Jaén province…. .

Leaving Portugal after so long was a bit of a wrench but a welcome wrench as we shot straight across the Algarve and into Spain.  We headed straight for the Province of Jaén in north-eastern Andalusia.  It’s an area that we’d cut across in 2016 when making our way from the Costa Blanca to Córdoba to meet our friends Di and Chris for a couple of days.  We’d had a few days, at that time, to get from east to west but absolutely loved the area and wanted to see more so earmarked it for a future visit.

img_20200311_152029647
Province of  Jaén – olives, olives everywhere.

The province of Jaén is the largest producer of olive oil in the world accounting for twenty percent of the worlds market.  According to Wikipedia 66 million trees grow here covering 550,000 hectares.  It’s fair to say that it’s enorme.  A huge patchwork of green.

img_20200308_165809331The province also boasts four natural parks.  On our way across the area in 2016 we met a chap called John who gave us various co-ordinates and advice on where to stay and what to do in the area so we dug them out to have a look.  He’d recommended a 128km via verde (cycle track on a disused railway) running from Jaén to Puente Genil.   We headed for an aire just outside the little town of Doña Mencía.

img_20200308_095705039_hdr
The aire at next to the via verde cycleway at Doña Mencía. 

It never ceases to amaze me the facilities that are put on for motorhomers in some European countries.  We parked up at the aire adjacent to the via verde for just three euros a night.  Can you imagine that next to the Camel Trail in Cornwall?  You probably pay three times that just to park for the day.  All facilities were there.  Showers, water, waste disposal and electric.

img_20200305_123514383_hdr-1
There’s also a visitor centre, cycle hire and cafe.

We ended up staying five nights and explored the area by bike and on foot.  Apart from the obvious draw of the cycleway there are several good walking trails in the area as well.  We had the pleasure of watching several pairs of vultures circling above and below us on our afternoon walks.

img_20200303_131634608_hdr
Looking towards the delightful village of Zuheros a couple of miles away.

img_20200303_133140999_hdr

img_20200303_134404193_hdr

img_20200304_125759069
Views from the cycleway.

img_20200304_133607279

img_20200307_115559791_hdr
A walk in the hills above Zuheros.

So thank you to John wherever you are now for all the good info you gave us.  As I’ve said on the blog before, when travelling there are so many unanswered questions that go through my head.  How many olives are there?  How many trees?  They surely can’t harvest all these by hand like we saw in Greece?  If they do then there must be a mass influx of seasonal workers?  Who owns them all?  How did they water all the trees in the olden days?  Do the owners have a detailed map of all their trees or is it in their head?  What’s the maintenance plan?  Is there ever a day in the week when you don’t hear the buzz of a chain saw in the background?  And so the questions go on.

img_20200309_112829466_hdr
A cycle ride in the hills around Albanchez de Magina east of Jaen.

img_20200309_113217845_hdr

img_20200309_115915820_hdr
A long descent took us into the town of Torres.
img_20200309_122026486_hdr
Torres.

Another of John’s recommendations was the Segura Natural park east of Úbeda.  Cazorla is a perfect base to explore some of it with a handy aire located at the top end of the town with spectacular views looking out over the olives below.  It’s just a big layby really but as laybys go it got a thumbs up from us.

img_20200311_125550167
The aire at the top end of Cazorla.

Cazorla is in a superb setting with craggy mountains above and thousands of acres of olives below and boasts several historic monuments.  There are many walking trails, most of which you’d need a few days to complete but we set off up the steep hill to join one of them to see how far we’d get before turning back as there didn’t appear to be a viable circular route.

img_20200311_145151171_hdr
Views up to the castle in La Iruela just a short walk from the aire.
img_20200312_110215075_hdr
Looking back down at the castle.

 

img_20200312_104154882
Processionary catarpillars we saw at the beginning of our walk.

After an hour and a half of mostly uphill climbing we were heading through patches of pine forest.  The shade was welcome as it was roasting hot but then we saw some pine processionary caterpillars.  When we looked up we could see their nests in the trees and all looked to be empty.

For those that don’t know, these little creatures can be harmful to people and pets.  The hairy caterpillars are part of the moth family.  I won’t bore you with their life cycle but just say that they feed on pine trees in nests.  Then between February and April they descend from the trees and make their way to the ground in a long chain (hence the name) searching for the next place for their life cycle.  They’ll eventually disperse to go underground for the next phase of the lifecycle.  They pose a risk to animals and humans at the stage when they are marching across the ground.  Those hairs are the cause.  If they are threatened, stressed, prodded or poked they can eject their hairs which act like tiny harpoons and can penetrate and irritate exposed skin.  Generally dogs lick affected areas thereby transferring the hairs to their tongues resulting in itching, swelling, vomiting and even death.

img_20200312_114228511_hdr
There were lots more later on the higher we got!

We carried on for a while but were seeing them in increasing numbers so whilst I sat on a tree stump consulting google Tim hopped from foot to foot.  After telling him that I was sure it was just animals that were at the most risk I thought I’d check just to be on the safe side.  I read out the end of the second paragraph ‘the pine processionary caterpillar has even made its presence felt amongst dog owners themselves, causing painful, itchy rashes, or at worst, fatal anaphylactic shock’.  So I asked him if he wanted to carry on.  Stupid question really.  He was off back down the hill like a greyhound out of the starting trap.

img_20200312_134850234_hdr
Well signed routes around Cazorla.

