29 June 2014

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Hello fellow travellers, 
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Mountaineering and Walking trips 

Aiguilles des Glaciers - July 2004
Allalinhorn - August 2004
Bernese Oberland - July 2002
Bernese Oberland - August 2009
Bhutan - October 2011 

Camino de Santiago, Spain - October 2012
Cayambe - November 2004
Chamonix to Zermatt - July 2003
Chimborazo - November 2004
Cosmiques Arête - July 2005
Cotopaxi - November 2004
Domes de Miage Traverse - July 2004
Ecrins - September 2005
Ecuador - November 2004
Ethiopia - February 2008
Everest Base Camp - January 2003
French Alps - May 2001
French Alps - July 2005
French Alps - July 2006
Grindelwald - August 2009
Gokyo Lakes - January 2003
Gozo - December 2013
Haut Chablais - August 2009
Haute Route - July 2003
High Atlas, Morocco - August 2005
Humla Circuit, Nepal - June 2012
Jomsom Trail and Mustang - Nepal May/June 2012
Kilimanjaro - August 2007
Lake District - October 2010
Lake District - A Life in The Lakes
Ladakh - August 2008 
Madeira - July 2013 
Matterhorn Circuit - August 2010
Mönch - August 2009
Mont Blanc - September 2002
Morzine - August 2009
Nepal - January 2003
Pyrenees - September 2006
Scotland - May 2011 

Sicily & the Aolian Islands - April 2014
Sierra de Gredos, Spain - June 2014
Sierra Subbéticas, Spain - March 2013
Sikkim Himalaya - April 2009
Simien Mountains - February 2008 

Slovenia - June 2013
Stok Kangri - August 2008
Swiss Valais - August 2001
Swiss 4000ers - August 2004
Tour des Glaciers de la Vanoise - September 2004
Tour du Mont Blanc - August 2003
Tour du Mont Blanc - July 2004
Tour of the Oisans - September 2005 

Tour Ronde - July 2005
Turkey - April 2013
Walker's Haute Route - August 2001 
Weissmies - August 2004

Worldwide Adventure Trips

Thailand - February 2007


Sierra de Gredos, Spain - June 2014

Just a couple of hours drive west of Madrid are the mountains which divide the river valleys of the Tiétar and Tormes, rising in granitic solitude to the peak of Almanzor at 2592m.

Granite features at the Puerto de Peón

Magnificent views on the Laguna Grande walk

Typical upland scenery in the Sierra de Gredos - broom everywhere!
Apart from weekends, this region remains largely devoid of visitors, a vast area of upland populated by herds of cattle at medium altitude and the higher elevations by the big horned ibex, standing proud over their domain, only bettered by the numerous raptors soaring high above them - griffin vultures, golden eagle, red kites and numerous black storks who descend to their prominent nests on buildings and towers in the towns and villages to keep an wary eye on the local residents. 

Summit views from El Torozo 2121m

Big horned ibex on the summit of El Torozo
Granite outcrops
The north of the region, my base for a week's exploration, is a country of foothills covered in yellow flowering broom, heather and grassland, with higher peaks protruding beyond them, still holding on to old snow in the northern corries and rocky gullies in the summery glare of June. Cattle roam far and wide, still rounded up by horsemen in this part of the world, and the area punctuated by characterful little villages, nestling quietly in peaceful solitude. In the high country there are outcrops of granite that would give the granite monoliths of Tioga Pass up from Yosemite a run for their money, and fine tors which remind me of the barren tops of Dartmoor in the UK.

