Tag Archives: forest trails

France – Christmas in Paris (mini-break Part 1)

Day 1 – Arrival, La Défense & Tour Eiffel

After a hectic morning packing session, we left La Jourdanie in good spirits for our drive north.  We followed the A20 for hours, skirting around Châteauroux and Vierzon.  We swapped to the parallel D-road to avoid motorway tolls and later stopped briefly in an aire in Theillay for lunch. We swapped drivers and Nicky faced the first proper traffic as we reached the southern outskirts of Orléans.  We crawled through the centre, paying the price for avoiding tolls, and made our way to the town of Angerville to overnight by their stadium.  We were stopping an hour or so short of Paris so we could arrive early in the morning and have that day for exploring. We slowly walked around Angerville to stretch our legs.  A few late arriving lorries naughtily parked up near us, in a zone clearly marked as max. 3.5t, disrupting our otherwise quiet overnight stay.  We headed off early for the last hour or so into Paris.

Paris - (la defense display)

Paris - (approaching la defense)

We must credit Ju & Jay at OurTour for seeding the idea; we’d read their blog post on visiting Paris and we thought it would work for us to pop up for the Christmas markets.  Under six hours driving for a classic city break – why not?  We arrived in the Le Camping Paris (AKA Indigo Paris) campsite before 10am and had no hassles checking in early.  We arrived under blue skies but facing down a biting wind that whipped heat away from any exposed skin.  The only downside was that the usual navette was not running, so we had to walk directly from the campsite each day.  We headed first to La Défense, crossing a wide bridge to a long island and then on to the opposite side of the Seine.  On the main boulevard in the shadow of the Grande Arche we found a huge Christmas market with a vast array of stalls, incredibly busy with lunching workers.  We browsed the goods, smelled the foods and absorbed the atmosphere.

Paris - (nicky and grand arch)

Paris - (aaron at grand arch)

Paris - (la defense plaza and markets)

Security was tight, with intermittent bag checks and armed soldiers patrolling the perimeter.  It had only been a few days since the deadly attack at a Christmas market in Strasbourg, so the alert level was justifiably high.  Everyone seemed relaxed though, so the atmosphere was unaffected.  We ate lunch on the steps of the Grande Arche, sheltered a little from the wind and overlooking the lively markets, the vista stretching all the way to the distant Arc de Triomphe.  We watched runners threading themselves through the crowds and this seeded another idea for later. We returned through Puteaux, passing a cute kiddy Christmas display, then followed the western bank of the Seine south.  We saw the campsite across the river where we could spot Benny before reaching the next bridge to return.

Paris - (run into the city)

Paris - (riverside run)

With 10km of walking already in our legs, we sipped a cup of warming tea to recuperate.  Then we changed clothes and headed  back out to face the cold, this time for a run.  We headed through long stretches of woodland, crossing busy roads and along bustling city streets to reach the glorious sight of the iconic Eiffel Tower.  We approached along the river from the south, through a fairground and masses of tat-selling hawkers.  Here we were surprised to find new glass security barriers surrounding the perimeter of the tower that were not in place last time we visited (over 8 years ago, for my 35th birthday – time flies!)  A sad but likely necessary installation, reflective of the times we live in. There were long queues to enter the tower or the restaurant, with slow security checks, so we instead continued our run around the bare gardens.  More armed soldiers passed as we stopped to pose for obligatory tourist photographs.

Paris - (run past eiffel tower)

We happily walked a little, to better enjoy the crowds and buzzing atmosphere.  So many touts were selling the same tacky plastic pieces, flashing Eiffel Towers in all colours or gaudy keyrings, 5 for €1.  With our iconic jaunt complete, we returned through busy shopping streets, skipping past distracted shoppers and dodging a multitude of the powered scooters that seemed prevalent in the city.  Above us the skies dulled and clouded over as the sun dropped, sucking all the light from the day.  Light had faded to a low grey as we crossed the woodland to return to Benny.  We had completed a fully enjoyable 13km run, and just in time as the rains started for the night.  After long, wonderfully hot campsite showers, we wrapped up warmly and prepared a tasty dinner, contented with our first day in Paris.

Day 2 – North of the River

Paris - (louis vuitton foundation)

We awoke to the continued pitter-patter of rain on our roof, so indulged ourselves in a lazy breakfast of croissants and jam before leaving around 10.30am when the rains had stopped.  We walked north through the woodland, spotting flocks of bright green parrots in the bare trees, to reach the Louis Vuitton foundation.  This building was another Frank Gehry creation, and there were large crowds queueing at security checks to enter.  We walked around the perimeter, taking in the hypnotically constant flow of cascading waves that dropped down a long, wide staircase to a shallow reflecting pool.  We soon reached the metro station at Les Sablons and travelled 14 stops east to Bastille. The trains bore a strong similarity to London.  During the journey we did some back-of-a-napkin math and realised Nicky had sat on tube trains, from her days working in London, for more than a full month of her life.

Paris - (hotel de ville)

Paris - (notre dame)

We alighted and soon were walking through wide Parisian streets full of life, glittering Christmas lights and elegant people.  We passed a long line of nursery school kids, walking hand in hand, all adorned in fluorescent yellow bibs that made us think of the Gilets Jaunes and how they were starting their protesting young these days.   We followed side streets with attractive new shops and tiny stores hosting chaotic ancient trades, cobblers and tailors with shop interiors straight out of Harry Potter. We passed large groups of chattering students, looking much too young to be at university – we’re definitely getting old.  We soon arrived at the main Hôtel De Ville for Paris, a towering, decorative Neo-Classical building.  It was mostly inaccessible, surrounded by Christmas trees and tall metal fencing.