Having retraced our steps we took the road up out of the town in the opposite direction and were rewarded with more spectacular views.

img_20200312_140523924_hdr
View down to Cazorla from the other side.
img_20200312_185755696_hdr
A sunsey walk in Cazorla old town.

img_20200312_183710396_hdr

img_20200312_184608862After a few days soaking up the surroundings of Cazorla we headed to the aire at Úbeda forty or so kilometres away to get some washing done.

img_20200314_113904011
We love these places!

We arrived in Úbeda this morning in search of a self service laundrette to find parks closed, events cancelled and most people in the supermarket wearing plastic gloves.   The aire, which we’d stayed on a few  days ago, was practically deserted.  There’d been probably in the region of twenty before.

We took a stroll into town earlier this evening to find, other than two or three cafes and some mini supermarkets open, everything else is closed.

The Coronavirus has been rumbling around in the background of our travels for the last two weeks but today it looks like preventative measures have been ramped up considerably.

Our rough plan for the next three months had looked like this:  Take three to four weeks to make our way across Spain to Barcelona, catch a ferry from there to Sardinia, spend a few weeks on Sardinia before hopping over to Corsica for a look see, then back onto mainland France, up through south-eastern France into Switzerland, maybe a bit of Austria before landing in Germany towards the end of May as I’m doing a weekend course with donkeys somewhere in Bavaria.  It was a very loose three month itinerary.

Fortunately we only really ever make loose plans as you never know what is around the corner.

It looks like Spain, as I write, is going to announce a lockdown of the entire country.

Better to be safe than sorry.

Time for a change of plan………..

Adios!

Onwards into Portugal…. .

The great thing about vanlife is that if you arrive somewhere and don’t feel the love for it you can just move on.  Equally, if you do feel the love for somewhere you can stay longer than you’d originally intended.  Marvão, a few kilometres over the border into Portugal was one of those places that waylaid us.  By a week.  We’d intended staying a night or two but……..well…….we couldn’t tear ourselves away.  If we hadn’t needed to be further south by the end of October we would probably have stretched our stay into two weeks.  Or three.  Admittedly we had a spell of warm sunny weather so that always makes a difference.  Pitched up at Asseiceira camping we relaxed into rural life in Portugal.

img_20191021_102504526_hdr
Camping Asseiceira.

The hilltop town of Marvão probably is the main attraction for visitors to this area of the Alentejo region of Portugal.

img_20191020_153838047_hdr
Marvão.
img_20191020_161051590_hdr
The views are superb.

And it is spectacular perched on top of a high peak, but for me it was the rolling, granite bouldered landscape with miles and miles of traffic free lanes to explore on the bike that captured my attention.

img_20191026_133026545_hdr
Typical hamlet in this region.

I’d been sadly disillusioned exploring Cornwall by bike whilst we were working on a campsite during the summer by the amount of traffic I had to contend with even on the minor roads.  Everywhere seemed to be rat run to get from one place to another.  In contrast the bike riding around Marvão was completely stress free and practically car free.

img_20191024_142421827_hdr
Miles of glorious cycling.

According to Wikipedia the Alentejo region of Portugal covers over 27,000 square kilometres with a population density averaging less than twenty people per square kilometre.  Cornwall on the other hand covers 3,500 square kilometres and during the summer months has a population density of over 12000 people per square kilometre.  Quite a difference then.  Sheesh, no wonder it felt soooo busy in Cornwall.  Anyway, hopefully I’ve got the maths right there as it has never been one of my strengths.

img_20191021_145858727_hdr
…….and acorn eating pigs.

So the Alentejo then is a vast area covering a chunk of Portugal which stretches from the Atlantic coast in the west to the Spanish border in the east and the Algarve in the South.  We’d explored some of the south eastern area around Monsaraz in 2016 and really loved it and we weren’t disappointed with the north eastern part either.

img_20191021_151707441
The old station at Beira.

You really can’t beat a hilltop town for a good old exploration on foot.  Marvão at over eight hundred metres is the highest village in the Alentejo.  It is enclosed by 13th Century walls, has a castle at the top where you can walk the walls if you’ve a head for heights, some formal gardens and narrow medieval winding streets lined by white washed houses.  On a good day the panoramic views all around are worth the climb up.

img_20191022_120931205_hdr
Walking from the campsite to Marvão.
img_20191022_124523110_hdr
It’s gets pretty steep.

img_20191020_161925427_hdr

img_20191020_163154914_hdr

img_20191020_154315904_hdrThe campsite we stayed on is just outside the workaday little town of Santo António das Areias and just under five kilometres from Marvão.

img_20191025_161216567_hdr
Cork oaks.
img_20191025_075241568
An early morning walk.

img_20191025_130550754

img_20191024_135559334
The view over Castelo de Vide, another historic town in the area.

After a walk or a cycle we enjoyed popping into the mini market everyday for a coffee and a pastel de nata to observe village life in action.  There’s a little cafe inside the mini market with a couple of tables and it seemed to be the hub of the town.

img_20191021_155349320
Simple pleasures.

