Marble, Bread and Gelato

IMG_5161Tuscany. It has been depicted in so many paintings and stories. What is it about this place that feels so good? Is it the exclamation marks of cypresses all over the landscape? Or the musky smell of freshly crushed grapes as we walk by a vineyard? Surely it is not the monotonous smoked ham and cheese bread… Oh the bread. It is just like Italian marble, solid as a rock. In the bakery, chunks of off-white bread are all thrown together in a bin. The Italian ladies point and the clerk picks and holds up a chunk. “No, not that one. Thát one!” They sort and pick. It resembles a bin full of bricks. I don’t understand it because the croissants here are divine – flaky and just perfect. But the bread, you could kill someone with it if you threw a piece.

IMG_5156But somehow these ancient hill towns invite you to settle down and live here. I would drive a tiny Fiat, like a maniac, to the patisserie each morning (for the pastries, not the bread). I love seeing the old women hang out their windows to see what’s happening on the street below, peeking through geraniums and lines full of laundry.

On the Via Francigena, the historic trail we hike, we made it to San Gimignano – nicknamed the Manhattan of Tuscany. Only 14 of the original 72 towers remain but those make for a pretty impressive skyline in this UNESCO World Heritage Site. As I huff and puff up hill toward the medieval centre, I wonder how they got all of those stones up there to build the towers in the 1200’s. No dump trucks back then.IMG_5147

Of course, no Tuscan town is complete without pizzerias and ristorantes offering wild boar and truffles. But also not without tourist traps selling fake leather purses, Pinocchio keychains and fifty flavours of gelato. After a decent meal, we walk back through the narrow medieval streets and long staircases, under a full moon. The room we booked showed “traditional Tuscan” ceilings in the photos but has a normal white ceiling in reality. But we sleep with our eyes closed anyway.

Early the next morning, we leave town and drink in the sight. The valley below shrugs off its foggy night clothes. We walk along rows of dewy grape vines. I keep wondering if I’m traipsing through  Andrea Bocelli’s vineyard yet….IMG_5167

We’ve been walking for hours and still have not spotted any place that might offer coffee to a wary pilgrim. I am tempted to knock on doors. Twice I ask but no, there’s no coffee in these hamlets. Until finally we come to a medieval huddle of homes on a hill top with a sign ‘ristorante’ pointing vaguely between the houses. The place is deserted. I’m not sure whose underwear adorns all the clothes lines hanging along the streets because no one seems to be home. Finally we find what might be a hotel and we sit down in the deserted court yard where a startled cleaning lady finds us and sends over someone who actually produces coffee. Life is good again.

Along the way we marvel at the fact that Tuscany is full of tourists but we don’t see any signs of modern, urban development. No high rises. No ugly factories. The landscape seems to be untouched for centuries. How did they do that? Some city planners must have had incredible foresight about a hundred years ago. And that is extra impressive considering how laid back and, well, unorganized things can be in Italy. I think that Salt Spring Island can learn a lot from Tuscany when it comes to preserving the landscape.

We reach Colle di Valle d’Elsa where we have a great room, a view on the medieval city wall and a good meal outside on the square, where a posse of old men congregate on a bench at night. The local CNN.

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The next medieval place is Monteriggioni. Before we went, I researched these places and studied maps. I always pictured this place as a small village, surrounded by green fields. You know, some houses here and there. In my mind, the town was always in a flat field. But no. Monteriggioni was built for mountain goats. A walled castle on yet another hill top. Of course, up we go. The coarse gravel makes you slip backward but we make it. Once we get inside the ancient walls, we’re in for a surprise. Whole tour groups of British and Chinese visitors follow their leaders holding a little flag. You can buy souvenirs and expensive wines. Everyone’s taking selfies with the pub or the church in the background. It’s Disneyland surrounded by ancient walls. Deflated, we buy a gelato before heading back down. We sit down at the tables of the gelato shop but get chased away. “Only sit if you get served!” the stern owner tells us. “Well, then serve me this ice cream I just bought,” Kees says but to no avail. We leave this tourist trap. Walking the quiet Via Francigena is much better.IMG_5178

Reaching New Heights on the Via Francigena

IMG_5093As we hike through the green hills of Tuscany, this time from Ponte di Capiano to San Miniato, I hear hordes of dogs barking in the woods. Since the Facebook page of Via Francigena mentioned dog attacks, we actually bought a can of pepper spray. But I know this tiny canister in Kees’ pocket is way too small for the multitude of canines I can hear in the distance so I hope our route will differ from theirs.

