Wherever you travel becomes a part of you

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The beautiful Valgrisenche in the Gran Paradiso National Park in Italy

is it just me or do places you have visited and loved suddenly pop in to your head at random times.  I can be doing anything, totally unrelated to travelling, and a memory of a place will slip in to my head and I am once again there in that place.  There are many places I have visited that stay with me and I am sure that all of them have shaped and changed me.  The photograph above is the beautiful and remote Valgrisenche in the Gran Paradiso National Park in northern Italy.  We stayed a week in Planaval, a small and stunningly beautiful village a little way up the valley in 2009.  Valgrisenche is missed by many tourists and we followed the quiet valley road to its end a number of times.  Passing the lake, there are a few farms dotted around the valley and more abandoned stone houses.  After having hot chocolate in the tiny cafe by the car park we would walk along the trail to the refuge and the high mountains of the Alps, glaciers appearing as you turn a corner.  There are marmots here and wild flowers, berries brighten up the autumn rowan trees.  This was September and in the week we were here there were days so hot all we wanted to do was bathe our feet in the cool streams, other days the cloud came down and the fresh smell of rain made it feel like Scotland; this place has a wild and remote beauty.

Planaval itself is easily by-passed as you have to turn off the valley road to even see the village.  We were there during a village celebration and we watched a promenade play around the narrow village streets that in the local dialect was mostly incomprehensible and we listened to melancholy music that echoed around the steep mountains.  From Planaval we walked up steep tracks to look down on the village, finding bubbling mountain streams to quench our thirst from in Alpine meadows.  A long snake slithered away on feeling the vibration from our walking poles.

The beauty of Valgrisenche is deep inside me and I am sure that even if I never return the sights, smells and sounds of this stunning place will never leave me.

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Alpine meadow above Planaval in Valgrisenche

Why I love cooking with my RidgeMonkey grill

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Aubergines cook well in the RidgeMonkey

I bought a RidgeMonkey grill / sandwich toaster after a recommendation from another campervan owner [thanks Andrew Ditton] and what a revelation it has been, almost transforming my campervan cooking overnight.  We generally have home-cooked food in our campervan, eat out in restaurants only on special occasions and only buy occasional veggie sausages for a fast food meal, so cooking is an important activity in our campervan.  Previously I have struggled, even with a lidded frying pan, to get my cooking really hot when trying to brown or char peppers, aubergines, asparagus and other vegetables.  They would cook but the pan never got quite hot enough to get them beyond soft and cooked to that attractive golden brown finish.  Making Spanish omelette was problematic too as they took a long time to cook through.  All these problems have now been solved by splashing out [£22] on a RidgeMonkey sandwich toaster.

This wonderful item is sold to anglers as a sandwich toaster, enabling them to make a hot meal while on the riverbank but it is so much more than that.  I am sure it will make toasted sandwiches but I use it for vegetables, omelettes, warming crumpets, hot cross buns or baking fresh pitta bread and I feel sure over the years I will find so many more uses for this practical and versatile piece of kit.  Other people report using their RidgeMonkey to create a full English breakfast and roast potatoes, the list of things you can cook in this wonderful pan is only as long as your imagination.

The RidgeMonkey opens in to two identical halves, both with a non-stick finish and each is just over 2 cms deep.  The dimensions of the XL are 20.5 x 18.8 cms, so it isn’t enormous and I would suggest you buy this size as it works well for cooking for one or two.  The long handles stay cool and fasten and clip together allowing you to turn it over and cook items such as omelettes or hot cross buns on both sides without turning them over.  This mechanism also locks in the heat and means I can enjoy golden brown aubergine [and other veg].  With a non-stick finish the RidgeMonkey is easy to wash and they now come with a selection of utensils that won’t scratch the non-stick finish.

Crumpets in the RidgeMonkey taste better than ever

A day in Brescia northern Italy & a museum inside a building, inside a building, inside …

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Inside the Museo di Santa Giulia

Brescia in Lombardy in northern Italy might not be at the top of your list of Italian cities to visit but in my experience it won’t disappoint.  You might have Rome, Venice and Florence on your wish list but over the years I have realised that less well known cities are always worth spending time in and that everywhere has something to offer and I particularly appreciate visiting cities that are not overwhelmed by other tourists.

