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 ““I felt the rains down in Africa..””→
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.
I am going to apologise right up front for this blog post. It may turn out to be one long string of clichés or a saccharine wallow in childhood memories. Or it could identify for you a place you definitely do NOT want to visit. But for this 50-something year old big kid, it was a dream come true.
As a child growing up in the 1960s and 70s, the highlight of each week was the Wonderful World of Disney every Sunday night at 6p.m. I would be glued to the black and white (and eventually colour) TV and transported to every far flung corner of the world or my imagination. I don’t remember regularly watching the Mickey Mouse Club but man, I lusted after a pair of those perfect ears.
A year living in England in 2003 placed all of Europe on our doorstep including, within spitting distance, Disneyland Paris. Of course we explained this trip as a birthday treat for the two much younger members of the household but, I admit to being just as excited as they were.
It was a challenge to temper the excitement as we trundled through the wintry streets of Byfleet at 5a.m. dragging our wheelie bags. Needless to say, the thousands of bleary-eyed commuters who joined our train trip into London were less than excited about their day. They had no choice but to put up with our jollity and two children bouncing off the walls of the train.
There are two very passionate train lovers in this family so the excitement levels threatened to go off the scale when we arrived at Waterloo station to board the Eurostar train to Lille and then onwards to Disneyland Paris. In reply to quizzical, and somewhat exasperated, looks from our fellow travellers, I would flash the cover of our Disneyland Resort Paris guidebook and they would nod knowingly, and redouble their efforts to ignore us.
Our short-break package included train travel, two nights’ accommodation, breakfast, and unlimited 3-day entry into Disneyland and Disney Studios. Does life get much better than that? As soon as we arrived at the resort park – yes, there is more to Disneyland than just Disneyland – we checked into our hotel, collected our admission tickets and ran squealing with glee towards the entrance turnstiles. We were there at last.
Before leaving England, the locals had tried to dampen our enthusiasm a little because (a) it was only Disneyland after all, and (b) it was Winter (usually preceded by ‘you idiot why are you going there now?’). Little did they understand the warped logic of we Disney-addicts and our assumption that the colder temperatures would reduce crowd numbers. Thankfully we lucked out on both points – cold but crystal clear blue sky days and a manageable number of other hardy souls running from ride to parade.
But our Disney passion was balanced by strategy and, before arriving in France, we had already identified our ‘must sees’ and importantly, how long we were prepared to wait for them. If the sign said ‘75 minutes to wait’ we would veer off and visit something else, and then circle back later optimistically hoping that the line would be shorter. Most times we were not disappointed.
The first part of the strategy (and see previous comments about the resident train nuts) was to get the lie of the land. The Disneyland Railroad chugs around the edge of the theme park, stopping at stations in each of the ‘lands’, and takes around 20 minutes to complete the full loop. Armed with this information, we were ready to immerse ourselves in all things Disney.
Main Street USA is a recreation of historic small-town America. It is the perfect welcome to the park and fires up the imagination for the rest of Disneyland. In reality it is just a string of over-priced cafes and souvenir shops, but the gauntlet must be run to get into the park proper.
I am a roller coaster fan from way back so I took to them with gusto. Big Thunder Mountain is a runaway mine train through forests, collapsing mine shafts and eventually into a ‘flooding’ river – equal parts corny and hilarious. How old did I say I was? The kids were lapping it all up too although the 9-year old refused to open his eyes from go to whoa! I think it would have been scarier than having them open.
Highlights included the ‘Honey, I shrunk the audience’ 3-D show. At last, an opportunity to sit and rest our tired legs. Based on the popular movies, the whole audience was ‘shrunk’ to matchbox-size and, crazily, it felt like it due to the highly convincing 3-D visual effects, surround sound and other sensations. The classic came at the end of the movie when a ‘giant’ dog on the screen turned towards the audience and sneezed all over us. Yes, we got sprayed with water at the same time. Gross but very funny!
The Wonderful World of Disney Parade and the Main Street Electrical Parade at night were both worth plonking down on the street gutter and watching all the childhood favourites as they strolled or rolled by.
It was a truly fairy-tale experience and my only regret is that I came to my senses and did not buy my own set of mouse ears. I couldn’t quite justify the purchase in my adult-mind but I should have thrown caution to the wind and satisfied my every childhood whim.
We ran from joyride to roller coaster to parade for three days straight but soon it was all over, and it was a very happy but wearied family stumbling homewards from the Byfleet train station. It was 1130p.m., dark and cold, and I was mentally replaying the magic of the past days.
Imagine my surprise when the 9-year old called out, “Mel, what’s for dinner tomorrow night?” All the excitement and entertainment of this once in a lifetime experience, and he was thinking of his stomach?? Is youth wasted on the young?
What: Three day package tour from London to Disneyland Paris – train travel, two nights’ accommodation with breakfast at Sequoia Lodge, unlimited Park entry, a guide book and activity packs for both children.
Where: Disneyland Resort Paris – about 32 km east of Paris.
When: Late Winter 2003 – yes, it was cold and sometimes grey but that kept the crowds (and therefore our competition) under control.
Why: A birthday celebration for one of the children and a long-held dream for both of the adults.
How: Eurostar train from Waterloo Station, London with connections at Lille direct to Disneyland Paris.
Who: Myself, The Brave Man* and two out-of-control-with-excitement children.
I imagine that tourism is a tricky business. What attractions and businesses do you need in a community to capture and keep a visitor for more than one day? Not every community can have a Disneyland, nor every town an Eiffel Tower.
Personally, I feel it is the simple things that are sometimes the most attractive, but few communities realise they have it in their power, or have the energy and initiative, to create something special.
Greenville, South Carolina, is a living, breathing example of how to create something out of nothing. The residents are obviously passionate and proud of their city and are not afraid to invest their energies, and their all-important dollars, to benefit both locals and visitors alike.
We visited Greenville as part of a short but convoluted road tour of the USA (see my post about looking for James Taylor). On the surface, Greenville could be viewed as basically another smallish city in the deep south of the USA. It is bustling, super-friendly (Hi Y’all), mad-keen on American football and full of flapping banners from competing universities. It is when you get out of the car and onto the streets that you get the true sense of the city and how it has been rejuvenated to stand out from the crowd.
In the early days, Greenville was a mill town. Cotton mills were prolific, and woollen mills and a paper factory all clustered along the edges of the Reedy River. In 1915 it even branded itself as the Textile Centre of the South. Viewing historical photos, I can only imagine the impact these industries had on the local economy but also the environment.
Today there is little evidence of the negative impacts of the mills, and the Reedy River has been restored and enhanced to make it virtually unrecognisable in comparison to those industrial days.
The Reedy River, at the foot of Greenville’s main street, is now part of the Swamp Rabbit Trail. This trail stretches a superb 21miles (33.8km) through forests, valleys and riverside parks, linking four communities in Greenville County. Each year the trail grows and snakes (or should that be ‘hops’?) through the picturesque County as funds become available.
While any community can create a park or a trail, the thing that really caught our imagination was that much of it was, and continues to be, funded via philanthropy. Reading the Swamp Rabbit Trail promotional material, opportunities to sponsor and donate abound, and include benches/seating, bike racks, mile markers or even ‘buying’ a section of the trail.
I realise that Australians do not have a strong philanthropic culture but just think what we could create in our communities if we did?
I spent many hours walking through Falls Park and Cleveland Park – adjoining parks in different parts of Greenville – but all connected by the Trail. It was obvious to me just how popular this walk was, with locals of all ages walking and cycling, and visitors such as myself armed with cameras and smartphones.
