Winter journey

Scotland
Train Glasgow to Crewe, 5.10.20

Suddenly excitement. Travelling through England

Steely sunlight upon brilliant green grass – enervating all ycolours, pinpointing  each sheep, artistically distinct, – grey steely clouds massive above, which call to be hailed and resounded by colossal choirs. Here is magnificence, which I move through with smoothness and speed on the train, travelling southwards through to England.. a new journey – can I shout it! Who would believe that the small demure figure I just saw reflected in the window could be so inwardly moved… at the drama and beauty outwith, at the momentousness of the prospect of new regions to discover, new beauties to marvels at, new vistas of the unknown,  heightened with the challenges of rain, cold, wind and weather, of human frailty in the face of dampness and fog. 

But now in the actuality of living life in the present – unexpectedly – suddenly aware of the wonderfulness of travelling again…
More sheep, caught in artistic detail,  the corner of a smooth running river – a steely white reflection, like a silver coin planted amongst the landscape of greens, soft and fully wet – wet without rain. 
I have to look, loath to miss any of it.
Black silhouettes of pines just now by  the line as we pass.
Feeling myself reconnecting with something huge that was becoming lost – passing three Asians earlier as I cycled to the station through back ways of Glasgow, who struck  me as exotic, so I wanted to observe them and look longer. Then I remember how formerly I’d travelled through their original countries, how I’d become familiar with their culture, such that the ways of those places for a while had become normality. 
Maybe it has something to do with the clouds – massive, rising, grey centred, edged with white which sears with a brilliance to match my present feelings – present, moving, changing awaiting the drama of the journey to be enacted, startled to action, by the sunlight that streams upon me through the window as we glide. It’s more than serenity now, when that sun streams down (which is not always, when it goes, the sheep are again woolly and grey).
Just now excitement prevails

The Bay of Biscay 12.10.20

How to share all that has happened in the five days since my last notes. Here now upon the Port Aven boat, somewhere in the beautiful deep grey blue of the Bay of Biscay – there’s a map of the sea on the upper (tenth) deck of the boat, indicating part that we cross is 4000 metres deep, where sperm whales 18 metres long lurk, and occasionally surface to be seen.

Colossal too is this ship, upon the sixth deck of which I stand, at the rear, overlooking two nozzles of spewing white foam emanating behind as the giant engines power us along. It’s a smooth ride, as the Frenchman commented; and he surely must know; he’d been tying up my bicycle (somewhat cursorarily). 
On this deck you can walk around the whole ship, suggesting the aesthetics of the French, (which makes me feel a reason for sometime returning to their country.) As I promenaded around I was  sorry this journey is so soon to be ended, and that I couldn’t be on the boat for several days with a luxurious excess of time, taking the walk around the deck every few hours, until in the end I’d become bored of it.
Everything is exciting now – maybe rendered more so because of the uncertainty, (maybe) – how will it be when we get there? Will they let us all in, even though we have filled in the forms, and got everything right as far as we are able. No matter ones carefulness one is always caught out with procedures, which change with the wind, but are set in stone. 
But now, the sea and the wondrousness of all about me is so overwhelming, to defer these considerations to insignificance. And I am excited at prospect of the journey ahead.
Whilst my journey just earlier (which I had sat down intending to write about) across the south of England, from Yeovil to Plymouth, full of greenery, leaves and forest beauty, with golden streams of autumn light, purple moors with rocky tors, pitch dark in my tent til the moon came out in early morning. Now passedl it’s become a nugget in my mind, of the beauty of existence which I cannot readily unravel without disrupting its serenity, even though at the time it seemed so full of points of interest to share.
There’s excitement too in the prospect of learning more Spanish, of being amongst its gentle inhabitants. For I loved Spain before, and already I begin to love it again.
Spain

On the summit if Alto de Toro 17.10.20

Now I see the snow – extensive and foreboding upon two higher ranges of mountains inland from here, whilst on my other side is the Cantabrian Sea, which I crossed, coming on the boat. So I’ve not yet lost sight of my starting point, even if, well, being up here on this grassy mountain-top (a modest mountain of 985m) – but yet with a huge space around it, looking out to so many other peaks and sierras, the higher ones snowed, with their heads nestled in chains of cloud. 

There, back towards the sea, is the smaller peak I climbed yesterday, called Ibio, ascending in thick rain, only able to guess at its character from dim enshrouded clues. I found a stony track meandering all the way to the summit, so I kept on my bicycle and rode, emerging above the forest, where the grass was well grazed, and numerous horses, nonchalant of the wet, rendered some company, not minding me. Somehow because of them I felt, as I was descending, that something special and of note had just happened there.
Recalling now why I wanted to come here, to this minor range of foothills, marked on my map as Sierra Ucieda, because, on my first day in Spain, from the clifftop where I sat above the beach, I noticed a jagged line of peaks, and felt the urge to go there. So there was my first step, my first decision with the freedom of having no plans (there had been some, but they’d all got demolished on the way). So now the journey moved a step at a time..
That’s two giant’s steps, I’ve made since sitting there above the quebradas on the cliff, my first footprint made on the summit of Ibio, there with the horses, and a second giant stride bringing me  here to this summit where I’m magnetised by the gigantic scale of all I see around. Just as I’ve been thinking ever since I arrived of the extensiveness of so may things in Spain. Studying my atlas earlier I found more mountain ranges, than I could readily take iSo
 and when I looked at my road maps I found more ranges within these, and whenever  I look I find more; and so many forests, hermitages, parks and reserves. It seems I’ve no hope of forming a picture of it all, yet there lies the inspiration, in the desire, step by step, to somehow achieve this, to the point I decide I’ve tried enough.
Step by step, each view a tiny corner of this vast and complicated land. 
So much of everything, so much rain recently fallen, the rivers swirling up their banks, gushing down in buff brown torrents, so much beauty in the forest that I passed earlier, 