From our campsite near Iseo it was easy and inexpensive [€6.60 each] to take the train to Brescia for the day.  This proved to be an excellent and relaxing day out in a lovely city that has plenty to offer.  We arrived without a map but this was no problem as Brescia handily has signposts to all the major attractions in the city.  Our first stop was the monumental Piazza della Vittoria, a 1930s piazza that is striking and I rather liked its brutalist charm.  The post office with tall striped columns dominates one end of the piazza and Brescia’s first skyscraper is here, a 40-metre high brick structure with decorative details.

Through a collonade is Piazza della Loggia, an attractive 15th century Renaissance piazza that contrasts sharply with Piazza della Vittoria.  Piazza della Loggia has buildings and memorials to many important events in Brescia’s history.  Below the clock is an emotional memorial to a bomb attack by fascists against an anti-fascist demo on 28 May 1974.  Nearby there is a statue remembering those who died in the 19th century ten-day rebellion against Austrian rule.  The piazza is dominated by the ornate palazzo, now the town hall.  Opposite this is a 16th century clock tower whose clock is only of limited use for a time check as the dials of the clock show the phases of the moon and the signs of the zodiac.  Two charming figures, ‘i macc de le ure’ or ‘Tone and Batista’ strike the hours on a bell.  There are cafes around the piazza and it is a lovely place to stroll or sit and people watch.

We continued to Piazza Paulo VI which is packed with important and impressive buildings and symbolises the religious and civic power of Brescia.  Most unusual is the old cathedral; this circular structure was built in the 11th century and was disappointingly closed when we were there.   Next to this is the new cathedral, a more frothy building from the 17th century.  We chose to sit in a lively cafe and have our lunch in this grand piazza.

We followed the signs for the Museo di Santa Giulia a unique and complex museum, housed in an 8th century Benedictine nunnery.  The museum site comprises exhibits within buildings that are within buildings; the whole spanning many centuries and this can make it difficult to fathom at first but I found the self-guided tour with information in both Italian and English helped me to understand the context and history.  On this vast site there are three churches including Santa Maria in Solario which has extravagant colourful frescoes.  Also beautifully decorated is the nun’s choir where the Benedictine nuns of the Santa Giulia convent took part in services while hidden from view.  There is a crypt and Renaissance cloisters too that visitors can explore.  Dotted around the buildings are modern sculptures that I felt contributed to and enhanced my enjoyment of this museum.  Underneath the monastery garden archaeologists found the remains of Roman villas and I followed the walkways over these buildings; the perspective from above gave a good sense of the layout of the villas and great views of the intricate mosaics.

As if all those buildings and art were not enough, the museum also includes displays of artifacts from Roman to Venetian periods of Brescia’s history; something for everyone’s interest but you would need days to look at everything.  A big draw is the Roman bronze life-size winged victory statue from the 1st century.  This impressive bronze of a woman draped in a cloth glimmers with layers of beautiful colours and appears to move and flow.

The whole of Santa Giulia is harmonious and interesting and exploring this amazing museum took so long we ran out of time for Brescia’s other sites.  We will have to return to Brescia one day to see the castle, all the Roman remains, the Museo delle Mille Miglia … .

We finished our day in Brescia back at the elegant Piazza della Loggia.  We sat relaxing with a beer in a cafe and listened to the clock strike the hour before catching the train back to Iseo.

