Date: Tuesday 28 August
Distance covered to Rome: 490/1027km
Terrain: Down, down, down the Apennines. (descent = 1325m)
Overnight: Ostello Castello del Piagnroella, €11
Feeling: a wee bit tried today.
What goes up must come down and I did for the best part of 6.5 hours.
I have decided that to tackle the Via Francigena you need a head for heights, no fear of narrow paths with sheer drops off the side, no fear of swinging bridges or angry dogs, and a very good pair of knees. I thought I had good knees, but we will see what state they are in when I get to Rome!
It was slow and steady wins the race today as many of the descents were incredibly steep with loose stone under foot. I think I may have mentioned my miraculous walking poles once or twice before?
I seemed to do it hard all day as I was short a few calories from yesterday (yes, another small catering miscalculation) and of course today there was not a bar or cafe to be seen. All praise to biscuits!
The slow pace gave me plenty of opportunity to admire the scenery, the tiny villages and awesome autostrada. That thing is just an engineering wonder as it disappears under massive mountains and sails across valleys on towering bridges. Why can’t we have that sort of engineering/development vision in Australia? Needless to say I wouldn’t want to live next to such a thing, but boy it would be handy!
I was rewarded for my hard slog with some very picturesque forest strolls over babbling brooks and ancient stone bridges. It is moments like those which make me realize how very special this walk is. Hard, but special.
My big news is that I am staying in a genuine castle tonight! The castle is a museum, but they also provide accommodation for pilgrims. I am surrounded by ramparts and towers and massive stone walls. How lucky am I?
Tip of the day: just because they tell you there is a bar, don’t assume it will be open before 3pm or serve food before 730pm!
Date: Monday 27 August
Distance covered to Rome: 467.1/1027km
Terrain: More up up up the Apennines. (ascent = 678m)
Overnight: Ostello della Cisa, €10
Feeling: surprisingly good!
Today had been described in various books and guides as the most difficult section of the whole Italian section of the Via Francigena. That is not a particularly attractive description, especially to someone who has to walk it! As it turned out, it wasn’t as hard as yesterday. Bonus!
However, it was no cake walk and there were some very steep sections, but they were short and sharp, and then they would plateau for a bit before another up. Again the views were stunning today. More mountains than I could count, more valleys with picturesque villages all tolling their bells.
The good news is that a good portion of the path was on beautiful forest paths and the trees provided lovely shade. The last couple of days have been slightly cooler, which I am loving, and I hope it is a sign of things to come. Ever the optimist!
I can’t remember if I have chatted about the Via Francigena app I am using on my phone. I am now an app convert and this one is a cracker. I love to see the little red dot (me) scurrying along the designated path, but I learned today that it is not perfect! I came to a point in the path where it split – one higher and one lower. My logic said to take the higher one as we were climbing, but my app mate said the lower one was the go. Off I happily trundled down hill, down, down and into a farmer’s paddock, frightening a gorgeous doe in the process, until the path became decidedly un-path-like. My red dot was now officially in the middle of nowhere and it was sensible to turn around and slog back up the hill again! Sure enough, the higher path was the correct one and the waymarking signs appeared again within about 100m. So, I have decided that to get from A to B in the shortest possible time, I must use a combination of the app, the signs and a healthy dose of common sense!
You learn something every day and it’s a dull day when you don’t!
Tip of the day: don’t believe everything the guide books tell you and always add 2km to their estimated distance.
Date: Sunday 26 August
Distance covered to Rome: 448.3/1027km
Terrain: Up up up the Apennines. (ascent = 997m)
Overnight: Ostello di Cassio, €16
Feeling: very glad there are no more mountains….today!
I knew today was going to be tough and I was not disappointed. Luckily I hit my first climb when it was still dark, so I couldn’t see what I was in for! No such luck with all the others!
I won’t bore you with every single sweaty step (and believe me there were plenty of them). It was a day of digging deep and even then I had some doubts whether I would make it. The only thing is that the path takes you to the middle of nowhere, so you just HAVE to make it. I did pass through a few small villages, but nothing was open, no buses and certainly no taxis.
The upside is that I was surrounded by stunning views and I didn’t need much encouragement to stop and enjoy them. There is a certain satisfaction to looking back and seeing where you have come from, until you turn around to see what is yet to be done.
With only 1.5km to go, the path wanted to take me bush again and I decided I had had enough bush for one day and chose to stick to the road for the remainder. Being a Sunday there were plenty of motor cyclists out enjoying the sweeping bends and downhill runs. Half their luck!
The ostello here is quite amazing. It looks like a combination of Copperart and a $2-dollar shop have vomited the decor! There are plastic flowers, dried flowers, stuff toys, dolls, kitten pictures, hot pink bedspreads and I have Thomas the Tank Engine sheets! But, I have it all to myself and I couldn’t care less who designed the decor.
Tip of the day: skip this section if you don’t like slogging up hills.
Date: Saturday 25 August
Distance covered to Rome: 427.3/1027km
Terrain: Stiff climbs
Overnight: Ostello Parrochia Santa Maria Assunta, €10
Feeling: Tired, but pleased to have the day done.
A shocker of a sleep last night saw me awake for a good part of it! It is just so hot and there is little relief at night, even with a fan on. So, I gave in and got up extra early and was on the road before 430am. I know that is nuts, but it beats tossing and turning in bed.
I feel perfectly safe out at that time and have my headlamp on to make sure I don’t miss any of the signs or waymarks. They were predicting thunderstorms and showers today and that was another reason to make an early start – attempting to get as many kilometres done before it set in.
Thankfully it never set in and instead, was gloriously cool for 90% of the walk. Heaven!
Today marked the first day of climbing and I do admit to a couple of “you’ve got to be kidding” moments. One climb seemed to go straight up through the middle of a farmer’s lucerne paddock. I have no idea how they farm on such inclines, but everything was ploughed and planted to within an inch of the path. No doubt I provided a some entertainment for the man on his tractor as I wheezed and puffed my way to the top.
Despite all that, it was a very beautiful walk today. More like the Italy we see in the media with the pencil pines and iconic farm houses. Again this region looks very prosperous, so there must be money in lucerne and stinky intensive cattle and pigs.
Apologies for the quality of the photos, it was a hazy sort of day.
The good news is I have caught up with Gerard from Sydney, so have some company in the ostello tonight.
Tip of the day: ice cream is a perfectly acceptable breakfast food.
Date: Friday 24 August
Distance covered to Rome: 394.9/1027km
Terrain: Flat and farmland
Overnight: Ospitale San Donnino, €10 (donation)
Feeling: a bit nervous about the climbs starting tomorrow!
Today was my last hurrah on the flatlands and I will no longer be trucking along at around 5.5km an hour. From tomorrow it is ‘Hello, hill climbs’. I know I have had it good for a long time and I just have to balance the strenuousness with the stunning views. Or that is what I am hoping anyway.
Very pleasant walking out with the farmers this morning. They were busy in the paddocks slashing, harvesting the tomatoes and ploughing. I know this probably falls into the category of ‘ too much information’, but they plough in the most amazing way over here. Their plough is only about 2m wide, but the disks/tynes are about 1.5m high. It turns over great sods of dark soil, almost a metre high. Obviously ‘no till’ agriculture is not a thing over here.
Unfortunately the number of angry and frustrated dogs was not so pleasant. Italians obviously love dogs as every second house has one or three, but they also have large signs saying ATTENTI LA CANE or Beware of the Dog. As I walk past the dogs, without exception, they all want to have me for breakfast. Big dogs, little dogs – it doesn’t matter. I find it a bit off-putting to get this sort of ‘welcome’, but feel sad for the dogs that this is the sum total of their lives. Maybe they are only being super brave and ferocious because there is a fence separating us? I don’t intend to find out.
Arrived at Fidenza nice and early, and certainly before the worst of the heat set in. A relaxing afternoon following the Australian political farce. I am glad to be out of the country and in ‘stable’ Italy!!
Tip of the day: Italian dogs do not like Australian accents!
Date: Thursday 23 August
Distance covered to Rome: 371.7/1027km
Terrain: Flat and amongst the traffic. Not fun!
Overnight: Parrochia di San Fiorenzo, €10 (donation)
Feeling: a bit foot sore.
A shocker of a start to the day with 10 solid kilometres of industrial estates and edge of road walking. I understand that in the latest guide book, it even suggests skipping this whole stage and I know a few of our previous pilgrim party did just that. Some are pressed for time so they made the call to catch the train from Piacenza straight here. A wise choice I think.
Thankfully the path did improve and it followed small country roads through an intensive farming area. Corn is still featuring strongly although there are also great swathes of tomatoes, lush lucerne paddocks and I was passed by a large semi-trailer filled to the brim with onions. The farms looked very prosperous and there was plenty of serious farm equipment about.
Glad to see the town and the cathedral spire on the horizon and get in out of the heat.
The most exciting thing of the whole day is that I have been able to do a load of washing in a WASHING MACHINE!! Too exciting for words.
Tip of the day: a large bowl of penne with bolognese sauce is a wonderful post-walk wind down!
(Apologies everyone. I am having terrible email troubles again and WiFi is as scarce as hen’s teeth!)
Date: Tuesday 21 August
Distance covered to Rome: 338.4/1027km
Terrain: Flat and a bit ordinary
Overnight: Duomo Guesthouse, €65
Feeling: a bit nervous about the next stage.
Today was another nice short walk although the nice bit relates more to the length/distance rather than the scenery.
We started the day happily with a ferry ride across the River Po. This trip is one of the highlights of the walk as the boatman is a real character. He truly embraces his role as the boatman and not only does he transport us, but he explains the history, stamps our credentials and we must sign his massive ledger and have the obligatory photo. All before we can start walking again.
From there it was just a slog into Piacenza. 95% of the path today was on the edge of quite busy roads so you needed to be conscious of where you were and what the traffic was doing. It then took us through a very rough and ready industrial estate before the final 5km slog into the city, also along the edge of busy roads.
I was not encouraged to see many of the farmacias displaying the temperature which ranged from 30C-34C. Too hot to be walking!
But I have a rest day scheduled for tomorrow and that is a beautiful thing!
Tip of the day: you just have to take the good with the bad.
Date: Monday 20 August
Distance covered to Rome: 320.1/1027km
Terrain: Flat with a couple of tiny climbs
Overnight: Ostello Grangia Benedettina, €10 (donativo)
Ah, if only everyday was a 17km day! It is such a civilized distance. One that you can knock over before breakfast even. Well, third breakfast anyway. Is it a Hobbit thing where they had multiple breakfasts every day?
So, how it works is that I get up early and head out the door, and as I walk I tuck into a muesli bar or similar. After two hours, if I am lucky enough to find a bar open, it will be coffee and a pastry if something looks appetising. If not, I will find somewhere comfortable to sit and eat from my well-stocked tucker bag. Another two hours and break and breakfast number two, and repeat until I reach my destination.
NB: cafe Americano and donut this morning was €2! Yes, I am in for a rude shock when I return to Australia.
I have been really surprised and pleased at how welcoming everyone has been so far. Most people (old and young) cannot believe I am walking to Rome, on my own and that I am from Australia. Through a mishmash of Italian and English I learn about their aunts, brothers, nieces in Sydney and Melbourne and unfailingly they wish me a good trip.
It is lovely to make these little connections as I walk and to share a joke and a smile. This morning when I bought some biscuits the man behind the counter didn’t speak any English, but in Italian he said (pointing to all the coins in my hand) that money is the international language! He is right.
The pilgrim group seems to ebb and flow daily. Today there are nine of us, two Italians, one Swiss, one Belgian, two Irish, two Aussies and one grumpy Russian. I will be a bit sad to lose them tomorrow as I have a rest day in Piacenza. Hopefully our paths will cross again in the next four weeks and hopefully I will meet up with others when I start walking again on Thursday.
Tip of the day: if you are coming to Italy, do try to learn even the most basic Italian. You will be welcomed with open arms.
Date: Sunday 19 August
Distance covered to Rome: 303/1027km
Terrain: Flat with a couple of tiny climbs
Overnight: Parochial Santa Cristina, €10 (donativo)
Feeling: like I am melting.
The heat is amazing. I think I am going to have to have a serious think about some of the longer days in the next month. I am not sure they are doable without walking a good portion of it in the dark. This morning I left at 505am and it was already hinting of the heat ahead. By 830am I was melting and by 1130am (when I thankfully arrived at my destination), I really was not interested in taking another step.
I must have looked pretty desperate as I went straight into a small bar to buy a cold drink and when I went to pay, the barmaid told me that a man further up the bar had already paid for it. He must have a very kind heart or incredibly bad eyesight as I am certainly no oil painting after sweating through 29km!
There are eight of us her tonight. Gerard from Sydney, William from Belgium, Thea and Mary, a Swiss couple and a ciclo (bicycle) pilgrim. It is all very social although we are all resting up now to avoid the afternoon heat.
A quirk of this ostello is that they would not open the doors before 230pm. I had time to kill, and I needed some sustenance, so I walked straight into the pizzeria and ordered lunch. The largest pizza ever was placed in front of me and miraculously it disappeared!
Tip of the day: carry more water than you think you need. No fountains today.
Date: Saturday 18 August
Distance covered to Rome: 273.8/1027km
Terrain: Flat with some Bush bashing
Overnight: Ostello Santa Maria in Betlem, €20 (including air conditioning!!!)
Feeling: under control.
I obviously survived the night to walk another day and I was soon stepping out into the dawn. I fired up the head lamp this morning as I knew I would be going slightly off piste to start with. I didn’t want to misstep and tumble into the canal to sink without a trace.
More rice, rice, rice, corn (see previous posts) and then a little hay and perhaps some lupins(?). My early morning peace was overtaken by multiple camouflage-clad men with dogs in dusty 4WD cars. Obviously Saturday is ‘huntin’ season’ and I scuttled along a bit faster.
I was lucky to score a coffee stop at about 730am and had a little moment when John Farnham’s ‘You’re the Voice’ came lilting out of the bar! Where am I? Moments like these really make me smile.
From then on I felt like I was in a very tame David Attenborough documentary. The path took me off the road and down by the riverside. There were birds aplenty and then there were the multiple lizards, rabbits and a very shiny black snake! Who knew that Italy had snakes? Thankfully we scared each other in equal parts and headed speedily in opposite directions.
Relaxing in Pavia as we speak. A really beautiful city with an amazing covered bridge.
Tip of the day: Don forget that you’re the Voice and you’ve just got to understand it!
Date: Friday 17 August
Distance covered to Rome: 250.4/1027km
Terrain: pancake flat
Overnight: Casa del Pellegrino Exodus, €20 Lunch, Dinner, Bed (donation)
Feeling: Good nah nah nah nah nah!
