Berlin – Prague – Dresden: By Train and Ferry

Finally, after a far-too-long 18 months, a European train trip; this time to link with a bike tour from Prague to Dresden.  Given that both are cities I’ve long wanted to visit, could I arrange a rail odyssey to also include Berlin (another on my tick list), as well as a (fleeting) stop in one of my perennial favourites, Amsterdam?

Wonderful way-up call
Taking the ferry does have some positives

The bike tour was booked last minute and the trip was the final one for the 2017 season so, essentially, the itinerary, including all travel links and accommodation had to be researched and booked over one weekend. In the event the tight deadline proved to be an advantage: definite decisions had to be made, quickly, with no time for my usual indecisive faffing about.

Sun, sky and sea
Sun, sky and the North Sea

Train-wise,  seat61.com  as ever, guided me through everything and links to the excellent English language sections of Deutsche Bahn  bahn.de (DB) and Czech Railways cd.cz (CZ) worked quickly and effectively. Lack of time did force me to resort to the internet for accommodation though, with one exception, the suggestions did prove to be comfortable and convenient; less so their irritating and unnecessary follow-up adverts.

I source tickets direct from the relevant rail operators.  However, it is perfectly possible, and probably more convenient in some cases, to buy European tickets in one package from UK site Loco2 and the same discounts should still be available.

 

Newcastle-Amsterdam ferry:

This is the second time I have used this method to reach the continent and there are several positives: it saves a journey to London (particularly if the fare is cheaper than the Caledonian Sleeper); living in central Scotland it is easy and pleasurable to travel to Newcastle along the scenic east coast from Edinburgh; the cabins are en suite and, given favourable weather, it’s a very relaxing way to begin/end your journey. And they sell the delicious milk/dark chocolate Dutch Droste pastilles.

Those delicious Dutch chocolates
Those delicious Dutch chocolates

However, there are several disadvantages; most notably ‘stealth’ costs. Remember, as a foot passenger you are unlikely to want to carry in food for the evening and next morning, so you have little option but to use the ship’s cafes and restaurants.  These are expensive – eg, €21 for fish and chips plus a bottle of beer in the cafe  – and not good value.

Pre-booking for the restaurant gains a 17% discount, but still costs £26 for buffet dinner and £11.50 for breakfast – a total of £75 per adult for food alone on a return journey. The cabins, while comfortable, are small and not well suited to sitting around in for several hours in the evening and public areas are restricted to bars and the cinema – again, at cost.

IMG_1587
Another dramatic North Sea skyscape

Bus transfers (another extra) do drop off at the main railway stations, (but check carefully the Amsterdam location, under ‘Ports’, as this changed suddenly this summer, with no clear notice from DFDS), and there are several decent breakfast options nearby in both cities, so if you can survive until around 11am, it’s best to delay eating until arrival.

Verdict: can be useful but, on balance, I prefer the Eurostar option, with some time in London. Do work out costs in detail, including hidden extras, as price will probably be the deciding factor.

 

Amsterdam – Berlin return:

By the time the ferry docks and the bus drops off in the city, it’s almost 11am, so relieved I booked seats on the 13.00 service.  Time to have breakfast/coffee/a glimpse of Amsterdam – there are plenty of options in and around the station as well as a large left luggage area.

It’s a six hour journey in a comfortable airline-style seat in a second class open compartment and a pleasant ride across the North German Plain – think final days of WW2 and all that. Indeed, the white steel road bridge you can see at Deventer was used as the famous bridge at Arnhem in the film ‘A Bridge Too Far’. Hanover and Wolfsburg also look interesting for  future visits.

 

Berlin:

Arriving at the spectacular glass and steel Hauptbahnhof (Hbf),  I am well impressed to find it is powered by solar energy.  From the exit I can see the Reichstag and work out the Brandenburg Gate is only about 20 minutes walk, as is most of the city centre.

