Category Archives: Travel

French Cycling Saunter – July 2022

Day 9

Frankly cycling in Belgium or Holland is not much fun; I view passage through these countries as a way of getting home and not really a holiday. Why? Mainly because it’s ‘cycling friendly’. So to explain. The laws are that you should use cycle paths. The paths are copious but indirect, full of junctions, sometimes brick rather than smooth asphalt and a constant drain of my patience trying to use them. Even the paths beside the Belgian and Dutch canals, as they start to open up and become wider, are dreary with nothing to see.

Shortly after leaving Visé I was back along the river but now in Holland and in Maastricht. (There are no border signs denoting countries.) For a short while I got lost. I have to say my Garmin navigating device has been dreadful to use on this trip and has a software problem not allowing me to search specific addresses. Anyway as I’m trying to fathom out a route I come to a mini roundabout and stray off the designated cycle path onto the road. Immediately a bloke in a small car is on the horn. I explode and go mental, gesticulating. The said motoring hero winds down his window for a probable frank discussion and I shout (!) at him ‘I’m a tourist, I made a mistake!’ In fairness he quickly apologises (twice) and even I chuck in a ‘sorry’.

British bomber crash memorial
Probably little more than kids in age. ‘Lest We Forget’

I rode beside the canals all day. Here there are working barges and industrial units on the banks.

I listen to the radio intermittently, it’s all about the women’s semi final Euro win. It becomes repetitive on every channel and typically the coverage degenerates into exploring the FA’s banning of women back in the day. Not a piece of history to be proud of, obviously, but if an ‘angle’ of blame or misery can be found it’ll be used.

I’ve got all their LP’s

The first campsite I found was large and more like a holiday park. Reception was shut but a kindly passing resident tried to help me by ringing up the management. (Understanding signage is hard as understandably it’s all in Dutch but ironically everyone speaks English.) For no apparent reason, on this massive site, he told her ‘no’. So I rode on to near Breda and in a small town/suburb called Ulvenhout I found a great campsite with a bench, yippee!

The fee to stay was €10 but I needed an extra €0.50 coin to get hot water in the shower. Here I met a French lady, similar vintage to me, who’d started riding from Calais and was planning to get to Prague over three months. She did 50 kilometres a day, heaven knows how she spends her time. To add to the Gallic ambience there was a French couple next to me who had a tent but took it down to sleep in bivouacs, at 9pm, to go to sleep! Crazee!

French Cycling Saunter – July 2022

Day 8

Haynes, France to Visé, Belgium 106 miles & 470 metres climbing

The proximity of my little tent to other campers meant late night chatting delayed my sleep and then some nearby 4am rustling woke me up with a start. However, On waking I had a leisurely start at 9am and fortified by porridge and croissants I continued north along the river. After my decision to return to Yorkshire early I had to switch my ferry sailing date and needed to contact the operator (whilst cycling.) P&O Ferries were perfect, they switched my date with no administration charge. I sorted it all on my mobile in Givet.

Goodbye Haybes
Beautiful vistas

To add to my fortunes I had, at long last, a tailwind and it was mainly overcast to start. This meant going faster without the energy sapping heat. As it was Sunday it seemed that Belgium was out and about dining. For my lunch I came away from the river in Namur and found something to eat before heading north again. It was all about calorie intake and getting it quickly.

I’m sorry, I let standards slip again.

Again there were few other cyclists. As I progressed further north the scenery became more industrial and the river got wider. However there were some sports on the Meuse, namely, water skiing, jet skiing, rowing and fishing.

Only near Huy I saw a working barge, it must have been close to its destination as the river got less navigable, for large crafts, the further south you went.

(You get plenty of time to reflect on things as you pedal for hours and it seemed that only low cost materials were carried on the barges ie. it was too expensive to ship these aggregates, building materials or cheap bulk chemicals by road. In an age rightly concerned about fossil fuels and congestion then water seems a good option.

Around Liege the path stopped and I had a difficult job finding a route and ended up heading north on major roads. Liege was very unlovely and offered no camping option. The time was now past 6pm and I’d clocked a high mileage for the day. So I stopped and conferred with to pick a town and hotel I could reach. I randomly chose the town of Visé, still on the Meuse and the only hotel there.

The hotel was clean and smart but the ‘patron’ was a complete ‘buttock’. I asked where I could store the bike and I got a shrug of the shoulders and the nonsense explanation of ‘space restrictions’. (Remember Belgians love bicycles!) Anyway after a short plead she allowed me to bring the bike up to the first floor. Further joy arose at discovering my toilet seat was broken and beside the pan, the air con remote control was missing (I stood on a chair to activate overcoming the cost saving initiative) and the milk was sour at breakfast. My feedback on was brutal. On a more positive note England Women won their Euro semi final and were all set for the Germans in the final. It’d been a long day but all cyclists feel that doing a century is a day we’ll spent.

French Cycling Saunter – July 2022

Day 6

The rest day comes with chores as well as, hopefully, lazing about. However, first it was breakfast! It’s was a great spread and I tried to eat as much of it as possible!

Next, I wanted to get to Rotterdam faster than I originally planned and I thought I’d start the following day with a train ride north, to Sedan. When on arrival I’d cycle north along the Meuse River. There may be a way to buy a ticket on online but a visit to la gare seemed a way of ensuring I got the correct ticket. I ambled down and was greeted on arrival by a sign advising they won’t be opening the ticket office until 10am. As a consequence a queue is forming, I join it.

One member of staff appears and mans one window. The first in line comes and goes quickly, the second in line takes 25 minutes! What the hell is taking so long? I imagine he’s set the clerk the challenge of finding out how much it costs for a train through France to Tintagel where he’d like to make a further connection to Fort William over a Bank Holiday weekend in 2027. In true French style two people push in to the front of the line claiming they have extenuating circumstances demanding priority.

The man who took 25 minutes!
My Swatch kept misting up. The sweat from my wrist had got into the watch face as droplets. The solution of taking the back off enabled it to evaporate.
I must remember to pack a belt next time.