So, there was little sleep last night as the church clock, right next to the ostello, chimed the hour and half loud and long ALL NIGHT! I think if I lived in this town I would have to lobby for more civilised hours or carry out some sabotage! By 0430 I knew there was going to be no more sleep for me and I should just get up and get on with the day.
Rice, rice, rice, rice, rice, corn, rice, rice, rice, rice. No variation and no photos to show no variation. If you have walked the Camino Frances, I am guessing this region would equate to the Meseta. Apparently a lot of people skip this whole section, but I figure later on I will be begging for flat terrain, so I am enjoying it while it lasts.
The first town today was Mortara and I fell on the first coffee shop I came too and ordered two pastries and a coffee. I was missing some calories from yesterday and those two really hit the spot. Not sure if it was the caffeine or the sugar, but I felt almost human afterwards.
More rice, rice, rice, corn, rice, rice, rice, rice and it was time for a little break at Tremello. I had no sooner got my backpack off and a little old man cycled up on a red, white and green bicycle and wanted me to go with him. I tried to explain that I was just having a little rest and he cycled away only to return a few seconds later with Mary from Ireland! Carlo is the official pilgrim greeter in this town and he insisted on stamping our credentials, giving us a special certificate, a badge and plying us with ice cold mineral water! Now, that is a welcome!
Mary and Thea (English) started the day after me (from Great Saint Bernard Pass) and we had a lovely chat. I had been feeling a bit flat and lonely and meeting them perked me up no end. We walked for a while together, but our paces are different, so I left them to it. It was getting terribly hot and I wanted to get to my accommodation. Hopefully I will see them again tomorrow and on our way to Rome.
My ostello is slightly off the beaten track so I fired up Google Maps to bring me to the door. I wasn’t quite sure what I had struck when I walked in. Picture about 30 young men, pierced, shaved and tattooed to within an inch of their lives. I did a quick scan of the table and there were also a few women (normal) and children.
Not a lot of English was spoken, but I pieced together that this place is a home for troubled young men and they help them get their lives back together. Now I was feeling like I was intruding, but they insisted I share their lunch and afterwards escorted me to the pilgrims accommodation. I have the whole place to myself and they provide dinner tonight. Don’t worry, I feel very safe.
The other bonus is that even though I had to walk a further 2km to get here, tomorrow’s path is only about 300m away and will save me a couple of kilometres of walking! YES!
Tip of the day: trust a man bearing ice cold mineral water.
(With the photo in the header, I am wondering if I wear my scarf on my head, will some bloke carry my backpack??)
Date: Thursday 16 August
Distance covered to Rome: 220.4/1027km
Terrain: pancake flat
Overnight: Ospitale San Giacomo Madonnina, €10 (donation)
My rest day disappeared in a haze of slow strolling and sloth. When we walked into Vercelli on Tuesday the place was jumping, and yet I woke up in a ghost town! It was the annual Ferro gosto holiday and everyone seemed to have left town. Oh well, at least it was relaxing.
Up and at ’em this morning and back out into the rice fields and the whole day was accompanied by the plip, plip, plop of the little frogs diving into the rice paddies. They obviously didn’t trust me, but I reckon they should have been more worried about all the herons and ibis hanging about.
I made good time even though the heat was pretty energy-sapping. At one stage I had a nice chat to Alfredo from Rome who is cycling northwards to Great Saint Bernard Pass. I do not envy the ride up!
My first significant ‘lost in translation’ moment has occurred here in Nicorvo. I booked via email and when the lady replied she mentioned shops and a pizzeria. The only downside is that I missed the key word – CLOSED! So I have a night in a tiny village with nothing open and a town clock next door that chimes the hour and half hour with gusto!
I do have a fair few snacks and so far I have consumed, 60gm of fruit leather, a handful of nuts, a 200gm bag of lollies! To come are some biscuits and a couple of cans of tuna. The diet of champions!
Date: Sunday 12 August
Distance covered to Rome: 194.9/1027km
Terrain: pancake flat
Overnight: La Casa Colonello, €60
Feeling: pretty amazed that I completed nearly a fifth of the walk.
I had the best night’s sleep of the whole journey last night. It may have had something to do with yesterday’s distance, but I suspect it related more to the very large beer (0.79c) I rewarded myself with at dinner. I shared the ostello room with a lovely young man (am I sounding old?) from Scotland called Liam. He is walking northwards on the via, so it was good to compare notes on the path so far. I was interested to see that his backpack was actually bigger than mine and he wasn’t using walking poles. I warned him about day 3 and I hope he takes extra care if he does decide to attempt it.
Corn as far as the eye could see this morning, which wasn’t very far when you consider it is 9ft high! Then it was corn and rice, and then just rice. Liam had warned me about the mosquitoes and I had the Aeroguard at the ready! They were definitely hungry!
I found a cafe, inhaled a coffee and was ready for the last 17km into Vercelli. As I left the village I was pleased to see another walker ahead. She turned, waved and waited for me to catch up. Fulvia has walked from the Great Saint Bernard Pass with her schnauzer dog for company and today was their last day. It would add a whole other layer of complexity to the walk to have a dog as company, but Fulvia wouldn’t have it any other way.
The time passed quickly as we talked all the way into Vercelli, and you wouldn’t believe the coincidence, that we were booked into the same little hotel.
A nice day, good company, and a trip to the laundromat meant sweet-smelling clothes for the first time in a week!
Tip of the day: kick off the boots, it’s a rest day!
Date: Monday 13 August
Distance covered to Rome: 166/1027km
Terrain: lots of flat and rolling hills
Overnight: Ostello Santhia sulla via Francigena, €10 (donation)
Feeling: footsore, but pretty pleased with today’s kilometres.
Yes, what a difference a few days of manageable terrain does to the confidence levels and kilometre count. Originally today was going to be a much shorter stage, but it was relatively cool and a breeze seemed to follow me all day, so I just had to make the most of that.
There was almost a stampede to pack and leave early this morning, so I am guessing other people were thinking about putting in a big day too. When I finally tied my boots on at 530am, I seemed to be the only person left. I thought they had all charged out the door and left me for dead. No matter, I set off into the breaking dawn.
I know what you’re thinking…..I am supposed to be on ‘holidays’….why am I getting out of bed at that horrific hour?? Yes, I’m hearing you, but it truly is the best time of the day to be walking.
The first part of the day was through some lush forests and then on some rural back roads. At one stage the app wanted to send me up yet another mountain to check out yet another historic church, but when I checked it out further, I could simply keep walking straight ahead, miss the ascent and the historical experience, and join up with the path again! Can you see I am finally starting to get a little wisdom?? Not much, just a little.
After the nightmare first three days I have decided to make this walk work for me, and if that means adapting the path slightly, then so be it! Possibly famous last words?
Anyway, I was making good time today with the slightly cooler temperatures and the flattish terrain. My pace was helped along by a couple of aggressive dogs who weren’t that fond of people walking on their patch. One sneaky bugger had a couple of goes at me, pretending to run away and then sneak up on me again! Once more I gave thanks for my trusty walking poles.
Over the last couple of days the path has started to take me closer to or through villages. This has dramatically increased my chance of a morning coffee. It doesn’t work out every day, but when it does, it is a very sound investment of €1. I realise I am probably a bit of a Philistine ordering a cafe Americano. Hopefully my €1 is as good as the next person’s.
I hit the 27.5km mark at 1200pm and the weather was still holding, so I made the decision to push on. The views were full of fields of corn and intensive animal farms. Other than in the Alps, I haven’t seen any cows in paddocks as such. I wonder why they feedlot all their stock?
These deep philosophical ponderings were accompanied by some very threatening thunder and when I turned to see what that was all about, there was a massive black thunderstorm bearing down on me! I doubt there was any visibly noticeable change in speed, but I hustled along and managed to tumble through the door of the ostello just as the heavens opened! My lucky day!
Not so lucky for all the other pilgrims who were actually behind me, NOT in front of me as I had thought.
Tip of the day: never say no to coffee or a cool breeze.
Date: Sunday 12 August
Distance covered to Rome: 127.6/1027km
Terrain: a mixture of stiff climbs and strolls through orchards and vineyards
Overnight: Ostello Ivrea/Canoa Club, €15.
Feeling: like I’m getting the hang of this thing
The further I head south, the more steamy and humid it is becoming. I was expecting the heat, but not the humidity. And Italians don’t seem to use fans, well not in this part of Italy anyway. I started walking at 530am as it was cooler outside than inside the ostello!
Straight up a mountainside to start the day and then it was through a rich agricultural region – grapes, corn, peaches, pears, plums and apples and the largest tomatoes I have ever seen! I was sorely tempted just to lean out from the path to grab a taste, but I refrained as it wouldn’t be fair on the farmer.
The good news is that I have finally left the autostrada behind and now I can walk in the relative quiet.
As I took a break for breakfast number two, I could see a huge thunderstorm working its way up the valley. Time to break out the new poncho! It worked a treat although I would have looked pretty funny trying to shimmy into the darn thing! Very hard to get it over my backpack. For the next little while I had to step carefully as everything was very slippery.
There were a few short road sections to be covered today. I was pleased to get those knocked over early when there wasn’t much traffic. The cars are quite considerate and give me a wide berth, but they move FAST!
Stayed in another really good ostello, right on the river at Ivrea. It is actually the canoe club and they hosted the World under 23 years canoe championships last month. It was great to sit and watch the Sunday paddlers navigate the course.
24 pilgrims in this ostello and 7 in MY room! VERY hard on the olfactory senses!
A proper Italian dinner tonight with risotto and grilled vegetables!
Tip of the day: when answering the call of nature, clear the area of stinging nettles and deer!
Date: Saturday 11 August
Distance covered to Rome: 104.1/1027km
Terrain: mostly flat and damn enjoyable
Overnight: Ostello Communale, €15.
Feeling: stiff and sore, but generally a happy camper
Yay! Light at the end of the tunnel or at least some flat terrain at last.
I left the ostello early again as I was wide awake at a ridiculous hour. There were about 15 other pilgrims at the ostello last night, mostly French and Italian. I didn’t see any of them during the day as they seem to keep more European hours (eat late, sleep late) than me.
It was very pleasant walking following the river through pretty stone villages and over bridges. The directional signage was very good and even better, there were lots of other signs explaining the historic sites AND they were in English. I love to learn as I walk rather than just saying ‘oh, that’s pretty’.
It was wonderful to see the original Roman road and arch as I walked into Donnas. I am continually amazed that something so old could still be standing.
Pont Saint Martin was jumping when I walked into the town centre. I had forgotten it was Saturday, plus Summer holidays, plus market day. I always feel incredibly self-conscious when I have to mix with the general public. I am hot, sweaty and grubby, and of course, everyone else is the height of fashion!
I found a bakery, pastries, and a quiet corner to work out where I was in the town in relation to the tonight’s ostello. What did we do before Google maps? A really excellent ostello in this town and I had the luxury of a room to myself.
I am yet to get into the local food and restaurants, perhaps that will come when I meet up with a few other walkers. In the meantime I am becoming expert at the supermarkets with lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, salami and bread.
Tip of the day: stop and read all the signs. It looks like you are really interested and culturally-aware, but you are actually catching your breath!
Date: Friday 10 August
Distance covered to Rome: 85.1/1027km
Terrain: a nightmare of dangerously steep climbs and descents
Overnight: Ostello Il Casello, €24 B&B
Feeling: as if I may not make it
I turned into a mountain goat today! Admittedly a very arthritic and slow moving mountain goat, but I needed to dig deep and find my inner alpine fauna to simply survive the day.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, today was another to test my resolve and my sanity. I reckon those map-making people must have a sadistic streak! Yes, I appreciate that they want to get us off the road, out of the traffic, and perhaps show us a bit of scenery, but do they really need to take it to such extremes?
The day started with an all-but vertical climb out of Chatillon. OK, I can handle that and much better to get it out of the road early when I am relatively fresh. It was then a pleasant walk long enough to lull me into a false sense of security. The path edged the mountains and took me onto soft dirt tracks, under heavily laden grape arbors and over babbling streams. Once I was suitably distracted, reality kicked in and it all went to Hell in a hand basket. The climbs got increasingly vertical and the descents to match. This was made even more complicated with loose rock and tree roots underfoot. Maybe that is what all those religious shrines are for? Placed there by exhausted pilgrims in the hope that they won’t tumble off the mountain?
I do admit to have used a broad range of colourful language that day and it took me nearly 8 hours to cover the 21.9km!
Today was rated ‘Challenging’. You are not kidding!
Date: Thursday 9 August
Distance to Rome: 63.2/1027km
Terrain: gloriously flat
Overnight: Monasterio Franciscani Cappuccini, €donation.
Feeling: absolutely knackered x 2
This was another huge day, but I ‘cheated’ today and instead of following the designated walking route, I got smart and followed the cycling route which hugged the river virtually all the way to Chatillon.
The very thought of yet more cruel climbs and descents brought tears to my eyes and I knew I physically could not tackle that sort of terrain today, without doing some sort of permanent damage to my legs. That may sound a tad dramatic, but the day was about preservation not recreation!
So with every muscle screaming I set off in the early morning light to make the most distance I could while it was still cool. Even at 6am it is around 17℃ and only gets warmer from there.
The scenery was quite beautiful as the path twisted and turned with the river. Unfortunately the valley is also dominated by a four lane autostrada, so as well as the constant roar of river water you have the constant roar of traffic.
Fellow walkers will know that at the end of a long walking day, your accommodation will always be located at the top of a very steep hill. Today was no different.
Unlike the Spanish caminos, the via Francigena does not have the same sort of albergue accommodation. Instead you get to stay at monasteries and convents. What this monastery lacked in sophistication they made up for with a warm welcome. However I am not sure whether you have ever tried to use a squat toilet when every leg muscle is screaming at you not to bend or move an inch. It is not a pretty sight, but you have to laugh…or at least grimace.
I shared my room with a drop dead gorgeous Italian man and a vivacious French woman. I left them to it to go out to dinner and I passed out with exhaustion!
Sorry, not many photos today. I just had to get the day done.
Date: Wednesday 8 August
Distance to Rome: 31/1027km
Terrain: down-bloody-hill all the way
Overnight: La Belle Epoque,€48
Feeling: absolutely knackered!
Well, I can honestly say that I waaaaaaaay underestimated the via Francigena. I had heard about the Swiss alps and seen pictures of course, but I never knew the buggers were so big.
In my naivety I thought 30km in the crisp mountain air would be challenging, but doable. Ohh how wrong could I be?
