A Travellerspoint blog

Pyrenees Day 1

We came expecting rain

semi-overcast 15 °F

The Pyrénées are often considered Western Europe’s last wilderness. This is, of course, not true. There is no remaining wilderness in Western Europe. Any environment that humans have explored, modified or exploited in any way ceases to be a wilderness. Just ask the Pyrénéen brown bear who nearly went extinct a decade ago because of over-grazing of domestic sheep. The Pyrénées have hosted humans for thousands of years, beginning with the Neolitic ancestors of the Basques, followed by the Greeks who gave the Pyrénées her name, to the Romans and Franks who each in their own turn set out to defeat the long-time fierce mountain dwellers, the Basques, finally concluding with the game-loving French mountain men and women who inhabit her peaks and valleys today.
Although the Pyrénées are no longer wilderness, per se, there certainly still exists a wild quality to them that keeps outdoors people coming back year after year. I for one had an image of lofty peaks, gnarled crags, forested hills and verdant valleys. In these mountains are nestled the dens of bears, lie the grave of Ronceval and host the ancient homes of Europe's oldest people, the Basques. The Pyrénées guard some of the highest and most trecherous mountain passes of any mountain range in Europe. Many are the adventure tales of armies, refugees and fugitives from Roman times to WWII who attempted to traverse these unforgiving peaks.
Though they may not be wild, they certainly are romantic.
Luke and I flew into Pau, a small city at the foot of the mountains that boasts, among other things, palm trees, a funicular and a people who trace some of their ancestors back to Wellington and his British soldiers who set up homes here at the end of the wars against Napoleon. We spent a pleasant morning here, enjoying our first views of the mountain before training deeper into them.
From Pau we trained to Lourdes, a pilgrim hotspot and, from what we could tell, an altogether bizarre mélange of religious tourism and French hillbilly culture.
St. Jacques pilgrims -- you can tell because of the St. Jacques scallop shells on their packs.
The only time I ever saw any mention of country music in France.

From Lourdes, we bused then bused 1.5 hours to Barèges, a spa and ski-resort village that was notably dead in June. That is, until our last day there when a big Pyrenean bicycle race tore through Barèges and a chain of equally small Northern Exposure-esque villages connected by the one winding road.
Whether owing to luck, prayer or climate change, Luke and I lucked out once again with remarkable weather. The day before we flew out to Pau, we checked the weather report to see what we could expect. It was a classic outdoors vacation moment of irony when, on the map of France, we spotted a single stormy cloud icon out of all the hundreds of other sunshine icons, and that storm cloud happened to be floating over the exact region where we were headed. Again… c’est la vie.
Maybe it’s best going to a place expecting the worst; you’re all the more grateful and relieved when everything works out. We were delighted when our first day in the Pyrénées greeted us with sunshine and spectacular light and shadow displays. We were exhausted after a long day of traveling (a day that began at 3:30am!), but eager to get a quick walk in before dinner. We took a nice and level path out to St. Julien’s cross. Along the way, we were graced by spectacular views and impressively plump slugs.

Our second day of hiking began about 5 minutes after we woke up and stumbled into the hostel refectory. The hostel owner Philipe announced that he was driving a couple of people out to the beginning of a hike and if we wanted to tag along we needed to be ready in 5 minutes. Philipe promised we’d walk past about five glacial lakes and climb to 2,500 meters if the weather didn’t turn on us. We were too groggy to put up much of a fight or to consider whether this was even a hike we wanted to go on. So, after downing a few bites of cereal and yoghurt and pocketing the bread, we grabbed our backpacks (and thankfully remembered to pack our lunch and water) and joined the others downstairs.
Our hiking partners for the day were a mother and son team from Quebec. Ruth had come to France many times, as it was the same distance, she explained, to fly to France for a hiking holiday as it was to fly out west to the Rockies. It was 18-year-old Xaviers’ first time. They were a lovely pair and, frankly, very tolerant for letting two bleary-eyed and improperly-equipped strangers tag along with them without getting a say in the matter. Together with Xavier and Ruth, Luke and I hiked over some of the most stunning landscapes I have ever beheld.
From the col de Madamet 2,500 meters!
From the pic de Madamet 2,600 meters!