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Piazza della Vittoria

Reasons travellers love the internet

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We use our Portuguese dinosaur mugs every day in our campervan

For the first thirty-years of my life I was waiting for the internet to become available; I wasn’t clever enough to put my finger on just what it was I needed but when it arrived I knew the internet was going to become an indispensable part of my life. I know we all managed without it through the dark years but so many things would have been so much easier if it had come along just a bit earlier. I use the internet for many things but for me as a travel writer it is particularly useful for planning and writing about travelling and holidays. Here’s a list:

Campsites – Through the 1980s and 1990s we took our young son on backpacking holidays around Europe; trips that required a bit of planning. Months before our trip we would write to various tourist information offices requesting leaflets about the area. We might find some details about local campsites in these or in a Rough Guide but we would have little idea how good or bad the sites were until we arrived. I have lost track of the number of times we have trekked out of a town to a campsite only to find it is either full, unfit for human habitation or closed. While this can generate fun travellers tales after the event at the time it was always stressful as we sorted out overnight accommodation for a family of three.

Train timetables – A few kilos of the weight in our packed rucksacks was due to the hefty European timetables book. This is a marvellous publication that opens up all sorts of possibilities and I always loved browsing through it but it isn’t very portable. Just think if we could have checked train times on our phone! We always travelled to Europe by train and booking these trains required joining a long snaking queue at Manchester Piccadilly around eight-weeks before we travelled to select the complex combination of trains and couchettes we needed to get us to Italy, Spain, Germany or Czechoslovakia.

Local bus times – We might receive some general information about local buses in the brochures from the tourist information centres but, as we often had little idea where we were actually going or what there was to do in an area, we had to spend a chunk of our holiday time seeking out this information in person. Hanging around information centres was an aspect of our holidays that was always particularly boring for a small child. I remember booking our trains back from what was then Czechoslovakia; this involved firstly finding the right office and then hanging around for many hours with mostly little idea of what was going on as systems were checked and connections calculated.

Buying maps – Before the internet I either bought maps locally or had to take a trip all the way south to Stanfords in London to buy maps for foreign places (although you could ring and talk to the marvellous and knowledgeable staff, send a cheque and buy that way). Not having a map is not an option for me, I like to know where I am. I still get a thrill from being able to search online and buy maps from the comfort of my own home.

Top attractions – Today there are so many websites to check out what there is to see in a city, there is no danger of missing the top sites [I doubt anyone wanders around Milan failing to find the Teatro alla Scala anymore]. For those ‘must see’ attractions with long queues you can now book timed tickets in advance. We would miss this convenience now wouldn’t we?

Staying in contact – Trying to get to grips with the bureaucratic nightmare of an Italian post office takes any fun out of sending postcards; even finding the right queue for stamps to the UK is mystifying. When eventually we had purchased the correct stamps we would spend hours writing these postcards [trying to think of something different for each one] before sending them home; if we were lucky they might arrive before we did. Today friends and family can read my blog or we can send texts or emails as we travel.

Learning the lingo – We bought a cassette tape and book to learn Czech as this wasn’t a language our local library kept in stock, otherwise we borrowed language tapes for a few weeks at a time to try and get to grips with a language. Today I can learn as many languages as I want via Duolingo for free, how cool is that.

Eccles: #surprisingsalford #29


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North of the banks of the Manchester Ship Canal and west from Manchester is the small town of Eccles.  I say ‘small town’ deliberately because this might be part of Salford and Greater Manchester but it feels like a small English town.  Get off the tram at the end of the line in Eccles and you have travelled a world away from Salford Quays and Manchester city centre.  In Eccles you can still find an independent cafe rubbing shoulders with a cut-price hardware store, buckets and bowls spilling over the pavement and there are a gaggle of charity shops for bargain browsers.

It is Eccles Library that is the star of the town.  One of the 2,509 libraries funded by the Scottish businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie [606 of these were in the UK] and opened in 1907, the library was built in a Renaissance style.  The library went through a major refurbishment in 2006 and is now a shared space with local health services as one of Salford’s innovative gateway centres.  It is worth going inside the library to see the beautiful features inside the building.

Eccles has a regular farmers and makers market selling local produce and is known across England for the Eccles cake, apparently first sold in 1793 and a mixture of flaky pastry with currants, candied peel, sugar and nutmeg.