I started walking just after 6 am and all-but crawled into Aosta at nearly 4.30 p.m. with absolutely nothing left in the tank and every muscle screaming blue murder.
A normal person would pay attention to the guide/map makers who recommend that this stage be split over two days, but me being the eternal optimist thought that one day would be fine.
Over the 10 hours I descended 1852 metres and my knees and leg muscles knew everyone of those metres intimately. It was a day to doubt my sanity, but when I took a moment to look up instead of where my feet were going, the scenery was absolutely breathtaking. I could not believe the pockets of snow still nestled at the mountain tops and the lushness of the forests, the fields of cows and obligatory cowbells.
￼I also could not believe the amount of people out walking on the same path. People of all ages, young and old, all out for a hike. Obviously they breed them tough over here. One additional challenge is for me to know whether to greet them with ‘bonjour’ or ‘buon giorno’ as French and Italian are spoken equally in this part of Italy.
For a good part of the day the path followed an extensive water canal construction that provided irrigation water for the many farmers and their pastures. Even though Europeans are screaming about the drought it just seems to be endless water here in the north of Italy.
A memorable day for all the wrong, and quite a few right, reasons!
Tip of the day: buy yourself a good set of walking poles and bring them!!
Next week I will be stepping out of the Australian Winter and into the European, specifically the Italian, Summer. While I am definitely looking forward to the temperature change, I do have some reservations about the language change! Continue reading →
One of the most important pieces of equipment for any traveller heading slightly off the beaten track is a backpack. Not everyone wants or needs to carry their own gear, but a backpack is certainly a great way to maximise independence and mobility.
Buying a backpack can be quite a confusing experience. There are so many brands on the market with so many actual and hypothetical features, it can be a real challenge choosing a pack that best meets your needs. Continue reading →
It’s all systems go as I count down for my next long distance walk. This time stepping out on the Italian leg of the Via Francigena.
If I was really committed (or should that be, “I should be committed”!) I would start at the very beginning of the Via Francigena with my first steps from Canterbury Cathedral in England. But No, I will have to be satisfied with a simple Italian stroll instead. Continue reading →
When visiting a large city, it is easy to sometimes feel a bit removed from Nature and find yourself trapped in high rises and on hard surfaces.
Whilst that can be both interesting and entertaining, I find myself hankering for a break from the man-made uniformity of concrete and steel, even if it is just for a quick recharge before diving back into the hustle and bustle once more.
I posted a few weeks ago about a walking tour of Melbourne’s historic arcades. This time our walk takes us away from the streets and onto the leafy paths of the Treasury and Fitzroy Gardens.
Of late, my thoughts has been focussed on all things walking and I can’t help but fondly remember my three Spanish caminos. I am hoping my next adventure, the Italian leg of the Via Francigena, will be just as enjoyable, or perhaps, ‘same, same but different’.
As I follow in other bloggers ‘virtual footsteps throughout the Iberian peninsula, I thought it may be useful to some would-be pilgrims to share my own experience and to compare and contrast the three separate walks I have completed to date. Hopefully this will help people choose the one that suits them best. Continue reading →
Unfortunately this post is a tad redundant as JETGO Airlines went into voluntary administration last week! The joys of running a small airline, servicing regional Australia where the margins are slim or non-existent.
However, should they get back on their feet and into the air, I have nothing but positive things to say about JETGO. Continue reading →
Rattling into Udaipur on a public bus, tired after around five hours of weaving through random traffic and over broken dirt roads, it was hard to believe that Udaipur was the beauty that everyone raved about.
Our bus coughed and wheezed into the chaotic public bus station and we stiffly stepped out to be swamped by the usual hoard of enthusiastic tuk tuk and taxi drivers. This is one of the huge advantages of travelling in a group with a guide. Ankita haggled and hassled until we had our four tuk tuks lined up and we were soon back, weaving through the choking traffic once more.
Visiting a country just to shop, would never be something I would consciously do. I have heard of people booking trips to all manner of Asian and other destinations just so they can blitz the shops. That sounds like the epitome of boredom to me, but even I was dazzled by the art, craft and pure entertainment value of shopping in India.
Tuncurry is a tiny jewel in the string of coastal gems that make up the mid-north coast region of New South Wales.
About four hours drive north of Sydney, Tuncurry and its sister town Forster, are slightly off the beaten track i.e. off the main north-south Pacific Highway. Rather than creating a sad feeling that the World has passed it by, the detour required to reach both these towns means that they retain their laid back ambience. A huge positive when you want a stress-free beach break.
So many visitors to Australia stick to the tried and true path, and miss out on the best bits! Their focus remains firmly fixed on the heavily promoted destinations of Sydney, the Gold Coast and Great Barrier Reef, and yet the hidden gems that represent the best of Australia, remain just that – hidden.
Just between you and me, and ‘ssshhh, don’t tell anyone’, it’s time to discover Merimbula!
Promotional Blurb: This funny and tender book combines three of Alice Steinbach’s greatest passions: learning, traveling, and writing. After chronicling her European journey of self-discovery in Without Reservations, this Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Baltimore Sun quit her job and left home again. This time she roamed the world, taking lessons and courses in such things as French cooking in Paris, Border collie training in Scotland, traditional Japanese arts in Kyoto, and architecture and art in Havana. With warmth and wit, Steinbach guides us through the pleasures and perils of discovering how to be a student again. She also learns the true value of this second chance at educating herself: the opportunity to connect with and learn from the people she meets along the way. Source
My Thoughts: I really, really, really (get the picture?) enjoyed Steinbach’s first book – Without Reservations – so I pounced on this one, ready to recapture the magic of her first adventure as an independent traveller. And I was disappointed.
While it was just as beautifully written, and set in equally exotic and attractive locations around the world, this one came across as quite self-indulgent and conceited. Yes, she was indulging her desire to travel and learn, but this time it appeared to me like she was showing off, and we know how us Aussies do not like show-offs.
Perhaps it was jealousy on my part, and I viewed her writing through green-tinted glasses, but there was a sense of ‘look at me, how clever I am, and my wealth’ as she swanned from one part of the world to the other. I am the first to admit that perhaps I need to re-read her book as I may be judging her harshly.
Despite my criticism, I am supportive of her ability to follow her dreams, set her own goals and go after them, even in the face of naysayers. Perhaps her book wasn’t so bad after all.
Author bio: Alice Steinbach, whose work at the Baltimore Sun was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in 1985, was a freelance writer until 1999. She was appointed the 1998-1999 McGraw Professor of Writing at Princeton University and was the Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow. She lived in Baltimore, Maryland and passed away in March 2012 from cancer. (Source)
The joy of travel is that there is a destination or activity to suit any taste or interest. You can lounge on a beach, hike a mountain or sail the seven seas. Alternatively, you can connect with the locals outside of the usual tourist traps.
If you enjoy immersing yourself in a destination without sacrificing any creature comforts, then consider Nepal. It is certainly more than just postcard perfect mountains, and offers a range of activities, sights and interests to satisfy the choosiest traveller.
In this post I will share our home-based adventure as an AirBnB host. In reality it is a pretty tame adventure, but hopefully this post will be useful if you have ever considered signing up as an AirBnB host.
Over the years we have stayed in a few AirBnBs ourselves. As my work was very quiet at the beginning of 2017 and because the kids have now left home, The Brave Man* thought becoming a host on AirBnB would be a good thing for us to be part of. Needless to say, since we joined AirBnB my work has gone ballistic, but we are still managing to keep all the balls in the air.
Promotional Blurb:Without Reservations is about a woman’s dream come true – taking a year off to travel the world and rediscover what it is like to be an independent woman, without ties and without reservations. ‘In many ways, I was an independent woman,’ writes Alice Steinbach, single working mother and Pulitzer prize-winning journalist. ‘For years I’d made my own choices, paid my own bills, shovelled my own snow, and had relationships that allowed for a lot of freedom on both sides.’ Slowly, however, she saw that she had become quite dependent in another way. ‘I had fallen into the habit of defining myself in terms of who I was to other people and what they expected of me.’ Who am I, she wanted to know, away from the things that define me – my family, children, job, friends? Steinbach searches for the answer in some of the most exciting places in the world – Paris, where she finds a soulmate in a Japanese man; Oxford, where she learns more from a ballroom dancing lesson than any of her studies; Milan, where she befriends a young woman about to be married. Beautifully illustrated with postcards Steinbach wrote home to herself, this is an unforgettable voyage of discovery. Source:Book Depository
My Thoughts: Although I read this book many years ago, it still resonates with me today. I was struck by her courage to cast off the expectations of other people, as well as the limitations that she placed on herself. She wondered what happened to her old self, the missing woman, who was adventurous, curious and more of a risk-taker? Of course it helped that she had the financial wherewithal to afford her very own brand of international irresponsibility, but what a way to pursue a journey of self-discovery.
I use the word ‘courage’ because I believe she was pretty brave to step away from the comfort of her routine life, but also because she stepped out into the world on her own, with no real plans. How liberating would that be? She ticks off her personal highlights – Paris, London, Oxford and Italy, and throughout the book she includes copies of postcards that she sent herself, capturing a snapshot of what she was experiencing that day. Note to self: time to start sending postcards to self!
I have included, at the end of this review, an interesting Q&A session she completed on the release of Without Reservations.
A light and enjoyable read, especially if you have visited any of Alice’s destinations, or if you also hanker to cast off the bow lines and sail out into the world.
Author bio: Alice Steinbach, whose work at the Baltimore Sun was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in 1985, was a freelance writer until 1999. She was appointed the 1998-1999 McGraw Professor of Writing at Princeton University and was the Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow. She lived in Baltimore, Maryland and passed away in March 2012 from cancer. (Source)
The hum and energy in the air was palpable, as I edged my way through the crowd, to find a massive pair of eyes locked onto mine. Wherever I went, the eyes followed my every move. I simply could not escape.
I like to think I am well-travelled and worldly wise, but I get a reality check every time I discover a place that I have never heard of before. On a recent trip to Nepal I was introduced to the fabulous city of Pokhara. After the hustle and mania of Kathmandu, it was a welcome relief to breathe the sweet mountain air.
How easy is it to be dazzled by the romance of an exotic destination, and your own backyard gets ignored? I know I am guilty of this sometimes, until I make myself stop and acknowledge the beauty right under my nose.
Promotional Blurb:When A.J. Mackinnon quits his job in Australia, he knows only that he longs to travel to the Well at the World’s End, a mysterious pool on a remote Scottish island whose waters, legend has it, hold the secret to eternal youth. Determined not to fly (‘It would feel like cheating’), he sets out with a rucksack, some fireworks and a map of the world and trusts chance to take care of the rest. By land and by sea, by train, truck, horse and yacht, he makes his way across the globe – and through a series of hilarious adventures. He survives a bus crash in Australia, marries a princess in Laos, is attacked by Komodo dragons and does time in a Chinese jail. The next lift – or the next near-miss – is always just a happy accident away. This is the astonishing true story of a remarkable voyage, an old-fashioned quest by a modern-day adventurer. (Source)
My Thoughts: I love a good adventure, and even more than that, an adventure that turns into a comedy of errors. I give Mackinnon full marks for audacity, vision and perhaps a fair dose of stupidity thrown in there. He was lucky to get out alive!
How is it that some people can dream up these journeys, and rationalise in their own minds that such trips are perfectly acceptable, and perfectly achievable? I guess that is what sets us apart – true adventurers and absolute novices.
He seems to lurch from one disaster to the next, meeting ever more fantastical characters, and brushing ever nearer to death. He gets arrested, jailed, deported, married, kidnapped, becalmed, and continuously re-routed on his two-step-forward-one-step-back progress, battling to get out of the Southern Hemisphere, let alone to a remote island off Scotland. In fact, over 230 pages of the book are devoted to lurching around Australia, New Zealand and Asia, before racing through the Mediterranean, Europe and finally to England in the last handful of pages.
Similar to his debut novel, he travels and writes quoting great swathes of poetry, and in this book, playing his tin whistle to earn his keep.
No wonder he travels solo!
It is hard to read Mackinnon’s story and not wonder how much is true and how much is simply wishful thinking. After all, this book covers a year of adventure in 1990, and this book was not released until 2011. Surely the lapse of 21 years has polished the tales to a golden hue?
Regardless, it is an enjoyable read and I look forward to him packing his bags, or at least putting pen to paper, again soon.
Author bio: A. J. (Sandy) Mackinnon was born in Australia in 1963 and spent his childhood between England and Australia, travelling with his family on the last P&O liners to sail between the two countries. His interests include painting, philosophy, writing, conjuring and home-made fireworks. He is currently a teacher of English, Drama, Mathematics and Philosophy in the Victorian High Country. He is the author of The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow and The Well at the World’s End. (Source)
Being locked in a conference room for two days is not my idea of ‘fun’, especially when the conference is held in a new and tantalising city. I am also not good at sitting still at the best of times, and know I benefit from some early morning exercise before being locked away for the day.
I had a cunning plan though.
As I had been to Adelaide once before on a very short visit, I knew that the Torrens River was the perfect area to stretch my reluctant legs.
As you may have gathered by now, I will travel anywhere at any time, but up until recently, I had never travelled (as a genuine tourist) with a group. When offered the opportunity to join a group of +70 year old Country Women’s Association ladies to trip around the Nepal, who was I to say ‘no’?
It seems a bit rude to only spend 24 hours in a place. Surely it is impossible to get the sense of a city in one superficial skim? Where is the fairness in that? Where are my manners?
In my defence, I am not a city person, and this visit was a short stopover on the way to Nepal. When the focus is on the exoticism of Nepal, one day in the sprawling metropolis of Kuala Lumpur was more than enough for this visit.
Kuala Lumpur, including the Klang Valley, has a population of 7.25 million people, and covers an area of approximately 94 square kilometres. The sheer size of the city, and its frenetic traffic, could be overwhelming if you don’t have some sort of plan or strategy to move about.
Book Title: The Lost Continent. Travels in Small-Town America
Author: Bill Bryson
Promotional Blurb:‘I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to’
And, as soon as Bill Bryson was old enough, he left. Des Moines couldn’t hold him, but it did lure him back. After ten years in England, he returned to the land of his youth, and drove almost 14 000 miles in search of a mythical small town called Amalgam, the kind of trim and sunny place where the films of his youth were set. Instead, his search led him to Anywhere, USA; a lookalike strip of gas stations, motels and hamburger outlets populated by lookalike people with a penchant for synthetic fibres. He discovered a continent that was doubly lost; lost to itself because blighted by greed, pollution, mobile homes and television; lost to him because he had become a stranger in his own land. (Source: http://www.penguin.co.uk)
Since returning from Nepal, I have been struggling to order my thoughts and photos, and process all that I have seen. I really am at a bit of a loss to know where to start.
