I must admit that autumn is my least favourite season. I always mourn the end of summer; dark mornings and evenings hamper my cycling time and make walking and running over my well-trodden cross country route well nigh impossible, while I equate falling leaves and withering flowers with death and I’ve never been a great fan of fireworks and bonfires.
But while I accept that not everyone, fortunately, shares my depression at the onset of winter and, indeed, for many, the russet kaleidoscope and misty vistas make it their favoured time of the year, for everyone with any kind of concern for our wildlife and environment the last few months have, arguably, witnessed the most worrying and threatening period in living memory.
Economic austerity is now being used effectively by politicians and others as a convenient excuse to justify scaling back and abandoning necessary environmental measures, such as withdrawing subsidies for solar energy and blaming so-called ‘green taxes’ for high energy bills.
Meanwhile, according to the UN the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen to record levels, again, while all corners of the planet face increasingly unpredictable and destructive weather conditions. However, politicians across the globe, from George Osborne, to Canada’s Stephen Harper and the avowed Australian climate sceptic Tony Abbott, have become increasingly vocal in their attempts to rubbish the idea of man-made climate change, contending that we currently cannot afford to indulge in the luxury of environment concern.
Well, we don’t need to look too far to find the influence of the fossil fuel sector, desperate to preserve their profits from their carbon-heavy polluting industries and only too happy to sponsor mouthpiece politicians in Westminster and Washington: climate scepticism now joining creationism as the poster boys for the most irrational politics of the 21st century. Meanwhile, over the last five years, Canada and Australia have swum against the tide of economic austerity on the back of their reserves of dirty oil and gas, abandoning any pretence of environmental concern in favour of making a fast buck or two.
But even more alarming is how much of the population have been taken in by the disingenuous argument that we cannot afford green measures – particularly given that the truth is we simply cannot afford, either environmentally, or economically, not to move to more sustainable forms of energy. Recent polling shows categorically that concern about the environment and support for green measures have fallen considerably over the last six years; tragically at the very time when it is needed more than ever.
Unfortunately, not only are we enduring the least green government ever – any party who awards the environmental portfolio to the hapless, odious and useless Owen Paterson deserves nothing but contempt – but neither can we look for any real environmental leadership anywhere else within traditional politics, with one or two honourable exceptions, such as Caroline Lucas and Mary Creagh.
But, however depressing the situation, we cannot allow ourselves the luxury of sitting back, hopelessly accepting there is nothing we can do. We are dealing with the future of our planet and nothing – not economic activity, not international terrorism, as a recent poll in the Guardian confirmed – is more important than that.
Instead, we should look to the growing army of activists, from No Dash for Gas to the heroic alliance of decent, ordinary people opposed to the invidious badger cull and those brave enough to blow the whistle on the illegally killing of our indigenous wildlife who, through organisation, resourcefulness and courage, have faced down intimidation and the threat of arrest to bring home to the public just what is happening in and to their countryside.
And it is these brave and committed people who offer a optimistic chink of light, even to this self-confessed pessimist in this dark and dismal autumn. We need to look at the protests taking place throughout the country, read the majority of comments about fracking and the cull, even within media outlets that usually support the establishment and do whatever we can to continue our fight to preserve and protect our environment and those who live in it.
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….
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.
Despite the endless rain and generally miserable weather, the early summer of 2012 has seen some positive developments, as far as cycling is concerned. Indeed, adopting the maxim that there is no such thing as bad publicity, it’s been quite a successful year for the bike, in many ways, so far.
Two massive bike rallies, the London ride and Scotland’s Pedal On Parliament in April, the effective offensive against Addison Lee cabs and the odious sentiments of its CEO, the brilliant Times’ Cities fit for Cycling initiative, and the ‘Love London, Go Dutch’ campaign that gave cycling issues such a high profile in the London mayoral, election have all kept cycling, and the need for greater safety for cyclists, in the headlines
Indeed cycling world champion and odds-on favourite to be Britain’s first gold medallist in the London Olympics, Mark Cavendish, has added his voice to the fight for greater protection for cyclists and called on Britain to adopt Dutch-style laws on harsher penalties for drivers
The contrast between the Netherlands – where riding a bike to travel from A to B is regarded as perfectly normal – and the UK – where cyclists are frequently regarded as collateral damage by motorists convinced of their “entitlement” to unrestricted use of our roads – could not be more stark, particularly for those trying to negotiate our crowded city junctions, or narrow country lanes.