Walking back to the centre of town I look at the large war memorial. It covers a number of conflicts including WW2, the Algerian conflict, Afghanistan and Indo China. Movingly they list civilians who died.

All those killed from one family

The next task is laundry and a laundrette is found. All the instructions to get the damn machines to work are in French and I’m struggling. It seems that it all magically happens remote to the machines. A chap tries to help. He speaks no English (yes, I know I said the French all speak English) but eventually by lots of pointing and gesticulating we coax the beasts into life.

Later I have a wonderful Caesar Salad, enjoy a walk in the park and watch some of the Commonwealth Games back in my hotel room. It is a beautiful city and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Day 7

Châlons-en-Champagne to Sedan by train

Sedan to Haybes 59 miles and 223 metres climbing

The booked train is early in the morning and whilst breakfast is available at the hotel I’m surprisingly not very hungry to do justice to the feast! Instead I made some sandwiches for later. At the station there are several platforms and getting to the right one involves using a lift to move my bike. As a consolation to the onerous station logistics I’m impressed that taking my bike costs no premium. All in all it comes to a total of €30. I have to change in Reims and that involved more lifts but the trains are quiet, comfortable and clean. On arrival at Sedan I’m only a stone’s throw from the station to the Meuse cycle path.

An Engine built in Glasgow used in WW1 by the French at Reims

The path is quiet with few other walkers, runners or cyclists for mile after mile. The path is perfect tar macadam. If anyone wants a beginners route for cycling in Europe then this is compelling. I roll along at a good pace on the flat in beautiful weather. The route is windy as it runs beside the river.

Moving pictures! Also proof I do ride the bike
Just epic cycling terrain

There are literally no boats on the water. The river has the role of being an ornament with no purpose other than looking nice. Gone are the climbs and trucks and the only things to pass me are electric bikes where the riders barely touch the pedals but ease past me at speed. At Haybes I find a campsite on the side of the river.

The check in requires me to cycle half a mile to another office to pay my €6.70, get a receipt to confirm payment to the receptionist, and then pitch my tent. The receptionist knows this arrangement is stupid and the words she utters included ‘desole’ and ‘scheizer’. However whilst at the office I got a beer and so that was a consolation. The cycle back was delayed as I watched a cavalcade of cars go past tooting their horns. This is the way the guests to a wedding proceed, very French. I make my dinner, do my washing and phone home. On the next pitch a Dutch woman is reading, in English, aloud to her husband in a voice like the Queen! I tell her this later for her to tell me she got her accent from living in Oxford. The receptionist floats around the campers asking if they want to order bread and croissants for the morning? I certainly do.

French Cycling Saunter – July 2022

Days 4 & 5

Donzy to Eaux-Puiseax – 72 miles & 978 metres climbing

Eaux-Puiseaux to Châlons-en-Champagne – 68 miles & 674 metres climbing

As planned I’m away by 8am. My fellow camper has to visit La Marie with the shower block key, it crosses my mind the staff might not be there until a lot later. Happily I cycle on empty roads. Occasionally a van or tractor rumbles past. I put on my headphones and listen to the news on Radio 4. They’re interviewing people about the train strikes. Frankly, it’s nice to be away from all that unhappiness. It’s coolish but pleasant and perfect for cycle touring. I follow the news with a spot of Steeleye Span on Spotify.

A castle in Druyes-Les-Belles-Fontaines

I stay in touch with all and sundry on WhatsApp and messages ping through during the day normally. This morning good news, the son in law (Matt) has passed his driving test. I stop at the top of a hill to text my congratulations. Eventually I get to Auxerre, it looks beautiful. My only conscious recollection about the town is that for a small place it enjoyed top flight football for many years.


On the route is a Burger King and I capitulate. It’s far superior to McDonalds! Leaving the city I head north into a steady headwind, there’s lots of climbing and my progress is slow. This made me start to think about a rest day. It’s too early in the trip to do that but I start thinking it through. I’d usually stop in a hotel in a town with a laundrette and plenty of things to see and do. In hot weather you can’t possibly spend the day in a small tent on a campsite, you’d fry. Pulling off a major busy road I find a site a little short of Troyes. The site is massive and lovely but maybe a quarter full. It seems that all holiday traffic is down.

Persistent pestilent fluffy fowl

I check in and get a discount card to use on my 12th visit where I could stay for free! I suspect the Dutch and Belgians might like that benefit. I find many migrating Dutch heading south or home. This is a stopover site for them. In line with the bucolic setting I am molested by a large hen that hunts around my possessions and food. It even puts its foot in my dinner as without a bench or table I have to prepare dinner on the grass. The other campers wonder why I’m bellowing at a pestilent fluffy fowl as I urge it to bugger off! A call home finds a snuffling Anna still dealing with covid. I offer the appropriate sympathy and then clamber into my hen free zone for a deflating sleep.

Day 5

I made a good start just after 8am at Eaux-Puiseaux but my Garmin immediately sent me back to the big road and the trucks. France is a big country and big countries spawn big trucks to transport stuff big distances. I’d chosen quite a direct route as I had a limited number of days and this meant travelling broadly in a straight line home. The road is never steep but it remorselessly climbs up and down. A slow climb on a heavy bike for 200m was met with a gentle descent and so it all began again. As a balance then the weather nestles into the mid 20°s and is mainly overcast.

Busy road!
Want one!

It was farming countryside with tractors and busy combines. I plugged in to my usual Radio 4 fix and then Spotify with Angel Olsen and a Manchester band from the 80s called Any Trouble. I look at the map and how far I want to go and confirm a rest day and Châlons-en-Champagne it is. I book my hotel on I’d happily arrive at a hotel and not use the App but I possibly wouldn’t get the best rates. I’m always nervous that they will have a problem with storing my bike and hope that it’ll be no problem when I get there.

The hotel I booked online find in the centre. I trundle in and am met by a sour faced receptionist who claims not to have received the online booking? Something about problems with the internet? Seems bullshit but there’s no negotiating this declaration and I walk a couple of doors down and check into an Ibis for a couple of nights.

