Welcoming the new decade on the magical island of Arran

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Sunset over Arran from Barassie beach, Troon 

We are visiting the island of Arran with good friends for a week filled with wonderful walks, good food and wine, and lots of fun to celebrate the arrival of a new decade.

This time our travels haven’t taken us far. Sometimes you don’t have to travel very far to feel a million miles away, and Arran is one of those places. The island is just a 50-minute ferry trip from Ardrossan, a small town in Ayrshire, in South West Scotland. We are laden with walking boots, warm clothes, waterproofs and all the food and drink leftover from Christmas. A cup of tea and a bacon roll awaits on the ferry. There is lots to catch up on with old friends and very soon we arrive in Brodick. On arrival the light is dull and low cloud shrouds the islands mountain peaks, but there is an atmosphere of mystery here, its palpable and I love it. We have been coming here at this time of year with our family and friends for 20 years and it feels like I’m home.

Arran, Scotland’s 7th largest island, isn’t one of its more famous, but being so accessible from the mainland means that it does get busy in the Summer and for the famous ‘Hogmanay’ week. Full of wonderful scenery and wildlife, with fascinating geology and history, and scrumptious local treats it is a truly magical place and one of Scotland’s best kept secrets…. let’s keep it that way!  Sitting in the firth of Clyde between the Kintyre Peninsula and the Ayrshire coast, the Isle of Arran is a magnificent microcosm of the Scottish mainland. A Scotland in miniature. The Highland Boundary Fault runs across its centre, dividing the island in two, providing a diverse landscape. And if you love the outdoors, there is something for everyone. In the north and east the dramatic, mountainous ‘Highlands’ are dominated by 4 corbetts; Caisteal Abhail, Cìr Mhòr, Beinn Tarsuinn and the peak Goatfell, which offers glorious (2,800-foot) summit views across the sea to the island of Jura, to Ben Lomond and as far as Ireland on a good day. To the south and west Arran’s fertile, green ‘Lowlands’ roll into sandy bays and coastal caves which nestle behind raised beaches. The island is awash with wildlife, so don’t forget your binoculars and camera if you’re keen on wildlife photography. Red deer are numerous on the northern hills and red squirrel dart across the woodlands of Brodick castle. Badgers, otters and adders can sometimes be tempted out of hiding in Arran’s rugged countryside and offshore harbour porpoises, dolphin and occasional basking sharks are frequent visitors. It’s not uncommon to spot a buzzard, gannet, hen harrier or if you’re lucky a golden eagle. For seals, head to Merkland Point north of Brodick, or Kildonan in the south and Lochranza in the north.

Arran is also a “geologist’s paradise”. My first ever visit to the island, was a geography school field trip, where at the age of 14 year I trudged across Arran’s sills, dykes and sedimentary rock formations. The island also has a rich history, being inhabited since the early Neolithic period by the Goidelic-Irish, followed by the Vikings and Norwegians, before finally becoming part of the kingdom of Scotland in the 13th century. Early Neolithic Clyde Cairns, a form of Gallery graves, and numerous standing stones dating from prehistoric times, such as the stone circles on Machrie Moor, exist across the island.

We are lucky, the weather is good for the time of year and we don our walking boots most days. I thought I’d share some of my favourite walks – all walkable in 2-3 hours, and with a pub or café nearby for welcome refreshments 😊

The Fairy Dell, Lochranza

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Loch Ranza

It’s a 14-mile trip in the car from our base in Brodick to Lochranza, the most Northerly of the island’s villages. The atmospheric ruins of Lochranza castle stand in dramatic isolation on a shingle spit jutting into a sea loch, Loch Ranza and a splattering of houses around of loch make up the small village. The colours around the bay are stunning and there is a dark energy here. It’s the very place you are most likely to spot red deer roaming free over one of Arrans 9 golf courses or a golden eagle who nest on the surrounding mountains.  This a 6km circular walk around the northern headland of the sea Loch starting from a small car park on the North side of the loch. Walking along the rocky shoreline for a couple of km the path then ascends inland, continuing back along the headland, this time being blasted by a cold North easterly wind. In the summer its worth visiting Whin cottage, which is on the path, home to the Arran stone men crafted from locally collected rocks (I have a blue whale from there on my doorstep). Before heading home, we visit the Arran Distillery, on the edge of the village. It is the only whiskey distillery on the island and home to Scotland’s very own version of Baileys, Arran Gold. A very welcome place to stop for a bowl of soup and a coffee on a cold winter’s day.

Brodick to Lamlash, via Corriegills and the Clauchland hills

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The view of Goatfell from the Clauchland hills

The walk from ‘Brodick to Lamlash’ via Corriegills and Clauchlands is one of my favourites. Essentially a linear walk, it can be circular if you have more time, so it’s a good idea if there’s a large group to drop a car off at the Drift Inn car park in advance. Walking past the exit for the pier in Brodick head up the hill and take the second road to Corriegills. Once past the small hamlet there’s a climb up the Clauchland hills which offer panoramic views of Brodick bay across to Goatfell before descending into Lamlash Bay where the Holy Isle, a small island now owned by the Samye Ling Buddhist Community, greets our arrival. Walking along the shore before we arrive at the Drift Inn, we are treated to a glorious sunset across the bay. A glass of Arran Gold and some nibbles beside the fire at the Drift Inn, awaits.

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Sunset across Lamlash bay

Kings Cave coastal walk, Blackwaterfoot

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The cliffs of Doon, near Blackwaterfoot

The Kings Cave coastal walk at Blackwaterfoot is a linear walk, which needs some planning with transport if you have a large group. A car can be left at the Kildonnen hotel, where the walk ends. The walk starts at a car park a few miles north of Blackwaterfoot. After walking along the edge of a forest you hit the coast with stunning views across to Kintyre. After a steep rocky ascent, we hit a raised shingle beach where a series of caves are nestled beneath the sandstone cliffs. The cliffs most famous cave, the King’s Cave is hailed to be the cave where Robert the Bruce took shelter before the battle of Bannockburn and had that famous chat with the spider. Today the wind has dropped, and the winter sunshine is plenty. The sunlight dances across the deep blue sea and the colours on the sandstone cliffs are mesmerising. After a challenging walk along the rocks of Blackwaterfoot shore we are soon at Kildonnen Hotel, where a warm drink and laughter awaits.

