Sunday, 21 December 2008

Trains from Seat Sixty-One

Some words aside one of the useful links we have listed. The website that has mobilised slowmoves more than any other: Seat Sixty-One.

Full name The Man in Seat Sixty-One... (aka Mark Smith, the gentleman behind it) offers a refreshing change to websites generally, to travel 'sites particularly. Is the internet old enough to claim they don't make websites like they used to? I don't remember using any like this for sometime. It's straightforward and - from my experience - totally up to date and entirely accurate. Pages are long but and without any unnecessary words or features.

Trains have become comfortably my favourite means of transport. That appreciation of where you are going, city centre departures and arrivals (and everywhere in between), sometimes a bed or opening-window, seldom check in times, space to walkabout and classic architecture: St Pancras International, its sky blue steel structured roof, Lovers statue and all is a gem. There's so much to them, and that's without going in to what can go by the window during a journey. There's loads of websites offering train trip ideas and service, such as Great Rail Journeys.

Seat Sixty-One will tell you simply how to get from one place to the other around the World. It links to all the relevant websites where you can buy tickets (you can trust the times are correct). One of the beauties is that you can plan on a single site without having to tackle a number of websites with drop down boxes, loading times and premature options like facing forward or backwards.

slowmoves is about taking time but not getting bogged down. If you want to go by train to somewhere you might normally go by plane, Seat Sixty-One is the best place to start. It might just take you to finishing in a place you wouldn't have done otherwise.


Saturday, 20 December 2008

Seasonal pleasures

I love that each season brings its own unique colours, plants, foods, weather, activities. I crave change and variety in life so the changing seasons definitely keep me on my toes. Summer is an obvious one for me - warm summer nights, Barbecues and swimming in the sea. But northern European summers often disappoint due to high expectations and unpredictable weather.

The winter started early this year with magic (freakish) snow in October which really got me in the mood. We've had a particularly cold winter and I've felt myself slowing down, wanting to hibernate under the duvet with a hot cuppa. I'm feeling really attuned to winter's treats - they definitely compensate for the cold and dreary weather: log fires, candles, hearty meals, comfy wooly jumpers and mulled wine.

Macondo cafe on Camden Passage (photo by Jungle Drums)

When we do venture out in the cold, there are a multitude of cozy crowded cafes that invite us to share a warming drink and a good chat. Recently I spent a long slow afternoon at Macondo, a lovely latin cafe and eatery on Camden Passage in Angel. They'd adapted their menu to feature special 'festive' drinks like apple and ginger tea with mulled pears and cinnamon. Lots of pubs are also offering delicious mulled wine. But none match up to my mum's recipe - enjoy it...


1 bottle of red wine (inexpensive)
1/4 - 1/2 cup (50 ml - 100 ml) vodka (optional) or rum
5 - 20 whole cloves
1 large teaspoonful cardamom seeds
2 - 4 pieces (sticks) cinnamon
1 - 2 pieces ginger
Peel from half a lemon
1/2 - 1 cup (125 - 250 ml) sugar
1 large teaspoonful vanilla sugar
raisins & blanched almonds


Crush the cinnamon and cardamom. Peel the lemon. Put all the spices and peel into a glass jar with the vodka.
Cover. Leave overnight. Strain the vodka, discard the spices.
Soak raisins & almonds in vodka/rum (maybe just during the day – not as long as the spices?)
Mix the spiced vodka with the wine and sugar.
Heat all the ingredients in a large saucepan until steaming hot. Do not boil! Stir and taste.
If not sweet enough, add more sugar. If too sweet, add more wine.


Sunday, 14 December 2008

GR 20 and GR walking routes

"Bon courage!". Those words normally mean it's time for a deep breath. I learned that and a lot more during days on the trail of the famous GR 20 walking route across Corsica. Walkers going in opposite directions wishing each other the best ahead of a steep turn up or down. Last week I was looking ahead to skiing in the mountains, this week I have found myself looking back and while still with thoughts of mountains, its more of walking.

I was looking of pictures taken on a trip for which I joined a friend for the Northern half of the GR 20, which is considered one of the most rewarding walks in Europe. It can take more than two weeks to do the entire length.

