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Monthly Archives: August 2018

Trekking Romania’s Retezat Mountains

It was the start of a three day walk into Romania’s Retezat Mountains. Nik, my son-in-law, and I were going with Iulian Panescu, a mountain guide and photographer. Instinctively I’m not keen on being guided in the mountains, preferring to do my own thing. However, I began to consider the advantages of being with somebody with local know-how after learning of the aggressive Romanian sheep dogs. Iulian knows what to say and do with such creatures like a Transylvanian Crocodile Dundee. Also, local maps are not always reliable.

For some time we had been wanting to visit these mountains whose 80 lakes seem to mirror the sky. The Retezat region was Romania’s first national park and has over twenty peaks higher than 2000 metres (over 6,500 feet). It is strictly protected both nationally and internationally.

We strode upwards on a path into an autumnal mountain forest. Leaves, like free-fall butterflies, fluttered downward as we zig-zagged between tangled roots, colourful fungi and scattered rocks. We settled into our stride.

After six kilometres of walking, we spotted Gentiana Cabin, our temporary abode. I regard all mountain huts as places of undeniable charm, simply because of their very location. This cabin was more than able to wear that mantle with its attractive wooden construction and cosy situation amid the trees. Inside, a huge shiny Transylvanian terracotta stove provided the majestic centre piece for the interior along with solid wooden bunks, chairs, tables and solar powered light. Petre, the hut guardian, brought us all large mugs of mountain tea and so we ate a little, enjoyed some chatter, laughter and then crawled into our sleeping bags but not before a meditative moment staring at myriad of stars that shone from every corner of the crystal clear sky.

The following morning Iulian led the way up the Valea Pietrele through thinning trees, onto a stony path and into a zone of one metre high dwarf pines. We came across the paw-print of a bear; its claw marks were easily discernible where it had tried to steady itself over the mud. There are estimated to be around 6,000 bears in the Romanian forests, one of the largest populations in Europe that roam around the park fauna along with chamois, wolves, lynx, otters and marmots.

Eventually we arrived at Pietrele Lake, the first of many ‘blue eyes’, born like all the other Retezat lakes, at a time when glaciers were receding. Higher, we entered a vast world of pure rock. Facing us was a ridge of pinnacles and sculptured rock faces.

Valeu Pietrele translates as the Valley of the Stones”, explained Iulian.

Now, as a professional guitarist, such imagery provided Nik with much to muse upon as he began seeing the features of his ‘Stones’ heroes, Jagger, Richards and Watts, within each weathered slab of rock. As the path zig-zagged to the saddle of Curmãtura Buccurei we could now see over into the next valley and a further four tarns. Even on an overcast day such as ours, these glacial lakes possessed a turquoise and mystical gaze. Iulian pointed to a scrambly route ascending Bucura Peak at 2433 metres (7982 feet). From a summit of stacked rocks the panorama revealed numerous peaks with draping ridge lines and yet more glacial lakes.

We began clambering downward and then along a ridge towards our next peak. Peering into the valley below us, we counted over a dozen chamois grazing on patches of grass, no doubt stocking up before the inevitable onset of winter.

We reached the final scramble which would take us to the very top of Peleaga Peak, the highest of the Retezat mountains at 2509 metres (8231 feet). Snow and ice had gathered beneath a Romanian flag fluttering in the wind. Standing at the top we enjoyed a spectacular view of the entire Retezat mountain area with its peaks, ridges, valleys and shimmering lakes. A truly breathtaking scene. Luckily the weather remained clear but the cloud-base was gradually sinking.

Our day continued down the other side of Peleaga Peak. We paused briefly out of the wind to allow Iulian to photograph a nearby chamois scrambling amongst the rocks. The sure-footed deer with its brown coat, cream facial dapples and short curved horns searched for morsels of autumnal vegetation. In the far distance we noticed another mountain called Retezat Peak standing with a rather obvious truncated summit. Legend says that as two giants fought with their swords, the very top of the mountain was sliced off.

Our rocky meander descended down to the large Bucura Lake. Next to it was a small refuge, where we took a break. The cloud had followed close behind us as we had descended. We sat enjoying our food under the lean-to of this small hut just as drizzle began to gently fall. Continuing, we walked around Bucura Lake and on up to the saddle of Curmãtura Bucurei once again. We then retraced our steps back to Gentiana Cabin where a considerable amount of food, mugs of tea and some beers were enjoyed.