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Near the Kings cave, Blackwaterfoot

The Fisherman’s Walk and Brodick Castle, Brodick

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Brodick beach walking towards Brodick Castle

A walk for a day where the weathers not so good, this walk trails along the beach and saltmarshes from Brodick to Brodick Castle and country Park. From there you can visit the castle (in the Spring and Summer months) or tag on one of the many interconnecting woodland trails surrounding the castle. Previously the seat of the Dukes of Hamilton, first built in 1510 and occupied until 1958, Brodick Castle is now a national Trust for Scotland property. In one of the woodland paths we stumble across a ‘Fairies and Legends trail’, before heading back along the back road into Brodick. We have a fabulous view of the atmospheric Glen Rosa before nipping into the Brodick bar for something to warm our cockles.

Brodick Castle, the ‘Fairies and Legends trail’ and the way home

Glen Iorsa, Dougrie

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Glen Iorsa

We head to Dougrie on the West coast of the Island and just past Dougrie lodge we leave our cars in a layby. This is a 3-hour circular walk to Glen Iorsa. The first part is boggy but it’s not long before we reach the Dougrie estate path into the glen which follows the river Iorsa and leads us to the old boathouse at the foot of Loch Iorsa. A shower passes by, but the old boathouse wall offers some welcome protection. On the way back, with the wind behind us, the scenery is spectacular. The landscape is stark, but the open skies with fast moving billowing clouds frame the ochres and greens of the hills as the river snakes its way through the glen. After our walk we drive round the cost to the Kildonan Hotel for a warm drink, where the view across to Pladda on a winter’s afternoon, affords one of the best sunsets on Arran.

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Sunset over Pladda, view from the Kildonan Hotel

On a wet day (luckily, we only had one during our week) there is still much to do in Arran.  The Auchrannie Hotel and Spa Resort in Brodick offers two swimming pools, a spa area and beauty therapies to indulge in on a cold blustery day, not to mention several welcoming bars and restaurants. There also is a thriving Art scene in Arran, with many local artists to visit; potters, painters, photographers and woodworkers and lots of craft shops and galleries across the island where their wares can be admired or purchased. If it’s a bit of shopping you are after, don’t forget a trip to Arran Aromatics, the Cheese shop, the Chocolate shop, or Wooleys Bakery, where you can try one of their famous oatcakes.

As the new decade arrives, I reflect on the last 10 years and think how much has happened, how lucky I am to have good health, and to have had the opportunity for many adventures. On the first morning of 2020 I join some of my group and around 40 other island revellers to partake in the Douglas Dook, where I take to the icy waters of Brodick Bay to celebrate the dawn of a new decade and remind myself that every now and then it’s good to step out of my comfort zone and to do  something different and just a little bit silly. And so, with numb feet, rosy cheeks and a grin on my face I raise a glass to the next decade and for very many more adventures to come!

Living the dream on the ‘Edge of Somewhere’ in Extremadura (Spain) and Alentejo (Portugal)

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I’ve lived in towns and cities all my life, but always dreamed of living nearer to the countryside. Not the middle of nowhere country, but someplace on the ‘Edge of Somewhere’. To live in the middle of nowhere is brave and just a little bit scary. But living on the ‘Edge of Somewhere’ means you are still close to all the nice things that towns bring; public transport links, shops, family, friends, medical care, and you have the countryside right on your doorstep. A bit more space, a bit more peace and quiet.

And so, as we travel to the Extremadura region of Spain, which I must admit I had never heard of before now, to a campsite near the Parque Nacional de Monfragũe it feels a bit more like the middle of nowhere, than the ‘Edge of Somewhere’. We drive across miles of Dehesas, Spanish pastureland, dotted with holm and cork oaks. This is not like the pastureland we know, there are no lush green fields here, instead it’s dry, yellow and dust filled. Sustainable farming is practised in the Dehesas, where there is only 1 livestock (cows, sheep, black pigs and goats) grazing per hectare. It’s not an easy way of making a living, especially as the summers are getting longer and hotter. Looking out across these vast plains with their big bright open skies it feels more like the wild west, than western Spain.

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Dehesas, near Plasencia, Extremadura

We settle into our campsite and I’m keen to venture into the national Park, so I go on a birdwatching trip. Our guide, Valentin, tells us that Monfragũe, Spain’s 14th national park, established in 2006, has been a protected area since the 80’s. The park straddles the Tajo valley and is home to some of Spain’s most spectacular colonies of raptors (Griffon and Black Vultures, Spanish Imperial and the Short-toed Eagles) and the Black Stork. It’s much greener in the park as the indigenous Mediterranean forest still thrives here. Our first find is a stag red deer camouflaged on the hillside. It’s early October and the rutting season is approaching. The wailing’s and grunting’s of the stag deer reverberate across the valley. The bigger the stag, the deeper and louder the call. If the vocal threats aren’t enough to ward off a competitor, rivals parallel walk before locking antlers in a fight for access to a harem of fertile females. A bit like Sauchiehall Street on a Saturday night!

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Tajo valley, Parque Nacional de Monfragũe

Next, we stop at Salto de Gitano, the Gypsies Leap, where more than 200 pairs of Griffon Vultures are known to roost. They say a gypsy running from the Civil Guard managed to jump across the river gorge, stunning the guards and giving the rock formation its name. The veracity of the legend is up for debate, but the rock formations at the entrance certainly have a similarity to the old Spanish Civil Guards, tri-corn hat! We admire these magnificent birds having fun in the thermals, circling the cliff tops and swooping down low across the bright green river Tajo (which I think might be some weird Algal bloom).

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Salto de Gitano, Parque Nacional de Monfragũe

Huge groups circle above us and zooming in our binoculars on the rock face I see a few stragglers dithering on the ledges. Valentin tells us that these birds weigh up to 10 kg, have a wingspan of around 2.5m, but can go for a week without eating. Vultures generally get a bad press as they only dead prey, but they play a very important role in the ecosystem and public health.