The valuable thing is that the community has recognised this ‘infrastructure’ as not only good for a healthy lifestyle, but also a solid economic generator. Research conducted in 2014 showed that businesses neighbouring the Trail reported up to 85% increase in trade due to the passing foot and cycle traffic. It also found that 25% of trail users were visitors and they invested $6.7million in the local tourism economy. Yes, there is money in the great outdoors and we, as individual donors, can influence that.
Philanthropy was not only evident by the river, but also up and down Greenville’s main street. The whole street has been converted into a public art space with an easy stroll from one sculpture to the next. I realise sculpture is not everyone’s cup of tea, but if the aim is to slow down the foot traffic and encourage people to spend longer in the CBD (thereby benefiting business and economic turnover), then this is an ideal tool.
The 40-odd sculptures range from bronze busts of civic forefathers, accompanied by panels of historical explanatory information, to exuberant lifelike violin and flute players dancing in the forecourt of some non-descript corporate structure. The majority of these works were funded by private individuals or families in memory of someone, or for their own posterity I guess.
All the sculptures were linked together as part of an informal walking trail which moves you from the top of the main street to the bottom – yes, sharing the love amongst the business community.
The really clever thing they have done in this city is to include sculpture targeted at children. A dedicated Mice on Main sculpture trail has been developed which is literally one great mouse hunt. Nine tiny bronze mice are hidden in mysterious places along the main street and children use a treasure-hunt-type map to discover them all. How tricky is that? It engages the younger members of a travelling party, captures the whole family for longer (eating, drinking and shopping) as they walk, systematically moves visitors throughout the community, AND it is community-funded.
As you can tell, Greenville certainly left an impression and inspired us to think about what we could be doing in our own home town to enrich our community and add to the tourism arsenal. Greenville is a fantastic example of a community with a bit of vision and a lot of energy to bring their dreams to life. Their efforts have built a rich and vibrant community with a very high quality of life for themselves, but they have also created cultural and environmental tourist attractions that encourage people to visit, stay and spend.
Win, win, win.
What: Greenville has a population of around 62 000 people. We stayed at Hampton Inn and Suites situated on the Reedy River in downtown Greenville. Access to the Swamp River Trail and the sculptures is free but you can also join themed walking/cycling/segway tours with a variety of commercial tour companies.
Where: Greenville is in the north-west corner of South Carolina, USA. You can fly in/out of Greenville/Spartanburg International Airport or access it by every other mode of transport.
When: We were there in early Spring and the flowers were just starting to pop open.
Why: Greenville is a picture-perfect introduction to the southern states of the USA. Friendly and warm people, interesting arts, tempting shopping, historic architecture, southern cuisine, a jazz scene and plenty of outdoor activities.
How: We drove from Washington DC (as you do) in a hire car. The road network is excellent.
Who: One man pretending to be on a serious research project (well yes, he actually was) and me being a serious tourist!
It’s summertime 2003, these Aussie expats were keen to escape the English definition of Summer (18°C and raining) to the more familiar version (32°C and crystal clear, blue skies). A 15-Italian-cities-in-10-days itinerary was planned, a cheap and cheerful airline booked and we were soon stepping out of the crisp air-conditioning of Marco Polo Airport near Venice, into a wall of heat. Welcome to Italy!
Growing up on a farm, in a small country town, in rural New South Wales, in a country at the bottom of the World, always made places like Venice feel slightly out of reach. Like a tantalising jewel on the edge of my imagination. Now, at last, it was a reality.
Hot, confusing and equal parts mesmerising, Venice turned all my previous concepts of a ‘city’ upside down. I know I am a simple soul, but I was transfixed by the garbage boat (not truck), the delivery boat (not van) and the various traghettos, gondolas and ferries that moved the population around the liquid streets. On foot, I was not struggling with stop lights and pedestrian crossings, no road rage or exhaust fumes. If this was an alternative to traditional city-living, then more power to it!
With ubiquitous Lonely Planet guide in hand, we had three days to tick off all the big name sites. We must have looked like your typical stunned tourists as we strolled alongside the canals. Just when we thought we had seen the most amazing canal/street/church, we would turn another corner and be astounded all over again. A particular highlight of the first day was the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. In hindsight, I am not sure whether it was a church or a Harry Potter spell! At the time I was equally impressed by its elongated name as I was by its Titian paintings. Little did I know how ‘common’ the Great Masters were in Italy. Ho hum, yet another priceless work of art.
We had been given a tip to visit St Mark’s Basilica as early as possible in the day and tag onto the guided tour in English. While the tour didn’t cover the entire Basilica – that would take days and more information than we could ever possibly retain – it did cover a few select mosaic murals providing insight into some of the people and events that graced this floating city. Left to our own devices, we explored the rest of the building, climbing up to the Galleria for a birds-eye view of the Piazza. It confirmed our decision to start early in the day, as the square was now full-to-overflowing with both people and pigeons.
Trying to orient ourselves around the Main Canal, we wandered the cobbled streets, absorbing the atmosphere of this unique city. A gondola poling along a quiet narrow canal, an elaborate iron balcony, or a quaint, arched bridge all combined to make us believe we were experiencing something extra special.
Before leaving England, some locals had warned us, rather inelegantly, that Venice stinks in Summer. However, we did not find that at all and spent the majority of our visit walking happily alongside the canals or floating about out on the sea proper, completely oblivious to any sickening odours.
Taking a ferry ride out to the various islands surrounding Venice was a good way to understand the architectural feat that is Venice, as well as its relationship to the sea. There was a real vibrancy to the waterfront as buildings were progressively being restored and the hundreds of different water craft shuttled to and fro.
On our way out to the island of Lido, I was befriended by an aged Italian gentleman who graciously offered to spend the day with me, showing me around. When I said I would need to check that with my husband he cooled noticeably but, undeterred, he continued to enthusiastically promote the merits of his island home. After a brief stroll along the crowded beach, without my Italian escort, we cruised on to Burano – home of Burano lace – and the island of Murano, the centre of a spectacular glass industry.
I think the lace industry on Burano has seen better days and has mostly gone the way of Asian imports and knock-offs. I have never been a fan of the lace doily but the trip wasn’t wasted. Many of the homes and buildings in Burano are painted in a kaleidoscope of colours. It creates a happy and friendly atmosphere and an amusing shake-up for we residents of beige, bone and brown countries.
From Burano, we hopped on the next commuter ferry for the short trip to Murano. Another fascinating island and craft centre, but this time focusing on glass. We were lucky to stumble across a fornacé, or furnace, and were spellbound by the glass blowers in action. I truly admire the skill involved in working with such a fluid and fickle material, yet being able turn out such works of beauty and delicacy. I can only wonder how many times they burned themselves as they learned their trade! Sorry, it is just how my mind works!
Our Venetian experience was drawing to a golden close as we rode the twilight ferry back into Venice. The city appeared mystical as it materialised out of the dusky Summer haze – all ancient towers and lace-like balconies.
The last evening was spent walking the cool and shadowy footpaths beside serpentine canals, and jostling with the ever-present tourists. I doubt that we got even half-way through our Venice bucket list, but the places we experienced left a lasting and loving impression. We did not see all the churches, museums or canals but maybe that was on purpose.
The longing for Venice continues today.
What: First stop on a 10 day trip to Italy. In Venice, we stayed in the tiny but centrally located – Antica Casa Carrettoni
Where: Venice, Italy.
