Tag Archives: mountains

Book review – The Sound of Gravity

What would you say is your preferred environment….beach, forest, jungle, desert or mountain?

Margate town and seafront viewed from harbour wall.

My Mum & Dad have always been drawn to the sea, escaping from suburbia to buy a hotel in Margate in the 1960s, living on the south coast in later life and spending long winter holidays in Spain & Portugal, as close to the sea as they could find.

But my own addiction is definitely mountains. Climbing up or skiing down them, or just admiring from afar, I marvel at their infinite variety and the constant challenge they provide.

Fortunately, my adventurous wife Gill feels the same. We have been lucky to enjoy many holidays in the mountains – the Swiss and French Alps, Spanish Pyrenees, Italian Dolomites, the Majella in Abruzzo, and more. And still not sated, I summited the Big One – Kilimanjaro – for my 50th birthday.

But I’m definitely a walker, rather than a climber of mountains. Climbing is a vastly different technical skill and an altogether greater challenge. Just watch films like Everest or Touching the Void to begin to understand the sharp contrast.

Joe Simpson, a renowned mountaineer,  wrote the book Touching the Void, turned into a memorable docudrama film in 2003.

I have just finished reading his novel, The Sound of Gravity, published in 2011.

An unnamed man and his wife get caught in a terrible storm, high up a mountain, somewhere in the Alps. The man’s wife dies and he is haunted with guilt.

The first part of the book is told almost in real-time, describing with hypnotic detail events leading to her death, and how he ultimately survives the devastating storm.

The narrative is compelling, but even for mountain lovers the amount of climbing jargon and flowery language could prove as challenging as a difficult summit.

In the second part – 25 years later – the man – now known to be Patrick – spends summers in the hut, close to where his wife’s body fell.  The story becomes more human and readable, in my opinion, as other characters and story lines are introduced.

But the mountain remains the main protagonist, and despite some issues with the narrative, I enjoyed the book. How could a mountain-lover not, with descriptions like this:

The ice cliffs had changed in the waning shades of dusk. Where before they had been sharp-lit and bright-edged, they now glistened in faceted aquamarine. The colours had intensified, highlighting the dark, deep blue caverns yawning at their feet.

The encircling mountains threw up a snow-capped palisade to guard the glacier bay below him. Sinister layers of bruised purple veined the advancing storm front. In the shadowed valleys beyond he glimpsed the sheen of a distant lake, bright-sparkled by a flash of weak sunlight.

Borgo Tranquillo in Italy’s le Marche region with One Off Places

My feature on Borgo Tranquillo, a remarkable One Off Places property in Italy’s le Marche region – published on Silver Travel Advisor.

One Off Places

Fancy staying in a shepherd’s cottage in Spain? A South American jungle lodge? Or perhaps a cave house in Andalucia?

Well, you could.

One Off Places specialises in individual, quality holiday accommodation around the world, and is a response to bland mass market tourism and properties.

Tabitha Symonds established One Off Places in 2007, after many years searching for her own perfect holiday property. Today, castles, gatehouses, windmills, lighthouses and train stations are among the quirky – but classy – places to rest your inquisitive traveller’s head.

So, Silver Travellers, if you’re not excited at the thought of yet another glitzy cruise, or a week in a large impersonal hotel on the Costa del Tourist, why not look instead at staying in a One Off Place?

Borgo Tranquillo

I was very lucky to spend a few days recently at the remarkable Borgo Tranquillo estate. Perched on its own spectacular hilltop, high in Italy’s le Marche region and in the foothills of the mighty Appennines, Borgo Tranquillo sits in 15 Marchigian acres and is a world away from its brash Tuscan neighbour, on the western side of the mountain range that divides Italy.

View from private balcony of Borgo TranquilloA couple of the years in the planning, and taking more than 3 years to build, Borgo Tranquillo is the epitome of a One Off Place. Designed by Frank and Ariane Andrew and completed almost 10 years ago, it is an antidote to their previous lives, Frank as an international designer and Ariane as a senior manager for Bloomberg.

An innate sense of space, calm and understated luxury pervades the whole estate. Stay in one of the four self-catering 88m2 1-bedroom loft-style apartments, or the 150m2 2-bedroom villa, and feel any stress you might have arrived with evaporate in minutes. Or as long as takes to drink the bubbling Prosecco you’ll be offered as soon as you arrive.

Borgo Tranquillo apartmentWe stayed in one of the apartments. Interiors are starkly contemporary, white minimalism interrupted judiciously with injections of vibrant colour and whimsical design features. The furniture and equipment in the beamed high-ceilinged open-plan lounge and kitchen, and bedroom, are of the highest quality and yet calming and comfortable.