First point though: Don’t believe the travel brochures. There is so much more to this country than its glorious mountains. Although we only enjoyed a ridiculously short four-day visit, it was jam packed with exotic sights, sounds and smells and NOT ONCE did I pull on my hiking boots!
Promotional Blurb:Meet Harold Fry, recently retired. He lives in a small English village with his wife, Maureen, who seems irritated by almost everything he does. Little differentiates one day from the next. Then one morning a letter arrives, addressed to Harold in a shaky scrawl, from a woman he hasn’t heard from in twenty years. Queenie Hennessy is in hospice and is writing to say goodbye. But before Harold mails off a quick reply, a chance encounter convinces him that he absolutely must deliver his message to Queenie in person. In his yachting shoes and light coat, Harold Fry embarks on an urgent quest. Determined to walk six hundred miles to the hospice, Harold believes that as long as he walks, Queenie will live.
Until I put pen to paper (yes, literally – I am an old fashioned blogger), I hadn’t really thought about the range of emotions and feelings I experience pre-, during and post- travel.
While my travels have often been very physical and tangible, I find that travel also stretches me emotionally. And believe me, it is often from the highest of highs, to some pretty low lows. I love it all regardless.
Port Arthur looms large in the Aussie psyche. Maybe it is our convict heritage that keeps the connection strong or maybe our white-Australia history is so new and fresh, that we grab every opportunity that screams ‘history’ with both hands.
Port Arthur is the site of one of Australia’s most notorious penal colonies. Located 101km (by road) south-east of Hobart, on the Tasman peninsula, it was established as a ‘home away from home’ for some of Australia’s most committed criminals. Perhaps that should be changed to England’s most committed criminals, as the majority of the penitentiary’s residents were fully imported from the Mother Country.
I’m a terrible traveller. Well, I love to travel but I hate being a tourist.
Yes, I agree there is no logic in that statement, but I never said I was logical!
My reluctance to be branded a ‘tourist’ stems from all those ‘typical’ tourists you see being herded from pillar to post, blindly following a flag-waving guide, holding their iPhones aloft to ensure they don’t miss the next great vista.
In the first ‘Walk Mudgee’ blog post, I encouraged you to explore Mudgee and its fringes on foot. Now, I want to encourage you to jump in your car, take a little drive through gorgeous countryside, and then do a little more exploring on foot.
If you imagine Mudgee as the hub in the centre of the wheel for a weekend, it is possible to drive in any direction on the ‘spokes’ and discover something special.
Promotional Blurb: Nearly 900 years ago, Duke Godfrey de Bouillon set out on the First Crusade– and in our own time, author Tim Severin retraced his steps. The destination: Jerusalem, city of gold. For more than eight years, Severin followed the historic trail, riding through northern Europe’s green countryside and into the heat of the Near East. In the process, he covered more than 2 500 miles by horse, past ruined Crusader settlements and ancient battlefields, over arduous mountain passes, and across Anatolian steppes. A dazzling synthesis of adventure, practical history, and exploration, told by one of our finest and most respected travel writers – illustrated with his own photographs.
I stumbled across the Warm Showers group a couple of years ago when I started following a blog about cycling the length of the Mississippi River in the USA. Peter and Tracy are the most inspiring couple, and tackle the most astonishing cycling adventures.
A couple of years ago, they started way up at Itasca State Park in northern Minnesota USA, and 48 days, and 2 968km later, they arrived at Venice, Louisiana, in the deep south of USA. Along the way in their blog, they kept describing the wonderful warm welcome they received from various ‘Warm Showers’ hosts. That really intrigued me and I had to find out more.
Yes, I am a child of the 70s and 80s, flares, ponchos and Farrah-Fawcett-flick hairdos, but this song and its cutting edge film clip (for its day) does capture the essence of my South African adventure.
1983 was the year I grew up, had my mind opened (no drugs involved), and experienced the great outdoors of the Africa you see featured in postcards and travel brochures. I feel that, in some ways, I got to know Southern Africa better than many people because I lived there for 12 months, eventually learned the language, and travelled extensively. Continue reading →
How good is it when something you have been dreaming about for a long time, actually comes off? That is exactly what happened to me recently when I fulfilled a long-held dream to sail across the skies in a hot air balloon.
Book Title: The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow. A Mirror Odyssey from North Wales to the Black Sea
Author: AJ Mackinnon
Promotional Blurb: A couple of quiet weeks sailing the River Severn was the intention. Somehow things got out of hand – a year later I had reached Romania and was still going…
Truly hilarious books are rare. Even rarer are those based on real events. Join A.J. Mackinnon, your charming and eccentric guide, on an amazing voyage in a boat called Jack de Crow.
Equipped with his cheerful optimism and a pith helmet, this Australian Odysseus in a dinghy travels from the borders of North Wales to the Black Sea – 4,900 kilometres over salt and fresh water, under sail, at the oars, or at the end of a tow-rope – through twelve countries, 282 locks and numerous trials and adventures, including an encounter with Balkan pirates. Along the way he experiences the kindness of strangers, gets very lost, and perfects the art of slow travel.
My home town of Mudgee, Central West NSW, is already a popular weekend destination for Sydneysiders and others in need of a little down time and indulgence, but there is more to Mudgee than food and wine.
I am convinced that many people spend a sumptuous weekend in Mudgee without realising that there is a vast selection of natural wonders right on our door step. OK, ‘natural wonders’ may be a slight exaggeration, but we do have a delightful range of easy day walks and national parks that are within minutes, or less than an hour’s drive, of the Mudgee town clock.
Promotional Blurb: ‘When a Gandhi dies, nobody is safe.’ An assassination, a romance. A hijacking, several nuclear explosions and a religious experience … just some of the ingredients in the latest tour de force from the bestselling author of the Carpet Wars. In the searing summer of 2004, Christopher Kremmer returns to India, a country in the grip of enormous and sometimes violent change. As a young reporter in the 1990s, he first encountered this ancient and complex civilisation. Now, embarking on a yatra, or pilgrimage, he travels the dangerous frontier where religion and politics face off. Tracking down the players in a decisive decade, he takes us inside the enigmatic Gandhi dynasty, and introduces an operatic cast of political Brahmins, ‘cyber coolies’, low-caste messiahs and wrestling priests. A sprawling portrait of India at the crossroads, Inhaling the Mahatma is also an intensely personal story about coming to terms with a dazzlingly different culture, as the author’s fate is entwined with a cosmopolitan Hindu family of Old Delhi, and a guru who might just change his life.
Living in a foreign country is one thing, but working there is a completely different story!
Giving me a couple of days to acclimatise, if that is possible in a bustling Asian city, Miss Mai, my local contact, arrived at the apartment to introduce me to my placement at VietHealth. My role was to ‘Anglicise’ project proposals and other funding documents. As my background is in professional grant writing, I was confident that I could add some value. In my naivety, what I didn’t understand was the whole range of other cultural and personal dynamics that would colour the experience.
Picture this: it’s late Friday afternoon in Paris. We have finally arrived back in the City of Light after missing our train in Vernon (near Monet’s home at Giverny). The reason for the missed train was because we had been advised by some officious Frenchman, that we must pull our bikes apart, and bag them up, to be allowed to board the train. Sparks flew from both our spanners and our finger tips as we frantically disassembled the bikes but alas, the train doors slid shut and the train slowly pulled away from us and out of the station.
What makes us, all of a sudden, decide to step away from the comfort of our ordinary lives, and into the Great Unknown?
One day I am a plain-Jane, sensible-type. The next day I have locked myself into an adventure that is guaranteed to take me well out of my comfort zone.
In 2010, I was hankering to travel, but as my ‘better half’ couldn’t take time off work, I was looking for an adventure that would give me some sort of context or framework to travel in. After much searching and comparing, I decided to volunteer for a month in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Unbeknown to me, international volunteering is big business and some companies charge substantial fees to place a person in a volunteer role. Part of me still can’t understand the logic of paying for the privilege of working for free, but it was a good introduction to the contradictory nature of my time in Vietnam.
The company I chose to travel with is called IVHQ, based out of New Zealand. They seemed to have the largest range of volunteer opportunities at the most reasonable price, and they were happy to accept ‘older’ volunteers like myself. My teenage-gap-year days are far behind me, and I wanted to feel comfortable that my skills were going to be appreciated and useful, as well as providing me with a genuine opportunity to contribute.
The fees they charged covered the sourcing of a placement, my accommodation, meals and some local transport. I would also have local contacts in Hanoi to provide support and information. Not that I am a chicken or anything, but an Asian city with no local language or knowledge can be a tad intimidating.
Following multiple clarification emails, it was confirmed that I would be living in an apartment, not the organisation’s volunteer hostel. While more power to them, the thought of living with 40 squealing and partying 18-year-olds, made my blood run cold. Give me a bit of peace and privacy any day.
After the usual chaos and stress of packing and shutting down my business for a month, I was on the plane. Vietnam Airlines was a good introduction to my ultimate destination. The lights didn’t work, the video/entertainment didn’t work, the food was questionable, and there were various other broken and worn out parts of the plane’s interior. But, the staff were friendly, we took off and landed on time, and in one piece, and I knew I just had to go with the flow.
Hanoi airport was the typical chaos and cacophony of an Asian airport, with their hawkers and hasslers. Thankfully I was greeted by my local contact and transported to my hotel, only to find that the hotel had transferred my booking to a different hotel around the corner. I was quickly learning that things worked differently in Vietnam.
In the heart of the Old City, I played tourist for a couple of days, and then I was moved to my apartment in the north-western suburbs of Hanoi. During our trip through the suburbs, the taxi driver knocked over a lady on a motorbike, but he didn’t blink, slow down or stop. ‘OK’, I said to myself, ‘we obviously do things differently in Vietnam’.
There was some initial confusion, as my local contact tried to drive me to the volunteer hostel, until I gently, but firmly, confirmed that I was to live in an apartment. The taxi changed direction, and my new home became one those non-descript, high-rise apartment blocks that you see crammed closely together in rabbit warren streets, clustered on the fringes of countless Asian cities.
The apartment was quite spacious and the living areas were simply furnished. There were a few things lacking like beds, linen and the remotest hint of cleanliness or hygiene! Yes, it was filthy! I quietly inquired about the housekeeping arrangements and was told that a cook came daily and a cleaner once per week. Perhaps that week was in 1984!
My room was a bare mattress (none too clean) on the floor and a few scraggly wire coat hangers dangling precariously from electrical wiring protruding from the walls and ceiling. Before leaving Australia I had confirmed that all linen would be supplied, but obviously that had been lost in translation too. Luckily I had packed a silk sleeping sheet and brought along an old beach towel. That became my linen for the next month.
But again, the local staff were warm, friendly and welcoming and I was determined to make the most of the experience. After finding the local supermarket, I purchased the complete suite of cleaning materials and scrubbed my room and shared bathroom from top to bottom. Believe me, I am no neat freak, but even I could not live in someone else’s scum and grunge.
The apartment turned out to be a comfortable and enjoyable location with enough interesting flat mates over the month for me not to feel lonely. A trio of Irish girls had me in stitches with their aversion to bugs and anything else that crawled. There would be squealing and shrieking, and they would all be standing on their beds or chairs as I rushed in to remove the offending creepy crawly.
Like many Asian cities, electricity was sometimes an optional extra. Huge lightning storms would take out the whole suburb or maybe it was just our turn to lose power. Not a drama except for the lack of cooling and light. One day I returned to the apartment block and had to walk up 27 flights of stairs in the pitch dark! Phew! My work out for the day.
I enjoyed living amongst the local Vietnamese people and I suspect I would have been one of only a handful of Westerners in the whole suburb. Being tall, white and female, I attracted a fair bit of attention as I walked to the supermarket or to catch the bus. Once I said hello, good morning or how are you in my best Vietnamese, people would break into beaming smiles and return my greetings in their best English. Never underestimate the power of a genuine smile.
The daily commute to VietHealth was equal parts interesting and entertaining. As other commuters entered the bus there would be a stampede to sit next to me as I was a source of free English lessons for the next hour. Rarely have I felt so popular or so useful.
When I wasn’t conversing in English it was a joy to stare out the window at the overloaded bicycles, motorbikes and small trucks. One day we passed an old man on a bicycle carrying a four metre long ladder through peak hour traffic. Yet, it seemed effortless to him and no inconvenience for the surrounding traffic.
If I wanted to step out of my comfort zone on every level, then I got that in spades just by living in Hanoi.
Have you ever step right out of your comfort zone?
What: Volunteering with IVHQ starts from $180 per week, with over 33 countries to choose from.
Where: Living in the north-western suburbs of Hanoi and working in the north-eastern suburbs.
When: I visited in May. Like Goldilocks, not too hot and not to cold but a bit of everything weather-wise.
Why: Volunteering ticks all the boxes of culture, contribution, challenge and friendship.
How: I flew to Hanoi on Vietnam Airlines. I am not sure they would be my airline of choice but at least I lived to tell the tale.
Who: Myself, four Irish girls, one American girl, and sundry bugs and bities.
Related Posts: For a walking perspective of the high mountains of Vietnam, have a peek at my post about walking at Sapa.
Book Title: Slow Journey South. Walking to Africa – A Year in Footsteps
Author: Paula Constant
Promotional Blurb:Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time. When Paula Constant and her husband, Gary, attempt to break away from the conventional 9-to-5 routine, a few weeks lazing in a resort or packed in a tour bus is not what they have in mind. What starts out as an idle daydream to embark on ‘a travel to end all travels’ turns into something far greater: an epic year-long 5000-kilometre walk from Trafalgar Square in London to Morocco and the threshold of the Sahara Desert. Quite an ambition for an unfit woman who favours sharing cigarettes and a few bottles of wine with friends over logging time on the treadmill. But if the sheer arduousness of walking over 25 kilometres a day through the landscapes and cultural labyrinths of France, Spain, Portugal and Morocco – without a support vehicle – is overlooked in her excitement, then so too is the unexpected journey of self-discovery and awakening that lies beyond every bend. Both the companions she meets on the road and the road itself provide what no university can offer: a chance to experience life’s simple truths face to face. Paula’s transformation from an urban primary school teacher into a successful expeditioner is a true tale of an ordinary woman achieving something extraordinary. It is a journey that begins with one footstep.
My Thoughts: I am going to have to stop reading these walking books. All they do is to fill me with an urgent wanderlust. I could pack and leave home tonight.