It does. And eventually I wonder if I heard a hunting party sniffing out Tuscany’s famous truffles. I’ve read that they use dogs here to find these fungus delicacies.

Blue skies, steep hills with a patchwork of muted green olive orchards and bright green grape vines are stitched together with gravelly paths, farm roads, a dirt path through a forest. We conquer them step by step. All uphill it seems. Coffee places are far between but mostly non existing. 

IMG_5100The towns are all medieval. If we reach a village before noon, a shop might be open but mostly they are closed. Shutters are shut tight and whole towns seem deserted. So we sit under an olive tree and eat what we brought: an apple, mandarin orange, some almond biscotti and water. After each rest, I need to realign my toes and tell my knees to keep bending. 

Italians built their towns right on the very top of the hills. I always thought towns were safely protected nestled in valleys, by the natural walls of hills surrounding them. But here they picked the highest points to build villages. And a village here is a peanut cluster of homes, all huddled and melted together as if they started with one house, then built an addition, glued a second home to it, build one on top of those two. Not spread out with their own gardens but all melted together. 

IMG_5111As I trudge to the top of the hill on which the town of San Miniato is perched, I think that these Italians were smart. No invading army is going to run up a hill like this wearing a suit of armour and surprise the villagers. They’d hear the huffing and puffing and panting a mile away. Just like they will all hear me coming now… 

IMG_5095Outside the old center, cars are speeding up the hill and down. Supermarkets all seem to be outside the center and housed in old buildings. Nothing new, it would stand out like a sore thumb. 

IMG_5115In the old center, you go to the vegetable shop if you want some apples. Then you try to find the pasticceria for homemade biscotti or warm croissants. The butcher shop will have salami and the cheese shop will offer many different kinds of cheese, and perhaps a bottle of wine. I love how they have preserved these small, individually owned, local specialty stores. The Tabacchi is a small corner shop that sells cigarets, magazines, lottery tickets and snacks but also stamps and bus tickets.

In San Miniato, when we finally reach the summit, we sleep in a deserted hostel, all by ourselves. The walls are thick stones, the windows have wooden shutters and when the church bells chime, our bed shakes. We walk past frescoed walls, hundreds of years old, to a pizzeria where we have a view over entire Tuscany it seems. At the table next to us are 8 boisterous Canadians celebrating that they made it this far, too.IMG_5107

The Via Francigena: Traipsing Through Tuscany

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The view from our room in Lucca, one of my favourite places so far.

When Kees first decided that he wanted to hike the Via Francigena, I think he toyed with the idea of doing the entire thing, just like he did with the Camino de Santiago. Twice. 

However, nearly 2,000 KM was a bit daunting, even for him. But Italy in October did seem like a good idea. I agreed to one week and he will continue walking almost to Rome (not all the way because then the final legs are just through suburbs and industrial areas).

IMG_5075So we studied the most scenic portions of the Via through Tuscany and Umbria.

Traipsing through Tuscany in October sounded quite attractive. We soon realized that we would need to book accommodations along the way well ahead of time. Even when I checked a few places in March, they already were full or almost full for October. But it did seem that tourism would get less in the Fall and that the weather could be good. That has turned out to be true. There are definitely others hiking the trail right now, but not in droves. And (so far, knock on wood!) the weather has been perfect: blue skies, sunny and not too hot.

Bookings rooms meant that we had to figure out how far we would walk each day. We spent many hours planning the logistics. We also decided on quick dry clothing, hiking shoes and packs.

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A barn in Tuscany

After getting acclimatized in Florence and Cinque Terre, we spent the night in Lucca and, after our visit to the Museo delle Via Francigena, we set out on our hike. If you ever plan on doing the same, I’d advise you to take train or bus to Altopascio, the next town. Because the first leg of the trail here is through the suburbs of Lucca, past industrial buildings and not very scenic. We were so focused on reaching Altopascio that we didn’t check the address of our first accomodation and overshot it. By the time we discovered this, we would have had to back track 3 KM. So I hugged the housekeeper who kindly came to pick us up.