Externally though, the buildings are more traditionally constructed, blending perfectly with the verdant, hilly landscape.

The separate Clubhouse and Spa building is the beating heart of the Borgo Tranquillo estate. Upstairs is a spectacular space for reading, relaxing, drinking from the generously provisioned free bar, and planning your day as you gaze out of the vast windows across the foothills of the Appennines.

Downstairs – via the unique locally crafted curving staircase – is the high quality spa. Warm up in the sauna and hammam before stepping outside to laze on one of the sun loungers, or chill out in the black infinity pool.

Hammock time on the Borgo Tranquillo estateNear the Clubhouse is a large boules – bocce in Italian – pitch and a small football area. Or why not beat the bounds of Borgo Tranquillo, walk around the undulating perimeter of the entire estate, listening to birdsong, watching for wildlife and just absorbing the beauty and calm of this special environment.

But if that’s all too energetic, just find the hammocks strung up under the shade of some canopy-providing trees, or take your cocktails to the sunset bench, along the thoughtfully mown path, perched peacefully on a prominent western hillock.

Le Marche

If you can ever drag yourself away from the luxurious serenity of Borgo Tranquillo, there are plenty of other attractions to explore in le Marche, which is often described as Italy’s best-kept secret.

Ariane and Frank thoughtfully provide an encyclopaedic guide of nearby restaurants, wineries, sightseeing, shopping, walking and much more.

The charming hilltop village of Arcevia is only a 5 minute drive away, and has artisan butchers, bakers and grocers, a couple of friendly local bars, a few restaurants and some beautiful ancient palazzos, churches and houses in its enchanting centro storico.

Beating the bounds at Borgo TranquilloAnd within the wider municipality of Arcevia, you can explore many other interesting, timeless towns and hamlets, each with their own character. On a sunny May Day holiday we stumbled across Avacelli, a small village just a short drive from Arcevia, and holding its annual Asparagus Festival. There wasn’t much of the vegetable on display, but it was a great excuse for local people to eat, drink, listen to traditional music and dance in the rough gravelled street.

The larger towns of Ancona and Urbino are also within easy reach. Art lovers will know that Urbino is the pinnacle of Renaissance art and architecture, and is the birthplace of Raffaello Sanzio, better known to us as Raphael, equal of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, and whose masterpiece The School of Athens is one of the Vatican’s main frescoes.

For more athletic activities, the walking and cycling around Borgo Tranquillo are magnificent. Or swim in the Adriatic in the unspoiled seaside town of Senigallia, just 40 km from Arcevia and also offering some outstanding seafood restaurants.

One Off Silver Travellers

So why not explore the very individual properties on offer at One Off Places. And if Silver Travellers love Italy, the mountains, comfortable luxury, relaxation and activity, you really should think about staying in the Borgo Tranquillo. If you can avoid the peak summer months, the spring and autumn would be perfect times to stay at this special place, and to explore the beautiful region of le Marche.

Watch a video about Borgo Tranquillo Clubhouse

 

Winter adventure in Romania

My article on a fascinating Winter Adventure in Romania with ExploreThe Adventure Travel Experts – published on Silver Travel Advisor:

So what do you know about Romania?

That it’s somewhere in Eastern Europe? The home of Dracula? Ruled with an iron fist by the Communist despot Nicolae Ceausescu in the 1970s and 1980s? Gypsies? Orphanages? Nadia Comaneci?

I’m ashamed to say that I knew little of this fascinating – and endlessly surprising – country until experiencing Explore’s Winter Adventure in Romania tour early in March.

This revealing trip provides the perfect introduction to the country – its rich history; diverse wildlife; spectacular landscapes; fun activities – and will almost certainly whet the appetite to discover more.

Bucharest

The packed itinerary is book-ended by stays in the capital city of Bucharest. Far from being a utilitarian metropolis with a Communist hangover, the city earned the nickname of Little Paris in the early 1900s, thanks to its tree-lined boulevards, imposing Belle Epoque buildings and a reputation for good living. Today, it still has its own Arcul de Triumf – in honour of Romanian soldiers who fought in World War I – and Gare du Nord.

The Bucharest balcony where Ceausescu made his last speech in December 1989The crazed vanity of Ceausescu meant parts of the city were destroyed to make way for his mad projects, including the obscene Palace of Parliament. Started in 1984 – and still unfinished – it is the second largest administrative building in the world (after Washington DC’s Pentagon), has 12 storeys (including 4 underground), more than 3,000 rooms, 4,500 chandeliers and covers a scarcely believable 330,000 square metres.

Visit Revolution Square and see the balcony where the dictator made his final speech in December 1989, before people power forced him to escape by helicopter from the roof. He was found shortly afterwards and, after a brief show trial, executed by firing squad.

