Sunday, August 29, 2010

Touching the bog lightly

We crossed from Cumbria to Yorkshire today, where the main challenge was traversing boggy ground for a few hours. We were in luck: there was some rain, but it wasn't heavy. we could see where we were going, and it was only a 13-mile day. The easiest way to cross bog is to try and flit across the surface, like an insect, getting purchase from reeds and grass clumps. We had a lot of fun.

We're staying in tiny Keld tonight. Another good dinner (salmon in asparagus sauce, and creme brulee). We're now halfway across England.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Eastward Ho!

Today we'll reach the halfway point (c. 96 miles), and the start of the Yorkshire Dales. We left the Lake District the day before yesterday and have since been walking through rolling countryside and farmland. The most distinctive thing about Cumbria is the dry stone walls that we've seen everywhere, even up the steepest slopes. Something to do with the Enclosures Act. For us, the Lake District was all about ascending and descending the rugged peaks; it wasn't about lakes, as we saw only a couple of the main ones.

We've occasionally had some very long views back to where we've come from and towards where we're headed. It really is extraordinary how far two little feet can take you in a day if you keep putting one in front of the other.

We all have dinner together every night and are enjoying our good fortune in having such a great group. We lost Hannah yesterday... Her blistered feet were just too bad to continue and we had to shoot her. I'm kidding. She took the train back down south. The rest of the group is our guide Steve (formerly in IT), Amanda (doctor/now medical researcher), Michele (librarian), Carol (garden designer), Jo (palliative care nurse), Mat (personal trainer and our Weather Man), Liz (human resources manager), Tony (retired music industry accountant), Marlene (retired school principal) and Rick (architect/designer).

Monday, August 23, 2010

A journey of approximately 195 miles begins with a single step

For the next two weeks, Michele and I are walking this route across England. Our group of 12 people is a lot of fun. Everyone has bonded well, and there are no outsiders. We are now in the Lake District, where Romantic poets once abounded.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Open arms

Barbara and I walked around just a small part of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh yesterday before I caught the train south.

Here in Pennington, near Ulverston, in Cumbria, I literally hit the ground running. Michele and Dave met my train, then Michele and border collie mix Maggie took me for a run around the countryside near their 300-year-old house. It was drizzling and we couldn't see much of the views, but today it's a gorgeous day. We had a fab dinner last night at the Braddylls Arms pub in Bardsea. I've fallen in love with little Cooper, Michele and Dave's ginger Norfolk terrier. Desi is their third dog. They are all here in the UK on US passports.

Today we're heading for St Bees, to check in for our briefing and the start tomorrow of our walk across England (220 miles, or c. 350 kilometres). We should reach Robin Hood's Bay on 4 September.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Festive Edinburgh

I'm staying with Barbara and Anita, who live within walking distance of everything you'd want to see in Edinburgh. I've only ever visited the city while on my way to somewhere else, but I really want to come back and base myself here for at least a month sometime. It has all the things I really like in a place: old friends, easy walking, great cultural life, fabulous architecture, and a hill that provides a view over the city. We won't have time to climb it today, unfortunately. Next time...

The festival is on. We saw Bolivian Baroque in Greyfriars Kirk. This is the church where, in the 19th century, the faithful Bobby kept watch over his owner's grave for 14 years. We had a drink in Bobby's Bar. Just beforehand we checked out an outdoors shop to get me a couple of things for my Coast to Coast Walk.

I last saw Barbara in 1995, in Brisbane, and Anita in about 1992, in Hong Kong. Polly and I worked with Barbara on texts for the new Open Learning Institute in Hong Kong in the early 1990s.

After the performance we checked out what was happening along the Royal Mile. People out everywhere. A great atmosphere. We then had dinner at the Mussel Inn. After getting through a half-kilo pot of mussels, Barbara said she had mussel fatigue :-))

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Perusing the Percys' porcelain

This afternoon I visited Alnwick Castle, which is home (between November and March) to the 12th Duke and Duchess of Northumberland. The castle, which was Hogwarts School in "Harry Potter", has been home to the Percy family for 700 years. I wandered through the state rooms: the library is fantastic. The China Gallery houses a very important collection of Meissen porcelain. I really wanted to take a photo of my finger pointing at the Percys' porcelain, but no cameras were allowed.

This portrait caught my eye. It's of Lady Elizabeth Montagu Douglas Scott, and was done on the occasion of her marriage to the 10th Duke in 1946. I think she is very beautiful.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

To the treehouse

I'm now in Alnwick (pronounced "Annick"), on the coast north of Newcastle, staying at the Tate House B&B. Somewhere south of here, during the train trip up yesterday, I would have crossed the route of the Coast to Coast Walk, which I'm doing, starting next week, with my Dead Runner friend Michele.