A Griffon Vulture resting on a ledge and circling above Salto de Gitano

Vultures constitute a natural animal disposal system, feeding on animal carcasses preventing the spread of deadly bacteria and fungus into the ground and water as unlike other scavengers, the vulture’s metabolism is a true “dead-end” for pathogens. I remember hearing a story about the impact of the vulture decline in India when we were in New Delhi. Many cows are thrown into the rivers as only a very small proportion of cow meat is eaten in India. In the 1980s there were 40 million vultures in India, but now only 100,000 vultures remain, representing the fastest decline of any species in the world. The cause seems to have been due to the use of diclofenac in farming which remained in animal carcasses, causing kidney failure in the Vulture populations.  The carcasses formerly eaten by vulture’s now rot in village fields leading to contaminated drinking water and the population of other scavengers, not as efficient as vultures and linked to the spread of rabies, have grown. Studies have shown a direct relationship between the decline of vultures in India and the spread of deadly diseases like rabies. So, as I stand in awe of the Griffon Vultures in the Monfragũe National park, I reflect on how there is more to these magnificent birds than meets the eye. As they say, ‘Never judge a book by its cover.’

We visit some of the small towns in Extremadura, Plasencia, known for its medieval walls and old quarter and Trujillo, home to Francisco Pizarro, who conquered the Inca empire. It’s Sunday Lunch, and the restaurants in the beautiful Plaza Mayor fill up with large family tables, several generations enjoying a long and lavish meal served with plenty of wine. We treat ourselves to a few beers and the Tapas (tortilla, bread, slices of black pudding and Iberian ham) are forthcoming…. another great Spanish tradition in  wild west Spain.

                      Plaza Mayor, Trujillo

I had hoped to make it to Portugal before we head home and we just have time for a short visit. We stay at a campsite near the Portuguese town of Estremoz, in the Alentejo region, famous for Wine and Cork production. There is a different feel here. The towns and villages are white, the countryside is more rolling, and the language is completely different, sounding more like Russian than Spanish! The small family run campsite (on a farm) has everything we need, a small pool, lovely bathrooms, as bread, beer and pizzas to order. It is a favourite stop over site for the silver surfers heading south for the Winter. The nearest town is 13km away, so just on the ‘Edge of Somewhere’. We visit Estremoz’s Saturday market. Here you can buy anything from old gramophones, books, china and cow bells to huge copper stills. It’s hard to pick out the real antiques form the junk! Running parallel is the fruit and veg market complete with live chickens, turkeys and ducks. What a great way to spend a Saturday morning!

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Saturday morning market, Estremoz 

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Fruit and Veg, Saturday morning market, Estremoz 

We walk up the hill to Esteremoz Castle and I get a Déjà vu feeling. I’ve been here before and then I remember. The town is very like the old city of Cochi in Kerala, Southern India, that we visited last December. The Portuguese colonised Kerala in 1500 and remained for more than 250 years and very much left their architectural mark there. We have come full circle.

                          The streets of Estremoz 

We cycle to the nearby village of Evoramonte and in this remote rural village we stop at the top, near the Castle where a small guesthouse/café is serving coffee. I go in and place our order in my best Spanish, but the girl behind the counter replies in a Scottish accent. She’s from Annbank in Ayrshire. She is living her dream, on the ‘Edge of Somewhere’, trying to build up this small business. We chat for a while before I sit on the terrace with breath-taking views of the Alentejo countryside enjoying my pot of tea and a piece of honey cake.

The village of Evoramonte

On our last day before we start heading north again, we walk through the Cork Forests. Of course, I knew that cork came from trees but what I didn’t realise, is that the cork we use in our wine bottles, flooring and summer wedges, is actually a thick protective layer that cork oaks grow round their trunks to help them survive summer forest fires. It’s harvested every 10 years ( and the year of harvesting is marked on the trunk) without causing any permanent damage to the trees. The remaining bark is bright red and the landscape is quite Salvador Dali, with its twisted red tree trunks, contrasting against a bright blue sky and parched yellow grass.

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The cork forests of Alentejo 

Before I know it, we are sitting outside our van and it’s our last evening before starting our journey home. I reflect on what a wonderful year this has been. I have been truly privileged to have had this opportunity to travel in our wonderful world. We started our journey in India last November and have voyaged in all directions of the compass. Now I am now looking forward to spending quality time with our family and friends.

None of us know what the future will bring. My dream for a long time has been to travel and so if you are sitting there with a dream too, if you really want it, you can get there too. If you find yourself saying “I’d love to do this or that someday” or “I wish I did this when I was younger”, then think again. Hoping to do something someday doesn’t work. Someday may never come. Start doing small things that will get you nearer to realising your dream today.

So now, after 11 months of travelling, visiting 17 countries, on 12 planes, 6 ferries, and nearly 9,000 miles in the motor home, traversing the globe on trains, buses, canoes, scooters and by foot and pedal power, we are on the ferry from Santander, travelling back to the UK. I am ready to go home. I have been so lucky to have had the chance to ‘live my dream’ and explore our wonderful Earth and this year will remain in my memory for the rest of my days. So, I must say goodbye for now and thank you for staying with me on my journey and listening to my ramblings. I hope you have enjoyed seeing and hearing about the places I have visited along the way. Now it’s time for you to ‘Live your dream’ and to make sure you squeeze in just a little of ‘bit of adventure before dementia’!

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Toledo, La Ciudad Imperial

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We are here in Toledo because John once owned a Triumph Herald in the 70’s, but secretly lusted after a Triumph Toledo and because our friends who have travelled extensively in Spain have told us it’s their favourite Spanish city. Toledo, ‘La Ciudad Imperial’, the strategic and geographical crossroads of the Iberian peninsula, a melting pot of Roman, Visigothic, Jewish, and Muslim history and the heart of Catholic Spain, glows on the distant hill top beyond the plains of Castilla-La Mancha, as we share una botella de vino tinto and a lovely meal at Camping El Greco.

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Sunset view of Toledo from our campsite

Toledo’s history is rich and dates to when Toletum became an important way station in Roman Hispania. By the 6th century the Visiogoths, (I had to look them up…they were a Germanic tribe who were key in the sacking of Rome and later established kingdoms across Spain and Gaul) moved the capital of Spain from Seville to Toledo, but in 711 the Moors conquered the city after crossing the straits of Gibraltar. Toledo rapidly became the most important city of Central Muslim Spain, unrivalled by any other at that time as a centre of learning and arts. The reign of the Moors in Toledo was overturned in 1085 when Alfonso the VI marched on the city during the Reconquista.  Not long after Toledo became the seat of the Vatican in Spain and the residence of the Spanish monarchy. During this early Christian era the city’s Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities coexisted and tolerated each other well. However, after the final victory of Spain over the Moors in 1492, tragedy ensued, and Toledo’s Jewish and Muslim communities were forced to convert to Christianity or flee.

