Just back from a (too) short visit back to Galloway; one of the British Isles’ south west peninsulas, arguably its finest, and certainly its most undervalued. The south westerly coastlines of each of the four countries of the British Isles (here I am regarding Ireland in the geographical, not political sense) have always fascinated me, but until recent years, I was shockingly complacent about the charms of the area nearest to my birthplace.
Growing up in adjacent Dumfriesshire I surmised that Cornwall and the south west (of England) must have possessed exclusive elements of magical beauty, beside which the rocky inlets, ancient forests and deep lochs on my doorstep paled in comparison, given the millions of visitors the former attracted each year and its correspondingly top position in the bucket-list of the nation’s scenic attractions.
Indeed, by the time I left south west Scotland, I had become almost blasé about dark skies, cascading rivers, rounded hills and the lush, vibrant green foliage and densely coloured rhododendrons, characteristic of this temperate region.
Escaping south, I sought out the gentler pastoral vistas of pretty pubs, pastel coloured cottages, hanging baskets and historic churches and embarked on my long-held ambition to visit the landscapes of the literary heroes of my youth – Hardy’s Dorset and Tarka’s Devon were all, and more, than I had hoped for and in the well-preserved centre of my local town, Lichfield, it was easy to imagine its 18th century heyday as a coaching town and intellectual centre of the Lunar Men.
But Cornwall was my magnet. From Du Maurier, through Blyton to Mary Wesley and the art deco railway posters of the GWR, I had always been mesmerised by the images of bohemian artists, smugglers and pretty fishing villages, against a backdrop of sandy beaches, a dramatic coastline and sunny weather.
Even on my first journey, the road signs counting down the miles to “The West” stirred my excitement, my spirits on arrival undimmed even by a wet squall: this was the west side of our Atlantic facing island, after all. But waking up next morning (albeit to a beautiful blue sky), one by one, my visions began to shatter. There were people on the beaches! And not just a handful, but what looked like millions of them, crowding the sand and drowning out the birdsong.
I was used to beaches, along Galloway’s inlets and the Ayrshire coast, where you were (un)lucky if you saw another soul all day, unless of course you wanted company. Here, in England’s holiday haven, even fish ‘n chips was priced as a delicacy and the charm of Mousehole and Sennen completely obliterated by the unending horror of ceaseless traffic jamming up the tiny streets.
I have returned to Cornwall several times since and spent many amazing days walking the sumptuous South West Coastal Path (probably my second favourite long distance path), visiting independent galleries and Seasalt shops, as well as admiring the county’s interesting. and largely overlooked, industrial history.
But, although it has many qualities, I have never quite understood why, in comparison to the other south west peninsulas of the British Isles, Cornwall is so much more popular than the rest – warmer, maybe, but certainly no drier and much more crowded, commercialised and expensive.
Over the last decade, I have been lucky enough to visit all four of our dramatic south west peninsulas and, for what it is worth, ascribe them the following attributes:
most jaw-droppingly beautiful – without a doubt, Co Kerry
best old world charm – Pembrokeshire
And that brings us back to Galloway. Finally, I can now appreciate its charms and can recommend it as the biggest in area of the four peninsulas and the one with the most variety of scenery: from moorland to mountains, lochs and pastoral farmland, to say nothing of the aforementioned delightful (and uncrowded) coastline, you’ll find it all here.
It’s arguably the best place in the country for cycling, with miles of quiet, scenic roads, plus the world-rated 7 Stanes MTB courses, is a magnet for fishermen, walkers and advocates of all types of water sports, foodies, ornithologists and astronomers.
Lovers of literature will also know that Galloway boasts Scotland’s National Book Town, Wigtown, with its annual September book festival, the region’s history can be traced back to pre-historic times and it was an important early centre of Christianity. Many of its coastal towns and villages, notably Kirkcudbright, have attracted world-famous artists for over a century.
In other words, Galloway offers something for everyone. So, next time you’re heading to the Lake District, further north into the Highland (or even south to Cornwall) a detour to Galloway might just surprise you with how much it offers, and how little it demands.
But don’t tell everyone, we don’t want it ending up like Cornwall.
Record levels of snowfall in the highlands of Scotland over the last two winters – depths of over 250cm earlier in the season easily exceeded those at the recent Sochi Olympics – have boosted Scotland’s snow sports’ sector and led to unprecedented visitor numbers.
Along with the thousands and boarders and skiers hitting the slopes have been an increasing number of pioneer snowshoers, with the sport proving particularly attractive to those new to the thrill and excitement of snow sports. According to Jeff Starkey, head of Ski Patrol at Nevis Range, near Fort William, in the West Highland region of Lochaber: “One of the real appeals of snowshoeing is that almost anyone pick it up easily.” And, with equipment and instruction on offer at the resort, the sport has attracted many new participants in the last couple of seasons.
Nevis Range, famous for its lift-serviced off piste area in the Back Corries, including Coire Dubh, Summit Corrie and Coire an Lochan. http://snowsports.nevisrange.co.uk/Back_Corries.] is not just a leading Scottish snowsport centre, but is one of the premier visitor attractions within the Highlands. Situated in the shadow of Britain’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis, the centre also encompasses two other mountains, Aonach Mor, the eighth highest in Britain, and Carn Mor Dearg. Constructed along the north face of Aonach Dor is the Nevis Range mountain gondola system, the only one of its kind in the UK
Sit back, as you are effortlessly transported form 300 to 2150 feet, and you can enjoy the breathtaking views of the Scottish Highlands, including the Great Glen, Ben Nevis, and surrounding areas. On a clear day the spectacular vistas extend as far as the Inner Hebrides. Indeed, the location is so special that each visit to Nevis Range, even if only a few weeks apart, can seem very different because of changing seasonal colours and weather conditions.
And once you arrive at the top, just to rub it it and make your friends really jealous,you can send your post cards from the highest post box in Scotland; one that also boasts its own special stamp.
Jeff Starkey recommends first heading off underneath the Great Glen chair in the direction of Rob Roy. “This will take about 20 minutes. Then traverse around into Coire Dubh to the Braveheart chair return, which will take around an hour. From Braveheart the return traverse on into Coire an Lochan will take about 30 minutes and you’ll be rewarded with impressive mountain scenery and some wild feeling terrain.”
Jeff advises snowshoers to have a chat to the friendly Ski Patrol team who are on hand to provide information on the conditions across the mountain, as well as well as any help needed with routes and locations.
However, although Jeff is keen to advocate snowshoeing as a sport for all, he is equally quick to remind everyone to make sure they are always properly equipped and stay within their physical and navigational capabilities.
“Scottish conditions can be challenging, weather conditions can change quickly and everyone needs to be aware of avalanche risk.”
Taking advantage of Nevis Range Equipment Hire, situated at at the gondola base station, I kitted myself out with shoes and poles and set out for the day. It has five sets of adult sizes, which you can reserve in advance by calling Nevis Range, that cost £15.50 per day to hire. (You’ll also need a gondola ticket, costing £11.50 for each adult.)