When: Late July 2003, hence the non-digital photography. Apologies!
Why: A good opportunity to escape the English version of Summer and yet another opportunity to absorb European history and culture.
How: We flew from Gatwick airport aboard budget airline Volare. We caught the shuttle bus into Venice and left Venice on the train bound for La Spezia.
Who: Myself, The Brave Man* and two bored children.
Related Blogs: For some fantastic photos and background information have a look at the Venice Travel Blog – http://venicetravelblog.com
*The Brave Man refers to my husband. He is indeed a brave man for marrying a crazy woman like me!
This has to be my favourite Camino so far. The Via de la Plata makes the most of Spain’s wide open spaces as you walk through large expanses of farm land, wheat fields, grape vines and forests. All that space is sprinkled with magical cities like Merida and Salamanca, and each day you walk in the footsteps of Romans, Moors and generations of Spaniards.
Yes, it was also probably the most difficult of the three caminos I have completed, but it was the most rewarding. The difficulty relates to the large distances that must be covered some days, just to get from village to town.
The Via de la Plata is definitely more remote than other caminos and that was what I enjoyed. It simply meant that I had to plan ahead, load up with snacks and carry plenty of water.
It is interesting how your perspective changes from camino to camino. On the Francés, 25km was considered a tough day, but on the Via that was ‘normal’ and 35km-days fell into the ‘tough’ category. Of course, there was always the option to catch a bus or taxi to minimise the long stretches but I simply kept putting one foot in front of the other.
So here are the basic logistics of this camino:
Start Day: Thursday 4 September 2014, from Seville, Spain
Finish Day: Tuesday 14 October 2014, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Via de la Plata: Seville (due north) to Granja de Moreruela (approx. 700km)
Sanabrés: Granja de Moreruela (north westerly) to Santiago de Compostela (approx. 300km)
Total: 1000km – give or take a few kilometres
Daily Average: 26.3km
Longest Day: 42km (by bad luck and poor management! A comedy of errors except I wasn’t laughing anymore!)
Shortest Day: 15.7km
Rest: 3 (Merida, Salamanca, Ourense)
Times: Southern Spain can be hot! Even in Autumn, I did my best to avoid the heat of the day by starting early, often in the pre-dawn dark.
Terrain: Very mixed. This camino matches the Camino Frances for variety. There is everything from quaint villages and towns, to Roman roads, farm tracks and a bit of scary roadside walking. There were days and days of walking through the wide open countryside, but also a number of tough days slogging uphill for the best part of the day. It felt good to reach the top!
Weather: Glorious most days. Cool crisp mornings to start out (I did wear a beanie and gloves some mornings) but it would heat up from about 10a.m. onwards. Some days are very hot, so make sure you stay hydrated and wear sunscreen. A good hat is compulsory.
Maps & Guides: This was a real challenge.
I used Gerald Kelly’s – Walking Guide to the Via de la Plata and the Camino Sanabrés (Feb 2014). It was OK but I wouldn’t recommend it unless it has been comprehensively updated. Much of the content was out of date and many of the maps were seriously inaccurate – at times whole villages/towns were missing! (I have just checked and he has released a 2nd edition dated May 2016).
I used that book in conjunction with the website godesalco.com. This site is very handy as you can customise your route before leaving home, according to the distance you would prefer to walk each day. It will also let you know the types of accommodation available in each town and show the elevation of each leg of the walk.
Some walking companions had a copy of the guidebook printed by the Seville-based, Amigos del Camino de Santiago Via de la Plata. It was also not 100% accurate but, using our combined guides and maps, we seemed to muddle through OK. I would recommend using a couple of maps and/or guides just so you can cross-reference one with another.
Another useful website is the Spanish site – Gronze.com/via-plata. It is all in Spanish but the maps are useful, as are the accommodation lists.
Way-marking: varied from being fantastic to non-existent.
There were some serious road works going on when I walked and at times the path led me to the edge of a massive excavation/cutaway. One minute path, next minute nothing! That’s where logic and a good sense of direction were required as I navigated around and/or across these works to connect to the camino again.
Beware: leaving Zamora. We walked out in the early morning dark and mistakenly followed the arrows that took us north-west on the Camino de Santiago Portugués Via de la Plata! After about 5km of cross country walking we were back on track and heading due north again.
Accommodation: the locals on this camino really understand the economic potential of providing services and facilities for pilgrims.
Albergues are plentiful and mostly of excellent quality – both private and municipal.
There was some chatter about bed bugs along the route but luckily, I had no problems. If you are susceptible to these critters, I would go prepared.
Albergue costs varied from donativo (free) to €12, which included bedding, towels and breakfast.
Small, private hotels started at €20 (single).
Food: typical Spanish fare with lashings of ham, ham, and more ham.
Pilgrim’s menus or menu del dia were readily available.
If you are a caffeine addict then you need to plan carefully or bring your own makings as, on some days, there are NO cafes from sun-up to sun down. Yes, a true crisis I know!
This is not an easy camino but I would recommend it highly.
If I were to repeat a camino one day in the future, it would be this one. My mind and spirit opened up to match the wide open spaces and gave me the feeling that I was truly walking the world!
Read About It: For background information and guidebooks on the Via de la Plata, have a look at Book Depository
Have you heard about the terrible medical condition that sometimes afflicts European travellers? There are a couple of different strains of this dreadful disease known as ABC including, Another Bloody Church, Another Bloody Castle or Another Bloody Chateau for the Francophiles.
Not to be outdone in the USA, they have ABM (Another Bloody Monument) but in Washington DC, I bloody loved it!
A couple of years ago we made a flying trip to the USA for The Brave Man* to complete a research project and attend a huge national conference in Washington, D.C. I was chief bag carrier and got to ‘play’ tourist to my heart’s content while he had to be serious. That worked for me!
Our introduction to Washington was on check-in at our hotel, the Gaylord National Harbour. It was an eye-popping 2 000 rooms and had a full-sized village constructed in its atrium area. This should have given us some inkling of the other big things waiting for us in this city. Yes, I know I am showing my small-town roots when I marvel at these things but having worked in the 5-star hotel industry in a previous life, I have some understanding of what it takes to run a hotel efficiently and effectively, yet I am still boggled by the idea of 2000 rooms.
We tossed our bags into our hotel room and headed out to explore. While the Gaylord was an amazing hotel, it was quite a distance from the centre of the city so it gave us a good opportunity to try out the local public transport system. It was our first experience with the concept of travel cards (that you load with credit) rather than paper tickets, so no doubt, we looked like typical dopey tourists as we inserted our unloaded travel cards into the turnstiles, only to have them spat back out. Oh well, all part of the fun.
We eventually arrived at the L’Enfant Plaza metro station in central Washington and strolled the block or two onto the Mall. It felt quite surreal to stand in that large open space with the Washington Monument at one end and Capitol Hill at the other. The Mall is like the glue that holds all the key sights together. It is an elongated, green expanse edged by all manner of monuments, museums and galleries. After seeing it on TV for so long, we were finally there.
As The Brave Man* only had the afternoon free before his conference commenced, we had to focus on what he would like to see and he chose the National Museum of American History. This museum was the ideal introduction to the entire country, both politically and socially. It had the most extensive coverage of USA military history which made The Brave Man* quip that it appears that the only countries the USA has not met in battle are Australia and New Zealand! (But perhaps if Donald Trump wins the Presidential race next month, that anomaly will be rectified!)