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Our B&B in Altopascio

We stayed in one of those big, stucco Tuscan homes. Our bedroom was large with a balcony. The bathroom boasted a huge jaccuzi. Things were looking up. The owner even phoned in a pizza order for us so that we didn’t have to walk to town again. The problem was that I did not enjoy carrying my pack. Before we left I decided to only take my daypack for this one week. But that got bulky and heavy. So last minute I switched to my large pack with not much in it. But it was too heavy for me to easily walk 15 KM a day with… I struggled up the steep hills and got blisters. This was no fun.  Kees had a brilliant suggestion. We contacted an organization of smart local entrepreneurs who will transport your bags for you to your next accommodations. At first I balked at spending money on this but after a few more steep hills I thought it was a bargain.

The next day my bag vanished and magically reappeared in the next hotel. I floated up hill and downhill. OK… I still stumbled along, but enjoyed it so much better! My struggle changed into enjoying the scenery. So now I place my daily call to Bags Free, which does not mean that they transport bags for free. It refers to the fact that you walk ‘bag free’.

IMG_5086After Altopascio we walked to a tiny town called Ponte di Capiano where we had booked 2 beds in the hostel. It turned out to be a building over a medieval bridge that housed pilgrims. We shared a room with an Italian couple. We walked 2 minutes, over the bridge, to the tiny square in town where we found one cafeteria/bar. But the Italian couple told us, “No, you can book a meal for pellegrinos in the delicatessen store next door”.

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The hostel of Ponte di Cappiano

So we did. It turned out to be a lovely lady who made everything fresh that was for sale in her store. Ancient stone walls were lined with boxes of fresh fruit, mozzarella, prosciutto, bottles of local wine. In the display cases were trays of lasagne, salads and all sorts of other delicacies. For 9 euros we had our pick of main courses, including wine and dessert. They eat 3 courses here: primo, secondi platti, after you first have an appetizer and it is all followed by dessert or at least coffee and vinsanto – a dessert wine. It is beyond me how Italians can stay skinny!

We returned the next morning. The gigantic arched doors to the deli were already open. Stores here are mostly open from 6 AM til about noon, then close until 3 or 4 PM and remain open til 10 or 11 at night. We ate warm croissants and coffee on a marble slab counter in the store before setting off on our next day’s hike.

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Our hotel in Lucca: http://www.athomelucca.com/it/

Via Francigena website: https://www.viefrancigene.org/en

Ostello Ponte Di Capiano: https://www.viefrancigene.org/it/resource/accomodation/3967/

Via Francigena: Serious Hiking

UnknownIn Lucca, we walked around the ancient city walls that used to protect the city. Now, of course, it only surrounds the old city centre while the newer parts of Lucca have sprung up outside it. Many locals strolled on top off the wide, green walls on a Sunday morning.

IMG_5057We stopped into the Museo Via Francigena. We had spotted a sign serendipitous. And because we came to Italy to walk the Via Francigena, we were keen to see this museum. IMG_5072

It turned out not to be so much of a museum as it was a fantastic multimedia presentation. There are no artifacts on display between the 16th century walls but the video presentation brought the history of the trail to life.

Since the 7th century, a passable route across Europe was important to allow for trade, invasions and more. The Italian route crossed the Apennines, followed the Magra Valley and then turned away from the coast towards Lucca. From there the path continued through the Elsa Valley to Sienna, and then through valleys the way followed the ancient Via Cassia to Rome. 

The original Roman paving stones were gradually replaced by a network of paths and tracks. Lodgings sprang up to accommodate  travellers along the way. The name of the path was Via Francigena, or “road from France”, since it crossed modern France, the Rhine Valley and the Netherlands. It became the main connecting route between northern and southern Europe, carrying merchants, armies and pilgrims. Pilgrimages to Rome, to Santiago de Compostela and to  Jerusalem became more and more important. Along with it, the path became a communication channel fundamental to the cultural unity of Europe in the Middle Ages.

