Wales Coast Path – the final walk

Hit the North is hanging up his walking boots for a while.

I’ve spent the last couple of months guest blogging for Visit Wales about the Wales Coast Path.

The project had its official inauguration at the weekend and we were there – sheltering from the wind behind Flint Castle.

I will be back to walk more section on a warmer day. After all, the whole 870-mile trail starts from here (pic above) in Sealand, a suburb of Chester just on my doorstep.

It’s the one with the sewage works in case you get lost.

Until then, however, and for those who missed it, here’s the list of links to the five blogs:

  1. North Wales
  2. Ceredigion
  3. Llyn Peninsula
  4. Carmarthenshire
  5. Glamorgan

I’d love to hear your comments and feedback.

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Jungfrau Express centenary – full version

This story appeared in an escorted touring supplement in the Telegraph over the weekend.

The paper doesn’t post the link online, so I’ve reproduced the text here for anyone who missed it. The trip was arranged by  Great Rail Journeys.

It started with a small, pink piece of paper and a date: August 12, 1963. My father, Christopher, remembered the day well when he found the old Swiss Rail Pass amongst family heirlooms in the attic. He was in his early twenties then, on holiday with his parents, younger brother and sister, the latter celebrating her 21st birthday at the Schweizerhof Hotel in Interlaken.

Nearly half a century later, dad and I are stood outside the building that once housed the Schweizerhof, the icy stillness of a winter morning in Interlaken engulfing us. We had decided to return but this was more than just a meandering trip down memory lane.

My mother had died some eight months before and dad hadn’t been on holiday for years, having nursed her through the final years.

We deserved a father-and-son bonding break after a difficult year, but dad felt he wanted the security of a group trip to ease him back into taking holidays. After a bit of surfing we decided on an eight-day trip with GRJ – the tour appealed for the efficiency of Europe’s high-speed rail network.

The basic premise also suited us well: from a hotel base in Interlaken, we would take an organized excursions each day to places across the region, plus have the benefit of a Swiss Rail Pass for the free day.

While I remained unsure about an organised tour, the St Pancras rendez-vous on a chilly December morning assured me the age range was broader than I had expected. Our group was a mix of rail enthusiasts, some clucking elderly ladies and a majority of early retirees trying a group trip for a first tentative time – many were people much like us.

What’s more, the pre-Eurostar chatter focused on the fact our trip to Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland coincided with a major anniversary: 100 years of the highest mountain railway in Europe, the Jungfrau Express.

Soon after our visit, the Swiss artist Gerry Hofstetter used the north face of the Jungfrau to illuminate a series of installations, launching the centenary celebrations that will culminate on August 1, Switzerland’s national day.

Trans-Europe Express

Having settled into our base at Interlaken’s Metropole Hotel, following a long trans-Europe rail transfer via Luxembourg, we regrouped after breakfast for the first full-day excursion.

The rail journey from Interlaken to the picture-postcard village of Murren was our first real taste of the snow-tinged mountain air. The village is best known for its cable car ride up to the cloud-scraping Mount Schilthorn, whose revolving restaurant featured in the Bond film, On His Majesty’s Secret Service.

Lunch at a local cafe of traditional roast potatoes and pork was a chance for dad and I to talk about holidays he had shared with mum – they met on a holiday to Italy in 1966. The triumvirate of peaks, the Eiger, Monch and the Jungfrau, although slightly obscured by mist, were our silent companions at lunch and we reveled in the sense of mountain-air calm.

Not even the kitsch soundtrack of Bond theme tunes could spoil the moment.

That night, we dined as a group in a room off the main restaurant with large round tables and a fairly basic choice of menu options. There was a smattering of chatter about prescription specs but the table talk also took in the misdemeanors of Fred the Shred (courtesy of two ex-Royal Bank of Scotland employees) and tips on how to survive the Edinburgh Festival Fringe from a local resident travelling by herself after a friend dropped out.

A few glasses of wine helped things along but we did notice people turning up early on subsequent nights to bag the best tables.

The next day we visited Grindelwald, a bustling little village overshadowed by the north face of the Eiger with its towering 3970m summit.

After some gentle exploring, we took a group carriage ride down to the village of Grund, following country lanes of sugar-coated fire trees and icing-sugar hillsides, before stopping for mulled wine and ginger cake in a little café. The low-slung winter sunshine glanced off the mountains around us.