The next day dawned bright and clear and I prepared to play tourist while the other half prepared to play conference. I was rugged up to within an inch of my life as there were still patches of snow laying around, but the brilliant blue skies made the cold more than bearable.
With the day stretching out before me, I took a slightly different approach and jumped on the DC Old Town Trolley Company bus to help me to cover more territory. This was an effortless way to get an overview of the city and its history. First, I took the Green Line out to the north-west of Washington through historic suburbs, past all the embassies and then up and around the National Cathedral before returning back through Georgetown, Foggy Bottom (I love that name!!) and the White House. I jumped straight off that bus and onto the Orange Line, which travelled around the Mall – up to Capitol Hill, Union Station and the Jefferson Memorial. Both of these tours had comprehensive audio commentary and by the end of the day, my brain was fit to burst, it was so full of facts and figures. What it also achieved was to highlight all the places I wanted to visit on foot, and in depth, the next day.
With my running shoes on and firmly laced, I set out on my final day to cover a serious amount of territory. Stay out of the way of this tourist on a mission!
First stop was the Lincoln Memorial which was as imposing as I had imagined. They really know how to revere their presidents in that town, although I was a tad disappointed that Lincoln didn’t come to life as he does in the Night at the Museum II movie. Now that would have been memorable!
To continue the Lincoln theme, I spent a fascinating couple of hours at the Ford’s Theatre where Lincoln was fatally wounded by John Wilkes Booth. An absorbing snapshot of history, but far more American political shenanigans than this small Australian brain could ever process and retain. A tip for the unwary: get to the Theatre first thing in the day or be prepared for long queues.
The White House was high on the must-see list. Naturally, you couldn’t get close to the building, and who would want to with those crack snipers on the roof? Instead the official Visitor Centre provided useful videos and background on its construction, and many of its colourful residents. The next best thing to seeing inside the American seat of power.
The Korean War Memorial was powerful and sobering. Nineteen life size sculptures of men in army uniform make their way, in formation, through low shrubs as if on reconnaissance. At the same time, their images are mirrored in a marble wall, doubling the impact of the scene to 38 soldiers to reflect the geographic 38th parallel the War was fought on, and the 38 000 soldiers killed in the conflict.
Just around the corner, the Martin Luther King (MLK) Memorial was thought-provoking and ingenious at the same time. The massive stone statue of MLK links to one of his speeches that included ‘out of a mountain of despair, comes a stone of hope’. It is also surrounded by many of his iconic sayings – as if the sight of a nine metre tall man isn’t impactful enough, now it challenges me to have to think as well?? For once, my timing was good and I tacked myself onto a crowd standing around a National Parks ranger. You get so much more out of a visit when someone local, and passionate, shares their knowledge.
Time was running out as I jogged back up the Mall – with all the jogging locals – past the Washington Monument (closed to the public due to safety concerns after a recent earthquake), paying a quick visit to the Smithsonian Castle, and finally arriving at the National Museum of the American Indian. Thank goodness there were lots of interpretive videos and places to sit down in this facility, as that was all I was good for by that stage in the day – tired legs and overloaded brain.
As I stumbled back to the Metro, I felt a little guilty that I really hadn’t done Washington justice. This is a deeply fascinating city and you would need to commit at least a week to even scratch the surface…although, maybe short, targeted visits are just the ticket to avoid a bad dose of ABM!
The Basics Box
What: Two and a half days in Washington DC to capture the essence of the city. Definitely not long enough!
Where: Washington DC, United States of America – mostly within a 1-2km radius of The Mall.
When: We were there in Spring – just after a few days of serious snow! Cold but beautiful.
Why: Visit Washington if you enjoy history of all kinds, politics, architecture, art, science and spacious parks and lakes. Yes, just about something for everyone.
How: We used the public transport buses and trains to get to/from our hotel. It was faultless once we worked out how the thing worked.
Who: Myself, The Brave Man* and thousands of patriotic Americans and international tourists.
*The Brave Man refers to my husband. He is indeed a brave man for marrying a crazy woman like me!
We learned the hard way about the importance of correctly-fitted boots. When planning our first camino we received some bad advice about what socks to wear and we bought our walking boots off the shelf. Wrong, wrong, wrong!
As we limped our way across Spain, we listened to other walkers as they shared their pearls of wisdom about how to best care for blisters, and compared notes on thick socks vs thin, and boots vs shoes vs sandals vs sneakers. We quickly dispensed with the double socks we started out wearing, and rued the day that we had not thought (ignorance is bliss) to spend more money and have our boots professionally fitted. In some ways it was a case of ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’.
When lining up for my second (and much longer) camino, I was determined to be smarter about my footwear. Following a recommendation from a fellow pilgrim, I telephoned in advance (I live 4 hours west of Sydney) and made time to talk with Stephen Crowfoot at the Paddy Pallin, Kent Street store.
Needless to say, my boot buying experience the second time around was COMPLETELY different. I tried on about three different brands and styles, and still Stephen was not happy with the way they looked/sat on my foot. He recommended I come back in a month or so when they had some new stock in store. On my next trip to Sydney – BINGO – a perfect fit and I walked out with a pair of Scarpas. Not cheap of course, but worth every cent considering the kilometres I was planning to cover in them.
(As an aside, the boots were 1.5 sizes larger than my normal shoe size. All the better to allow my feet to swell/expand as they warm up and wear out! This extra space is critical and was one of major mistakes we made with our initial boot purchases.)
That ol’ saying, ‘You get what you pay for’, was even more relevant throughout this exercise as I learned a brilliant lacing technique that made such a difference to the way the boot fitted and moved (or in this case – didn’t move) on my foot, ankle and leg.
I realise that this will not be gripping reading for some of my blog followers but it made such a difference to my foot comfort, I feel compelled to share with any other novice walkers out there. Or maybe it is a case of small things amusing small minds!
I am not 100% sure but I think the steps below refer to the ‘heel lock’ method which minimises the up/down (vertical) movement of your foot in a boot i.e. the tightness of the lacing around the leg stops the leg sliding in and out of the boot.
I will do my best to explain it in a number of steps:
Lace the toe box as normal. Be sure not to lace it too tightly so that your feet have room to expand (as mentioned previously).
Cross the laces over as if you are going to tie a bow.
Loop the laces straight up, behind the hooks.
Take the end of each lace and thread them diagonally across the front of the boot and through the gap/space in between the hooks (on the opposing side).
Pull the lace all the way through, ensuring each lace stays caught behind its top hook.
To tie the boot off, pull the lace out and away from the boot horizontally, not vertically.
Pull it tight.
This will snugly cinch the boot around the leg.
Tie off the laces.
I use a double bow to ensure the whole thing doesn’t come undone and trip up my two left feet!
N.B: I still got the odd blister on both my second and third caminos but nothing like when walking the Camino Frances. After 1 000km I think my feet have every right to blister and protest!
Topic: Walking a Camino from Granada in Southern Spain to Santiago de Compostela.
Her Promotional Blurb: “I WILL WALK OFF YOUR SINS: Pilgrim seeks sinners for mutually beneficial arrangement. Seven Deadlies a specialty.
With these words Ailsa Piper’s journey begins. Less than a month later she finds herself hiking through olive groves and under translucent pink blossoms, making her way from the legendary city of Granada, towards the cliffs at Finisterre in the far north-west of Spain.