Paula and Gary Constant come up with the idea that they want to walk across the Sahara desert. This dream expands to walking from London to the Sahara, and they finally settle on walking from London to Cape Town!! And I thought I was a bit partial to a long stroll! All these dreams and plans are delayed and postponed, as they work up the courage to finally put one foot in front of the other and actually start walking.
I can’t believe how ill-prepared they were with virtually no training or fitness to speak of, AND carrying a pack the size and weight of which makes my back pack look like a day pack! I am surprised they even made it out of England let alone across France, Spain, Portugal and on to Morocco.
Although like me during my walks, they had some incredibly tough times, they also shared immense joy – especially with the people they met along the way.
There is so much that resounded with me in this book and Paula’s voice is honest and amusing. An entertaining read for walkers, dreamers and would-be adventurers.
Author bio: Paula Constant began walking from Trafalgar Square in 2004. Since then, she has walked over 12000km through eight countries: England, France, Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Mauritania, Mali and Niger. From 2005-2007, Paula walked over 7000km through the Sahara, until she was halted by civil war in Niger. Her first book, Slow Journey South, was released by Random House in 2008. Her second, Sahara, was released in October 2009. Paula is currently planning another walk, and lives in rural Victoria.
When visiting England, it is easy to be overwhelmed by wall-to-wall history, castles, museums and cathedrals. It is also easy to get caught on the typical tourism treadmill just focusing on the ‘big’ sites like Stonehenge, Buckingham Palace and Madame Tussaud’s.
Getting slightly off the beaten track, if such a thing is possible in England, definitely has its rewards, as we found out in the small town of Battle. I am not sure how we stumbled across this destination but it turned out to be equal parts fascinating and hilarious.
Battle is located around 90km south east of London. As the name indicates, its origins are inextricably linked to the famous Battle of Hastings. The battle, fought between Harold the Saxon king and William the Conqueror (from Normandy) in 1066, changed the course of English history. It is believed that after he was victorious, William promised to build an abbey in memory of the people who died in the conflict. The town then grew out and around the Abbey.
The thing I really loved about our year in England was that all the fabulous history was digestible and easily accessible. England ‘does’ history well. A staid castle or cathedral is transformed into a ‘living and breathing’ snapshot of an ancient time, place and people.
We found Battle Abbey to be the perfect example of making history interesting and understandable, regardless of age or education level. Rather than being yet another pile of mouldy stone and religious artefacts, the handheld audio guides took us back to its very origins and the daily life of its inhabitants.
The original Abbey was populated by the Benedictine Order, and was a tangible symbol of the power of the new Norman rulers. Despite its awkward location on top of a narrow, waterless ridge, William insisted that the high altar of the abbey church be located where Harold had been killed. Unfortunately, Battle Abbey could not escape the destruction of the monasteries by Henry VIII, and the remaining monks of Battle surrendered in May 1538. Sadly, the church and parts of the cloister were then demolished.
What really appealed to my quirky sense of humour though was the fact that our visit was timed to coincide with the annual celebration and recreation of the Battle of Hastings. Returning the audio guides to the museum attendant, we ventured out of the Abbey and into the grounds and, at the same time, stepped 950 years back in time.
There is something highly amusing and satisfying about seeing grown men and women dressed up in ‘silly’ clothes and pretending to be something they are not. Maybe it is a combination of them not taking themselves too seriously, plus a passion for a specific slice of history and their willingness to preserve it.
It became immediately obvious to us that this historical occasion had struck a seriously strong chord with a whole bunch of modern-day men and women who had literally invaded Battle for the day. We were surprised to find that participants had travelled from all over Europe and even the USA for the opportunity to dress up, dance or die!
A lush, rolling paddock was turned into a Saxon village with women and children supporting their men before going into ‘battle’. Apparently this was how it worked in times past, with whole families going on tour with their warring men folk rather than waiting at home. The camp was made up of traditional tents and lean-to camping structures, forges to make and repair their weapons (and various tourist trinkets), and smoky fires to prepare their food.
There was falconry, cavalry, piping music, dancing and ancient craft, but the highlight of the day had to be the re-enactment of the actual battle. The audience stood behind a temporary barrier and the announcer explained what was happening on the field. The Normans advanced menacingly towards us from the river while the Saxons attempted to slow their progress by bringing in their archery team.
As you can imagine, there was a lot of ‘angry’ shouting and heckling between the warring sides which balanced out the laughter from the audience. Eventually the two sides met in a flurry of swords and clashing of shields, and a fair dose of good-natured pushing and shoving. I suspect many of the warriors struggled to keep a straight face and some opted to be killed or wounded simply to have the chance to lie down and catch their breath!
The classic absurdity came at the very end of the conflict when the Normans were victorious. Picture the field, littered with the dead and dying, and bloodied soldiers leant exhaustedly on their swords. Over the loud speaker, the announcer called ‘Would the dead please arise?” and all the bodies came to life again, sat up, looked around, sprang to their feet, and dusted themselves off. There was much cheerful banter, back-slaps and handshakes between the opposing sides. If only all wars could end this way.
In a nice nod to serendipity, a trip to France a little later in the same year took us to Bayeaux. After our happy day in Battle, we made a beeline for the museum housing the Bayeaux tapestry. It depicts the events preceding the Battle of Hastings including Harold’s deception and seizure of the English throne, as well as the battle itself. It is remarkable that such a fragile piece of handicraft has survived all this time.
After 13 years, this day trip still brings a smile to my face. History does not have to be all dry, dusty and fact-riddled. This experience, and the crazy people involved, brought history to life and made it more than worthwhile to ignore the big name tourist sites, even if just for a day.
Have you ever experienced history coming to life?
What: Battle Abbey includes a museum, café and shop and children’s play area. It is open daily, 10a.m.-5p.m. Entry to the Abbey and Re-enactment costs £15.60 (£9.00 for children). If you intend to visit a number of English Heritage sites when you are in the UK, consider joining English Heritage for discounted entry. For a sneak peak of the day, have a look at this YouTube clip.
Where: Battle Abbey and Battlefield, High Street, Battle, East Sussex, United Kingdom – here
When: Re-enactments are held each October around the middle of the month.
Why: The perfect way to see history come alive! Literally! And a great way to engage children in history.
How: We drove from Byfleet, Surrey to Battle, East Sussex via the A21 and M25. Plenty of parking is available on site for £3.50 per vehicle.
Who: Two big kids and two little kids – all in love with history – even if only momentarily.
What is it about sailing that blows out the cobwebs and opens both mind and spirit to Nature? I know sailing is not everyone’s cup of tea, but for this country girl, it is my definition of pure freedom.
The Brave Man* often talks about buying a boat and sailing off into the sunset. While this is a lovely, romantic notion, the practicalities are far more substantial; lack of expert sailing knowledge for one, and the fact that we live four hours’ drive from the ocean is also a pretty major consideration. I have been told that owning a boat is like standing, fully-clothed under a cold shower while tearing up $100 notes. So, while I applaud my husband’s adventurousness, I have both of my land-lubber legs planted firmly in reality.
If you don’t own a boat, the next best thing is to have friends with a boat! It is a much more straight-forward option, cheaper, easier, and one that keeps The Brave Man’s* global sailing aspirations in check. How lucky for us that our boatie friends are residents of Hobart, Tasmania AND they invited us to go sailing with them for a couple of days? It took us about three seconds to accept their invitation, purchase our white-soled sneakers and dust off our ‘Sailing for Beginners’ book.
It was a crisp Autumn day as we unpacked the car at the Derwent Sailing Squadron, and lugged all our gear along the pier to where Content was moored. The month of March in my home town can still feature 35°C days but not in Hobart. Just to be on the safe side, we had packed every item of warm clothing we possessed, and were rugged up for wild weather.
To me, there is no more atmospheric sound than the ringing tinkle and slap of boat rigging while boats bob at their moorings. Since it was a weekday, the marina was virtually deserted, reinforcing my gleeful feeling that we were wagging school. (Wagging: a.k.a. jigging, bunking, skipping, skivvying). Our friends informed us that the marina recently surveyed the boat owners and, on average, each boat only unfurled the sheets and sailed one day per year. Now that is a whole lot of money, and a whole lot of joy, to have tied up, going nowhere.
Not Content though. She is a busy lady and her owners regularly toss off her bow lines and point her seaward.
After stacking and stowing, tying and untying, checking and fuelling, and with a shiver of excitement, we were away into a stiff breeze and heading down the Derwent River. It was a ‘pinch myself’ moment as I watched Hobart recede from view and our vista opened to a completely different perspective of Tasmania.
This was no pleasure cruise though as we all pitched in to help with ropes and sails. I do admit I was a bit nervous about taking the wheel. It had been over 20 years since I zipped around Sydney Harbour on an introductory sailing course. Where was the wind? Are the sails luffing? When should I jibe? In my imagination I was picturing ‘Sydney-to-Hobart-style’ tacking and racing, but my moves focused less on strategy and speed, and more on trying to stop the boom swinging and wiping out some poor, unsuspecting passenger. I doubt that I did that successfully.
All that bracing, salty air supercharged our appetites and our fellow shipmates had just the solution. After leaving the high ‘traffic’ sections of the Derwent River, a fishing line was casually tossed over the back of the boat to trail in our wake. Within minutes the line snapped taut and was hauled back in dangling a sizable squid. Into the bucket it went, and out went the fishing line again. In what seemed like only 30 minutes, we had enough squid for the freshest seafood lunch ever. A dusting of flour, salt and pepper, and cooked lightly in olive oil – I had to restrain myself from charging below deck, raiding the kitchen and devouring the lot! Seafood just doesn’t get any fresher or more delicious.
The sail-eat-sail pattern was repeated continuously over the next three days. Unfortunately the weather wasn’t all that suitable for sailing with light winds, or at times, no wind at all. So much for my visions of a wind and storm-lashed Tassie, with the salt spray stinging our faces as we heeled over in the gales. I know it does happen, just not to us on this trip.
We were not deterred though and still made the most of the experience. Down the D’Entrecasteaux Channel we glided and around the tip of Bruny Island. We moored in secluded bays and took short walks along remote bush trails and pebbly shores. It was heavenly to be gently rocked to sleep by the tidal rise and fall, and wake to the sun sparkling mirror-like on the sheltered bays.
Sailing is such a simple way to spend your time, being guided by the wind and, fed by the ocean. The abundant sea life was quite incredible, and that fishing line over the back of the boat brought in exquisite whiting, endless squid and a grand, old daddy crab. Due to our respect for his advanced age, he escaped the pot, was untangled from the line and returned to the ocean to live another day.
Our friends were not only sailors, but also divers and the larder was further supplemented with lobster and abalone – all legally harvested of course. In previous posts, I have mentioned my complete lack of gourmet tastebuds, but the lobster was to-die-for. While the abalone was nice, it did not compare to the lobster or any of the other fresh morsels, and I am not really sure why people make such a fuss over this mollusc.
Our sailing adventure in Tassie was the perfect blend of warm friendship, the freshest of fresh food, and the stunning outdoors. It was entertainment enough just to sit and watch the cloud formations change from fluffy white to moody grey, and see the wind change the water from mirror to white caps.
With limp sails, we returned to the civilisation of Hobart knowing that we had enjoyed something pretty remarkable. It was a true privilege to see this wild and pristine part of Australia.
I felt like all my troubles had been blown and washed out of me, and I was renewed and rinsed clean.
Perhaps a global sailing adventure is not out of the question after all…
Do you feel the same about sailing?
What: We sailed for three days/two nights on a four berth boat. Boats can be hired via AirBnB from $41 per night. I am not sure if that allows you to sail or just sleep!
Where: We sailed from Hobart, down the Derwent River, through the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, then around the tip of Bruny Island and back again, calling into gorgeous bays and inlets.
When: We visited in Autumn. The days were cool and crisp but unfortunately not very windy.
Why: If you enjoy sailing then the route we took was beautiful, relatively protected and safe.
How: We flew to Hobart on Virgin and then our friends acted as both taxi and cruise director/Captain.
Who: Myself and The Brave Man* and two bestie boaties.
Related Posts: for more information about what to see and do in Tasmania, have a look at my posts about some of the interesting man-made attractions and some stunning short walks in the great Tassie outdoors.
Related Blogs: To really get a true sense of sailing in Tasmania, have a look at this blog by sailing enthusiasts, Jack and Jude: http://jackandjude.com/log/
*The Brave Man refers to my husband. He is indeed a brave man for marrying a crazy woman like me!
I have only lived here for 25 years, so I am not quite a local yet, but this town has embraced me from day one.
Mudgee, three-and-a-half hours’ drive north-west of Sydney, has always been a popular weekend escape. Over the past 15 years, the flow of Mudgee-bound traffic has steadily increased, and many people now decide that a weekend is simply not long enough, and they move here permanently.
Like many small towns in rural Australia, the lack of employment opportunities is a constant challenge. However, if you are innovative, have your own business that can tap into broader markets, or are financially self-sustainable, then Mudgee offers lifestyle benefits that are hard to beat. See? I told you I was biased!
This ‘tree-change’ trend is showcased each year at the annual Flavours of Mudgee Street Festival. As part of the three-week Mudgee Wine Festival, Flavours of Mudgee creates a huge street party, celebrating all the delicious food and wine produced in our region.
Importantly, it also celebrates the diversity of our population through the medium of food. Not only is there your traditional Aussie BBQ, but also Nepalese, Chinese, Texan BBQ, Thai, Spanish, Italian and Venezuelan delights. Added to that are olive oils and olives, chocolate, cordials, fudge, relishes, ice cream, saffron, cheese, pistachios, breads, jams, honey and even native plants and seeds. All made, or grown, by hand and with an eye on quality. Truly a feast for all the senses.
I am a little embarrassed to admit that this year was the first time I had experienced Flavours of Mudgee. It was not from a lack of interest that I hadn’t attended before, more that there was always something more pressing to do or I was away from town. Why is it that we often don’t prioritise the things in our own backyard?
The Mudgee CBD was jumping on the day. We had to park our car three blocks away (unheard of in a country town) as the street was so busy. As we strolled around the corner into Market Street, we could see why. Crowds of happy locals and visitors were toasting each other’s health and revelling in the party atmosphere. Estimates were put at around 9 000 people sipping, tasting and dancing along to the music. Not a bad number when you consider the resident population of Mudgee is only 8 500 people. Now that is some party.
It is quite a while since I attended an event that had such a warm and inclusive feel, and I don’t think that feeling had anything to do with the amount of alcohol on offer.
Small children with brightly-painted faces, dragging their colourful balloons behind them, dodged in and out of groups of people. Locals used the opportunity to stop, chat, and to catch up on all the latest news. Even in a country town, time gets away from you and sometimes you have to make a special effort to reconnect with friends.
