Thursday, 7 September 2017


Last year I said that we would like to make the focus of this year's travel adventure the Tibetan Bridge in Claviere which lies just over the French Alps border into Italy. It looked relatively easy for people like us who can hardly be called mountain climbers. The highest summit we ever tackled before that was Mam Tor in Derbyshire so this was a huge if somewhat exciting challenge for both of us.

It was chucking it down with rain when we arrived but the staff knew we had driven all the way from England for this moment and so didn't send us away in bad weather as we expected. Instead they told us to have a look around for 10 minutes and then come back. They knew the weather and knew therefore that the rain would pass and ease and it did. When we returned we were fixed up into harnesses and given a brief instruction on what to do with the caribiners - or safety hooks as we called them. That was basically to be aware that one must always be attached as the second is unhooked and clipped onto the cable past the suspension rope attaching the bridge to the mountains each side of the gully that we walked through before unhooking and attaching the second. That was the scariest part as I sometimes had to stand on tip toes to reach it.

One of the guides who took us to the start of the bridge took our photo before we stepped onto it and I was a bit apprehensive. It was one of those "WTF have I got us into" moments especially as I stepped onto it and then found the thing swayed as we walked. My husband has a heavier step than me and I felt myself being tipped sideways with each step as he plodded confidently ahead. I shouted at him to stop and then we proceeded more carefully and in rhythm with each other which added a bit more stability as we weaved our way through to the end during the one hour and 15 minutes it takes to complete the route.

It began to rain again as we got about half way through and we were both soaked when we reached a safe spot to take a photo. The sense of achievement clearly shows on our faces. It was the most amazing thing we had ever done and we were lucky. The guide told us that because of the wet weather we had the bridge to ourselves as there was no one else there. Apparently, being so close to the cities of Turin and Milan, the bridge attracts as many as 500 people queuing to get on over the weekend. I wondered how much more it would have swung if we had to share it with others and I must admit I felt hugely privileged knowing that on this day, the bridge was all ours.

Camping was hard to find but the staff at the bridge told us we would find a site at Oulx which is about 15km from Claviere. The site was lovely. My husband said he had never seen camp site toilets and facilities so clean and I was impressed that it had an actual bathroom with a bath, sink, shower and bidet. A bath! Anyone who spends any time camping in tents on sites will know this is a very rare luxury and just what one needs after a day's soaking in the rain. Sadly the rain didn't really let up over the two days we were there. The clouds swirled and moved quickly around the mountains in the distance and my husband joked that it looked like God vaping. At least we got to cook a meal with our camping chip pan before the rain came, a new addition to our equipment this year.

The site had wooden sheds and caravans for visitors to stay in but we are very happy in our tent and pitched up opposite the above shack which had a pair of historic skis decorating the outside. Although wet during our time there, the sun shone as we packed up to leave and so it is easy to forget that in winter, these little towns are covered in snow and a playground for those more adventurous than us who take to the nearby slopes.

Usually our route to Italy is through the Mont Blanc Tunnel but this time we decided to find another route and travelled through the Alps. The roads were easy to drive along but the bends, turns and winds on the carriageway were somewhat of a challenge with huge drops without barriers hanging from the side of the road. We were something like 2,800 metres high when there was a place to stop the car to enable a short walk to the summit at Col Du Galibier. The air was very thin and we really felt the altitude but every second was worth it for the glorious view.

There were hundreds of sporting cyclists around but it didn't occur to us until later that we were right in the middle of the Tour De France. We joked when we got home that we had completed part of the route with our cycles - although they happened to be fixed to the back of the car as we drove through.

We took the same route back from Oulx but this time we stayed longer at Col Du Telegraphe to find the nearby Fort which my husband wanted to visit. It was a bit of a walk at the back of the Tour De France sign and when we arrived we couldn't have a look inside because there were some French people filming. We stood for a while and watched peasants attacking barons who then struck down a peasant and killed him when all of a sudden the directer shouted something which we think must have been CUT! and everyone looked at us. He asked us to move out of the shot, we were clearly in the way, and so we did as they filmed the scene again and we enjoyed the fantastic view beyond.