At the beginning of the hike Ruth pointed out Luke’s and my running shoes and questioned whether we would manage up the mountain alright. She and Xavier were decked out in thick-ankle hiking boots and carried professional looking titanium walking sticks. Over the next 9 hours we forded glacial streams (barefoot), hiked over boulders, lose rock, muddy paths and snow, and I’m happy to say Luke and I did just fine despite being decked out in $40 Nike tennis shoes and not $150 Kathmandu boots.
Ever since Luke and I bused into Barèges on a road that follows the river of that region (whose name I do not know, nor can I find oddly enough), we were aching to take a dip. Ok, I was aching. Luke was... willing. Finally, at the end of our hiking up to the Pic de Magdanet with Xavier and Ruth, we had our chance.
The dam Detes Coubous was the last big site before a down hill descent to the parking lot where we began our hike. Taking this as our chance, Luke and I told the Quebecois that we were going to enjoy the sunshine beside the lake for a little while.
Xavier and Ruth, just before we said au revoir.
We went for a swim right there in an amphitheatre of mountains.
Yep, me high-tailin' it outta there!
We refilled our water bottle at about 2,000 meters up in one of the crystalline streams of melt water. Nothing sweeter.

We eventually did get rain. Our last full day in Barèges, the ceiling of cloud that had been threatening to unload on us the night before, descended into the valley and stayed there for the rest of the day. The mountains disappeared. We weren’t too bothered, though, to be honest. We’d both suffered a pretty nasty sunburn the day before, mine behind the knees, and weren’t feeling to keen to go on anymore hikes. Instead we bused into the village of Luz for lunch where we visited a 12th century Templars church and a hill-top chateau.
The mountains hiding in Luz.
Then we walked the 7 kilometers back to Barèges only to find ourselves caught in the bike race. When we made it back to Barèges, we were just in time for the cyclists.
After watching this oh-so-French spectacle for a little while, Luke and I decided there was nothing else to do, why not try out the spa right there in town. The sulfuric waters in Barèges are reported to have healing properties. I can’t say whether this was true, but we spent a delightful 2 hours floating in whirlpools and Jacuzzis, and sweating it out in the Hamam. This was my favorite. Luke said it was his idea of hell with a broken AC. He liked the bucket of ice plunge water anyways.
When on vacation why not go to a spa? After all, the French value their health so much, and their security social pays for so much of medical expenses, that a two hour spa treatment is very affordable. Voila! C’est comme ça, la vie en France.

More to come about the last part of our trip down to coastal south-west France.

Posted by ernielow 12:11 Archived in France Tagged foot Comments (0)

"Our Mountain" and the Luberon Valley

More walks in sunny Provence with old friends

sunny 30 °F

The timing of my trip to Aix was perfect. It was Frances's last week in France (I know, confusing) before flying to the DR Congo for a month of humanitarian work. Then she’d return to her home in Australia where visits would become more difficult. As my term had just finished, Frances’ last week worked out to be the best time for me to get down to Aix for a visit. The added incentive to me was that it would be my last chance to visit Aix with Frances in it, a condition that was pervasive in my experience of the place while I was there and my memories of it while I’ve been away.
We met early on in the semester while setting up our bank accounts. It was an instant friendship as we soon discovered that we shared a special love for Mont Sainte-Victoire. Over the next six months we would refer to it as “our mountain.” We climb it any chance we got.
View of Sainte-Victoire and the chateau of Vauvenargues.