Serenity in sunshine

Auchterhouse Hill 6pm 25.7.20

Here I sit, not exactly on the summit, as it is windy there. I recline with my back to a larch tree, sitting on the tufts of wiry deer grass which surround its bole. It is green here, of that we can’t complain. There is water for free in multitudinous rivers, steams and burns – there must be other names for rivers here, especially if you knew some Gaelic.
So I do not see the view to the west and the south from here, which I know and which is becoming familiar. Is this a compensation, I ask myself, the beauty of familiarity and really understanding the complexities of the land.
That was my incentive for my first journey, which was only six days, at the end of May and the beginning of June, when we were still not officially supposed to go anywhere, or admit that we might seek to or actually be enjoying ourselves. It was one of those occasions which sometimes occurs in the spring here, when ‘high pressure’ sits above the country for a while, and you can guarantee a few days of delightful sunshine and dry.  Hence for me it was impossible not to take advantage of it. So I went surreptitiously, and nobody complained, camping in the forests where nobody could see me. There was freedom in those days. I needed to prove something, to prove that this country had not become a jail, and overzealous rule makers had not passed a life sentence. I was also highly desirous to visit the summits of  certain mountains of the skyline from where I stayed which I had been looking at for three months, when until latterly they had been covered formidably in snow. How wonderful it was to be up on the top of Ben Vorlich, that upstanding peak prominent in its vicinity, and, even better, to surpass myself a day later by cycling to the foot of Ben Lawers and climbing that too. Then Ben Vrackie by Pitlochry and Mount Blair, before arriving here in the Sidlaw hills – exploring the skyline, I really had done it.
Well this journey, alas has lacked the serenity of the former – well yes, after three months of dry weather from March until mid June, one need not take much notice of weather forecasts, as one knows the next three months, which accord with the Scottish attempts at summer, (a word really out of place in this climate, yet as occurred to me yesterday, the trees, the birds and the flowers continue through it unabated), will be wet. Hence, when I set out on this second, (somewhat less surreptitious) journey, I was not going prepared for pleasure and relaxation, but ready to battle with drenchings and midges, these little creatures which alas also contribute to rendering the outdoors inhospitable. Through bits of winter, hints of autumn with unexpected twinges of sunshine and relief from rain at times.
But then just earlier as I sat down prior to making camp, in Balkello woods for my final night of this second journey, (in a similar spot to where I camped at the end of my previous journey) – there was sunshine now, infusing a degree of warmth through the trees, and I relived again that sense of serenity, that came in journeys in balmier places, and regained a sense of reality in just being able to be outside and enjoy unconditionally the sights, the space and the air,  which is primarily what inspired me to write this now.
I suppose in essence I like the outdoors to feel hospitable, because that is where I love to be.
But anyway, about the compensation I mentioned earlier. Because, in the three weeks of this journey I have been becoming yet more familiar with the landscape to the skyline and even beyond to the second horizon – out to the islands, Bute, Gigha, Islay and Colonsay, to places which feel not quite fully Scotland, then back on the ferry to Oban. This time I climbed Ben More and Stobinian, on a day when the variegated blanket of grey cloud rested ominously just above the summits, and others up there – for sure there are many on the mountains at this time – were commenting how excellent the weather was that day – and it didn’t actually rain. And there I was at the summit of Stobinian knowing now so much of what I saw in the complicated mountain landscape stretching out in all directions around, under its cloudy blanket, confidently understanding where I stood in this substantial corner of Scotland; on the descent speaking to a couple who had come up for a holiday from Kendal (now it is just beginning to be allowed), who commented how I was very lucky to be living here. And I thought, ‘if it wasn’t for the cold and the rain’. Knowing too that I’m lucky to have the opportunity to explore all this, with its rich gems of  colour retained in the memory, defying photographs, like the adjacent purples of the two heathers in Corree Fee on Friday, twinkling saxifrages nestled in damp nooks, mountain bedstraws in miniature white profusions, startling yellows of tomentil, and buttercups, noticing bilberries and crowberries and the pale-green, drizzled needles of larches and pines.

Ireland 2020

13.8.20 11.45am, Malin Head
Here I sit at the northernmost edge, at the termination of the land, a destination in the journey, the soft sound of the waves rendering a sense of sublimity about being here just now.
The sea appears black below, rolling deep between the cliffs whilst contrasted with pure white of foam where the waves swirl and break about the base of the rocks. Here is a place for birds – there, a neat line of five white gannets move past alongside the shore, whilst I briefly catch sight of small brown pipits flitting by the rocks; two martins pass, now some butterflies.
14.8.20 Rathlin Mountain descent
The mist rolls gently in from the sea which appears as a lake, obscured in its distance. A couple I met earlier were climbing the peak called Mamore which I see ahead of me now.  There were only sheep where I was, pink coloured against the dazzling white rocks, set about the very short heather which grew like a springy carpet. A raven above now, hearing the beating of its wings –  now it is lost in the sky above in the blue – a rarity of colour, a novelty so much appreciated and missed.
I notice Lough Swillin ahead through the haze – there’s so much contentment in that pure blue above, a colour which doesn’t appears in the landscape itself, yet is not out of place above it, and brings out the colours so everything glows.
24.8.20
On the summit of Truskmore, Sligo
From here I can see back to Slieve League, and over to the Blue Stack mountains where I have been, yet did not fully see, in the cold, the mist and the rain.
I see from here, to the west, the Ox Mountains (on the way out to Galway) and also identified the Iron Mountains to the south, neat dark shapes behind Lough Allen, and I am happy to appreciate the vastness to be seen from here, at this turning point on my journey.