On her back she carries an unusual cargo – a load of sins. In the tradition of medieval believers who paid others to carry their sins to holy places, and so buy forgiveness, Ailsa’s friends and colleagues donated sins in order to fund her quest. She’s received anger and envy, pride and lust, among many.
Through glorious villages and inspiring landscapes, miracles find her. Matrons stuff gifts of homemade sausages into her pack. Angels in both name and nature ease her path. Sins find her too. Those in her pack and many others tempt her throughout her journey. And she falls in love: with kindness, with strangers, and with Spain”.
My Thoughts: I had known about this book for a number of years, and I finally got around to reading it in early 2015. This was a really bad idea as all it did was reignite my wanderlust. As if I need any encouragement!
Australian woman, Ailsa Piper, first walked the Camino Frances and then came up with the plan that, like in the days of old, she would offer to carry the sins of other people for a fee. This gave her a way to fund her trip plus a novel angle to develop a story and ultimately this book. Clever thinking.
It was wonderful to read about the early part of her walk, the first 400km before arriving in Merida. It appeared to be very similar to the Via de la Plata but with slightly differing landscape. It was then equally enjoyable to read of her experiences once she joined the Via, especially when she wrote about places I also walked through in September 2014.
I know I am picky but a couple of times I noticed she got the towns of this path out of order. Perhaps Ailsa wasn’t expecting that a portion of her reading audience would be experienced walkers or familiar with this part of Spain. For accuracy, you would have thought she would have checked her map and then simply rejigged her paragraphs. But maybe I am just being too pedantic, especially if it doesn’t detract from the story.
The thing I really liked was the fact that Ailsa walked a lot of the 1400-odd kilometres on her own. She discusses this in detail and shared how it opened her up to a whole range of different experiences as well as meeting new people.
It inspired me to do my next camino (the Camino Portuguese in May/June 2016) solo. Yes, like Ailsa there were times when I was a bit antsy/afraid and lonely, but I think the opportunity to reflect, and the complete flexibility of walking solo, far outweighed those small downsides. (See my post under the Two Feet heading for my discussions of the pros and cons).
This is an easy read and truly captures the sights and sounds of southern Spain. If you enjoy vicarious travel and have no intention of ever walking a camino then this is the book for you.
The way she has structured the book means you get a clear picture of her experience – both good and bad – but also some insight into the people for whom she is carrying the sins. Periodically throughout the book she checks-ins with the sinners back in Australia, and spookily, their lives as changing the closer she gets to Santiago. A nice bit of serendipity or poetic/writer’s licence? Who’s to say.
Author bio: Ailsa Piper is a writer, director, teacher and actor. She has been nominated for Green Room Awards as both an actor and director. Her play, Small Mercies, was joint winner of the Patrick White Playwrights Award in 2001. She is director of LuminoUS, which investigates and illuminates classic texts through detailed work with actors and light. She is yet to win an award for walking. (Source: Melbourne University Press).
Talk to any camino addict and you will be spellbound by stories of breathtaking sunrises, effortless strolls across the Spanish countryside, and the dazzling taste of that first ice cold beer at the end of each walking day. What they are less likely to share are all the ‘interesting’ things that happen along the way that add colour and challenge to walking 790 km in one go.
In 2013 I convinced The Brave Man* that walking the Camino Francés would be a wonderful holiday and marital experience. As we are not a couple known for, or good at, ‘fly and flop’ holidays, he readily agreed. What is that saying? “Act in haste, repent at leisure”?
Over the 31 days it took us to walk the Camino Francés, we had plenty of leisure time to consider the merits of this type of ‘holiday’. It started pretty much on day one as we clambered up the Pyrénées. Yes, we had trained and yes, we were pretty fit but those damn mountains just kept going up and ^%$#@ UP! We have mountains in Australia, but I had never experienced anything like this before. It was day one, I was jetlagged and carrying around 15 kgs on my back and it would have to be the hardest day’s work I have ever done in my life! That large, cold beer waiting for me on the Spanish side of the mountains was the only thing that kept me putting one foot in front of the other. As it was my idea to do this walk in the first place, I just had to keep plodding away, and I simply didn’t have the energy to throw a tantrum halfway up the mountain!
The days got better from then on as we left the mountains behind, even though only temporarily, and we quickly established a simple routine. Rise early (mostly in the dark), walk a couple of hours, find coffee and a bakery, walk another couple of hours, snack by the side of the road, then find a bed and a beer. Next day, repeat.
The volume of pilgrims walking the same path really surprised us but, being morning people, our early starts meant that we mostly avoided the daily stampede for beds in the albergues. Arriving at our destination around 1pm meant that we had the afternoon to rest, relax, inspect and repair our numerous blisters, delicately remove blackened and lifting toe nails, do some washing, massage sore muscles and stroll around the sights of whichever village we were sleeping in. Not such a good sight or sound was The Brave Man’s* mobile phone tumbling around in a front loader washing machine. Oops! Perhaps it didn’t work anymore but at least it was clean.
Along the way, I was frequently disappointed by the amount of litter by the side of the path, and the graffiti and/or vandalism of the waymarks. Both local government and voluntary associations appear to have spent a lot of time and money erecting distance markers and other information signs. Why would a person want to write all over them or steal the damn things? How does this help the thousands of pilgrims who will follow in the same footsteps? And isn’t it really bad pilgrim karma?
Another challenge, in the same vein, was the almost total lack of public toilets. In 2013, nearly 152,000 people walked the Camino Francés – providing a whole new perspective on a completely different type of litter. I am not pointing the finger at anyone here, as I also made numerous dives into the bushes, but I can’t help thinking that this would be a fantastic business opportunity. A few strategically placed portable toilets, on a pay-per-use basis, would make someone a fortune!
Each day brought new faces and new conversations as we walked along. The thing I particularly enjoyed was that the conversation could last five minutes or five hours, depending on the personal connection. There was no compulsion to chat or slow your pace if you weren’t so inclined and that was a good thing. Not everyone I met was fascinating, not everyone I met was even likeable. It’s all part of the walk, and a good reflection of life in general I guess.
The albergue, or hostel-style, accommodation can prove to be one of the walk’s major challenges for some people, but it is very sociable and invokes the true spirit of the camino. One day The Brave Man* was feeling a bit fragile, so I sped up and walked ahead to secure beds for us both in the next small village, which is known for having very limited accommodation. I was pretty pleased with myself as I ducked and weaved and overtook more laid-back pilgrims, and eventually pounced on the two remaining beds in the loft of an ancient, cavernous church. Unfortunately, The Brave Man* was less than impressed with the architectural aspects on the building when he found out that the ‘beds’ were gym mats lined up edge-to-edge on the floor of said loft. As we sneaked off into the pre-dawn dark the next morning, he advised me in colourful and no uncertain terms that he was choosing our next effing holiday destination! Oops again.
But the sun always rises and each day brings new joys. Just when I thought my feet would not carry me another step, I walked through a field of sunflowers where some smarty pants had created smiley faces to motivate and delight. I just kept reminding myself that whatever our experience today, it could not be one thousandth as arduous as the journey taken by the pilgrims in the 10th and 11th centuries. Yes, every pilgrim gets hot, tired, wet, sore and hungry, but all that is fixable just over the next hill or around the next bend.
The weird thing is that no matter the size of the disaster or the exhaustion of each day, many pilgrims – and I am one of them – can’t help themselves from starting to plan the next pilgrimage even before they have finished the first. That is where the ‘addiction’ description fits in.