Visitors dragged hay bales into a welcoming square formations, sat down, clinked glasses and raised them high to salute their health and the enjoyable weekend.
The Mudgee Wine Festival is held for three weeks each September. Many of the wineries host special music and food events to compliment the tasting and sales of wine. While these are, no doubt, pleasant entertainments, most of these activities take place out at the wineries themselves and outside of the town centre. It could be said that this gives the Wine Festival almost a remote/arms-length feeling, slightly removed from the rest of the community.
In contrast, the Flavours of Mudgee event brought around 27 wine, beer and spirit producers out of their cellar doors and into the main street. No wonder there was a party atmosphere. Not only was this a one-stop-shopping opportunity for visitors, but it also highlighted for local people all the good things on offer in our own backyard that perhaps we don’t make the most of. A good education as well as a taste sensation.
I was also pleased to see some of the local retailers breaking out of their normal shop fronts and showcasing their wares al fresco. In the daily rush, sometimes it is easy to pass by a store, thinking that one day I will pop in when I have time. On the Flavours day/night, there was no excuse not to browse.
As the sun began to slip behind the Mudgee hills, the tone of the occasion started to change from family to fiesta. The stilt walkers retired with the dwindling sunlight, to be replaced by local bands playing tunes that just had to be danced to. The street lights came on and the party rocked into the night.
Even if you are not a wine drinker or don’t have the taste buds for fine and fancy food, the Flavours of Mudgee Festival is worth a visit. It is a free event that genuinely celebrates community on a whole range of levels.
It makes me proud to live in Mudgee.
Will I see you there in 2017?
What: Flavours of Mudgee Street Festival is a community street party celebrating good food, wine and people. Wine tasting tokens can be purchased for $10 which includes a glass and five x 30ml tastes. Wine is also sold by the glass or bottle. Food can be purchased from a large variety of stalls. Otherwise it is a free event.
Where: At the intersection of Market and Church Streets, Mudgee.
When: From 4p.m. on Saturday 23 September, 2017.
Why: Why not feel the love of a warm and welcoming community as well as escape to the country?
How: Simply turn up – no bookings required although do book your accommodation well in advance as Mudgee is a very popular weekend destination, especially in September.
Who: Myself, and 8 999 of my closest friends.
Related Posts: For information about another fabulous Mudgee event, have a look at my post about Sculptures in the Garden.
For those people who don’t know me well, I am a planner and an organiser. Yes, I would like to be more chilled and ‘go-with-the-flowish’, but after 50-odd years on this earth, I have found that approach just doesn’t work for me. I need goals and I need exciting things on my horizon to keep me motivated and interested.
Many years ago I developed an aversion to birthdays. Not that I despised getting older, although who wouldn’t want to turn the clock back a tad, it was just that I would look back on the previous 12 months and wonder, ‘where did that go’ and ‘what did I achieve’?
Most times I felt like I had accomplished a big, fat nothing. This was inaccurate and no way to think about my life, so I decided to change. Each birthday I would sit down and set myself some small challenges for the next 12 months. Then, I would stick this list, big and bold, on my fridge door. This provided no end of amusement for visitors to my house, but more importantly it kept me honest and kept me focused. Subsequent birthdays were greeted with slightly less trepidation, and a degree of excitement, as I set myself even more ambitious goals.
Without wishing to be morbid, I am now at a stage in life with more years behind me than in front, and it is time to really ‘up the ante’ on the goal-setting front.
Yes, the list is back on the fridge door, and as a sign of the times, it is now termed a ‘Bucket List’. Perhaps this is a poor choice of words, and I do not plan on going anywhere soon, except to remarkable, exotic overseas and Australian destinations.
I am always open to suggestions and here, in no particular order, is the Bucket List so far:
The Mississippi River Trail: A cycle route that starts in Lake Itascain Minnesota, USA, and finishes near the mouth of the river in Venice, Louisiana. It covers 3 600miles (5 794km), using the Mississippi River as the common theme or motif. In the past, the USA was never really high on my travel wish list mainly because the cultural contrast was not significant enough. However, this trip has captured my imagination because of the many states we will pass through – their different climate, architecture, history, scenery and accents. Yes, it will take us around three months, but what a way to experience a country.
Trans-Siberian Railway: This adventure has been on The Brave Man’s* wish list for quite some time. Not as energetic as the first bucket list entry, but no less fascinating. I understand the best ways to tackle this one are to either book on a guided/organised tour or get some assistance with booking tickets and accommodation. Happy to take suggestions on the best ways to approach this adventure.
India: How do they cram so much chaos, colour and culture into one five-letter word? The thought of the scale of the population in India frightens the pants off me, but I am busting to get there to experience such their vibrant culture. I am not brave enough to do this solo or via independent touring so I am currently researching cost-effective and well-regarded tours that will give me a small insight into this country. Fingers crossed, I get to tick this one off the list in 2017.
Turkey: Has always been lurking on the list since we had a short visit to the Marmaris region back in 2003. I loved the collision of Asian, European and Middle Eastern culture and history. We found the people incredibly friendly, and the architecture and arts fascinating. To be on the safe side, we will wait until the dust settles a bit in that region before venturing over. As an aside, there is a 509km walk called the Lycian Way that follows the Turkish coast line from Fethiye to Antalya. Perhaps we could incorporate that stroll into a visit?
Trains Through Asia: I am not sure if you have come across The Man in Seat 61? He has to be world’s largest train nut, and what a wonderful resource he has created for rail-travel fans. The loose plan is to fly into Singapore and then train (and bus where necessary) north through Malaysia, Thailand and finishing in Luang Prabang, Laos. Again, a fantastic way to experience a variety of Asian cultures, move slowly through the changing countryside, and meet the locals.
Houseboat Trip on the Hawkesbury River: This one is much closer to home, and probably the shortest travel adventure. I have always thought a houseboat, a bit like the canal boats in England and France, would be a relaxing and different way to ‘play tourist’. The Hawkesbury River is one of the main rivers that forms a rough border on the northern side of the Sydney basin. Only three hours from home but a world away from the chaos of Sydney.
thrown into the mix. This walk starts at Irun, near the border of France, and follows the Spanish coastline until you cross into the province of Galicia, then turning south-west towards Santiago de Compostela. This is a tough walk apparently, due to the mountainous terrain, so we had better start training now!
Overseas Volunteering: We also plan to spend some time giving back. With The Brave Man’s* extensive education skills, and my bag of tricks, perhaps we can make a small positive difference to someone’s life.
That is just a small sample of what’s currently on the list. I think it’s a nice mix of active, overseas, cultural and the Aussie, but I am more than happy to print out a longer list or buy a larger fridge to display it!
So, now it’s your turn. What is missing from our list? What cracker destinations must we add?
What: The Bucket List is open to all suggestions. I figure once the appeal of sitting on a long haul flight fades, our focus will change and we will travel much closer to home.
When: Anytime, and any length of time.
Why: Who needs a reason to travel?
How: Planes, trains, automobiles plus by boat, on foot, by bicycle.
Who: Myself and The Brave Man* and anyone else up for adventure.
How good does it feel to finally tick something off your Bucket List?
For years I had been glued to the TV news coverage of the annual Canowindra International Balloon Challenge. Each time I saw that rainbow of balloons waft across the screen, I said to myself that ‘I must do that one year, I must do that one year, I must…’.
Finally, I decided I had to commit and, since this annual event was around the time of my father’s birthday, I rang my parents to check whether they would care to join me. It appears that they also had the same conversations every year they saw the event on television. So, it was agreed that a weekend in Canowindra amongst the balloons would be the perfect way to celebrate Dad’s 80th birthday in 2014.
Canowindra is a historic little town about 60 km west of Orange in Central West NSW. It is one of those places that has transformed itself from a sleepy agricultural service centre into a food and wine destination. Unlike many larger places though, it has retained its small town, heritage feel which equates to a low-stress and relaxing weekend.
Friday night in Canowindra and the town was jumping. I had booked our accommodation 12 months in advance, and confirmed it multiple times, and it was just as well.
Canowindra was overrun with balloonists, support crews, balloon lovers and thousands of other tourists just like ourselves. The footpaths were bustling and the cafes and pubs overflowing onto the streets. I can only imagine what a positive impact this event must have on the local economy, creating a sense of excitement and energy, if for only one weekend.
We also booked a table at one of the clubs for dinner and, even with a booking, it was a 60-minute wait for some very average food. But it was hot and filling and just what we needed after a big day of travel and sight-seeing.The two main features of the Balloon Challenge, from a visitor’s perspective, are the Balloon Glow on the Saturday night and the Key Grab on the Sunday morning. That leaves plenty of time for a lazy exploration of the Canowindra streets, the many boutiques, art and craft stores and gourmet food and wine outlets, and the Age of Fishes Museum. Of more interest to the men in our party were the many old Holden cars parked cheek-by-jowl (or bumper to bumper?) behind the dusty glass windows in an old service station on the main street. This collection was unique in Australia apparently due mainly to the pristine condition of many of the models. It was a shame that its opening hours were sporadic and unreliable. The men had to make do with pressing their noses up against the glass and looking longingly. (NB: sadly the collection has now been sold and dispersed).
As the day waned we gathered up our folding chairs, picnic baskets and every skerrick of warm clothing we possessed and, along with a thousand of our closest friends, converged on the local sports ground. This was the home of the Balloon Glow and a party atmosphere was definitely in the making with every known food stall and beverage bar onsite. We really didn’t need our picnic basket at all as we feasted on delicious pulled pork rolls and traditional Country Women’s Association delicacies.
With our fold-up chairs as close to the ‘front row’ as was polite, we were transfixed by a handful of balloonists as they manoeuvred their bubbles over the tallest eucalypt trees to land lightly and precisely on the grass. Now that is skill! Other balloons were trailered onto the field in a collapsed state and placed strategically around the ground.
Excitement built as the sun went down and the number of balloons increased. When it was fully dark, the lights went out, the music began, and the balloons worked their magic. Describing the sight as ‘spectacular’, does not do it justice. The balloons, and the flames inside, winked on and off in time with the music, blinking out vibrant colours and magically appearing out of the darkness. Such a simple activity but so striking and memorable. Sadly the music ended, the lights came on, and the crowds beat a hasty retreat in much need of a hot drink and a warm bed.
The next morning dawned bright and clear, as is the autumnal habit of this region, and we crunched across the frosty paddocks to watch the Key Grab. The idea is that balloons must accurately navigate their path to a central target and attempt to grab a key off the top of a tall pole and/or throw their marker into a small circle. The rewards for such precision are some handy cash prizes.
We could have looked a bit silly – a large crowd of people standing in the middle of an empty paddock at 630a.m. on an icy morning. But as we spotted the balloons pop up on the horizon and make a bee-line towards us, we knew it had been worthwhile. They started out looking like boring black dots but as they zoomed closer, the early sun lit them up like floating rainbows – a riot of colour and vibrancy.
The crowd cheered and ducked for cover as the balloons zeroed in on us and the target, but just as they neared, a gust of wind or a subtle breeze would foil their attempt and send them gently veering off into a neighbouring paddock. Some balloonists managed to throw their weighted markers but the ‘golden’ key remained firmly ensconced on the top of its pole. There is always next year.
As we made our way home, we wondered why it had taken us so long to visit Canowindra and the Balloon Challenge. There is so much we didn’t get to see and do there, including a ride in an actual balloon; hopefully it won’t take the same length of time to tick it off the Bucket List all over again.
What have you ticked off your Bucket List lately?
What: We stayed at the Old Vic Inn in a massive room with 15 foot ceilings. Room rates were $119 per room per night and included a light continental breakfast. The building itself is old and a wee bit tired but the location and atmosphere can’t be beaten. There was a small entrance fee to the Balloon Glow but the Key Drop activity was free.
Where: Canowindra, Central West NSW.
When: Canowindra International Balloon Challenge will be held on 18-25 April 2017.
Why: Do this if you are in need of a fun and interesting weekend away in gorgeous countryside or if you have a weakness for hot air balloons. Book your accommodation early.
How: We drove from Mudgee via Dubbo. Yes, the scenic route!
Who: A family affair, including a birthday boy.
Related Posts: Watch this space. I have my very own balloon ride scheduled for 4 March 2017. Excited!!
This post follows an earlier one about the ‘must-see’ built attractions we enjoyed in Tasmania. Now, I’d like to share our experiences of Tassie’s great outdoors.
If you are an Aussie, you would have to have spent your life under a rock not to have heard of the many famous Tasmanian walking destinations on offer, such as Cradle Mountain National Park. International readers, you are excused!
We didn’t have time to tick this park off the list, but we made the most of every other short walk opportunity we could find. These walks were the perfect way to break up the road trip, stretch our legs and let the bulk of the grey nomad traffic pass us by. Again, we were grateful to our Hobart friends, keen bushwalkers themselves, who gave us the heads-up about the best short walks in the areas we were visiting.
The Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park, part of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, borders both sides of the Lyell Highway as the road crosses east-to-west Tasmania. This park is a good mix of soaring peaks, rough bushland and picture-perfect rivers and streams. It has a number of walks ranging from a short one-hour stroll along boardwalks, to a whole day climbing rugged paths and hiking through dense forest. Even though we didn’t get close to the Franklin River itself, the crystal clear creeks and surrounding wild forests made it abundantly clear that this region was definitely worth fighting for.
As background, in 1982 there was a major push by the Tasmanian Government to dam the Franklin River, and sections of the Gordon River, as part of a hydro-electricity scheme. Naturally, this was strongly opposed by the environmental movement and resulted in the largest conservation battle ever conducted in Australian history. Luckily for us, the ‘greenies’ won the day.
Driving further west, but still in the same National Park, we stopped again to stroll up to the Nelson Falls. I realise I have been known for doing a spot of extreme walking at times, but the walks we completed that day were mostly short and over relatively accessible terrain. It is hard to believe that so many people just whizz by in their vehicles and miss the majesty of this wilderness. We would have been just as ignorant if we hadn’t been tipped off. Note to self: pick local brains for the best things to see and do, and don’t only rely on tourist brochures.
Arriving in Strahan, we took the opportunity to explore the Gordon River via water rather than on foot. Yes, it was a typical touristy thing to do but sometimes I just have to swallow my pride if I want to access far-flung places.
Our cruise took us around Macquarie Harbour and out to Hell’s Gate. As well as its timber and mining heritage, this region was home to one of Australia’s most harsh and bleak convict prisons. The worst and most dangerous convicts were sent to Sarah Island. On this island, convicts experienced severe deprivation and few lived to tell the tale. It is hard to picture such hardship when standing amongst exquisite surrounds on a peaceful Autumn day in the 21st century.