There’s a tall mast behind me, with a sign warning of ice falling from it in the winter.  Though today so far no rain has fallen; but tonight it will come again with fury, so a man I just spoke to here told me, advising me to find some better shelter than a tent. There’s a sense of impending rain even now, in the portending greyness of the clouds, which hang at a level just above the hill summits. 

And the further mountains which I see , shrouded too with the prospect of further rain and cold and weather no longer draw me on with a desire to explore then – I’m simply content to have seen them, to have extended my horizon just thus far.
For sure there must be poetry in rain; but it’s hard to appreciate  when you’re constantly out in it. Whist it had struck me at first that this is a poetic land, a suffusion of romance springing from the misty damp landscape, speckled with habitations amidst the ramblings of hills, the people living and managing despite the persistent envelope of greyness and cloud.

There are sheep up here too, with black faces, watching me curiously,  silent behind the background drone of machinery.

Scotland return

3/9/20 Greenhill, 11am

Remembering yesterday the rainbow following behind me as I cycled into the wind, back to here from Gleneagles train station. Even through the sweeping rain I could see the shapes of the hills to my left, familiar, smooth, pale green – the sun is here now as I write, calling me to report, evident in glimmers, serving to remind of  places which exist beyond the ever fomenting blanket of cloud which relentlessly sweeps across these islands. I’ve been beneath it, in the gloom so long, I was almost beginning to accept its inevitability – the grey and rain of Ireland which I arrived back from the evening before last.  And now this morning there are traces of sunlight, a general brightness behind the clouds, which I observe through the window from within the house, through the white frames of the window I painted after arriving here.
These glimmers serve to sustain  possibilities which emerged yesterday – the closer reality  of returning to brighter places without cloud and cold. Understanding too that these glimmers can be enjoyed for their own beauty, as belonging here with this place in moments of hope and serenity. Then I begin to feel a love for Scotland, which I became aware of yesterday, returning, with the rainbow behind, the cool rain ahead, and a soft light radiating through brighter whiter clouds – illumining the purple heather still on the hillsides, along with whites and yellows of tomentils and eyebrights.
It seemed I’d been away so long, swallowed up in the denseness of gloom and wet,  that I must surely find many changes on my return – but no, here were the colours I’d left behind in July, still full and warming, along with nooks bearing traces of history, like the streambed I’d first seen the sedge warbler, and the familiar view of the Ochils I’d sketched. no, it wasn’t about cosy belonging or memory, my returning was about rediscovery, in the novelty of that  moment in time, observing anew the colours, and character of the landscape and people, different from where I’d just come from – the clean, unpeopled slopes stretching into the cool romantic haziness,  wilder than rural.

North Antrim coast observations

August 2020

9.8.20 Sunday 3pm

Summit of Knocklayd 514 m

Here I am upon a rounded hill in the sunshine, sat upon a grassy knoll which has been made, so I read on a notice in the town, at some ancient time. Here we are in the territory of the O’Doherty’s, according to a map I passed in a shop window, and I can look west over to the territory of the McSweeneys, out towards Inishowen in Donegal.

The sky out that way is streaked with clouds in various blues – you would not call them grey in that direction, whilst towards the sun, which is high to the south the sky is steely, portending rain.

I’m amazed how far I can see from here, as though standing upon the brink of the whole of Northern Ireland, down there to the Sperrin Mountains flanking Lough, and west to the Blue Stack Mountains of Donegal.

The wind is warm and the midges stay below, yet the memory of wetness still prevails, not least in the brilliant patches of emerald green, decorated by the deep black profiles of grazing. The sheep I saw were clean with soft, fluffy wool, as to suggest a climate not too harsh.

Another climber has appeared on the peak; she is speaking on her phone in a strong Irish accent, chuckling here and there.

I notice meantime some cottongrass.

‘Beautiful here’, ‘Right, bye’. ‘I’m just on the hill waiting for Pat and John, they’re not far away.’

That is what I recorded. This being Ireland, I was now getting accustomed to the national habit of talking to strangers. So once she had finished I got talking to this lady, and then when they arrived to her friends – they were all from Dublin, up here on holiday, and I was able to give them some information about the ferry to Rathlin Island. Then I met them again the next day, calling me across the street in Ballycastle, and one of them the day after as I was waiting for the ferry to the island, very happy to see me.

11.8.20 On the cliffs above the Amphitheater Bay of the Giant’s Causeway.

Suddenly there is calm, now I see the gulls flying, white against the organ-pipe cliffs before me, which I have just drawn. The sun is here now; it wasn’t earlier. I see small figures below on the rocky shore, dressed in white and pale colours, meandering about the low black rocky promontory, protruding into the sea.

This perch from where I see them belongs to the birds which cackle as they soar about, I suppose they must nest here, as I see many ready made perches atop slim pillars of rock, aware too of the soft sound of the sea below, rings of white foam breaking over low rocks.