Paris - (notre dame and seine)

Paris - (shakesphere bookshop)

We crossed the Seine to Île de la Cité and joined the crowds admiring the façade of Notre Dame cathedral.  We watched over made-up girls take turns photographing each other, posing on tall bollards like catwalk models.  We crossed the river again to the south, to visit Shakespeare and Co. Bookshop, its aged shelves heavy with books.  The layout was all nooks and crannies and soft seating, indulgent and comfortable even when overcrowded with other bibliophiles; a wonderful place to browse.  We ate lunch back on the island, viewing Notre Dame and dodging pigeons, before heading back north then west along the Seine to Pont Neuf.   We slowly browsed the green market stalls that lined the banks selling books, art and tourist trinkets, considering a few sketches to decorate our walls.

Paris - (aaron at louvre)

Paris - (nicky at louvre)

We arrived at the rear elevation of the Louvre and sneaked through a small passage into a grand empty courtyard and then into the main plaza featuring  I.M.Pei’s iconic pyramidal entrance.  With no plans to enter we were simply enjoying the ambiance.  The reflection pools and dancing fountains had been drained for winter and the plaza was definitely worse for the loss.  We turned north to Palais Royal and along the diagonal to Opéra, it dripping with gold and colour.  We reached Place Vendôme, an impressive square bursting with expensive designer stores. All streets were full of top-end brands, with minimalist displays of pricey coveted goods, three staff members to each customer and private security on each door.  The roads were stuffed with chauffeured cars delivering rich patrons into roped off spaces.  We felt out of place in the lavish, almost vulgar, display of riches, so we dipped into a surprise find on the street – a Decathlon store – for quiet reflection.

Paris - (Opera house facade)

After, we sat on the steps of Madeleine church staring at the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde as we planned our next move.  We decided that would be a metro up to Montmartre and a visit to Sacre Coeur.  We soon alighted at Abbesses station and chose to climb the stairs over joining a queue for lifts, and 144 steps later my overused legs were not thanking me for that decision.  Outside we found cute timber market stalls, thick with wonderful Christmas smells, leading on to many more upward steps.  We shunned the funicular and walked up long flights to reach the first main platform, before turning for our reward – a stunning panorama over all of central Paris.  We stood and stared, picking out monuments and spotting buildings we’d visited.  It was a sharp, clear day, a perfect vista of Paris.

Paris - (view from sacre coeur)

After another security check to enter the Sacre Coeur, we sat a moment on hard wooden pews and absorbed the painted ceiling of the church’s domed ceiling in welcome quiet.  Then we continued into the heart of Montmartre, where we bought a small metal tray, just the right size for two cups of tea, that will act as a small daily reminder of our Paris trip.  We browsed the many artists’ varied work in a cobbled square lined with cafés and bars, enjoying the soulful ambience. We then picked out one restaurant from many and feasted on three courses alone in their warm interior, as all other customers felt compelled to shiver their way through their food at the outside tables.

Paris - (Nicky at Sacre coeur)

When we extracted ourselves, night had fallen and everything was lit up.  It began spitting with light rain as a talented busker sang Purple Rain to the crowds. The tat-hawkers were packing up, desperate for last sales. One guy follows me closely and, despite my polite but firm ‘non’ he continues to aggressively push his goods.  He then harshly grabs my wrist and refuses to let go, until I finally protest very loudly in colourful language. The possibility of drawing the attention of one of the nearby security guards leads him to scarper away, but also left me wondering what terrible, indentured slave-like contract he might be locked into to drive such desperation. It must be a miserable, sad life, and I immediately felt guilty for my dismissive impatience, even if his chosen sales technique was threatening and invasive.

Paris - (montmartre artists)

We fell downhill through more crowded markets and brightly lit shops to reach a large boulevard.  We followed this to Pigalle metro, where, before descending, we could see the lights of the Moulin Rouge beyond.  We caught the metro to Pont de Neuilly and walked the long road back to our campsite on low lit, very busy, urban roads, passing a large tent complex where Circus du Soliel were performing.   Even with liberal use of the metro we had walked over 18km around the Parisian streets  – an exhausting day.

A&N x

< Part 2 to follow >

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Spain – Guernica & Gorbeiako Parke Naturala

We slept well after our night run in Bilbao and lazily packed up to head the 35 minutes east to visit the rebuilt town of Guernica, or Gernika in the local language.   The morning was light with clear skies, making bright a town with a tormented history.  Not many historic buildings remain due to extent of bombing raids during the Spanish Civil War.

Guernika - Nicky on bridge

Guernika (Henry Moore Sculpture)

Guernika (Central cathedral)

We reached the Parque de los pueblos de Europa, where we walked on leafy paths by a trickling stream, ending in a grassy meadow where several sculptures sat. Henry Moore and local Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida had both created works to pay homage to the trials of the people of Guernica.  The Moore sculpture was an abstract figure wrapped in shell-like shapes, representing the deep instinct of individuals to seek comfort, refuge, protection, refuge, the primordial urge to feel safe.  It seemed poignantly appropriate.  We passed the cathedral and market square, mostly untouched in the bombings, and walked through the currently empty market square, gently exploring at a slow pace.