A steady stream of people would come in, order a coffee, have a chitty chat with whoever happened to be in there at the time, buy a few groceries and then go again.  Everyone seemed to know everyone and happily spent a few minutes chewing the fat.  Barely a mobile phone in sight.  You do have to have a bit of patience or time on your hands when buying your groceries in rural towns and villages in Portugal as no one appears to be in a hurry.  News is swapped and children are cooed over.  We are so used to standing in a queue at a check-out, being served briskly with no one exchanging a word because everyone is in a hurry.  It’s quite the mind set change but a refreshing change at that. 

It felt good to be back in Portugal but time was pressing on so after a week we reluctantly moved on.  Having been brought up by the sea and then spending over twenty years being a two hour drive away from the sea we’re still always drawn to it.  We do like a good coastal walk so after an overnight stop in Évora we spent a few of nights on the Atlantic coast before arriving just over the border into the Algarve for an extended stop. 

img_20191029_114838649_hdr
Back on the Atlantic coast near Vila Nova de Milfontes.

img_20191029_114553216_hdrAs regular readers of the blog will know we are swapping van life for bricks and mortar life this winter.    

It will be a chance to take an extended break from travelling and van dwelling to relax, recharge, regroup, reset, reflect and reboot. 

Well that’s the theory anyway. 

We moved out of the van yesterday. 

Time will tell to see how it all pans out and how we get on. 

Até breve!

La Côte D’Argent…. . 

After leaving our last Helpx near Niort in the Poitou Charente region we headed south beyond Bordeaux bound for the sea on La Côte D’Argent – the Silver Coast.  The big draw for us to this area was the endless sandy beaches.  We do like a nice good, long sandy beach.  The Côte D’Argent covering more than 200km from Pointe de Grave in the north and Bayonne in the south, is, according to our Rough Guide to France, the longest, straightest, sandiest stretch of coastline in Europe which boasts La Dune de Pilat, the largest dune in Europe as well as Les Landes, the largest forest in Western Europe.  There was also the promise of some nice, flat, easy cycling along traffic free cycleways through the forest.

P1130682.JPG
Le Teich wetland area.

For our first couple of nights we parked up at a free aire at Le Teich, east of Arcachon.  Being one of the most important wetland areas left in France it was a perfect stop off for a couple of days of rest and relaxation to do a spot of birdwatching.  The Parc Ornitholigique du Teich is a bird sanctuary and protected area and we enjoyed the peace and quiet of two different walks.  The wetland area seems a world away from the approach to it as it seemed as if everyone was escaping to the coast from Bordeaux for the weekend.

 

P1130686.JPG
.  The Parc Ornitholigique du Teich.

We had intended to have a gander around Arcachon but decided against it after seeing the queues of traffic to get there.  Instead we peeled off to the south to the Dune du Pilat.  We caught a glimpse through the trees of a crowd of people on the dune not long before we got to the parking area.  Tim said ‘oh look at all those people on that dune there must be some sort of event going on’.    I said ‘Tim, the dune is the event’.  Tim’s general modus operandi is to just punch in the co-ordinates to the satnav that I give him without asking where or what it is we are headed for.  He is more than happy to wait for everything to unfold before him all in its own time.  I think it must be a nice way to be but I’m too much of a control freak to be able to be like that as I need to know where we are going and why way before we have even started the engine.  It’s fair to say we were both really impressed by the scale of the dune.  We’d parked half a mile away from the main parking area which proved to be a wise decision as a footpath through the forest led to the bottom of the dune where we could make our ascent by ourselves without any company at all.

P1130689.JPG
Tim almost on his hands and knees climbing to the top of the Dune du Pilat.

At over one hundred metres high, three kilometres long and five hundred metres wide it really was an impressive sight especially as we had the perfect weather for it.

DSC06086.JPG
It’s vast.

P1130698.JPGA very gregarious French chap in the car park called us over just as we were locking up the van and advised us to scramble to the top, walk the length of the ridge, slide down to the beach, then walk back along the beach and to return to the car park via another footpath.  It was good advice as it made for an excellent two hour round trip.

P1130704.JPG
Coming down the dune towards the beach.
P1130708.JPG
The beach below.

Numerous sea side resorts which are popular with surfers dot this stretch of coastline whilst inland a string of lakes draw in fishermen, boaters and families as they offer watersports facilities and safe swimming.  We enjoyed a lunch time stop at Cazaux-Sanguinet lake on our way to our overnight stop at Gastes.  It must get absolutely packed in July and August but we were able to enjoy a stroll along the lakeside with just a few other families.

DSC06091.JPG
A lunch stop at Cazaux-Sanguinet lake .

I was absolutely chuffed to bits to watch three young otters feeding in between the moorings at the side of the lake opposite the aire in Gastes the following morning. Oh if only I’d had my camera with me but I was just returning from the early morning walk to the boulangerie with a baguette safely tucked under my arm so hadn’t even thought about taking the camera with me.  C’est la vie!