IMG_1621
Berlin’s pesky little rental bikes

The Meininger Hotel is ideally situated just outside the main entrance to the station, on Ella Trebe Strasse, and reasonably priced.  Really the next step up from a hostel, the foyer and downstairs area are usually packed with groups of young people.  However, the rooms – if not the corridors – are soundproofed, it’s clean, the €6 breakfast is reasonable and the WiFi good.  It’s not a luxurious stay, but it’s  well located and ideal if you are planning a busy day or two in the city and just want somewhere to put your head down.

It’s raining and as I’m really only on a flying visit, I follow advice from a resident Berliner and buy a day ticket on the city’s transport system for €7.  The 100 bus passes many places interest on its way to the zoo, from where I return on the S-Bahn back to the Hbf.

The spectacular interior of the Reichstag Dome
The spectacular interior of the Reichstag Dome
Foster's design reflects the light depending on the angle
Foster’s design reflects the light depending on the angle

Next day I need to prioritise my sightseeing, so make a beeline for the Reichstag – only 10 minutes walk – and join the queue snaking around the portacabin across the road.  I didn’t manage to book online but, fortunately  there are a few spaces left this evening at 6pm.  (Do remember to take your passport with you, as you will need it, both when you book and to clear security in the Reichstag.)

Norman Foster’s design is simply breathtaking, particularly in the way that light is reflected from different angles.  Even on a dank and drizzly evening, the views from the top are superb and the audio guide really informative, both on the Reichstag itself, and on the history of the sites visible across the city panorama.  Best of all, it’s free.

Good to see the EU flag flying proudly despite the rain
Good to see the EU flag flying proudly despite the rain

 

A sore throat and inclement weather dampened my Berlin experience a little, but I still managed to see something of the city and soak up (literally) some of the atmosphere. The tour of the Reichstag Dome was one of the highlights of the entire trip.

I’ll be back.

 

Berlin-Prague:

Next morning, up early for a four hour journey to Prague, looking forward to seeing some beautiful scenery, particularly between Dresden and Prague.  However, although it’s a weekday in late September, the train is absolutely packed, even in first class, with people standing as far as Dresden.

Fortunately, my discounted first class seat comes with a reserved seat, but in a six-seater compartment: just about OK, but with very limited leg room, even for me.

 

Prague:

Hradcany, Prague
Hradcany, Prague

The Royal Plaza Hotel (initially difficult to find because of building works round the museum and opera house) is central and  within an easy stroll of both Wenceslas and Old Town Squares. Very pleasant staff, nice room, good WiFi and a bath, all help to provide an enjoyable welcome. So, dump bags, take to the streets where, even on a dullish midweek afternoon, it’s crowded.

First highlight is the Grand Hotel Evropa. Although still closed, its ornate art nouveau exterior stands out even among the crowds and colour of Wenceslas Square; the first of the many art nouveau treasures I want to see in Prague.

The Grand Evropa hotel
The Grand Evropa hotel

 

 

Heading down to Old Town Square the crowds thicken and it’s sad to see the reality of Prague’s recent metamorphosis into one of the stag/hen capitals of Europe. When visiting somewhere new I usually assess the extent of commercialisation by the quality of the fridge magnets in the souvenir shops. These are predictable junk. However, by chance I find a lovely Czech-made, all wool, jade beret down one of the side streets: my first and only buy of the day.

Across Charles Bridge towards St Vitus Cathedral: still impressive, despite the drizzle
Across Charles Bridge towards St Vitus Cathedral: still impressive, despite the drizzle

Disappointingly, the Astronomical Clock is swathed in scaffolding, but it is still operational and I enjoy trying to identify the four civic anxieties of the 15th century (Vanity, Death, Greed and Pagan Invasion) and then naming (and failing) the 12 Apostles as the clock chimes on the hour.