Lipscani Street, Bucharest by Carpathianland via Commons WikimediaThe atmospheric old town Centru Vechi, also known as Lipscani after its main artery, survived both World War II bombings and Ceausescu’s bulldozers. Wander its labyrinthine streets to discover monasteries, small churches, old inns for travelling traders and a vibrant modern collection of bars, cafes, restaurants and coffee shops pulsing from its otherwise jaded buildings.

An insightful walking tour with your knowledgeable guide will also pass The Old Court, built in the 15th century as the residence of mediaeval princes, including infamous Vlad the Impaler. Vlad is a national hero, battling to defend the city from the powerful Ottomans as they advanced from the east. His methods to deter traitors were perhaps a little extreme though: a successful impaling would take 5 days to kill the victim, the hot instrument of torture entering the, erm, backside before finding its exit point somewhere near the collar bone, if the impalee were not to die prematurely. Ouch.

Geography

Modern Romania is dominated by the three separate principalities of Wallachia (in the south, including Bucharest and bordered by Bulgaria and Serbia), Transylvania (in the heart of the country, with Hungary and Ukraine across the border) and Moldova (east, bordered by the independent state of Moldova).

The country and these provinces are delineated by the mighty Carpathian mountains, swooping south-east all the way from Poland and Slovakia, before jagging west in central Romania, near beautiful Brasov.

Activities

Bear tracks in the foothills of the Carpathian mountainsLeaving Bucharest, the tour soon introduces you to the first natural wonders of this ever surprising country. Join a wildlife expert for a walk in the snowy, forested foothills of the mountains to track deer, wolves, lynx and bears, which all thrive in the Carpathians. We saw fresh deer and bear tracks, and the guide explained the tactics adopted by herbivores and carnivores respectively, to survive or to kill. There are an estimated 6,000 bears in the country. The best time to see them is either in autumn, when they’re stocking up for the winter, or in spring, when they hunt for food after the long, hard winter. We came within 200 metres of a known bears’ den, but if you want to ensure you see one of these magnificent creatures in the wild, take a look at this separate tour with Explore.

Another highlight of this winter adventure is time spent frolicking in the snow. Take a cable car up to Balea Lac, a glacial lake 2,034 metres high in the Fagaras mountains of Transylvania, strap on some snow-shoes and trek out into the deep powder, like Bond hunting down his nemesis in a wintry lair. Don’t worry, it’s easy, just remember not to try and walk backwards, Mister Bond. Later, jump into a rubber ring, after taking off the snow-shoes and be pulled up a gentle slope for a spot of ice-tubing. Really.

Towns and villages

During the tour you will visit some beautiful towns and villages, which help to tell the story of the country’s rich history and cultural heritage.

Council Square in BrasovBrasov lies in Transylvania and is surrounded by the southern Carpathians. The town was our first introduction to the Saxon influences in this area, German colonists having first arrived in the middle of the 12th century – at the behest of Hungarian kings – to develop Transylvania’s towns, build mines and cultivate the land at this strategically important point, on the trading route linking Western Europe and the Ottomans in the east. Brasov is still also know by its Saxon name, Kronstadt. Visit the town’s old city walls and its famous and imposing Black Church, built in 1477 and one of the largest Gothic churches in south-east Europe. Then enjoy lunch in the charming Council Square – Piata Sfatului – where the town’s young population eat pizza and drink beer, surrounded by red-roofed history

Bran is a short drive from Brasov and is famous for its eponymous castle. The small town epitomises the constant struggle for power in this part of Europe, across the centuries: Hungary’s King Sigismund ordered a stone castle to be constructed in 1377, while the settlement developed nearby, and on a steep hilltop from where it could levy taxes on wealthy traders travelling between Transylvania and Wallachia; in 1498 Bran fell under the jurisdiction of Brasov; in the 16th century Bran became part of Transylvania, following defeat of the Kingdom of Hungary by the Ottoman Empire; the Austrian Habsburg Empire had their time in control before the town became part of the Austrian Empire in 1804, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1866. Only after WWI did Bran join the Kingdom of Romania. See, I told you it was a complex history!