Mappa_Via_FrancigenaThe main source of information we have today about this ancient trail, is  a two page travel diary of a pilgrim named Sigeric the Serious. In the year 990, he traveled to Rome to be ordained Archbishop of Canterbury. His handwritten notes describe the places where he rested. The Via Francigena flourished as a trade route: silk and spices went to northern Europe and were traded for cloth from Flanders and Brabant.

Today, the Camino de Santiago is so very popular that almost 400,000 people walk at least part of that trail in a year. Serious hikers, perhaps like that original Sigeric the Serious, are looking for an alternative where they can still walk in peace and find accommodations without having to arm wrestle for a bed. Italy is turning its Via Francigena (and the entire trail known as the Canterbury Trail) into just that. The Canterbury Trail to Rome is 2,000 KM. The Italian portion is about 1,000 KM!

IMG_5074We decided to walk the Italian portion from Lucca south. Not all the way to Rome since that would mean many kilometers in suburbs and industrial areas. We selected the most scenic parts through Tuscany (together) and Umbria (for Kees alone). Stay tuned for our experiences in the next blogs.

The trail’s official site: https://www.viefrancigene.org/en/

Museum in Lucca: http://www.viafrancigenaentrypoint.eu/en

Cinque Terre: Italian for ‘how to lose 5 pounds in 5 days’

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Vernazza

Cinque Terre, five lands, five towns, strung together like pearls on a necklace along Italy’s rocky north-west coast. For years we had seen photos of these little, colourful towns clinging to rocks in the sea. I think we’ve even made jigsaw puzzles of these towns where houses look more like beehives, stuck together one on top of the other. The string of the necklace is the railroad. There are some roads in the upper hills but mostly you can only reach these villages by boat, train or on foot. They are only a few kilometers apart but long tunnels have been blasted through granite to reach these towns.

We planned to spend 5 days here and spent many hours on the internet finding the right spot to stay. We didn’t want to sleep in a different place each night but decided to book one place and explore from there. But where? We looked at staying in the most southern town: Riomaggiore. But it seemed the most touristy, busy one. We read all about the most northern town: Levanto. But it seemed the most expensive, least attractive place to stay.

IMG_5002So we settled in the middle, near Vernazza. But these towns have few hotels or B&B’s and most are impossible small and very pricey. Finally we found an entire house on AirBnB in a settlement near Vernazza: San Bernardino. A whole house to ourselves. Fabulous photos of a small patio overlooking the sea. A kitchen so we could make our own meals… 40 euros a night. There must be a catch. We would find out once we found the place…

From Florence we took the train to La Spezia. Easy enough. We stopped by the station the day before and bought 2 tickets. In La Spezia we transferred to the Cinque Terre train headed to Levanto which, we assumed, would stop in Vernazza. It did.

There we immediately went inside the tourist information office at the train station where a lovely young man went out of his way to answer all of the questions we had. He told us how to take the bus to San Bernardino. We wanted to buy a hiking pole. No problem! He had one right there in the lost and found – why not take it? A supermarket? No.. you have to take the train to Monterosso for that.

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Monterosso

He also sold us two very expensive tickets to Cinque Terre National Park for the next three days. But the steep price does include all transportation within the park on trains and busses, the use of internet (if you can find it), the use of toilets (priceless) and admission to all hiking trails. It turned out that having these passes made travel between the towns of Cinque Terre incredibly easy.

We found the bus, up some very steep cobblestone roads through town. Everything is steep here. During the ride, which resembled a rollercoaster ride, we started to get suspicious about the AirBnB location. The bus went straight up the mountain sides, and up and up. Hairpins wide enough for one vehicle. When we encountered a vehicle coming the other way, the driver threw the bus into reverse and backed down the mountain until the two vehicles could scrape by each other. Up we went. Around more hairpins. At one point we disappeared into the clouds. The sea and villages below were tiny, way down the steep green slopes.

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San Bernardino

Finally, after 40 minutes, we reached a ridge to which a hamlet clung, like a cowboy on the back of a bronco. One old church and about eight vacant houses. Well, perhaps someone lives here but we seem to be the only living souls as we climb more stone stairs. There are no street names or house numbers here. The owner had emailed us 5 photos with arrows on them: climb these stairs. Turn right at the yellow wall. Look for the stone house with shutters and turn right. Climb more stairs. Pass an olive grove and keep climbing (with luggage!). 

