Flashbacks: On the Inca Trail, Peru

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Early morning, day three : Wiñay Wayna to Machu Picchu, near Cusco, Peru, January 2013

Early morning hikes are perhaps the only time I can cope with this time of day – 7am may be mild for most but I can almost only do it for transcendent views like this…

An early bird memory in response to the Weekly Photo Challenge

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Shadow of the Alhambra: in Granada

I stayed in Granada for a month some nine years ago. I went to learn some Spanish and, as ever, to be elsewhere for a time.

Before revisiting this year, I thought I’d forgotten much of it; hardly seemed to recognise the riddles of hilltop Moorish lanes on maps, and struggled to recall cafes, bars, viewpoints that I’d spent weeks knowing as home.

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But nothing really gets buried. And looking down giddily from the Mirador San Nicolas, trailing the cave communities perched up on Sacromonte, a decade whirs back and it’s possible I’m suspended there in both moments. Existing on the cusp, looking ahead to the future and back through a lifetime.

Granada is an old soul. It’s beautiful but dresses up for no one. Free tapas come with each cerveza and you lose yourself for hours in the maze of the Albaicin. Where every corner has a view that stops your heart and an incline that punctures your lungs.

Forever seeking his return to Tipasa, Camus writes of his childhood in the light and voiceless sensuality of a southern Mediterranean sky, waves and twilight; of a civilizational innocence before war:

“The sea was silent as if smothered under the unbroken shower of dazzling, cold light… In the direction of the ruins, as far as the eye could see, there was nothing but pock-marked stones and wormwood, trees and perfect columns in the transparence of the crystalline air… the sun stopped for an incalculable moment. In this light and this silence, years of wrath and night melted slowly away.”

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The Alhambra emerges from behind a wall, around a dead-end, below or above you, cutting off thought.

“On the hill of Sainte-Salsa,” he writes, “to the east of Tipasa, the evening is inhabited. It is still light, to tell the truth, but in this light an almost invisible fading announces the day’s end. A wind rises, young like the night, and suddenly the waveless sea chooses a direction and flows like a great barren river from one end of the horizon to the other. The sky darkens. Then begins the mystery…”

“A lim10426179_10154440020090245_8614210683333576316_npid morning rose, dazzling, over the pure sea. From the sky, reduced by these repeated washings to its finest and clearest texture, emanated a vibrant light… In the world’s morning the earth must have sprung forth in such a light. I again took the road for Tipasa.”

Flashbacks: Ponte Sant’Angelo, Rome

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Weekend strolling: Ponte Sant’Angelo, Rome, February 2012

Winter in Rome, city-breaking in the classical style. Impossible to get a bad shot, irrespective of camera or ability…

Where was good?

  • Low-key lunching at Otello Alla Concordia near the Spanish steps – via della Croce 81. A Fellini favourite apparently, where the artichoke (no more, no less) was spell-binding and the ravioli perfect.
  • Yummy pizza at Da Francesco in the Centro Storico on Piazza del Fico, 29. Mega-bustling, no-nonsense, family place with Italians queuing out the door.
  • Jonathans Angels, a rock dive-bar on via della Fossa, graffiti-covered cave where could easily have whiled away the drinking hours.
  • And to state the obvious, All of the History, All of the Culture, All of the Time. You literally can’t go wrong.

Kayaking on the Isle of Arran

Back in June I decided to branch out with my typical Arran activities. Visiting a few times a year on average for several years, there have inevitably developed a few staples – habits that remain strangely caught between long-time visitor and fleeting tourist.

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Take meandering walks along stretches of beatiful raw coastline at Blackwaterfoot, close to Casa Being Elsewhere. Spend copious amounts on body lotions at Arran Aromatics. Pick up a bottle of Arran malt at the distillery in Lochranza (a measure or two late afternoon in the name of ‘tasting’, don’t mind if I do…). Try a wee hike I haven’t tried before: wandering out to the Machrie Moor standing stones; the circuit from Torr Righ forest down to the beach via the King’s Cave, where legend has it Robert the Bruce mused on his spider; looping up to Glenashdale Falls at Whiting Bay.

Visit the Arran Cheese Shop and position quasi-tourist status to self as sufficient excuse to demolish entire wedges of brie at a sitting (when travelling I like to view eating as a valid Cultural Activity, a tendency particularly exacerbated in Scotland whereupon any Glasgow chippy comes to acquire the status of a UNESCO heritage site. Blame London: fab city, shite chips.)

But Arran is strong on all kinds of things and the common sight of kayakers paddling past in the middle-distance had been working its way in for a while. I’ve not done a lot of kayaking, not being the most ‘watersports’ of individuals. But bits here and there; just enough for it to have lodged itself comfortably in my mental list of  ‘doable & desirable’ outdoor activities, along with hiking  and the odd bout of sporadic, low-effort cycling.