St Vitus Cathedral has always been at the top of my Prague wish list, but as this is now only possible with the Prague Castle tour ticket, I reluctantly decide against, given my time restrictions –  and castles are not really my thing anyway. Charles Bridge, though does not disappoint, despite the drizzle. Once crossed and away from the crowds, there is much of interest along Mala Strana and Petrin Hill. Turning almost immediately right brought me to Shakespeare and Sons, probably Prague’s most famous bookshop.  It’s certainly a place for a good read and linger, but conscious of time, I ration my visit and head along Cihelna to the Franz Kafka Museum.  A Kafka fan since adolescence, it is an interesting experience and the shop is a cut above the usual museum/heritage offerings (interesting fridge magnets).

Original street signs
Original street signs

An amusing and quirky detour from here is to walk back to Malostranske Namesti and along Nerudova.  Look carefully  above the doors and you will see the best collection of house signs in Prague.

The Golden Key
The Golden Key

 

House numbering became obligatory in 1770 and these signs show some exotic and eclectic ways of identifying buildings before then. Watch out for the Three Fiddles, the Red Eagle and St Wenceslas on a Horse, among others.

On balance, the highlight of my Prague visit comes on the final day during the Kafka Walk.  Living in Glasgow, we are spoiled by our city’s art nouveau treasures, but the Municipal House in Namesti Republiky  compares favourably with anything in Mackintosh’s Glasgow, or Horta’s Brussels.  Even a glimpse of the foyer and basement takes the breath away with the beauty and symbolism of the designs and decoration.  Sign up for a guided tour,  you won’t regret it.

Interior of Municipal House
Interior of Municipal House

Prague’s crowds are testament to the city’s charisma and attraction. They do clog up the honeyspots  and cause irritation, but it’s easy to escape.  The city is well served with parks and open spaces – climb Petrin Hill for some of the best views – and the contrasting Vinohrady and Zizkov districts, both easily within walking distance of the main station, are a world away from the tourist traps, with stunning art nouveau architecture, the (in)famous TV Tower, Kafka’s grave in the New Jewish Cemetery and lively bars and nightlife.

Library under the trees in one of Prague's many lovely open spaces
Library under the trees in one of Prague’s many lovely open spaces

And, there is some decent coffee: TriCafe served up a solid flat white and a delicious strudel. Its comfortable, welcoming atmosphere, nice staff and location near Charles Bridge also tick the right boxes. EMA Expresso Bar  produced the best coffee, but its too-cool-for-school atmosphere and know-it-all baristas will not be to everyone’s taste.

Next visit; some more craft outlets are definitely on the menu.

 

After two long train journeys and some city sightseeing, the wonderful Prague to Dresden cycle tour was just what I needed.

 

Dresden:

All too often the approaches into a city are not its best advert. Not so Dresden. Cycling into the city along the broad water meadows of the Elbe, past vineyards and Baroque chateaux has to be one of the finest entrances to any city anywhere, and a mouthwatering appetiser to the delights ahead. Arriving by bike after an en route stop at Pirna and the gardens at Pillnitz is even better.

Canaletto's favourite square: Pirna
Canaletto’s favourite square: Pirna

After a convivial last evening with the cycling group, I throw my biking gear into the wash bag and go in search of my next hotel.  The Intercity right next to the Hbf could not have been better: ideal location, excellent staff, free city travel card for the duration of the stay, pleasant, well equipped room and the right combination of efficiency and personal, but unobtrusive, service  you look for in a good hotel.

The Golden Reiter: August the Strong glistens in the sun
The Golden Reiter: August the Strong glistens in the sun

Aiming to make the most of another gorgeous day, I head for Postplatz (in an unsuccessful hunt for good coffee) and cross the Augustusbrucke to Neustadt, giving the crowds in the Inner Alstadt a miss for today. Past the glistening Golden Reiter, I walk up Haupstrasse, a pedestrian boulevard lined with shady plane trees. Here are some of the best-preserved Baroque townhouses in Dresden and the side streets contain some interesting small shops and pavement cafes.