Guernika (main square)

We visited the Assembly House of Gernika, the historical seat of Basque power since the Middle Ages.  The highest governing body in the region, the Assembly House is seen as a living symbol of the history of the Basque people.  Its oval Assembly meeting room, plush with red cushioned benches and portraits of previous leaders, is where Plenary meetings of the current General Assembly occur.  Outside, the Tree of Gernika, a symbolic oak tree, is planted within a small formal garden in front of a neo-classical portico.  The ceiling of a large function room tells the history of the oak tree and how it is intrinsically connected to the Basque people, as a place of meeting and discussion.

The old trunk, planted around 1700 CE, is the oldest surviving remains of previous tree incarnations.  It was replaced by a successor in 1860, and that tree lived through two World Wars and a Civil War, surviving until 2015.   The trunk of the old tree, the one planted in 1860 and survivor of the bombing raids, is now stood proud within a circular stone portico in the grounds.  A new tree replacing this historic one was planted in 2015, at 15 years old, as a symbolic continuation of the Basque spirit, renewed by each new generation, but never changing nor faltering.

Guernika (Stained Glass ceiling)

We had thought to overnight in Gurnika and see the celebrated Monday morning market, but it was still early and we didn’t feel the love for the car-park aire, so we headed off south.  We stopped briefly in Artea for a bite of lunch, where we were bravely approached by two 8yo Spanish girls curious about us, and after our first greetings in Spanish we had them practising simple English (Where are you from?  What is your name?) with us.  Less than a mile later we stopped again in Areatza, walking along the river through a pretty square to visit a tourist office that was unhelpfully closed until 4pm. So again, back in Benny and through steep-sided rolling countryside bright with rusty autumn colourings, similar to Limousin where we now live, except with fields here were full of sheep rather than cows.  We reached Gorbeiako Parke Naturala on tiny, single track roads, expecting the visitor centre parking to be empty.  Instead, it was mostly full, with dog and hillwalkers, campers, motorhomers and picnickers all around the ample parking area.  After some deliberation we choose a spot and parked up, then visited the Interpretation Centre for a look at their exhibits.

Gorbeiako Parke Naturala (a brief moment of sunshine)

Gorbeiako Parke Naturala (valley view)

Late at night we could hear jangling bells, and although we could see nothing in the darkness we assumed a large wind chime must be hung in the trees nearby.  We could see no sign of anything in the morning light and it was much later that we decided it may have been a flock of rogue sheep sneaking around, as the flocks on the hills all made similar sounds.  Today we planned to climb to Gorbeia, the natural park’s highest point at 1482m.  We were parked at around 640m, so we only had an ascent of around 850m to contend with.

The route was a rather dull path, a driveable, gravel road for most of the way,  and low cloud prevented us seeing much of a view.  We grasped occasional glimpses of the tree-lined valleys to each side during short breaks in the cloud cover, but only for a few seconds at a time.  We passed a few hardy long-haired horses and a lot of grazing sheep, many wearing the tinkling bells we had heard throughout the night. Combined with the browning bracken, pine trees, prickly gorse bushes with small yellow-flowers and tiny, budding purple crocuses, this could have been any mountain slope in Scotland or Ireland.

Gorbeiako Parke Naturala (summit trig point)

Nearing the top, the cloud got thicker, visibility dropped to tens of metres and an icy wind blasted us from the west.  We added our windproof coats, hats and with hoods up we were still shivering under the wind’s viscous assault.  Exposed and feeling battered, we spent short seconds at the summit, pausing only for a hurried photo with the decorative trig point set below a metal tower structure, then began a hasty descent. Within minutes we escaped the bank of dense cloud and regained solace from the harsh wind, allowing us to begin warming up again.  We jogged short stretches to ease wear on our knees and to aid the warming process.  This descent, by the same route, was memorable only for us finally seeing our first other walkers of the day, near the bottom of the trail – three men with walking poles and wicker baskets, and we thought them likely to be mushroom hunters.

Gorbeiako Parke Naturala (aaron in trees)

Gorbeiako Parke Naturala (the forest)

The centre had told us the walk would be 3.5 hours to the top, and similar to return, but because we didn’t linger, we were up and back in well under four hours.  We enjoyed a well-earned lazy afternoon in Benny, snug away from the wind. A later short pre-dinner walk led us to discover a nearby area of beautifully expressive and wild beech trees, long-fingered, knotted and gnarly, photos of which had initially brought us to this park.  We had nearly missed them, yet they stood in all their wonderful, twisted majesty, set in a thick blanket of crispy copper leaves, only metres behind where we had parked.

A&N x

Switzerland – Zermatt’s Matterhorn & Randa’s bridge

After the successful completion of the TMB hike, we rested up at Le Grand Champ for a further two rainy nights.  We tasked ourselves with the necessary jobs of laundry, photo-sorting and rest.  But we also had an eye towards our next mini-adventure, so were cooking up a few ideas.  After some deliberation, Switzerland was put on our agenda.

Zermatt (church in Tasch)

We left on a quiet Sunday morning, stocked up in a busy SuperU then headed east towards Switzerland.  We drove back through Chamonix, Argentière and Trient, spotting many places we had recently walked, before climbing up towards Martigny.  A few kilometres and many hairpins later, we were duly summoned into Switzerland with a bored look and a casual swipe of the arm at the nominal border point.  Tall stone terraces bursting with vines and soft fruits, predominantly apricots, lined the steep valley sides. We dropped drastically to the valley floor and on long straight roads made easy progress.  This part of Switzerland was more business than pleasure.  Dominated by light-industrial sheds and strips of garishly-coloured store fronts heavy with parking areas accessed by over-wide roads, it looked much more American than European.