Toledo’s historic centre today is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where its glorious past greets you at every turn. The old city is a cross-fertilisation of Jewish, Islamic and Christian cultures and bursts with an intriguing mosaic of architecture. There is an essence here of The Medina of Damascus grafted onto Gothic Catholic Spain.

We have a few days to scratch the surface of this amazing city. Below are a few of the places we decide to visit.

Plaza de Zocodover

A bustle of activity and the meeting place for the city’s Walking tours (sadly there were none available in English on the days we visited), Zocodover has been the city’s nerve centre for many centuries. In Moorish times there was a horse market and later a general market right up to the mid-20th century. The plaza has a dark side too as the Auto-da-fé (the burning of a heretic) was enacted here during the inquisition in the 15th and 16th centuries. I try not to imagine the horrors as I sip my tea.

As we didn’t manage to tag along on a walking tour, we take the Zocotren, a 50-minute train trip around the city with a multilingual audio guide. On our way we stop at the Mirador del Valle, which hugs the rim of the bluffs above the River Tagus, showcasing a fabulous vista of the city in all its glory.

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Plaza de Zocodover

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Mirador del Valle

Next, we visit the

Cathedral de Toledo

Experts will tell you that the Cathedral is the best example of High Gothic architecture in Spain, non-experts, like me, will tell you that it’s a must see in the city. Like many other Christian buildings across Spain it was originally built (1226 – 1493) on the site of a Mosque, which itself had been built on a 6th-century Visiogothic church. What goes around comes around as they say! The Nave of the Cathedral is huge reminds me of Meenaskshi Amman Temple in Madurai, southern India, in scale and atmosphere. There are 15 chapels tucked into the transepts, each themselves works of art. The Sacristy contains a valuable collection of paintings by Luca Giordano, Van Dyck, Goya and El Greco, the most famous of which is El Greco’s masterpiece, El Expolio (The disrobing of Christ) …. wow! The choir stalls are a banquet of Renaissance and Gothic sculpture and wooden carvings and behind the main alter lies the mesmerising Transparente,

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Transparente,Cathedral de Toledo

a Spanish Baroque masterpiece with 18th century embellishment……amazing. It took my breath away.

 The Nave, Chapel alter and El Expolio, Cathedral de Toledo

After the Cathedral, I was interested in seeing more of El Greco’s work. We are staying at his campsite after all.

El Greco House Museum

The fabled 16th-century artist El Greco, was Cretan, not Spanish, but spent most of his adult life in Toledo and remains one of the city’s most important historical residents. Although El Greco never actually lived in the house, the museum accommodates many paintings by the master who developed his own unique style of elongated figures, most often of Christ and the Apostles, with dream like pigmentation.

On our second day we first visit;

Santa Cruz Museum

Originally a hospital founded by Cardinal Mendoza (the first Cardinal of Toledo Cathedral), it houses major archaeological finds and fine arts depicting the history of Toledo and Spain through the 16th and 17th century. So many Kings, so many wars, so many throne overthrowings!

So, for some peace and quiet we visit;

Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes

I loved this Isabelline style monastery which was commissioned by the first Catholic Monarchs of united Spain. Light filled cloisters, amazing granite stonework and a beautiful inner garden filled me with peace and tranquillity…. the choral cello music also helped. Isabella I and Ferdinand II had the monastery built to celebrate the birth of their son, commemorate winning the Battle of Toro and to serve as their Dynastic Mausoleum. They later changed their minds and were buried in the Capilla Real de Granada.

                      Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes

We continue walking through what was once The Jewish quarter of the city, narrow alleyways, small artisan shops and cool cosy cafes. There’s a ‘lost in’ feel here. We decide to visit one of the city’s old synagogues.

Synagogue of Santa Maria la Blanca

Built in the early 13th century the architecture is a blend of Mudejar and Nazari styles (a meeting of Christian and Islam) and is characterised by horseshoe arches delineating its 5 naves. The Synagogue is the oldest still standing in Spain, but no longer used for worship and is incredibly beautiful. Built with white walls and golden detail, it is one of the best examples of the cooperation between 3 cultures that exist in Toledo. It was built for the Jewish, by Islamic architects, under the agreement of the Christian Kingdom. The way the light fell on its walls and ceilings was beautiful. Another must see.

                      Synagogue of Santa Maria la Blanca

Before I leave, I am keen to visit a Mosque to complete the triad of Abrahamic religions of Toledo. I set off to the old Muslim neighbourhood of Arrabal de Francos to visit the Mosque of the Tornerias. Desacralized by the Catholic Monarchs in 1505 is now used as the ‘Center Foundation of Promotion of the Crafts’. I didn’t know this at the time so on arrival there was no obvious Mosque on show, although I’m pretty sure I was standing over the spot!

20190927_174630 The site of the old Mosque of the Tornerias  

Spending time in Toledo immersed in its complex history has got me thinking about how so many countries across the world have been conquered and divided, come and gone, borders drawn and redrawn, cultures and religions integrated and segregated, following centuries of war. According to Yuval Noah Harari (in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind in The history of Homo sapiens) we are now living in the most peaceful era in history. International wars have dropped to an all-time low and with a few exceptions of course, since 1945 countries have no longer invaded and conquered each other on a regular basis. The time of the empire has gone, and Harari suggests that this is because war has become more implausible – it costs too much and its profits are down!

I’m reading George Orwell’s 1984 where ‘Big Brother’ and the ‘Inner Party’ use war to perpetuate a state of subservience in its citizens. It’s certainly a grim place to be. I prefer Harari’s vision, but as he has also said “It takes a lot of wise people in order to make peace. But it is sometimes enough to have just one fool in order to start a war.” (Yuval Noah Harari).