The Zwinger
The Zwinger

 

Before I leave Neustadt I walk along to the Pfunds Dairy on Bautzner Strasse.  Described in the Guinness Book of Records as the ‘most beautiful dairy in the world’ the shop is over 100 years old and its walls are covered with richly-coloured, hand-painted tiles.  It is undoubtedly a striking interior, but unfortunately now very commercialised, selling a range of rather expensive souvenirs: the fridge magnets are, though, a cut above the norm.

The Royal Palace
The Royal Palace

 

Normally I ration museum visits on a short trip, but there is simply no way I could come to Dresden and not see the Zwinger. The all-in, one day ticket for €10 is good value, although a combination of good weather and too much else to see meant I didn’t manage to get back to the Mathematisch Physikalischer in time.

First up is the Gemaldegalerie Alt Meister. This collection of European painting from the 15th to 18th centuries is simply breathtaking.  It is small, but in many ways its size makes it ideal as you don’t feel lost, or frustrated that you cannot see everything, as is often the case in larger ‘national galleries’.  Particular favourites include the Chocolate Girl and Canaletto’s impressions of Pirna, especially as we had visited its famous town square en route to Dresden on the cycle tour.

An oriental vase: part of the wonderful porcelain collection
An oriental vase: part of the wonderful porcelain collection

The Porcelain Collection is next and, although I was aware of Dresden’s associations with white Meissen porcelain, I had no idea of the extent of the city’s collection of specialised ceramics – generally regarded as the best in the world. August the Strong’s passion for ceramics resulted in an amazing collection of porcelain and stoneware, particularly from China and Japan. and the displays here certainly set them off to best effect.

The restored Baroque splendour of the Zwinger
The restored Baroque splendour of the Zwinger

A trip on the tram and a quick browse through Inner Alsadt is, I’m afraid, all I have time for. The Frauenkirche, Semperoper opera house, Residenzschloss and the little shops of the Kunsthofpassage, will be first on the list for my next visit.

 

Postscript:

i) everything travel-wise went like clockwork: message to self; perhaps booking at the last minute clears the mind and is the way to go in future

ii) the train journeys were all on time and generally relaxing, although very crowded at times. My idea of taking two bags of reasonable weight, rather than one heavy case, did ensure I could lift them on overhead racks, but they were difficult to transport when walking any distance

iii) the ferry is the weak link on this type of journey for the reasons above. The new Eurostar direct service to Amsterdam and the Caledonian Sleeper upgrade next year look to be better options and an overnight in London/Brussels/Amsterdam as economic as the ferry, given DFDS’s  ‘hidden’ extras.

Ultimate highlight? a dead heat between the cycle tour, Dresden and the Reichstag Dome.

All in all, this was one of the best trips of recent years and an ideal rehearsal, all being well, for 2018’s planned piece de resistance;  The Stuff Brexit, Grand Euro Tour.  

Watch this space.

 

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So Long 2014; You’ve Been an Interesting Year

 

With plenty of striking pictures of the unexpected, but appropriately seasonal, weather of the last few days, it seems much more fitting to say goodbye to 2014 through images rather than too many words.

Unexpected festive weather in the shires
Unexpected festive weather in the shires

It’s certainly been an eventful year, with many unexpected twists and turns, not least as far as that perennial favourite topic of British conversation, the weather, was concerned.

A snowy Hogmanay sunrise
A snowy Hogmanay sunrise

 

The Weather: after the relentless rain (and the risible response of DEFRA and its erstwhile, hapless head, Owen Patterson) of the early months, spring arrived at least a month earlier than in 2013 and heralded a consecutive spell of warm, sunny days that stretched from midsummer right throughout to the end of October.

An English country garden
An English country garden

High summer in Middle England was a revelation, with overflowing hedgerows and bountiful butterflies (including a welcome return for the recently-rare small tortoiseshell) enjoying the Buddleia.   And, even it was rather incongruous still to be enjoying tee shirt temperatures at Halloween, it certainly beat the usual wet and windy autumn storms.