Zermatt (on route from campsite)

Zermatt (on cycle route to town)

We turned off towards Zermatt, heading south through a series of villages on the only road into the valley.  We considered stopping in a cheaper aire in Täsch, nearer to Zermatt, but on inspection it was only the back corner of a car-park, behind a garage on a busy section of road, so we passed on it and doubled back to Campsite Attermenzen to overnight.  The site was an open field, so siting was entirely at your own discretion.  We picked out a quiet spot on a small plateau behind the main field and set up a cosy camp.  As it was only 2.30pm we had a decent portion of day left, so made the decision to quickly grab our bikes out of the garage and go see Zermatt immediately.  20 mins later we were organised and away, assuming the 9km route there would be a simple jolly along a cycle-path by the river.

Zermatt (us at Matterhorn)

Zermatt (Matterhorn and cloud)

It started well, in bright sunshine, rolling through the centre of Täsch, but soon after the track crossed the railway and rose steeply up through the forests on the opposite slope.  We faced a steep, difficult and technical ascent, a narrow dirt trail with gnarly roots, large boulders and overhanging nettles.  Whilst we thought we had had a decent, active summer, filled with swimming, running and hiking, we soon found our fitness for this type of off-road cycling was sadly lacking.  With lungs bursting and legs screaming for mercy, we had to dismount and walk portions of the trail on several occasions, decrying our inability to get up the track on our bikes.  We had underestimated the cycle, judging it by the short distance and not thinking of the height differential.  But we made it into Zermatt eventually.

Zermatt (walking bikes through centre)

Zermatt (happy chappie)

Our first impressions of Zermatt were not great. We had visualised a cutesy ski-resort, wonderfully car-free, all stone, timber and glass, in a comforting cauldron of snow-speckled mountains.  Instead we entered by a rough, debris-strewn building site, both sides of the road lined with dirty piles of stones, discarded bent materials and desolate-looking buildings.  It was a disturbing and rather grim first impression, but we were very soon distracted from it all by our first sighting of the incredibly imposing Matterhorn, standing tall behind fast-moving clouds.  We followed the river and cycled straight through to the southern edge of town for a closer look, stopping near an Activity Park to take in views of the iconic mountain.  Yet even here the parks were lined with red builder’s tape, degrading the view.

Zermatt (central streets)

We pushed our bikes through the glitzy, kitschy, touristy centre, the busy streets lined with top-end branded stores and expensive hotels.  We passed neat churches, almost apologetically nestled into tiny corners, their importance lessened in the face of the new, dominant religion of commerce.  Visitors mingled with quirky locals in national dress, popping in and out of cafés and souvenir stores selling the usual T-shirts and tea towels.  We heard mostly German being spoken, but smatterings of French, English, Spanish and Japanese completed the cultural melting pot.  At one point a herd of long-haired goats were driven through the streets by young teenagers, dodging the constantly buzzing electric hotel taxis, looking more like a scene from Nepal than Switzerland.  We cycled on, passing yet more hotels and shops in traditional timber and stone, with an ever-present snowy mountain backdrop framing each view.

Zermatt (bikes and goats)

We’d been lucky with the weather, as the forecast had suggested thunderstorms in the afternoon.  But grey clouds were now gathering overhead and the air changed; rain was brewing.  We decided to stick to the road going back, and found it a fantastically long, sweeping downhill for most of the way.  We reached Täsch in minutes, flowing at over 50km/hr, definitely enjoying this direction more.  Large, slow drops of rain plopped on us and the smooth road surface as we passed through the town, threatening much more.  We pushed on to reach our campsite with only moments to spare before the main deluge finally arrived, with us safely back under cover.  We packed away our bikes, made tea and chilled for the rest of the evening, feeling glad we had decided to make the effort to quickly visit Zermatt.

Randa (the path upwards)

Randa (mini cairns on path)

We set an early alarm, had a quick breakfast and got our boots on before 8am, as the forecast was for more storms.  We wanted to complete a circular hike, from the nearby village of Randa, and to visit and cross what was reported to be the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in the world.  It was still chilly when we left, the sun slow in rising and not yet having warmed the air.  We first passed through the traditional timber buildings of Randa, enjoying the colourful vegetable patches and hanging baskets decorating the houses.  We filled our water bottles from a spring in the village then started our ascent via a narrow street between ancient timber hay barns.  We rose quickly on steep, rooted paths through the woodland, our legs dealing easily with the gradient after the gruelling miles of the TMB.

Randa (first look across the bridge)

Randa (n + a on bridge)

Randa (Nicky on bridge)

We were all alone when we reached the 500m long Charles Kuonen Hängbrücke, the suspension bridge, so we had the fortunate opportunity to play around and take a few photos and videos.  We then crossed over, apprehensive at one short portion that looked only loosely connected and rather shaky, but made it safely across.  From there we walked further up the mountain to the Europahütte refuge at 2220m, guarded by a huge resting black dog that eyed us suspiciously.  The view from their verandah was quite spectacular, but we didn’t linger.  Instead we climbed a further few hundred metres through a boulder field to reach a classic picnic spot with an unbeatable view of three separate glaciers.  We sat a while, eating apples and soaking up the view with only the sound of calling birds to distract us.