Later I walk around the city centre believing it to be good for the legs. I can’t be bothered with a sit down meal and buy a takeaway pizza and take it to my room. The bed doesn’t deflate overnight.

French Cycling Saunter – July 2022

Day 3

Issoudun to Donzy – 72 miles & 762 metres climbing

A cold and (traffic) noisy start but with gas for my stove I could make coffee and have porridge. This was all a morale boost and off I cycled. It was a flat start but on a busy road. I find French traffic is very tidal. It seems in England that it’s virtually busy all the time. Not so in France. They start early and then it all goes very quiet. Not least around lunchtime, which they take very seriously. Bourges came into view in no time. There was an option to stay on a route National dual carriageway but ever the quick learner and worrying I may be on a criminal database now I dropped off onto a windy B road. McDonalds was my reward. How about some beef protein? It was truly awful. I used to love MaccieD’s but it’s getting slowly more and more inedible. Whilst I’m there I speak briefly to Anna who’s very chatty and glad to have contact with the outside world. Eventually I set off for Donzy.

Decisions decisions…
Great building but neglected. So typical of rural France

I pedal past arable fields full of cereals. The soil is very rocky. Harvesting seems complete. Large stones are evident that must play hell with the tractor tyres.

The ‘terroir’

Suddenly I am cycling across a bridge over the very wide Loire river. The river is very low and not navigable. Again a victim of drought. France has had widespread fires and whilst there is plenty of greenery in places it’s suffering. This region produces the delicious white Pouilly Fumé wine and there are fields full of vines and places selling their produce.

On a canal that runs alongside the Loire

Donzy is a small town that Google Maps tells me has a municipal campsite. I could cycle on a bit further but it seemed a nice town so why not call it a day at 4.30pm? I find an empty campsite with the barrier down preventing entry? However, camped there is a small tent with a bicycle near it. As I hover wondering what to do a lad ambles across. He speaks English (obvs.) The site is open but you have to go back into the centre of town to La Marie. In this building you can pay to stay. This I do. Again gratuitous form filling for €8.22 for overnight. I pedal back and pitch my tent. My fellow camper, in this vast empty site, that is pretending to be shut, is on his mobile speaking to lots of people.

I shower and walk into town. I had it in my mind that walking might help clear up the residual cramp, it does. A lot of rural France is abandoned. It seems as if WW2 was a watershed for a slow exodus. Many quite small towns look in disrepair with former beautiful grand buildings neglected. No wonder the British buy them up. I found a restaurant and fancy a pizza. My French speaking host advises pizzas are only on vendredi. Today is mardi. So a steak it is. We needed to agree how well the steak would be cooked. I advised ‘bien cuit’ but in the end what turned up I reckon a good vet could have got it up off the plate and back walking around a field. It was chewy.

I still had one important task before sleep, that is to try and find the hole in my mattress. In the town was a small slow flowing river. It looked clean enough and dunked my inflated air bed into it try and find escaping bubbles, after all I had a puncture repair kit. A passing woman enquired as to what I was doing? Not unreasonable given that weirdly a tourist, at 7pm, is floating a Iilo in a river in the middle of a town. I tried to pacify her with “Je cherche un trou dans le matelas.” She answered back in English… “then are you going to swim there with it?” “Yes”, I replied (not) “all the way back to ‘kin Queensland where I bought it to ask for a refund.” Anyway, I couldn’t find the leak. More midnight inflation beckoned.

Back at the site there were no other campers. The town’s strategy for preventing use was working well.

The shower lock was new, which begs the question of why spend all this money if you’re trying to keep the site a secret? I discover the young lad is 16 years old! He’s German and cycling over a few days from home to a destination further west. Quite an adventure for a young man and he must have very confident parents. I offer him a baguette I’d bought. I was starting to worry that his mother will be fretting about his nutrition but he’s not interested. Anyway I have a night ahead with a soft mattress.

French Cycling Saunter – July 2022

Day 2

La Souterraine to Issoudun – 81 miles & 885m climbing

The next morning I received a text advising Anna has Covid! Given the proximity to the wedding it’s as well I was away avoiding the risk of infection. More pressing was the imperative to start eating and find a gas canister. Until I sorted that out I couldn’t boil water or heat up food on site. That had to wait until I ate something more. A typical French breakfast outside in the sunshine is a delight. When I left the site Reception was still shut and so I couldn’t pay. One way or another a criminal tendency was developing.

How to dismantle a tent

I found this as I pedalled around the attractive La Souterraine.


Whilst still lovely weather the heat had miraculously gone and the weather was cooler by 10°. The legs should have had no weariness on the tour yet, but residual cramp persisted, I hadn’t got the lactic acid out of the muscles.

Despite this I was quite chipper. The route was undulating to the next major settlement of Chatereaux but I took the bigger roads with less steep gradients. They were an easier way of progressing. I’d never noticed all the sunflowers before, they are prolific in all the large arable fields, they greet you as you pedal past them.

A lunch of chicken and chips was found and then I detour off the route to visit Decathlon, the sports store, for a gas canister.

Tasted better than it looked!
Interesting name!

The bike’s chain kept slipping on the rear cassette/gears. I reckoned I had a stretched chain that needed replacing. Decathlon did this quickly and cheaply (€30) in 20 minutes. I communicated with the mechanic over these technical matters via the Google Translate App on our mobiles. I know trying to book the bike into a UK bike shop and expecting an immediate repair would be difficult. Vive La France.

However, the French now speak English. Going back a few decades they would not speak English to the point of being awkward with you. Most now admit to knowing quite a lot and will help you out as you start a conversation in butchered French. As always English pop music is in supermarkets and how can any business that buys or sells internationally or use the internet not use English? It’s safe to say we’ve won that war!