The exquisite peacock butterfly
The exquisite peacock butterfly

 

Flora and Fauna: a settled period of sun didn’t just benefit the Lepidoptera and their habitat.  After last year’s dismal showing, the bedding plants in their tubs and baskets were back to their radiant best.  But the undoubted natural highlight of the year was the arrival of a young, fledgling robin, who took refuge in the garden, stayed for a few weeks, ate his way through several packets of oatcakes, learned to fly and came back each day to sing (for his breakfast, lunch and dinner). By the time he left for good his chest was beginning to redden and memories of those delightful days of late summer have been rekindled with each delivery of a traditional robin Christmas card.

My brave little fledgling singing for his supper
My brave little fledgling singing for his supper

 

Scotland: a momentous year for Scotland was also enhanced by a Mediterranean-like summer.  The Commonwealth Games enjoyed early days of tropical heat that had visitors swapping their fleeces and umbrellas for sun cream and shorts.  Glasgow Green resembled a giant beach and the heat lasted right up till the day before September’s referendum.

A sunny afternoon on Glasgow Green: Olympic silver medallist Michael Jamieson is in foreground
A sunny afternoon on Glasgow Green, with  Olympic silver medallist Michael Jamieson (white shirt)  in foreground

Strangely, the most momentous constitutional event of the last three centuries didn’t seem to be taken seriously until the eve of the vote by many in the rest of the kingdom.  Although its outcome, despite the result, is far from clear, one lasting legacy will definitely be the images of 16 and 17 year olds in their school uniforms, queuing to vote in their thousands, after making an important, informed and mature contribution throughout the debate.

The Scottish referendum: the most momentous constitutional event of the last 300 years
The Scottish referendum: the most momentous constitutional decision of the last 300 years

In a year of developments, some positive, some negative (the rise of the Greens has balanced to some extent the repugnance of Ukip) that have rumbled the political establishment, the positive engagement of young people in Scotland now seems, happily, to be spreading to other parts of the UK, with first time voters becoming much more involved in political debate.

 

St Pancras: gateway to another European tain journey
St Pancras: gateway to another European tain journey

Holidays: January was brightened up with another train journey to Italy, for what has become my annual trip to the wonderful Kokopelli Camping   bookended by two overnight stays at the welcoming Windsor Hotel in Milan

Pristine pistes and sky to match
Pristine pistes and sky to match: Abruzzo in winter

For the first time, I was able to experience the dramatic mountains of the Abruzzo in winter and, although temperatures were more akin to mid April, there was plenty of snow on the tops and a day’s snowshoeing was one of the highlights of the holiday.

Milan: always a favourite destination
Milan: whatever the season, always a favourite destination

On the way back, I was also able to achieve another long-held ambition; seeing Leonardo’s Last Supper, in Milan.  It didn’t disappoint. Usually it’s necessary to book online, well in advance, but if you are in the city out of season and are not part of a large group, try turning up at the booking office in person and be prepared to be flexible about fitting in individually when they have available space.

Peaceful, pastoral New Galloway
Peaceful, pastoral New Galloway

Post Commonwealth Games, the crowded vibrancy of city-centre Glasgow was followed by a few days camping in peaceful, pastoral New Galloway    This idyllic region of south west Scotland is routinely overlooked or ignored even by other Scots.  As a result, its alluring landscapes, dark skies and important history are complemented by quiet roads and uncrowded beaches. Throw in some thriving culture; an established artists’ town (Kirkudbright)  foodie haven (Castle Douglas), Scotland’s book town (Wigtown) and you have the kind of place that I like to visit.

Cycling doesn't get any better than this: NCN 73, between Newton Stewart and Wigtown
Cycling doesn’t get any better than this: NCN 73, along the quiet lanes of Galloway

A few weeks later I ventured another 50 miles or so west to explore, for the first time the most southerly point of Scotland, the Mull of Galloway

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

Surrounded on three sides by the sea, with its traditional links with Ireland and its own mythical history, this is a magical place with a coastscape second to none.  Yes, the wind does blow here, but the views are breathtaking and its wild and marine life abundant – on a short morning’s cliff walk, the paths were shared with a fox, two hares and an inquisitive deer.