Randa (nicky and mountains)

Randa (picnic with a view)

There was the possibility of continuing around the mountain and returning to Randa by a different route, but instead we retraced our steps past the Europahütte and down to the suspension bridge, this time passing under the northern end and dropping quickly downwards.  Another steep woodland path led us down past a few groups of walkers now struggling upwards, until eventually levelling out in rolling grassy meadows back near to Randa.  We paused a while on a lonely red bench to eat sandwiches and take in the overview of the village.  We said goodbyes to neighbouring horses and descended to the village church, circled the beautifully kept cemetery, then continued back to camp. Our wonderfully fresh morning walk was a hilly 12km, taking the best part of four hours, with almost 1000m of ascent.

Randa (village view from red bench)

Randa (Benny at campssite)

Our afternoon was spent doing little more than people-watching and gentle stretching on the grass, until the dark clouds rolled back in overhead and drove us inside.  It was here we made the decision that it was best for us to move on, and that meant a return to France.  We had business to attend to back in Limousin.  In less than two weeks’ time, our new house purchase would complete, so our slow march westward now begins and our new responsibilities await.

A&N x

France House-sit – Vanxains, near Riberac (Part 3)

Visits to Lacapelle-Biron and Cazeneuve

The long sun-drenched days in Vanxains simply glided by, our hours filled with nothing substantial but brimmed with relaxation and rest.  We rewarded every two hours of strenuous physical effort, either running, walking, swimming or cycling, with double that of lazy sitting or lying in the garden, reading and watching the burning sun slowly drift across the sky.  It’s a great balance for us, the daily exercise and the deliberate rest, and this easy luxury of filling our time exactly as we wish has a wonderfully cathartic effect.  The hours and days of the week have constricted in their use to hold little meaning to us, as we now live solely on the timescales of the rising and setting of the sun, and of the changing seasons.

Villereal - (Covered market)

Villereal - (Church)

Nicky has an old university friend with a holiday home in Lacapelle-Biron, near to Monpazier, and we organised a visit for when they were in-country.  After a brief stop in Bergerac on the way, we enjoyed a flying visit to the bastide town of Villeréal, where we walked the historic streets, taking in the elaborate timber marketplace and tall stone church.  Not long after, we arrived at Mandy and Simon’s villa, where we were soon splashing in their pool, sipping beers and swapping stories, all generously accompanied by birdsong and afternoon rays.  We later retired to their patio for dinner and wine, eating and chatting long into the night, punctuated with earnest discussions on what music to play next.  The following morning we ate a tasty late breakfast outside under the shade of a wisteria-covered pergola.  We were, surprisingly and gladly, experiencing only the dull hint of the fully-expected hangover.

Lacapelle - (Mandy &amp; Nicky)

Lacapelle - (Mandy &amp; Simon)

We said our goodbyes as we had another lunch date with Ken & Monica in Cazeneuve, which was spent relaxing by their pool, complete with much more chatting and eating.  It was fascinating for us to see Cazeneuve blossoming into summer, such a different appearance from before.  Every vista was now green, lush and fruitful, more opaque with dense foliage than the skinny, dormant mud-browns of the winter months we had recently spent there; it was transformed.  Monica & Ken were expecting the arrival of an Australian couple later that afternoon, their guests under Home Exchange, a scheme that we hope to utilise in future years with our new French home, opening up more travel options further afield.  We thanked them for lunch and left them to prepare for their far-flung visitors.

Cazeneuve - Poolside dining

Cazeneuve - Poolside lunch

One damp Monday morning, we decided to drive to the nearby market town of Chalais.  We had been informed it was one of the most worthwhile local markets to visit, but on a dull, grey day under the constant threat of rain it seemed rather small and basic.  Perhaps this was because the scattering of stalls were widely spaced out along many streets, rather than clustered together in a central location, and the day’s meagre crowds didn’t stretch wide enough to offer a hearty noise or an interesting buzz.  Or perhaps we had so recently been spoiled by the large markets in Issigeac and Ribérac that we were anticipating more, our personal expectations raised and dashed through no fault of Chalais.  We walked up a steep hill to look at the local château before disappearing back through the wet streets.

Chalais Market (town streets)

Vanxains - flood defenses

Another day we visited the village of Saint-Aulaye, where we squeezed through a tight timber gate to access the ample parking before undertaking a self-guided walking tour of the village’s Roman highlights.  We kept up our schedule of long countryside runs and quiet evening walks, punctuated with lots of down-time, disguised in our minds as ‘recovery’.  We enjoyed several more swims and runs around Jemaye lake, further training sessions for our upcoming SwimRun event.   On several occasions we experienced serious thunderstorms and minor flooding at the house, interspersed with momentary losses of electricity.  Once these storms broke, we were usually treated to wide-reaching and spectacularly deep sunsets across the expansive valley, all visible from the bottom of the garden.

Vanxains - Lazy cats

Vanxains - (Garden sunsets)

On our last Friday we cycled a beautiful cross-country route vaguely northwards, on chalky paths and tiny roads, their grassy centre-line a testament to the lack of use.  We struck out a winding route into the west of Ribérac, dropping down into the edge of town via a fantastic descent through wheat fields on a stony path.  We weaved through the neat suburbs before we again joined the crowds at the weekly market.  The conversational buzz and bright colours of the busy centre were striking in contrast to just moments before, where only the muted colours and tweeting noises of the countryside existed.  We parked up and walked a loop, enjoying the contrast with the green silence. After exhausting the market stalls, we had a quick stop at the Hôtel de Ville before cycling out of town.