Maybe the strongest, common links between all pilgrims is a sense of misplaced optimism. We know if we keep putting one foot in front of the other that one day we will achieve our goal. Perhaps a need for a clear sense of achievement, or spiritual enlightenment for some, enables us to push through the tough times until we stand in front of that imposing cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. Then it all seems so worthwhile.
The Camino Francés is not perfect, but neither is life. Like life, it is totally up to you to find something special in each day.
The Basics Box
What: The Camino Francés follows one of the ancient pilgrim trails that pay homage to the Apostle St James. It is approx. 790km in length.
Where: This camino starts in St Jean Pied de Port (southern France), crosses the Pyrénées mountains and ends at Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, north-western Spain.
When: We walked in Autumn but you could walk anytime except deep Winter when snow regularly cuts the path and it becomes too dangerous. It took us 31 walking days plus two rest days.
Why: We like active holidays and this trip came highly recommended as a way to meet a vast range of interesting people, get a deep insight into a country, eat good food and travel relatively inexpensively.
How: We flew into Paris and then travelled by train south to Bayonne – connecting to St Jean Pied de Port via an excellent shuttle company called Express Bourricot.
Who: Myself, The Brave Man* and thousands of other people. 500 walkers started out every day from Saint Jean Pied de Port.
Read About It: For a copy of Brierley’s Guide to walking the Camino Frances, purchase it from Book Depository
*The Brave Man refers to my husband. He is indeed a brave man for marrying a crazy woman like me!
I was nudging a significant birthday and decided that it should be recognised in an appropriate way. A normal person would throw a wild party or jet off to a destination to wallow in decadence and luxury. Me? I thought three weeks cycling in France would be a suitable acknowledgement of the previous mumble, mumble years. Seeing it was my birthday, The Brave Man* could only agree to come along.
After the usual research and bookings, a little training and a lot of packing, we were in the plane and touching down at Charles de Gaulle airport before we knew it. Even though I love that city passionately, I always cringe a bit when I get to oh-so fashionable Paris, as we are your typical daggy Australian travellers. In this instance, we were jet-lagged daggy Australians dragging large bike boxes onto an early morning commuter train. Pardon, pardon, excusez moi, excusez moi, said I in my best schoolgirl French and we received rolled-eyes and black looks in return.
More black looks as we dragged ourselves and our boxes off the train at Gare du Nord. The looks turned to puzzled sideways glances as we commandeered a corner of the station to unpack the boxes and reassemble our bikes. Within minutes we were packed and loaded and out into the Paris traffic. This may seem a bit crazy – being foreigners, being deliriously tired and being on bikes – but I think we perfectly matched the mental state of the standard Parisian driver and we easily navigated our way to the hotel, unscathed and way too early.
Full of enthusiasm and refuelled on coffee we decided that instead of waiting patiently for our room, we would enjoy the sights of Paris. It was a ‘pinch myself’ moment as we cycled along the Seine, in the shadows of Notre Dame Cathedral and the Eiffel Tower. I think it is surreal to step on a plane in Sydney one day and be cycling through Paris the next. Just too weird!
From the start, our plan wasn’t to spend long in Paris but to use it as the hub, in a hub-and-spoke model of travel. I had planned our trip using the Lonely Planet Cycling France guide and had selected three main tours with a little customisation here and there.
The first tour was to head north-east out of Paris to Compèigne and then work our way roughly south-west to finish in Giverny – Monet’s stomping ground. So, the next day we were back to the Gare du Nord, and back on the train for the short trip to Compèigne.
Cycling is certainly a good way to get into sync with a new time zone – all that fresh air and exercise. After a sleep of the dead and an early morning raid on a patisserie, we breakfasted in the Clairière de l’Armistice – or Armistice Clearing – where the armistice was signed at the end of WW1. Interestingly, in the same carriage at the same site, during WW2, the Germans forced the French to sign an armistice recognising the German conquest of France. Tit for tat I guess.
Day two took us out of the forests and into the fields on our way to Chantilly – famous for its horse races, lace and cream. It was only a brief visit as we wanted to immerse ourselves in the artistic connections that lay just to the south-west of this city.
The first arty destination was Auvers-sur-Oise – the final home of Vincent van Gogh. As we neared the town, we rode past replicas of paintings by van Gogh, Cezanne and Pisarro, juxtaposed with the actual landscape depicted in the painting. Those reproductions provided the perfect excuse to stop, admire, read the interpretative information and catch our breath.
Van Gogh lived in Auvers-sur-Oise for only 70 days before taking his life, but during that time he managed to generate an amazing 70 artworks. What a sad end to such a prolific and creative genius. We learnt more about his life after a visit to his home – now a dedicated van Gogh museum. The Brave Man* dazzled me with his art history knowledge (he was obviously paying some attention at school), then we bought the obligatory fridge magnet and postcards, checked the map and pedalled on.
Not that we are Culture Vultures or anything but our next destination was Claude Monet’s house at Giverny. We had to tack together a couple of Lonely Planet routes and add a bit of guesswork as to how to connect one map to another that was a few pages further on in the guide book. The result was a very long, hot day mixing it with highway traffic, and a distinct lack of confidence as to exactly where we were. Our leap of faith rewarded us with our first ever stay in a Formula 1 hotel and a trip to an Aldi-style supermarket. We had never stayed in a pre-fab hotel before but it was clean and convenient AND they let us park our bikes in the room! The supermarket was equally convenient but confusing with its pallet-rack system and requirement to bulk buy. We walked out of the supermarket carrying our body-weight in lollies, fruit and nuts – enough to last us our entire time in France. Yes, we were sampling French culture on all levels.
But I digress…
Similar to van Gogh’s home, Giverny is incredibly proud of their most famous resident and again we enjoyed roadside artworks as we pedalled by.
Monet’s house and gardens at Giverny were all that I had hoped they would be. Even though we were there in September (their Autumn), the gardens were in full bloom and I counted six individual gardeners busy amongst the shrubbery. Another of those ‘pinch myself’ moments as I stood on the arched bridge and pondered the lily pads. I do not possess an artistic bone in my body but even a Joe-average like me can appreciate the impact of such a talent as well as the special significance of that simple building and its lush, green surrounds.
Reluctantly we packed away our mementos – yep, more postcards and fridge magnets – and said a fond farewell to that picture-perfect landscape. All too soon we were back on the bikes again and riding to Vernon to catch a train back into Paris. We could tick the ‘art history’ box of the tour.
Next stop the Loire valley and chateaux, chateaux, chateaux!
*The Brave Man refers to my husband. He is indeed a brave man for marrying a crazy woman like me!
It was mid-Winter 2016 and The Brave Man* decided it was time to escape the depressing grey skies and horizontal rain. I am not sure what happened to our normal blue sky Winter days but maybe there is no such thing as ‘normal weather’ anymore.
Last year the escape destination was Hawaii. This year it was a road trip up the NSW North coast. Hardly comparable but just as enjoyable and a classic case of ‘same, same but different’.
With the ute loaded to the gills (why do we need so much stuff?) we escaped rainy, grey Mudgee to arrive about five hours later in rainy, grey Tuncurry. We hoped that this was not a sign of things to come but the weather is the one thing we have absolutely NO control over.
Tuncurry reminds me of one of those sleepy coastal towns that existed in my childhood. Naturally it now has all the ‘mod cons’, but there is not much to it other than a gorgeous long beach and a netted rock pool. And to me, that simplicity is a good thing!