Gulls passing, smooth in flight. The sea too is smooth, delicately runnelled over its surface, stretching out with nothing beyond

Amongst the quebradas (fissures), northern Argentina

15.1.20, TilcaraNow, let us say I cheated a little. Because I took the bus from Tupiza (Bolivia), down to the border with Argentina, then another to Humacuaca, which is still in the higher dry mountains, with green valleys and dry rocky slopes above and cacti.

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Coming down from the border I was sitting at the very front of the bus, on the top deck, so had an excellent view. When we pass a place called Tres Cruces, I am beginning to wish I had been cycling, as we come to some unusual scenery, with intriguing coloured bands of folded rock – which I later find out are called quebradas (meaning breaks or fissures in Spanish). I attempt some photos from the moving bus aware that they do it limited justice. At Humahuaca I find myself in a tourist place with many hostels and colourfully dressed young people soaking up the ambience, exotics to this place, with a certain sense of mystery about them to me as to how they got there and how are their lives. A storm hit shortly after I found a place to stay, so grey clouds, thunder and brown streams to wade on the roads as I found my way to a the municipal hill shared with the many young people taking pleasure in being there. I feel content too amongst this scenery. It is cooler and more comfortable than I have experienced for some months.

A bicycle also gives you more options for wild camping.

Yet for me, my real love is climbing mountains. I love to climb up to some high point and survey the land around. I do not object to scrambling over rough ground, but ideally I like a good path, that can be followed with not too much concentration. When I get up into a remote place then I appreciate to see a few signs that people have been there before me.There I was yesterday, finding a path up the rocky slope behind the town, climbing up some 750 metres. It was a little wild up there, a touch inhospitable (hence it was a little comforting to find a cairn on the top of the ridge). The inhospitality was primarily due to the many spiny cacti growing there, and me wearing only soft soled shoes, already somewhat worn. I spent a great deal of time on the descent stopping to remove spines from my shoes with my tweezers and penknife. It was a big job, ever finding more as they worked their way through to prick my feet. All the same I wouldn’t have missed it, my first mountain hike in Argentina.

2014 p2

TUNISIA (1)

I went by shared taxi into Tunisia. When we reached *I was the first to be dropped off. I was still carrying my stuff in the three small bags which the lady had given me in Lithuania. By some mistake when I got out I found I only had two of them. So I lost my sleeping bag and mat, which wasn’t an inconvenience then, but I missed them later in the journey.
There were many date plantations around this little town, which made pleasant walking. One evening in the street I encountered a man called *. It was something of a tourist place with some carpet and tourist shops, so one could expect some touting.  This man was friendly enough, he wanted to take me to see his mother. I said, ‘then she will have to bring me something to eat and drink. And I don’t want to eat anything now, so I will offend her.’  I was still suffering from the remnants of flu and was not at all in the mood for being sociable. So we just walked about.  I met him again the next day. Finally he came with me to the bus station the day I left. He was talking to me as I was waiting in the taxi saying ‘I love you’. I tell him I don’t believe him. Then he unclasped the chain from around his neck and gave it to me. It seemed it meant something even if I, and perhaps also he, didn’t know what that something was. (We are still friends, six years on; he is sometimes there on Facebook, posing about his native place, doing nothing in particular, sometimes in company with his father.)

My whole time in Tunisia I remained in a state of hazy awareness, unable to hear my own voice as I (supposed or wondered if I) shouted in rudimentary French, barely hearing what people said to me, mostly just guessing, probably making replies that didn’t match the questions. But nobody seemed to notice. 
At the coast I took a ferry out to an island, getting some fresh air and finding some pleasant scenery and a few tourists, and by the time I got to Tunis I had almost recovered my hearing.
From Tunis a ferry crosses to Sicily. It  goes overnight, and was supposed to leave at 11. But we had to wait many hours in the port before we were allowed on the boat, sat in a big crowded hall. There I spotted a fellow traveller, wearing a natty black hat, carrying his belongings in a cloth wrapped around a stick. It turned out he was Swiss, a craftsman, doing his two years out of country apprenticeship caller the onthewalz. I had met some before in New Zealand. Then I got talking to a Sicilian man; he was thinking I was travelling with the Swiss. Soon we are all talking, and as the Sicilian spoke good German the two men were able to communicate fully. It turns out they both had an interest in stone carving. The older man then invited us to come and stay at his house in Sicily. So then we are going with him.
He was a businessman, his passport was absolutely full of Tunisia stamps, so he knew the journey well.

SICILY

We arrived next day in *, and went with the man in a train to another town. On the way he is saying how the most important things in life are food and sleep. I say, ‘not for me it is walking.’ He tells me that making food is like love. He says when we get to his house he wants us each to cook some speciality of our country. I couldn’t think of anything off hand, and I can’t have looked very excited at the prospect. So I think this changed the situation in his mind.   So when we got there, we didn’t go in to his house, instead he took us further on to a big abandoned chalet by the fields, that it seemed he intended doing up. It had many rooms and was absolutely jam packed with furniture and assorted stuff. He left us there, telling us he would come back later. Christopher was quite overwhelmed by it all. He was only 22, and feeling it was quite an adventure.
He was very hungry as he had not eaten for 24 hours. And when the man returned he drove us to a takeaway where Chris bought a big pizza and two cans of beer.
It was very cold in the house. I was sorely missing my sleeping bag. There was  one mattress, one duvet and one rug. While Chris kept warm  under the duvet eating his pizza and drinking his beer,  I sat on a chair wrapped in the blanket, whilst we exchanged travellers tales. There was no electricity, so nothing else to do to entertain ourselves. Chris admitted he was quite gullible, relating some scrapes he got into in Tunisia.
Later I slept on the floor on top of the blanket, trying to retain some warmth from the partial cover of a  giant teddy bear.
The next morning I was ready to head off. Chris was intending staying for a while to do some stone carving for the Sicilian.
It was a very nice spot actually, surrounded by olive groves, and I had a very nice walk down through the villages til I got to a main road. It turned out hard work hitchhiking in Sicily, but I persisted for the first day, finding some nice country too in parts with many historic ruins. The next day I took buses and trains, enjoying some pleasing scenery along the way, as I thought of my friend in France, to finally  arrive  in the southeastern corner at the port from where you can take a ferry to Malta.