Bran Castle - the inspiration for Bram Stoker's DraculaBran Castle is one of the country’s most visited sites today. It might resemble the home of Dracula in Bram Stoker’s entirely fictional novel – and was once besieged by our old friend Vlad the Impaler, who also provided inspiration to the author – but calling it Dracula’s Castle was a cynical marketing ploy conjured up by the Communist regime in the 1950s, to increase visitor numbers. The castle is open to the public and well worth a visit, if only to see how Queen Marie restored it after the castle was bequeathed to her in the 1920s

Biertan is a quiet village in Transylvania, near Sibiu, and is renowned for its impressive fortified church, one of the best examples of Saxon heritage in this part of Romania, and a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1993. The Saxon population thrived here in the middle ages, but many people decamped to Germany as a result of WWII and the collapse of Communism in 1990. However, it remains historically important for the annual reunion of Transylvanian Saxons, many returning from Germany to their roots. I will remember Biertan fondly for another less prosaic reason though – drinking a generous glass of rum schnapps with locals at 11 o’clock one sunny morning, on the street outside a bar. It cost the distinctly historic sum of 2 Lei, approximately £0.40

Sighisoara, also a UNESCO World Heritage site, has even older origins, from the Roman Empire in the 1st century AD. Now, it is one of the best preserved and most attractive mediaeval towns in Europe. Admire the 14th century clock tower, nine separate towers of the citadel, cobbled streets, burgher houses and ornate churches, including the striking Church on the Hill. And the house where our old friend Vlad the Impaler was born, around 1428

But the small, remote village of Viscri captured my heart more than anywhere else. Bump along an uneven 8 km track off the main road between Sighisoara and Brasov, and you will find life here much as it was 100 years ago. Viscri is another traditional Saxon village in Transylvania, but it has cherished its ancient traditions more than any other. The busy main street in teh Saxon village of ViscriTake a horse and cart ride along its main dirt-tracked street, towards the restored walled citadel. Inside, you’ll find a 12th century Lutheran church at which the remaining Saxon community of just 17 souls still worship, and a charming small museum depicting Saxon customs. Visit the local baker, making huge rye and spelt loaves by hand every day, blackened in the oven before tapping off the charcoal layer. We watched the animated Gypsy brothers Istvan and Matei Gabor fire up the blacksmiths’ furnace with the ancient bellows, and make horseshoes and nails on the anvil exactly as their grandfather had done many years ago. And just cherish the way large wooden gates of each house open up in the morning and evening, to allow their small herds of cattle to wander across the main street and guzzle from the long water troughs, hewn from the trunk of a single tree. Watch a video of gypsy blacksmiths in Viscri courtesy of Sam Laurie.

Food and wine

Another admission – I was expecting Romanian food to be typically eastern European, heavy and a little unimaginative. Another surprise. We enjoyed some excellent meals, including a pork dish with pickled cucumbers in Bucharest; a delicate herby potato and tarragon soup at Casa Zada in Moieciu, near Bran; and a stellar duck dish, with prune sauce and star anise, pickled gherkins and potato puree at the imaginatively restored Viscri 125 Guest House.

And did you know anything about Romanian wines? Its viticulture dates back more than 6,000 years, the country’s climate, geology and soil providing an attractive canvas for winegrowers. After a phylloxera crisis in the late 20th century and the Communist regime’s destructive presence until 1990, the industry is fighting back. Supported by foreign expertise and investment, its vineyards are flourishing again, growing enough to make it the 6th largest producer in Europe and 13th largest in the world.

The Rosu de Ceptura red is the perfect soul-mate for duck, and we tried quite a few decent white wines too.

Accommodation

Explore include accommodation that fits perfectly with the tour’s location and activities. A comfortable tourist hotel in Bucharest allows you to wander the city’s safe streets and easily explore its history and vibrant nightlife.

Moieciu - by fusion-of-horizon via Commons WikimediaNorth of the Carpathians you’ll stay in a friendly Alpine-style chalet guest house in Moieciu, with lovely home-cooked food after drinking home-brewed apple brandy poured from a teapot, as you stand in the garden and get warm by a blazing log fire; the faithfully restored Viscri 125, with traditionally furnished bedrooms and a spectacular converted barn where you eat, drink and play table football; and the Ice Hotel at Balea Lac, constructed every December with a different theme – this year’s is the movies: stay in the Harry Potter suite, or Star Wars, or Gladiator. You get the drift, and with polar sleeping bags the experience is not as cold as you’d imagine and the mulled wine before laying down on the ice bed certainly helps.

All in all, this trip to Romania was a revelation. Historically interesting, charming towns and villages, beautiful natural landscapes, friendly people, great food and wine – and not an impaler or vampire in sight.

Write, write, write

At a recent travel exhibition, I went to an inspiring session on how to pitch your writing ideas to editors.

Image result for wanderlust magazine

Lynne Hughes (founder and publisher of Wanderlust travel magazine), Phoebe Smith (Wanderlust’s editor) and Debbie Chapman (commissioning travel editor for Summersdale Publishers) shared some invaluable thoughts on best practice for pitching article and book ideas….and some cautionary tales on how definitely not to pitch.