My own experience was fantastic. I arrived in Ajaccio and caught a train winding up in to the mountains, to the small town of Vizzavona. I waited beside the track to meet my friend who had walked the week previous from Conca. Conca to Vizzavona is the flatter southern part of the GR20, albeit still some distance and challenge. North from Vizzavona to Calenzana, though, holds greater drama. At its most simple, it's stunning. The kilometres I trod over four days included all from barren stony mountain sides to lush wet forest trails, baking dry sheperds' stone walls to glistening snow. Highlights of the walk are certainly Cirque de la Solitude and views towards Golfe de Porto.

I wasn't dressed for snow in Corsica in August. Indeed the walk meant I also learned there is a lot more to Corsica than sun and a coast line. Things like that sound obvious but we don't always allow ourselves the opportunity to think about them. Rising abruptly from the Mediterranean shores is the back of a island known as the scented because of its rich covering of herbs and flora. The back is broad and full of suprise and contrast. Ski lifts to windswept and set trees. How easy it would be to go to Corsica and see, or smell, none of this. Not to mention the welcoming but hidden mountain refuges.

GR stands for Grande Randonnée in France, or Gran Recorrido in Spain. GR routes stretch across Europe and are easily recognisable by a familiar red and white marking. They do though vary in setting and standard, in terms of surroundings, difficulty and the facilities on routes. Research and planning are, as ever, essential. I walked on the Eastern end of the GR 10 - which stretches the length of the Pyrenees - earlier this year, before turning south on to the GR 11 towards Spain's Cap de Creus. The routes were again hugely scenic but without any of the stopping places (overnight or otherwise) that help make the GR 20 so special.

If GR routes are not enough then think about the longer European long distance paths.


Saturday, 6 December 2008

Thoughts to ski touring

It's always about this time that my thoughts turn to the Alps, and the thought of making a trip sometime in the New Year. Getting to Geneva from London is easy on the train via Paris. Thoughts this week were prompted by a friend emailing with a picture of this season's first snow.

I have been lucky to have skiied as much as I have over the years. I enjoy skiing even more though since I discovered ski touring. I have now done a week each of the last two years. Ski touring involves going up as well as down and provides the opportunity to appreciate what skiing is all about, at least for me: being in the mountains amongst the most stunning of scenery, exercising in pure air and harnessing the elements, leaving the noise of machinery and people behind (in fact, often down below). Strapping 'skins' (now a man-made fibred material) to the underside of the ski, which mean they 'stick' to the snow and therefore the skier can slide up a steady incline. Touring skis are much the same as downhill skis however have a slightly different binding for the boot, which allows the boot's heel to come up from the ski when walking up a slope. One can switch to downhill skiing by peeling off the skin and fixing the binding.

Ski touring normally takes place in the higher mountains, away from the pistes. The touring community is growing but almost secret in feel as you can go hours without seeing anyone before coming together with other tourers at a mountain refuge serving food or offering a warming open fire and bed. Routes vary from well trodden to chosing ones own. Last year I was with a fantastic private guide in Grand St Bernard, the first year was with ISM, with whom I am looking to go again, very possibly to do the famed Haute Route between Zermatt and Chamonix.

If you like skiing off piste and the idea of spending more time on skiies, and less on lifts, have a think about the benefits of touring.


Like a local

Strolling along the streets of a foreign city, I'm more alert, open to sounds, people, buildings and sights. I love observing locals in their everyday routines, which may seem banal to them but to me are totally engrossing. I often wonder what kind of lives they lead, jobs they do and houses they live in. I always enjoy staying with friends when I visit a new place (when I can) to get to know their favourite haunts, their neighbourhood, their friends.

like-a-local is a brilliant website that connects you to residents in various cities across the world to get a more personal and local perspective. It gives recommendations on where to eat, where to stay and offers personalised itineraries by local residents.

"...enjoy home-cooked meals, private home-stays and specially-tailored itineraries..."

You can embark on a bike tour of Amsterdam with a local through the different districts in Amsterdam, passing the famous canals, the local markets, and the chic Old South. Or if architecture floats your boat, you can join local architect Björn on his tour of Antwerp's Northern district. You can savour the varied Portugese cuisine (and get to know the hidden treasures) with locals Yve & Mario in Lisbon at their dining table.

This certainly beats guide books and tourist information centres. Why not hear it directly from someone who lives and breathes the city everyday?