Bullring in Santa Cruz de Valle
View towards Toledo from the Mirador on La Abantera
View over San Esteban
Venture a little further south, crossing the 1395m pass of Puerto del Pico on a fine mountain road which vies for attention with a cobbled Roman road which runs down the same defile to Cuevas de Valle, you enter a different climatic zone. Hotter days here, although a cooling breeze can still plummet down from the heights to relieve you at times, and a proliferation of trees bearing olives, figs and citrus fruit amidst free spirited vineyards, quite unlike their disciplined brothers further north in Rioja.
Or go further north, cross a 1900m pass towards Piedrahita, favoured by the hang gliding fraternity, and you enter the vast rolling plains which stretch up to the elegant little city of Salamanca and west to the Portugeuse border. Vast swathes of grassland punctuated by stunted oak trees and barley crops as far as the eye can see.
Although it's mid summer here in Spain and the sun hot on the face during the day, a good breeze is pervasive, and cool, even chilly nights make life here very tolerable. The granite peaks make for good rock-climbing territory, and there are many trails (GR, 'Grand Randonnee', and smaller 'PR') which are generally well waymarked with wooden posts, cairns or vertical rock pillars. The most popular, best avoided at weekends, is the Laguna Grande, an easy high level walk to visit the grand cirque and glacial lake below Almanzor. Other walks like the pull up to the pass at Puerto de Peón at over 1900m or the fine summit of El Torozo 2021m will find you virtually alone on the tracks, apart from the watchful ibex and the raptors hunting high above.
The conservation authorities have done their best to encourage people to walk the area, without causing erosion on the more popular routes, although some, like the 'Five Viilages' circuit from San Estaban in the south, or the climb to the wonderful viewpoint of Mirador La Abantera take intervention to a minimalist level, with infrequent signposts and a reliance on old wooden signs and small cairns to guide you through the pine forests. 
A day off to visit Salamanca, 90 minutes drive to the north from my base in the little village of Hoyos del Espino, was very enjoyable. Two cathedrals, a Roman bridge, and fine golden sandstone that dominates the architecture of this small university city make Salamanca a great place to visit. And the town square, the Plaza Mayor, is a truly impressive centrepiece of this UNESCO World Heritage city. Temptations galore of course, local preserved hams, savoury pie and pastries, plus, of course, the myriad tapas bars.

Plaza Major in Salamanca

View from the Puerto de Chia, 1710m
And, on the way back to Madrid for the flight home, the beautifully preserved walled town of Avila is worth a couple of hours of anybody's time:


Had it not been for Headwater, the walking and cycling holiday company that I like to use, Sierra de Gredos would never have been on my radar, but with their help I've discovered a lovely part of Spain. 

Room with a view!
Early morning light over the Almanzor massif
My base, the excellent little hotel El Milano Real in Hoyos del Espino, has been a treat. Elevated views to the highest peaks of the Sierra de Gredos, excellent food (especially their signature breakfast), with knowledgeable and genial hosts Teresa and Paco. 
Definitely worth the journey!

02 April 2014

Sicily & the Aolian Islands - April 2014

Another self-indulgent adventure! 
This time I'm wandering around on the islands of Lipari, Vulcano and Stromboli to the north of the island of Sicily, hopping between them all by hydrofoil, and doing some walks in the wild volcanic scenery of this appealing archipelago. Collectively they're known as the Isola Eolie, or the Liparian or Aolian Islands, named after the Greek god of wind, Aeolus.
The journey begins in Catania, Sicily's second city, after a flight of some 2 hours 40 minutes from London Gatwick. It's typically Italian in flavour, with wide boulevards and plentiful piazza, buildings of fading grandeur, and bustling streets full of stylishly dressed locals. And there's a big student presence here with a university in the town, so there's an energy about the place.
The city sits under the brooding 3,300m Etna volcano and there's a smoke plume emanating from the snow-capped summit as I write, which means summit access is likely to be closed whilst I'm here. 
The temperature here in early April is a very pleasant 20C, and it was a pleasure walking around Catania's centre, starting in the attractive Villa Bellini gardens. Near the Duomo there's a busy fish market and hidden within it there's a restaurant called Fratelli Vitorio, the decor rather basic, but some excellent fish antipasti and a main of grilled fish was enjoyed. A nice way to kick off the trip.

Villa Bellini Gardens, Catania
Central Catania

Leaving Catania, my transfer took me to the northern port of Milazzo for the hydrofoil journey to the largest of the Aolian Islands, Lipari. The road to Milazzo was interesting, passing the eastern flanks of Mount Etna, smoke billowing from a new eruption, the slopes extensively cloaked in snow. Catania has been wiped out by many lava flows over the centuries, the northern end of town comprised almost entirely of new builds. 
Passing orange and lemon trees, olive groves and stands of prickly pear, we were soon approaching the hill towns around Taormina, pine trees now more prevalent, alongside eucalyptus, cherry and almond trees. Attractive mountainous but densely populated landscapes (apparently there are 6 million people living in Sicily, one tenth of the Italian total).
Passing the port of Messina, mainland Italy, Calabria, comes into view, just 3km away at the nearest point, and tempting a future road trip. 
The crossing to Lipari took one hour 10 minutes, via the island of Vulcano, on a flat calm sea. 
The first walk of my trip started with a local bus ride across Lipari to reach Quattropani on the west coast. With fine views to the nearby volcanic island of Salina and the more distant Filicudi and Alicudi, there was a 500m descent through old kaolin workings to reach a fine coastal path which took me through stands of bamboo, white flowering thistle, prickly pear and gorse to reach more solid tracks into the village of Pianoconte.