MALTA (1)

I was lucky on Malta to find a cheap place to stay. It was a big seven floor hotel full of British tourists. It cost only 13 Euros a night which included a comprehensive buffet breakfast which could have lasted you all day. In the past maybe I wouldn’t have liked to stay in proximity with so many Brits, but meeting British when travelling had become a novelty now It was good to see people on holiday enjoying the sun.
There’s a very good bus system in Malta, so it was possible to take a bus out to one place and walk round or by the coasts to return another way. I found some beautiful spots along the coasts. In one I sat watching the waves pounding onto the rocks, thinking about my friend in France who I had already arranged I was going back to see.
By the end of a week I had explored all the best trails in the northern half of the island.

ITALY (3)

I had intending taking the ferry from Sicily to Genoa on the Friday. As it arrived in Genoa at 10 at night I had, at some expense, booked a place to stay on Booking.com. However partly due to delays and partly due to taking a wrong train, I ended up missing the Friday boat. I tried to change the booking but they were full on the Saturday, so I had to cancel it. This was when booking.com was less sophisticated, and if you cancelled it was rather at the discretion of the hotel to charge you. And often they didn’t.
When I arrive in Genoa on the Saturday  I walk around trying several hotels, they are all full and the cheapest was 90 Euros. One of them had given me a map of the city, so I thought I would go to the botanic gardens and sleep there. However I found it was surrounded by walls, so you couldn’t get in. Eventually I end up lying on my piece of plastic behind some trees by a house which belonged to the university. Nobody saw me, but my presence was noticed by some wild pigs, which I heard snorting and tramping about nearby in the night.  Later, rather miffed that the hotel had actually charged me for my cancellation, I related my story, informing them that maybe they didn’t know that wild pigs inhabited their city. They replied that I was most welcome to stay at their hotel on a future occasion.
Next day not feeling very awake I get going early. But it was a very slow job hitchhiking along the coast towards France.  I had arranged to meet my friend in Menton at 5pm.

FRANCE (*6)

It was past 9pm when I reached Menton. Very helpfully the man who gave me the final lift took me right up the hill to Castellar (considerably out of his way). Then I was able to walk to François’ cottage, arriving some time after ten. He was there along with a couple of his friends. They had be having a barbeque. I was very happy to find them there.
I stayed for a couple more days, finding some interesting walking in the hills behind. Then I set off on the next leg of my journey towards my next unvisited country which was San Marino.
But I didn’t get there. On the way through Italy I had a wait of a couple of hours for a train connection; as I am walking about I spot an Internet place. I go in and find an email from my sister telling me that my mother had passed away.
So I go back to the station and buy another ticket north into Germany. Three days later I am back in my mobile home in Oxford.

I remained in England for three weeks. Fortunately my sister preferred to do all the work of executorship herself, so I was again free to continue my travels.

BELGIUM

It was still April when I arrived in Ghent, with fairly cool, wet and stormy weather prevailing. Nonetheless I found some pleasant walks in the forests of the Ardennes, and sheltered places to camp, one night narrowly escaping a fallen bough of a tree which came down perilously close to my tent.
I found Belgium a friendly place,  with quite a character and identity of its own, which could warrant further exploration.

LUXEMBOURG (1)

I was rather unfortunate in that for most of the eight days I spent in Luxembourg it was very cold and wet, not at all pleasant weather to be living a life outside. Yet I still camped and stayed dry, finding a degree of shelter inside a beech forest. The first night I had actually been tempted to pay for a hotel, but there was nowhere open in that town.
In Luxembourg they have a very nice system of trains.

2014 p1 Mediterranean

For my first journey of 2014, setting off in February, I had done quite a lot of planning in advance. I had arranged Couchsurfing hosts all the way down through Germany and France.

LIECHTENSTEIN (1)

My first new country was Liechtenstein. I had arranged some Couchsurfing for a few days with a Ukrainian student, studying at a university there. I slept on the floor of her room. I also talked to some other students there, all from different countries.
Liechtenstein is strange in that it occupies one side of a mountain range. It’s only from neighbouring Switzerland that you actually see Liechtenstein. From the country itself you look out to Switzerland.
I found some good walking there by dint of exploring. The first afternoon I found some intriguing marked trails leading up through the forest. The next day I continued up. It was late winter, the snow had gone from the lower slopes and signs of life were appearing in the forest, notably pink gentians*. It was wonderful to see. It had been a long time since I’d climbed any mountains (there are only minor escarpments in Oxfordshire). I felt so good, like I was twenty years younger. (This was, as it turned out, only the beginning…  ). The third day I climbed up to the edge of the snow. My intention was to hitchhike back down the road. I was only wearing Crocs, and to get to the road I had to wade through about 50 metres of snow. It was a painful process, fortunately I avoided frostbite on my feet.
Coming down I had two lifts from real Liechtensteiners, so then I get a bit of a taste of local life. In a way it felt a little bit like an island here, seeming that across the river which marks the boundary there was not land but sea.