As we climbed, surrounded by ancient stone walls, all hopes of wifi faded.

So did hopes of a shop or a pub. There is nothing up here. However, the owner had warned us: bring food, there is no supermarket. He had also told us that San Bernardino was five minutes from Vernazza. Maybe, if you had a car. Or a hang glider. But you’d be nuts to drive here.

We finally found “our” house. Nothing between us and heaven…. There is deafening silence on our mountain top. No partying tourists, no honking of cars. It is actually quite wonderful to go unplugged.

In Monterosso, we find a shop and buy ingredients to make our own breakfasts and dinner. Instant coffee and wine: a bottle of Lambrusco is 3.50 euros here! In our backpacks we haul it all back up the mountain in the bus. It was market day in Vernazza and the bus was full of older, local women chattering loudly in Italian. Obviously they only saw each other on market day and had to catch up on lots of stories, including the driver who talked with wild hand gestures the entire time.

The next day we hiked the trail from Vernazza to Monterosso al Mare. Glorious views but a very narrow, treacherous trail. I don’t know that I’ve ever hiked a steeper trail. We only met people walking the trail in the opposite direction. 

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Riomaggiore

Then we tried walking from Vernazza to Corniglia but it had poured during the night and the trail is closed because if it too muddy, too slippery. So we took the train to Lavanto, a big and unattractive town. We like Vernazza best with it crooked main street, little patios and a nice square by the water.

Over the years, when I heard stories about taking the train from village to village in Cinque Terre, I always pictured some tiny wooden touristy train which you could hop on and hop off. However, the trains connecting these villages are normally, big trains. We spent a lot of time waiting on platforms. Busses to the upper regions go less frequently. If we miss the 9:20 AM bus – which so far has departed at 9:15 each morning – we’d have to wait until 3:30 to catch the next one…

IMG_5017Don’t come to Cinque Terre if you have bad knees. And, let’s face it since we’re grandparents, if you have good knees when you start here, you might have bad ones when you finish your visit. We’ve seen several people with scraped legs and bandaged knees here.

On our last full day, we wanted to hike from Riomaggiore to Manarola but the trail was closed. Then we decided to take the shuttle boat from Riomaggiore to Vernazza because it would give us a lovely view of the villages from the water on this blue sky, sunny day. However, the boat was not going due to… bad weather. The Italians here are not overly friendly. I can sympathize with them since this is the end of tourist season and each town is over run. But still. The boat clerk shrugged and looked at me like I was nuts when I wanted to know why the boat wasn’t going on such a sunny day. One clerk in the grocery store today was swearing at those inconvenient tourists. Over-tourism is an obvious problem here. I saw a paper sign in a small plant pot by a house that said ‘please don’t take clippings’. The place is choked with visitors from France, Germany, Australia, USA and many from Asia, traipsing in hordes after a guide with a number sign. If I lived here, I’d be annoyed, too. Except that tourists now are the main source of employment and income for most people here. Even the lovely girls in our favourite Vernazza coffee shop are from the Dominican Republic because they can readily find work here. They served me lovely dolce di frutta and moccacino. 

And that’s the problem, see. You can lose 5 pounds in 5 days by walking. But the minute you stop, you gain those same 5 pounds right back.

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Vernazza

Resources:

https://www.trenitalia.com

http://www.parconazionale5terre.it/Eindex.php

 

 

Hiking Historic Skating Route

IMG_0131The Elfstedentocht (Eleven cities tour) is a historic long-distance skating tour event, almost 200 kilometres (120 mi) long, which is held both as a speed skating competition (with 300 contestants) and a leisure tour (with 16,000 skaters!). It is held in the province of Friesland in the north of The Netherlands, leading past all eleven historical cities of the province. The tour is held at most once a year, only when the natural ice along the entire route is at least 15 centimetres (6 in) thick; sometimes on consecutive years, other times with gaps that may exceed 20 years if the winter is not cold enough. When the ice is suitable, the tour is announced and starts within 48 hours.