The island of Salina from Lipari

Good walking country, Lipari's south coast
Kaolin workings south west of Quattropani

Ascending the concrete tracks it was notable that black obsidian was frequently embedded in the surface, a clear sign of the volcanic heritage of Lipari. 
As the afternoon drew on I was conscious of a strengthening wind, yet why was I was getting even hotter? Ah, it's the scirocco, the hot wind straight from the Sahara, which periodically affects the Meditteranean countries. And, dropping down to Lipari, the sea was certainly getting more lively, a sign of more turbulent conditions that then prevailed overnight. My little reward for the effort of the day? An excellent lemon ice cream enjoyed in the cosy Marina Corta, near my little hotel, the attentive Rocce Azzurro, right next to the sea. 

Cathedral in Lipari
Self indulgence in Marina Corta!

As many times before, I'm travelling with Headwater, the holiday company who always seem to choose characterful, often family run, hotels as a base for some great walking and cycling routes. 
The following day, cloudy with a cool breeze, took me on a ten minute hydrofoil ride to the small island of Vulcano, completely dominated by the volcanic cone with fumeroles on the periphery venting sulphurous gases. 

Gran Cratere della Fossa, from the harbour in Vulcano

The ascent was straightforward, on a wide track of coarse ash, then compacted volcanic soil, then rockier towards the crater rim. A climb of about 350m, despatched in 50 minutes, although the intended clockwise circuit was compromised by excessive fumerole emissions, which yours truly wisely avoided by going anticlockwise to the summit at 394m. Good views into the crater, and hazy views back to Lipari and neighbouring islands. An easy excursion, barely deserving a beer, but I rewarded myself anyway. 

Views from the crater rim, Vulcano 

After a rest day in Lipari, finishing the excellent book The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, a story of the demise of Sicilian nobility following the Italian unification movement which started in the mid 18th century, it was time to hop on another hydrofoil, this time to the northernmost of the Aolian Islands, Stromboli.
Somewhat alarmingly, the boat first headed south, so I assumed I had boarded the wrong one, but after picking up passengers in Vulcano, it then headed for the island of Salina, passing Lipari once again and affording views to the village of Cannetto, formerly a centre for the extraction and export of high quality pumice, used commercially as a polisher. Salina boasts two extinct craters, and is good for the cultivation of vines and capers. Next, we stopped on the smaller island of Panarea, which has a Bronze Age (13-14th century BCE) village on the southern tip, and some active fumaroles. About 90 minutes after setting off we reached Stromboli, it's famous volcanic peak rearing sharply upwards and one of Europe's few active volcanoes. 

The name Stromboli is derived from the Greek "strombos", meaning 'conical'. The summit, at 924m, is an extinct cone, and today there are three active craters on the northern slopes. The last major eruption was in 1930, and today the mountain is closely monitored and the town streets are festooned with signs pointing out tsunami escape routes and assembly points. 

I walked one of the popular volcano circuits to view the regular eruptions of the lowest of the active vents (it erupts, quite explosively and noisily, about every 20 minutes). This is the Sciara del Fuoco, the 'road of fire', which climbs through dense vegetation on a good path to a helipad at 425m, beyond which access is only permitted with a guide. It's quite a spectacle and worth the effort, with an easy descent route back to the village of Stromboli via a paved mule track originally built for the filming of the '50s film 'Stromboli, Terra di Dio', starring Ingrid Bergmann.