Image result for summersdale publishers

You may be the best writer out there, but unless you can get your ideas and writing noticed by those with The Publishing Power, you’ll never see your work in print. Well, not in respected print and digital publications anyway.

Regardless of what you’re trying to create and pitch yourself, they all said: just write, write, write. The more you practise, the better your writing will become. Hopefully. And read, read, read. Absorb as much as you can from published writers. Fingers crossed some of that purple prose will rub off….

I haven’t published much on this humble blog recently. But neither have I been totally unproductive. I’ve been busy creating content for a collaboration with photographer and film-maker friend Mark Melling: welcome to Great Escapations.

Our first project is to tell the story of the intriguing area and charming people of Zagori, high in the Pindos mountains of north-west Greece, almost hugging the Albanian border. We hope our films, images and words will give you a strong sense of life in this historical community of 46 stone-built and slate-roofed villages.

Image result for typical house in zagoria

We’re almost ready to unleash Great Escapations on the outside world. Let the pitching begin…..

 

Kapesovo, Zagori

Newsflash….this article won the Telegraph’s Just Back competition and was published in the Saturday print version on August 27, 2016 and online on telegraph.co.uk on August 29 – *surprised and chuffed*

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My latest entry in The Telegraph’s Just Back weekly travel writing competition:


Joanna pulls me into the kitchen before dinner. A necklace of walnuts, sewn together on a thread, has been coated in grape must, rolled in flour and “boiled with ashcharcoal? – before being strung up on a makeshift washing line.

She leads me down to the boiler room, where several pieces of nutty jewellery – zmpeki – hang for 5 or 6 days, to soften and infuse before being offered to guests.

Tradition echoes everywhere in the Thoukididis Guest House, restored by Joanna’s father over 8 years and now a faithful reproduction of a 19th century Zagorian merchant’s home.

 

You can taste the pride and love in every dish Joanna serves up in the small restaurant. Gigantes plaki – giant white beans – arrive, with spinach, leeks, sorrel, spearmint and parsley. “Anything from my garden”, near the Guest House in the stone village of Kapesovo, one of 46 settlements of Zagori. Known collectively as Zagorohoria, these sparsely populated villages sit high in the Pindus mountains of Epirus in north-west Greece, close to the Albanian border.

“My father’s mother came from Turkey. I like to combine the cultures in my cooking”, Joanna tells me the next evening. Zucchini fritters with yoghurt appear, sprinkled with parsley, dill and spearmint; stuffed tomatoes with rice; minced meat, mashed potatoes and porcini mushrooms, foraged earlier from the side of a mountain track.

Historically, the Zagorian region relied on family members sending money back from where they found work – Turkey, Egypt, southern Greece – to survive. But some villagers are slowly embracing independence, proud to share their heritage with outsiders.

After dinner, I wander down the narrow stone alleyways to the plateia, the heart of the village and inevitably shaded by the vast, gnarled limbs of an ancient plane tree.

I’m welcomed here too, by Joanna’s mother and father, at Sterna. The tiny shop is named after the 13 metre deep well, built in 1848 to collect rainwater for the villagers. The symbolic sterna is now an illuminated feature in the middle of a Zagorian treasure-chest. I’m offered tsipouro, the traditional ouzo digestive. Then a few aperitif liqueur flavours, all made from local ingredients: walnuts, cranberries, fig. And bitter orange, surprisingly infused with coffee beans. And a Greek coffee, as black and treacly as a vat of molasses.

During the daytime, try homemade lemonade or sour cherry juice, served in wide-rimmed jam jars and topped with a single, fragrant mint leaf. Or buy mountain tea, foraged from near Kapesovo and sheafed like an archer’s quiver. Some bellows for the winter fire, perhaps, made from local black elderberry wood.

My final breakfast from Joanna is a banana and peach smoothie; fried egg, with ham wrapped around grilled cheese as comfortingly as a Zagorian welcome; homemade bread, jams and cake.

I leave Kapesovo reluctantly. But as I begin to climb the 1,200 ancient stone steps towards the next village of Vradeto, I smile and wonder whether the packed lunch in my rucksack might include a piece of peach cake.

From Corfu to Zagoria – meeting Roy Hounsell

I started dipping into the book over dinner at the enchanting Thoukididis Guest House in Kapesovo, one of the 46 villages of the remote, mountainous area of Zagoria in north-west Greece, close to the Albanian border.

I had started my trip in Corfu. So had the author.

I was seduced by Zagoria. So was the author.

I was hooked by his story. He by the village of Koukouli.