Once through the mountains we retraced our steps and stayed at the same camp sites we that we visited on our way to Italy. The weather picked up by the time we reached the first on the homeward journey, a camp site near Aix Les Bains described as the Alps Riviera and called Lac Du Bourget

The heat was intense and our second night there ended with the biggest thunderstorm I had ever seen. It was like nature's fireworks finale as an explosion of light in the dark sky shot forks of lightening around from its centre. We watched it through a small opening in the tent door until it gave way to lashings of heavy rain which was lighter but still wet as we packed up and moved on the next day back to our next stop at Poligny a small Comte town in the Jura region. While there, we visited the nearby Grotte Des Moisons and caught a train to Besancon because most of what we wanted to do in Poligny was done on our visit last year, except for the free wine tasting laid on at the camp site this year where we got to sample about 10 different wines all from the region. Sadly. I lost track of which were which after wine No 5 but a lovely Danish couple we met there bought a bottle or two but I think they were more connoisseurs than us. I am happy with a cheap bottle, or two, from the supermarket, and my husband doesn't drink wine at all, but they appeared to have a little more refined taste.

This year we took our cycles on our travels with us which allowed us to explore more of the areas we visited. Parking can be a nightmare and so can having to find the car before the parking time runs out. The French do wonderful cycle paths and we found where ever we stayed we could get from one town to another easily and avoid all traffic. Val De Vesle is a small village with little to do but it is a welcome stop for weary travellers en route through France. It is 22km from Reims which Google said was an hour and 10 minutes away by cycle. It took us three and a half hours going because there was so many beautiful stops to sit awhile and take in, including a visit to a Canadian WW1 cemetery we passed on the way. However, it still took us two hours to cycle back with no stops at all. Reims was lovely. We visited the Cathedral and stopped in the town to listen to a jazz band and singers who we assumed were rehearsing for a bigger event due to be held in the town that evening. I also had the most scrumptious Paris Brest cream bun at a small bakery cafe which made the ride worth it if we hadn't done another thing all day.

We left Val De Vesle and headed towards Rotterdam and we both thought how much better the weather was. Last year, rain followed us all the way through France and pelted down as we got towards the Dutch town but this year it was dry and although not hot, the sun made an appearance between large white clouds. However, literally as we drove through the city looking for the camp site we usually stay at, the heavens opened and chucked buckets on the car making visibility difficult. It was like driving through a swimming pool. The field on the camp site was as soggy as a shallow pond and we got soaked as we battled to put up the tent and keep it as dry as we could. This put a damper on our visit to one of our favourite cities although the weather cleared up and stayed mostly dry for the two days we were there. We did our usual thing - ate chips and ice cream from our favourite stands and popped into a coffee shop for a warm and welcome smoke. There was a theatrical puppet art display by three woman with what looked like aliens climbing up lamposts which demonstrated one of the ways Rotterdam is a weird and wonderful place unlike any other in Europe.

We would normally stay at least a week in the city but this time we got bored after two days but with still 10 days to go before we were booked on the Channel Tunnel home, we had time to kill. We stayed in Belgium for the first time ever and found a site at Middlekerke The site had a pub and what looked like a holiday static caravan estate. The pitch for tents was small and round the back of the pub next to a burger and chip kiosk with chickens just behind a fence that we fed crisps. It reminded us both of a pub beer garden. We liked it very much and the Leffe Fruit beer on sale at the bar.

The gorgeous sunset on our first night bode well for good weather the next day and it was glorious. We cycled along the beach towards some gun placements we had seen sticking out from huge sand dunes and found it was a museum about the Atlantic Wall Defence an important and strategic German post in WW2. We also came across several statues of Belgian cartoon characters along the beach such as Lambik

We were given an audio as a guide as we walked around the museum but mine was in French so i didn't understand much. I liked the models of German soldiers shown doing their jobs - repairing broken guns for recycling, the shop store room and the bunks of the troops compared to the home of the commandant which took over a fisherman's cottage. Even his faithful dog is preserved and shown serving his master by bringing him a clean pair of socks.