When I got to know my friend Suzie in Hong Kong in the mid-1980s, she was known as "Trees". It's funny that, all these years later, we should have dinner together in a treehouse!

The Tree House restaurant is on the grounds of Alnwick Castle and Gardens and is like something out of a dream ... or a nightmare.

Suzie and I travelled rough in Rajasthan, India, in 1987 for three weeks when she was returning home to the UK from Hong Kong. We then caught up again for a night out in Hong Kong in 1990 when she was visiting with her husband David from their home in Singapore. Since then, she has raised two great kids.

Suzie, Charlotte and I had a drink at The White Swan before joining David and Will for dinner. While we walked back to Bondgate afterwards the kids bandied around names for a pair of cats. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were two of their suggestions. You've gotta love well-educated kids!

Monday, August 16, 2010

On the road again...

Yesterday, Wendy and I met up with a former trekking mate, Dermot, for a walk in the New Forest. (He and I were in the same group that trekked to Everest Base Camp in 2008. I had to pull out two days before reaching EBC when I broke my wrist, but I saw Dermot back at the Kathmandu Guest House before he headed out again on the Annapurna Circuit trek, which I had also signed on to do. It was during those couple of days that he also met Wendy.) We walked for a couple of hours, then had a bite to eat in a very kitsch tearooms.

I spent the afternoon working, then we popped down to a quaint little pub not too far away after dinner for a quick drink. Back at home, we watched the third film in Wendy's mini film festival about mountains. This one was about a base jumper who wears a special outfit that allows him to "fly" very close to mountains, including the Matterhorn.

I've really enjoyed getting to know Wendy better over the past four days. Our paths crossed two years ago, and we've stayed in touch. I'd love to do a trek with her and Chris.

This morning I'm heading north by train to Alnwick via London and Newcastle.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Holed up in Hampshire

Apart from daily walks, I've been lying low and trying to get some work done. On Friday, Chris and I took a walk through the woods for an hour, and yesterday Wendy, he and I walked for about 90 minutes along Winchester's Itchen River, a gorgeous water course that runs through town alongside one of the old town walls, and then out into meadows. We walked up St Catherine's Hill, which used to be a fort, and had a coffee at Saint Cross Church. Lunch was in town at a cafe. We got caught in a downpour just as we were ready to leave, and it rained on and off for the rest of the day.

Wendy and I had a girls' night in last night, with pizza, wine and a fabulous documentary: "Blindsight", about a group of six blind Tibetan children climbing in the Himalaya. "They lost their sight, not their vision." Wendy has a connection to one of the boys.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Stoned ...

It was sad to say a final (for now) "ciao" to Giorgio, who has become a great friend.

My friend Wendy met my plane from Milan yesterday. (We've been getting to know each other for the last couple of years since meeting in Kathmandu, Nepal, in 2008.) From Heathrow, we headed down to Hampshire. It's so great to hang out in the lovely house she shares with her husband Chris (who I also met in Nepal) and one of their sons, Jamie. (Jamie is heading to Malta tomorrow.) For the past 10 weeks I've been staying in hotels and guesthouses... I've been working in their gorgeous conservatory, where doves periodically land on the pitched roof and a steam train regularly passes close by. Last night after dinner we watched a documentary about Everest.

I'm caught in a bit of a work bind while I'm here, but I'm taking time out when I can. Wendy and I took a walk around the neighbourhood late yesterday afternoon, and today we made a quick visit to Stonehenge. I hadn't been there before and I was surprised by its modest scale. It was a bit like when I saw the Guggenheim Museum in New York for the first time: in my mind, I'd imagined something a bit bigger. It's hard to comprehend that Stonehenge is 5,000 years old.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Big Butte

Yesterday, Giorgio and I walked to the top of Mont Thabor, in France. We estimated it was about 30–35 kilometres and took us 8+ hours. It was fantastic! There is a wonderful mountain outcrop that looms above the valley where we started from (I named it the Big Butte), and we ended up seeing it from all sides. From the top of Thabor we were looking down on it, far off in the distance. Then we walked down the valley so that it was on our left. There is a kind of long, grey escarpment that was almost like something out of this world.

We started the morning with coffees and pastries at a bar, and another coffee in the rifugio at the start of the walk. Lunch was in a field beside the stream of ice melt after we'd done the hardest part of the descent. (Hard for me, because of the loose stones. Giorgio and Amy run down these sorts of slopes.) Giorgio brought a bottle of chardonnay, and we shared some filled rolls we'd bought earlier. Back at the rifugio, we had a glass of red wine and toasted our successful climb.