Roy Hounsell had run out of advertising ideas. Disillusioned, he and his wife Effie had left England for Corfu in 1980, with no plan and in search of adventure.  Several years later, having fallen into a swimming pool business, they thought Corfu was being over-developed.

By chance, they visited Zagoria on the mainland, and were immediately attracted by its remoteness, traditions and serenity. After many challenges finding and buying a property to restore, they moved to the village of Koukouli in 1991.

The engaging, sometimes wryly cynical, always acutely observed story – The Papas and the Englishman – ends with Roy and Effie about to rent out a couple of rooms in their extended home, but firmly embedded in village life and accepted into the friendly community.

As chance would have it, my own journey – 25 years later – would take me to their village. On a July morning as sizzling as a Greek souvlaki skewer, I left Kapesovo and walked way down through forested hillsides, to the ancient stone bridge of Kokkori just below Kipi, and onwards to Koukouli.

At a traditional taverna under the welcoming shade of a vast plane tree, I guzzled an icily cold bottle of water and asked the owner if he had heard of Roy Hounsell.

I’ll show you the house if you like, once you’ve finished your drink.”

“You mean he still lives here?”

“Yes. But his wife Effie….she is kaput. Two years ago.”

Refreshed – and intrigued – I followed him through the traditional stone alleyways of a Zagorian village, terraced and climbing the natural contours of the Ottoman settlement. He pulled on the rope dangling down in front of some elegant, solid wooden gates, releasing the rustic lock mechanism and allowing us into the spacious hidden courtyard.

Roy“, he called.

A woman appeared. “Go up“, she said.

The bar owner nodded in the direction of some stone steps leading to the right hand one of two similar, handsome, traditional Zagorian houses.

I looked tentatively into the doorway and there, to my left, down a few steps in a slightly sunken room, was Roy Hounsell, author of The Papas and the Englishman.

Come in, come in“, he said, as though welcoming an old friend.

He was propped up in bed, cigarette in hand, whisky bottle on the cluttered bedside table, wearing pyjamas and a slightly louche look. Rather like Peter O’Toole after a night out with Oliver Reed.

I tried to shake his hand. He offered me the other one, awkwardly. “Had a stroke. About 4 years ago.”

The woman – his housekeeper, I think – appeared. “What would you like? Coffee? Tea? Whisky?

“A Greek coffee would be lovely. Thank you.”

A few minutes later, she brought a small tray laden with coffee as strong as the EU position on Greek debt, a glass of iced water and 2 slices of homemade cake, as I chatted to Roy.

For close to an hour, this charming and entertaining man regaled me with stories about his life, the book, his contacts, his health and his love of the village he and Effie had made home.

He answered a stranger’s direct – and often personal – questions unflinchingly.

Do you get back to England?

Not any more. What’s the point? Nothing there for me.”

He gave me his publisher’s contact details so that I could get a copy of the book and read it properly.

He gave me his own phone number so that I could contact him again.

But most of all, he gave me a warm glow. Roy is obviously no longer in the best of health, is without his beloved Effie and unable to drive, but even now – propped up in bed, coughing and uncomfortable – he exuded a lust for life and for language.

Have you read Bill Bryson? Funny writer.”

I thanked Roy for his spontaneous hospitality, wished him luck and headed back to the taverna, under the shade of a vast plane tree.

The Papas and the Englishman

 

Courchevel ski trip

Just back from our annual pilgrimage to the ski slopes of Europe. To Courchevel in the French Alps this time, part of the wider classic Trois Vallées ski domain.

I say annual, but Gill and I did sneak in a cheeky additional week on the pistes this year, at Champoluc in Italy with old friends Nigel & Julie Cripps.

Courchevel was with our usual group of alpinistes, whose ageing process I wrote wistfully about after the St Anton expedition a year ago. Sadly prophetic, the Gang of Eight was reduced through poor health to the Team of Six for this year’s outing.

Not wanting to betray the gang’s ethos – just us being pampered in a catered chalet, with a list of priorities longer than an EU summit’s – we stayed at Robin & Maggie’s own apartment in Courchevel. My brother Paul and sister-in-law Carol completed the reduced team.

The delightful village of Courchevel Le Praz sits at 1300 metres, lower than the bling-tastic resorts of Courchevel 1650 and 1850, but more of a living, breathing local community. And you don’t have to speak Russian.

Thanks to intense pre-tour negotiations, we managed to agree an interesting array of catering solutions: each couple would conjure up a feast one night; we would celebrate both Gill’s birthday (first night) and Robin’s (last night) at local restaurants; we would trial a catered meal, delivered to and eaten in the apartment; and for the remaining night, we might buy a ready-prepared meal from the excellent boucherie in the village.