We didn't really want to go home early but we found ourselves heading back with still five days to go in hope we could get our ticket amended. The rain came down again at Middelkerke and got the better of us. Happily, for just an extra £30 we were on the chunnel train and heading home. The gloomy weather and rain seemed to follow us because we haven't seen much sun since. It's always sad when a trip comes to an end but this was another great adventure and leaves only the question - where shall we go next year? So far, we haven't a clue but one thing I know for sure is that I want to head south and find some heat. Maybe I'll persuade my husband to stop in Cecina Mare for a while which always has a special place in my heart and the sun shines as brightly as the people who live there.

Thursday, 16 March 2017


Musical Teeline is a popular way of practising shorthand. I prefer those songs where lyrics are clear. To take account of both novices and the more advanced in speed, I have chosen two relatively slow songs - Amazing Grace by Judy Collins and Don't Explain by Billie Holliday. And just because it is a great song, it has graceful dancers in the video, and the lyrics come at you fast, the third choice is Sway by Dean Martin.

The shorthand is below each video for you to check your outlines. Remember that you can double up on some outlines if you find the first two songs too slow and you can hit pause to catch up if you struggle to keep up with any that you find too fast. Keep going with them until you can get each song down in one go. Then make sure you can transcribe your notes.

Monday, 23 January 2017


I am no artist and up until Christmas this year I had drawn only one sketch in my life which was done in art class about 1973 from a photograph taken of Penmaenmawr mountain after a holiday in Llanfairfechan, North Wales.

My skills may not have improved that much but thanks to my husband buying me a charcoal sketch set, I decided to have another go at drawing. The image above was my third attempt at capturing an image with a pencil. Copied from a black and white photo taken from the Italian Facebook page Cercami. The old photos posted up there showing history, poverty, humility and pride written in the faces and actions of the characters who didn't have much in their world but a life of hard work, landscapes, family and each other, make excellent practise pieces and interesting subject choices. It helps that there is no colour in the images because that is a harder challenge to face for a budding artist hobbyist like me.

The sketch, which I have called Homeward Bound, was also my first attempt at trying to draw a figure. You can see that I haven't quite managed to get the perspective right. My figure is smaller, fatter, and not quite placed correctly in the landscape, but as a first attempt, it isn't bad and with a little more work when I'm feeling more inspired, I think I could make it as realistic as it needs to be to satisfy my perfectionism. The landscape itself also needs a bit more shading but like writing, I've found my art work could always be improved and I am never quite content with the result. Space and time between written drafts always helps to clear the fog and help the mind see the bigger picture, while magnifying the smaller errors and imperfections. Perhaps that will work with a sketch too.

My second drawing in life was done from a photograph I had taken of Waddington Windmill on a snow day about five years ago. It was a lot easier because there was no vanishing point to work out and even though the original photograph is in colour, it was taken in the dusk, just before the sun went down fully, and has the feel of a monochrome picture because of the whiteness of the snow and the darkness of the landscape. I am relatively pleased with it although that perfectionist whispers in my ear that it feels more like the ruins of a old fort in Spain than a derelict windmill in the English countryside.

The image of Penmaenmawr mountain, viewed from Llanfairfechan Promenade, in that old art class shows that two sketches on, the skills needed for my hobby have improved a bit. The original photo it was drawn from has long since disappeared but last September, I went back for a visit and took another photo from almost the same spot. Perhaps I'll have another go at drawing the picture later in the year and add some colour, perhaps even just the rainbow that made a beautiful appearance that day. I'll also be taking my charcoal sketching set on my travels this summer and have a go at a landscape while sitting outside and looking at it.

By next Christmas, perhaps my husband will buy me a painting set, if I drop enough hints, and then I'll play about with colour and draw something like this challenging landscape scene of Manarola in the Cinque Terra, Italy. However, the sketching set will be put away for a while as real life and the intensity of real work follows now the long Christmas break is finally over.