A fellow Sustrans volunteer, recently back from a tandem holiday in the Netherlands made the following observations:
bicycles everywhere, ridden by all age groups
school teachers with bicycles, schoolchildren in tow, each wheeling their bicycle
huge cycle racks at stations; bicycles parked at bus tops; outside shops; everywhere you look!
the city of Leiden; the centre was full of people and bicycles but hardly any cars! It was busy yet so quiet
can you believe this: first time we went out – on the tandem – we approached a ‘Toucan’ style crossing. Though well away from the crossing, I was getting ready to stop and put my foot on the ground – but the car had already stopped!! Cyclists seem to have precedence – cars always let you across first!! Its another world!
well maintained cycle paths too – often 2-way – either side of the roads, with excellent signing
most of the bicycles are traditional ‘sit up and beg’ style with all kinds of goods attached front and rear – including children and girlfriends riding on the rear carriers!
It’s the culture that’s so different: cyclists are regarded as vulnerable people who have an equal right to the highway – and it applies to pedestrians as well.
But while more recent reports confirm the benefits of cycling to everything from the environment to the economy the lessons we should be learning from the Dutch still appear to be falling on deaf ears. Norman Baker, the Local Transport Minister may claim that: “Right across Government it is accepted that there is a hard-nosed business case for investing in sustainable local transport, and that includes cycling and walking.”
But his colleague, Mike Penning, the Road Safety Minister, refuses to even consider changing the law: “Making a motorist automatically at fault for an accident with a cyclist, unless he or she can prove otherwise, would be unfair where someone is driving entirely responsibly — or when there is an accident where no one is to blame.”
This lack of logic – championing the advantages of cycling on one hand, but refusing to do anything to make it safer for the majority of people – is perhaps most clearly illustrated on the streets of our capital. On the face of it, cycling would appear to be enjoying a renaissance in London – up 70% in some places, with the so-called Boris bikes proving very popular – but the incidence of cycling injuries has also risen and the general profile of users of the cycle hire scheme tends to be young, well-off and male.
Boris Johnson clearly enjoys being portrayed as the bicycling mayor, but if his claim to believe the “cyclised city is a civilised city” is to be taken seriously then he has to do much more to achieve this.His attitude to the notorious Elephant and Castle roundabout – the junction that received most complaints in the Times’ campaign – is a case in point. His blasé response that it was perfectly negotiable “if you keep your wits about you,” might attract some deluded lycra-clad thrill seekers, but will do nothing to encourage women, older people, parents and those who haven’t cycled for years to get back on their bikes.
These are ordinary people, the same kind of people who ride their bikes every day in Holland and Scandinavia; the kind of people we need to encourage to start cycling to work, or to the shops and to regard cycling as an ideal form of transport, not just a recreational pursuit.
If we can start to do this, then 2012 really will be a good year for the bike.
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.
Climb, hike and cycle among the rock towers, gorges and ravines of this beautiful but unknown part of Slovakia – but hurry before everyone else discovers Sulovske Skaly too.
It was hot and dusty and, as we jumped from the train, I half-expected some Henry Fondaesque assassin to ambush us at the isolated junction. But we were in Slovakia not the Wild West and Branko, our in-house translator, assured us, correctly, that the next train would arrive in five minutes.
Slovakian trains may be crowded and functional, but they are regular, cheap and punctual and 30 minutes later we gasped in collective amazement at the spectacular rock formations straight in front of us as we finally arrived in Sulovske Skaly a “rock city” made up of contorted slabs of limestone around two hours north west of Bratislava.
Even for those able to differentiate their Slovakias from their Slovenias, this region remains undiscovered. Lower in altitude than the better-known Tatras to the north-east, its rock towers, needles, windows and gates, separated by deep waterless gorges and ravines, form a national nature reserve, deservedly popular with Slovakian walkers and climbers. Its forested and round-topped limestone ridges are also much more typical of Slovakia’s mountains than the Tatras, but you’ll find little tourist infrastructure and few English speakers.
Our base, Penzion Sulov, was an attractive self-catered, wooden chalet, equipped with hot showers, comfortable double bedrooms and even a tennis court, and represented amazing value at a week’s cost of only 70 euros each, particularly as it also boasted satellite TV and more than enough space to store and dry the plethora of equipment needed for a hiking/climbing holiday. Situated only five minutes’ walk from the starting point of the climbs and hiking routes, this accessibility put it in a class of its own: no driving hassle or petrol costs, simply get your kit and walk out the door.
