Sunday, 16 September 2012

Cardiff - A travelling cyclists perspective

Last month I travelled to Cardiff for a few days, to see someone and acquaint myself with Wales vibrant and modern Capital city. Apart from a brief caravan holiday at Ty Mawr in North Wales when I was six months old, back in the dim and distant summer months of 1987 (I myself can't remember much from that period), I can safely say that I have never really experienced Wales in any respect, at least until now.

My visit to Cardiff took place during the Olympics, and I was immediately impressed by the general feel of the city, exceptionally clean and presentable, and naturally bursting with colour, with Olympic flags all over the place and general merriment in the air that made this city by the Bay both appealing and welcoming. I hadn't known what to expect from my trip to Wales, or more specifically Cardiff, but what I found was a very pleasant surprise. Like any Capital city, Cardiff seems to be bursting with culture, not simply the usual mix of music, arts and entertainment, but culture with a distinct Welsh edge.

Welsh can be seen (and heard) in various places around Cardiff, something the first time visitor may not expect, especially those from other parts of the UK, and I refer specifically to my own country of origin, England. I don't know if it is the same for other parts of Europe and the UK, but many where I am from are highly unaware of the extensive presence of the Welsh language and it's long history, or of the attractive nature of Cardiff, and undoubtedly other parts of Wales itself. Cardiff is full of interesting shops and museums, with wide, grand open streets and boulevards and majestic buildings in the heart of, or very close to, the City centre. The National Museum of Wales in particular was made even more impressive by the presence of the mighty Olympic rings in Cathays Park.

Not only that, but the magnificent Castle right in the heart of the city gives Cardiff a unique and historical feel, without compromising its integrity as a modern city with all the conveniences both travellers and locals might need. Perhaps the most pleasant element of Cardiff, however, is the wonder of Bute Park. Again, very close to the Centre, the park is almost like a miniature National Park, easily accessible by residents, locals etc.

In a blog such as this, mention must also inevitably be given to Cardiff as a cycling city. Unfortunately, I did not get chance to cycle in the city, and thus cannot write from the perspective of a cyclist, but from what little I saw, Cardiff is making impressive attempts to make cycling a pleasant and enjoyable experience. The major road around the Castle in particular appears to have reasonable provision for cyclists, and the magnificent riverside trail running through Bute Park and to the north makes cycling a safe and attractive proposition for many who live in the areas surrounding it. I hope that at some point in the not-too-distant future, I will get to test out Cardiff from a cyclist's perspective.

Last, but by no means least, due mention must also be given to the efforts by the Welsh Government and Cardiff City Council in making full use of the Welsh language on road signs and buildings. From my limited time there, Cardiff feels like a bilingual city, where Welsh has equal status with English, and it would be a missed opportunity if any who came to live in the City from outside (something by no means unthinkable, given the pleasant nature of the city) did not at least consider taking up Welsh on some level - Cardiff certainly seems like a good place for newcomers to begin any adventure with Wales, as it provides a nice gentle introduction to Wales, whilst gradually easing you in to the specifically Welsh aspects of the country that can undoubtedly be explorer further in more rural parts of the country. I certainly feel that my own Welsh adventure has not ended here.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Cycling in Dublin

Well, I've been in Dublin just over a week now, and have been doing some cycling more or less every day, principally to and from the City, and in and around Churchtown/Dundrum, the area where I'm currently staying. My commute to the city takes in Churchtown Road Lower, Milltown Road, Sandford Road, Ranelagh Road and over the Charlemont Bridge down Camden Street, ending up in Drury Street cycle parking facility. On the return I take a similar route but going back up Dundrum Road so as to call at the shopping centre on the way home.

In general, I'm quite happy with cycling in Dublin - cycling on Dundrum, Sandford and Ranelagh Roads is relatively smooth and comfortable compared to roads I've ridden on in other places I've lived, with wide cycle lanes and no real obstacles to going at a constant speed into the city. When doing it early morning there's a tendency to find delivery vehicles parked in the cycle lane, along with a few taxis and other vehicles, the same is true in late afternoon, but getting round them doesn't appear to be too much of a problem, although it would inevitably be better if they didn't. Milltown Road could do with some resurfacing, as it's quite bumpy and not a comfortable ride, particularly on a road bike, and the same is true of Dundrum's Main Street - rather bumpy and not much room for cyclists, really, though as it's one of the shorter, less busy roads in the city I can just about bear it.