We were fortunate with the weather for the ten days we spent on the Côte D’Argent as we could imagine the area could be a bit desolate out of season in inclement weather.  Some of the resorts were completely closed up for the season whilst others just had a few cafes open even though we were still basking in sunshine in the low twenties.

DSC06104.JPG
That’s the first time my wetsuit has seen the light of day for over a year…..and I think it’s shrunk as it took me forever to get on!

Fortunately we were spoilt for choice with aires, which ranged from between 6 and 10 euros a night, spending a couple of nights at a time in one place giving us time to get out on the bikes to explore.

P1130714.JPG
The aire at Contis Plage.

There isn’t a coastal road as such but there is a cycleway that winds its way through the forest and forms part of La Velo Odyssee, a 1200 kilometre cycle route linking Roscoff in northern France to Hendaye on the Spanish border.

P1130729.JPG
Part of the cycleway through Les Landes.

Traffic free, smooth and pretty much flat we happily tootled along through the pine trees stopping in at a resort or two to have lunch and to watch the few surfers that were out.

P1130726.JPG
Excellent lunch stop at Saint Girons Plage.

The Landes forest is totally vast and totally manmade.  Until a century ago the constantly shifting dunes made any attempt to settle or cultivate the land impossible.  Pines and grasses were planted to anchor the dunes and they now extend to over 10 000 square kilometres and were declared a parc naturel régional in 1970.  It’s an under-populated area but wealthy thanks to its pinewood and pine derivatives.

P1130730.JPG
Tim entertaining customers at a bar at Contis Plage.  Without the aid of a safety net he’d asked the barman if they wanted a bit of music and he said ‘Oui, porquoi pas’ or words to that effect!  He was a happy as larry playing into the setting sun with a few complementary beers to keep him going.

Our last port of call along this coast before we moved into the Pays Basque region was Capbreton.  There is a large aire behind the beach which is really just a car park but convenient for getting out onto the beach and soaking up the atmosphere.  It’s a popular area and much more lively with hundreds of surfers out.

P1130737.JPG
Capbreton.
DSC06112.JPG
World War II bunkers on the beach at Capbreton.

P1130743.JPG

A perfect evening for a bit of body surfing before the setting sun.

DSC06135.JPG

Next up, the Pays Basque.

Bonne Soirée!

 

 

NC500….Durness to Duncansby Stacks…. .

Well, how lucky have we been?  Sun and clear skies have accompanied us on our journey north from Inverness to the top of Scotland.  It seems we picked the perfect window in the weather to explore a section of the NC500.  It was more an NC100 rather than 500 as we didn’t have time to do it all.  My nephew, who we met up with in Thurso, said he had never seen weather like it in the three years he has lived there.  Totes amaze!  We meandered along the section across the top of the Highlands from Durness in the west to Duncansby Stacks in the east before heading south for a few days in Edinburgh.  Now, I could blather on and on, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah about the spectacular scenery and beautiful weather but I’m not even going to try.  The pictures say it all.  So here they are………….

P1130232.JPG
Looking towards the campsite at Durness, the most north westerly village on the British Mainland.
P1130237.JPG
Remains of Balnakeil Church.
P1130246.JPG
Balnakeil Bay.
P1130253.JPG
Looking back towards Balnakeil Bay on a walk to Faraid Head.

 

P1130260.JPG
Lunch stop at Faraid Head……….almost (the triangle of land at the headland is owned by the MOD so not accessible).  We could just make out Cape Wrath lighthouse in the distance.
P1130266.JPG
Cairn on the top of the hill looking back to Balnakeil.
P1130221.JPG
Looking out at the limestone cliffs at Smoo Cave.  
P1130205
Ceannabeinne Beach.
P1130188.JPG
Ard Neakie on Loch Eriboll.

P1130191.JPG

P1130179.JPG
Looking across the Kyle of Tongue to the Rabbit Islands.
P1130280.JPG
The causeway crossing the Kyle of Tongue Loch.

P1130284.JPG

P1130291.JPG
This pig had fur not hair!
P1130292.JPG
The incy wincy post office at Skerray.
P1130297.JPG
Local produce for sale at the bus shelter near Torrisdale.
P1130307.JPG
Thurso……….it had turned grey by then but was still dry.
P1130309.JPG
The beach at Thurso.

P1130313.JPG

P1130321.JPG
Dunnet Head, a fantastic place to see Puffins close up.

P1130346.JPG

DSC05861.JPG

DSC05849.JPG

DSC05865.JPG
Had to be done!
P1130350.JPG
Duncansby Stacks.

P1130355.JPG

So there we are, a fabulous week all round.

Next up, Edinburgh.

Feasgar math!

 

 

Sunny Skyes…. .

Well the Isle of Skye has certainly come up trumps with the weather.  Apart from one misty morning it has all been wall to wall sunshine.  So much so I’ve burnt the back of my knees. Doh!  The first thing that struck us when we arrived on Skye at the ferry port in Uig is that we weren’t going to have the island to ourselves.  I suppose that’s not surprising as it is said to be the most visited destination in Scotland.

We started our tour off on the Trotternish Peninsular north of Uig to do some walking in the Quiraing, an area famous for its rock pinnacles, sheer cliffs and rock formations.

P1130039.JPG
Views from the top.