As my hiking, travel, chai tea buddy and sister in Christ, Frances was indispensible to my sanity while I was living in France. She was always there when I needed to rant about the hypocrisies of French culture or the difficulties of living abroad and learning a new language. She was there, also, to share in my joy of living in such a beautiful place, of being blessed enough to have such an opportunity.
It’s been my impression that friendships formed while living abroad are friendships of the moment, friendships of necessity. Because they are shorter and more concentrated, they can be intense. They’re formed quickly and then, just as abruptly, they're relinquished. But because the bonding that goes on during this time happens to coincide with one of the most transitional and challenging times in a person’s life, they seem to me the kind of friendships that endure. If I’ve learned anything this year, it’s been the importance of finding and maintaining community -- that includes family, old friends, new friends and strangers. For six months, Frances was part of my life-saving, sanity-preserving community. I knew I couldn’t let Frances return to Australia before we climbed the mountain one more time together.
We climbed Sainte-Victoire sure enough. It was a little bit like going home, but also like how I imagine little Iowan children must feel when they seen mountains or ocean for the first time. Imagine their sense of wonder, the novelty of it all. I imagine there must also be the feeling of "what else have I been missing all this time!?" We climbed from the north face of the mountain this time, from the picturesque village of Vauvenargues where Picasso lived for a spell. It’s more forested on this side of the mountain. From the top you can just about see the Plateau of Vaucluse, a ridge of mountains that includes bald-head Mont Ventoux that overlooks the Luberon valley. Vauvenargues does not present the most striking view of Mont Sainte-Victoire, all white and severe, that one sees from Aix and in Cézanne paintings. The mountain is still a picture, nonetheless, the way it stands guard over the faithful, red-roofed buildings of Vauvenargues. This gentler view of Sainte-Victoire perhaps makes the climactic view from the top all the more stunning.
After an arduous two hour ascent from Vauvenargues, you know you’ve reached the top when a wave of wind greets you like an effusive Italian mastiff greets its master. You crawl across the crest of the ridge, dazzled by the views of the burnt ochre landscape laid out in front of you, and then suddenly, you stop. You can go no further. Below a wall of bleached limestone falls like a sheet of ice down the mountain’s southern face.
I’ve had a bit of a love affair with this mountain for going on a year now, as many of you know. I even spent the past semester working on a nonfiction piece solely about the mountain for one of my classes. This latest climb was the perfect adieu: painfully beautiful, final, but always hoping.
It was a week of closure in many respects. As it was Frances’ final week in France after a long and turbulant year learning the language, we had to make time for certain unavoidable housekeeping tasks. One of these tasks was to close her bank account. As it was, Frances and I met in September while opening our bank accounts, so, as she commented at the time, things seemed to come full circle. It might seem silly, but I think it's important to give the psyche certain landmarks and momentos which it can latch on to in order to make change a little less traumatic. It's a big step leaving a place you've devoted so much energy into making a home, foreign though it is.
I had a to do list of my own while in Aix. The first was, of course, to climb the mountain. Next to that all others shrank. We managed to get our hike in my very first day, with only a few menacing hours of rain in the morning to keep us respectfully on the edge. The rain actually worked out to accommodate several of my other goals: go to the market, buy local provençal honey, have a café at my favorite terraced café that overlooks the fish market, and eat a pain au chocolate and a pain aux raisin from Béchard, the best patisserie in Aix. I’m happy to report that we accomplished every one of these tasks. During the week also ate our weight in ratatouille and cheese and nutella and coconut crepes from Crepes a go-go.
French markets probably are the hugest cliché in travel books, blogs, photo albums ever. But let’s be honest, they really are just [i]that[i] amazing. On the superficial level, I love them for their colours. The multi-colored spice baskets laid out to season in the sun, the inky purple aubergines, the ruby red beouf tomatoes, the spiraled green cauliflower, the creamy cheeses, the floury cracked brown breads resembling the calloused hands of the boulanger who baked them. Then as I draw closer to the festival of colour, I come to my second reason for why I love French markets. Every time I go to one, I find a fruit, vegetable or animal product that I never knew existed. Round zucchini. Spiral, purple cauliflower. Baby artichokes. Golden plums. My discovery on this latest trip was green and red zebra tomatoes. The green ones were even a bit firm like green tomatoes. But the grocer assured me that unlike the green tomatoes I was accustomed to, which you have to fry to make edible, the zebra variety could be eaten raw. Delicious.
The final item on both Frances’s and my wish lists was to visit the Luberon valley. All semester (for me, all year from Frances), we’d planned to visit this famed region in Provence, the values of which we’d heard praised by our professors, friends, tourists and classmates alike. The valley lays one hour’s drive north of Aix and there are, as we discovered, several buses that go that way. At the time there was always another time we could get out there. We needed to spend our time traveling farther distances, seeing places we’d regret never visiting once we’d left. (But there will always be those places, no matter how much you travel). And so we’d yet to visit the Mesopotamia of Provence.
Just when we thought we'd missed our chance, we discovered that we had a free day in our week together. After researching the area, we found several villages that were well connected via bus and had several walks jutting out into the surrounding countryside. We decided on Bonnieux, a lovely village just north of the too-cute-for-its-own-good village of Lourmarin, where Albert Camus is buried. As it was May, it was still too early for the hordes of tourists expected to flood the honey-coloured cobbled streets of Bonnieux and other Luberon villages later on in the summer. So we had the village, for the most part, to ourselves.
We started with a coffee at a terraced café overlooking the Petit Luberon. Every day in France must begin similarly. Mont Ventoux’s bald head peaked at us from across the valley.
Revived by the caffeine, we set out to explore the village (taking all of about 10 minutes).

We were in one of the poshest rural areas in France, so the village, small as it was, was peppered with swanky art galleries and real-estate shops advertising 500,000 euro country cottages. This is Peter Mayle country (of A Year in Provence fame). Angelina Jolie and hundreds of wealthy British and American retirees have summer homes in “fixed-up” country cottages that better resemble McMansions than the modest farming houses they once were.
But the Luberon has somehow managed to resist overdevelopement. It is still rural, painted with all the colours of a fertile land. It is the bread basket of Provence, just as it always has been. And if you venture out into the countryside, you are more likely to meet a salt of the earth paysan d'oc (southerner) than you are a celebrity. We saw (and tasted) the fruit of the valley at every step of our 4 hour walk through the countryside.
Our walk took us through lavendar fields, olive groves, and wheat fields sprinkled with poppies. Ours was a leissurely, ambling kind of walk, allowing us to photograph every butterfly, every flower and every landscape that present itself (and they were legion). On the way back we chanced to pass a local bee keeper tending to his hives which were scattered under cherry and almond trees. I now have several images I can't wait to try my hand at painting when I get back home this summer. Painting party anyone?
Frances and I ended our day in Bonnieux the same way we ended every trip we took together; with a glass of pastis for me and a rosé for Frances. Always at a terraced café with a view. I will miss those sun drenched afternoons.