And in a near-total reversal of my usual fortunes with such excursions, on the Friday morning I set out from a Brodick beach, I hit peak Weather Karma. Dry and mild, with a placid rolling tide, the Firth of Clyde was favouring both me and my weedy upper body strength, huphotorrah! After 10 minutes instruction on best paddling practice and some pootling about  to get the feel of things, we swished off northwards towards Corrie.

In a small group comprised of a much-practised mother and daughter, myself, and our guide from Arran Adventures , it was – let’s face it – a given it would be the nine year old child speeding off effortlessly ahead. But with calm, clear water and little choppiness, it didn’t take long to get a modicum of control over my paddle and then some downright flair, dare I say it, going on.photo (2)

The journey was a serene couple of hours, tracing the coast line, listening to the sea and the birds, with just the dimmest of traffic audible from the coastal road and oars cutting through the water. There’s something inherently meditative about any trip by water and this is a lovely way to traverse a corner of the island. We chatted idly about travel and work, and alternately swooshed off in ones or twos, hanging back or pushing off alone as the mood took us.

By the time we’d pulled into the little harbour at Corrie, my shoulders were definitely Aware and my thighs were feeling the burn. But I felt thoroughly cleansed, rather blessed by the peace and the easygoing climate, and could gladly have kept going. Quite felt I’d earned the 10 year single malt that night, too…

 

To the lakes: a weekend in Windermere

The storm was well and truly up before we set off, skies dim and cloudy. Bleak. By the time we hit the Midlands, we could hardly see the road in front, rain pelting down  relentless. Accidents left, right and centre, traffic reports grim and the outlook rough for  arrival, let alone the (hiking) weekend ahead.

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We arrived at the cosy Stockghyll Cottage just outside Bowness-on-Windermere to unexpectedly alleviated skies, the owner remarking that the day had been clear,  the area sitting in its own climate system. The village is crammed – chocolate-box cute – with places to eat and drink and we grabbed dinner at the Angel Inn before stag and hen do’s descended there for the weekend. The Peruvian waitress apologised for her faltering English and any delays – it was her first night supervising alone and her colleague was new – an odd reminder of the cosmopolitanism at the epicentre of English tourism.

Bizarre to have visited the Argentinian lake district before ever managing the four or five hours north (normally rushed up the east coast to Northumberland or Edinburgh) to England’s premier spa region.

It’s gorgeous, of course, and comes as a reprimand for so often focusing the glance on further climes.

The cloudless sky, we were advised by the owner next morning, would be overcast and rainy by mid-afternoon but we’d be safe until around 3pm.

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With heavy grey clouds visibly biding their time, it seemed daft to try anything ambitious and we kept the rambles mild. We took the boat over to Ambleside and walked up to the village proper to wander around the grounds of Rydal Hall before doing the loop  over Rydal Water and Grasmere and heading up Loughrigg Fell.

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The walk felt gloomy, beyond its 6.5km and – somehow, despite the mild ascent – the descent hard on the knees, while the sky blackened again as we rode slowly back across the lake, like consumptive Romantic poets on a spa break.

Dinner that night, exhausted in the lovely, candle-lit Jackson’s Bistro in Bowness.

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The next day brightened and we drove north to Hawse End in the morning to take the meandering walk up Catbells at Derwent Water with towering 360 views. After lunch in Ambleside and with an eye on the overcast sky, we opted for an afternoon loop first to the waterfall at Stock Ghyll Force then up over Wansfell Pike; fat rain drops kicking in just as we headed up the steep ascent and calming into a rainbow as we stopped for a late afternoon beer in the idyllic spot of Troutbeck.

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Later that night we ate a thoroughly impressive Thai dinner at Jintana Thai, with fantastic veggie options and, always my main priority, an addictively fiery Tom yum hed.

And as we pulled back out towards the M6, it seemed the worst had passed. A walk along the bright, calm beach at Arnside by the RSPB reserve and excellent chips on the seafront, looking out towards Morecambe bay; before the road home, disarmingly mild.

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Norwich: broads, bars and psychogeography

I’m not sure you can ever really visit the place you grew up, can you? It doesn’t matter whether you feel that ‘You can never go home again’ – that you’re only ever a ghost passing through – or if Home remains for you a tangible and constant place throughout your life.

You don’t ‘visit’ it. You view it headily, with slight vertigo. Peering through the layers of years; a childhood memory here, a teenage instant glimpsed there. As Margaret Atwood puts it “like a series of liquid transparencies, one laid on top of another. You don’t look back along time but down through it, like water.”

So to Norwich on a gloriously sunny May weekend; and again in June at the end of a tough month. With my mother and my sister, also ‘visiting’, and then with my partner in crime; to the idyllic railway home of my best childhood friend, new baby and all.