What a great couple of days walking we had amongst the rocks then up onto the top with far reaching views across towards the mainland.

P1130035.JPG
Over the top.
P1130049.JPG
The following day on another peak.

We saw several sightings of cuckoos perched on the rocks in those two days.  I tell you, from never having seen a cuckoo in the flesh before we have seen more than you can shake a stick at up here.

P1130050.JPG
Long range shot of a cuckoo.

Further south towards Portree the Old Man of Storr, the most celebrated column of rock on the island, is a real draw for visitors.  We planned on an early shin up the hill and back before all the crowds arrived but with the clouds down over the hills that morning we didn’t see much.  The low cloud/mist did clear in and out but we didn’t think the Old Man was as spectacular as all the hype makes it out to be.

P1130064
The Old Man of Storr.

The views on the way back down under the cloud line were impressive though.

P1130066
Views on the way back down from the Old Man.

We’d started our walk at about  eight o’clock and it took about an hour and a half to get up there and back but by the time we got down the parking areas on both sides of the road were full and a steady stream of people were on their way up. It was time to move on!

We made a quick pit stop in Portree at the free long stay car park for a wander round the harbour area followed by the weekly shop at the Co-op there.

P1130069
Portree Harbour.

The Co-op seems to have a monopoly on the Outer Hebrides and Skye as there isn’t really any other choice other than a few tiny mini markets dotted about.  It’s a shame because we’ve lost the will to live in every single one of them.  It’s not what they stock that is lacking but the fact that there always seem to be member’s of staff replenishing the shelves in virtually every single aisle taking up nearly all the space with cages of new stock and empty packaging all over the place.  All their shops seem to have narrow aisles making it extremely tedious to get round other shoppers and staff.  I don’t blame the staff as they are only doing their job but why can’t they restock when the store is closed or not a peak times?  Why?!  Even Tim who is normally patience personified has succumbed to trolley rage almost dumping a half filled trolley in an aisle and stomping off back to the van.  He probably would have done if he could have found a space in an aisle to park it.  Anyway, rant over.  And relax!

With clear blue skies and temperatures in the low twenties it was a chance to cook outside again.

P1130088.JPG
Time for a few Scottish Reels with a sausage curry on the go.

I grant you it’s not often you would see sausage curry on the menu of an Indian restaurant but in the absence of any other form of meat it had to do.  Try it, we recommend it!

P1130091.JPG
A spot of magnet fishing (a 2p and a 5p were the haul of the day)!

We walked the four miles or so from our overnight stop across open moorland to Dunvegan Castle, the seat of the Clan Macleod since the thirteenth century but at £14 each to go in we gave it a miss and had coffee and cake at Jann’s Cakes in the village instead.

P1130084.JPG
A very relaxed Highland Coo.
DSC05762.JPG
Shop in Dunvegan village.
P1130082.JPG
A walk through the woods from Dunvegan back to the castle.

The following day we cycled to Claigan Coral Beaches just north of Dunvegan.  The sand is made up of calcified maerl (seaweed) and tiny sea shells.  Our guide book says that ‘on a sunny day the white sands and aqua water could almost be the Carribean’ but that description is probably stretching it a bit as there wasn’t much aqua water to be seen as it was full of seaweed.

DSC05764.JPG
I wouldn’t say it’s quite the Carribean but very nice all the same.

It was a nice spot for lunch though.  I think we weren’t totally wowed by it after having experienced the beaches of the Outer Hebrides.

A big draw for walkers on Skye is the Cuillin mountain range which has over twenty Munros to be bagged.  The Munro baggers visiting Skye for the week must have been kicking their legs in the air on account of the clear blue sky weather we were having making for spectacular walking in the hills.  With not an OS map between us though we played it safe with a lovely circular walk around the coast of the Suisnish peninsular which gave us excellent views of the mountains in the distance.

P1130099.JPG
Suisnish Peninsular.

P1130102.JPG

P1130103.JPG
Cuillin Mountain Range in the distance.
P1130107.JPG
You can buy a holiday home like this one on Skye for £190,000.

Our final night on Skye we parked up at Kyleakin with a view of the bridge.  Whilst having a cup of tea with our door open a van parked up next to us with New Zealand flags adorning one of the windows.  A young lad appeared at our door to introduce himself and we spent the next hour or so hearing all about his travels.  At ten years old he is far more well travelled than we are having visited nearly every country in Europe.  He and his parents are on the last few months of an eighteen month tour of Europe before shipping back their van, which they’d bought in the UK, to New Zealand.  Marvellous.

P1130108.JPG
Sunset below Skye bridge.

So that was Skye.  Again, we didn’t have time to see all that was to see but time is marching on and we need to get a move on.

Feumaidh mi ruith!

The Uists, Benbecular and Berneray…. .