The cruise up the Gordon River was simply stunning. I kept shaking my head in wonder at the thought of the damage that could have been done to this unspoiled region, all in the name of progress. At every bend in the river there was another spectacular vista, clear, mirror-like water and impenetrable forest.
Back on land again, we fired up the little car and drove north-easterly, just skirting the edge of Cradle Mountain National Park. Without enough time or the appropriate walking gear, that would have to wait for our return visit one day.
Heading south, we swung into the Freycinet National Park. Unlike our other short walks, this park was heaving with day trippers and fellow walkers. Freycinet is an attractive blend of bush and beach. It also has well-developed camping, visitor centre and other facilities, so no wonder it was popular. Our objective was to take the track up to the lookout delivering the famous, postcard views of Wineglass Bay. After much puffing and panting, we arrived and immediately grabbed our cameras. The view was stunning and definitely worth the exertion. We were so tempted to keep walking and scramble down the other side of the mountain to the bay itself, but we had to turn away from the brilliant white beaches and yachts gently bobbing in the azure blue water. How does nature deliver such vibrant colours?
Edging ever closer to Hobart, the last park on our list to explore was a day on Maria Island. The island is a 45-minute ferry ride out from the small town of Triabunna, and the ferry is a handy way to rest your legs before, and after, a day of walking.
Maria Island was another penal settlement but not a very successful one. Even though it was an island, this did not deter convicts from making their escape. Escape attempts happened so frequently, and were so successful, that the penal colony was finally abandoned in favour of Port Arthur. Even if you are not into history, this island has enough natural beauty to keep anyone entertained. Armed with a map and interpretative guide, we started out on the coastal path and then back-tracked through the scrub. The walks were of varying lengths, and they moved us around the island, allowing us to take in the best views of bush, beach and convict ruins. The rocks and cliffs that edge the pebble beaches were particularly attractive with their layered colours and sculpture-like erosion.
I don’t believe you have to be a ‘hardened’ walker to enjoy the many incredible parks and trails in Tasmania, and I encourage everyone to get ‘off the beaten track’ if you can.
Short walks or long, Tasmania has too much natural beauty to ignore.
Tell me, what walks must we add to the ‘to do’ list when we head to Tassie again?
What: A valid park entry permit is required for entry to Tasmania’s national parks. A range of national park passes are available depending on the time you spend there. Visitors to the state have a number of different pass options available to them, the most cost-effective being the Holiday Pass range. This pass covers entry into all of Tasmania’s national parks for up to two months, and also provides free use of the Cradle Mountain shuttle bus – $60.
Where: Have a look at the Parks & Wildlife Service Tasmania website for a map locating – and giving background information about – all parks throughout the state.
When: We visited in Autumn. The days were cool and crisp, and thankfully the Rain Gods stayed away.
Why: If you love the great outdoors, choose Tasmania.
How: We drove and, other than the slow traffic, it was the best and most flexible way to access the parks.
Who: Myself and The Brave Man* and tonnes of other happy campers.
Related Posts: When we weren’t walking, we were driving and here is a link to the fantastic man-made attractions we visited.
Related Blogs: I think you would wait a long time before you found a more passionate Tasmanian hiker than Denis. For really detailed and comprehensive information about a whole range of hiking opportunities in south east Tasmania, have a look at his blog at: http://hikinginsetasmania.blogspot.com.au/
*The Brave Man refers to my husband. He is indeed a brave man for marrying a crazy woman like me!
Book Title: Wild. From lost to found on the Pacific Crest Trail
Author: Cheryl Strayed
Promotional Blurb:At twenty-six, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s rapid death from cancer, her family disbanded and her marriage crumbled. With nothing to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life: to walk eleven-hundred miles of the west coast of America and to do it alone. She had no experience of long-distance hiking and the journey was nothing more than a line on a map. But it held a promise – a promise of piecing together a life that lay shattered at her feet. (Source)
My Thoughts: Yet another walking book that made me want to do just that – WALK! I have completed three caminos so far, but these all pale in comparison to the walk that Cheryl undertook.
Cheryl is truly a wild child after her mother dies. It plunged her into bottomless grief which pushed her into a self-destructive life. Too many men, drugs and other risk-taking behaviours. She stumbled across a book about the Pacific Crest Trail, and spontaneously decided it would be a ‘good’ thing to do. She believed the walk would give her time to think, remove her from day-to-day temptations and ‘fix’ her. Ultimately, the trail broke her apart, piece by piece, and then built her back up again as a stronger, more balanced person.
I marvel that she could undertake such a mammoth trek with so little preparation and training. She epitomised the definitions of ‘over-packed’ and ‘under-trained’. It was like a comedy of errors in the beginning as she limped along mile after mile, being crushed by the weight of her pack. I felt every blister and aching muscle, but I also felt her triumph as her body started to acclimatise and Cheryl started to believe that she could actually achieve her lofty goal.
The thing I most admire about this book is her unstinting honesty. She shared her story from her lowest of lows and didn’t try to minimise or excuse the depths she had plunged to.
You don’t need to be an outdoor enthusiast to enjoy this book. In essence, it is an inspiring human story played out in glorious scenery, and in hiking boots.
Author bio: Cheryl Strayed is the author of the #1 New York Times bestselling memoir WILD, the New York Times bestsellers TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS and BRAVE ENOUGH, and the novel TORCH. Her books have been translated into forty languages around the world. The Oscar-nominated movie adaptation of WILD stars Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl and Laura Dern as Cheryl’s mother, Bobbi. Strayed holds an MFA in fiction writing from Syracuse University and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota. She lives in Portland, Oregon. (Source)
It is not often that charity, community and culture collide in an event that turns into a genuine win, win, win. The annual Sculptures in the Garden event at Rosby Wines in Mudgee is one of those true winners.
Mudgee, in Central West NSW, is well-known as a weekend escape to enjoy rolling hills, fresh foods and a diverse range of delicious wines to accompany both the view and the victuals. Adding another string to the tourism bow is the ongoing growth of cultural activities such as sculpture.
Kay Norton-Knight of Rosby Wines has been a long-time supporter of the local arts scene and is an accomplished artist herself. Six years ago, Kay rallied her friends and family, identified a worthy charity, and Sculptures in the Garden was born.
As with many community events, SiG (as Sculptures in the Garden is fondly referred to) started out small with just over 100 works, and has experienced exponential growth each year. In 2016 the exhibition featured 234 works ranging from 20cm high to 6m high, and with price tags from $100 to $18 000.
Even if you are not in the market for a piece of sculpture for your house or garden, this event is simply a charming day out. All the sculptures are cleverly placed in the gardens and surrounds of the rustic Rosby homestead, providing a picture-perfect backdrop to the many works. The local Guide Dogs committee provide sumptuous catering and Rosby wines are available by the glass, or bottle if you feel so inclined.
This year’s event was blessed with stunning Spring weather – ideal for wandering through lush gardens and striking artworks, with a glass of wine in hand. Over 3 000 people did just that over the weekend.
But SiG is not just about standing back and looking at art. There was also an opportunity to learn. On both days of the exhibition, there were sculpture walks led by local artists as well as garden walks. A new event this year featured a panel discussion that delved into the importance of public art and its place in the Mudgee region. Edmund Capon AM OBE, the nominated VIP at this year’s event, had plenty of insight to add to the conversation.
The ‘cute’ factor was nailed during a puppy training session, delivered by Karen Hayter from Guide Dogs NSW. The audience melted and drooled over the latest litter of golden pups.
Children were not forgotten in this event. Other than the fact that they could run and play to their hearts’ content through the gardens and paddocks of Rosby, kids also had an opportunity to design and submit their own sculptures. The children were enthusiastic and excited to be able to show off their creativity, and their display demonstrated that there is some serious budding talent out there. A sign of things to come.
SiG has a more lasting impact than just an annual weekend. As well as generating significant funds for the Guide Dogs and tourism traffic throughout the region, it also provides an opportunity for the Mudgee community to connect with a number of signature pieces on a longer-term basis.
The SiG exhibition has four separate acquisitive prizes. Mid-Western Regional Council, Sculptures in the Garden, Moolarben Coal, and Friends of Sculptures in the Garden all provide funds to purchase pieces that become part of a permanent exhibition in the Mudgee CBD.
Mid-Western Regional Council is progressively developing a sculpture walk along the banks of the Cudgegong River. The river meanders through Lawson Park and the sculptures add additional interest to the riverside walk. Currently there are ten separate sculptures, and these will be added to from this year’s SiG. A true statement piece, the 4.4m high ‘Taking the Plunge’ by Stephen Irwin, was one of the three sculptures purchased this year. It will definitely catch the eye of passers-by AND generate a great deal of discussion.
One of the things I really love about SiG is how it makes sculpture totally accessible to Joe Public. I don’t have to be an art-buff to be able to enjoy and recognise the skill of other people. I think this has something to do with the fact that the art is all outdoors in a natural setting – no stuffy galleries or pretentious crowds.
Unlike the gigantic works on show at Bondi’s Sculptures by the Sea, most of these works are also financially accessible. For sure, not everyone would be in the position to snap up an $18 000 masterpiece for their backyard, but as the smaller pieces are quickly red-dotted it is nice to know that in their new homes they will create interest and add colour to the landscape.
The volunteer team that organises SiG are to be congratulated for all their hard work. They have created a significant and valuable inclusion in the regional tourism calendar, appealing to a different set of interests, as well as having developed an event that raises valuable charity dollars, and exposes plebs like me to the ‘yarts’.
Mudgee may be rich in food and wine but visitors and community alike can also enjoy a new kind of richness – a richness of the soul. Hard to measure but no less important.
Now, are you motivated to fire up the welder?
What: Sculptures in the Garden is a two-day arts event. The entrance fee is $5.00 per person. Food and wine is available each day. Stay for an hour or all day. Accommodation is available on site at the winery in the Rosby Guesthouse from $150.00 per night.
Where: Rosby is located at 122 Strikes Lane, Eurunderee, NSW, 2850 – an easy 15 minute drive north-west of Mudgee.
When: Annually – the second weekend in October.
Why: Add some culture to your wine escape in Mudgee and drive home with a permanent memory of Mudgee in the form of a work of art.
How: You will need a car to get out to Rosby. No public transport is available to the site but taxis are available from Mudgee.
Who: Rosby is home to Kay and Gerald Norton-Knight. The event is created and operated by volunteers.
I don’t know why a lot of people pick on Tasmania and give its residents a hard time about having 11 fingers and two heads!
Yes, it is only a small island dangling off the bottom of Australia, and perhaps it is off the ‘main drag’ of tourist destinations, but it punches well above its weight on a whole lot of levels.
Until 2011, I had never spent much time in Tasmania. Sure, I had seen plenty about it on TV, and had once been locked in a conference room in Hobart for a week, but I had never had the opportunity to really explore. Many people had told me it was green and lush, like a mini-England, but it was time to go and find out for myself.
Luckily for The Brave Man* and I, we have some good friends in Hobart who invited us to go sailing with them around Bruny Island for a couple of days. I will talk about that in a separate post at a later date, as it was such a special experience – a true feast for all the senses.
There is nothing like exploring a place with the locals to get all the inside information on their patch. The thing I particularly enjoy is that you get to explore a place at a much deeper level – the economy, the politics and what makes a community tick. A true warts-and-all picture.
I can safely say that Tasmania won our hearts. Tasmania is the complete package when it comes to the variety of things to see and do. It’s a terrible cliché, but ‘there is something for everyone’ in this postage stamp-like state.
Hobart is well-known for its convict and pioneering heritage. Settled in 1804, many of its handsome sandstone buildings remain intact, giving the city a feel of grandeur and grace. Other than a stroll around the distinctive wharf area – the final port for the annual Sydney to Hobart yacht race – a journey to Hobart would not be complete without a visit to MONA.
MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art, just has to be seen to be believed. Even if you are not an art lover, go there for a complete reorientation of your senses. I do not have an artistic bone in my body but even I could appreciate the diversity and depth of most of the art works.
The MONA experience started with a relaxing ferry ride from the Hobart wharf, up the Derwent River, to the foot of a sandstone cliff that encases the Museum. Where things started to challenge normality was when I had to walk four storeys underground to disappear into a world of wackiness and confrontation.
I spent most of the next four hours laughing outrageously, laughing nervously or being completely gobsmacked! I have no idea whether those were appropriate responses, and perhaps I was showing my complete lack of culture and civilisation. There was the Fat Car, a plump and pumped up Porsche, as a commentary on our flabby and obese lifestyles. There was a tribute to Madonna which included a wall of 40 televisions, each featuring a person singing ‘Like A Virgin’ off-key. There were Egyptian sarcophagi and a truck in a hall. Yes, a full-size semi-trailer four storeys underground, wedged in a hallway. Go figure!
By the end of the visit, I was physically exhausted and almost sore from the sensory overload. Such an assault on the senses, both positive and negative, has left a deep and lasting impression. Call me crazy, but I think it is worth a trip to Hobart just to experience MONA. It has not converted me to become a modern art fan, but it has certainly put Hobart on the cultural map!
Reeling from all that ‘culcha’, we borrowed a car and headed west out of Hobart to see as much of Tassie as we could in the short time remaining. In another post, I will talk about the excellent range of day walks we enjoyed, but here I will focus on the ‘built’ tourist attractions.
If you have the opportunity, another ‘must see’ is The Wall in the Wilderness. Located at Derwent Bridge, midway between Hobart and Strahan, a sculptor is creating a breathtaking work of art in wood. The Wall is made up of three metre high panels of wood, all joined together to form a solid visual expanse. These panels are being progressively carved to highlight the history of the central Tasmanian highlands, starting with the Indigenous people and including the timber industry, pastoralists, miners and Hydro workers. The skill involved is simply outstanding – a wagon has every spoke, chain and rope carved individually and separately to stand out in relief. When we visited in 2011, the wall was around 40 metres long, with the final length to be 100 metres. I agree that sometimes wood turning and wood carving can be a little twee, but this is art in a wooden form. Don’t miss it.
Back in the car, we joined the stream of grey nomads heading west towards Strahan. It gave me pause to wonder whether we had automatically and involuntarily joined the Grey Nomad scene, and although I wasn’t overly happy about it, we were travelling out of school holiday time, and we simply had to roll with it. Literally! Get stuck behind a grey nomad in a caravan or camper, and even though Tasmania is small, it takes a long time to roll anywhere!
The West Coast Wilderness Railway was a highlight for the train nut in our travelling party. The steam train puffed its way from Queenstown to Strahan, through some of the most remote and picturesque landscape you could ever come across.