It all worked so well that perhaps we should copyright and market the concept to self-catering chalets throughout the world. Mix & Match Catering Solutions? Smorgasbord Ski Meals? Courchevel Catering Concepts?

We splashed out on the celebratory meals, at Le Bistrot du Praz for Gill’s birthday and at the Michelin starred Azimut for Robin’s. In the end, we had a decadently long and late lunch – rather than dinner – at Azimut, leaving the slopes early in anticipation of deteriorating conditions and fading light.

This was sadly the story of our skiing week….clouds, limited visibility, and constantly changing conditions, with occasional bursts of brilliant sunshine and huge dumps of fresh powdery snow. Essentially as varied as the catering package.

Still, as Gill always says, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Which nearly happened to Robin one day. Dying, rather than adding muscle to his slight frame.

After impressing us for days with his Zen-like affinity with Courchevel’s vast network of pistes and lifts, guiding us safely down the mountain in clouds as thick as Gérard Depardieu’s accent, towards the end of the week he promptly disappeared from amongst us.

In limited visibility and in the teeth of an icy blizzard, we all headed down the well-known blue track to the appointed meeting place, right of a large rock.

I passed Robin and stopped at the rock. The others arrived. Robin didn’t. We waited 10 minutes. We considered our options. We waited some more.

Half an hour later, we were finally reunited, further down the mountain in Courchevel 1850.

Robin had contrived to ski away from the marked track, falling head-first into deep snow and losing his skis. And if you’ve ever fallen in fresh powder, you’ll know that finding a ski is like looking for a cup of coffee costing less than €6 in the 3 Valleys.

He found them. He lived. He’s another year older, if not wiser.

In imperfect conditions, we still had a great week. But hopefully next year, the Gang of Eight will be reunited.

Extreme Bucket List

One of the silly little Christmas prezzies I got Gill was a pack of cards.

But not a normal deck. These cards contain a list of 500 Totally Extreme Awesome Out There & Radical Things To Do. “The ultimate list of 500 EXTREME things that just have to be done at least once. WARNING! Not for the faint-hearted.”

The original idea behind this blog was to share the spirit of a vibrant post-work life with you. With that in mind, have a crack at some of these ideas from Gill’s special cards. Some of them really are radical, extreme and out there. Gill has already done some of them. I’ve done others. Some are impossible….whatever your age. Some are just stupid.

Here are a handful to inspire/scare/appal you:

12 – hike Corsica’s GR20, Europe’s mountain trek  (we’ve done a couple of very small bits, does that count? Doing the whole thing is a real challenge, but one that was always on our list. We’re not getting any younger though….)

497 – meditate every day for a year (Gill doesn’t slow down enough to meditate for 5 minutes, so a whole year would be a real stretch)

256 – take the bullet train in Japan  (I’ve done that one – on business in the 1990s – but Gill can keep it on her list)

372 – start your own business   (Gill started and ran South Minster Kitchens for 14 years)

398 – stand in a supermarket, pretending to do market research, preferably with an accent (I like this one: fun, easily achievable….and totally humiliating. Sainsburys in Godalming, you’ve been warned)

344 – mentor a youth (do Gill’s nephew Ben and nieces Jess & Lucy count? She’s always telling them what to do. Sorry, helping to steer them in the right direction)

44 – press to impress with extreme ironing – it really is a sport (unlikely…..Gill doesn’t even know where the iron lives. That’s my job)

480 – go to a train station and take the next train to its destination (love this one too. Also, go to an airport and take the next flight out…wherever it’s going)

479 – start a religion (an interesting challenge, but dangerous. The ones we’ve got already don’t seem to co-exist very peacefully)

211 – climb Kilimanjaro  (woohooo…we’ve both done that one already. A painful tick)

154 – learn kung fu at Wudang Shan – but you have to become a monk first (I told you some of them are just ridiculous)

55 – ride on the outside of a tram in San Francisco (great excuse to book a trip to the West Coast)

345 – go to a naturist camp (no offence Gill, but if we’re doing this challenge, let’s do its sooner rather than later)

85 – climb Mount Everest (that might have stayed on the list….until a few days ago)

79 – walk hot coals in northern Greece (now this is timely….we’re going to Thessaloniki and Halkidiki in April. I think Gill should take up the challenge. Well, they are her cards)

457 – throw a tomato at an electric fan (ha! While it’s going, presumably. And preferably in someone else’s house, Gill)

OK, you get the idea. Fun, crazy, ridiculous, impossible…but also strangely inspiring. And the clock is ticking…..

Good luck, and enjoy the card game with a difference.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Movie review – Everest

I am officially old.

How so?