Riberac - busy market

Riberac - hotel de ville

We returned home by a new route, finding a quiet stretch of road alongside a small trickle of a river, it passing through woodland filled with the bending trunks of tall, graceful trees.  The route was a continuous ribbon of green rolling hills, each crest offering far-reaching views of the surrounding lands, made up of expansive hectares of manicured fields with only a light scattering of stone houses and outbuildings visible.  The fields were planted with barley, sweetcorn and sunflowers, still small and green, but ensuring the vista would evolve yet again, to be resplendent with brilliant yellows in the months to come.  Legs tingling from our efforts, we settled back into our lazy garden life, soaking up the sun in the close company of cats, again feeling like the ones who got the crème.

Vanxains - Last night sunset

Vanxains - Last night reflections

We spent a large part of the day readying for leaving – we packed up all non-essentials, tidied up the house and, under a scorching sun, completed a last cut of the fast-growing garden.  With everything in good shape, we decided to make a little micro-adventure for ourselves after dinner.  We took our camping chairs and a bottle of single malt with us and walked up a local grassy chemin to a nearby hillside, where we took up temporary residence on a gravel plateau to enjoy the setting of the sun over the lush valley.  We settled in, each poured ourselves a glass and sipped in silence as the sun slowly disappeared behind the horizon, just like the fun-filled days and weeks we’ve spent here have now vanished into the past.  Here was the end of another, very different but equally wonderful, house-sit, and we felt so fortunate to have been offered the opportunity to spend such quality time in these peaceful surroundings.

A&N x

 

Stockholm & Rosersberg Castle

An impulsive decision to rush off to see Stockholm in a fair-weather window, followed by some restful days around Rosersberg Castle north of the city.

We woke early up on a grey but brightening morning in the very comfortable free aire in Karlskoga. It would have been so easy to linger another night, enjoying the view and a few lake swims, but we conspired to make a change.  The forecast for the region suggested there would be only two good days of clear sunny weather in the next ten; today and tomorrow.  With some trepidation as we were still a long way west we decided, perhaps a little flippantly, to spend them in Sweden’s capital.  Decision made, we got packed up and organised, serviced Benny and hastily left all before our dashboard clock showed 8am.  There was a little over three hours driving between us and Stockholm.

Stockholm - (view from island)

Stockholm - (passing parade)

Stockholm - (moderna museum Skeppsholmen)

We had hoped to follow in OurTour’s footsteps and spend a few cheap days on the island of Skeppsholmen, but we found the marina area was closed for construction works.  The other nearby parking areas on the island had updated parking machines that explained in multiple languages that the still available 60 SEK overnight ticket was strictly for residents only and could only be purchased in conjunction with a separate residency card.  We could have chanced it, but they seemed to have gone to a lot of trouble to explain that we weren’t meant to.  Our hope of a few sneaky cheap nights in the city centre gone, we paid instead for several hours of day parking and set off to explore on foot.

Stockholm - (old town Main square)

Stockholm - (streetscape)

Stockholm - (Royal Palace)

The sun was shining from a clear blue sky, and the cityscape looked simply fantastic.  We were in no hurry to see anything specific and just doodled along in the warmth of the day, taking it all in.  Passing through the island park, we crossed the bridge from Skeppsholmen to the busy central promenade, following the curve of the water around to another bridge leading to the old town.  We were passed by a parade of military horsemen returning from the changing of the guard at the Royal Palace to their barracks, who collectively obeyed the red lights like normal traffic.  We wandered the streets of the Old town on Gamla Stan, dodging the colourfully-dressed zombies on walking tours.

Stockholm - (Riddarhuset)

Stockholm - (Radisson Blu hotel))

Stockholm - (Old town view)

We browsed the many shops in the busy side streets of the old town.  We ate ice cream on a bench outside the Royal Palace and watched the world go by.  We had arrived early into the city, the weather was terrific and the atmosphere relaxed and easy, so we simply switched off and lived in that simple moment.  Several kayakers slid by on the calm sea and we mused on whether a water-level view of the city would be interestingly different and if we should join them, but we were too infused in the lazy, sunny day to motivate ourselves to organise it.  Instead we crossed to Riddarhomlen, a small island on the west side of Galma Stan, where we ate our lunch early, on a wooden bench looking out over the harbour waters and facing towards the domineering Stadhuset, Stockholm’s city hall.

Stockholm - (stadhuset)

Stockholm - (stadhuset courtyard)

Stockholm - (town hall view of Galma Stan)

Sated, we traipsed across the noisy, narrow pedestrian portion of the railway bridge to the opposite quay front, reaching the dominantly funky Radisson Blu hotel.  Another short bridge led us to the side of the austere Stadhuset, and we turned through an archway into its wide Civic Court.  Over eight million bricks, known as munktegels (Monk’s bricks) due to their traditional use in monastery construction, made up the impressive building, its overall design inspired in part by Renaissance palaces in Western Europe.  It was constructed around two main colonnaded squares, and the mosaic-clad Golden Hall within the walls is famous as the site of the annual Nobel Prize banquet.

Stockholm - (side view Stadhuset)

Stockholm - (stadhuset facade)

Stockholm - (views across water)

We spent some time around the garden courtyards looking out over the shining waters of Riddarfjärden to the old town.  Scaling the corner tower, 106m or 365 steps high, was originally part of our plan, but the scheduled climbs, seemingly based around bell-ringing times, were booked out for the next few hours and we didn’t manage to return.  Instead we walked the gardens, enjoying the many sculptures and delicately arranged flowering arrangements.  The otherwise monolithic brick façade was delicately decorated, almost Venetian in style, with tall, playful turrets topped with moons and stars creating a more Eastern flavour.  It was an eclectic style, but distinctly Scandinavian.