Next I found a supermarket for provisions. Usually this involves bread, a tomato, cheese, milk (for my porridge), a large calorific cake as a treat and bananas. Mission accomplished I pressed on for a municipal campsite I’d found on Google Maps in Issoudun. Baby Jesus now rationalising that I’d had too much go my way on the day threw down heavy rain. I got to the site sodden. The lad on Reception was at the time on FaceTime with his girlfriend. As he’s wading through the festival of pointless forms we need to complete for my €8 stay I get in front of the camera on his phone and ask “Parlez-vous anglais?” Cue much squealing and merriment. I’m don’t think she expected an old bloke, generally drenched, donning a cycle helmet asking about her language skills.

Room to spare
Useful for hanging washing off
Always pleased to find a bench

The site was basic but the washrooms were fine. However it was just off a busy roundabout and the late evening and, it transpired, early morning traffic was impossibly noisy. Motorbikes or trucks would work their way through the gears angrily as they pulled away from the junction.

Still attempting to recover from the first day I embarked on lots of eating. A call home discovered a bored Anna. She was confined to barracks and even speaking to me proved a highlight of her day. The rain stopped, laundry was done and hung out to dry and it was time for some kip. In line with my luck ending I discovered a slow puncture in my air bed during the night and nearby campers may have wondered about the heavy breathing in the early hours of the morning. I was re-inflating my air bed!

French Cycling Saunter – July 2022


A long bike ride, with camping, is always a default pleasure. It’s wonderful to have the adventures of far flung places to take my bicycle to but France is always a tonic: largely under populated, lots of empty roads, campsites everywhere, delicious food around every corner, the French largely indifferent to all and sundry with few rules and great weather.

I’d had a holiday pencilled in for early July after some tour guiding work, before a wedding and then a later holiday with Anna in the USA. However the sad passing of my father-in-law, Eric meant that the originally planned escape had to be cancelled. Eventually a ‘window’ appeared to allow me to get away for over a week. On July 24 I made it to Leeds Bradford with my cardboard box full of bike and luggage.

The planned route
Unpacked clobber

I was off at last but aware I had to be back in good time for Sophie’s wedding preparations. (There was never a truer observation as to ‘preparation’ as it transpired.)

Day 1

Limoges Airport to La Souterraine – 51 miles & 1,025m climbing

Anna was kindly up very early to deposit me at Leeds Bradford airport. Flights now come with additional time demands over and above early check in. There’s the nightmare of clearing Security. However, with a fast path ticket I was into Departures in good time to find a Ryanair delay! We eventually took off 35 minutes late. Airports are a very brutal experience nowadays of considerable lugging of heavy items, many stairs, queuing and heaving crowds. It can be no surprise that those with mobility issues or considerable age avoid flying.

Now to unpack
Nearly sorted

That being said the flight was a doddle and Limoges Airport was small and organised; in no time at all I was extracting my bike out of the box and on the road heading north to my campsite. If that was the good news then I found myself in 36°C heat for 5 hours on a hilly bike ride with a bike weighing over 35kg. After the flight I was slightly dehydrated and having not eaten enough. A really elementary set of mistakes. Actually bordering on potentially fatal.

The route was slow with lots of little roads and time was moving on. I found myself on the hard shoulder of a dual carriageway, which was a National route and, it transpires, a motorway. Progress was good but at least 11 cars hooted their horns before a police car parked up on the hard shoulder in front of me and two policemen emerged less than happy. I thought I was ‘for it’.

‘Ello, ello, ello….

As I rode up to the back of the car one policemen with his finger pointing toward the temple of his head shouted “êtes-cous fou?” I knew well what he was saying but responded with “je suis anglais”. (Thank you O’Level French.) My bilingual copper continuing to point at his head and said “are you crazee?” The upshot was that my bike was loaded into the car and I was driven off the motorway to a safer B road. I continued to receive a lecture in the car but I did cough up a “je suis desole” and they seemed to believe I’d got the message. At my point of ejection I was fined €4! In fact as they couldn’t accept a credit card and had no change I gave them €5. For all this money there was much form filling, scrutiny of passports and information sought. It did cross my mind that illegally traversing the country and exiting dangerously in a dodgy dinghy would have involved a lot less interest from the French authorities… In truth I was hot and weary and for another few Euros I’d have been grateful to be dropped nearer my campsite. I thought it imprudent to ask. I waved goodbye to the gendarmes and continued my slow trundle well behind schedule.

Nice scenery

The campsite Reception was shut when I got to La Souterraine at some time after 7pm. It was a very nice site and operating on the theory that it’s easier to seek forgiveness rather than get permission to pitch my tent (without paying in advance), I found a spot. However it meant pushing my bike up a short hill. An attack of cramp kicked in on my hamstrings, so painful, that I couldn’t move. This cramp meant bending my legs was impossible and, later, affected my sleep position. The heat had affected my appetite and I ate Anna’s specially prepared tuna pittas, I’d stupidly not eaten for lunch. The act of eating took ages as I hated every mouthful so that I chewed a gazillion times before swallowing. I also felt sick but kept drinking long and hard well after climbing off the bike. I knew that I had been on the brink of making myself very I’ll due to the heat. Despite a swelteringly hot tent with me lying naked on the blown up mattress, hold that thought in your head if you dare, I was asleep in no time.

To Tuscany & Beyond, April 2022 – Part 6 (Final)

The drive up to Castellina in Chianti was quite astonishing. We climbed and climbed through square miles of vines. The town isn’t very impressive by the standards of the others but had a number of restaurants. I pondered if this was to cater for the very wealthy residents who lived in local villas. An estate agent displayed properties of around €2 million. They were lovely abodes with pools and land attached and no doubt cellars full of roubles.

Next came San Gimgnano. This little town with its famous pillars was very easy on the eye.

For reasons hard to fathom it was busy with a lot of Germans and Austrians. We saw the centre but then wandered down some twisty lanes and found a bench near a small park for our picnic lunch. What is clear that is if you’re an expat with a few quid and fancy living in Tuscany then deciding where to buy would be a headache. There are so many stunning options.