Posted by ernielow 14:07 Archived in France Tagged foot Comments (0)

Exciting Blog to Watch

Polly and Rob's bike ride from South Africa to Wales

Polly and Rob were interviewed on Travellerspoint recently about their upcoming adventure biking trip from South Africa to Wales. Their inspirational story is well worth reading about. I'll be following their journey in the coming months.


Posted by ernielow 13:46 Archived in South Africa Tagged bicycle Comments (0)

Peace in Pembrokeshire

Finding magic in the ordinary on the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path


A little more than a month had passed since beginning my life in England. Following her initial snowy greeting, Bath soon began to thaw out and, by March, a soggy winter quickly melted into a mild spring. And unusually mild spring, in fact. As I write, we are experiencing the first grey day we've had in weeks. So as far as the weather is concerned, my life here in Bath has been idyll.
So what can be said about uni? Well, all semester my class schedule afforded me a four day weekend. Here students are given iplenty of ndependent study time and are allowed to work at their own pace. So without the frequent, petty assignments that keep college students in the States feeling burned-out, it was a relatively relaxed semester. Because of the more relaxed pace, it kept me passionate about my subject. And having successfully avoided the exam-driven majors, as of May 22 when my final projects were all due, my relaxed semester transitioned into an even more relaxed summer.
Life has been good. No stress to speak of. So naturally, in March Luke and I decided to take a vacation. Here I am, in June, finally getting around to writing about it!
We decided on Pembrokeshire, the southern coast of Wales, for a couple reasons: first, as it was mid-March we figured it might be too cold for the lake district, and it'd be too long of a journey for only 3 nights; second, I'd seen Luke's pictures of his family's holiday to Pembrokeshire a few years back and was itching to have a rambol along some of those hills and cliff-side paths; thirdly, Wales is easy-ish to get to from Somerset and it was the last week of the "low season," which meant we could get low rates on a hostel. Of course, going to Wales in March also meant the weather could be absolutely foul. We knew we ran the risk of being cooped-up in the hostel in a tiny village in rural Wales with nothing to do (because the only reason you go to such a village is to walk the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path) while a miserable grey rain pelted down on us for three days straight. But hey, you run that risk anytime you go on an outdoorsy holiday... especially in this country. So we went anyways, prepared to make the most of even the lousiest of weather.