All the people we have met over this past year (without exception) from different nations, cultures and religions have been friendly, helpful and good. After all people are people, wherever they are. We are all living together on this planet, which is threatened by our own actions, whether it be war or climate change. So, although our national identities define where we come from, I believe that now more than ever we need global cooperation to make a difference (and possibly to save) our planet. My knowledge of world history was patchy at best before starting this trip, but I have tried to understand more about the history and culture of the countries we have visited to widen my horizons. Now I see that our future is not inevitable, and there are many possibilities before us. We just have to try and stay wise and look out for the fools……if only it was that simple!

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Dithering and Dawdling in the Dordogne: Chateaux, Gardens and Crepes

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To be honest, by the time we arrive in the Dordogne I’ve become just a little disenchanted with France. I’d forgotten about their ‘extra-long lunch’ and ‘half day closing on Sunday’ shop hours and the ‘no toilet seats’ and ‘mixed shower blocks’ in campsites, which is the norm. The motorway tolls are extortionate, as is the price of diesel and a coffee, and the weather has turned cool as we head from Switzerland to Annecy. We stay a couple of nights in Annecy (very pretty and I will remember my first banana and chocolate crepe), and then we head north to visit friends in the Burgundy region, where the daytime temperature dips to a cool 11 degrees.

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Annecy

It’s lovely to have some company and we spend a very pleasant evening in their beautifully restored house in the rural village of Recey-sur- Ource (sounds rude, I know). The next day we travel south again stopping over near Clermont-Ferrand.  Our next stop is near Sarlat-le-Canéda in the Dordogne Valley. We are on our way to Spain, but as we settle into the campsite, the sun comes out and the pretty countryside reveals itself. The weather forecast here is surprisingly good for the next 10 days, but we’re meant to be heading to south. So, here’s my dilemma….do we stay, or do we go? I dither. The more I explore the area, the more I’m tempted to stay. But if we don’t go now, we will have less time to spend in Spain. I know this sounds like a lovely dilemma to be in, and I do realise how privileged I am to be in this position, but it’s these type of decisions (where it doesn’t really matter, but it feels like it does – remember the spice jar dilemma I had when packing up the house), that I struggle with. John’s “this is your year, I don’t care where we go, so you choose”, isn’t helping and of course I know, there is no right or wrong decision in these circumstances. So that makes the dithering worse. And then I realise that staying in the Dordogne feels like I’m not making a decision and sometimes the most difficult decisions are to do nothing (or very little). But when I let go of the ‘you don’t have to be travelling like mad to have an adventure’ logic, I realise it makes perfect sense to stay. So, we stay, and I unwind from travelling and let myself dawdle in the Dordogne for just a little bit longer.

Over the next 10 days we stay at 2 campsites, only 10 miles apart. We walk, cycle, paddle and swim visiting pretty Les Plus Beaux villages (small rural villages with a rich cultural heritage), towering Chateaux and beautiful gardens. Our first campsite is within walking distance of Sarlat-La-Canéda, the capital of Périgord Noir, which is home to a plethora of gastronomic duck-based products (the contentious Foie Gras, Canard Terrine and smoked duck breast to name but a few) and boasts the regions best-preserved medieval architecture. We start our exploration of Sarlat with a…. yes, you guessed it, a crepe and a cup of tea. Savoury for John and banana and chocolate for me.

                      The Medieval streets of Sarlat-La-Canéda

There’s a busker singing medieval folk tunes with his Hurdy Gurdy in front of the Cathedral St-Sacerdos, and I’m reminded of this area’s intertwined history with England. The city of Sarlat fell into the hand of the English for 10 years during the 100 Years War in the 14th and 15th centuries. John finds a spot in the shade while I explore this small city with its twisting alleyways and back streets, full of shops selling local produce and handicrafts.

                     Sarlat-La-Canéda

I get the bike out and explore the country roads and John manages a few flattish miles. It’s the first time on a bike since he broke his collarbone, and another step forward in his recovery. It has been a long hot summer in central and southern France and the earth is dry here. Dust bellows from the tractor as the farmer ploughs his parched fields. Plump purple grapes drape from the roadside vines, blackened sunflowers hang their heads ready to be harvested and golden corn stretches towards the blue skies. Fig, plum, pear and walnut trees line the country roads. A bandy-legged old lady wearing a straw hat and carrying a basket of vegetables beams at me as I cycle past her, “Bonjour” she says. This is the rural France I love……simple, slow paced, picturesque.

                     Roadside vines and golden corn

I cycle to Domme, and La Roque-Gageac (also Les Plus Beaux villages). Domme, situated on an outcrop above the Dordogne has one of the area’s best preserved Bastides, and retains its original 13th century ramparts. The lonely planet guide describes the approach road ‘as a tortuous switchback’, so I opt to walk the last kilometre up a forest path with my bike. The panoramic views across the Dordogne valley, when I finally get to the top (very sweaty and pink faced) are stunning.

                     The picturesque streets of Domme and views from the top

La Roque-Gageac, Domme’s alter ego, is crammed into a limestone cliff face and the river meanders alongside its picturesque main street.

                     La Roque-Gageac

Later in the week we hire a canoe from the village, which is another test of John’s recovery. I’m in the driving seat but after managing to paddle the canoe several 360s, in both directions, John takes over pole position and we enjoy the rest of our paddle up and down this idyllic river.

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Canoeing on the Dordogne

Either side of the Dordogne the hilltops are studded with defensive chateaux, their strategic positions being greatly coveted by both the French and the English in the 100 Years War.  At our 2nd campsite we are gifted with an amazing view of Château de Beynac, a 12th century fortress. Early morning balloon rides glide gracefully across the idyllic scene.

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Château de Beynac, view from the campsite

We visit Château de Beynac, protected by 200m cliffs (quiet a climb), double walls and a moat. This impressive castle was a key defensive position for the French and once the home of Richard “The Lion Heart”, Lords of Beynac and Baronies of the Périgord. Just below the castle the charming village of Beynac-et-Cazenac nestles amongst the steep cliffside and I am rewarded with a honey and walnut crepe and an iced tea after my steep climb up.

Less than 6km away Beynac’s neighbouring rival, Château de Castelnaud, loyal to the English in the 100 Years war, looms impressively on the southern banks of the Dordogne. Despite these 2 Chateaux being close rivals, they never fought head to head. The Chateau houses The Museum of Medieval Warfare, an important collection of weapons and armour. Along the bastion, the most powerful siege machine from the Middle ages, the Trebuchet, has been recreated and looms on the skyline. Les Plus Beaux Village of Castlenaud-la-Chapelle sits below, and another crepe awaits. If there was a battle of the Crepes, I’m afraid Beynac would win hands down!