There are plans to increase the amount of snowshoeing equipment available for hire, if interest in the sport continues to grow. It is also now possible to buy snowshoes in many of the major outdoor equipment stores throughout the north of Scotland.
Having some knowledge of the mountains around Nevis Range through summer hiking, I was immediately impressed with the territory I could access, simply because of my snowshoes. Although reduced from its record midwinter depths, there was still considerable snow coverage and, despite a fairly heavy mist, the visible scenery was still breathtaking.
Nevis Range certainly caters for its visitors, with a host of attractions and amenities, including the Pinemarten Cafe Bar and Snowgoose Restaurant. Both have amazing views, are perfect for coffee, lunch or afternoon tea and use local produce, particularly the superb meat and fish from the surrounding locality, wherever possible.
The Pinemarten also showcases Nevis Range’s concern for its surrounding environment. Built during the harsh winter of 2010/11, care was taken to utilise natural products where possible and the builders and contractors were mostly small local businesses. The timber facing is Lochaber larch from the sawmill seven miles away. At the same time, a woodchip boiler was installed to provide heat and hot water for the base station. Supplied by a local firm right next door on the access road, it is a state of the art system which is intended to lower the centre’s carbon footprint while being very efficient at keeping everyone warm.
Skiers, boarders and snowshoers will often find themselves sharing the gondola with experienced climbers on their way to the many challenging winter routes in the surrounding area, as well as handgliders and paragliders. Nevis Range is also a major mountain bike centre, home of the world-famous world cup down hill. http://bike.nevisrange.co.uk/index.asp
And just as you may be surprised by the snow cover enjoyed in the Scottish Highlands, predictably negative preconceptions about capricious Scottish weather are also not wholly accurate.
“We’ve had our fair share of calm, Alpine days here this winter,” says Heather Negus, head of marketing at Nevis Range, “while the south of the UK was being buffeted by high winds and floods. The weather can be volatile – what’s called ‘four seasons in a day’ around here – but as it changes very rapidly, it’s rarely totally bad for the whole day.”
The development of Lochaber as a major tourism centre, drawing visitors from across the world, throughout the year, is reflected in the growing choice of accommodation options now available in the area.
From luxurious hotels to small bed and breakfasts, modern hostels, comfortable guesthouses and traditional inns, all tastes and budgets are catered for. And for hardy types who think nothing of pitching their tent, whatever the weather, remember Scotland allows and encourages responsible wild camping – and the Fort William area also boasts several dedicated campsites that are open throughout the year.
With Lochaber extending from ‘Summit to Sea’, the region is home to some of the finest and freshest seafood and wild game available anywhere in the world. Smoked salmon, speciality cheeses and venison are among some of the perennial favourites and can be sampled in a number of award-winning restaurants in Fort William and surrounding villages. Alternatively, if you want to experience local traditions, including a range of live music with your food, try one of the many historic inns and pubs in the area, some of whom brew their own beer. Have a look at:
Fort William certainly earns its title of the ‘Outdoor Capital of the UK’ and you will be spoilt for choice for alternative activities. As well as snowsports, winter climbing and mountain biking, Nevis Range also offers high wire adventures for adults and children, while along the nearby coasts you can try your hand at sea kayaking, white water rafting and canyoning. Find out about more at: http://www.outdoorcapital.co.uk
But the West Highlands is not just about adrenaline rushes. Lochaber was once the heartland of the clan system before the Highland Clearances forced much of the population to move south, or across the seas. Glencoe, scene of the infamous massacre, is only a few miles away, and maps and books charting the history of family names and tartans are widely available. The West Highland Museum in the centre of Fort William http://www.westhighlandmuseum.org.uk showcases some interesting aspects of life in the West Highlands, including a section on the 17th century Jacobite Rebellions and a visual history of the Commando HQ in nearby Spean Bridge, which trained members of special forces from around the world during World War Two.
Head west from Fort William (best enjoyed from the train) along the Road to the Isles to Mallaig http://www.road-to-the-isles.org.uk and you will pass Britain’s highest mountain, deepest loch, shortest river and arrive at its most westerly station. Look in whatever direction, the scenery is superb and, as befits one of Europe’s last wildernesses, the wildlife equally so. From Mallaig a 30 minute ferry crossing will take you on to the romantic Isle of Skye.
Take a wildlife safari to spot some iconic wildlife, including pine martin, red deer and red squirrel, as well as the charismatic ‘Heilan’ Coo’; cruise along the Caledonian Canal, or further afield to the Inner Hebrides; travel to Ardamurchan, the most westerly point in mainland Britain, with its beautiful Egyptian-style lighthouse, along pristine beaches where you are more likely to be observed by a dolphin, eagle or otter, than another human being: you will be spoilt for choice. Again,
And finally, you can’t come to Scotland without sampling its famous national drink: whisky – just don’t spell it with an ‘e’! Not only does Nevis Range offer great snowshoeing, scenery and Scottish hospitality, one of Scotland’s oldest distilleries is right on the doorstep – in fact it’s right under the Ben itself and Britain’s highest mountain appropriately gives its name to the amber nectar it produces. Take a tour, see how whisky is distilled and taste a wee dram before you leave: http://www.bennevisdistillery.com
HOW TO GET HERE:
With international airports in Glasgow and Edinburgh and several airlines operating directly into Inverness, getting to Scotland is easy. It takes around 2-3 hours to drive from Glasgow and Edinburgh and about 90 minutes from Inverness. Regular bus services run to Fort William but, the most romantic way to reach the Highlands is by train. An overnight sleeper runs 6 days a week from London to Fort William, so you can relax and fall asleep as you leave the capital, waking up in the Highlands next morning. Alternatively, it’s easy to get to Glasgow from virtually anywhere in the UK and, from there, the West Highland Line takes you along coasts, lochs, mountains and through the mystical Rannoch Moor on its way to Fort William and then on to Mallaig – no wonder it is regularly voted the best rail journey in the world.
Not many people would expect to find an incredible winter wonderland on the same latitude as Rome but, there again, not many people know anything much about Abruzzo, a mountainous area of great beauty about 130 miles due east of the Italian capital.
Nestled along the Apennine spine, this is an area of proud traditions, historic hill villages and simple, delicious food. It also boasts snowy peaks, pristine pistes, abundant sunshine and an impressive winter sports season between January and April.
And just as Abruzzo is not generally regarded as a winter sports destination then, equally, my recent holiday would not fit the prototype of the traditional winter sports holiday. I spent a week in early February at Kokopelli, a traditionally restored farmhouse perched on a hill overlooking the quintessential Italian village of Serramonacesca. Come the spring its extensive olive orchard will be dotted with delightful canvas bell tents, as well as a retro VW campervan.
You’re more than welcome to pitch your own tent, whenever in the year, but if camping in the snow isn’t quite your thing, there’s a comfortable, private, en suite room in the farmhouse and I spent the week in the cosy converted barn, complete with private, heated shower/toilet and fully equipped kitchen, snug under a luxuriously warm duvet each night in the pretty bedroom. Have a look here.