One thing I've found interesting in this city is that the traffic lights go straight from red to green, with no orange light in-between - very different to the UK, but something I've adapted to quickly. To say my commute is 4/5 miles each way, it only seems to take 25-30 minutes max, and doesn't feel like a drag, which is impressive considering I've previously only had to travel 2-2.5 miles in the past. The only issue I have is that the commute to the city is all downhill, whilst on the way back it's all uphill - the climb isn't particularly strenuous, but requires a bit more effort at the end of the day! As for cycling in the city, I consciously avoid streets such as O'Connell and Westmoreland, and the quays if possible, as I simply don't feel comfortable cycling on them. My wish is for cycling to be a pleasure, not a chore, and I find those streets simply too busy and uncomfortable for my liking - they simply don't suit cyclists. For now though, I shall be maintaining my current cycle commute, and probably alternating it with taking the Luas once the money starts rolling more freely.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Cycle trip 5: Edale-Edale Circuit

Date: 22nd July 2012
Length of route: 12.2 miles/19.5km
Route: Edale-Barber Booth-Mam Tor-Winnat's Pass-Castle-Hope-Edale
Difficulty level: Medium

Cycling in the Peak District National Park is exciting for a number of reasons, not least the abundance of quiet country roads, green scenery, shops selling local produce and the likelihood of meeting more than one fellow cyclist. On a weekend in the Peak District, with (very) fine weather and a place to stay, I decided to take my bike along and do a complete loop, starting and finishing in Edale where I was based.

Initially, I left the campsite where I was staying and rode down the road to the end of the village, taking a right to the next small settlement along of Barber Booth, which is the opposite of the way I normally go, so I had never been that way before. Upon leaving Barber Booth, the road became very steep and winding as I made my way up the prominent landmark of Mam Tor. Before very long, impressive vistas opened up to the left, although I had to stop a few times to appreciate these due to the effort of climbing. Perhaps it was due to it being a hot day, or my having been out of the saddle for a while, but this was a real effort to climb, and may just be one of the steepest climbs I have ever done. Nevertheless, I did not need to get off the bike and walk up in-between rests, and I met a couple of cyclists who had made their way up all the way from Sheffield, so I tailed them for a while until I got to the top, which proved to be a useful motivating factor!

The real reward came as I crested the last rise of the hill, which led straight into a long downhill stretch that would lead to the road back to Castleton, although it didn't take very long to get to the bottom of it on my bike! Following this were a few twists and turns where I had to check the map to make sure I took the right path to Castleton. This was confirmed by the presence of Winnat's Pass to my left, a unique formulation of narrow and tall rocks which it is possible to ride/drive through along a very narrow and steep downhill road.

To say that Mam Tor was a steep uphill ride is nothing compared to the downhill challenge that Winnat's Pass represents. I was not the only cyclist to be taking the descent down into Castleton (a few even overtook me), but with the road being so narrow and steep, I had my hand on my brakes at all times and this was the most I ever had to use my brakes, and it took real effort to keep them on and maintain control of the bike, such is the level of the descent - or perhaps the level of my confidence in handling such downhill stretches! Nevertheless, I survived it and before I knew it I was in Castleton.

The road from Castleton to Hope was long and flat, so I managed to get up a bit of constant speed before turning off onto the Edale road, where I made my way back to Edale quite rapidly due to the largely flat nature of the road. Although the route overall was quite short, it was quite difficult in the sense of having a very steep uphill climb and the most challenging descent I have ever experienced. Nevertheless, all in all it was a pleasant ride, and when I got back to the campsite I genuinely felt I had only reached half of the potential miles in me for that day!

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Day 7: Friday, 15th June 2012 - Genova

And so I awoke to our last day at 7:30am, in order to have breakfast and spend an hour looking round the shops I hadn't managed to see yesterday. This included the oldest bookshop in Genova, which I had been informed about yesterday, and an academic bookshop I had discovered the near the university as we were on our way back to the hotel yesterday. After a pleasant, quiet and solitary breakfast, I made my way back to the centre on yesterdays day ticket (logically, day tickets are valid for 24 hours here, rather than the more inefficient method of making you buy a new ticket for each period between 0.00 and 23.59 back home).

First of all, I went to the bookshop I had been recommended yesterday, where I again found the pocket book of the Genovese language I had found yesterday, and three smaller booklets that introduced different aspects of the language. Although nicely presented and quite useful, the booklets did not have the depth of the pocket book, which packed a surprising amount of information into a small space, and so I bought that one.