There has been mention of skaters riding to all eleven cities of Friesland on one day since 1760. The Elfstedentocht was already part of Frisian tradition when, in 1890, Pim Mulier conceived the idea of an organized tour, which was first held in 1909 when 22 men competed. After this race, the Vereniging De Friesche Elf Steden (Association of the Eleven Frisian Towns) was established to organize the event.

The winters of 1939/40, 1940/41 and 1941/42 were particularly severe,  with the race being run in each of these years. The 1940 race, run three months prior to the German invasion of the Netherlands, saw over 3,000 competitors start at 05:00 on 30 January, with the first five finishing at 16:34. The event dominated the front pages of Dutch newspapers. 

DSCN0078The Elfstedentocht of 1963 became known as “The hell of ’63” when only 69 of the 10,000 participants were able to finish the race, due to the extremely low temperatures of -18 °C, powder snow and a harsh eastern wind. Conditions were so horrendous that the 1963 winner, Reinier Paping, became a national hero, and the tour itself legendary. Paping could not make out the finishing line as he was snow blind by the end of the race, and many of the contestants had frostbite, broken limbs, and damaged eyes. 

My dad participated 5 times in the tour (’29, ’33, ‘39, ‘40 and ‘41). I don’t know how many of those 5 he finished, but I have several ‘kruisjes’ the medal that is given to those who finish the tour in one day. 

In 2017 the NIVON, the Dutch organization that develops and manages long distance paths in The Netherlands announced the creation of the Elfsteden path as hiking trail. It follows as closely as possible the route the skaters take, but since (despite wearing wooden shoes) even the Dutch cannot walk on water, the land route is considerably longer: 285 kilometers. 

The terrain is beautiful, although somewhat monotonous, flat, wide open spaces, lots of canals, rivers and large lakes. The Montana car license motto “Big Sky Country” would apply very well to Friesland.

So how do you start a 300 km hike? Well, like eating an elephant, 1 bite at the time you start with 1 step at a time. I had arrived in Leeuwarden, the 2018 Cultural Capital of Europe. There I visited the Esher Museum and saw a parade of 15 meter tall giant marionettes. IMG_0130

And stayed overnight in jail! ( more about that later).

Dutch bakeries are the best in the world, so I had delicious croissants and strong coffee for breakfast and was ready to hit the road, or the trail in this case. 

The start of the trail is on the edge of downtown, however due to the preparations for a celebration the following weekend the official starting point with the statue of a skater was closed off. I left town and headed down the route. It could not really be called a trail, because as I would discover in the following days and weeks, the route uses existing roads and bikepaths for probably 90% of the time, which meant that you ended up walking on pavement or concrete most of the way.

DSCN0080In my case walking on hard surfaces is much harder on my feet then soft surface forest trails. The weather was perfect so no need to complain and even if I did complain there was nobody listening to it anyway. As I noted earlier, the terrain that you find in western Friesland is interesting, but somewhat monotonous. Wide open spaces, green fields, either with cows ( the famous Fries’ cattle) or agriculture, mostly corn, for cattle feed during the winter. But also numerous creeks, rivers, canals, lakes and other bodies of water. No wonder this type of terrain invites skaters during cold winters. The 300 km were roughly divided into daily distances of 18 to 25 km. Not a problem, but I quickly discovered that because of the Dutch summer holidays it was difficult to find overnight addresses. As a result, on several occasions I had to take a bus or train to a city 25 km further down the route to find places to stay overnight. Right after the first day of hiking that happened, so I took the train to the city of  Sneek and the next morning took the train back to where I had left off. 

IMG_0136Oh, about the jail, yes I was in jail for the first 2 nights in Holland, but this old jail had been converted to a youth hostel, so you fortunately got your own key to you own personal jail cell. Bars on the windows, heavy metal doors that closed behind you with a thud and the lock would fall in place with a grinding noise. On the last night back in Leeuwarden at the end of the hike I stayed there again: https://alibihostel.nl/en/

In addition to the 200 km skating tour/race there is also a 250 km biking route and now the 300 km hiking route. However, while I hiked the first 2 days, a Dutchmen, who happens to be the Olympic champion open water swimming, SWAM the entire route without stopping. He did that to bring attention to the need for funding for cancer research and managed to raise over 5 million Euros during and after his swim. He did not quite make it the 200 km because after about 160 km a doctor ordered him out of the water because he had been swimming for 36 hours without a rest and he became a danger to himself. When I left Sneek on the third day of the hike he had passed by that city only an hour before me, the next city IJlst I was still only 15 minutes behind him and in Balk that evening I finally caught up with him. 