FRANCE (5)


I had arranged some Couchsurfing in Menton, on the southern coast of France, primarily as a base to visit Monaco, because I had no luck finding any in Monaco itself.    I had arranged to meet my host at the bus stand in Menton. He turns out to be a young man tremendously tall. We took a bus up the hill to a village  called Castellar from where we walked to a remote cottage. The first night he was pretending that he lived there. But the second night I found out that the house belonged to a family friend, and he was allowed to use it. It was a very nice spot, quite close to the Italian border.

MONACO (1)

When I was Couchsurfing in Menton I spent a day in Monaco. It was quite interesting to walk around and just see what was going on. There was a very nice walk along the coast too, and also some gardens. I was happy to find some nature there even in this highly built up place.



FRANCE

My final night in France  was in Marseille, with  a  hospitable, well to do family, in their big house. The room was very smart and everyone was very polite. It was very interesting seeing how the father and the son got along together. The man who was always smart seemed a bit stern at first, but he had a very apt sense of humour which struck me as very French.


ALGERIA (1)

From Marseilles I took a ferry across the Mediterranean to Oman in Algeria. Most of the passengers on the boat were Algerians, some of them had masses of luggage, I ended helping one lady getting onto the boat. It was a full day and night’s journey. Everyone was very friendly, one lady even offered me a bunk in her cabin for the night.

I had arranged four Couchsurfing stays in Algeria. The first was in Oman where we landed. The young lady was waiting for me outside the port. She lived alone in the family house, as her mother had since died. Her father lived somewhere else. She was engaged to be married. It was a fully arranged marriage by her father. Anyway she said she was very happy with the man her father had chosen. She wasn’t allowed to meet him indoors, only outside in public places. She had a small shop selling clothes, in which she employed another girl, and sometimes I met her there.

The next day I wander around, finding a way up a hill. Here I meet with three friends who had come there for the day from another town. Then I am walking around with them. A and her father had arranged to visit *’s sister in Algiers. So we set off very early one morning in the car along the motorway. At a certain junction we rendezvoused with my second Couchsurfing host, *, who was quite a different character to the quiet and respectable elderly man who was A’s father. * was an experienced Couchsurfing host, the one who had sent me my letter of invitation for my visa. He told me he usually asked guests to bring him a bottle of whisky, as he quite liked drinking. He had travelled a bit in Norway too. I got on better with his wife and sister who lived next door and worked in the city. One day I went with her in her car, and looked around for the day.

From Algiers I travelled by train to L, where I met my third Couchsurfing host. The stay had been arranged by a man called *, but when I got there it turned out I was to stay with his friend (I should say girlfriend), who lived with her parents. They were a very friendly family. One afternoon the father drove us up to the mountain in his small car. We drove up to where there was snow, and they took some photographs. There were quite a lot of others up there too, doing the same thing, and it was quite slippery coming down on the snowy road – but we made it. On the Friday Nesrine’s father went out, as was his custom, in the morning to a coffee house to meet with his friends, whilst Nesrine and her mother (I think her sister was there too) did a ritual cleaning of the house. Then for lunch they had a special traditional dish which they had with yoghurt drink.

The next place, Constantine, I stayed in a hotel, though even there I met up with the local Couchsurfing representative, Ramy, and walked around with his friend. There is a spectacular viewpoint at Constantine, and a few places beyond where I met a man who was pretending to be a policeman.

My final Couchsurfing was at Tougghourt. I wasn’t really in the full Sahara there, but it was getting more like desert. I decided to go there by train; though there were practically no other passengers, it seemed most people preferred the bus.

This was a similar situation to that in *, in that it was a man with whom I had arranged the visit, whilst I stayed with a young lady, B,who lived with her parents. In fact I never met Redha, as he worked in the oil fields in the desert for three weeks at a time, and he was currently away. (But for several years afterwards I used to chat with him on Facebook, until he got married after which he became less active in social media).

My hostess was a young lady called *, she was a teacher at the local school, a very smart and intelligent lady. When dressed for outdoors with her scarf and coat she looked almost middle aged, but without it, inside the house she appeared younger, still she seemed a very mature 22. I could see her parents were very proud of her.  * wanted me to go to the school with her in the morning. So I went and helped with some of the classes, which turned out somewhat less organized when I was there. Everyone was very interested to see a foreigner in their town. In the afternoon *’s father drove us around a bit. He owner a date plantation which he had inherited from his father. But the dates were no longer harvested, and it just got used by people for picnics. He was considering whether to build on it. I told him, no he shouldn’t, it was nice to have some trees around the town.
After I left Redha asked me to write a piece about Tougghourt, which I did, and he translated it into Arabic. It was a novelty for Tougghourt to receive foreign visitors.
From Tougghourt I travelled to a place near the Tunisian border where I ended up staying quite a few days on a hotel as I caught a bug. Maybe it had something to do with the stress of being a constant source of attention when Couchsurfing. In Tougghourt there had also been a severe dust storm and I may have got sand in my ears. As a consequence my ears became blocked so I couldn’t hear my own voice when I was speaking, so I didn’t know if I was shouting or whispering.
As a consequence of staying the extra days I needed to change more money, which you did in the market. When I had changed money in Algiers, my host’s son had taken me to a certain part of the city, and you changed it through the window of the car. He was very careful to find a particular man, as he said some of them gave out fake money.
I’d forgotten about it. But after I’d changed some money in the market I look at it in the hotel, and I see that the notes were not at all as finely printed as others I had. However it wasn’t too obvious, and as I’d got them to pay my hotel bill that’s what I did. The receptionist knew me well enough by then, he didn’t even count it, just took it and put it in the drawer.