Stockholm - (Galma Stan with boat)

Stockholm - (kayakers on water)

Stockholm - (Parliment)

We continued our rambling tour, crossing back to Gamla Stan before exiting the island again by a different bridge, to pass by the flag-lined avenue in front of the Parliament building.  We turned right along the waterfront, passing several lovely squares and the bright red St. Jacob’s Church, as we explored the more modern streets of Stockholm, lined with designer shops and familiar brands. We crossed the jutting peninsula of Blasieholmen to view the colourful cityscape of the opposite bank, then walked along this promenade with views across to the museum-heavy island of Djurgården.  We could clearly pick out the Nordic Museum and the Vasa museum from our vantage point, and made loose plans to visit the island on our next visit to the city centre, likely tomorrow.

Stockholm - (View of Vasa Museum)

Stockholm - (water view)

Stockholm - (Street facade)

Worn out from all our walking, we returned to Benny to formulate a plan, and decided to spend the night outside the city to the north.  We set off at 4pm, on a Friday afternoon, to head to Rosersberg Castle.  A rookie mistake, as we soon enmeshed ourselves fully in the mad traffic rush from the city.  We struggled for the best part of an hour to break free, finally reaching an open stretch of the E4 and cruising smoothly up to Rosersberg.  We parked in their large gravel car-park that doubled as an amenable free aire and finally relaxed.  We had a quick walk up to the castle, now a posh hotel, before returning to settle in for the night.   Surprisingly, we found we could pick up an open WiFi network from the hotel too, so were happy nestling in our little cocoon as darkness descended.

Stockholm - (Riksgatan)

Stockholm - (St Jacobs church)

The next morning we had planned to return to the city, but the weather had turned and our predicted two days of sun had been reduced to one.  It was grey and damp, and reading up on city activities, we noted there were several events that would greatly increase Saturday’s crowds, so with memories of Friday’s traffic still raw, we decided to spend another day locally in Rosersberg before revisiting Stockholm the following day to see a few of the special, internal attractions we’d studiously avoided due to the wonderful weather.  This gave us a lazy day to walk around the extensive castle lake and gardens with the bonus of free city parking on Sunday when we returned to the city.

Rosersberg - (Castle approach)

Rosersberg - (rest spot)

The next morning we had a very lazy start, sleeping long and only slowly emerging due to the invasive noise of spitting rain outside.  We sat it out and it dried up nicely around lunchtime, so we booted up and headed out for a walk around the lake shore and grounds.  We followed the easy paths through the forests, enjoying our fresh-air amble.  We discovered grottos decorated with carved runes, quiet bathing spots and clearings in the trees with fancy wooden houses.  We sat a while on a quiet quay, looking out over the large lake, before returning through the apple orchards at the rear of the hotel.  Our informal walk began and ended with the formal structures of Rosersberg Slott.

Rosersberg - (lake side)

Rosersberg - (Castle rear elevation)

We passed another quiet night in the grounds of Rosersberg, accompanied only by birdsong, as we made plans for our return visit to Stockholm.  Tomorrow was, we decided, to be a Vasa Museum day, come rain or come shine.

WorkAway – Guldbæk Vingård

After a week of gentle exploring and lazing on sunny beaches around the north of Jutland, we again headed back south of Aalborg, to the area near Svenstrup.  It was here we had our second WorkAway project lined up to begin, this time volunteering at Guldbæk Vingård,one of the most northern vineyards in the world.

WorkAway - (the vineyard)

On arrival we were warmly greeted by our host, Jan, and after introductions we were given a whistle-stop tour of the grounds and facilities.  His wife Lone would join us later after her return from work at the local kindergarten. We saw their house, storage rooms and wine production areas, alongside the more public face of the business, their beautiful raised conservatory dining area complete with decked verandah.  We noticed maps of Greenland and mentioned our recent kayaking trip there; Jan was pleased we knew a little of the country and would later regale us with tales of the frozen north.

WorkAway - (approaching house)

WorkAway - (musk ox)

Walking through the door of the main house we were met face to face with a musk ox, staring down at us from the wall.  We later learned how this was hunted in Greenland and saw the very hairy pelt, now a large rug, in our accommodation.  We had offered to live in Benny for our stay, in case other WorkAwayers were visiting, but Jan insisted they have only one couple at a time and that we should use the available separate annex apartment, so we happily agreed.  We could spread out and enjoy the comfortable space in our downtime; perfect.

WorkAway - (relaxing in the house)

Jan and Lone’s house was constructed based on a Swedish design; angular, spacious rooms with light double-height sloping ceilings inside, tall, full gable windows, walls heavily insulated, underfloor heating ran off biomass pellets, with a focal-point log burner.  The rooms were very comfortable spaces to completely relax in, overlooking the garden and nearby woodland, and we loved that they were very generously willing to share the spaces with us.

WorkAway - (n tends vines)

WorkAway - (a in the vines)

We worked stripping the vine trunks of excess growth, to help focus the new growth at the top.  Our first day in the vineyard was a little damp and rainy, but we still enjoyed the experience of moving along the rows, clearing weeds and ensuring that we carefully removed all unnecessary growth on each vine.  We found our own rhythm and personalised technique as we went along, and soon made progress across several large blocks.  It felt good to be contributing, even in such a small way, to something we’re quite passionate about – wine.