Run by two ex-pat Brits, Jacqui Dixon and Kev Price, now gone native in Abruzzo, Kokopelli is a low-impact, eco-friendly site and offers something different to visitors, whatever the season. Both Jacqui and Kev are experienced outdoor enthusiasts and will tailor an individual package for you, based on your budget, experience and ability level. They’ll guide you along their favourite routes during the day and introduce you to some old and romantic, vaulted restaurants in the evening.
“We’ve become real snowshoeing disciples and want to spread the gospel to as many people as possible,” explains Jacqui. “Abruzzo is ideal territory for snowshoeing, with superb, unspoilt scenery, good snow cover and plenty of sunshine. We know the area, can show you the best tracks, provide equipment, lifts to the slopes, instruction and all kinds of local information.”
Passo Lanciano, around 20 minutes drive from Kokopelli, boasts spectacular vistas, with the Adriatic coast easily visible on clear days, and is renowned for its good snow cover. It certainly lived up to its reputation on my first day, as we parked the car, strapped on our snowshoes, or ciaspole as they’re known to the locals, and simply clambered over three feet of snow at the side of the road on to deep, undisturbed powder.
The sky was a deep cornflower blue and with the temperature hovering around five degrees centigrade, it was soon time to shed some layers as we quickly worked up a sweat on the initial (and steepest) climb of the day. Take to the mountains, mid-week, early-season in Abruzzo and you pretty much have the slopes to yourself. The handful of skiers ascending the lifts were enjoying freedom from queues and miles of uncluttered, well-prepared pistes. Meanwhile, Fin the dog effortlessly led the way along the route, in between performing his very own canine-style Winter Olympics of rolling, burrowing and sliding down the snow.
Although quiet on a sunny Thursday morning, Passo Lanciano does not lack facilities, and its chairlift, eight ski lifts, 16 slopes, ski school, hotel and bars more than cater for the many locals and visitors from around Rome who, with their families, take to the slopes on winter weekends. And there are two extensive cross country circuits, as well as the many snowshoeing routes.
Nearby La Maielletta is a smaller resort but is served by several drag lifts and Blockhaus Italian Ski School provides a comprehensive range of equipment for hire, as well as ski lessons for all ability levels.
Situated at the northern tip of Majella’s main crest, this is wolf country. You may not be lucky enough to glimpse this noble creature, but you could well spot some of the mountain hares, chamois, wild boar and magnificent raptors with whom it shares its habitat. On our way back, Jacqui pointed out a sanctuary for rescued wolves in Pretoro:
“Although terribly sad to see these majestic creatures in captivity, remind yourselves they are there because, for various reasons, they are unable to be returned to the wild,” she explained.
Abruzzo’s mountain resorts contain many attractive hotels, bars and restaurants and facilities are generally of a high standard. However, one of the unique attractions of staying in this part of Italy is the opportunity to sample the hospitality offered in traditional villages, where many of the old stone buildings, often dating back to Medieval and Renaissance times, have been sensitively restored into comfortable hotels and restaurants.
A particular favourite is Brancaleone a converted seventeenth century farmhouse, perched in a spectacular setting in the nearby hilltop village of Roccamontepiano. Our evening here, sampling the delicious menu, and enjoying impeccable service in front of a roaring log fire, was the consummate way to round off a superb Saturday in the snow.
But, this is Italy, where, whatever the location or size of the establishment, you will always be sure of delicious food, cooked traditionally and slowly from top class, often home grown, ingredients. This is the land, not of fast food, but of good food. Agriturismo Tholos – ‘custodian farmers’ who specialise in growing, cultivating and safeguarding the agricultural biodiversity of the grains, legumes, fruit and vegetables indigenous to the Majella – are common here and you can try some of their produce at Tholos in Roccamorice.
Abruzzo, indeed, is renowned for the variety of its dishes, so even between neighbouring villages there is often a wide diversification in recipes. From wine to truffles, olive oil to cheese, in Abruzzo you can look forward to a mouth-watering experience, often in an unusual setting. If you fancy some divine ravioli on your way back from the slopes, stop off in Pretoro, at I Rintocchi, a restaurant (literally) in a cave!
Later in the week, I took a day away from the slopes and explored some of the charming hill villages dotted around the region. Guardiagrele, with its displays of traditional, decorated iron work, proved an excellent place to pick up some delightful and unusual souvenirs.
Two days on, as I luxuriated in temperatures of 15 degrees centigrade in Pescara, along the same Adriatic coast that is clearly visible from the peaks of Passo Lanciano, I reckoned that Abruzzo, in early February, was the ideal location for some snow, sun and sea. Throw in delicious food, good wine and warm hospitality and you have the perfect package for an unforgettable snowshoeing holiday.
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….
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.
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.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to walk the West Highland Way (WHW). Indeed, even before the route was conceived as a long distance footpath (LDF), the thought of walking from the edge of Glasgow to the heart of the Western Highlands stirred my anticipation. There are plenty of other LDFs, some nearer, some longer, some more technically difficult, but none can compare in terms of drama, romance, scenery and diversity of landscape. For anyone who believes that the best way to travel is under your own steam and combines this with a feeling for history, a love of literature and a passion for the great outdoors, trekking from Scotland’s largest city, along the banks of her most iconic loch, past the head of her most historically (in)famous glen, to the slopes of her highest mountain, on routes laid down over the centuries by soldiers, drovers and emigrants, the WHW would be difficult to better.
Thursday September 6th dawned damp and drizzly and, following a short, but efficient, luggage hand over at Milngavie station and the obligatory “start pic”, I was on my way. I’ve done all the first part of the section – as far as Dumgoyne – and some of the remainder before, but it was still a thrill to walk past the Craigallian Fire and visualise the depression days of the 1930s when it was a beacon of warmth and companionship to the many who tramped the hills for recreation, or as a semi-permanent escape from the iniquities of the Means Test.
A 12 mile, relatively flat, segment looked nothing compared to the demands of the later stages, but mid afternoon coffee and cake In the Drymen Pottery was a welcome end to the day’s walking, particularly as it had been raining steadily for the last hour. The Clachan Inn though, was a slight disappointment. It was clean and the staff eager to please, but maybe the restrictions that come with the tag of Scotland’s oldest pub, make it difficult to cope with the demands of a full house of walkers – wet wayfarers all turning up at roughly the same time put a strain on the shared facilities – and restricting cooked breakfasts, even a bowl of porridge, until after 9am scuppered any plans for an early start.
Friday September 7th and the sky glowered threateningly, but, unfortunately, although the rain kept off for the first part of the morning, when the heavens did finally open, many were at the top of Conic Hill hoping to enjoy the dazzling views over the south end of Loch Lomond. However, the umbrellas at the Oak Tree Inn kept out the rain and by the time I had completed the first afternoon mile alongside the loch, the rain had eased and the mist was lifting.