The 4th of the official eleven cities was Sloten, just like Leeuwarden, IJlst and Sneek these are 500-600 year old cities. Narrow streets, cute small houses along the canals, definitely not made for today’s modern traffic. Beautiful house fronts and few modern conveniences. Food was easy to find, overnight accommodation remained difficult to find throughout most of the 15 days it took me to hike the route. The route between IJlst and Balk was truly boring, nothing but a long straight paved bike path. However, all part of the ‘fun’.

Finally, on the 5th day the terrain (briefly) changed, from wide open green spaces to forests and different vegetation because the heavy clay that is predominant in Friesland (and most of the western and northern part of the Netherlands) changed to sand for just a short section of the route. A nice change from the wide open spaces. And a nice change from the hard wind that I had been fighting for the last several days. No rain, but boy, that wind was trying to push me back most of the day. Finally after the sandy part around Gaasterland, the trail turned to the north and I had the wind in the back most of the time. Now the trail ran along the shore of the IJsselmeer, the former Zuiderzee. I hiked through some of the prettiest cities the entire route had to offer, Stavoren, Workum, Bolsward and Hindelopen. After those the trail moved back inland and Franeker was the next city. It is famous for the 300 year old planetarium, the oldest still in operation planetarium in the world. That was well worth the visit.IMG_0134

After Franeker the trail took on its rather monotonous character again, nothing but cows, agriculture and huge wealthy farms. Three hiking days to get from Franeker to the11th of the cities: Dokkum. As I mentioned before, my dad had skated this tour 5 times in his life. I carried one of his medals with me the entire way and I wanted to experience this route because he had done it, albeit on skates. I knew it would not be the most beautiful route, but I did want to somehow experience something similar to what he had done 75-100 years ago. On the last day I walked into Leeuwarden and ended up in jail again. 🙂

There are definitely nicer, prettier long distance hikes in The Netherlands, the Drenthe path, Pieterpad, Graafschapspad to name a few, but I just had to do this one for the reason I explained before. All together a great experience, but once was enough.

Hiking Hong Kong

IMG_1763When you visit the concrete jungle known as Hong Kong, hiking is certainly is not the first thing that comes to mind. However, when I spent a week there, while Margriet was visiting international school, I decided to give it a try. And I can tell you there is more to Hong Kong than just high rises, mad traffic and hordes of people. There is a lot of nature around Hong Kong and numerous opportunities for hiking. IMG_1761

One of the first days I went to the far eastern end of the district and found several County Parks with numerous hiking trails. I first hiked in Ma On Shan County Park, an area with a variety of trails. The first one I tried starts out with about 500 steps up a staircase, just to get the blood flowing. After that it is a few km’s of nothing but big boulders. It resembles a dry creek bed and I don’t recommend hiking it after a good rainstorm. IMG_1765However the day I did it the sky was threatening, but except for a rather cold wind and low clouds at the top, it did not rain that day. A local resident fortunately showed me the start if the trail because it is well hidden in a village halfway up the mountain. Even though I had been warned about snakes in the area, the temperature was such that they did not concern me (too cold). When I got back down someone mentioned that a tiger had been seen that day in the area. I do have my doubts about that sighting though.

North of Kowloon numerous county parks are located relatively close to the city. In addition there are also several city parks, manicured and relatively small, not very conducive for hiking but nice for a stroll or a contemplative rest. IMG_1769

One of the most famous trails in the area is the Dragon’s Back trail south east of Hong Kong. It is an urban hiking trail with coastal scenery and easily accessible (MRT to Shan Kei Wan and Bus 9 to Tei Wan). The trail starts out relatively steep and climbs to almost 1000 feet, but then levels off and ends up back down near sea level. The Dragon’s Back is part of the 50 KM long Hong Kong trail.

So, at first glance Hong Kong may be nothing more than a concrete jungle, looking at it more closely it definitely offers very good hiking opportunities.IMG_1768