Day 1
As expected it was raining in Bristol the morning we set off. Still, we were chipper. We'd packed our jackets, umbrellas and waterproofs and were prepared to make the most of whatever Wales had to offer us. So imagine our delight when, on the train journey to Fishguard, Wales, the sun began to shine through the grey film hanging over Somerset. And as we chugged along west and crossed the border into Wales, the sun seemed to gain more intensity as if determined to outshine the English sun. By the time we arrived in Fishguard, we had shed a couple layers of clothing each.
I love train travel in Europe. Our train journey to Fishguard was no less pleasing. The train ride affored me my first views of sun-splashed southern Wales along with some peaks of the coastline we would soon hike. From Fishguard we caught a bus heading south towards St. Davids. The twenty minute bus ride took us through rolling green pastures and farmland of [i]How Green Was My Valley[i] fame. On the bus we were surrounded by locals who lived in the one-pub villages we passed or, often, in farms tucked away on dirt roads, fifteen minutes walk from the nearest village. Everyone on the bus spoke Welsh. Though the Welsh all speak English now and most identify themselves as British as much as Welsh, they've done well to preserve their language as part of their unique Celtic heritage. But with the arrival of each new generation, the older folks sit in sunless pub corners and pose the question to one another in hushed voices, Will the young people preserve our culture, our language? And what a beautiful language it is! It is the lilting language of poets and bards, medieval kings and gentle green valleys. As a visitor to Wales, it's by no means necessary to speak Welsh in order to get by (and the Welsh don't seem to hold it against you if you don't). But hearing the sheer musicality of it next to the rigid functionality of English often makes me a bit sad that such a beautiful language is being preserved, and with some difficulty, in only one small pocket of the world.
The bus dropped us off in a small coastal village called Trefin (pronounced Trevin as there's no "f" sound in Welsh, though they use the letter in its written form). Our backpackers hostel was literally 50 meters away from the bus stop on the main road, which was, coincidentally, the only road in Trefin. There was another couple waiting outside the hostel when we approached. They had a 10kg rucksack each resting between their knees and they were heating a pot of soup on a very small camping grill. After chatting with them for a bit, we discovered that they'd just finished a 5 hour hike from Treffaser about 6 miles north along the coast. They'd arrived sooner than expected and were waiting for the hostel owners to return so they could check in. Rather than wait around, Luke and I decided to head down to the coast and get a quick walk in.
A leissurely walk through some sheep pastures, a hop over a fence and we were on the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path. Just like that, it could literally be seen from the hostel window. To our right the path snaked along a grassy path bordered by gorse bushes in full bloom. In the distance we could see how it began to trace the tops of the 50 to 80 meter high cliffs which fell into the Irish Sea below. To our left the path fell slightly to where we suspected we might be able to find a bit of beach. In front of us the Irish Sea, a quivering deep blue, expanded towards the horizon. We went left.
The beaches in Pembrokeshire are peppered with polished stones in every shade of grey, blue and purple, the likes of which I remembered from our family visit to Aberdovy years ago. I remember as a little girl crunching along the huge mounds of these rocks and delighting in the sound of their earthy grumbling. I love it still. I tried to imagine the journeys that each rock took before arriving on this tiny beach near Trefin, Wales. Still, I cannot comprehend the amount of time it must take for the ocean to wear down a huge boulder like the one over there to the small, smooth stone I'm holding in my hand. It's no bigger than a robin's eggs and nearly as blue.
Trefin's beach, with the old ruined mill on the hill overlooking it, reminds me of the beaches in Portugal with their pink, orange and beige colored rocks of varying sizes strewn across the sand. In many of the stones you can trace your finger along the ridges of fossils and ancient sea shells that have been preserved there for countless thousands and millions of years. On these beaches where boulders lay along side stepping stones, pebbles along side grains of sand, an unfathomable timeline of history stretches out infront of you. Right there under your feet is life and death, but without a clear beginning or an end. Sifting through rocks on that beach one realises that Nature has a completely different sense of time than we do. Luke and I walked down to this beach essentially to kill time as we waited to check-in to our hostel. But what a gift to be able to, for just an hour, be a participant in a timeless world.
Unable to comprehend the mystery of it all, Luke and I began to skip rocks (or skim rocks as the Brits call it). Just by being there, by dislodging one rock with a clumsily placed foot and hurling another back into the sea, we became part of the history of that beach.
We'd been in Pembrokeshire no longer than an hour and already the beauty of the place had repaid us double for our effort of coming. The land was a playground and still there was [i]so[i] much to explore. We wanted to carry on along the path past the beach, but ultimately decided to go back the way we'd come and walk along the cliffs for a few hours before sundown. On this walk Luke pointed out the gorse plant to me, a beautiful and rugged bramble that has a shockingly yellow flower when it is in bloom but, like thistle, is covered in thorns. In the sun, the gorse appears golden against the green of the valley. Luke and I also noticed that the sheep in Wales appeared whiter than British sheep. We had no idea what could possibly keep these beasts so white until we looked closer at the gorse. The gorse was actually decorated with spiderweb-like clumps of wool. In there determination to get at all the choisest bits of grass along the cliffs, the daring little buggars would squeeze right through the thorny gorse. The thorns would subsequently card out their wool. So that is the welsh sheep's beauty secret.
It was also lambing season. And as the coastal path takes you right through open pastures where sheep graze freely along the cliffs, we spent all weekend awwing at the darling new additions to the flocks. P3220246.jpg
Our hostel was in itself an escape from a busier pace of life (somebody elses, that is, not ours). Chris and Sue had escaped to Pembrokeshire in favour of a quieter life, more in touch with Nature, over the stress of their former lives in London. Chris had worked for a corrupt, high-powered banker in London and was himself getting caught up in the hamster wheel of power. This all changed, though, when he went on eco, hiking holiday in Scotland and realised that there was so much more to life. As well as living honorably and not in the service of the corrupt, a full life, in his mind, prescribed living as a steward of the earth. So he and Sue quit their jobs and fled to Pembrokeshire to open an environmentally-friendly backpackers hostel. Every morning at The Old School Hostel started with a big steaming bowl of home-made caribbean porridge with local honey and fair trade products. Many of the guests cooked their own meals and made use of the compost and recycling containers. The set-up was easy, natural, and so the reflex became natural too.

Day 2
After getting an unexpected first taste of the trail the day before, we were raring to see as much as we could during what was to be our first full day of walking. Over breakfast Chris suggested busing into St. David's about 12 miles south, visiting the historic town and cathedral and then walking back to Trefin along the coastal path. Sounded like a good plan to us. It was another beautiful morning. St. David's was aready familiar to me, as only a place that's introduced in a favorite novel can be. My memories of St. David's and its cathedral stemmed from my one-time favorite author, Sharon Kay Penman, who wrote historical fiction novels about the legendary medieval Welsh and English kings, Davidd and King John. The earliest foundations of a christian community in St. David's date back to 500AD. But long before then, the peninsula of St. David's Head was the capital of druidic spiritualism in Wales. Conveniently, our walk started inland at the cathedral before extending out towards the coast and continuing on through many of the druid burial mounds.
Searching for the start of the path.