2013 cycling in Europe.

THE NETHERLANDS (1)

In June, when it got to summer again I set off from Oxford to Harwich, then caught the ferry to the Hook of Holland. From there I cycled up the coast joining throngs of local cyclists on their high rise Dutch bikes, of which I made several drawings.

An amazing feature here was the birds, which I tried to draw, particularly when I reached Texel Island. It was easy cycling, flat of course with many country cycleways to follow. I recall only some battle with headwinds on route across the *causeway.

GERMANY without maps (2)

After ten days I found my way into Germany. It wasn’t at all obvious how to get in; the day before I had been asking people in the borderside village ‘which way to go into Germany?’ Nobody had been able to tell me. Whilst searching for myself I found a campsite, and here found a German man who had come from there, who gave me directions as to the route, which seemed to be taking me around three sides of a square. So the next morning I turned the opposite way he had said and found a cycle path leading over a small bridge signposted to a place beginning with B. It was quite misty, and I felt as if I was entering clandestinely. It was also Sunday, which meant little chance of buying a map. So I decided I would attempt to cycle across Germany without one, trusting that, as in the latter part of Holland, I would find local maps occasionally posted along the trails or in the centre of villages. I knew I had to head generally east, before turning north towards Denmark. I managed well enough, enjoying the element of surprise when I unexpectedly came to a river and needed to cross by a ferry. There were certainly plenty of rivers in this part, and many cows to stop and draw. At one ferry crossing I made the acquaintance of an elderly German lady cyclist who was riding right around Germany, who I met up with again several times; the final time she gave me a portion of her map which brought me almost into Denmark.

Drawings -cows, bridges

DENMARK (1)

I think I didn’t cycle the most interesting way through Denmark, passing mostly through open farmland without many trees. I remember a great many skylarks, and small stalls selling eggs and potatoes outside houses.

All this trip I had been wild camping. I would head for small patches of forest marked on my map. I found out later that overnighting in a hammock was legal in state forests in Denmark, though not camping in tents.

Drawing – eggs and potatoes

After six days I arrived at the top of Denmark, at Hirtshalls where I bought a ticket for the ferry to Iceland via the Faroe Islands. It took about three days in all; it was a very comfortable boat, with the bonus of food provided. It was during this trip, making friends with other passengers that I learnt much about the pride and culture of the Danish people.

The Faroe Islands

The Faroe Island also belong to Denmark. It was possible to stop there three days, then catch the next boat, which many others of the passengers were doing. So I had the opportunity to cycle about this somewhat drizzly place, passing through several tunnels.

Here is a bit of writing that came out of it

ICELAND (1)

We arrived in Seyjisfjiord. I had met a French cyclist on the boat and we passed the first day together. But he was far more ambitious than me and was soon off into the rough stuff. I met many people who had fallen in love with Iceland and kept returning, including an elderly Swiss man, who knew practically every corner. It was certainly atmospheric cycling around the coast with the ever changing light -Drawing

But my cycling was thwarted by very strong winds, which made it quite impossible. So I took a bus back to the junction and spent the second half hitch hiking, this time clockwise. This was not without adventure, one evening I was stranded on an empty road in a hailstorm, and I was rescued by a farmer who had spotted me from his house. He brought me in and told me to go into the basement, where it was beautifully warm, and I didn’t see anybody again until the next morning.

The next day, after making some drawings of the man’s dog as a gift, I got a ride with a Spanish couple, both intrepid travellers, in their car, who I met again later on in my journey.

Denmark (2)

After I had returned to Hirtshalls on the ferry I had a few days cycling around the north coast of Denmark, where I started to appreciate a particular balmy light which you sometimes get there in the late afternoon.

SWEDEN (1) I arrived in Sweden by ferry from Denmark and proceeded somewhat rapidly down the west coast. When I came inland I found much forest any many lakes, with no problem here to find nice places to camp, washing my clothes in the rivers and drying them on the bike.

I don’t know why I didn’t linger there longer, only that sometimes when one is tired, it gets hard to know how to slow down. So after six days I was already at H. And I gave my postcards to the lady selling tickets at the ferry terminal, who was happy to post them for me.

Crossing the Baltic

I wrote a little piece as we were crossing the Baltic to Lithuania.

LITHUANIA (1)

I decided not to cycle in Lithuania. I borrowed a backpack from the youth hostel in Klaipeda and set off to hitch hike. What I hadn’t anticipated was that my muscles were accustomed to cycling, not walking. And by the time I had walked to the edge of the city I already had a sore back. Nobody stopped and eventually a bus came, so I took that, then a couple of others to arrive at a village on the last bus of the day, still not at my destination. It was then that I realized my back was so sore I couldn’t pick up my pack.

I hailed a couple of boys coming past, one with a bicycle and asked them to help me. One of them took my pack and the other wheeled the bicycle. I asked them if they knew a place where I could camp. They didn’t really know, but we walked around a bit, then one of them phoned his mother and it was arranged I could camp in their garden. Nobody spoke any English apart from the boy, but everyone was very kind and hospitable to me and I had a beautiful spot to camp under one of their apple trees. I stayed there two days, by which time my back was nearly recovered and it was arranged that the mother and son would take the heavy backpack to the hostel in Klaipeda when they were going there for shopping, and the mother gave me three light weight bags to carry my things in instead.