Lastly we stopped off at Volterra. This town was attractive but quiet with few tourists. In fact it was a place we might have liked to have stayed. It had plenty of restaurants and walks. It was here I got a call from the car rental company telling I was late returning the car! I wasn’t. However it made me concerned about getting to their office for 5pm and so we left and gunned our little car to Pisa.

Anna had fortuitously booked a B&B very close to the airport and the car rental office. This made for an easy transfer.

After settling in we waked into Pisa to find the Leaning Tower. This proved to be quite tricky to find and there was much wandering about before the magnificent Tower and adjacent Duomo came into view. I was glad we’d sought them out despite the fading light. Pisa is very tatty and a bit run down, I was walking along with little expectation but it was stunning. I say this as if it were the first time. I’d seen it twice before and once ascended the spiral stairway. We were jiggered after our day in the car and this route march. In fact I clocked up 22,000 steps for the day.

Next morning we flew home.

In summary the driving was demanding and I felt I should have researched the places we visited prior to getting there to extract the most out of the visit. But in some ways this tour was mainly about bolting a couple of days on to the end of the trip after staying with Tony and Karen. The scenery and little towns are sumptuous and the Italian food and wine fabulous. I would recommend that you pick your time of the year to visit as the summer seems to be uncomfortably busy to sightsee.

To Tuscany & Beyond, April 2022 – Part 5

Assisi was very busy with Italians. It was the weekend and there are worst places to trip out to. The town is beautiful and folk wandered up it’s steep main drag. The proliferation of souvenir shops was wearisome, in fact it is a feature of all these beauty spots. However, the town is immaculately kept and no doubt the car parking fees extracted by all these hillside attractions helped the upkeep.

Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi

I was harassed by one young man twice. I never gave him the time of day and the second time loudly told him to “leave me alone”. Clearly a hazard in a tourist spot. An unhappy incident but it made me wonder out of his target market and the hundreds here why I seemed worth tapping up?

Back in the car my target was Siena. It was some way off and we settled down to my music (played via Bluetooth off my phone) and the entertainment that Italian motorways offer. In fact the day before we’d played BBC Radio 5 Live and were able to listen to match commentary of Watford versus Leeds United. I like to escape many things from home on a foreign trip but I’m wired into the football and there is no escape. Beside the motorway there were many factories. I’m always impressed and sadden when this is the vista. Pleased that manufacturing is still evident but sorry that in the U.K. we’ve lost so much. I accept and voted for the politics that led to a lack of subsidy for these industries and as a buyer at Ford or Moores I actively moved business abroad in pursuit of lower prices, better designs and more reliable quality: I can’t really complain.

Piazza del Campo where the famous horse racing takes place
This might be a better alternative for Italian road surfaces. Most town centres we visited were paved with this design of stone paving.

Siena brought with it a whole new world of pain prior to entry. The hilltop city prohibited tourist traffic, what to do with the car? After dropping off the luggage on a short term pass I was faced with parking at the bottom of the hill, say, two miles away or subsidising Siena into the next millennia by paying €35 overnight. Being the last of the big spenders I opted for Option B. I had been to Siena before with Anna in 1987 and then in 2002 with Jim on our bicycles. In 1987 it was on honeymoon and I have happy memories. Probably much to Anna’s disappointment 2002 also offers happy memories. We watched England vs Argentina in a bar where Beckham’s penalty settled matters.


Again Siena was sensational. Unlike Perugia someone cared for the buildings and the central square (Piazza Del Campo) was dramatic and stunning. The cathedral in its black and white marble was similarly imposing. The many side streets and parks were full of Sunday night strollers eating ice cream, looking in the shops or hanging out. A very typical Italian scene. How the Italians communicate is worth a mention. It can often hover between walking together closely and indulging in what appears to be a conspiratorial whisper or something far more animated that could be mistaken, by the less demonstrative British, as a lively loud argument with wild hand gesticulations.

Anna had booked an apartment that included a small outside yard and galley kitchen. After all the dining out it was a break to eat a few simple things we’d bought at a supermarket in the afternoon. It would have been super to drop anchor here for a day or two but the plan was to leave the next day. Soon we were barreling down the hill looking for another beautiful hill top town, Castellina in Chianti.

To Tuscany and Beyond, April 2022 – Part 4

The Italians have a tolerance or nay… even affection for potholes. The road surfaces can be terrible. For a modern European country many of their roads, including motorways, are simply a disgrace. We crunch along doing our best to protect the car but many road chunks are missing and vigilance is not always successful. On one country lane the surface was so deformed it resembled a ski mogul field: it was astonishing.

There are no three lane motorways, only two lane. A roads as dual carriageways don’t exist. Single lane roads with bad surfaces, undulations or adverse cambers are common. You also may recollect when a bridge collapsed in Genoa killing 43 people in 2018: the Italians have got ‘previous’ on this type of thing. In the U.K. we’re blessed with much better quality, design and engineering.

Oh yes, and speed limits are discretionary.

First stop was Gubbio in Umbria. Another ancient hilltop town with dramatic buildings and vistas.

We drove on to check in at our night’s accommodation. The remarkable Castello Di Ramazzano.

It’s not much but we call it home…
At the very top of the castle
Some bedroom ceiling

Anna found this amazing £130/night establishment on the internet. The original castle dated back to the 12th Century and swapped hands many times until it fell into a ruinous state. After much investment the castle has been partially refurbished and has a suite of rooms and facilities for hosting grand weddings. Alongside this they offer bed and breakfast when not booked out. The costs of restoration must be mind boggling. Certain legal restriction were applied to its rebirth including no lift. There are 62 steps to carry your luggage up to your room! We did rattle around in it as the owner lives off site but in the morning we discovered three other guests.

However, after checking in we went to Perugia. Whilst it meets the ‘grand city built on a hill top’ specification with some dramatic ancients buildings it just had a lot going for it than other cities we visited. It was dirty, busy and rather uncared for. There was a lot of graffiti. 

This seems even less acceptable on antique heavy wooden doors or ancient stone walls: a couple of local youth beheadings would end it immediately I suggest. We had a look round and then headed back to Ramazzano for a bite at a local restaurant. Maybe typically for Italians as we left at 9.10pm there were families turning up with dogs and young children! For us it was about returning to the castle to sleep like a king and queen.