I remember when we first started visiting Tuncurry, a local asked me one morning after our early walk/swim ‘if there had been many teabags in the rock pool this morning?’ I must have looked a bit flummoxed as I searched my memory for images of Twinings or Dilmah teabags carelessly discarded and adrift in the water. As it turns out, this is a term of endearment for the senior citizens who congregate in the pool every morning and just dunk up and down! You’ve got to love the Australian sense of humour.
I love heading to the coast (even in the rain) from inland NSW because of the contrast in landscape and climate. There were tons of roadworks along the way and these enforced stops, waiting for a green light to proceed at snail’s pace, provided the perfect opportunity to study roadside vegetation.
The forests are dense and lush. The trees are like tall, lean electricity poles that have magically sprouted green shoots. Tree ferns appear as giant, bright emerald umbrellas that delicately shade the understorey and provide a layered, 3D-depth to the foliage.
One thing really puzzles me though, and it relates to those koala/possum trapezes that are suspended high above and across the highways. How do the koalas know which ‘tree’ to climb to access the trapeze and thereby safely cross the road? Perhaps it is like that saying, ‘you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince’. Those poor animals have to climb a lot of trees before they find the right one connected to the trapeze. I can picture a unique brand of koala frustration and bad language!
I am also interested to understand how the small towns will cope once the road works, and the many bypasses currently under construction, are completed. Can they reinvent themselves? Do they have enough energy and initiative to provide reasons for travellers to abandon the highway, even for a short time? Or will the towns return to their original sleepy state?
We used the road trip to visit many old friends, long out of touch, and to visit all the little towns and villages that we had only ever heard about. Fabulous names such as Clybucca and Wizzenbucca literally whizzed by as we made our way up into the hinterland to Bellingen and Dorrigo.
As you leave the coast road, the countryside changes once again but this time into fertile, rolling hills. The green growth threatens to overtake every manmade structure and I can imagine that it is watching and waiting for its chance. Just as we turn our back, the green tendrils will extend and envelope everything. It is so luxuriant that even the livestock seem to be bored by the fodder growing up to their knees. ‘Ho hum’, they seem to say, ‘more delicious pasture’.
The pastoral landscape is deceptive though, as it neatly contrasts with the original timber industry that was the origin of Bellingen. I find it interesting that such harshness and deprivation was the forerunner to the quirky, cosmopolitan town that is Bellingen. You are under-dressed if your dreadlocks are not on show as you sip on your soy, skinny, decaf chai latte. It is wall-to-wall alternative life-stylers and, while that makes for an interesting day trip, I couldn’t possibly live amongst all that creative and organic energy. I am just too plain and boring.
After climbing the 14 kms of winding road and hair-pin bends, we popped up onto the Dorrigo plateau and it almost felt like arriving in a different country. We emerged from dense and choking rainforest into an open, rolling landscape revealing a traditional, wide-street rural town. While I could sense a creative streak bubbling under the surface of Dorrigo, the utes and dogs that dominated the main street made me feel like I was closer to Mudgee than to the beach.
A rather sad highlight of the Dorrigo township, is their impressive train graveyard. We seem to have a thing for driving long distances to visit closed museums (see my blog post: Looking for James Taylor), and this trip was no different. The Brave Man* is a train fanatic and had heard about the locals’ ambitious vision to establish a train museum and working tourist railway. Unfortunately the energy behind the vision ran out once the enormous collection of trains, carriages, stations and sundry rail memorabilia was assembled. From peering over the fence, it looks like the site will be the desolate, final resting place for much of the gear as it slowly crumbles and rusts into the paddock. Pure heartbreak for The Brave Man*.
But we had places to be and sights to see, and with a tear in his eye, he pointed the ute back towards the ocean.
The pursuit of warmth continued all the way up the NSW coast until we arrived at Queensland’s Gold Coast. It appears we must have mightily offended the Weather Gods as, even though the thermometer reluctantly crept higher, we seemed to travel under a permanent rain cloud.
We need to find a closed museum in a DRY destination!
*The Brave Man refers to my husband. He is indeed a brave man for marrying a crazy woman like me!
These rather harsh words were uttered by The Brave Man* as we collected the tiniest hire car from Heraklion airport and joined the madness that is the Crete road system. The two children sardined into the backseat quickly realised that their usually mild-mannered father was definitely NOT joking and decided that in the interests of personal longevity they should do exactly as they were told.
The Crete Adventure had begun.
2003 was a year of momentous change – the year The Brave Man* decided it would be a good experience for us all to move to England for his 12-month teaching stint. While this probably deserves its own detailed blog post, it certainly was the year we ‘seized the day’ and gorged ourselves on European history and culture. Naturally, this was only possible with meticulous planning, plentiful cheap and cheerful budget airlines, and much scrimping and saving.
I remember studying Crete in Ancient History at high school, and with a cheap package deal booked, a week in Crete was just the ticket (so to speak) to escape a gloomy British Spring. Maybe it’s an Australian thing but, even before leaving our home in Mudgee, we had decided to fill every waking moment of the year (much to the kids’ disgust at times) with different food, art, history, culture, history, monuments, galleries, history and, oh yes, a small amount of beach time.
In May 2003, Crete had the highest number of road fatalities per capita and per annum of any European country. We were not aware of this statistic as we joined the throng in our matchbox car, on the wrong side of the road, sitting on the wrong side of the vehicle – but it soon became self-evident. Clearly, this was way before the time of GPS systems, so navigating a road network with the locals overtaking on blind corners in the rain was not the most relaxing way to start a holiday.
Despite a few close calls and a potential divorce, we arrived at our accommodation undamaged and the kids immediately abandoned us for the pool. As is their way, they quickly made friends with other children poolside. Sadly, in our opinion anyway, one English boy spent the entire time at the pool as his father drank beer and played with his mobile phone. Every day we would be out exploring the island’s rich history while Diego (yes, not quite the English name we were expecting either) did not leave the grounds of the resort. What a loss – but each to his own.
Crete is a compact island just dripping with history – both ancient and modern. Our little buzz box hire car gave us the flexibility to dig deep into historic sights – and sites – such as Knossos, or to simply enjoy the rugged countryside and isolated beaches.
Struggling to remember my Year 12 Ancient History, I was awe-struck as I stood in the grounds of Knossos. Knossos was the capital of Minoan Crete and its first palace was built around a mind-boggling 1900BC. That palace had a series of iterations over the centuries as it was repeatedly destroyed by earthquake and then rebuilt with increasing complexity and sophistication. The palace ruins, home of the legend of the Labyrinth and the Minotaur, were uncovered in 1900 and we spent the best part of a day there – exploring the rooms, corridors and grounds. It was also well worth adding on the visit to the Archaeological Museum in nearby Heraklion, which houses many of the treasures excavated from the Palace.
In a short reprieve from all that history, we escaped to the Crete countryside and the beach at Elafonissi. This is the Crete you may see in all the tourist brochures – clear, azure water and long, white sandy beaches. Needless to say we visited historic sites on the way to and from the beach, including some Roman ruins high on a hilltop in the village of Polyrinia. The village provided some interesting history and spectacular views but was dominated by a few nervous moments. Driving blithely into the village we realised – too late – the narrowness of the streets. Lucky me, it was my turn to drive that day, and we all held our breath and sucked in our stomachs as we edged back down the hill with only millimetres between the car’s side mirrors and someone’s beautiful whitewashed home. My imagination was running wild as I pictured the explanation to the hire company that the car could not be returned as it was firmly wedged in a tiny side street of a tiny village in Western Crete!