Queenstown is a bit of an anomaly in the normally leafy Tasmanian countryside. It is a moonscape, battered and barren as a result of over 100 years of copper mining. It is a tired community with little going for it other than being the starting point for the tourist railway. I am sure the loyal locals would beg to differ, but the down-at-heel feel and multiple empty shops indicated to me that its time has passed.
The negative impacts of the copper mining history can still be seen today with both the Queen and King rivers classified as toxic. A perfect example of paying for the mistakes of generations past.
The West Coast Wilderness Railway is unique because it includes an ABT Rack and Pinion system on part of its track to manage the steep inclines. It strains and groans as it rattles and ratchets its way up the mountain. I wondered if we were going to make it, while the train buff was almost hanging out the carriage window, counting every rack and every pinion. Constructed in 1897, the rail line’s main purpose was to transport massive loads of copper to the port at Strahan, but now it specialises in massive loads of tourists…or loads of massive tourists. Other than being a very pleasant way to spend a day, we were educated about the pioneering history of the region as we rattled along the route, with a number of stops where we could pan for gold, explore ruins and stretch our legs.
Returning to Strahan, we spent the rest of our visit wandering around the streets and docks. Strahan is a charming port town, perfectly set up for tourists with a range of intriguing art and craft stores, and plenty of top quality food and beverages. Wood carving, wooden artefacts and timberyards are prominent, and The Brave Man* bought a few Huon pine offcuts as a memento of his visit. Not the most exciting souvenir in my opinion, but each to his own!
Unfortunately, time beat us and we had to point the little car back towards Hobart. I have only covered a few of the highlights we experienced. There is just so much history and beauty crammed into this gem of an island. One day when we sign on as full-time grey nomads, we will return.
Tell me, what do you recommend we see the next time around?
What: MONA is open every day except Tuesdays. Entrance fees are $20 for adults or free if you are under 18 or from Tasmania. The Wall is open seven days and entrance fees apply. West Coast Wilderness Railway is $100 per person including a shuttle bus from Strahan to Queenstown.
Where: MONA is located 11 kilometres north of Hobart – approximately 25 minutes by water, or 20 minutes by road. The return ferry ride costs $20.
When: We visited in Autumn. The days were cool and crisp, and thankfully the Rain Gods stayed away.
Why: Choose Tasmania if you would like a short break with lots to do in a small space.
How: We drove and, other than the slow traffic, it was the best and most flexible way to move about.
Who: Myself and The Brave Man* and multiple senior citizens.
Related Posts: Watch this space…
Related Blogs: I am not the only one to wax lyrical about a road trip in Tasmania. For a younger and groovier perspective have a look at http://www.worldofwanderlust.com/life-time-tasmanian-road-trip/
*The Brave Man refers to my husband. He is indeed a brave man for marrying a crazy woman like me!
You would think that walking from Seville in southern Spain to Santiago de Compostela in north-western Spain would be MORE than enough walking, but there has never been a better city to explore on foot than the UNESCO World Heritage city of Mérida.
Mérida is around 200km due north of Seville, or eight days walk. I entered the city over the bridge built in 25BC, made up of 60 perfect consecutive arches, and I knew I was in for something special.
In desperate need of coffee, I followed winding, cobbled streets and emerged into Plaza de España to be greeted by not only copious amounts of tasty and reviving coffee, but the heart of the city. The plaza was just coming to life – yes, it was pretty early, but the throng grew and it became a hub of chatter and gossip. Even the ubiquitous Spanish storks thought it was the best place to reside.
I think that Australia has a lot to learn from countries such as Spain. Either by good luck, good management or tradition, towns, cities and even the smallest villages in Spain have incorporated central spaces for people to meet and socialise. This has to be good for the soul as well as building a strong sense of community. It also gives the areas a warm, bubbling vibe. It attracts tourists like me and we stay and spend money. What is not to love?
Anyway, back to the history…
Mérida was established in the first century BC as Emérita Augusta, the capital of Roman Lusitania. It occupies a prominent position on the Silver Route (Ruta de la Plata), the main transport route for moving goods (especially silver) from southern Spain to the north, and is the basis for the 1000km-long Camino Via de la Plata trail. The Romans left behind lasting reminders of their occupation which are a feast for both the eyes and minds of amateur historians like me.
With only one and a half rest days in Mérida, I had to be selective about how I was going to spend my time. There is so much history, I simple couldn’t see it all.
The Tourist Office in Plaza de España sells tickets that include entry to many of the archaeological sites. For €12 you can access the Theatre and Amphitheatre, the Alcazaba, Circus and more. It comes with a handy map which shows you how to navigate the city to reach these sites.
My first stop was the Amphitheatre, a stage where burly gladiators wrestled with beasts. This building preserves some of its original elements, like the grandstands, the box and the gallery. I could almost hear the roar of both the audience and the ferocious animals fighting for their lives.
The Teatro Romano right next door to the Amphitheatre was erected between 15 and 16BC and can seat 6000 people. The original stage area is dominated by two rows of columns, decorated with the remains of sculptures of deities and imperial figures. When I visited, workers were busily constructing temporary stages and sound systems. I am not sure what performance was planned but I suspect it was opera. How cool would it be to watch any show against such a historic backdrop? Each Summer they hold the Mérida Classical Theatre Festival, apparently one of the most important of its kind in Spain. Now that would be something to see and a perfect excuse for me to return.
On the same site are a number of gardens and excavations revealing detailed friezes and parts of Roman buildings. It must be a nightmare to build anything in this city. As soon as you start digging a footing or similar, you find yet another Roman, Visigoth or Moorish relic. What I don’t get is where all the dirt comes from that hides the generations of construction? These are big buildings, how do they get buried so deep underground? Obviously more research is required on my part.
Back to the map again and off to the Roman Circus. Again, my imagination ran wild with the roars of the crowd and the pounding of the horse’s hooves. This is one of the best preserved circuses to be found and also one of the largest at 403m long and 96m wide. The stands could hold 30 000 spectators. What a sound they would have made when their charioteer was winning.
The Aqueduct of the Milagros is simply gobsmacking. How something so large and so old can remain standing for so long, I will never know. It is commonly known as ‘Los Milagros’, or the miracles, because of its ability to withstand the tests of time. More than 800metres of the aqueduct have been preserved and some sections are 27m high.
The Diana Temple was similarly astounding. An awesome piece of architecture squeezed into the Mérida CBD. I love how such history is juxtaposed with modern buildings right next door.
If I had had more time I would have liked to visit the National Museum of Roman Art. With more than 36 000 artefacts – all of which were found in Mérida and its vicinity – apparently it is an excellent snapshot of the history of the city and its Roman legacy. Again, that will have to wait until next time.
As I explored the city, I bumped into a few of my fellow walkers. Andrea from Italy was equally impressed with Mérida and he thought it contained the best range of Roman ruins outside of Rome. High praise indeed.
There were arches and forums and Christian churches and bridges and Moslem citadels. My brain hurt, my feet hurt and I simply couldn’t take more in. I suspect it is possible to spend days in this magical city and still not feel like you have seen it all. Even with a flying visit to the Arab fortress, the Alcazaba, I felt I didn’t even start to get my head around that period of history which followed Roman occupation.
Time and energy beat me, and with a flattened camera battery, I retreated to Plaza de España. Sitting there, I started to wonder what it would feel like to grow up and live, amongst such significant history. Would the locals become a bit blasé about it all as they stroll past yet another 4th BC dig site on their way to the supermarket?
How good would it be to go to school in Mérida and study ancient history at the same time? Not only could you study history but you would walk past it on your way to school. Or maybe I would be just another bored school kid, more interested in the playground and Pokemon Go than a pile of dusty stones.
More things to ponder as I shouldered my backpack and stepped out into the dawn, northbound once more …
What: Mérida is a city of around 60 000 people strategically placed eight walking days north of Seville. I had a rest day there as part of the Camino Via de la Plata and stayed at a nice little hotel called Hostal Senero, tucked in a small street near Plaza de España.
Where: Mérida – is about 200km north of Seville.
When: A rest day, so two nights in September 2014. Cool mornings and beautiful blue sky days.
Why: I had done some research before leaving Australia and all the forums etc raved about Merida as a perfect place to rest and soak up some ancient history.
How: I walked into town but it is also accessible by train, regular buses, or you can fly into Badajoz (about 50 km to the west of Mérida).
Who: Myself, and two hardy and inspiring Canadians.
We Australians are spoiled for choice when seeking a bolt-hole to escape the worst of Winter. From any point on our continent, just keep heading north, and each inch on the map will equate to a couple of degrees further up the thermometer.
The Brave Man* (BM) is convinced that he needs a short dose of warmth mid-Winter to delude himself that the worst of the season is almost over. Last year it was Hawaii; this year we set off for Palm Cove in far north Queensland to defrost, and see what all the fuss was about.
Palm Cove is one of a series of small beachside communities that populate the region 28km north of Cairns.
If you plan to do much tripping around in this part of the country, I would recommend a hire car. By the time you calculate the cost of taxis and additional shuttle transport, the cost of a hire car and the ultimate flexibility it provides, makes it a financially viable option. In contrast, I would not recommend the Atlas Car Rental company at all. Yes, they were one of the cheapest options available but the staff were exceptionally rude, totally disinterested and refused to supply the size of car originally booked online. The BM* is six foot four inches tall, and he couldn’t even fit behind the steering wheel of our mobile matchbox. Their version of customer service was to hand us the keys and walk away. Buyer beware!
Winding up the rubber band of our little car, we did a quick raid on the supermarket in Cairns before making our way to Palm Cove. For some reason we thought this necessary, not thinking that the towns and villages further north would be of the size to contain decent supermarkets. Wrong.
As we drove north, the Captain Cook Highway took us slightly inland but the abundant tropical vegetation and soft sea breezes indicated that the ocean was never far away. It was obvious to us that this road was an important part of the ‘commuter’ belt with a new, dual lane road much of the way to Palm Cove. It made it so easy to move around.
When planning the trip, the BM* had been told about how noisy it was to stay right on the esplanade in Palm Cove, so he selected the Mango Lagoon Resort & Wellness Spa. It was a leisurely three-block stroll back from the main drag – super-quiet and leafy. Our self-contained apartment was just the right size, with all the mod cons including a washing machine and dryer, and shuttered French doors that opened onto swaying palms and one of the resort’s many pools. Yes, the true definition of a tropical paradise.
The Weather Gods continued to frown on us and, even though it was lovely to pull on the shorts and t-shirts, it either misted, drizzled or rained properly the entire time we were there. We couldn’t complain as we were on holiday, but the locals did not hold back on how unseasonably cold and wet it was as they clomped around in their woollen ugg boots. At 25°C, we thought ugg boots was slight overkill but each to their own.
Knowing that we would not melt under a little rain, and with only four full days to cram everything in, we set out to discover why so many rave about Palm Cove. A stroll along the esplanade with ice creams dripping down our hands, we found it a relaxed and laid back ‘town’ – town being a generous description – and the fastest things were the shuttle buses tootling backwards and forwards to the vast array of accommodation choices. The esplanade is edged with swaying palms, a United Nations of eating houses and ice cream stands, while a long and winding path bordered the beach. I was surprised and disappointed to see signs warning of crocodiles and stingers in the ocean, but a few brave souls frolicked in the green water regardless. The hire car gave us the scope to tour the neighbouring villages of Clifton Beach, Kewarra Beach, Trinity Beach – more swaying palms and ice cream shops – and then explore further afield.
We tried to plan our days around the weather forecast, which turned out to be a really good intention but completely pointless on implementation.
First on the list was a visit to the Kuranda Rail and Skyrail. It was frustrating to watch the rain spatter against the train windows as we weaved and rattled our way up the mountains to Kuranda. The atmospheric train ride and history attached to the railway was fascinating, however Kuranda itself was a bit of a tourist trap – all souvenir shops and over-priced eating establishments. A quick walk up the main street was enough for us.
The Skyrail floated over the tree tops of the Barron Gorge National Park as we descended the mountains and back down to the coast. To make the most of the forest below, there are a couple of ‘stations’ where you can hop off the cable car and explore the greenery on foot. We particularly enjoyed a short, guided walking tour from the Barron Falls station. A fascinating insight into how a rainforest ‘works’ and the various layered flora and fauna.
If we weren’t already wet enough, we went from the sublime to the ridiculous with a day’s snorkelling on the Upolo Reef, an outer section of the Great Barrier Reef. We booked on a smaller ‘sailing’ boat with Reef Daytripper, as neither the BM* or I like crowds. Thank goodness there were only 11 of us (plus crew) on board, as we huddled under protection from the rain the majority of the trip. We refused to let the weather dampen our adventure and snorkelled to our hearts’ content amongst the giant clams, sea turtles, neon-striped fish, gropers, sting rays and
‘Nemo’ clown fish. It was a weird feeling to snorkel and, at the same time, feel the rain pounding on my back. The cloud cover did not allow the coral colours to really dazzle but I just pretended I was hovering above brilliant reds, blues and greens. There is so much bad news in the media about the reef dying, that I didn’t want to miss a moment.
Another gorgeous day trip was up to Mossman Gorge and then onto Daintree. It was on this specific day that we realised why it is called ‘rainforest’. On a fine day, it must be spectacular but after a couple of hours of being drenched to the skin, we were totally ‘over’ both rain and forest!
We sought sanctuary and dryness in the Matchbox car and drove a little further north to the Daintree River. The BM* was desperate to get up close to a crocodile and we got this in spades at the Daintree Cruise Centre.
For around an hour we cruised the Daintree River, taking in the mangroves and wildlife large and small. The weather was still grey and forbidding but not half as forbidding as the huge crocodiles lounging on the river bank waiting for a tourist to dangle a lazy arm over the side of the boat. We ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’ over the adult crocs and did our best to spot the babies camouflaged in the mud. There
were vibrant Azure Kingfishers flitting through the mangroves, rainbow-coloured butterflies and a riot of other birdlife skimming the surface of the river. How lucky are we to have the diversity of wildlife – both beautiful and murderous – in Australia?
Palm Cove ticked all the boxes for our Winter escape. It is the perfect destination for a short break with plenty to see and do within an easy drive.
No doubt you could also enjoy the ‘fly and flop’ type-holiday, but watch out for the bities on the beach!
What: A five day break with self-contained accommodation. Eating out in Palm Cove is very expensive so it was nice to have the option to self-cater.
Where: Palm Cove, Far North Queensland.
When: Do your research. Apparently there are certain times of year when it is safer to swim in the water.
Why: To escape Winter and feel the sun and warmth on our skin – with sunscreen of course.
How: We flew from the Queensland Gold Coast to Cairns with Jetstar and then hired a car.