It never seems to get considered as a city break destination for some reason, Norwich. And it should do. It’s less than 2 hours from London and the pace and the air are completely removed. It is flat as far as the eye can see, early wave Anglo-Saxon low-rise and preserved Broads and fenland in all directions. And a huge, expansive sky reaching out to the North Sea and the low countries, with sunsets that take up the entire frame.

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Admittedly my reference points are muddled; half stuck in the past and hanging strangely between 1997 indie kid and 2014 metropolitan thirty-something. But I think I’ve pulled them forward a bit through the years of my ‘visits’. Where I half return into the haze of the past, and half into the new Norwich I find, reiterated and reinvented over the years by friends still there, or there again.

Because how do you ever drown out the million nights crammed into the Woolpack in Colegate, where I first learned to drink and spent Christmas Eves, New Year’s Eves, birthdays, Friday nights and, let’s face it, plenty of Tuesday school-nights from mid-teens onwards? Where on my 18th we dressed up in black tie before advancing as usual through several pints of Fosters and heading for the Loft on Rose Lane; back when it was jazz packed into the tiny downstairs bar and funk and northern soul pounding out of the speakers upstairs; the Loft, which in all probability still defines my ideal nightclub but has long-since morphed beyond recognition. The Mischief, the Merchants of Colegate, Bedfords. Meltdown at the Waterfront everysaturdaynight, going nuts to teen spirit-animal-nitrate-even flow-girls and boys-pretty fly for a white guy. Jewellery in Beaujangles, tie-dye and joss-sticks in Head in the Clouds; a thousand Saturday trips to ‘the city’ at 13 or 14, picking cheap silver rings by the bucketload, decking ourselves in velvet floppy hats, long skirts, old lady jumpers and huge silver hoops like fairground gypsies, before Music arrived properly and the Radiohead, Pearl Jam, Blur and Suede T-shirts descended. Picknicking in Castle gardens, post-pub pizza eaten drunkenly by the river on Fye Bridge Street. Hurtling back and forth daily in our 17 year-old car pools – a shifting fleet of Morris Minors, Beetles and bashed-up Fiestas – bitching about petrol contributions, tying my exhaust pipe up with string, calling shotgun, crappy radios blaring, zooming through the fields east of town between the quiet little hamlets of home and the bright lights of East Anglia’s Fine City.

1040809_10151489519286725_1303112421_oAnd all of that is still happening; I can see it on every corner. You go ‘home’ and those moments still play out around you; you’re walking among them. But now, too, with my best objectivity hat on, thinking about where I would enjoy even with no prior attachment to place, where would I go, and where do I go? I would have an early aperitif and snack in Take 5 on Tombland. I would have a pre-dinner cocktail that turns into two at the awesome Frank’s Bar, sadly never there in my heyday, and several amazing shared mezze and a bottle of wine. I would go to the Playhouse bar, which became much more of a staple for friends and acquaintances as the years went on, and drink white wine or real ale into the night in the packed twinkling garden. I would tour some old favourites, lapsing into nostalgia, like the Mischief or the Adam and Eve by the cathedral.

The city is walkable, chilled-out and friendly. There are a tonne of interesting events and independent shops. The chips are great and people are creative, offbeat and generally less materialistic. Ten minutes outside town in any direction and you can be in countryside, heading to the broads at Wroxham or Salhouse, hiring boats for an afternoon pootle at 5km an hour or a week-long meander through the man-made network of flooded peat-pits that reach out towards the encroaching northern sea; listening to the quiet, bird-watching and chatting, relaxing with a few beers and mooring each night just a short walk from a different pub.

Sitting in the garden at my friend’s, on RSPB turf… I think, as usual, I could be here again. I could move back. Maybe that’s what happens next. It tends to melt away, as the pangs of attachment for Homes left in your wake do, as the train moves further through East Anglia, as haybales in flat fields start to give way to Essex townships and the advance into commuter-belt. But for a while, still, I think, I could return. I could.

But not to the Woolpack at Colegate I think. Too many years. My sister ventured over as an advance party in our May weekend, to scout for an outdoor table and assess the ground. She returned unconvinced. ‘Very quiet’  was the slightly spooked verdict and convincing enough for me. Sometimes you really can never go home.

But for those of you who can ‘visit’, you should go to Norwich. Thirteen years after leaving for the last time, it totally stands up.

Springtime in Moominvalley: Helsinki in April

I have been meaning to visit Helsinki for ten years. My Finnish friend has long urged me and since she relocated back home a few years ago, its postponement on my hit-list has become a ridiculous oversight.