Top of the world

We used the free time later that afternoon to explore central Interlaken, the town pitched between the twin lakes, Brienz and Thun. Dad remembered a Sunday afternoon stroll along the Hoheweg, Interlaken’s main street, plus a horse and carriage ride along the Hohematte, the central park with unobstructed views across to the Jungfrau. Both have survived the years.

He also remembered an evening show at the Kursaal concert hall, now disappointingly a casino, and buying chocolates at Schuh, the grand old dame of Interlaken cafés. Schuh is today, we find as we stop for coffee, still going strong, expanded into a genteel coffee shop with an adjoining exclusive chocolaterie.

The highlight of the trip for both the serious railway enthusiasts and casual rail fans such as us was the ride on the centenary-celebrating Jungfrau Express.

“In the pantheon of great rail journeys, the Jungfrau Express is right up there,” says follow traveller Callum Macleod of Wiltshire. “It’s not a scenic journey in the same way as the Glacier or Bernina Express, but the feat of engineering fascinates me.”

Italian miners first blasted through the mountain to Jungfraujoch on February 21, 1912, to complete the construction of the railway tunnel. They’d been trying since 1896. The railway brought a new breed of genteel visitor to the Jungfrau region and, today, carries around 700,000 passengers per year.

Just getting to the train is quite a journey in itself. We changed trains first at Kleine Scheidegg, where ski runs whoosh beside the track in a blur of goggles and baby grows, and cable cars trundle overhead.

From here to Europe’s highest railway station at Jungfraujoch, located at an air-thinning altitude of 3,454m, the feat-of-engineering railway climbs cautiously through a tunnel at a steep gradient of one in four. There are two stops during the 20-minut climb to admire our progress from enclosed viewing platforms and an audio-visual explanation of the journey throughout.

As we stepped out of the train into what feels like a space station, we were bombarded with Asian tour groups, promotions for watch companies and a scrum of captive-audience eateries.

More calming was an al-fresco platform adjoining a domed research station, where I imagine serious-minded boffins in white coats resolving global warming while tourists outside try to identify Italy on the snow-meets-sky horizon.

On the road again

On the way home back to London via Cologne the next day, I fell into conversation with first-time clients Chris and John Harwood of Lancashire.

“I would have liked a bit more flexibility about the meal times but it is nice to hand all the catering arrangements over to someone else,” says Chris. “It helped having someone to explain what train and what platform,” added John. “We’d have been lost on our own.”

For dad the convenience of a group trip made sense: like-minded company, an experienced tour guide and a ready-made itinerary. While I prefer my travels to be a little independent on the whole, I could see how the experience has given him confidence to travel again.

In fact, he has just booked another trip. He’s heading to Melbourne to visit the sister whose birthday they celebrated in Interlaken that day in 1963. Amongst his luggage will be a small, pink rail pass to pass on the idea that, no matter what age we are, we all deserve a holiday now and then.

Light installation by the Swiss artist Gerry Hofstetter

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Damson Days in the Lythe Valley

Hit the North was never a big fans of damsons. That is, until we spent time over Easter in Cumbria’s Lythe Valley.

Damsons are, we discovered, more than just a plum-like fruit. They’ve inspired a festival, a host of local chefs and a rather fine line in damson gin.

They are, most of all, the true taste of spring.

Read my story from the Independent here.

Damson blossoms in full bloom

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Behind the scenes: Titanic Belfast

Titanic frenzy has reached fever pitch this week.

There are events, programmes and exhibitions from Southampton to Nova Scotia to mark the centenary of the world’s greatest passenger shipping disaster.

But most of all in Belfast, where I returned this week to see the newly unveiled Titanic Belfast, and to catch the light show on the slipways.

I’ve been several times now and you can read some of my previous stories from the Daily Telegraph here.

A new story for Real Travel magazine will be out in May. Meanwhile, some images from my trip.

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Wales Coast Path Blog for Visit Wales

Hit the North has been moonlighting.

The reason for silence on this forum has been that I’m working a guest-blogger contract for Visit Wales, walking sections of the soon-to-be-launched Wales Coast Path in advance of the May 5th inauguration.

You can read the first post about North Wales here.

The second post from Ceredigion is here.