The hiking trails offered something for everyone, with expertly-marked paths, colour-coded for difficulty levels ranging from gentle rambles to strenuous hikes. Although elevations peaked at around 800m, some ascents were steep and, with handrails and ladders in strategic points, hikes often resembled via ferratas.
But, with spectacular views from the highest ridges, plus outstanding rock features, castle ruins and a relatively unspoilt ecosystem, this region offered many of the best elements of hiking, concentrated in a compact area easily reached by foot or cycle.
Make sure you visit the 13 metre high Goticka brana (Gothic Gate) rock formation, admire the views from the ruins of Sulovsky hrad (castle) and see the Sulovsky vodopad (waterfall).
During the last 20 years, the Sulov area has developed into something of a paradise for climbers and, today, it is regarded as one of the most interesting areas in Central Europe. For our rock fiends the climbing proved to be a revelation, surprising even the veterans with the quality of the bolting and testing grades on the often bizarre-shaped rocks. And, uniquely, we were the only Brits, as apart from a lone American, our fellow climbers were exclusively Slovakian.
The Súľov rocks are famous for a remarkable collection of plant species, including some very rare orchids. In general the region, although rural, is relatively uncultivated, resulting in delightful meadows of pastel-coloured wildflowers. We didn’t manage to meet the resident lynx, but the forests echoed to the clatter of noisy, brightly coloured birds, while surreal looking butterflies and cleverly camouflaged leaf frogs remained unperturbed by our presence.
Around a mile away was the hamlet of Sulov, with its brightly painted houses and attractive old church. Its small general store supplied us with enough provisions for the first couple of days and the family from the small bar in the village centre went out of their way to cook us a hearty Slovakian dinner of gulas (goulash) and bryndzove halusky (potato gnocchi) on our first night. But this is an area not yet geared up for tourism. Bars and cafés, although welcoming, were thin on the ground and did not routinely offer meals without prior notice. Coffee was, however, universally excellent.
We self-catered and, from outside the chalet, there was a fairly regular bus service to the nearest town, Bytca. Slovakian buses , like their rail counterparts, are clean and punctual, if rather basic. Towns in this area tend to be an odd mixture of some ornate traditional buildings, interspersed with bleak blocks of Stalinesque flats, along with some pioneer outposts of McDonald’s and Tesco.
Bytca offered little for foodies, but Branko did lead us to one gem: Expresso-Jadran (Micurova, 369/8, 01401 Bytca), a small, unprepossessing café near the bus station. Owned by Branko’s fellow Bosnian, Kurtovic Hasan, a refugee from the civil war of the 1990s, it offered a bewildering range of delicious home-made ice cream and some seriously scrumptious pastries, particularly a mouth-watering sour cherry strudel, to accompany its strong, heady espressos.
If you want a cheap, peaceful, safe holiday with a range of outdoor activities for all ages right outside your door, in a beautiful, undiscovered, part of Europe, then visit Sulovske Skaly before everyone else does. Don’t go if you need wall-to-wall tourist infrastructure, upmarket restaurants, clubs and bars, fast food and western consumerism.
How to get there
Sulovske Skaly may be unsung, but it’s easily reached.Take the train (use Seat 61 for info on rail travel throughout Europe). Slovakia, nestling cosily between Vienna and Budapest, by rail is a breeze, more civilised and, with group bookings and unrestricted luggage, can be better value.
In just under two years, the long-promised “greenest-ever government” has metamorphosed into the biggest single obstacle to reducing carbon emissions, creating a green infrastructure and encouraging all of us to adopt a greener lifestyle.
The real truth is that this corrupt government is in bed to such an extent with its wealthy friends in the big, polluting, carbon-heavy industries, the energy providers and shareholders of utility companies, that to adopt a real green agenda would compromise its friends and paymasters.
And undermining its friends in high places would also mean jeopardising its vital sources of income. So, £4m will buy your ear time at one of Dodgy Dave’s Dinners, but this kind of wealth will also buy you influence to poison scientific fact about climate change.
Perhaps the most insidious fact to emerge from the Tory donor – or should that be diner? – scandal, was the revelation that the climate change sceptic mouthpiece, the Global Warming Climate Foundation fronted by the climate sceptics’ poster boy, Lord Lawson (well, OK, I accept that Nigel Lawson and poster boy could well be the oxymoron of the year), is bankrolled by a wealthy Tory donor, Michael Hihtze.