(Anna fell over on the steps from the car park up to the castle. She wasn’t impaired by local vino but attempting to flee from a toad she saw on the steps. The countryside eh?)

There was happiness at breakfast as the Italians celebrated the victory of Ferrari in the Australian Formula One Grand Prix. The castle in bright sunlight still amazed yet it was time to go.

Down the narrow lane from the top we squeezed past cars and church goers attending worship. Many were clutching olive branches and Anna opined it was Palm Sunday. The church was nearly a mile up this steep hill and it had been there for a couple of centuries. I imagine getting to and from Sunday worship was a workout for the village before spontaneous combustion came to the rescue.

We were off to Assisi, a well known tourist spot and another place I’d reached by bicycle with the intrepid Jim.

To Tuscany and Beyond, April 2022 – Part 3

In 2002 I cycled to Urbino all the way from Pisa, and back, with a work colleague, Jim. I recollect it was a windy and hilly ride but I can’t remember it being as demanding as it seemed in the car. With Anna urging caution I threw our little, under powered, French car up and down these precipitous hilly hairpin climbs. As always I had another car behind and it turned into a bit of a competition as I drove to drop him and he drove to hang on! Soon we’d left the Tuscany region and were in Marche.

Urbino doesn’t allow many cars in the city walls and we parked in an underground car park outside the city. (A great solution to the large number of cars and little space on these hilltops.) With some huffing and puffing we lugged our cases up to the hotel. Pleasingly, despite our early arrival, there’s no problem checking in. We unpacked and then strolled around the small city in the sunshine. The streets are narrow and seemingly untouched by modern redesign or construction over the centuries.

Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta
A brilliant view of the old town

It must take a lot of money to maintain these buildings. The facades are so tall and their maintenance must be specialist. We look around the cathedral and also observe the many students who attend the university. Their smart dress is remarkable. Stylish and tasteful every one of them; such a contrast to York’s throngs. After a salad we take a siesta. This isn’t typical but after the walking and gardening of the previous days it was overdue!

Sunny but still a trifle nippy!

Eventually grumbling stomachs lure us outside again. We’re out too early for dining and have 45 minutes to spare before our reservation. We find a bar and ask the barman for a glass of red and white. What does he recommend? He selects and they’re memorable. As is the way the drinks are served with snacks and forgetting our imminent meal we heartily get stuck in. We sat there like teenagers and perused our phones but soon it was time to dine.

Our small restaurant (Taverna degli Artisti), seemingly in a basement, is soon packed. As we take our seat a procession of American students file past to take their seats in an adjacent room; it’s surprising to hear English spoken. Like their Italian counterparts they’re smartly dressed and complement the neat, tidy and elegant walled city. We order our food, the waitress noting our earlier visit and booking has translated the menu into English, how thoughtful.

Our food is delicious and the portions are so appropriate that we have space for three courses.

In fact I thought I had ordered two courses but didn’t argue when it turned out to be three! Anna has a beer as she’s thirsty and I have a glass of red wine. There was no choice if you ordered a glass and my drink is a little sweet and cheap. On a close table there’s two smartly dressed businessmen.

The waitress approaches with menus but they have no interest in the detail and after much dialogue the waitress departs. A minute later the restaurant’s chef appears to greet both men warmly and no doubt resolve their demands. We look on and make a contribution to their evening – Anna passed across a city map for them to use. They solve a wobbling table by placing it beneath the offending leg and tell her “grazie mille”.

A short stroll back to the hotel helps the food settle and I take some more snaps of this beautiful place.

At breakfast we discover that Covid has meant self service is forbidden and we queue and wait to visit the buffet to then point (we don’t know the Italian for the food) and obtain our coffee, cereal etc. Close by at an adjacent table in Bill. He’s 72 and from Vancouver. He travels widely and has Italian heritage. He’s not religious but likes visiting churches. Italy is over endowed with sumptuous temples and he’s working his way around many of them. However there’s a hint of sadness about this solo traveller. He grumbles about the buses, trains and getting around. The vicissitudes of weekend timetables make his movement difficult and he complains of finding it physically hard going. He says he’s ‘a little down’ about it all and comments that talking to us is a lift. I think we can all agree that talking to Anna was the tonic and not me.

I pop out for some groceries and a couple of postcards to write and post. With this complete we pack and descend to the car park and steer our pocket rocket south. We pass Saturday lycra clad cyclists out for a spin; I know a man who would have liked to have joined them. Common throughout Italy is the national flag adorning many buildings; they’re very proud. In Britain many people, including the BBC, sneer if you fly the Union Jack or the Cross of St George: they need to get across here.

Anyway next we’re headed for Gubbio.

To Tuscany and Beyond, April 2022 – Part 2

In daylight we surveyed the house in its setting. Gosh!

Our hosts had deemed that we were walkers; we were. The walks were their favourites. The Tuscan countryside was sublime. Small but steep hills with not another soul in sight. Often we’d crest a hill and another terrific vista would be before us in the Spring sunshine. Our layers peeled off as we ascended and the day warmed up. It was a true delight and we saw small villages often built on steep hillsides and many fields of olives. We chatted away merrily.

Anna, Karen and Tony
Yes, Karen is tightly clutching the remnants of my Liquorice Allsorts

Back at the villa lunch was eaten outside after our first walk

One challenge of having a property abroad is the need to do gardening and/or DIY when you visit. Both Karen and Tony work full time back in Blighty and finding these chores to complete can be a burden. Tony’s ‘to do list’ included resolving a dodgy water pump that sounded very poorly, a dishwasher that wouldn’t switch on (that had worked perfectly until some local friend’s teenagers had used the property for a party) and wi-fi that had stopped working due to problems the provider had created. During the few days we were there he worked his way through these items and all were successfully resolved by ourselves, the plumber or a local handy man.