After another night in our mountain hut, we said our farewells to Petre and walked back down through the trees. We stopped periodically to enjoy and photograph a number of incredible forest waterfalls on our way back to where our trip had begun. It was agreed, the Retezat Mountains were indeed spectacular – the descriptions had not deceived! For those who love mountain environments with an abundance of nature, this corner of Romania just has to be visited.

Exploring the Highlights of Japan

Japan is cherry blossom, and Japan is Hello Kitty. It’s neon signs, sushi, and it’s Sony, Nikon, and Nintendo. But beyond the brands and stereotypes which Japan exports, you will find a culturally rich, and a surprisingly diverse, country of fascinating sites to explore.

Tokyo – a megacity

The chances are that any visitor will fly into Tokyo, a mega-megacity with nearly 40 million people living in the metropolitan area. The skyscrapers soar towards the heaven, and the city glitters with lights, but behind the modern veneer is a city with a long and illustrious history.

The Imperial Palace, still home to the Emperor of Japan, sits amongst formal gardens; there are numerous Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples; and Tokyo National Museum and the city’s other galleries have world-class collections on show.

Allow time to walk around the city. Seek out the various shopping centres such as Ameyoko Arcade, the city’s only open-air pedestrianised market and the shopping centre at Hachiman-dori for its enjoyable mix of high and low end shopping.

Hakone – Shinto and Fuji

From Tokyo you can reach Hakone on a day trip: it’s a little over an hour’s drive away. Historically this was the site of an important Shinto shrine, the Hakone Gongen, which lies on the shore of Lake Ashi. There has been a shrine here since 757, though the current structure was rebuilt in the late 16th century.

It’s within the UNESCO-listed Hakone Geopark and the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, and the snow-capped peak of Fuji (which means “mountain” in Japanese, so you don’t need to say Mount Fuji) is just as captivating as it appears in the ancient woodblock prints.

If you have the time, go out on a boat trip on one of the lakes, visit the islands and hot springs, and hike to the Shiraito Falls, another UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Nagano – see the snow monkey

The mountainous region of Nagano — accessible from Tokyo on the bullet train — gets some of the heaviest snow fall in the world, and yet, remarkably, people still manage to live here. If you are interested in learning about the area’s history, walking pilgrims trails and staying in heritage pilgrims’ hostels, Walk Japan’s is the best way to explore this wintery wonderland.

If you are feeling less energetic, take a trip instead to the Jigokudani Yaenkoen Park, famed for its naturally occurring hot springs. You won’t be the only one in the pool, however, as the local Japanese macaque (also known colloquially as snow monkey) roll in the snow and then hop into the steaming hot springs to warm up!

Kyoto and the cherry blossoms

Kyoto is Japan’s touristic heartland, and understandably so. It was Japan’s Imperial capital for more than 1,000 years, and 20 per cent of the country’s national treasures are located here. Of course it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and during hanami (cherry blossom season) from late March to May, the city is packed with visitors.

This is the cultural centre of Japan, its history, arts, and people. There are an extraordinary 2,000 temples and shrines, and Kyoto is also the ideal location to learn about the art of the Japanese tea ceremony, the highly stylised Noh theatre, and ink and wash painting. Lovers of architecture and aesthetics will be in their element.

Osaka – shopping and street food

Osaka, on Osaka Bay on the island of Honshu is the country’s second largest city. Always a city of merchants, it’s a great place to shop, and it’s arguably the food capital of the world. Feast on udon (noodles), takoyaki (fried octopus), and oshizushi (pressed sushi), and expect to develop a taste for sake, the local rice wine.

Several large festivals are held in Osaka throughout the year, including Tenjin Matsuri in July, where you’ll see river boat processions and fireworks, drummers, lion dancers, and ornate floats with with plenty of people in costumes. The city has a vibrant night life especially around Dotonbori where a maze of tightly connected streets hums with bars, restaurants with extravagant facias.