Across the causeway from Eriskay brings you into South Uist, home to long, white, sandy beaches on the west coast and rolling peat moors, inlets and rocky hills on the east coast.  There are sooo many deserted beaches on these islands.  Waking up in the morning and rolling out of the van straight onto a sandy beach all to myself to do my morning exercise routine has been another highlight of our trip.  Swinging about a couple of little yellow dumbbells whilst watching sanderlings skitter up and down the shoreline or listening to a couple of terns squawking their displeasure at having unwanted company sure beats wiping down the sweat of the previous occupant on the equipment at my local gym before using it.  Of course I don’t do this routine every morning as I’m really not that disciplined but when I do remember to do it and make the effort it is always worth it…….even more so on an empty beach without curious onlookers making me feel acutely self conscious and ridiculous…….except on one occasion when two gorgeous coffee and cream coloured young bullocks watched me with expressions that distinctly said WTF?

P1120786.JPG
A beach all to myself:)

After our first night on South Uist the fickle hand of the weather had us scuttling off to Lochboisdale on the other side of the island to seek some refuge from the wind which had battered us overnight at our exposed position right behind the beach.  As I’ve mentioned before high winds have us praying that our roof vents will still be intact when we wake up in the morning.  Being made of plastic they really aren’t the best and the wind manages to get under them constantly making them rattle.  Tim has solved the problem on three of them with a simple system of elastic bands and suckers to hold them in place but we have one which is a wind up affair with an integral fan within it which makes it impossible for that solution to work without taking it to bits and punching a hole through a fly screen.  On the second night of the ruddy thing rattling and constantly waking us up Tim got up in the early hours to deal with it.  I woke up a few hours later to find the temporary solution in place.  Mmm, not ideal but it did give us a few hours of uninterrupted sleep.

 

P1120794.JPG
The temporary fix to the rattling roof vent.

Cable ties have sorted the little blighter out now.  We can’t open it or use the fan and the fly screen is in tatters but that’s the price we have to pay for a better nights sleep and it’s preferable to a hole in the roof.

 

P1120795
Lochboisdale on not such a good day.

Once at Lochboisdale we found some shelter behind a couple of containers in the harbour and sat out the inclement weather until it was time in the early evening to visit the hotel bar, sit round an open fire and upload the last blog post.  As there are next to no trees on the islands I asked the lady behind the bar if it was expensive to import wood or coal.  She said they buy a tonne of coal at a time which a few years ago cost them £700 but now costs £1300 and they sometimes mix it with peat if they’ve cut any that year.  Peat used to be an important natural fuel source here on the islands but now electricity, oil and gas have largely taken over.

 

A couple of days later we were waylayed by the most perfect pile of peat we’d ever seen before.  It was a work of art I tell you.

P1120802.JPG
The perfect peat pile.

We had to stop and take a photo of it.  The owner of the house was pottering about outside and after checking it was OK to take a photo he very happily answered all our questions about it.  He gathers it once a year from the moorland which has been allocated to him and it takes six people just one day to cut enough peat to supply his home with free energy for cooking, hot water and heat for an entire year.  After it’s cut it’ll take him three to four days of numerous trips to get it back to the house where he spends the next two weeks of his spare time building his masterpiece to dry it out before it can be used.  Marvellous.  The actual pile in the pictures is half of what it was and he showed us a framed picture of the completed work of art.

 

P1120801.JPGHe also told us all about how the peat is cut and showed us the tools they use which he keeps submerged in water all year round.  We were so glad we stopped and it is good to see an old tradition alive and well.

DSC05662

Two consecutive days of clear dry weather had us out on the bikes again.  Apart from the punishing wind it really is a great place for cyclists and we’ve seen many a happy smiling cycle tourer blasting along with a tail wind heading north.  Those heading south are generally grimacing but I’m sure they’re enjoying every minute of it.  For us, as we are doing circular routes or out and back routes, it’s fifty fifty for the wind with or against us…..grimace on the way out and smile on the way back.

P1120805.JPG
Loch Druidibeag.
P1120810.JPG
Shetland ponies?  Not being a pony afficianado I wouldn’t know.
P1120806
Overlooking Loch Sgiopoirt.
P1120827.JPG
Shame about the car in front!
P1120825
A novel way to hold down the wire netting covering the thatch.

A day of walking followed where we had intended to walk to Uisinis Bothy and back on the eastern side of the island but was curtailed when we realised, when the path fizzled out after an hour or so, that we’d taken the wrong fork earlier on so retraced our steps and spent a while listening to the birds over a long lunch overlooking the sea.

P1120830.JPG
Peat cutting.

P1120836.JPG

P1120841.JPG
Striding out on the wrong path to reach the bothy…..or not reach the bothy.
P1120840.JPG
Overlooking Loch Sgiopoirt again.

 

P1120843.JPG

P1120848.JPG
Ah well, back after retracing our steps to just relax and listen to the birds.  We saw two cuckoos here.  We’ve heard them often enough but it’s the first time we had actually seen a cuckoo in the flesh.

The cycle of the weather has been such that a couple of days of decent weather have been followed by a wet and wild one.  Either a library or a museum come in handy on those days.  The Kildonan Museum on the A865 is a very pleasant place to while away an hour or so followed by coffee and cake in the attached cafe.  It tells the story of Island life through its exhibits, collections and pictures.

DSC05663 (1)
Another restored croft house.