The latter was a German national called Markus who was fluent in several languages and whilst mainly a gardener had many practical talents that the various expats in the area relied on. When we met he had the new replacement internet router in his van and a plan to prune olive trees. This isn’t a job for a hacker like moi. The tree has to be shaped to enable better picking in the autumn as well as a reduction of too many branches. I’d like to think the Ives’ put their ‘backs to the wheel with a few tasks not least gathering up of branches from around the large garden and creating a bonfire. Such was the too’ing and fro’ing that I clocked up 11,000 steps in the process. Anna did this but also attempted to do some pruning.

Anna up a tree!

As we worked through Tony’s repertoire of home made Italian staples we enjoyed homemade pizzas in the purpose built brick oven and delicious ravioli from homemade pasta. I took several photos as I have no talent and could only look on with envy and gratitude.

All this carbohydrate was vital as the second full day involved more walking. This jaunt took us past the plumber’s gaff. Tony was tempted to knock on the door and enquire as to his overdue scheduled visit? More exciting was the plumber’s private life. He was now partnered with an English project manager/estate agent, who had left her husband, and he his wife to live together. Maybe it could be the start of a racy boxset based on life in the Tuscan hills?

Karen kindly laundered our washing. EasyJet limit your luggage and due to the chilly but sunny weather we found ourselves repeatedly wearing the heavier items of our wardrobe and not the lighter ones we’d also brought. As time rolled by we were on our last night in their company and we went to Sansepolcro to a superb restaurant. Our waitress was nearly worth the visit as she practised her English on us with considerable volume and mirth. I shall never look at a dessert trolley in the same way again. Tony sadly for him, was driving and much of the mirth was left to the rest of us with Karen and myself doing irreparable harm to a very nice bottle of red he’d chosen.

Next morning as we rose and packed our bags there was a new voice downstairs as Tony and Karen greeted Markus. He was here to trim the olive trees and give advice on several matters. Happily and surprisingly he had a new broadband router. As Tony discussed olives I attempted to drag the internet into life. Eventually I got it close to working but was short of a code. Markus had it and the information was typed in.

We munched our toast, hugged and thanked our generous hosts and then pointed the Citroën toward Urbino.

To Tuscany and Beyond, April 2022 – Part 1

Our Italian odyssey started in Stockport (obvs…) with a quick visit to the Favourite Eldest’s to drink a toast to her birthday. She’s starting to accumulate the kind of numbers where women request that disclosure is applied with discretion.) I don’t like driving in Manchester as it has been dangerous on occasion and I worry that the recklessness is created by drivers on drugs. Five minutes from Katrina and Matt’s abode we stopped at the front at some traffic lights. First an old BMW 3 Series pulled up in front of us and then a VW Golf. With the lights at red one turned right against the traffic and the other just kept going. I suspect they were peddling rather than taking drugs and either chasing each other or escaping. Lovely.

Indoor fireworks and some fizz for the birthday girl

Sophie and Harry attended the celebration as well and Katrina’s milestone celebrated. We then proceeded to the Premier Inn at the airport for an overnight stay. We had a fairly early flight and bottlenecks in Security meant getting there well in advance. Even in the ‘Fast Path’ lane we idled for 40 minutes. Worse was to come as my bicycle multi tool was confiscated. I have several but I tearfully said goodbye to something that has traversed America, most of Europe and a long way up Australia with me. I took it because our host had threatened a bike ride. (This never came to pass!)

The flight was routine albeit we were back to wearing masks during the flight (thank you Italy). In fact it was a special kind of mask, more substantial and uncomfortable. After having mooched around the Terminal for so long before the flight, cheek by jowl, with other unmasked travellers then what this mask was going to prevent is anyone’s guess. Italy was also enforcing Covid vaccination status in restaurants and insisting on masks before you sat at a table. Bonkers as regards a preventative measure, but it was nice to use my App after never having used it since my last trip to Lanzarote.

Finding the car rental office near Pisa Airport wasn’t routine. It wasn’t located in the main area for the other rental companies. More by a hunch than knowledge we came across it on a side street near an underpass away from the Terminal. Oh how we laughed over the 40 minute hunt. The chap on Reception then badgered me about extra insurance due to high excesses on car damage. On my declination he took a long video around the car to capture it’s pristine state and waved us away. This small Citroën was so under powered that it couldn’t pull a sailor off your sister let alone comfortably cope with all the hairpins and climbing to come.

The drive to Anghiari is the type of excitement you usually have to pay for at a fun fair. Narrow dual carriageways with cars flashing you from behind if you strayed into the outside lane or massive articulated trucks straddling both lanes as they coped, at speed, with the winding carriageways. The central reservation is a solid concrete barrier. I thought hard at this point about the extra insurance I’d declined. We texted Tony, our host, close to Anghiari and was delighted after the meet up with his idea of a drink and stroll around this medieval hillside town along with Karen, his wife. Frazzled nerves were calmed. Tony is on my website and blogs as an accompanying cycle tourer. We met in 1985, on our MBA course at Bradford University.

The main square in Anghiari
Anna and Karen take the lead
A near dusk sky

The drive into the countryside, to their palazzo, was predictably windy and mainly up hill (welcome to most of Tuscany). This is their second home and much time, love and resources have been poured into creating an idyll over a decade. Such was the remoteness it wouldn’t have surprised me to learn that the locals were still finding German soldiers, in the 1970s, hiding in the woods unaware the war was over. As Tony commented there would be no noise or light pollution at night. The villa with its pool is stunning and the tranquility complete. A frustration is the proliferation of wild boars in the area. They dig up the ground in pursuit of things to eat and a lot of the ground has been ‘turned over’. A fence around the house garden is in place to stop this damage closer to the property. Anna was keen to see the said pigs during her stay but they failed to materialise but we knew they were there due to the ground condition. Apparently they are hunted in the autumn but a licence is needed and a gun!

We enjoyed a brief tour of the home and then especially catering for Mrs Ives a courgette pasta was rustled up and after some wine near a log fire we tumbled into bed ready for sleep. A great start with splendid hospitality and lovely surroundings.