Galloway coastscape
Galloway coastscape

Finally, with the weather still too good to miss, in September I embarked on a Spaceships Campervan journey between Edinburgh and London; an interesting experience to say the least

Highside Farm: my kind of campsite
Highside Farm: my kind of campsite

The most memorable aspects of the trip were discovering some excellent campsites; notably the alluring  Highside Farm  in beautiful Teesdale and the remarkably rural (given its proximity to London) and conveniently sited Town Farm near Ivinghoe, Buckinghamshire.

2014's suitably snowy final sunset
2014’s suitably snowy final sunset

 Culture: and, last but certainly not least, a mention of the books, films, art and music that enlivened the year.

Books – The Goldfinch (Donna doesn’t disappoint), Stoner (absolutely lived up to its rave reviews) and the joys of re-aquaintance with the wonderful Joan Wyndham wartime diaries

Films – Ida, Inside Llewyn Davis, The Imitation Game and Under the Skin (in approximate order)

Art – vying for first place and marking 300 years since the Georgian accession were the British Library’s Georgians Revealed and Let Glasgow Flourish at Kelvingrove, then another Kelvingrove gem celebrating the life of Alasdair Gray, plus an interesting Stanley Spencer exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery

Music – after a year of neglect, some progress was made in improving guitar grades, but must resolve to try harder in 2015

 

Epilogue: so 2014, an interesting and eventful year, rounded off in personal terms by finally putting the house on the market, in anticipation of moving back to Scotland. Who knows what 2015 will bring; I’ll keep you posted.

 

Happy New Year.

 

 

 

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Out on the Edge

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

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

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

Portobello Beach, looking directly over to Ireland
Portobello Beach, looking directly over to Ireland

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

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

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

North Rhinns sunset
North Rhinns sunset

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

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

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

Heading north on the first section of the SUW
Heading north on the first section of the SUW

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

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

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

The foghorn at Carrickcarlin Point, Mull of Galloway
The foghorn at Carrickcarlin Point, Mull of Galloway

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

 

So, Galloway 2014, the verdict:

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

The lighthouse still keeps a look out on the Mull
The lighthouse still keeps a look out on the Mull

 

What if?

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

 

Recommendations:

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

St Medan's Cave
St Medan’s Cave
East Tarbet Bay
East Tarbet Bay
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Loco2

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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By Train to Kokopelli

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

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

Kokopelli at sunrise
Kokopelli at sunrise

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

Taking the train means you can take your bike
Taking the train means you can take your bike

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

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

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

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

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

May 1st, Kokopelli style!
May 1st, Kokopelli style!.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Milan-Turin-Paris TGV
Milan-Turin-Paris TGV

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

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

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

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

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

The Train Bleu, Gare de Lyon
The Train Bleu, Gare de Lyon

 

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

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

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Balloch to Helensburgh: Three Lochs Way, Stage 1

Dumbreck sunrise
Dumbreck sunrise

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

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

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

Over the hill to Helensburgh
Over the hill to Helensburgh

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

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

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

A snow-capped Ben Lomond looks over the loch
A snow-capped Ben Lomond looks over the loch

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

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

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

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

Island footsteps to Balmaha
Island footsteps to Balmaha

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

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

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

Helensburgh and the Firth of Clyde
Helensburgh and the Firth of Clyde

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

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

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

The Gare Loch and Rosneath Peninisula
The Gare Loch and Rosneath Peninisula

 

Information:

Details of the Three Lochs Way:

Trains to and from Balloch, Helensburgh and Craigendoran: 

Map: OS Explorer 347, Loch Lomond South

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

 

 

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Bye Bye 2012, Hello 2013

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.

Shiny new bike about to get soaked!

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.

Celebrating some of our Olympic heroes

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.

One of our greatest cyclists - and a superb role model for cycling

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!

The idyllic Crinan Canal

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.

Rooftops in Florence

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.

Another day, another view on the West Highland Way

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.