After this, I made my way to the university bookshop to look for books on politics and international relations I had heard about beforehand - despite having seen them on Amazon's Italian website, I thought it much better to buy them in Italian shops, thus contributing to the Italian economy and the local store rather than that of a big international chain. I located the series of books I wanted, but not the title, so I asked the shop assistant and managed to find the book on International Organisations I had been searching for, which should prove an interesting challenge.

Following this, time was marching on and I made my way back to hotel, wishing that I were staying at least a few more days to get to know this intriguing city and its people better. Nonetheless, I feel that this holiday has been perhaps the most enjoyable I have ever taken, as I took my time, saw some smaller, local places where the pace of life is slower, and the time did not seem to go quickly as with past holidays at all. As such, I hope to return to this region soon and to spend more time on getting to know it, as it is easily the nicest of the Italian region I have seen so far. Here's to the next trip!

Day 6: Thursday 14th June 2012 - Genova/Casella

Today was the last full day of our holiday, and we were to return to the large city of 780000 people that is Genova, the place where I considered undertaking my Masters studies in International Relations. Although the city is rather large, it does not feel overwhelming and is easy enough to get around on foot, although making use of the public transport system is a good experience in itself. Located as it is between the mountains and the sea, Genova makes innovative use of public transport, encompassing a mixture of metro, trolleybuses, lifts and funiculars.

The funiculars here are unlike any I have seen elsewhere, where they whisk you from the bottom to the top with no inbetween stops. The funicolars of Genova, in particular the one running from Zecca-Righi, has seven stops, with increasingly steep gradients and suitably rewarding views once you reach the final stop and alight. Furthermore, the ticket is included in the public transport day ticket and so does not cost extra as more tourist-oriented ones do. As such, it is worth making the trip to the top.

We started our exploration of the city by taking the mountainside railway from Piazza Manin in the north-east part of the city. This narrow gauge railway runs from the station here to the small mountain-side town/village of Casella, quickly working its way high above Genova before making a series of winding turns along the hillside, finally coming to a stop in Casella, where there is an outdoor swimming pool to welcome you in the summer months upon arrival. As we were short of time on this trip, we did not stop to look around Casella, and instead made the journey back to the Centre.

Having taken the bus by which we came back to the centre of the city, we began our exploration proper by exploring the old part of the city, which consists of long narrow streets with tall buildings on either side, resulting in it feeling rather like a maze, and quite dark in places. The area itself was interesting enough to explore, although inevitably some modern stores have creeped into the area, which somewhat detracts from the overall atmosphere. However, there are still some interesting places to be found, where it is possible to buy tasty and affordable Italian snacks.

Having worked our way out of the maze that is the old city, we found ourselves in one of the largest open squares of the city, which felt rather like a much less touristy version of Paris or Milan, and in my opinion far more majestic. Just off this large square was the main street of the city, which by definition was full of international chain stores and banks which were of little interest, but the real gem to be found was the large book store over two storeys, where I bought a terrifically colourful book all about the city of Genova - something I had been hoping to find since my arrival in Italy, so as to really get to grips with the history and culture behind the city in addition to my own explorations.

One of my other main aims during this trip was to find a book about the local Ligurian language spoken hereabouts by some residents in addition to Italian. The only book I could find was a small pocket-sized book that was nonetheless comprehensive, featuring a history of the language, a grammar and word lists and is an excellent starting point. As it turned out, courses in the language were difficult to come across and this was perhaps the best I would find, but the shop assistant in any case aided me in my search by telling me where to find the best-reputed book store in the city, which unfortunately was closed upon my arrival. Being as determined as I was, I made a point to get up early and come back the next day before the flight home.

Having failed in my quest to find a suitable book, we made our way towards the university district, where the longest funicular of the city exists. This was of course the Zecca-Righi funicular, which runs every 15 minutes and initially starts its ascent in a couple of drab tunnels, but as the ascent begins to steepen, the journey gets more exciting and within 10 minutes we are at the top, where a series of hiking trails open out across the country and are accessible from here - yet another reason to return here in the future. After a few photos, we returned to the bottom in search of something to eat for our last night, and found a pleasant place on the seafront, with a main course, dessert and drink all in for €10 - the so-called Menu Turistico, although the place was hardly teeming with tourists, which was very welcome. Having satisfied ourselves with a pleasant meal, we returned to the hotel to turn in for the night.