But the highlight of my stay was the evening walk to the secondary summit, at 900m, to look down into the three active craters and enjoy the spectacle of one of the best natural firework displays in the world. And it didn't disappoint. The lower crater was most active, the other two mainly emitting great clouds of steam and gas. But as soon as darkness fell, you could see the tremendous lava explosions happening almost continuously in both of them. The climb takes about two hours, and our guided group had about an hour on the summit, albeit very cold due to a strong wind. 
The ascent is relatively easy, although involves a sustained climb, crossing black lava sand and following a path up through some rockier sections. The summit ridge was gained just as the sun was setting. Awesome.

The return journey takes a different route, leaving the summit directly southwards, and almost immediately you are walking on deep black sand, acting like a brake on your descent and making the relatively steep ground easy to descend. It's always surreal being on a mountain at night, and this evening was no exception. On the descent, our group quietly concentrated on foot placement assisted by head torches, leaving the black bulk of Stromboli behind us, a clear sky above revealing its constellations, boats moored far below us sporting their tell tale starboard and port lights, and the lights of Calabria and Sicily twinkling in the far distance. 
We dropped about 450m in less than an hour, eventually getting back to the village by about 2200. Just in time for a celebratory beer and pizza. 
It was an early start the following morning, the day showing all the signs of being warm and sunny, and the 0715 Siremar hydrofoil whisked me back to Milazzo, the Sicilian port just north of Messina, en route to my next destination, the historic town of Taormina. 

Hydrofoil ferry for the Aolian Islands

Snow-capped Mount Etna from Taormina, access above 2500m closed due to current volcanic activity levels 

Taormina is a joy to visit. My accommodation, the Hotel del Corso, adjacent to the western gateway to the town, the Porta Catania, is actually located on the principal street, Corso Umberto I, which, even in early season was thronged with visitors (mainly Brits and Germans) as I arrived. 
With the sun shining, an early lunch preceded a walk through this attractive town, established in the 3rd century BCE, and variously settled by the Greeks, Romans, Arabs and Normans. The Roman period dominates the town's architecture and infrastructure, although there are the remains of a large Greek theatre (albeit heavily remodelled by the Romans in the first century CE), just to the east of the town centre.
My walk took me steeply up to Castelmola, a village which functioned as a protective fortress over Taormina, and affords excellent views over the coast north and south of the town, and down to a ruined Saracen castle and nearby Santurio Madonna Rocca. A superb panoramic path from Castelmola's duomo brought me swiftly back into town, with great views to the coast and to Etna. A good day!

Lunch at the splendid Rosso Peperoncino in Taormina

Chiesa di San Giussepe, from Piazza IX Aprile, Taormina

Etna above Taormina

Saracen castle above Taormina

Duomo in Castelmola


Distant views to Etna

Snow clad Mount Etna 3,300m

The final day on Sicily. An early morning walk, a climb of about 200m to the Santuario Madonna Rocca and the castle just above it. Already warm by 0800, this was certainly the time to get up the steps to this fine viewpoint. 

Views from Santuario Madonna Rocca

Later I walked through the town and down 300 steps to the beach near Isola Bella, followed by a quick look at the sizeable Teatro Antico, a splendid Greek/Roman amphitheatre accessed via the touristy Piazza Vittorio Emanuele. 

View down to Capo Sant' Andrea and Isola Bella

Teatro Antico, Taormina

A lazy afternoon and outstanding dinner at Trattoria Da Nino (Via Luigi Pirandello, just down the road from the top cable car station, on the right) prepared me nicely for the homeward journey the following morning, courtesy of EasyJet.


Well, you know you're on Italian soil when the young guys leave their girlfriends waiting whilst they look in men's clothes shop windows, or is it that they're checking their own reflection?!
Sicily, still a proud island race, and the macho culture prevails. On the Islands fishermen wiled away the hours in bars playing cards and drinking grappa; in the towns they strut, talking volubly, and one thinks of Mafiosi on every corner, not that's the case nowadays...there's not enough money to be made here away from the mainland.
But the food is great, if expensive in the tourist honeypots, fresh fish and local vegetables abound...I've even learnt to like capers. And the scenery and townscapes are magnificent. Early season the climate is a bit fickle, but when the sun shines it's mellowed by cool breezes, and the tourist spots aren't too manic. But I'd avoid high season in places like Stromboli and Taormina: very popular with Italians, Brits and Germans, these beautiful spots would have far too many people swooning over the sights for my personal taste.
However, I'll be back! Many more walks to do on both Sicily and the Aolian Islands, and the local wine isn't bad either.