Benbecula gets quite an unkind write up by our guide saying ‘the only reason to come to Balivanich, Benbecula’s grim, grey capital, is if you are flying into or out of Benbecula airport, or you need an ATM or supermarket’. As the weather had closed in again with mist and drizzle I confess we did what most people probably do and that is drive straight across it to get to North Uist.  It is apparently pancake flat but we couldn’t tell as the mist denied us seeing it.  We did stop at the Co-op to do our weekly shop though to spread our spending on all the islands less one feel left out.

North Uist is more of the same landscapes as we had seen on South island but I don’t mean that in any disparaging way at all but I’m running out of superlatives to describe how fabulous these islands are.

P1120849.JPG
Moorcroft Campsite on North Uist.  They’ve thought of everything here.  Well kept grounds, spotless facilities, campers kitchen,  washing machine, tumble dryer, bunkhouse and three little hobbit houses to hire. 

You see some curious things when out either walking or cycling.  From a couple of fields away, through the binoculars, I spotted a sheep with all four legs in the air.  I dimly remember reading something somewhere that said if a sheep is on its back then it’s not that way deliberately and will die if it’s not turned over.   Well we got to her and got her turned over but she was too weak to get up so we went to the nearest house to let them know.

P1120800.JPG
If you see a sheep in this position it needs to be turned over.

The very friendly lady who answered went next door to talk to who she thought was the owner.  We didn’t linger around as there wasn’t anything else we could do so hopefully she was saved.  I looked it up later and, when the sheep is in the upside down position like that, it’s the gasses in their stomach from all that grass eating that swell up and eventually press on their lungs eventually suffocating them.  They don’t get into that position on purpose but it can happen if they are carrying lambs or their fleece is heavy with water.

P1120853
Traigh Ear beach when the tide is out.

Another curious sight also involving sheep happened after we’d done a long walk around the peninsular at Granitote.  Traigh Ear beach at low tide is a vast expanse of hard packed sand.  Just as we were finishing our walk we watched a ewe with her two lambs trailing behind her wander down onto the beach.  She then just kept going.  And going .  And going.  She was on a mission.  She must have walked a mile or so to get to the grass on the other side of the bay.  Obviously ‘the grass is greener’ isn’t just a human thing after all.

P1120865.JPG
Traigh Udal beach – that’s Tim in the middle above the seaweed line!

Later, when the tide had come in creating a vast expanse of knee deep water, the farmer with his dogs, rounded up his flock and walked them all down into the water where the dogs held them there for about ten minutes or so.  They were only in up to their knees so I doubt it was a swimming lesson. The dogs looked to be thoroughly enjoying racing around in the water making sure they kept together.  They then all ambled back up the beach to recommence eating grass.  Maybe the salt water stops them getting foot rot?

 

P1120870.JPG
It was polystyrene but it was still quite heavy!

The final island before getting the ferry across to Harris is Berneray linked by a causeway to North Uist.

DSC05671.JPG
Berneray.

It is just a wee thing measuring two miles by three, with a population of just 140.  It is just delightful.  I think it could be my favourite island so far.  Mind you, that could be because the constant blasting wind we have had everyday had finally tempered down to a light breeze and we could actually hear the silence .  I even had a burnt face by the end of the day.  Sun burn in the Outer Hebrides.  Who’d have thought?

P1120887.JPG
Restored Black houses.

P1120889.JPGThe little museum run by volunteers tells the story of island life with hundreds of donated photos to peruse.  Seals bask off the rocks close into the shore without seemingly a care in the world.

DSC05674.JPG
Who couldn’t love a seal?

As our friend Chris would say………..happiness on a stick!

Time for a ferry ride to Harris and Lewis, the last island we’ll be exploring on the Outer Hebrides.

Feumaidh mi ruith!

 

       

 

 

 

The Outer Hebrides…. .

Arriving on the bonny bonny banks of Loch Lomond just north of Balloch on a calm day in bright sunshine I just thought why?  WHY?  WHHYYY?  Why have I never been to Scotland before now?   What have I been doing all my life to not have experienced this before?  What was the matter with me?  I’ve been all over England and Wales and parts of Southern Ireland so why did I leave out Scotland?  Strolling along the Loch shore into Balloch I started to lament all the missed opportunities over the years.

P1120651
A tranquil Loch Lomond.

With all the rugged hills in the distance contrasting with the stillness of the loch I almost felt like I’d found my spiritual home.  I’d been living half a century in the Westcountry when I should have been born in Scotland!

P1120650.JPG
The sea plane comes in for a smooth landing.

Two days later my questions were answered.  Scotland isn’t green for no reason.  Plenty of rain helps to keep it the way it is.  After a bracing windy walk across the hills near Oban the rain came in and stayed for twenty four hours.  Ah yes, I remember now, that was why I’d never been to Scotland before, the unpredictable weather.

P1120653.JPG
The ferry bound for Barra at Oban.

Living in the South West it’s a looong drive to the Highlands and every time we’d mooted about doing a tour of Scotland for a one or two week holiday we’d always decided against playing Russian roulette with the weather and opted to visit areas closer to home.  Why we were put off by the drive really is beyond me as Tim had many a family holiday in the Highlands in his younger days travelling from Devon with half a dozen other family members crammed into a Hillman Imp borrowed from the next door neighbour!  With more modern transport and road networks it’s hardly the end of the earth but we always found an excuse to go somewhere closer to home.