A Crete adventure would not be complete without an intensive introduction to Greek food – olives, Greek salad, souvlaki and dolmades. The kids quickly learned that in restaurants, a strategically placed ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ in Greek would be rewarded with free ice cream. No flies on them! At other times we self-catered and I became firm friends with a young Crete woman who was the check-out chick at the neighbourhood supermarket. She grew up in Melbourne and was desperate to chat and hear an Australian accent, regardless of the long, disgruntled queue growing behind me.
Australia has strong links with Crete outside of immigration, with Australians taking an active role in WWII on Crete. Preveli Monastery, on the southern edge of Crete and overlooking the Libyan Sea, was used an evacuation base for Allied soldiers to escape the advancing Germans. Not all history has a happy ending though and there is an extensive war cemetery at Souda Bay which contains the remains of far too many Australian soldiers who fell during the Battle of Crete.
It is safe to say that Australians are still held in high regard by the local people and we received a warm welcome wherever we went. Perhaps it was the Greek-speaking children in our party, our passion to learn or our willingness to absorb as much of Crete as we could in a short period of time that won them over, but efcharisto Crete for the beauty and insight into your country…and for delivering us safely back to the airport!!
*The Brave Man refers to my husband. He is indeed a brave man for marrying a crazy woman like me!
A flying trip to Vietnam in 2000 began my love affair with that country. I am not sure what it was that so deftly captured my imagination, as it could be described as no different from one of many frantic Asian countries. To me it is a magical blend of cultures – uniquely Vietnamese but with strong French, Chinese and American undercurrents.
Its siren song was answered in 2010 when I decided to return to Hanoi as a volunteer with VietHealth. This organisation delivers health services to people with disabilities, mother/baby health and HIV/AIDS patients. That was an interesting and culturally-challenging experience and I think it deserves its own separate blog post.
My role at VietHealth was your traditional Monday to Friday stint and I used some weekends to escape the happy madness that is Hanoi. Begging an extra day to offset some ‘overtime’, I booked a memorable, if incredibly damp, walking trip to Sapa in the far north west of Vietnam.
After a bit of shopping around and a small amount of haggling (something I am hopeless at) I booked a 3-day tour with ET Pumpkin. Not sure how they came up with that business name but it was certainly hard to forget. The day arrived and I was to meet my fellow travellers (a mini United Nations) at the travel agent’s office to catch a shuttle bus to Hanoi train station. It soon became clear that the bus was missing in action, so the travel agent paid a taxi to provide transport. Imagine our surprise when the taxi driver insisted that we pay again when we arrived at the station. We were not that gullible and pushed into the swarming crowd with an irate taxi driver’s shouts ringing in our ears.
The train station was absolute chaos with thousands of people milling about, jostling for tickets and seats. Once we got through security it was relatively straight-forward and we quickly found our train, our carriage and our 4-berth sleeper compartment. Being Vietnam, there were six people in the compartment including three sleeping in the one bed. Oh well, go with the flow….
After 10 hours on the train, we pulled into Lao Cai station early the next morning and a lovely lady woke us with the offer of coffee. This was just what I needed after a rough night interrupted by constant mobile phone calls and text messages (evil, black looks aimed at the multi-occupancy berth) and insistent rapping on the window each time the train stopped. Why? I have no idea. The coffee, when it arrived, was miniscule, disgusting and five times the normal price of a coffee in Vietnam. It should have been a wake-up call that there is no such thing as a free lunch OR a free coffee!
Lao Cai was a cacophony of minibus touts and local hawkers. After spotting a hand-written sign that said Mrs Melanie, my fellow ‘ET Pumpkinites’ and I found our transport, and journeyed up to Sapa in the lowering clouds and eventual rain. Sapa itself is a neat and clean town that clearly makes the most of its tourist status. We were delivered to the Pumpkin Hotel (what else would you call a hotel?) to await our guide while we watched the rain fall.
After shuffling luggage around (leaving the bulk of it at the hotel), we stumbled off into the deluge with our Vietnamese guide, Diep. I suspect we were most probably crazy but our craziness was matched by the determination of the Black Hmong women who followed us for two whole days trying to sell us trinkets and local craft. Now that is commitment to a sale!
I slid. I slithered. I slopped through puddles. If I was lucky, the mist parted for 30 seconds and the reward was a spectacular panorama of terraced hillsides complete with buffalo and quaint villages. Unfortunately Vietnamese mud has a greasy consistency and the ability to clump and clod, turning normal footwear into shoes the size of bean bags! It meant that 99% of the time I had to keep both eyes firmly glued on the path rather than peering through the rain.
“Pride goeth before a fall” as the saying goes, and I was feeling particularly cocky at one stage as I was still relatively dry and mud-free. Just as that thought exited my brain, I did an extremely inelegant pirouette and landed backside first into a rice paddy. Nothing like getting up close and personal with the local agriculture!
As I walked, I reflected that the landscape probably hadn’t changed much in the last 1000 years. Yes, the houses might be marginally more modern and the roads slightly improved, and the presence of electricity poles irrevocably changes the vista, but the locals were planting rice and farming with buffalos thousands of years ago and they are still doing it today.
While I wouldn’t wish to trade places, I can’t help but think there would be some small comfort in knowing what you are going to do every day and every season. A rice farmer is a rice farmer is a rice farmer and that is what society expects of you. No doubt younger generations yearn to join ‘modern’ society but I wonder how many actually get the opportunity to break out of their traditional roles?
Due to the desire to get out of the incessant rain, we covered the distance in record time and arrived back at the Pumpkin Hotel where I fell into a very welcome hot shower. I then had time to explore the town (in the ever-present rain) before the return bus trip to Lao Cai and on towards home in Hanoi.
The return bus ride was a highlight of the trip, thanks to my travelling companions. The bus trundled around Sapa collecting various ordinary tourists like myself as well as a number of locals cadging a free ride back to Lao Cai. Perhaps relatives of the driver? A none-too-hygienic lady plopped herself next to me, smiled and proceeded to eat her bread roll and drink my water bottle dry. She did ask permission via the usual international sign language and what could I do but say Yes.
Everything was going well until the bus shot around a particularly sharp bend and my Vietnamese lady flew out of our bench seat and landed unceremoniously on the floor in the aisle. After lots of laughter and more smiles, she decided to avoid this happening again – and hung onto me and my arm for the remainder of the trip. Gripping tightly, she couldn’t believe the muscles in my arm (yes, I am quite robust) and proceeded to roll up my sleeve to check them out. Even more shocking to her were the hairs on my arm, which she then pulled, tweaked and giggled at all the way to Lao Cai. Personal space? Who needs it?!
Despite the filthy weather and the invasion of privacy it was an unforgettable couple of days. If nothing else, walking for two days through rain, mist and the muddy rice terraces of Sapa confirmed to me the beauty of the country, the friendliness of its people and the privileged life I have with my ability to travel.
All those old clichés really are true.
International travel challenges, teaches and breaks down barriers.
One day my mother announced that ‘this year we will do something different for our annual holidays’. ‘Yeah, Yeah’, the family scoffed. We didn’t believe it would be possible to break the family tradition of an annual pilgrimage to the Florida Car-O-Tel on Queensland’s Gold Coast.
Imagine the shock and awe around the Formica dinner table when Mum announced she had booked us on a bus trip to Ayers Rock and Alice Springs via Coober Pedy in South Australia, calling into Mt Isa in the middle of Queensland on the way home. A round trip of around 6070km and not a beach in sight. Now that’s different!