, all such situations have been resolved by flexibility and the good sense of the train manager.
Interestingly, the most hostile scenario I have faced – with the prospect of having to leave a long distance train, despite having the correct reservations – was caused by a fellow cyclist who refused to remove his bike from the reserved space because he didn’t see why he should have to make a reservation. In this case it was the insistence of the train manager, plus the threat of removal by transport police, that granted me my reservation.
But ultimately, the moral of the story is that, however much you may dislike the regulations, failure to obey them, deliberate or otherwise, penalises only your fellow cyclists, not the train operating companies or Network Rail.
Returning to my initial point, I found Eurostar’s ‘new’ policy seamless and well worth the price to avoid the stress and hassle of trying to board a crowded train with an awkward bike bag and two heavy panniers. I would also gladly pay £30 if it means not having to assemble and disassemble handlebars and pedals every time I transport the bike. But I recognise opinion is split on this issue and those of a more mechanical bent, who own a bike bag and travel light, may not agree, even though £30 compares very favourably with air travel where you usually pay more and have to use a bike bag.
The figures from neutral rail observers, as well as Eurostar, show a huge increase in cycles now being transported across the Channel since the system changed. Surely, we should at least be positive about this and try to work with operating companies to further improve bike carriage, rather than negatively oppose every new initiative, however successful?
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.
Well the sharp, sunny days of early December didn’t last long and, since I penned my last blog post, I doubt there has been a day free of rain in this part of the world.
At least 2012 has been consistent, certainly as far as the weather was concerned, and the first month of winter has followed the same dreary pattern set out in the summer and autumn. So, little chance to get used to the new bike and the few recent rides I have attempted have characteristically ended in soaking rain and/or complete darkness.
So, without dwelling too long on the 2012 negatives – take your pick from, amongst others: fracking and the undermining of the green economy, more cycle deaths and serious injuries, increasing polarisation of the haves and have nots – number one hope for 2013 is for a drier, sunny year. Although one positive, if idiosyncratic, effect of the extreme weather, is that more people might just begin to accept the reality of climate change.
But 2012 hasn’t all been doom and despondency: indeed, the past 12 months have produced some amazing experiences that lifted the spirits and defined the year in a really positive way. Danny Boyle’s sublime Opening Ceremony that perfectly and spectacularly epitomised, to a global audience, the true achievements of British history, kicked off an unbelievable Olympics. And, while in no way diminishing the fantastic performances of the competitors, for me the greatest achievement of the Olympics was its inclusiveness; that it was about all of us, not just the traditional, ceremonial Britain of Tudor monarchs, Winston Churchill and the Red Arrows.
My particular sporting highlights? Celebrating the continuing supremacy of Britain’s fantastic cyclists, particularly Bradley’s wondrous Tour victory, was certainly near the top. Andy Murray’s deserved gold medal and first grand slam were more than worth the wait and the perfect response to the ‘once a year tennis “fans”’ who rate media friendly drones over true talent and authenticity. And, for a dyed-in-the-wool Hoops fan, seeing Celtic beating the best club side in the world was as incredible as it was wonderful.
Away from my grand stand seat in front of the telly, 2012 will always be a landmark year for me, as it marked my long-awaited release from having to work for someone else. And I sure took advantage!
Freed from the constraints of crowded, expensive school holidays, I travelled to Argyll in early March and enjoyed the best weather of the year, visiting some of the UK’s most important pre-historic sites in Kilmartin, before walking the length of the delightful Crinan Canal.
A belated return to Florence, four decades after its treasures first blew me away as an impressionable schoolgirl, followed in May. It did not disappoint and nor did the train journey there and back, a weekend in Rome, a week’s eco-camping at the delightful Kokopelli Camping in the breathtaking Majella National Park, followed by taster trips to Bologna and Turin.
Italy in the spring, courtesy of western Europe’s superb high speed rail network, would be difficult to beat and it took another landmark trip to compete. Walking the West Highland Way in early September realised a lifetime’s ambition and it too did not disappoint. Loch Lomond, Rannoch, Glen Coe and Ben Nevis all lived up to their legendary status, but for me, the highlight of the trip was to walk from Scotland’s biggest city along the drovers’ paths and military roads, beside the shimmering lochs and magnificent mountains that encapsulate the history of my native country.
So, as we say goodbye to 2012, what hopes are there for 2013? On a personal level, loads more travel, finances permitting. A return trip to Knoydart (preferably in winter) is top of the list, followed by another mountain trek: the East Highland Way looks interesting. Scandinavia and Poland are possibles for 2013’s European Rail Odyssey and hopefully the immediate winter days will be lightened by a forthcoming trip to God’s Own City either to enjoy Celtic Connections or February’s Film Festival.
Let’s hope the new year sees far more joined up thinking about the priorities of all our road users, particularly cyclists and pedestrians and a halt to the decline in public transport services, particularly in rural areas. Transport poverty is a real, but under-publicised, issue and one whose solution could also provide answers to the equally-important problems of inactivity and obesity. And encouraging as many of us as possible to swap our cars for our bikes and walking shoes could well be the the most effective and longest-lasting legacy of 2012.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.