So, the future of the planet is threatened by the Tories’ greed and willingness to indulge their rich donors and incorporate their baseless dogmas into government policy. And, while we might regard Nigel Lawson as a has been, bad taste joke, now best known for fathering the infinitely more famous Nigella, it is a serious, and potentially tragic, matter.
Climate change denial has gained much undeserved credence in recent times and, combined with the pernicious effects of the economic slow down, is now, despite having no scientific basis, being taken seriously and used as an excuse to curtail and slow down the green agenda. The Tories here mirror their right-wing counterparts in the USA by being in hock to the big multi-national polluters, carbon emitters and energy providers, whose donations, in return for a platform for climate change denial, result in another, depressing, nail in the coffin for the planet.
But, despite the drip-drip of anti-environmental publicity, it appears that the ordinary public have, fortunately, not been taken in by this misinformation. Polling from YouGov shows that people believe more should be spent on renewable power and a survey conducted for Asda found out that, despite economic hardship, people do continue to care and be worried about environmental catastrophe. Late last year, another survey, this time from the government’s own climate change advisers, found categorically that green measures do not lead to skyrocketing energy bills and placed the blame unequivocally where it belongs: on rising gas prices and from satisfying the demands of utility shareholders
Logically, austerity should lead to a more responsible attitude towards waste and reckless consumption: a timely reminder of how the desperate days of World War Two instigated the remarkable creativity of Utility design and the wonderful graphic art reminding us to Waste Not Want Not, or Dig For Victory would not go amiss. But today, other countries, particularly in Scandinavia and north west Europe also provide excellent role models as to how green initiatives can provide jobs and stimulate the economy. And at the other end of the world, in Australia, large run-off tanks are now de rigueur in homes to catch rainwater that is then used in washing machines and dishwashers – surely a sensible idea to adopt here as much of south east Britain begins a hosepipe ban?
George Osborne was, apparently, “shocked” to find out that many of his fellow millionaires paid little or no tax. Perhaps he will be just as shocked to hear that, despite negative propaganda from his Treasury, a majority of the electorate do worry about climate change, do support investment in renewable sources of power and do want affordable ways of insulating their homes. But, there again, as revealed very clearly from the Asda poll, these tend to be ordinary people who do pay tax, who struggle to heat their homes and find affordable transport options.
Are we still all in this together, George?
It is not a case of Britain not being able to afford to follow a green agenda: we, like the rest of the planet cannot afford not to.
This is my reply to a letter published in the March issue of TGO magazine, in which the correspondent complained about a £10 parking charge levied in the Snowdonia National Park. I hope it might stimulate a debate on what measures we can use to reduce car usage in National Parks and how we can campaign for the preservation and improvement of public transport in rural areas. Any suggestions?
RE: “PARKING TROUBLES” TGO MARCH 2012
John Morris’s complaint about high parking charges in Snowdonia raises some interesting wider questions about the entitlement of motorists to drive and park cheaply within our national parks.
If a high parking charge discourages one motorist from driving around a beautiful, but fragile, environment like Snowdonia, then I would support it, however spurious the reasoning behind the charge.
Has Mr Morris considered joining the National Trust (NT)? Membership would enable him to enjoy free parking in NT car parks. Another answer could be to share his journey to North Wales with other walkers, especially if he usually travels on his own: four people in one fairly economic car not only reduces emissions, but lowers individual petrol costs and parking charges.
An even better solution would be for Mr Morris to “dump his car” at home and try to access most of our beautiful places by foot, bike or public transport. Then he might just appreciate the difficulties faced by those of us who don’t/can’t /won’t drive. Perhaps his experiences might also encourage him to join this neglected group in lobbying for the preservation and improvement of public transport in rural areas.
Mr Morris protests that high parking charges equate to “taxing our outdoor pursuits”. An alternative view would question how much entitlement motorists should have to pollute and obstruct our national parks without appropriate penalty.
Hopefully, the question of parking charges might lead to a general debate on how we can reduce traffic throughout all our national parks and other beautiful areas: yes, we may have been there before, and no, trying to reduce the number of cars in these areas does not represent a war on motorists. We need workable solutions before we ruin even more of our countryside.
For anyone seeking information about how to access walks in national parks (and other areas throughout the country) without a car, check out: www.carfreewalks.org while www.bootandbike showcases walking and cycling routes in UK and Europe, as well as giving advice on how to plan trips on foot, or by bike and how to get there without flying, or using a car. www.bettertransport.org.uk campaigns for sustainable transport options and www.livingstreets.org.uk lobbies for the rights of pedestrians in urban and rural areas.