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Eccles Library

Il dolce gelato

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A fairly alarming cornet in Greece

For all my talk of living simply and frugally you will spot me for a fraud when I tell you about my favourite food.  It is something that is an extravagant and unnecessary item that can hardly be considered food at all.  Although there are numerous different foods I enjoy, it is ice-cream that makes me happiest.  Even on a cool day, my first lick of a cornet will take me on a journey to other days in sunny climes and places I have eaten favourite ice-creams, delicious pistachio ice-creams in Italy, ice-cream dipped in melted chocolate in Eastern Europe and thick dairy farmhouse ice-creams in England and Scotland.  In my view, frozen cream combined with different flavours is heavenly, preferably in a good quality cornet [the ice-cream stall in Bouillon in Belgium is worth seeking out as they make delicious fresh waffle cornets while you wait as well as creamy ice-cream.]

Although if forced I will eat ice-cream at home, for me, this is really something to enjoy in the outdoors and is very much part of my life as a traveller.  I will often search out individual ice-cream parlours when we are away in the campervan.  On our trips we have discovered the luxurious Emilia Cremeria in Modena and the magnificent Portsoy Icecream in north-east Scotland and many more.

But we can’t always be away from home and in Manchester we are lucky to have Ginger’s Comfort Emporium in the city centre.  This cafe among the eclectic market stalls of Affleck’s makes ice-cream for grown-ups, with unusual combinations of flavours.  The salted caramel and peanut butter [aka Chorlton Crack] is really a meal in itself so get over to Manchester when you can, winter or summer.



Top tips for a fantastic campervan trip to Croatia

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The Mala Paklenica gorge

Drink the coffee; it is good and affordable.  Outside of tourist resorts, Croatian cafes rarely sell cakes or anything at all to eat [but bakeries generally have excellent cakes you can buy and eat with your coffee].  Buy a coffee and you can linger and watch the world go by as long as you like.

The coastline of Istria is beautiful but take the time to explore inland.  We walked the 10 kms St Simeon Path that winds steeply down from the stone village of Gračišće to a stunning waterfall that falls into a turquoise blue pool and then climbs through woodland back up the hillside.  We also cycled along the some of the Parenzana cycle trail around Motovun, a wonderful walled hilltop town with stunning views.

Paklenica National Park is a fantastic place for walking and climbing but it is also popular and it is worth turning off the main valley route where you will quickly find solitude.  Mala Paklenica is a narrow gorge where the walking is more difficult but worthwhile and just outside the National Park there are scores of other walking and cycling opportunities.  We followed the trail to see the mirila above Starigrad, fascinating engraved stones up to 300-years old that mark the places where bodies were laid down to allow the bearers to rest during the journey from their mountain hamlet to the cemetery.

Krka and Plitvicka National Parks both get very busy with coach loads of tour groups, as well as individual visitors as seeing the waterfalls is an understandably popular activity.  It is worth arriving as early as you can to miss some of these crowds and enjoy the views in tranquillity.  We arrived at Krka at 09.00 and enjoyed the early morning peace before the rush.

Don’t miss Zagreb out of your Croatian itinerary, it is a pleasant and lively city that is easy to walk around.  The city has plenty of green spaces to relax in, more cafes than you will ever need and for lunch you can visit La Štruk and enjoy a baked cheese štrukli – this is the only dish the restaurant serves and it is delicious and filling.  For culture we visited the unique, heartbreaking and sometimes amusing Museum of Broken Relationships.

Camping Slapić near the small town of Duga Resa is an idyllic spot to relax.  There are cycling and walking routes from the site or you can just sit and watch the clear waters of the river pass by.  The Croatian campsites we stayed on were generally of a high standard and well run.

Veliki Tabor sitting on a hilltop north of Zagreb is everything a European castle should be and it will charm you.

In a previous post I mentioned how gorgeous it is around the village of Samobor so I couldn’t miss it out of this post too.

North-east of Zagreb we were enchanted by the city of Varazdin with its garden-cemetery and pretty historical centre and castle.  This is certainly somewhere that needs a campsite so that visitors can stay longer.

Croatian people will be so happy if you learn just a few words of their language.  Just being able to say hvala [thank you] and dober dan [good day / hello] will get you a long way.