This, however, was to contribute to my first, major, faux pas of the trip. Shedding successive layers of waterproofs as the sun appeared shyly in mid-afternoon, I dropped my map wallet and failed to notice until a couple of miles further on. Although I jogged back, there was no sign of it – another walker had picked it up and handed in at the next campsite, which although very kind of him, was not too much use to me as I was going in the opposite direction and had no means of getting back there. And, as just reward for my stupidity in leaving my holiday details in the wallet, I had no idea of how to get to the rest of my accommodation! Fortunately though, a combination of Andy’s efficiency in the Absolute Escapes office in quickly emailing the details and Fiona’s kindness in giving me a new map, ensured there was no lasting damage.
Fiona was my host at my next overnight stay, near Rowardennan. Her home, Coille Mhor – comfortable, commodious, with a luxury exclusive bathroom and breakfast to die for – was everything the first night was not. This, plus her family’s willingness to go the extra mile for their guests, laid down a challenging marker for the rest of the accommodation en route.
Saturday September 8th: just a glimpse of brightness on the way past the Rowardennan Hotel, but enough to lift the cloud off the summit of Ben Lomond, at least for the moment. This, the WHW veterans had warned would be the toughest stage; not in terms of exposure or altitude, but because of the obstacle course that is the 2-3 miles north of Inversnaid. With this in mind, I made good pace first thing and took advantage of the wide forestry tracks to arrive in Inversnaid by lunchtime. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before the path, slimy with recent rain, began to swerve up and down, over rocks and tree routes, at times about to seemingly splash into the loch itself. It was torturous going and, making good use of my new map, I used Island I Vow as my landmark and vowed not to stop until I was at least level with it.
On and on, the path veered one way, then another, and progress continued at snail’s pace – even the fit-looking lads with military-style gear didn’t overtake me with quite the same verve by mid afternoon – until I met a mountain biker travelling in the opposite direction. Taking the opportunity for a few minutes chat (not least to find out how he intended to deal with the hurdles to come) he reassured me that the path would level out in about 400m and, sure enough, round the corner of a delightful, sandy bay, the route stretched out, wider, straighter and flatter.
Climbing up from the head of the loch, it was clear that the broad leaf woods of the shore were now behind me; in front loomed the muscular peaks of the Southern Highlands. This stage of the route also sees the most optimistic, or ambiguous, signpost of the walk. “Beinglas 2 miles” it says. Well, an hour and a half later, after the longest two miles I’ve ever walked, finally, the foot of Glen Falloch came into view. Tonight’s accommodation, at Beinglas Farm, delivered more than it initially promised: keys only on deposit, bags dumped in a communal shed didn’t auger well, but the chalets were very comfortable, food good, staff attentive and Murray’s semi win was available on TV.
Sunday September 9th was always going to be my big day. My itinerary said 12 miles along Glen Falloch and Strath Fillan to Tyndrum which, compared to the exertions of the previous day, looked relatively straightforward. Today’s forecast looked better than tomorrow’s, so up and out early, I made Crianlarich before midday, hurtled on to Tyndrum by early afternoon and, after picking up the bus/train times, took the plunge and headed off for Bridge of Orchy today, instead of tomorrow morning.
In the event, all went well; the two Glaswegian veterans who marched me along at their lively pace, kept me entertained with their tales of past WHW exploits, the mist and drizzle didn’t really descend until the last 40 minutes and it was a pleasant surprise when the hotel and station came into view a little after 4.30 pm. At closer quarters, however, the hotel isn’t quite as welcoming to walkers – transport information was wrong, my companions found their booked accommodation did not materialise and a coach load of tourists seemed to be offered considerably warmer hospitality than us disparate wet walkers.
Fortunately, however, my accommodation lay in wait at Ewich House, back at Crianlarich. After bussing it back to an enormous fish and chips at the Rod and Reel Ian picked me up and drove to the 200 year old farmhouse he and Deb have sensitively restored into a marvellous guest house, enjoying an unrivalled location, modern facilities – the imaginative en suite, complete with organic toiletries that soothed my aching muscles, took my vote – wonderful hospitality and a breakfast to rival Coille Mhor’s. All this, plus Ian and Deb’s commitment to operating in the most environmentally possible way, places Ewich House firmly at the top of my must-revisit list.
Monday September 10th: As I now had the luxury of taking the train to resume where I left off in Bridge of Orchy, I could digest my porridge at leisure and savour the scenery, albeit briefly, from the magical West Highland Railway.
The climb over to Inveroran that had looked daunting last evening, now proved to be an enjoyable hike, providing views back to Beinns Dorain and Dothaidh and then on to Loch Tulla and the Inveroran Hotel.
“You’re going to get wet,” advised an elderly gentleman at the gates to Forest Lodge, and, true enough, by the time I approached Black Mount, all wet gear had been put into use: by the landmark Ba Bridge, as the photos prove, the rain was driving straight into the camera lens. Rannoch was certainly living up to its reputation as a vast, inhospitable wilderness, miles from any semblance of civilisation. But for me, the feeling of being at the edge of the world, with nothing but my foot power between me and shelter, was absolutely exhilarating and I felt nothing but respect for the few brave birds and hardy species of flora that survive in this hostile environment.
The damp was beginning to take its toll and I was already cold as I first glimpsed the Kingshouse Hotel from the crest of the ridge. As its outline became more definite, I thought of the generations of travellers, climbers and walkers, for whom it had offered a beacon of shelter after hours, or maybe days, of exposure to the elements. Kingshouse deserves its legendary status, but it is slightly disappointing that it its uncontested location has led to a complacency in maintaining standards of comfort. Tradition and character are rightly valued, but should not be excuses for sub-standard, shared facilities, ill-fitting windows and tepid water.
Tuesday September 11th: opening the curtain to a handful of deer grazing insouciantly under the window partially compensated for a chilly room (and not being able to share Andy Murray’s first major victory) and a wonderful full rainbow lifted the spirits before the rigours of the Devil’s Staircase. This was definitely leather boots territory and I had good reason to be grateful to my trusty Meindls as we splashed along paths suddenly transformed into raging rivulets.
This was a four-seasons-in-ten-minutes day and the combination of squally hail followed by blinding sunshine, slowed progress. However, the regular shafts of sunlight supplied some great picture opportunities over the Mamores and the descent into Kinlochleven was frequently spectacular. Although hardly a conurbation, I found a return to shops, banks and take aways, comforting, but slightly sad at the same time. However, some enjoyable pub grub, entertaining company and a decent bottle of wine, helped make this the best evening, so far.
Wednesday September 12th marked the last day of the walk, and perhaps as a reward for our efforts, it dawned bright and crisp: ideal conditions to showcase Highland grandeur at its best. The forest climb was strenuous, but soon repaid by stupendous views back over the Leven valley and the mountains beyond. The remains of Lairigmor provided a suitable wind break/sun trap – and in my dream world, an ideal location for a WHW B&B offering cakes and refreshments to hungry walkers!