The final afternoon, in something of a storm, the husband drove me to the bus station to get a bus to O, site of a famous monastery. As I got off the bus it really felt I’d made a pilgrimage to get there. I walk round and just manage to draw the monastery from across the road before a colossal downpour hit. Spotting some awnings I head there, sheltering at a table with some men drinking nearby. When the rain subsided they called me over – it was more joke than conversation, as none of us spoke a word of the others language until I tried a few words of Russian I had picked up somewhere which made them laugh.

I left with the last old man, then walked around the monastery, feeling like a true pilgrim, narrowly escaping being locked in when the priest was closing the doors after a service.

Another memorable part of Lithuania was my day trip on the train from Vilnius to *forest, on the way back recording observations and drawing some mushroom pickers.

BELARUS (1)

This trip was made entirely by train, in fact I made a circuit of the whole country, with some encounters along the way. I was particularly interested to visit Bieschady, the area of forest adjacent to where I had once been in Poland. Though the day I was there was notably wet; I wandered past some very sad looking European bison, kept in enclosures, feeling very sorry for them being stuck in there. I stayed in a village where everyone rode about on bicycles and stood about talking, and wrote a piece about finding my way in the city of *.

LATVIA

After two weeks I returned to Vilnius where I had left my bicycle. From there I set off cycling to cross into Latvia. It was now October and getting cooler, somewhat misty and wet and rather unappealing, deserted countryside. When I reached a place called Madonna* I had decided to abandon cycling. I stayed there a few days in a smart and very comfortable guesthouse, walking and hitchhiking around, and doing some writing on a computer in the local library. It was autumn and the leaves of the many deciduous trees were in full colour, it was quite a spectacle.

Then I took a bus to Riga where I ended up in a dormitory in a cramped seventh floor hostel. My plan was to leave my bicycle in Riga, but there was no room in the hostel. Then ad I am wandering about near the old town I see a museum. I go inside and ask if it is free. The young man there tells me it isn’t, but politely gives me a tour of part of it. As we proceed I explain to him that I am looking for a place to store my bicycle for a few months. He tells me he has a flat and there is no problem. So I go back to the museum in the evening when he has finished his work and we walk on together some way to his flat. It actually belongs to his parents. They are living in a Germany, where he was brought up. But his mother was Latvian, so they kept a property there. Just now he decided to come and live there to explore his roots, and he was enjoying the experience. So I left the bike in the flat, telling him I’d be back before Christmas.

ESTONIA

I did quite a lot of hitchhiking in Estonia, but all I learnt of Estonian were the numbers up to eight. I first headed out to some islands off the northwest, finding some forests and beaches to walk about. Then there was the smart old city of Tallinn, a real gem for old city lovers, of whom I met many. It was on the coast here I met *, a yoga teacher, who was just about to take a swim in the freezing cold water there.

I had a few days in * beside the Russian border waiting for my passport to arrive back, after I had posted it to an agency in London to get my visa for Russia. There I met Wolf, a Berlin journalist, something of a traveller by nature, taking a walk along the beach with him one evening.

RUSSIA

Almost all my travelling in Russia was by train. It was getting cold now, though I still found portrait artists out in the streets in St Petersburg, whom I tried to draw in action. I also found them in other towns. In Russia I had to speak Russian, so I soon gained a vocabulary sufficient for hotels. Though even them sometimes it took a bit of persuasion before they would let me stay.

I visited several towns, generally spending my time walking along the rivers, I had long been interested to visit Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s former estate, which I walked in for free, finding some pleasant walking in the woodland. Then I headed north as I was interested to see the White Sea. You couldn’t see it from Arkhangelsk, but I managed to see it on the way to Murmansk, stopping for 12 hours in a place called * where I hitch hiked and walked to the shore. I was happy to get there. Then everything was frozen.

It 15th November when I reached Murmansk. They had had snow already for three weeks. It was fairly dark by then, with daylight from about 11.30 til 2. But as people were telling me in a couple of weeks there would be no sun at all

NORWAY (2)

I took a shared car to the Norwegian border, where they were rather surprised to see a British passport. As soon as you crossed the border there was a whole different feeling, everything was beautiful in the snow. It was too cold for hitchhiking. But I found I could travel down the coast in the Hurtingruten ferry. It was very smart and not too expensive if you didn’t take a cabin. That was the problem with Norway just then, the Krona was so high in value everything was very expensive. I would try and travel overnight on trains just to save the cost of accommodation.

I had to sleep in dormitories, which wasn’t so bad as I made some friends that way. I even climbed a mountain in the snow, which most people were going up on Nordic skis, signing my name in a book on the top.

SWEDEN (2)

I had two lots of Couchsurfing in Sweden, one by a lake out in the country in a cottage where I met a German lady. Then with a university lecturer in *, who was interested in music, and I went with him to see a choir. It beautiful and snowy, I had some nice walks in the snow. I was proud of the observations I recorded on the train across central Sweden on the way to *.

Finally I had a night in Stockholm, then I took the ferry back across to Riga, where I found my friend *still in his flat, having carefully stored my bicycle for four months. The next night I took a ferry from the port a little down the coast to Bremerhaven on Germany. From there I made my way by train back through the Netherlands and by sea again to England. At that time I still had my mobile home in Oxford.