WorkAway - (block 3 vines)

WorkAway - (vine wildflowers)

We spent one other, much sunnier, day re-staking new vines that had recently been planted to replace frost damaged ones.  We pushed long twisted-metal bars into the ground near the vine root, and secured this to the existing horizontal wire trellis with a special shaped wire twist.  Once the support was fixed, the stalk was then taped and stapled to hold it in place and to defy the wind.   We progressed along each row of vines, loving the freshness of the warm air and gentle breeze, with the gentle discipline of the work providing a focus that we’d both missed.

WorkAway - (staking new vines)

WorkAway - (working the vines)

Most days we completed 3-4 hours work in the morning, occasionally at their vineyards on the other side of the village.  We’d take ourselves over there in the morning on our bikes, and when lunch time was approaching, we’d cycle out of the vineyards, past the Kingergarten where Lone works, through the village and back home – a simple but fun journey with the anticipation of lunch to come, to satiate hunger earned from working in the fresh, clean air.  A beer was usually offered and enjoyed over our tasty cold-table lunch each day.  Sometimes beer was even brought to us in the fields; a beer-break treat.

WorkAway - (beer break)

WorkAway - (well earned break)

Occasionally we’d nip back over to the vines again in the afternoon, once as we were asked and other times as we were keen to ensure we properly completed a task we’d been working on in the morning.  Otherwise we would have the afternoons to ourselves, and we took to wandering local paths in the nearby forests or simply relaxing, whether in our comfortable annex apartment or in the vineyard’s conservatory and spectacular timber verandah, from where they host functions and tastings, overlooking the lush green valley with the dutifully tended vineyards in the background.

WorkAway - (the glasshouse)

WorkAway - (verandah)

There were great stories told over dinner, as we enjoyed the vineyard’s own wines each night.  We learned of their time in Greenland, Jan working there as a policeman.  Along with two other colleagues Jan was responsible for a jurisdictional area larger than France.  Policing this involved helicopters and light aircraft, many of which were maintained from a civilian compound set within the confines of a US military base.  We heard stories of conflicting legal entities, as contrary to the expectations of most US army bases around the world, local Greenlandic law remained the ultimate authority inside.

WorkAway - (nearby horses)

WorkAway - (icelandic ponies)

We heard tales of an emergency beacon rescue in north eastern Greenland. Unknown at the time, the beacon had been flippantly initiated, due to encroaching timescales rather than a life-or-death situation.  But this put in motion a series of complicated logistics right across the country that, once demanded, couldn’t be reined back in.  Undertaking a helicopter rescue to a remote point thousands of kilometres away, over inhospitable ice fields, led to multiple shuttle runs with regular fuel dumps, a process that can take over a week of constant flying and refuelling to finally reach the isolated destination.  On this occasion the culprit, safe and secure and only hoping for a lift home, was hit by a huge fine for misuse of his emergency beacon call.

WorkAway - (wine-tasting with Jan)

WorkAway - (beef loin)

The generosity and openness of our hosts, Jan and Lone, was boundless.   They cooked the most sublime food for us, such as barbecued Uruguayan beef loin, chosen to complement their own carefully chosen wines.  We felt so spoiled. We started early, as we chatted, tasting wonderful sweet wines served as an aperitif, before enjoying a glass or two of deep, rich reds or a sharp, clean whites, depending on the type of food on offer each night.  We tried their apple wine and bubbly fizz variations, loving hearing the story behind each as we sipped.  It was a real pleasure to relax in vivacious company.

WorkAway - (vine view)

WorkAway - (feeding the cows)

We met Jan and Lone’s two sons, both of whom live locally and are involved in assisting the vineyard business.  They both have their own projects and careers, keeping them very busy.  We met Kim, his wife Helle and their three children first.  They work in IT, keep dogs and chickens as pets, rear a few cattle for meat, along with numerous other side projects.  Dennis and his wife Heidi, along with their kids, run a large farm breeding Icelandic horses, where they also design, produce and sell specialist equine leather products; saddles, bridles, stirrups, all specific for use with Icelandic horses.

WorkAway - (family takeaway lunch)

WorkAway - (Emil &amp; saddle sales)

Our hosts have lived, and continue to live, interesting and full lives; we heard tales of dancing with the Crown Prince of Denmark, being friends with the Prime Minister, hosting important civil parties in Greenland, investigating crimes, of kayaking, sailing and dog-sledging, and they now run a successful vineyard back in Denmark.  Their involvement in the wine industry has led them to travel extensively, to New Zealand and Australia, to California, to Japan, to visit other vineyards, increase their knowledge of wine production and make lots of good friends on their way.  But Greenland was the largest and most formative part of their lives, with over 20 years spent in the insular, patriarchal society.  It was Greenland where their heart lay, the stories most vivid.

WorkAway - (local views)

WorkAway - (tea stop)

WorkAway - (wildflowers between rows)

We have struggled to find words for the welcoming generosity of our amiable hosts; everything was just wonderful and the experience of our stay could not have been better.  We met three generations of this hospitable, happy Danish family and were deeply honoured to have been invited to so closely share in their lives, if only for a short while.  The stories we heard and the times that we had will long linger in our memory.

WorkAway - (us with our hosts)

Thanks so much for everything,  Jan & Lone; skål!