Our one day of bad weather (if you want to call it that) arrived just as we started the hike from St. David's cathedral. When we bused into St. David's the landscape was under a halo of light. The promised heat even tempted us to sample the ice cream from shops in the city which patroned local Welsh dairies.
St. David's is officially the smallest city in Great Britain, smaller than many towns even. It's given the title of "city," simply because it possesses a Roman Catholic cathedral. That's all a town needs in England to be called a city. We found the cathedral easily enough and began a quick walk around its impressive buildings and ruins. We're students, so we didn't pay to go inside, In any case, we were anxious to find the coastal path. It was already 11:30 when we started out from the cathedral and we had 14 miles to walk back to Trefin. Also, the sun was beginning to disappear behind frothy grey clouds. Within minutes, a mist like a mosquito net enveloped the countryside around us.
One variety of buriel mound.

The mist remained our constant companion throughout the entirety of our walk along St. Davids head, a peninsula jutting out from the south of Wales. Spookily, St. David's head also happens to be the site of several druid burial mounds and rock circles, the likes of stonehenge. For several hours Luke and I were the only hikers (or pilgrims) on the mystical peninsula. The land was a hilly mooreland, sparse in colourful vegetation and silent except for the sound of waves crashing into the cliffs 80 meters below us, cliffs we often could not see because of the mist. Because of the mist we often wandered off the path proper and would walk right up to the edge of the cliff before realising our serious error. If we weren't happening upon enshrouded cliff edges, we were stumbling across stone circles and burial mounds, which were strewn across the mooreland like several olympic rings. The whole scene was like something out of a King Arthur movie and we would not have been surprised at all to see Merlin walking towards us out of the mist.
Though I was naturally a little hesitant about walking along a cliff-side coastal path in thick mist (especially considering our accident-prone track record!), there was only one real hairy moment. We came across a lovely waterfall that cascaded from the top of the moore and down the limestone cliffs before disappearing into the mist and the tourqouise sea below. It was a beautiful, etheral sight. Naturally, I wanted to get a picture. But as I stepped towards the edge of the cliff, my foot caught a mound of earth and I fell forward. I managed to catch myself a foot away from the drop-off. Ok, so maybe a foot of leeway wasn't that extreme. But for someone who's afraid of heights and who'd just taken her fiancé to the emergency room weeks before after a freak walking disaster, it was enough to make us extra cautious for the rest of the walk. I somehow managed to shake it off. It's always easier when it's yourself. Luke was not impressed.
My little scare happened towards the end of St. David's head. Once we'd rounded the last bay of the peninsula, the mist eased up a bit and we began to encounter the far reaching tentacles of civilisation for the first time in hours. This troupe of ponies were some of the first warm bodies we met.
Our first day of proper trail walking, Luke and I weren't sure of our abilities. Were we up for walking 14 miles in one day? It was mostly flat terrain but with some up and down hills. How long does it even take to hike 14 miles? Would we be back before sundown, or, more importantly, dinner? Just to be safe, we kept a brisk pace. We were therefore pleased with ourselves when, half way into the walk we ran into the seasoned hiking couple from our hostel. The were heading to St. Davids and had started out much earlier than us. Yet we were meeting them more than halfway into our walk. Or so we thought, judging from the map Chris had loaned us. We were making good time! Either that, or we had to pick up the pace, as we feared the next part of the journey would take that much longer.
We walked for a couple more hours. This time the path led us down to frigid lagoons, across pebbled beaches and past white-washed lighthouses. Then around 5:00 we spotted the fishing village Porthgain in the distance. Trefin, and dinner, was just the next village over.