                      Château de Castelnaud        

The Aquitaine region of France is famous for its gardens and I visit 2 during our time here. The Hanging Gardens of Marqueyssac, the most visited in the region, are but a short walk away from our campsite. Famous for its terraces of 150,000 boxwoods, carefully hand-sheared to creating a spectacular topiary display above the Dordogne countryside. Beyond the boxwoods, on Marqueyssac’s rocky spur, ‘the Belvedere’, an exposed cliff 180 m above the Dordogne, awards some extraordinary views. Oaks, Maples and Hornbeams make for a lovely return woodland walk. And for those who like their tea (that’s me), the gardens ‘salon de thé’ serves a homemade iced tea and a Tarte aux noix de Périgueux (walnut tart), a speciality of the region. A definite must not miss!

The Hanging Gardens of Marqueyssac, view from The Belvedere

Les Jardin D’eau, near Carsac- Aillac, also on the banks of the river Dordogne was created in 1999 and displays a rare collection of aquatic plants on what was once an old Gallo-Roman site. Filled with basins, pools, ponds, streams and waterfalls, the flowers and plants on display here are exquisite. I dawdle around the gardens for a couple of hours and take lots of photographs. I spot a few very handsome green frogs hopping across the lily pads. I do like a nice garden.

                      Aquatic plants of Les Jardin D’eau

On our last day a westerly wind whips curled brown oak leaves and the acorns still donned in their bowler hats across our paths. Autumn is coming and it is time for us to move to sunnier climes. I have so enjoyed my Dawdling in the Dordogne and for now the Dithering has gone.

 

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‘Off the beaten track’ in Italy (Bergamo, Lago D’Orta) and Switzerland (Raron)- so Hipster?

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“The gate is shut and there’s no way of getting in!”, I exclaim as we arrive back at our camper stop site in Bergamo, well after midnight, following a long weekend in Scotland. John was having a check-up for his clavicle and I had managed some extra cuddles with my grandson. There’s a code for the gate, but of course neither of us thought to take a note of it before we left. The site has excellent security (one of the reasons we left the van there) and is surrounded by a 7ft metal fence and cameras. For a moment I consider where the nearest hotel might be or do, we just sit it out till the gates open at 6am? John scours the perimeter and notices a small concrete wall near the recycling station. With the help of a plastic plant pot, we manage to use the wall to get a leg over the fence. We’re in…. Hallelujah! I just hope we’ve not been caught on camera. Thankfully the next day there is no mention of our midnight frolics.

We take the tram into Bergamo. We’ve been in this city before, when Ryanair flew from Prestwick, and it’s a hidden gem. We walk up to La Città Alta. Perched on a hill above the modern city of Bergamo, surrounded by 16th century venetian walls, in La Città Alta one steps back in time. We stroll along the narrow, cobbled streets into attractive piazzas with lovely shops, cafes and authentic Italian restaurants. We visit the Basilica of Maria Maggiore and the Cappella Colleoni, just stunning, before getting the San Vigillio funicular up to the top where castle ruins and spectacular views of the city and plains beyond, await. Back in La Città Alta we catch an early dinner. I order the Bergamo-style ravioli – amaretti cookies combined in a meat filling, creating a play on sweet and savoury, served in a sauce of butter, pancetta and sage – yum, yum.

Basilica of Maria Maggiore, views from La  Città Alta, Bergamo

From Bergamo we go to Lago D’Otra, one of the lesser known of the Northern Italian Lakes. In fact, the locals have nicknamed it La Cenerntola (Cinderella). It’s just as beautiful as its bold neighbours but is often overlooked. After our time at Lake Garda, beautiful but incredibly busy, bursting with tourists, Lago D’Orta feels rustic, laid back and ‘off the beaten track’…. just my scene. When I tell my daughter this later, she says, “You’re so Hipster Mum” Hipster, that’s a new one on me. I’ll need to look that one up!

We stay at a campsite near Orta San Giulio, which sits on a small peninsula on the eastern side of the lake. On a hill above the town stand the ancient chapels of the Sacro Monte, a UNESCO World heritage site. The Sacro Monte site dates from the Middle Ages and eighteen chapels extend across the hillside in an enchanting landscape. Each of the chapels contain Baroque and Neo-classical fresco’s and terracotta sculptures celebrating the life of St Francis of Assisi. It is quite extraordinary; unlike anything I have seen before.

The chapels and fresco’s of Sacro Monte, Orta san Guilio

Next we take a boat across the lake to the peaceful island monastery of San Giulio. With only a handful of nuns living on the entire island to take care of the Basilica, and many houses now abandoned, the island feels like a step back in time. Around the church we walk ‘the way of silence’ (walk in an anti-clockwise direction for ‘the way of meditation’) and inspirational quotes provide snippets of wisdom.

The Island, Basilica and The way of silence, Lago D’Orta

Back on the boat Orta’s beautiful waterfront villas, with their faded pastel shades and peeling paint are reflected in the deep blue water behind misty mountains – picture perfect.

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Lago D’Orta’s waterfront villas 

In San Giulio we grab a gelato at Pino Vino, the best gelato shop in town, and enjoy artisan Sicilian lemon and strawberry ice cream whilst sitting on one of the waterfront benches.

Piazza, Pino Vino and narrow streets of San Giulio

On our last evening we have a meal at the campsite. A simple Lasagne (for John), Spinach and Ricotta Cannelloni (for me), salad and una caraffa di vino rosso. This family run campsite, with its home cooking is very chilled and is definitely one of my favourites.

I am sorry to leave Lago D’Orta, but we are very near Switzerland, and I’m keen to visit having never been before. We plan a short trip and book a campsite near the town of Raron in the canton of Valais, very near to 2 cable cars (I am working on desensitising Johns fear of heights!). We are lucky; we have 2 days of glorious sunshine, blue skies and hardly a cloud in sight. We get the cable car o Unterbach, 1,200m above sea level, where we look down into the valley below. Beautiful green meadows and forests stretch out in front of us and wooden chalets dot the hillsides, just like a scene from the Sound of Music.