Year on year, Japan is rated as one of the safest travel destinations in the world. It’s not a cheap place to visit, but what you can guarantee is that Japan will challenge and exceed your expectations, from the first petal of cherry blossom, to the very last sip of sake. It’s one of Asia’s most enthralling countries, and once you’ve had a bite of Japan, you’ll be desperate to return.

Club Med all-inclusive ski holiday in Chamonix

A confident skier and a beginner does not make a good coupling for a ski holiday in the Alps. One wants to scale the mountain highs and zip down with the wind. The other topples over awkwardly on the skis with every second snow plough.

Yet at Club Med this combo of holidaymaker works. The skiing (and snowboarding) experience that Club Med offers is sensational. It caters for all ski abilities from beginner, through to intermediate and seasoned.

How does it work?

Skiers are grouped into lessons of a maximum of 12 people based on ability. The groups retain the same instructor for the week who moves onto more difficult slopes as you improve. The groups travel across the domain, so there is no risk of boredom. Those that improve faster than the rest of the group can join a more competent group and those that need extra coaching will be able to get it.

None of us in the beginners group had previous ski experience, yet by day five we were able to descend a blue slope unscathed and with some competence. Seasoned skiers are taken off-piste safely with their guide and back to safety if things go wrong.

Skiers have the option to go it alone, but that would be missing the point of a Club Med holiday and of course the pleasant camaraderie of group skiing.

What about the kit?

The convenience factor is especially appealing. Their packages include all the ski hire, ski passes, tuition and transfers between the different ski slopes as well as lunch at nearby restaurants.

The company has several resorts in France and we chose to holiday at their Chamonix Mont Blanc in the Rhone-Alpes region in south-eastern France. After checking-in we were provided with a wrist band that gives access to the all-inclusive package and sent us to the bar for drink our or two.

Accommodation

The rooms are pleasant enough, if somewhat basic. The walls were dressed in a friendly shade of blue with a white trim to denote melting snow, but they are small. There is a shelving unit and a space (not cupboard) to hang clothes and a pair of curtains that don’t quite fit the windows. Oh and a tiny en-suite shower cubicle. The loo is separate.

I longed for a warming bath after long days on the ski slopes but in the absence of this luxury, the hamam, sauna and outdoor swimming pool did the trick, which is all included in the package. I managed to squeeze in an Ayurvedic massage to relieve the après-ski muscle stress in the Cinque Monds spa, which incidentally is a service that is not included in the package.

Food and drink

Dining is a major social aspect. Tables are for eight people so socialising is easy. A buffet breakfast, lunch, dinner with wine (just one style of country white and one basic red) and even cakes and biscuits at tea time were both ample and delicious. But eating in the same dining hall can get a little monotonous. Another restaurant, the Refuge offers an a la carte menu of Savoyard cuisine. With seating for just 50, getting a booking proved difficult. Those that did have the pleasure recommended the fondue, raclette (semi hard cow’s cheese) and pierrade (various meats cooked on hot stone).

Though this is highly polished ski-focussed resort, not everyone wants to ski and for those the company arranges walking groups to explore the region and the awesome alpine views.

What is Chamonix town like?

The town of Chamonix is just a minute walk away from the hotel, and is, I hate to use a cliché, as pretty as a picture. Gorgeous architecture houses a lovely range of shops and restaurants along dainty streets that fan out from a couple of pretty squares. All this is hemmed by a mountainous backdrop that is particularly stunning when the sun rises or sets and throwing off an orange hue on the mountain peaks.

The Montenvers rack railway is at the edge of town and it goes to just one destination – Mer de Glace (ice sea). This is one of the biggest glaciers in Europe. We took, perhaps foolhardily, the 350 steps to descend to the ice tunnel which looked spectacular from the station viewing points. Inside though, there was a light show that emanates from the walls and every now and again, an ice sculpture. I couldn’t fathom the point of the tunnel, but we visited it, because it was there.

Need to know

The resort has altitudes between 3 295 m and 1 050 m
46 ski-lifts ; 67 snow cannons ; Snowpark. (Grands Montets)
182 km of ski runs: 12 black ; 21 red ; 31 blue ; 16 green.

Club Med packages include return flights, transfers, accommodation, taxes and tips, all meals and snacks and an open bar drinks, afternoon tea, snacks. Also included are the ski pass, group lessons and ski hire and free access to various fitness and spa facilities. Free stay for children under 4 years.