As the afternoon wore on, the miles predictably seemed to get longer and, even as the bulk of Ben Nevis came into view, it was still a salutary reminder that there were over six miles left. But the mountain path eventually turned into the forestry track and the long descent into Fort William began; the campsites of Glen Nevis finally followed by the guest houses and B&Bs on the outskirts of town.
But, the WHW was still to have the last laugh: reaching the original obelisk, we found the official end of the way has now moved to the town centre. Eventually, we all made it and, while some retired to the pub immediately to celebrate their achievement, the long walk back to Glen Nevis for a welcome shower and snooze, made the return into town that bit harder later in the evening, although aching limbs and weariness were soon forgotten in the happy celebrations.
So, despite my misgivings about my foot I made it, without any apparent ill effects and feeling considerably fitter at the end compared to the beginning. Seven days of historical, emotional and cultural connections in an environment of such beauty that frequently took your breath away, added to some considerable kindness from complete strangers, new friends, good company and camaraderie combined to make the experience all I hoped it would be; plus some more.
Highlights – the whole route, but if I have to choose:
the gorgeous broad leaf woodlands on the banks of Loch Lomond
the ravishing red berries drooping from the rowan trees along the route
crossing Rannoch Moor – walking along its western edge and then home on the railway on its opposite side – feeling very insignificant in the midst of such an awesome wilderness, with my respect for the engineers and navvies who built the roads and railways reinforced
being lucky enough to enjoy breathtaking views of the Mamores and Ben Nevis on a clear, sunny autumn day
getting my kit list just about right and now knowing my waterproofs and boots do actually deliver what they promise
Ewich House – fantastic facilities, stunning location, warm hospitality and a tariff that doesn’t unfairly hammer single guests – the kind of B&B I would love to offer!
if your luggage is being transported, seriously consider taking two types of boots – multi-activity shoes are ideal for the early stages, but I would have struggled without my leather boots on the final two days
look carefully at your schedule – particularly the stage over Rannoch – and don’t be afraid to make minor amendments, depending on weather conditions and personal fitness
get copies of bus and train timetables – particularly between Crianlarich, Tyndrum and Bridge of Orchy – as you can use the buses and trains to travel between start and finish points, if you amend your itinerary
check all your accommodation stop-overs carefully before you confirm – use websites or, better still, personal recommendations to get some idea of their facilities and atmosphere
remember to book in advance if you want to take the steam train (now universally known as the “Harry Potter” train) from Fort William to Mallaig at the end of your walk – I didn’t get round to this in Glasgow and lack of WiFi en route, meant it was fully booked when I finally accessed the site
Absolute Escapes for organising my trip – and, in particular to Andy for sorting out my lost accommodation details, and Fiona at Coille Mhor for donating me a new, indispensable map.
Greener and leaner – think pedal power, and no petrol costs – doesn’t have to be meaner. Cycling may be the car-free, guilt-free way of exploring the spectacular Trossachs National Park, one of Scotland’s most beautiful regions – but it also gives you the chance to sample, en route, the best cakes and coffee to balance the calories expended.
Book well in advance, reserve a bike space at the same time with ScotRail and a single from the Midlands or South-east England to Glasgow can cost as little as £11.50. The process is user-friendly, far more transparent than the average budget airline – and it disproves some negative preconceptions about public transport and bikes in Britain.
Glasgow, known for its museums, shopping, architecture and café culture, is also a surprisingly cycle-friendly start to the route. Check out Glasgow Cycle Map and use it to tap into the city’s dual legacy of disused railways and canal paths. These comprise a traffic-free route that takes you to Loch Lomond in barely 90 minutes from the Squinty Bridge.
Heading west, away from the loch and its coach parties, the gradients steepen through Drymen, towards Aberfoyle, and the beauty of the Lochs and Glens (Sustrans Route 7) becomes obvious as you enter the magical, wooded Trossachs. Cyclists keen to enjoy the braes without the weight of heavily-laden panniers can take advantage of luggage-transporting services.
Cycle touring equals flexibility, allowing a detour to the captivating Loch Katrine. The birthplace of Rob Roy, it also supplies Glasgow’s water – and the system of aqueducts running 34 miles to the city is understandably regarded as a wonder of Victorian engineering. Interestingly, it also freed Glasgow, long notorious for bad housing and poor health, from the scourge of cholera long before any other major British city. In summer, it is possible to combine an 18km circuit of the loch with a steamship tour on the Clyde-built steamship, SS Sir Walter Scott.
The route then shadows the southern shore of the Highland-esque Loch Venachar to Callander, before heading north to Strathyre. There, the Inn at Strathyre provides a warm welcome, hearty food and regular, impromptu entertainment in the bar – which, for those who want to keep in touch with the wider world, has Wi-fi access. The cosy B&B has a range of double, twin and family rooms and will happily provide packed lunches.
From here the trail follows the old Callander to Oban railway, where your steady ascent may well be monitored by an unimpressed red squirrel. About 10 miles on, the path crosses along another 19th-century engineering marvel, the 60m-high Glen Ogle viaduct, now the exclusive preserve of walkers and cyclists.
From Killin, eastwards along Loch Tay, it’s only a short stretch to Aberfeldy where The Watermill easily wins the prize for best re-fuelling stop en route. Voted Scottish Independent Bookshop of the Year 2006, it has a café that takes its coffee very seriously. Here, you can relax in peace with a book, a newspaper and a tempting selection of cakes.
It’s an easy ride along the pretty Tay Valley to Pitlochry, home of the Festival Theatre and just a 90-minute train journey from Glasgow, where you began. The comfortable and friendly Glasgow Guest House is ideally located between the Burrell Collection and Mackintosh’s House for an Art Lover in the city’s Southside. Cycle to both and enjoy a few hours, or more, among some of Glasgow’s best cafes and bars. Alternatively, try out the off-road routes at nearby Pollok Park, or leave your bike at the guest house, take the train into town and take in the art, architecture, culture and wit (not forgetting the shops) of the Second City of the Empire.
Four days, 150 miles, roughly equal expenditure and consumption of calories for £350: it is possible to cut your carbon, stay relatively solvent but still indulge.
Even the grey, raw dawn didn’t detract from the splendour of St Pancras as I dragged my damp baggage out of the Euston Road drizzle sometime before five am. Despite the early hour, it was clear Eurostar’s “cheap” deals were proving popular as the terminal was busy and the queue for the the only coffee outlet already snaked into the departure lounge. However, Cafe Nero’s young baristars coped resolutely and the short wait enabled me to strike up a conversation with the guy in the tiger suit (who everyone else was staring at, but wouldn’t talk to) cycling to Andalucia for MacMillan Cancer Support – hi Cathal, hope it went well. You can read more about his challenge here
Although it seemed difficult to believe, this was my first Euro tour for nearly three years; injury and the increasingly pernicious demands of a depressing day job interfering with my travel plans in the interim. This time, I had chosen to travel during the day, in order to enjoy the scenery, heading initially to Turin, before eventually stepping out into a warm Florentine evening with the Renaissance facade of Santa Maria Novella straight in front of me.