Views from Unterbach

Cow bells tinkle in the distance and we hardly meet a soul as we walk the trails. The sun glints on pockets of snow in the granite mountains on the other side of the valley and right at the top a small blue glacier sculpts the mountain in its path.

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View from Unterbach

As we step out of the trees into a meadow full of wildflowers we are greeted with a crescendo of stridulating (that’s the noise crickets make) crickets which leap around our feet…. how amazing. A sight and sound I will defiantly remember. We stop at a mountain hotel for a coffee and I try an Apfelpunsch ……what a view.

Walking in Valais, switzerland

We stay for 3 nights and on our last night John’s keen for me to experience Swiss cuisine (he’s been on many school trips to Switzerland before), so we have a meal at the campsite. But as our waiter offers us the menu of the day “Chips or Cheese, as much as you want for 30 francs” (equivalent to abound £30), I’m astonished and John’s laughing. I will remember Switzerland for its wonderful meadows and mountains, but defiantly not for its food. At least the larger was good!

This trip has given me the privilege of journeying across many countries, and travelling as I have I have had the time to observe, to reflect, to think and to journey more into who and what I am. To work out my likes and dislikes, what I value and what type of person I really am. And so, it got me thinking about my daughters’ comments. Am I really ‘so hipster’? I look up the definition. Hipster – “a person who follows the latest trends and fashions” (definitely not me), “especially those regarded as being outside the cultural mainstream” (possibly me). The original Hipsters’ of the 1940s emerged with the bebop jazz movement and were described as a subculture ‘adopting a carefree, spontaneous cool lifestyle’(something a lot of us aspire to). Hipster’s of today are perhaps different again and are often referred to as ‘people who want to know things (yes), who are eager to learn (yes), to see and do things apart from culture as a whole (maybe), whilst still remaining within the culture’. I take a test, for a laugh, ( https://quizdoo.com/are-you-more-hippie-or-hipster/ ) and it turns out that I’m 50% Hipster and 50% Hippie…so maybe I’m a Hipsy. Those who know me well know that I am most definitely Ditsy, so I think Hipsy might be just about right. However, I believe more in the individual than subcultures and as an individual the reason I travel is to experience new things, to find both the familiarity and unusualness in the world around me and to connect the strange dots that make it so unique. I travel to discover more about the world we live in, to get lost and find myself in the process and to push boundaries which allow me to imagine the kind of life I want to lead. And so not only have I discovered some of the most beautiful “off the beaten track” places on my travels, I have also had the opportunity to get to myself just a little bit better…. a travelling ditsy, hippie, hipster…or am I, perhaps the journey continues!

20190904_151115.jpg   Toadstool, forest near Unterbach

Lederhosen, cable cars and star dust in Austria’s Tyrol

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“I’m surprised by just how many people wear Lederhosen in Austria?” I remark, as we sit in a café tucking into a delicious apple strudel, in that well-known town called Worgl in Austria’s Tyrol (we took the train there to buy a kettle!). I thought that Lederhosen, much like the Kilt in Scotland, would be restricted to local gatherings and special events (weddings, birthdays and rugby matches), but it seems that men (and women) grab every opportunity to wear these strange leather shorts; walking around the town of an afternoon, waiting tables in restaurants and even strolling up a mountain! Along with the Dirndl (the traditional Austrian pinafore dress, with low cut blouse with puff sleeves), they are readily available to buy (at a price) in the high street. Influenced by the costumes of farmers and rural peasants and characterised by high quality linen, leather and loden (felt), the Tirolean costume is worn with national pride and has recently inspired a new fashion style called Landhausmode (Country House Style). There is certainly more to this country than meets the eye.

Being in Austria, I am keen to get into the mountains and at our campsite near Hopfgarten a cable car entices hikers and skiers to the top of Hohe Salve. This mountain, 1829m above sea level, is surrounded by more than 70, 3000-meter peaks, and offers a panoramic view of the surrounding Kitzbühel Alps. We arrive at the campsite in glorious sunshine, but the next day low cloud and rain are threatening. We take the cable car up to the midway station planning to climb the rest of the way to the top, but mist, rain and a wrong turn on the path forces us back to where we started.

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Mist and cloud rolling in on Hohe Salve

On a day trip to Innsbruck from our next campsite near the village of Weer, we try again.

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Innsbruck, the Hafelekar in the background 

The Nordkette (the North Chain) cable car leaves from the city centre up to Austria’s largest nature park, Karwendel. There are 3 stops, the first of which (Hungerburgbahn, 860m) can be reached by a modern funicular. John stops here but I decide to take the further 2 gondola lifts to the top (Hafelekarbahn, 2256m). It seems expensive (£36.50 Euros return…. yes, you can go one way and walk the return journey), but for the sake of my knees it’s worth every penny. It has been an overcast day so far but as I reach the top, the clouds lift, the sun comes out and the views take my breath away. I take my time, breathe in the fresh, cool mountain air and enjoy the 360-degree views all the way to Italy in the South and Germany in the North.

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Views from the top of Hafelekar

At the top, the Hafelekarrinne, one of the steepest downhill ski routes in Europe (a gradient of 70%), is reserved for expert skier’s only……I look down in awe. Many other activities are also available. There’s the Geothe- a geology walking trail providing a fascinating insight into the Karwendel’s reef limestone formations, a panoramic circular hiking route, a downhill mountain bike trail and 40 single-rope access climbing routes. If that’s not enough to get the adrenalin going, you could always paraglide from the top. I vote for the gentle climb a further 78 meters to the summit where a flock of ominous black birds circle the mountains crags and crannies.

View down to Innsbruck from the summit

For many here, young children, grandparents and those with disabilities, it may be the only summit they will ever reach, but with this extraordinary cable car trip everyone gets to experience the majesty of the mountains. This has been the highlight of our trip to Austria and the Nordkette mountain range has left a powerful lasting impression.

Views from the top

Austria welcomes tourism with open arms and like in Lake Bled we are gifted with local access cards during our stay, which provide free local transport, reductions in entry fees to local attractions and a daily activity programme. From Hopfgarten we take the train to Kitzbühel, a small Alpine town and fashionable winter resort, famous for its annual Hahnenkamm downhill ski race.  Boutique shops (selling plenty of lederhosen and dirndl) and cafes line its medieval centre and rooftop terraces provide sweeping views of the valley.