We had originally planned to ‘do’ Scotland last year but chickened out and went chasing the sun instead.  This year, though, we are ready for it!  Fear not, I am not going to be a whining, whinging, moaning Minnie about the weather whilst we are here.  We are embracing Scotland and all the wild weather it has to throw at us.  The waterproofs are out, we’re layered up and we are ready.

Our first stop in Oban served as a jumping off point for visiting the islands of the Outer Hebrides.  Over two hundred islands make up the Western Isles as they are officially known with just a handful being inhabited by the 28000 or so hardy residents. The plan for the first couple of weeks is to island hop our way from South to North taking in the islands of Barra, Eriskay, Benbecula, South Uist, North Uist, Harris and Lewis before jumping across to the Isle of Skye for a week or so.

P1120655.JPG
Leaving Oban.

Although I usually HATE trips by ferry I was actually quite looking forward to the nearly five hour journey to Barra across the Minch at the southern end of the Isles as for the first half of the journey the boat meanders through a narrow stretch of water flanked on one side by the coast of Western Scotland and on the other by the islands of Mull and Coll.  We’d been lucky that the weather had cleared up and was clear and sunny for the trip over giving us fabulous views all around.  Once out into the open sea though my queasiness took over and I spent much of the time outside on deck trying not to bring up the contents of my lunch.

Arriving on the island in the early evening it struck us almost immediately that the bobble hat is alive and well on Barra.  They are everywhere!  Barra is certainly a bijou island at just eight miles long by four miles wide but it is known as the Western Isles in miniature boasting sandy beaches backed by machair, Gaelic culture, prehistoric ruins and a few mountains thrown in for good measure……….and……..quicksand!

P1120705.JPG

Over the last week we have got out to explore Barra by boot and by bike.  Nearly all the roads are single track but with passing places every few hundred metres or so and little island traffic it has been completely stress free getting from place to place.  Everyone seems to drive at a sensible speed and gives a little wave on passing which is all very civilised and a welcome change from our usual type of driving.

P1120696.JPG
Island residents.
P1120702.JPG
A walk on the western side of the island.

P1120703.JPGOne of the islands claim to fame is that the airport that sits on the edge of Traigh Mhór bay is the only beach runway in the world receiving scheduled flights.  It is quite the attraction.  The runway is tide dependant and the public aren’t allowed on the beach when the windsocks are flying.  Whilst we were walking on the other beach behind the airport a little twin otter plane circled above us in the squally wind and rain getting ready to land but because the dunes are in the way obscuring our view we didn’t see it touch down on the sand.  When we  arrived at the airport cafe fifteen minutes later, the place alive with steaming waterproofs and steaming people, the three cheery ladies working at the cafe were  belting out Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I will survive’.  I guess it must have been a bit of a bumpy landing.

P1120663.JPG
The only scheduled flights in the world to land on a beach.
P1120664.JPG
The tide goes out a looong way.

The plane taxis right up to the airport building to drop off its passengers where they can then take a short walk to the bus shelter around the side of the building which also doubles up as the baggage reclaim.  Fantastic.

P1120665.JPG
Be careful not to slip on the seaweed as you exit the plane.
P1120669.JPG
The baggage handlers go to work.
P1120716.JPG
Also doubles up as the bus shelter!

We whiled away a couple of hours over coffee and cake drying out and soaking up the jovial atmosphere of the place only leaving after the plane had taken off again.

We’ve tramped around various areas of the island in some interesting wild weather but we’ve enjoyed every minute of it.  The beaches are some of the best we have seen on our travels so far with the ground up sea shells giving them their distinctive light colouring.  Learning that the crushed cockleshells are used to make harling (the rendering used on many Scottish houses) changed my opinion of what I deemed to be ugly pebbledash which I had assumed was imported in.

P1120690.JPG
The shells are also used in other ways.
P1120691.JPG
A scallop sea defence.

 

P1120672.JPG
The beaches are all empty.

P1120674.JPG

P1120675.JPG
I love the contrast of all the colours of the fishing paraphernalia.
P1120676.JPG
Lobster kennels.
P1120678.JPG
You don’t come to the islands for the picturesque villages.

Cycling round the island yesterday in beautiful sunny weather was an absolute treat despite being against the wind for half of it.  Stopping to take photos at low tide with the seaweed revealed captured some of the iconic views that the islands are famous for.

P1120688.JPG
A spring lamb taking five. 
P1120686.JPG
We were going to walk across this field until Tim spotted the bull.
P1120711.JPG
Some of the best beaches we have seen on our trip so far.
P1120720.JPG
That could just be my dream house……
P1120722.JPG
……or that one!
P1120724.JPG
Fab…..u….lous.
P1120731.JPG
Views don’t get better than this.

So far our Scotland trip has already surpassed our expectations and I’m still bashing myself over the head for not having visited before.

Today we hopped onto the ferry which took us, in the warming sunshine, across the water to Eriskay  where we docked forty minutes later scraping our back end on the tarmac coming off the ferry (roll eyes).  It doesn’t take much of an angle to ground out the electrics on our tow bar!

P1120733.JPG
Off to Eriskay.

Happy days 🙂

Mar sin leat!