Closest airport to Chamonix is Geneva.

Things To See On The Costa del Sol

Just over two hours flight from the UK, the Costa del Sol is the popular short-haul option with more than 300 days of sunshine a year and everything you could want for in a holiday. Nowhere else on earth can you find beaches, history, culture, sports, fantastic cities, the great outdoors and even skiing, all in one compact destination!

Kathryn Stride gives her run-down of some of the fantastic activities to try in the Costa del Sol for your next holiday.

Skiing and sunbathing in one place

We all associate the Costa del Sol with the sparkling Mediterranean Sea lapping against fantastic sandy beaches, and it’s certainly a great place to soak up the sun, immerse yourself in the relaxed atmosphere, and enjoy the world-renowned nightlife. However, what many people don’t know is that Andalucía as a region also offers Europe’s Southern-most ski resort, with great skiing from December to the beginning of May.

This winter wonderland is just a stone’s throw from the Costa del Sol and on a good day you can even see the sea from the slopes. In fact it’s so close that you could combine skiing with a day on the beach to recover before you head home. It’s even possible to be on the slopes in the morning and then within two hours drive be enjoying a long afternoon of warm sunshine on the coast.

The Sierra Nevada (Snowy Mountain Range) near Granada offers plenty of sunshine, good snow and a varied mix of runs for beginners and intermediates, plus a handful of more challenging runs. Although it is not a huge resort, there are wide, well-pisted slopes, quick and efficient lifts, and good restaurants and bars to rest those weary feet. The après-ski is quite legendary too!

Terrific towns and picturesque pueblos

This area of Spain has been slammed for its concrete tower blocks and non-existent town planning. However, don’t be fooled by this negative press coverage. For every Torremolinos there are several stunning white villages nestled into the hillsides, not to mention vibrant, Spanish towns and cities with great architecture.

Marbella is a fantastic town with lots of charm, a predominantly Spanish population, a beautiful beachside promenade and tons of bars and restaurants. It is often confused with the nearby Puerto Banus and thought to be an expensive, flashy place, but in fact this is a very real, working Spanish town and merits a visit.

Marbella’s hidden gem is its historic and picturesque Old Town, or casco antiguo. This has changed little over the centuries and still features ancient architecture, a maze of narrow cobbled streets with charming white washed houses, and beautiful plazas adorned with fountains. At the centre is Orange Square, a beautiful Andalucian square, full of orange trees and sweetly scented tropical plants. The Old Town is full of unusual shops and galleries, little chapels and churches, not to mention a fantastic selection of bars, cafés and eateries, and is a great place to explore.

The picturesque Pueblos Blancos white villages are a typically Andalucian feature and have been well-preserved, yet little explored by most tourists. If you are able to hire a car then you can spend several days driving around the stunning countryside, exploring these little villages and stepping back into Andalucia’s past.

One of the most breathtaking places to visit is the mountaintop city of Ronda, located less than an hour’s drive from the coast. This city is set above a gorge (El Tajo) giving dramatic views and the stone bridge that spans the gorge offers the perfect place to take in the stunning scenery. The old town dates back to Moorish rule and is full of history and charm.

Closer to coast and more popular with tourists is the beautiful village of Mijas Pueblo. Located just a 20 minute drive inland, this village has remained relatively unspoilt by tourism maintaining its Spanish charm and offers spectacular panoramic views of the coast from its many view points. Wander the cobbled streets and sample the local delicacies, there are also many specialist shops around the town including handmade leather and ceramics. Every Wednesday the town hall puts on a popular flamenco show at midday in the main square.

A Sportsperson’s Dream

For golfers, it features more than 70 fabulous golf courses, which has earned the Costa del Sol its nickname of Costa del Golf. With year round sunshine this is a golfer’s paradise. The coast is host to some high-profile big prize tournaments such as the Volvo Matchplay.

If you like tennis, there are many fantastic tennis clubs, as well as many outdoor courts attached to hotels and urbanisations. Many international tournaments are hosted in the Marbella area.

The region is a perfect place for mountain-biking and hiking in the nearby hills and mountains. For the more adventurous a hike up the iconic La Concha is a must, but as it is as high as Ben Nevis it isn’t to be underestimated. There are numerous companies offering quad-biking, horse-riding and walking tours to help you make the most of the stunning scenery just minutes from the coastal resorts.