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Kitzbühel’s Medieval centre

In Weer we take a local bus to Schwaz where our Silber card (https://silberregion-karwendel.com/en/silbercard-summer) gives free access to Schwazer Silbergwerk (https://www.silberbergwerk.at/en),‘The mother of all silver mines’. At its peak of production (in 1500) Schwaz was the largest mining city in the world, with 12,000 miners producing 85% of the world’s silver. The profits fuelled the Habsburg Empire signalling the beginning of early capitalism and the basis of power and politics in contemporary Europe. The nearby coining site in Hall used the silver and copper from Schwaz to produce the Haller Taler, which remained Europe’s dominating currency for 300 years.  Hans Loffler’s casting mill in Innsbruck developed the formula for converting Schwaz copper into Bronze. It was this discovery which led the Emperor Maximillian to cast copper cannons, providing light, mobile escort artillery, and aiding the ascent of the Houses of Austria to world power.

Before entering the mine, we don a silver cape (it’s a cool 12 degrees, wet and humid 800 meters below) and hard hat. A tiny train arrives and zips through the 1.5km of tunnels which took the miners 26 years to dig. The tunnels are tight (and dark). This ride is not for the claustrophobic. The rest of the tour is on foot and our guide Manu, directs us through the tunnels along with an excellent audio guide. We learn of the miner’s hardships extracting the Fahlerz ore (containing the silver and Copper) from Dolomite rock, and their endless battle with water filling the mine shafts. The Schwaz mine was at the forefront of technical advancement and a huge water wheel, moving 1.2 million litres of water a day (a job previously done by the miners themselves) was a welcome development. The difficult and expensive mining techniques and cheaper silver imports from the New World however saw to the eventual demise of the Silver industry in Schwaz.

20190816_123657.jpg In our silver cape and hard hat, Schwazer Silbergwerk

Manu reminds us that silver is star dust and its formation is older than Earth itself. More than 5 thousand million years ago a stellar inferno shook our Milky way, exploding an enormous star and showering dust and gas throughout outer space. Temperatures of 950 million degrees created by this violent explosion led to the formation of silver in the rocks of our planet.

And so, as we leave Austria, it has left a lasting impression. The country may be small but is a giant in tourism. It has a fascinating history, winning scenery (summer and winter alike), friendly and helpful people, lots to do (both inside and out) and to top it off…. great apple strudel. A visit in Winter, with its snowy peaks and valleys would be beautiful……. but maybe just not in the motor home!

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A night at the Opera; Verona’s Aida

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We are in the heart of the city of Verona and as dusk settles, the excitement around the Arena is palpable. We climb uneven stone steps radiating the heat of the day and enter through one of the many openings that dot its circumference, finding ourselves on the threshold of another world. The cheap seats (the original stone steps of the Roman Amphitheatre) are full and we just manage to squeeze on the end of a row. This stunning intact amphitheatre built around 30 AD is still very much in use today and is internationally renowned for its large-scale opera performances. These stones have seen everything from gladiator games to One Direction concerts, medieval jousts to Puccini operas. With its colourful palimpsest of history, to visit the Arena and experience one of Verdi’s epic Opera’s, Aida, with our dear friends Elaine and Phil (who are in Verona for a weeks holiday), is a real privilege, ‘a once in a lifetime experience’ and something which has been on my ‘Bucket List’ for quite some time.

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Waiting for Aida to begin 

The Arena, made from pink and white stone from nearby Valpolicella, originally had three tiers of arches running along its border and its elliptical shape provides for excellent acoustics. Entertaining more than 20,000 people in its heyday, it was a complex and demanding entertainment industry. Powered by the labour of hundreds of slaves in underground tunnels, grandiose stage sets would have been erected in the central space, just like tonight. Roman citizens teemed through its gates to witness processions, circus acts, dancing and music, but their favourite was blood sports. Fierce wild animals from faraway places were brought to be hunted, condemned prisoners were executed in bloody and inventive ways, but the gladiator show, where two trained combatants would fight one another to the death, was the feature presentation of the evening.

Tonight, we are here to see Aida, Giuseppe Verdi’s epic (4 hour long) Opera. Aida first debuted at the Cairo Opera House, in 1886, and since then has been performed well over 100 times around the world. The production in Verona’s Arena hails to be the most dramatic and atmospheric. The first act is set in Egypt, the Arena shimmers and glows and the yellow moon rises in the night sky. To alert the audience of the impending Opera a gong is struck on three occasions by one of the cast members. The anticipation builds. As the orchestra tunes up, the conductor is greeted with typical Italian enthusiasm, ‘bravo maestro’ filling the air, and then it begins…

The set of Aida, excited and on the cheap seat with our friends

The Egyptians are at war with Ethiopia. Aida, an Ethiopian princess has been captured and made slave to Amneris, the King of Egypt’s daughter. But Aida and Radames, a young Egyptian soldier, have fallen in love. The relationship is doomed from the start, as Amneris also has her eye on Radames. The love triangle ends badly for Radames, who is buried alive in a tomb beneath the temple as punishment for treason. Radames last thoughts are for Aida, who suddenly appears in the grave, having slipped in earlier to share his fate. An Egyptian Romeo and Juliet ensues and let’s just say it doesn’t end well for them both.  Listening with my eyes shut as the Bel Canto vibrato resonates around the Arena I am transported into the tragic story of Aida and her love for Radames. One must pause to consider that there is no amplification – no microphones, no sound system – just the singers and the orchestra…. simply stunning.

If you do get the opportunity to experience Verona’s Opera, don’t forget to pick up and light your free candle, a celebration of times when the Arena had no electricity and the candles lit up the scenery. And if you are in the cheap seats (starting at 25 Euros up to 195 for the ‘defiantly not cheap seats’), cushions are available to rent (we missed that treat), or better still bring your own.

As we exit its past midnight, the black starry sky frames the Arena and the night is still warm. Beyond lies the beautiful, historic city of Verona, where Romeo and Juliet loved and lost. The spectacle and music of Verdi’s opera, the atmosphere in the arena and the connection to those who sat where I sat almost 2,00 years before me…… this has been a truly enchanting evening and a night I will remember for many, many years to come.

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