Thursday May 10 2012:
Florence: the city that first took my breath away as a 16 year old and now, still as beautiful, but inevitably, even more crowded than I remember it. The Albergo Duilio hotel is interesting in a quirky kind of way – a traditional building, small, but very clean, with a clever, en suite wet room, in an almost perfect location within walking distance of city, but away from crowds and, in Vincenzo, an extremely hospitable and helpful host. It also provides an ideal Italian breakfast: a voucher for coffee and pastry at the cafe across the road, the Cafe Communarde.
So, I start my first day in Italy proper with a velvety cappuccino, standing at the bar alongside some tasty Italian airline crew. Suitably invigorated, I cross the road to the Arno and stroll along towards the Ponte Vecchio.
Even at 10 am it’s packed and, after a quick wander across to take in the views, I head back and up towards the Uffizi to sniff around the plethora of tours available. Deciding to trust my own (fading) knowledge of Renaissance art later on, I head into the Piazza della Signoria and marvel at the statues – yes I know this David is a copy, but Neptune and Perseus are awesome and the Rape of the Sabine Women finally persuades me my hopeless school Latin wasn’t totally in vain.
One of Florence’s key attractions is its compact centre and, after securing a late afternoon slot at the Uffizi from the booth at Orsanmichele (no queuing and no additional charges) I head up past the Cathedral and stop for a few moment to look at the Duomo and Baptistry.
It’s difficult to keep a space even for a few minutes, but Brunelleschi’s masterpieces retain their magic, even after five centuries.
On a hot, sunny day, the next logical stop is the marvellous Mercato Centrale, whose stalls groan under the weight of cheese, ham and plump fresh vegetables. To get there, however, I have to negotiate the street stalls with their equally tempting array of leather goods and scarves, but fortunately I’m hungry, so for now anyway, I avoid the lure of a gorgeous Gladstone bag and follow my stomach to the food market.
After an afternoon nap, I’m back at the Uffizi for five pm. It’s busy, but not oppressively so and, although it’s difficult to secure an unrestricted view of Primavera, or the Birth of Venus, it’s empty enough in the early rooms to see the works of the Lippi family and and also, later on, to compare the Italian masters with the more realist school of Northern Europe.
There’s never any a definitive length of time you should spend in a gallery, but an hour and a half seems about right: just enough to take in the depth of art treasure on show, but not too much to be overwhelmed.
All these marvels have made me hungry, again, so it’s back over the Ponte Vecchio in search of some sustenance. Found my way to Il Rifrullo busy, but not with tourists and aperitivo buffet (€7 with drink) so good I doubt I’ll need any dinner.
From here it’s a short hop to Piazzale Michelangelo: where else to watch the sun setting over Florence and the Arno?
Friday May 11 2012:
The day starts well: another excellent coffee and more interesting airline guys. I try out a dummy run to the station in advance of tomorrow’s early start, waylaid en route, by a visit to the city’s English bookshop. More seriously, I find myself drawn back to the street market and, in particular, the leather stalls. I can be very persuasive when I want to convince myself I really need something, so force myself back on track to today’s first port of call –
This is my first visit and I spend the rest of the morning and early afternoon enthralled by the masterpieces adorning this Dominican church. Masaccio’s fresco of The Trinity, Giotto’s Crucifix, Filippino Lippi’s frescoes for the Capella di Filippo Strozzi, before you even reach Ghirlandaio’s altar. A few more steps, another masterpiece: in some ways this is the highlight of revisiting Florence and the experience is marred only by a handful of brash American women taking photographs when specifically instructed not to do so.
A late lunch, a further selection of sumptuous leather bags and another plausible salesman – it would make more sense to wait until the final day of the holiday, but will they have these bags in Turin? – followed by a couple of hours reading in the shade.
Five pm and it’s cooled sufficiently for me to head back to the Campanile.
I still have a tiny instamatic print of the rooftops of Florence, taken on my school trip, its faded colours looking almost naive in today’s digital age. Today, the vistas taking in the domes and towers of the city, the Arno and its bridges and the surrounding Tuscan hills, are still stunning, their unique shades highlighted by the lowering sun.
This evening’s photos are sharper, but also the final confirmation I need another memento of Florence’s beauty to remember this visit. So, back to the leather stalls, momentarily panic when I can’t find the one I want, out with the credit card and then collapse into nearest bar, racked with guilt and the frightening realisation I have already spent the equivalent of Italy’s national debt on a leather bag.
However, every cloud and all that because, despite its dowdy decor and basic furniture, this place does a mean glass of rosario, the buffet is equally good and, it’s 1€ less than last night. Unfortunately, in my initial hysteria, I completely forgot to memorise the name of the bar.
Saturday May 12 2012:
All too soon, my two days in Florence have come to an end and, just after 7.30 am, I thank Vincenzo for his hospitality, grab a quick coffee – clearly too early for the pilots today – and head for the station.
After my first visit I vowed I’d come back. Now, I mean to return again, maybe in the winter, maybe as part of a wider tour of Tuscany and its hills and towns. But, I will come back. Florence has that effect on me.
The train is routinely packed, but comfortable and on time. The trains also provide excellent storage space for large items of baggage at the end of each carriage – Virgin Trains, take note. Despite this, most of the Italian passengers seem intent on keeping their luggage, no matter how large or heavy, right beside them on their seats!
Rome: a city I’ve always wanted to visit but, until now, never quite arrived at. Termini station is log-jammed, but despite the crowds, the information booths are well-staffed and helpful and I’m soon making a (lengthy) walk to a peripheral platform for my first taste of Rome’s suburban transport system. And, it doesn’t disappoint: 1€ fare, fast trains with adequate space every 15 minutes, what’s not to like?
I emerge out of Trastevere station to chaotic arterial traffic and a burning sun. Fortunately, the Hotel Roma Trastevere is only a few metres along the Viale di Trastevere and I’m able to park my expanding baggage until check in. Unfortunately, I forgot to ask for a map, so spend a rather pointless three hours mooching about in the immediate vicinity of the hotel. However, a tiny Arab cafe provides good coffee and an enormous sandwich and the views from the hill behind the main street open up right across the city, heightening my anticipation of what is to come.
This hotel is, in direct contrast to the Albergo Duilio, modern andrather soulless in its public areas. However, the bedrooms are roomy, with a small balcony and the exquisitely tiled en suite the kind of facility you look forward to in a decent hotel. And, it supplies a readable map.
So, after a short rest and shower and, armed with said map, I set off to investigate Trastevere after dusk. Quickly realise that if I had wandered a further few hundred metres earlier on, my lunchtime options would have included a cafe, bar or restaurant at every corner along the Via San Francesco. But at least it ensures I intend to make the most of Trastevere, now I’ve actually found it.
The Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere is thronged with families, tourists, street artists and people of all ages enjoying the balmy evening. It’s animpressive church, thought to be the first place of Christian worship in Rome and I nip in quietly, trying not to disturb the on-going Mass. Mosaics of saints and a series of panels by Cavallini are stunning and well-worth a future visit for a closer look.