Personal circumstances finally conspired in the shape of Him Indoors increasingly Out There, harassing prospective Finnish financial services clients, and my friend announcing her imminent departure for the new world. And with the days getting longer and a major centenary exhibition dedicated to Moomins creator, quintessential Finnish artist Tove Jansson, now on at the city’s Ateneum Gallery – the travel Gods had also started crying ‘Helsinki!’

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The Moomins always scared me as a child and do so still. Apparently light and playful, there is something deeply foreboding in their bovine mouthless faces; their endless, timeless adventuring in lost Scandinavian forests and valleys. Innocent and joyful in some cartoon manifestations but nightmarish, a pre-linguistic psychotherapeutic vision, in their little stage sets, designed and made for many decades by Jansson and her long-term partner, the graphic artist Tuulikki Pietilä.

moominJannsson (1914-2001) is a cultural national treasure and, as the comprehensive retrospective shows, much more than the creator-illustrator of the Moomins. She’s a renaissance figure who worked across media from paint and print to model-making, sculpture and mural, from the novel to the short story; a driven chameleon whose styles evolved through naturalism, cubism, primitivism and a sea of other influences; a true artist who returned throughout her life to the imaginative hinterland, the childhood, of the Moomins’ fairytale landscape.

Their world is poised between light and darkness.There is something in it that feels to me particularly Nordic – preoccupied, mature, sombre, clear-gazed and melancholic – outside and in.

Helsinki seems to reflect this ambiguity I think, the space between day and night. Historically caught between Swedish and Russian empires and tormented by dark winters, it is renowned for a simple and playful design aesthetic, showcased in bright exports such as Marimekko, and by spring is illuminated in crisp northern light.

While pal and boy were working at their respective academic and software grindstones, I made the most of my geek-at-leisure time with visits to the Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral perched on the headland looking out into the bay, a rich and frozen monument to a dwindling religiosity; as well as to Temppeliaukio Kirkko, the famed Rock Church built by the Suomalainen brothers in the 1960’s, a wonderfully kooky cave carved into the granite and resembling nothing so much as Dr Evil’s personal chapel.

Less than three hours from the UK and two hours ahead you are sufficiently on the fringes of Europe in its northernmost capital to feel on the cusp of a different, quasi-arctic world. And yet Helsinki is friendly, navigable and packed with great architecture and more history than it ever might have chosen, as well as awesome design, had my wallet been up to it.DSC_0056

I’d bundled on T’s expenses bandwagon by spending the first night at the very lovely and very swish Hotel Haven – superb fancy-pants bar (eye-wateringly expensive even by Helsinki’s standards), friendly staff and enough luxury to pull off the price. Lunch at Restaurant Suun is a classy and cheery affair, looking out on the expanse of the Senate Square, where the University and Government Palace face each other, flanking the pristine white Lutheran Cathedral.

My friend explained the layout of state on one side, university on the other, church on the third, and how the city was very much a planned political project after Finland came into Russian hands in 1809. The historic capital at Turku was eclipsed for a brand spanking new administrative centre, and Tsar Alexander II remains in the square’s centre as an ominous and triumphalist reminder.

We caught up with another old friend at Kuurna, an intimate little restaurant with flickering candlelight, a tasty concise menu, good wines by the glass and (rare joy of joys) an excellent vegetarian option. Winning cocktails came courtesy of the awesomely prohibition-era Liberty or Death – a Londoner’s dream, with the hipster condescension removed and at least one drink named after Margaret Thatcher. I wish my flat looked as cool as this place. Or that it was next door and I could order the gin mixers nightly while coveting the furniture.

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I also enjoyed the small City Museum, which was hosting a Mad about Helsinki exhibition, with old photos and exhibits representing the maritime city residents’ favourite spots and treasures through the decades: the historic Hakaniemi market square and hall, ice-swimming and the historic fortress of Suomenlinna, one of the many tiny islands and coves 15 minutes boat-ride across the water.

Pictures of the fortress in the museum showed the dark days. During the brutal Finnish Civil War following the Russian Revolution, Red Guard prisoners were transferred from the main market square to the island prison camp, where around 6000 were held, some executed and many more died of starvation and disease in the damp network of bunkers you can still wander through.

Yet riding out there on a bright sunny day, you find a breezy tourist destination, a place Helsinki-dwellers head on a family trip; picnics and ice-cream, even a brewery.  A place of happy memories, pleasant walks, coveted apartments, and sun-dappled views back to the city.

The Moomins final adventure saw the family off-screen, their happy house seemingly abandoned and their brooding, troubled friends waiting for them to return… when?

moomin 2No one knew, and as the boat sped back through dark waters to the warmth of the city, where an anglophile aperitif of Pimms and lemonade was waiting to be shared between old friends, I got the sense that they may still be out there. Wandering endlessly through forests and valleys, darkness and light.

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