Happy New Year, hope it’s drier!

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The Dolomites: a different winter wonderland

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

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

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

Santa Croce Church and Refugio

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

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

Winter Wonderland

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

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

Sunset on Santa Croce Rock

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

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

Sun, snow and rock: Pedraces

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Sunset over Skye

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

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

West Highland Railway

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

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

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

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

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

Ladhar Bheinn

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

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

Barrisdale Bay

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

Loch an Dubh-Lochain

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

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

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So Long 2011: Heroes and Villains of the last 12 Months

So, on this Hogmanay as 2011 ends and 2012 fast approaches, how was 2011 – a year when austerity, natural disasters, revolutions and mass movements of all kinds dominated the headlines –  for you? Who were the heroes, and who were the baddies in 2011?

Sunset on 2011

HEROES and good things:

  • John Prescott, for his commitment to dealing with climate change and keeping Britain at the centre of discussions on this vital issue (unlike some other politicians on other vital issues) and for being one of the few genuinely entertaining “celebrities” on Twitter
  • Caroline Lucas, our solitary Green MP, for continuing to fight the Green case in Parliament
  • Grass routes campaigning groups, such as 38 Degrees www.38degrees.org.uk and UK Uncut www.ukuncut.org.uk who taught us all how to effectively channel public anger in novel, entertaining and persuasive ways against outrageous governmental decisions – like the proposed sell-off of public forests and tax exemptions for multi-national corporations
  • An unexpected four-day window of lovely weather at the end of July that enabled me to climb two Munros in three days and enjoy stupendous views over the Trossachs and Southern Highlands http://www.bootandbike.co.uk/2011/08/two-munros-in-three-days/
  • The return of Sarah and her Book Barge www.thebookbarge.co.uk to enhance the cultural life of the Barton area
  • Skinny Kitten Cafe in Barton Main Street, with its sumptuous sausage sandwiches.
  • John, James and Mark at the Glasgow Guest House www.glasgow-guest-house.co.uk for their warm hospitality, unfailing good humour, Glasgow wit and style
  • The always-wonderful West Highland Railway www.railbrit.co.uk/West_Highland_Railway/frame.htm closely followed by Cruise Loch Lomond www.cruiselochlomond.co.uk for taking me through wondrous places, to the other spectacular places I want to get to, without having drive there
  • Damian Carrington and his excellent team at Guardian Environment www.guardian.co.uk/environment including the fabulous Bike Blog and the brilliant new Environment App.
  • Dan Lepard and his mouth-watering recipes – by far my favourite baker
  • Ian Jack for simply being the best newspaper columnist around and for continually illustrating to all would-be scribblers just how to write
  • Finally, at long last, being able to give up the day job!

VILLAINS and bad things:

  • This supposedly “greenest-ever government: it actually would be very funny, if it wasn’t so sad and potentially disastrous
  • And, in a very close competition for the most outrageous example of its hypocritical approach to the environment – Spelman? Hammond? Paice? –  no, by a few stomachs it just has to be that arch-priest of over-consumption, Eric Pickles; the Secretary for Communities who believes the best way to improve our communities is to encourage everyone to eat more take aways and then throw the remnants and packaging into the landfill
  • This misguided acceptance by Caroline Spelman and Defra that bovine TB can be combated by a barbarous cull of badgers
  • The murmurings among the country set and Agriculture Minister James Paice, urging the Government to bring back hunting, despite poll after poll showing that at least 75 per cent of the population back the ban
  • The steady withdrawal of subsidies from public transport in rural areas
  • The constant publicity afforded to the bile spouted by some gross examples of white, middle-aged, middle-class males; eg, Clarkson, Littlejohn, Letts et al who believe they are entitled to ridicule anything they fear, or don’t understand, like women, safety and environmental legislation, the disabled, the disadvantaged and certain ethnic minorities

Sadly, this list could go on and on but, let’s end 2012 on a high note with more good things than bad. Happy New Year to everyone and here’s to a happy, healthy and green 2012.

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