Dinner later with the family at the apartment in Sansicario. Amy had done a 30K run in the hills nearby, and Olivia had done "nothing," she said!

Another fantastic day. I really enjoy Giorgio's wit. We spend a lot of the time laughing.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Life of Briancon

Briancon, a French ski resort town a half-hour's drive north of Cesana through the mountains, was pretty lively for a Monday evening. Giorgio, Amy, Olivia and I went shopping for new trekking boots for me and bits and pieces for Olivia and Amy. We then went to the old, walled town for a yummy dinner of crepes, creme brulee and cider. I'd spent the day working at a cafe. Today we're doing another big walk.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Getting high in Italy

Early on Saturday morning, Giorgio met me at my hotel and we did a 15K or so scenic run through the centre of Turin, across a bridge over the Po River built by Napoleon and up to a castle (or was it a monastery?) that overlooks the city. My month-long break from regular running doesn’t seem to have done me much harm.

Giorgio picked me up again an hour later and we drove up to Cesana via La Venaria Reale, the restored 17th-century Royal Palace museum and gardens on the outskirts of Turin that was built “to celebrate beauty, hunting and leisure”. It’s a fabulous complex of buildings and the museum aspect is really well done. We had a bite to eat there in a café in what had been the old kitchen area.

I’m staying at the Hotel Ginestra in Cesana, which lies at the foot of Mt Chaberton in the Italian/French Alps. Cesana is a resort town for skiers in winter and walkers/mountain bikers in summer. It looks gorgeous at the moment, with vividly bright flower boxes everywhere, cobbled streets, a fast-flowing icy stream running through the centre of the village, and quaint houses and shops with balconies and shutters. The block near me, right beside the stream, is closed to traffic, and people promenade and walk their dogs there. Yesterday a folk band was playing on the other bank of the river. The instruments were Alpine equivalents of what you might find in a zydeco band, and holidaymakers were doing folk dances. It was fun watching them while I ate my coconut, baci and stracciatelli gelato.

Giorgio and Amy have a holiday apartment in Sansicario, about 6K further up, that looks back across to Chaberton. Amy, who works as a freelance translator (Italian to English), keeps her horse nearby and does a lot of riding. She’s also a really talented runner, with a recent marathon PB of 3:15.

My first day here, Giorgio drove down to Cesana to pick me up for dinner with Amy and two of their three daughters, Jenny and Olivia. Valentina is away in Sardinia at the moment. The girls are gorgeous, and speak English as well as Italian. It was a delicious dinner (bruschetta, gnocchi with tomato and beans, chicken with prosciutto and salad, and berries). Giorgio and Amy are really into wines. I’ve noticed that a lot of Italian dishes are based around the colours of the Italian flag: white (pasta/bread/gnocchi/mozzarella and other cheeses), green (basil and other leaves/beans/peppers) and red (tomatoes/peppers)!

Olivia is really sweet and did my washing for me :-)

Giorgio is very funny. He’s also very knowledgeable and a total history nut, with an endless supply of stories that he shares in a really entertaining way. He cracks himself up all the time. He hosted the Dead Runners World Conference in Turin a few years ago. I gather everyone had a ball, and I can see why!

Yesterday, he and Amy came for a quick breakfast here at the Ginestra after dropping G’s car in a spot where we would end our walk to the summit of Mt Chaberton. Amy then drove us over to the start of the trail in France. G and I then walked for seven hours. The ascent is challenging, with fantastic views of the Alps from the top where there are ruins of a fortress that was destroyed in the Second World War ( I found the descent a bit precarious; it’s steep with loose stones and gravel. Giorgio and Amy know the woman who won the marathon here last weekend. G said she just spreads her arms out and flies down, barely touching the ground. Giorgio has run it himself, and I think yesterday was his 55th ascent.

My new trekking shoes are too small, which caused me some grief on the descent. I switched to my running shoes when we stopped for lunch at a very rickety picnic table down in the foothills. Giorgio had brought baguettes with prosciutto, chocolate with hazelnuts, and a bottle of a light red wine, which he opened with his Swiss Army knife. It was good fun.

Back in Cesana we had an espresso with grappa at a little restaurant/bar to toast our successful climb. Giorgio and Amy came back down from Sansicario for dinner at the hotel. I had onion soup, trout, some of Amy’s salad, and crème caramel: delicious. Amy had spent the day riding her horse.

I’m totally blown away by Giorgio and Amy’s kindness to me at a time when they have great sadness in their own lives. (Amy’s sister died recently after a horse-riding accident in the States.)

Today, Monday, I’m going to knuckle down to work at the bibliotèque, which is just up the road. But first, breakfast at a café…

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Mambo Italiano...