There are also a host of water sports to take advantage of the warm Mediterranean Sea, such as sea-kayaking, windsurfing, scuba diving, kite surfing or even learning to sail. Or if you want something potentially less wet, you can take to the sea for a spot of fishing, or enjoy a catamaran cruise to try and spot some of the native dolphins.

Andalucia’s unique cultural treasures

Andalucía boasts some of the most amazing architecture and the most breathtaking sights to be seen anywhere in the world.

There’s the narrow, bustling cobbled streets and ancient architecture of the Jewish Quarter in Seville; the harmonious blend of two thousand years of Christian and Muslim religious history in the stunning Mezquita in Cordoba; the world-famous Alhambra set against the snow-covered peaks of Sierra Nevada in Granada, and the golden dome of Cádiz cathedral shimmering high over the white-tipped waves of the blue Atlantic ocean.

These cities’ treasures are no more than two or three hours away by car from the Costa del Sol and make fantastic day trips to spice up any Costa del Sol holiday itinerary.

Spain’s capital, Madrid, is also within easy reach of the Coast now, with a two hour journey by high-speed train bringing all of the city’s immense heritage right to your door.

Even closer to the coast is the lovely and often overlooked city of Malaga. Malaga is so much more than an airport. Its long history has left a host of beautiful monuments such as the Cathedral, Gibralfaro Castle, the Alcazaba and the Roman Theatre. There are also a selection of beautiful historical gardens, and over 20 different museums to choose from.

However, it’s the city’s artistic heritage that is its biggest claim to fame. Malaga was Picasso’s birthplace, and has the fantastic Picasso Museum to honour and celebrate the city’s most famous son. This gallery has over 200 examples of works by Picasso on permanent display, including oil paintings, sculptures, drawings, sketches, etchings and ceramics housed in a stunning 17th century Renaissance building.

Relax and Rejuvenate

A holiday in Spain is a great way to get rid of the stress and strain of working life. Visit some of the beautiful beach clubs, stroll down the promenade and enjoy the laid-back pace of life. In addition, there are some amazing luxury spas and health clubs where you can pamper yourself and ensure you come back rested, relaxed and rejuvenated.

If facials and treatments just aren’t enough to achieve the desired result then you can combine a relaxing holiday with a spot of cosmetic surgery, for a truly rejuvenating trip! There are several world-renowned clinics to choose from in this area, and it can often be a more affordable and discreet option than the UK. All clinics have fully-qualified, English-speaking surgeons, excellent after-care and an opportunity to recover gently from the surgery before returning home.

Family Fun

Spain is a very family-friendly place and kids are welcomed wherever you go. The Costa del Sol has a whole host of fun places to go and things to do, ranging from days spent on the beach, swimming and playing ball games, to great amusement parks like Tivoli World in Benalmadena and the Parque Acuático Mijas water park in Mijas-Costa.

Families can also enjoy a number of other high activity attractions in the area including Funny Beach, near Marbella, with its go-karting track, trampolines, electric bikes and cars, and children’s rides as well as Aventura Amazonia, a tree top high ropes course just a 10 minute drive from Marbella.

For animal lovers there’s the Bioparc Zoo (Fuengirola), SeaLife centre (Benalmadena),Butterfly Farm (Benalmadena), Crocodile Park (Torremolinos), and the Selwo safari park in Estepona.

The cinema in the Fuengirola’s Miramar centre shows English films and other activities include a large crazy golf park with bbq restaurant (Fuengirola) and Costa Jump, a huge indoor trampoline park.

For more teenage fun, there are many good organisations on the coast who offer such adventures as scuba diving, quad-biking, jeep safaris in the National Parks, mountain treks on horse-back, canyoning in the region’s gorges, and paintballing. As well as Segway tours to explore some of the major towns and cities.

Eating and Drinking

One of the many pleasures of a visit to the Costa del Sol is the fantastic food. There are so many great restaurants to choose from, serving all types of food. The chiringuitos on the beach are great and tasty tapas is an excellent way to sample some of the local Spanish fare. You don’t have to walk far to find a good restaurant, the main problem is knowing which one to choose.