Nuptuals, back fires and war – Week 10 : 2022

Delightful news emanated from Manchester in mid February. Wedding bells. The Favourite Youngest Daughter, Sophie, and Harry were getting engaged. They have been together since university and, maybe unkindly, the first reaction could have been ‘about time’. They have lived together for many years in their own property. Nevertheless this is an exciting and lovely event for August. For the females in the family now is a feast of calls or meet ups on dresses, menus, guests, wine tasting gatherings etc.. Enjoy, this is what the best of life should be about.

However, all is not well with another female love, Samantha. She’ll be 12 this year and is showing signs of age. First there was a misfire and back firing when in second gear. When that was hopefully fixed she started to spray water, via the bonnet louvres, onto the screen. The radiator was kaput and she was shedding any coolant in the system. My treasured Morgan after such a quiet life is now making my, and her, life less smooth.

A new radiator was needed. There were several suppliers and a popular forum website gave me a name for an approved source. (The radiator is not a standard or volume part.) It was the lowest price as well. £619 later I’m trying to find a slot at the local garage to fit it. However, there’s the small matter of towing the car to the garage as it can’t be run there without coolant. I’m sure she’ll be fully restored; it’s important as apparently she may have a bit part in Manchester in August.

More immediately we’ve just had a lovely relaxing week in Lanzarote. We went in search of heat and sun. We got the sun but the temperatures were not as sizzling as we might have ordered. Anna jogged along the front at Playa Blanca and I headed north on a hired bike. My route was a 46 mile loop with 800m of climbing and involved mainly battling into Lanzarote’s horror head winds going north turning round and then ‘flying’ south. On my second ride the wind was so horrific, with sudden gusts, that I decided to walk the bike for about 200m at a height of over 400m as the bike violently slewed across the road. I’m seldom frightened on a bike but this was one such time.

However, aside from that we rested and ate well with the highlight being a Portuguese restaurant and a delicious shared cataplana. Across the island you’ll find many walled fields of ash/lava with withered vines in dug holes attempting to avoid the ever howling wind. I thought it was a very unproductive piece of agriculture and the produce probably mediocre. Little did I know as we sampled some of the fayre at a bodega. It was delicious whether red or white with the latter being a very attractive dry drink. I shall look it up in the UK. In our apartment we had all the main UK TV channels and watched the awful news from Ukraine. What can you say?

There’s no coverage of the actual war. Instead we have reporting on the Ukrainian people, their suffering or flight. We also receive a diet of the latest Russian lies or atrocities and the brave statements of the Ukrainian President. We all feel helpless and angry. At the end of the day I expect this won’t end well for Ukraine with all the displacement, destruction, loss of life and territory. When it’s over and an inevitable compromise negotiated do the Russians expect to trade or mix with the West normally?

In the British media and on social media we have a talent for eventually dividing along the usual fault lines of Left and Right and fighting amongst ourselves. Stand by for 24/7 recriminations about what we did, as regards Ukraine, too slowly, too quickly, too little, too much etc.

Maybe I need another holiday to cope?

Glorious Northumberland & Yorkshire – Week 7 : 2022

I mentioned in my last blog about taking on a tour guide job for a few weeks during the summer. This week saw me spending time visiting and familarising myself with parts of the Northumberland coast and the Yorkshire Dales along with other trainee guides. I was the only complete beginner and whilst the other guides were not familiar with this sets of walks and routes they were all experienced. What a delight and what countryside to understand! Any visitors will be spoilt (especially if the weather is 10 degrees warmer and the sun peeps out.) Most of the trips are walking holidays with sights at the beginning or end of the walk.

The weather was grey and blowy but with our time constraints we were not encouraged to walk the Pilgrims Way from the mainland shore across the sand to the island itself. This can be taken at low tide. It’s advised to do it in bare feet as the sand clogs everything. Many of the future guests are walkers and will leap at this. We took the tarmac causeway that is only passable at low tide. Personally I’d contemplate the walk in a sedan chair only! From here it was Berwick- on-Tweed. Despite swapping between the English and Scottish over a dozen times it’s been English since the 18th Century. It has a magnificent set of fortifications to walk along.

A quick lunch and then back in the bus. The guides will have to drive this. As the passengers will have, in effect, paid to ride in the bus the driver needs a private hire licence. This means taking a number of tests. Back to school and learning the Highway Code for me. So what colour are the cat’s eyes on the outer edge of a dual carriageway?

Our drive back south took us past the magnificent Bamburgh Castle. At this point the rain was coming at us horizontally.

Next and last was Craster. Famous for it’s crab catches. No such luck for us but we checked out the parking and did a couple of the walks from the village.

The party was getting to know each other and used to hopping in and out of the minibus!

The boss, Will, is sat on the gate with Colette, James, Ceri, Neil and Peter

Day 2 saw us leave our trusty Travelodge and head up first to Walkworth to see my favourite amazing castle.

Walkworth Castle

Next to Alnwick for a planned walk and to visit the castle.

From here it was time for a toasted teacakeat the amazing and famous second hand book shop, Barter Books.

A drive inland took us to Cragside, the first house in the UK to have electricity, and a walk in a forest. Again these form part of the walking tour with Explore!

On the last day in the North East it was time for some Roman history and in increasingly gale force winds we saw some of the sights on Hadrian’s Wall. All these brief visits were not to dwell or enter the sights but work out the route and logistics for when the guests are in our company.

This was all for the day as the weather got dangerous and awfully wet. We drove down to York and the next day was in the Dales. We got to York in a virtual monsoon! We started early on the last day in Skipton and concentrated on the sights around here.

A couple of weeks before I’d been up in the Dales with Peter, the regional manager. We’d visited the llamas near Pateley Bridge, Wensleydale Creamery, Settle and the various hotels that the guests would be staying at. I may now know a lot more about my home county than I ever did before.

After this there is a lot to study and think about. It’s another thing to take strangers around a part of the world that you yourself are not overly familiar with. My first tour is in May and so there’s plenty of time to get that pesky driving licence and become more expert on the history.