OMG, I wish I'd been born an Italian!

But to backtrack a little...

My last day in Hong Kong was spent seeing the mind-boggling film "Inception" with Cath, and having dinner at the FCC with Polly Waffle, Mary and Ian (who I'd run into at Cheung Sha Beach on Sunday). I had a great time during my five weeks there.

On Wednesday I flew to Kuala Lumpur, where I stayed at a very unusual guesthouse called Sekeping Tenggiri, in the Bangsar area. My room, the Glass Room, was perched at tree level. The bathroom was partly open to the sky, and I could step out of the room on to the wire mesh roof overlooking the small pool. The bed, on a wire mesh base, was on a raised platform. I thought it was a bit hazardous. You wouldn't want to stay there if you had a tendency to go walkies in the night...

I managed to have two runs, which I hope will get me back on track with my training. The first was with Jess ("Jess Do It"), who I met, with her husband Stephen, in Sarawak on the Headhunters Trail. We ran circuits of a park in Petaling Jaya, across the state border from KL (for Albury friends, Wodonga would be the equivalent), then had dinner at a noodle place. They gave me a ride back to the guesthouse and came in for a look. They both work in the interior design/drafting field. It was great to see them.

On Thursday morning I took a long taxi ride to the Petronas Twin Towers so that I could run in the park at their base. I ran here in 2007 in the lead-up to the Hong Kong half marathon. I just love these towers. I ran part of the way with an Australian woman who is based in KL with Oz Immigration. I took the Metro to Bangsar and had some laksa for breakfast, then made my way back to the guesthouse by a circuitous route. (In other words, I got lost.) I spent the rest of the day working by the pool while a thunderstorm raged.

Unfortunately, my Islamic Financial Services Board friends got caught up with an Islamic Finance forum and weren't able to make dinner this time.

A great flight to Rome. I was wedged between two blokes in the centre aisle (I hate that), but I took half a Xanax and slept for about six hours on and off (I love that). Transited in Rome to Torino (Turin). A fabulous flight: clear blue skies, very smooth flying, and views of the island of Elba (where Napoleon was imprisoned) and then of the towns from Genova inland to Milan. I was sitting next to a very dapper chap who turned out to be the ambassador to Italy from Belize (where my friend Sue F is hoping to move from Portugal) and was formerly ambassador to Cuba (where I'm hoping to spend December 2011). He gave me his card and said if there was anything he could do... (No, I wasn't in first class; there was only the one!)

My friend from the Dead Runners Society, Giorgio, met me and drove us back to Torino (home of the Shroud of Turin), where I'm staying at the Art Hotel Boston, a very funky little establishment. I only said "Shit!" once as G sped down the highway in his souped-up mobile office. I'm dubbing him "the Alfa male".

We had a fabulous pizza for lunch at a place in Turin, then I worked on a new book back at the hotel for a few hours. G picked me up at 6.30 to go and see his parents at the house where he lived as a child. His mum just broke her leg and is back home recovering. We then took a walk around the old city, which was quite heavily bombed during the war. It's just beautiful. There are towers and walls dating back to Roman times, and some fabulous grand buildings. Torino was home to the first king of a united Italy. There are lots of public squares, and colonnaded boulevards, and narrow cobblestone lanes overlooked by uniform stone apartment buildings with little balconies and wooden shutters. Giorgio told me that the buildings would have been occupied in the past by all members of society, with the rich folk on the lower levels, the petit bourgeoisie on the middle levels, and the artists and the poor in the garrets at the top. We saw where Nietzsche ("What doesn't kill us makes us stronger") and Puccinni (La Boheme, Tosca, Madame Butterfly...) lived.

Dinner was fabulous: a degustation menu of about six courses with a delicious local wine. Ah, Italy!

This morning we're doing a long scenic run. Then we're driving up to Sansicario, in the mountains bordering France, where I'll meet Giorgio's family and we'll walk up a mountain or two.

It was Giorgio who put me in touch with Italian Dead Runner Cristiano, my Merchant of Venice, when I contacted DRS Italia in 2007 to ask if anyone would like to do a scenic run with me there.

Ciao for now!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Oh, islands in the sun

Yesterday I had lunch at a beachside South African restaurant on Lantau Island and dinner at a seafood place at Sok Kwu Wan on Lamma Island. I walked with the hiking group I’ve joined, swam in the sea, got a bit sunburned, collected some shells for Michele, ate lobster, crab, scallops, prawns and calamari, drank white wine, met some old friends and made some new ones, rode on some ferries, and was introduced to a dog named Fugly. A perfect weekend in alternative Hong Kong.