And the latest post from the Llyn Peninsula is here.

There are two more posts to come, so please join me for the hike and post your comments here, at the Visit Wales blog, or own my Twitter.

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Portugal’s big cultural vision – full version

My Guimaraes story was in the Express at the weekend. You can read it here.

But, as it has been delayed and took a hefty cut for lack of space, I’m running the full version here.

As ever, post your comments below.

Capital of Culture

As the lights go down, I take my seat for the late-night screening. The Baron, it transpires, is a Portuguese take on the Nosferatu story.

After the premiere we gather in the foyer of the Sao Mamede arts centre for post-screening drinks, elderly relatives of the cast rubbing shoulders with serious young men in black sweaters, who smoke with a faux-intellectual ferocity.

It’s a low-key start to this year’s European Capital of Culture in Guimaraes, a small, post-industrial town with a hard-to-pronounce name some 60km northeast of Porto. The other capital is Slovenia’s equally low-key Maribor.

But for film producer Rodrigo Areias, a black-and-white Hammer Horror pastiche is fitting introduction to Portugal’s post-austerity take on the capital of culture bandwagon. “Times of economic turmoil can produce great art,” he says.

Areias has programmed the cinema strand for the year-long event, including a series of experimental shorts by the British director Peter Greenaway and the French auteur Jean-Luc Godard.

He flashes a dark-eyed smile. “We already survived the big textile crash some 15 years ago, so we’re used to crises in the north of Portugal,” he says.

Low-key events

Guimaraes will celebrate the official opening ceremony this weekend (Jan 21), while next weekend (Jan 28) sees some 40 private homes across the city host small-scale concerts by local musicians.

The city may already host major international jazz and contemporary dance festivals, staged in November and February respectively, but Guimaraes’ moment in the cultural floodlights eschews headline-grabbing showcase events in favour of small, organic projects, and long-term residencies by a handful of chosen artists.

For Carlos Martins, the softly spoken CEO of the Guimaraes 2012 Foundation, it’s about turning economic turmoil across Europe to his advantage.

“We’re not the Guggenheim, we’re not Tate. But we can experiment. An old city can be a fantastic place for new projects,” he tells me over lunch at the Vila Flor Cultural Centre, his thick black glasses and casual trainers betraying his academic, rather than Eurocrat, roots.

“The more individual writers, visual artists and performers tend to come from the north of Portugal,” he adds. “They don’t have the comfort zone of Lisbon. We want to create a network of places here for artists to showcase their work.”

Heritage city

Guimaraes was the birthplace of modern Portugal in 12th century and it retains its medieval ambiance, rich in cultural heritage and historic buildings. The numerous churches are packed with examples of sacred art and the cobbled backstreets of the Unesco-listed old town offer glimpses of Baroque architecture.

Traditionally, the city lacked cultural spaces but Martins and his team of young, enthusiastic cultural programmers, are changing that.

The Platform for Arts and Creativity, the landmark new three-section arts centre on the site of former public market, receives its official inauguration on June 24 — a public holiday to mark the Battle of São Mamede.

It comprises a permanent collection of work by Jose de Guimaraes, the best-known living artists in northern Portugal, plus a series of incubator workshops, a library and restaurant, all built round a central plaza. The €25m project, designed by local architects Pitagoras, has a striking modernist design and complements the redesign of nearby Toural Square as a car-free central public forum.

Former leather and textile factories in the south-central Couros district, hub of the city’s industrial-powerhouse era, also house new arts spaces.

Art spaces 

At the Centre for Art and Architectural Affairs (CAAA), a former textile factory re-opened in October 2011 as a multi-purpose arts space with a pared-down, industrial feel, I catch a photographic exhibition of images rescued from the city’s Muralha Photography Collection.

Coming in March is a season of work celebrating the avant-garde American composer John Cage.

Later that day I delve into the labyrinthine streets of the Unesco centre, stopping to take in a visiting exhibition of contemporary ceramics at the Alberto Sampaio Museum.

After a short, black coffee under the shade of an olive tree in Oliveira Square, I find two small exhibitions at the Gallery Gomes Alves, a series of sketched nudes and a set of landscape etchings, both by young artists from Portugal’s rural Alentejo region. Tate it’s not, but it reflects the atmosphere of the city and the mood of the times.