Day 3

We had done it! We'd successfully completed our first long-distance walk and managed to cover 14 miles in just over 6 hours. Not bad, we thought. Our feet had been a little sore the night before, but after a footsie rub and a good nights rest, we were ready for more the following morning. The mists of Saturday had cleared and an absolutely glorious Sunday welcomed us. Again we sought trail advice from Chris, who suggested we walk in the other direction from St. David's to an old woolen mill about 6 miles up the coast. As it was Sunday and there were no buses, we'd have to walk a shorter distance and then walk back. There was a good pub at the woolen mill, he said, that did a plowman's lunch that was worth the walk. We couldn't match Chris's plan, so by 9:30 we were on the path again. This time we went right at the crossroads.
Gone were the ethereal moores of St. David's Head. This part of the journey took us through golden gorse-splashed cliff-side paths and verdant pastures. To the left of us lay the dramatic limestone cliffs that plummeted into the tourquoise Irish sea. Seagulls soared on thermals and rock pigeons tried valiantly to protect their nests of newly lain eggs on the rocky islands that had broken off from the mainland millions of years previously. To our right extended a patchwork quilt of pastures, open fields and corn fields as far as the eye could see. If we thought we'd seen our fair share of dramatic landscape the day before on St. David's head, Wales would soon reveal even more of her glory to us today. Beaches, waterfalls, and trecherous cliffsides that would raise our heart-rates every time we had to walk along side them, were to be the order of the day.
Chris warned us to look out for the big pebble beach just past the fishing village Abercastle. We were meant to cross the beach (though not forgetting to skip a few rocks along the way) and then find a path that jutted inland. At the end of this path would be the woolen mills and lunch. 12 o'clock. Perfect timing. The path to the woolen mill took us through charming forest where we were afforded glimpses of some of the first spring flowers in the region.
Ok, now on to the important bit in the story. The Ploughman's. For anyone who doesn't know what a ploughman's is (and I know I had never heard of it before coming to England), allow me to describe this platter of tasty goodness. You can either choose a meat or cheese ploughmans. Obviously, we always go for the cheese. You're then given a generous hunk of two to four kinds of different cheeses, practically half a loaf of fluffy, hearty homemade bread, bfrom the local dairy, and then you usually get a variety of several different kinds of pickles, i.e., relishes. At the woolen mill this included pickled spring onions, sweet red cabbage relish with caramlized onion, and kerkins (dill pickles). We brougth along our own hard boiled eggs that we'd purchased at the only grocer in Trefin, a one-room shed, twenty minutes walk from our hostel. I can't think of a more satisfying lunch after soaking in the sun and the salty-sea air on a morning's hike. We washed it all down with a bottle of Welsh ginger beer each. De-li-cious!
The walk back was equally refreshing. We took another forested path back to the beach that took us through one man's whimsical wooden sculptures of aligators and birds which he strewn in the woods along the path. Chris had also advised us to look out for some prehistoric petrified tree stumps that are visible along the beach at low tide. Unfortunately, the tide was up and we missed out on this treat.
I realise that for anyone who is not a nature lover, this blog will not be all that exciting for you to read. I confess that when I travel I don't look out for the liveliest pub, bar or night club where, I'm sure, countless friendships are made and countless more tales are spawned. I tend to flee to the hills. If confined to a vast city, I'm on the constant look-out for green space in the forms of parks, cemeteries, anything, just get me away from the concrete. For that reason, I can't give a very positive account of my weekend in a gargantuan Picidilly hostel where outside the sounds of a city zoo can be heard at all hours of the night. But I can gush for hours about Hyde Park and St. John's Park where I spent many happy moments people watching and pretending that I was back in Somerset or Pembrokeshire.
And though some might not see the magic in some crusty, old tree stumps, or hear the music of beach pebbles crunching under your feet, or appreciate the mystery of a mist-enshrouded druidic holy-land when they read about it from the computer screen in the stress-filled environment of an office cubicle, I'm sure many would be surprised at how much joy can be derived from these simple pleasures when, for just one weekend, they abandon the world of virtual entertainment and discover the playground, or sanctuary, that lies on a rocky beach in a secluded part of the world.
The walk back to Trefin was lessiurly as we tried to soak in a store of fresh salty air that would last us another month or two. When we arrived back to the hostel we had enough time to wash off the dust from the trail before the pub opened. But before dinner there was one more thing to be done. With about ten minutes before sunset we ran back to the familiar sign at the crossroads of the coastal path. Automatically, we went left. Towards the beach. Fell-running down the path and over the hills we stopped at the top of a grassy cliff that over-looked the beach where we'd played our first afternoon in Trefin. Out of breath, beaming, we watched the rosy orange sun set over the Pembrokeshire path, and we were content.

Posted by ernielow 05:39 Archived in Wales Tagged foot Comments (1)