From the piazza it’s a short hop to Via Moro 15-16 and the divine La Renella. Considered by many to be the best bakery in Rome, its wood-fired ovens produce a delectable range of pizza al taglio, focaccio and biscuits that attract a most diverse range of customers; people waiting for a bus, priests, workers from nearby shops and well-dressed couples on their way for a night out in the city. Take your slice of pizza with you, or eat it at the long bench along the width of the bakery. It’s not salubrious, but at less than €2 for a delicious portion of pizza ai funghi, with mozzarella and pomodoro, I’m not complaining.
Originally the artisan area of Rome,Trastevere’a narrow streets, closeted squares, trattorias, cafes, bars and night clubs are now some of the most popular areas of the city, for residents and tourists alike. Even past nine pm, it’s still possible to browse a bookshop, or look round a boutique between sipping a cocktail and enjoying some traditional and (for Rome) reasonably- priced cooking in traditional and unpretentious restaurants.
Sunday May 13 2012:
Benefitting from a comfortable and uninterrupted night’s sleep, I’m up and about early, determined to make the most of my only full day in Rome. The hotel breakfast (usual unappetising stuff at an extra €6) is easily resisted, so I grab a decent enough cappuccino and pastry at the bar next door, before catching the No8 tram into the city.
In less than 10 minutes, I’m stepping off the tram in Largo di Torre Argentina. My plan is to see the Pantheon and Piazza Navona, check out the best coffee and also take in a few of the beautiful, small churches in the Centro Storico before it gets too hot and crowded. It’s hardly ambitious, but I’m not going to see all that Rome has to offer in a day and, part of the thrill of visiting the Eternal City, is to discover the wonders of the little, unheralded churches found on almost every corner of the city centre.
The Pantheon doesn’t disappoint and, standing for a few moments to appreciate this magnificent building, it is impossible not to wonder how it continues to stay up, without any apparent arches and vaults.
It’s not yet crowded, but busy enough to share the view of Raphael’s tomb:
“Living, great nature feared he might out vie Her works, and dying, fears herself may die.”
Pieto Bembo’s inscription sums up, not just the impact of the great artist, but of the Pantheon itself.
I want to savour the memory of the Pantheon before it merges with the other sights I hope to see, so head east along to the Plazza San Eustachio to try out what is generally regarded as the best coffee in the city, at its eponymous cafe.
This tiny shop, selling all things coffee on one side, with a bar on the other was already crowded with locals and other tourists. Quickly learning the etiquette, I’m rewarded with the best creamy cappuccino I’ve ever tasted. It’s so good I almost order another, but promise myself that abstinence now will be rewarded later with a chance to sample their macchiatos.
Suitably rejuvenated, I walk back towards the Piazza Navona and, although the square is already filling with people,
the magnificent Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi still draws my eye and I’m hard pressed to drag myself away from Bernini’s magical fountain celebrating the four great rivers of the world.
It now hits me (better late than never, I suppose) that trying to visit churches on a Sunday morning is not my greatest-ever idea, given that I don’t intend to participate in Mass and, after a disappointing stop at La Caffeteria – coffee very good, but pretentious service and silly prices – stroll down Via del Corso past the bizarre Palazzo Venezia and thence along to Arco di Tito.
My next visit will concentrate on Classical Rome, as opposed to the Baroque centre, but today even just looking in on some of the ancient monuments, it is humbling to think of them in a historical context. How appropriate then, that on this sunny Sunday morning in May 2012, the entire length of the Via dei Fori Imperiali is packed full of children playing a mini-football tournament in the shadow of the Colosseum, the most famous arena of all.
Monday May 14 2012:
Pack up my goods and chattels, leave in the luggage room and head back into the city. I start with the Jesuit church of Sant’Ignazio and wonder around the spacious interior, gazing at the amazing Baroque ceiling showing St Ignatius entering paradise and trying to reconcile that with my understanding of the contribution to humanity of Ignatius and the Jesuits. Ignatius, of course, isn’t actually buried here: he’s in the Gesu church a short stroll away that, conveniently, can be easily reached via San Eustachio cafe.
Decide that, despite the shortages of time, I can’t really leave Rome without at least seeing the Vatican. So, head back to find a bus – not sure which bus, but follow the priests and nuns congregated round the a particular stop and, happily, this piece of inspired logic delivers me safely to St Peter’s Square in under 15 minutes.
Seeing the Sistine Chapel is high on my list of “to-dos”, but that will have to wait for another visit. On this sunny, but fresh morning – ideal for my kind of sightseeing, but the Italians are swaddled in scarves and down jackets – I’m content to wander among the colonnades in Bernini’s best-known piazza, taking in the extent, both of the square, but also the beauty of the Basilica and its dome.
Back in the city, I make a point of seeing the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome’s only Gothic church and home to a host of art treasures. Filippino Lippi’s fresco of the Assumption in the Carafe chapel takes my breath away and I’m thrilled to stand for a few minutes in front of Michelangelo’s Christ Bearing the Cross.
But, unfortunately, that’s it, my time in Rome is up and it’s off to Tiburtina station to catch the bus to the Abruzzo the next stage of my travels.
I say my goodbyes to Kevin and Jacqui as they drop me at Pescara station – very impressive modern building with good catering outlets and lots of lovely escalators to transport me and my ever-more-heavy bags. The sun’s out and Pescara, which looks almost like a resort on the Cote d’Azure, becomes another destination awaiting a return.
Another comfortable, civilised train journey – just how will I cope with Virgin and London Midland after this? – but the weather worsens as we head north and, by the time we reach Bologne, it’s as grey and dull as November in the Lake District.
Fortunately, the HotelInternazionale/en is well within trolley-bag distance of the station and I’m able to check in immediately.This is the most luxurious of the hotels on my trip, and today its comfortable room and plush ensuite are a welcome treat for my end-of-holiday shabbiness and constantly throbbing ankle.
Bologne is compact and its characteristic porticos are ideal in the afternoon downpours – Glasgow take note – enabling me to wander about fairly aimlessly without getting soaked. I suss out Bottega del Caffe and convince myself that 200g of their speciality coffee won’t make too much difference to my overweight bags. Their chocolate, disappointingly, is less impressive and a macchiato in the cafe is average at best.
Bologna is now considered by some as the foodie capital of Italy, however, this evening I sample the more basic end of its culinary offerings with a visit to Pizzarie Altero, virtually across the Via Indipendenza from the hotel. Ignore the strip lighting and wait your turn in the queue and you will be rewarded with an excellent choice of pizza al taglio (up there competing with Renella) for under €2 a slice.
Bologne’s history as a hot bed of socialism has always intrigued me and its leftish leanings are still evident in the names of many of its streets and squares and any city with Rosa Luxemburg as a bus terminal definitely deserves another visit – a taste of socialism perhaps might be an appropriate theme to sample its culinary and political heritage in the future?