Because today was a first experience of the Odeon’s Silver Cinema deal. Great recent movies available only to the over-55s, and for the scarcely believable price of £3. Throw in a cup of coffee, a few biscuits and a free pair of dentures, and why would you want to spend a couple of hours on a hypothermic Thursday morning in January anywhere else?

I dragged Gill along too. Technically, she doesn’t qualify. She’s 53. Nearly 54 though, which is very nearly 55, right? OK, so she looks more like 43….but with a walking stick and a fake driving licence, we got in. And we climbed Kilimanjaro together, so I couldn’t leave her behind when we were going to Everest, could I?

The experience of summiting (yes, I know it’s not really a proper verb, but it just sounds so impressive) Kilimanjaro was brutal enough. But if I ever harboured thoughts of attempting to climb the world’s highest peak, this movie has dispelled them.

Everest is based on the true story of an ascent by different groups of climbers in 1996. But during the fateful summit attempt on 10th May, nature unleashed one of the most extreme snowstorms ever experienced on the mountain, with inevitable consequences for mere humans.

Everest (2015) Poster

The story is told like an old-fashioned disaster movie. The main strand focuses on Rob Hall (played by Jason Clarke), an experienced Kiwi leading his Adventure Consultants team and clients. In the climbing group, paying an eye-watering $65,000 each to play poker with death, are Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori) and Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), amongst others.

Scott Fischer (a very beardy and heavy-drinking Jake Gyllenhall) leads a more maverick team of his own, appropriately named Mountain Madness, but the two groups unite for the summit attempt.

Back at base camp, Helen Wilton (Emily Watson) plays the Adventure Consultants support role. She also provides a convenient communication and narrative link between the climbers and their humanising back-story partners.

In New Zealand, Rob’s wife Jan (Keira Knightley) is expecting their first child, and Peach (Robin Wright) is Beck’s feisty wife back in Texas.

But the real star of the movie is the mountain. Aerial shots make you gasp at the smallness of the climbers as they begin the final, fateful ascent. And, in the eye of the storm, Everest wreaks a terrible toll.

A couple of journalists survive, including Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly). He wrote a controversial book himself about the climb – Into Thin Air – which I just have to read myself now for a contrary view.

In one of the camps shortly before the fateful summit attempt, he apologises for having to ask the inevitable question: why are you doing it?

Beck has already said he gets depressed at home in Texas, away from mountains.

Doug, a simple man who delivers the mail at home in the US, has failed before and says it’s because he can. Not to try again would just be wrong.

Yasuko, a Japanese climber in her late 40s, needs to climb Everest to complete the ultimate mountaineers’ quest: summiting the 7 highest peaks of the 7 continents.

This is an emotional film to watch, as all well-told disaster movies should be. It’s not without its faults, but it kept a bunch of Guildford geriatrics very quiet for a couple of hours, enthralled by the majesty of nature and the vulnerability of man.

I felt really old after the final credits had rolled.

 

 

 

Book review – A Whole Life

The oft used adage less is more has never been more appropriate than when applied to this charming book:

I chose A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler as my first selection for Steve Dover’s West Surrey Book Club, not quite at random but certainly serendipitously. And because of my own affinity with mountains.

Its brief description on Amazon captivated me as completely as seeing the sun rise on a single mountain, clad in fresh overnight snow.

Andreas Egger lives a simple, hard existence through the first half of the 20th century in a remote valley high in the Austrian Alps. He is at one with his natural habitat, often sleeping on the grass outside his ramshackle hut….and in moments like these he knew that the mountains breathed.

He falls unexpectedly in love and – almost wordlessly – marries Marie. She, together with their unborn baby, dies in an avalanche. He leaves the valley only to fight on the Eastern Front in World War II, spending 8 years incarcerated in desolate conditions.

He returns home to continue working amongst his beloved mountains, helping to construct lifts for the burgeoning ski market. He stumbles into a late career as a mountain guide. He dies.

The book is a mere 149 pages. I read it in not much more than 2 hours. Its simplicity, honesty and beautiful prose captivated me from first to last.

As far as he knew, he had not burdened himself with any appreciable guilt, and he had never succumbed to the temptations of the world: to boozing, whoring and gluttony. He had built a house, had slept in countless beds, stables, on the back of trucks, and even a couple of nights in a Russian wooden crate. He had loved. And he had had an intimation of where love could lead. He had seen a couple of men walk on the Moon. He had never felt compelled to believe in God, and he wasn’t afraid of death. He couldn’t remember where he had come from, and ultimately he didn’t know where he would go. But he could look back without regret on the time in between, his life, with a full-throated laugh and utter amazement.

Charlotte Collins has done a remarkable job translating Herr Seethaler’s original German text.

Read and enjoy A Whole Life….both what it says and how it’s said.