The Homebody Stage of Study Abroad

sunny 72 °F

All study abroaders go through it. I'm sure everyone must go through it. Life abroad is just too good, the weather too perfect, the people just too much fun. Why leave? No matter how many trips around the country and neighboring countries a student plans at the beginning of their term, inevitably there comes that stage when their study abroad "home" is too good to leave. It's the Homebody Stage of study abroad.
Such has been my situation the past four months. It's been an unseasonably sunny spring here in Bath, a pleasant change to typically rainy England I came expecting. Then I had to throw myself into my creative writing course here, which required a lot of my attention. But that's not to say it's been a chore. I love it. And then there's the company. Suffice to say that it's been bliss to finally be in the same country as Luke after four years of being in a long distant relationship.
With that paltry explanation for why I've been so silent these past few months, let me offer my apologies to you faithful family and friends who have asked about my blog. I really have led a quiet student life here in Bristol and Bath for the past four months with only a few trips scattered over that time. I have plans to recount those trips in the next few weeks as well as the trips that are in the works for this summer. But as of Friday when I handed in my final assignment, I'm free for the summer and itching to get back on the road. The first adventure starts tomorrow at 9:22 with a train bound for Bournemouth where I'll explore that beach town before jumping on a plane for Marseille. I'm back in Aix for the first time since January!
But rather than jump right in with an account of the beautiful weekend we spent in the gorgeous southern coast of wales (Pembrokeshire) a few months back, I thought I'd ease my way back into travel mania another way; with a book review. (Because I know you all need more summer reading recommendations like you need a heart attack!) But since my travel bug really has been hibernating these past few months, I thought I owed it to these authors to give them credit for the stories which have gradually nudged my wanderlust back to life. And as it's summer and people are beginning to count up their vacation time, I thought it only right to share these stories with anyone who thinks they might like to catch the travel bug too.

Here are a few books I've read lately that have helped me out of my Homebody Stage (glorious though it was). I can recommend them to anyone who would like to experience a new part of the world this summer, even if it's from your favorite armchair.

Honey and Dust: Travels in Search of Sweetness by Piers Moore Ede

While recovering from a near fatal motorcycle hit-and-run accident, Piers Moore Ede finds himself on both a physical and spiritual journey to find anew meaning in a life filled with pain. A restorative get-away to Tuscany where Ede agrees to work on a farm owned by a swiss expat opens up the world of beekeeping to him. Drawn in by the magic of honey, Ede soon begins an epic journey across the Middle East, India, Sri Lanka and Nepal in search of the most ancient traditions of beekeeping and honey-hunting. During this time he will go honey-hunting with a Nepalese tribe for hallucinogenic honey along the dangerous cliffs of Nepal and again in the deep jungles of Sri Lanka. Along the way, he will taste many rare honeys and take part in many traditions of beekeeping which, he discovers, are on their way out as bee colony collapse disorder, environmental crisis and war threaten to obliterate these most ancient traditions and unique honeys.

Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuscinski
The Polish foreign correspondent and author of The Shadow of the Sun and [i]The Other[i], Kapuscinski dedicated his life to exploring the world with uncritical eyes. Now with his final book, [i]Travels[i], Kapuscinski recounts the beginning of his career as a young Polish journalist in 1950s communist Poland. He explains that as a child of the German occupation and then Russian goulags, when he finally did arrive at a time in his life that he could consider traveling, all he really wanted to do was cross a border. Any border. Instead, his editor sends him to India. There is a fascinating moment when Kapuscinski describes his utter shock of going from the communist ideals of brotherhood and equality (though he by no means glorifies his communist homeland) to the intense hierarchical framework of Hindu society. All throughout Kapuscinski's early travels he has one constant travel companion: the early Greek explorer, Herodotus, and his [i]The Histories[i]. Kapuscinski recognizes in Herodotus an unquenchable curiosity and a determination to present the world as it is, without the preconceptions of western ideas about the "other". 2,500 year later, the young Kapuscinski in [i]Travels[i] will eventually become the world famous foreign correspondent and indefatigable champion of the same ideal.

[i]Maiden Voyage[i] by Tania Aebi
Thank you, Aunt Mary, for this recommendation years ago!
Whether you're a sailing enthusiast or your stomach turns at the thought of stepping on a boat, this book about an 18-year-old girl's solo circumnavigation of the globe in a 26 foot sloop will become a much-loved summer page turner. It will certainly rock your boat. At 18 Aebi is a New York City bicycle messenger with no real direction in life until her German-Swiss father gives her a little challenge: become the first woman to sail around the globe. Having only ever accompanied her father as a passenger on his sailing trips but with no real experience of her own, Aebi accepts the challenge. Writing with freelancer Brennan, Aebi recounts her adventures through tropical storms, impossibly heavy waves and endless oceans. The book is full of jaunty stories of people she meets along the way (including a romance with a French-Swiss sailor) and the countries she passes through. As a single female traveler, it must be said that this book is full of girl power as well as adventure. The reader is drawn into Aebi's, often, emotional world of having to constantly repair malfunctioning equipment and the, at times, intense loneliness of being on the high seas. A must read for anyone whose ever dreamed of captaining your own boat or secretly wishes they had the guts (or opportunity) to do so. As Nike would say, Just Do It!

On my list of must-reads:
[i]The Histories[i] by Herodotus -- Naturally, inspired by Kapuscinski.
[i]Blood River[i] by Tim Butcher -- Recommended to me by a friend I met in France who is leaving soon to do humanitarian aid work in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I would like to know more about this tragic and enchanting part of the world, a land of mountain gorillas as well as genocide.

Do y'all have anymore?

Posted by ernielow 09:28 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged armchair_travel Comments (1)

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