Tuesday May 22 2012:
Another day, another train journey: this time the short hop (90 minutes) to Turin and the end of my tour. Fortunately, the sun is shining and Hotel Dock Milano (not as plush as yesterday and en suite wet room even smaller than in Florence, but perfectly adequate once I get the safe to work) is right across the road from the station.
Usual story of too much to see and far too little time at my disposal, so concentrate on getting a feel for the city and checking out some of the best cafes. Start by grabbing a sandwich and drink and head for the nearest park and, already, pick up on one novel aspect of Turin’s street life: the mobile book cart, stationed at the corner of streets and squares.
I’m soon on my way to Via San Tommaso, to visit its eponymous cafe, reputably the original home of Lavazza. First impressions are heartening – a little bar packed with non-touristy looking people drinking small cups of coffee.
And the verdict? The macchiato from heaven, the very best I’ve ever tasted; honestly. It’s only two pm and I do want to see more of Turin, so, regrettably, I force myself away from San Tommaso without trying its famous bicerin (cappuccino fortified with brandy) vowing to return this evening.
Given its location on the northern borders of Italy, some of Turin’s most famous cafes have more in common with those in central Europe. Indeed, Baratti and Milano and Cafe Mulassano would not look out of place in Vienna or Budapest. But be warned, although the gelato in B&M and coffee in Mulassano were both excellent, the prices you pay for gazing at their marble fittings and Belle Epoque interiors are high and in B&M be prepared to be treated with contempt by some of its more mature staff.
Continuing my sequence of cheap eats, in the evening I dine at Brek An interesting concept, and very popular with workers, families and sole diners, it’s essentially a self-service restaurant where you choose whatever combination whets your taste buds. My generous portions of pasta, salad, bread, fruit salad, bottle of water, 250ml jug of house red and coffee came in at a very reasonable €13.
Wednesday May 23:
The last day of my tour of Italy and, with some sadness, I cross the road to Porta Susa station just after seven am in time to catch the TGV back to Paris.
Travelling to Italy by train is easy, enjoyable and economic, read my tips on how to go about it.
Coffee: can’t quite decide between San Eustachio in Rome and San Tommaso in Turin, so will go for the cappuccino in San Eustachio and the macchiato in San Tomasso
Gelato: has to be the amaretto flavour in Baratii and Milano, Turin, despite the service
Pizza: no competition here: La Renella in Rome
Hotel: toss up between the style and facilities of Hotel Internazionale in Bologne and the hospitality, original building and location of Albergo Duilio in Florence
Overall: probably re-visiting Florence, but Raphael’s tomb in the Pantheon comes a close second
And: being able to travel across western Europe and around cities, using efficient, clean, affordable public transport, although this always makes returning to the UK’s third word infrastructure eminently depressing
The bus fromRome was busy enough to be interesting, but neither too crowded nor, other than the girl across the passage with the ill-fitting headphones, too noisy to be oppressive. So far, my public transport options in Italy had ticked all the boxes: clean, efficient, punctual, cost effective with, oddly, the TGV coming in from France the only late arrival on my journey so far.
The first stop was Chieti, just inland of the Adriatic, around two hours east of Rome. Here I was to meet Jacqui and Kevin who would take me the 20 km or so to Kokopelli Camping on the edge of the Majella National Park.
Their website and my communications with Jacqui had convinced me that theirs wasn’t an ordinary campsite. And, arriving at sunset, with a simmering orange sky strewn behind jagged, snow-capped peaks, I wasn’t disappointed. Indeed, looking round from the 360 degree panorama, even in the fading light it was possible to make out traditional stone villages, limestone crags, cherry trees struggling under the weight of their fruit and rows of healthy green tomato plants lining the hillsides. But equally obvious was the absence of any hook-ups, motor homes, manicured uniform plots or campsite queues and only the howling of a few village dogs interrupted the twilight chorus of birdsong.
Next morning, Kokopelli produced some more pleasant surprises: daybreak revealed a stunning vista of delicious shades of green that seemed far too lush for a latitude on par with Rome and Barcelona and a short walk down to the village of Serramonacesca unearthed some delicious cheese and ham and an excellent bottle of local wine from its two shops, plus a classic macchiato from the village bar.
Kokopelli is a labour of love for both Jacqui and Kevin, escapees from work-life imbalance in the UK, who want to share their love of climbing, walking, cycling, running and all things outdoor in this beautiful locality, with those of a similar outlook.
“We live a self-sufficient, minimal impact lifestyle and aim to share it with like-minded people,” explains Jacqui. Food is grown organically, water heated by solar power and everything possible is re-used, composted or recycled. As such, holidaying at Kokpelli is more about joining in with a compatible community, than spending time on a campsite.
Even the accommodation options are novel:
“You can bring your own tent and/or bedding, or if it won’t fit in your bag, use one of our options,” advises Jacqui. And, as a long-time exponent of pop-up tent rage, the Strawberry Hills canvas bell tents on offer, complete with duvets and Bedouin rugs, were certainly appealing.
However, my home for the week was to top even these opulent tents. Rosemary is a T25 VW Camper, now peacefully retired after a lifetime of travelling across Europe.
With her comfortable double bed, heater, sink, cooker and even her own expresso maker, my problem was to drag myself up and away from her delights every morning – she also boasts a large awning and can sleep another two adults “upstairs” in her pop top, for those who prefer not to get too friendly.
But, if you simply can’t entertain the idea of sleeping under canvas, or in a campervan, then there is also a converted room in the barn, and a family en suite room in the house.
Showers and toilets at Kokopelli would grace a boutique hotel and there is a host of other facilities, ranging from hair dryers to a well-equipped cooking and dining area.
Given its locality and Jacqui and Kevin’s expertise, Kokopelli is a haven for all kinds of outdoor activities: you can hike from the door to the summit (2,800m) of Mt Amaro, test your stamina and cycle skills on sweeping mountain roads, or choose your own spectacular, deserted crag for a range of climbing challenges.
And, if all this is not enough to keep you occupied, then the Adriatic coastline with its alluring beaches is only a few kilometres away.
But Kokopelli is not just about adrenaline-fuelled adventures. An injured ankle impeded my plans to spend the week hiking through the national park, but enforced rest enabled me to appreciate the variety of wildflowers and butterflies, range of birdsong and darkness of the night sky. A short ramble to the village of Roccamontepiano was rewarded by a glimpse of a young deer in the woods, a deserted house among the olive groves and a delicious cake from the village bakery.
Throughout history the Majella has been renowned for its spirituality and as a refuge for hermits, monks and others seeking peace and reflection and the remains of many hermitages and monasteries are found throughout the area.
Today its sense of solitude and of being at one with nature is still very evident.
I’ll bring my boots when I return to Kokopelli and maybe my bike too, but I will definitely also take some books, my camera and binoculars and factor in time to sit, to observe and to contemplate. History, culture, landscape, food, climate: Kokopelli is a special kind of place.
How to get to Kokpelli: buses run regularly from Rome’s Tiburtina Bus Station and take about two hours to Chieti and the same route will take you from Chieti to Pescara where there is a main line railway station with links to the rest of Italy.