The wider region

The next day I head out of the city, hiring a car for a self-drive exploration of the wider Minho region to explore the cultural identity of the north. I take the backroads, winding my way through lost-in-time villages and green-verdant smallholdings.

Vines and olive tress wrap their arms around canopies by the roadside; oranges and lemons ripen on trees ready for a February harvest. It may be January but the first vital signs of spring are already evident, daffodils opening to welcome the first rays of sun.

Just outside Ponte de Lima I find Count Francisco de Calheiros, the landed gentry owner of Paco de Calheiros. The 17th-century manor house has opened its doors to visitors under the count, joining a group of restored heritage properties turned luxury B&Bs as part of the Solares do Portugal group.

With a vineyard in the grounds and dinner in a banqueting hall, it’s very old money. The house will host some spin-off musical events from nearby Guimaraes during spring.

“Portugal was born in the Minho region and the area retains a strong sense of cultural identity,” says the count, sporting a rather natty green-tweed jacket tailored on Saville Row.

“The Minho has a folklore tradition of music and costume, a rich heritage of medieval monasteries and manor houses, and the only national park in Portugal.”

Afterwards I head into Ponte de Lima for lunch. Restaurant Encanada is a simple but bustling place, popular with locals, on the fringe of the river-facing market. A huge lunch of rojoes (pork, tripe and blood sausage), served with roast potatoes and rice, washed down with a chilled glass of the local vinho verde, and coffee, sets me back a very reasonable 17€.

There are no tourists, just two widows with tightly tied buns under their black headscarves and old men with crumb-filled moustaches, picking their teeth after the corn bread.

Guimaraes and the Minho may be keeping it small scale for its year-log cultural jamboree, but the culture of the north is still worth exploring. You just need an open mind, a strong stomach and a sense of curiosity to see another side of Portugal away from the high-rise beach resorts.

Low key, yes, but somehow quite charming.

Travel credits

TAP Portugal (0845 601 0932/flytap.com) flies daily from London Gatwick to Porto from £56 one way including all taxes.

Keytel International (0207 953 3020/keytel.co.uk) is the booking agent for the Pousadas de Portugal group (www.pousadas.pt) in the UK.

It offers short breaks, based on two nights BB, starting from £39pp per night at the Pousada Monte de Santa Luzia in Viana do Castelo and £32pp per night for Pousada Nossa Senhora da Oliveira in Guimaraes; details from www.keytel.co.uk/pousada-short-breaks.html.

Further information from guimaraesturismo.com; guimaraes2012.pt.

Visit Portugal: 020 7201 6666/www.visitportugal.com.

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Behind the scenes: European Capital of Culture in Guimaraes

Hit the North has been away. To a small city in northern Portugal with a name people can’t pronounce, a penchant for salted cod and an unhealthy interest in recreating Hammer Horror films in a uniquely Portuguese style.

It’s called Guimaraes and it’s the new European Capital of Culture. Look for Porto on the map and head northeast.

Better still, look out for the forthcoming stories about my trip, horror film premieres et al – links on my Twitter feed.

City Walls from Toural Square

And if you think Guimaraes is obscure, then the other Euro capital this year is Maribor in Slovenia. No, I don’t either.

But, before you say “Roll on Marseilles in 2013”, this former industrial city is not without its charms.

It was a strangely low-key trip and I wasn’t exactly overwhelmed by a culture-fest glut during my time, but their no-big-names approach to the Euro juggernaut is quite endearing.

And, while the cobbled backstreets off Oliveria Square were pretty quiet in mid January, I can see how the place will come alive with the spring, the first signs of which were already starting to manifest themselves across the northern Minho region.

One of these typically low-key events was a photographic exhibition at the new Centre for Art and Architectural Affairs (CAAA), where the young and enthusiastic team eagerly hung on my questions with answers ready in word-perfect English.

Shame I was feeling a bit low key and didn’t really have any.

In the end I didn’t use these images of old Guiamaraes, rescued from the Muralha Photography Collection, for my stories. But I did like them and I thought I could share a few here *.

Besides, it beats the stills from that vampire flick.

* I’ve now taken down the images after the organisers moaned. Perhaps if they had spent more time turning up for appointments and thinking about quality editorial, and less time moaning, we would all have taken more from this trip.

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