Day 5: Wednesday, 13th June - Rapallo

After three days in the quiet villages of the Cinque Terre, with our return flight to the UK due in two day’s time, we moved on to the small town of Rapallo, in order to adjust back to civilian life before the impending chaotic nature of big city life in Genova arrives tomorrow! Rapallo is a small sea-front town with around 30000 people, and was once a popular resort on the Italian Riviera. Although it is no longer as popular as it once was, probably due to the advent of low-cost flights elsewhere for Italians, this actually improves the appeal of the place, leaving it feeling more like a usual town, with the added bonus of being by the sea, with a marina and the mountains closeby.

The area around the seafront is pleasant and airy, with numerous restaurants clustered together, whilst a couple of long streets and a number of meandering small alleyways with shops form the heart of the town. Surprisingly for such a compact place, Rapallo manages to back in bookshops, clothes shops, and shops selling traditional Italian food, drink and sweet goods, which for me made it quite an unexplored delight, with everything you could want that is Italian at a considerably lower cost than in the more commercial offerings in the villages in which we stayed – despite their quiet and solitary appeal, the presence of numbers of tourists has resulted in higher prices for everyday goods, something which Rapallo fortunately does not suffer from.

Along the waterfront, there are the remains of a small castle/fort on a small outcrop, which can be visited, although we didn’t go in. This enhances the unique appeal of the area, and is not the only interesting old relic to be found. On the main road leading to our hotel, there can also be seen a very old Roman bridge, to which I could not put a date but I would imagine it is certainly at least 500 years old. Due to its age and prestige, the bridge cannot be removed for legal reasons, and certainly looks unusual as tall vehicles cannot pass under it, and it does not fit with the modern design of the road, which was clearly wider originally under the bridge than the current road. Walking by the side of the bridge also reveals the bridge to be closed off with gates, suggesting either that it is unsafe to walk on (although it looks very sturdy) or it is an attempt to preserve it for a longer time. Nevertheless, it would be easy to climb over the side if one wished, although I did not attempt it.

Another attraction in Rapallo exists in the form of a cable car that whisks you up from one of the city’s suburbs to higher up in the mountains for a panorama over the city, suspended on a line in a small carriage. As my Dad didn’t fancy it however, I decided not to go on alone, especially as it was more expensive than the higher (and longer) mountain railway we were planning to take tomorrow. After finishing our explorations of the city’s back streets and narrow alleys, we returned to hotel where I spent some time on the roof terrace, which despite being four storeys high, had sensational views to the surrounding countryside, and was a very pleasant space to spend some time, despite the fairly strong breeze up there. All in all, a pleasant end to a very pleasant day.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Day 4: Tuesday 12th June 2012 - Riomaggiore/Vernazza/Monterosso/Manarola

Today has been perhaps the most eventful, as we focused on the last two villages of the Cinque Terre, Vernazza and Monterosso Al Mare, and the walk between them. At first glance, Vernazza seems to have less going for it than the villages we've seen so far, as there appears to be a fair amount of building work going on and it is a little more faded round the edges on some of the buildings. However, there was a market selling local products and a few different books and souvenirs to look at in the shops, making for a pleasant change. Also, as you go behind the church to access the trail to Monterosso, the views open up rapidly to reveal another spectacular panorama that is nonetheless different to the villages we saw yesterday.

The trail itself climbs rapidly and is rather more challenging than the route along Via Amore taken yesterday. However, you are rewarded with even more stupendous views and exciting scenery. There are a couple of picnic spots along the way and also an area with some food left for some homeless cats in the area, which is rather nice. Along the way we met a couple from America who happened to live in Dublin, which was rather exciting.

On arrival at Monterosso, we tried in vain to find the entrance to the railway station so we knew where to come on the way back. In the end, I used my passable Italian to ask and found out that you have to go through a tunnel leading to the other half of Monterosso, making it a little bigger than the other villages. Inevitably, this leaves Monterosso as the most commercial of the villages, with more restaurants and bars, though still with its own appeal and charm.

After completing my tradition of buying a postcard in each village instead of all together, my collection complete, we took the train back to Manarola to enjoy another of the tasty Genovese focaccia bread, as well as some nice Italian sweet treats. After this we returned to the scenic photo spot for a joint photo, before returning to Riomaggiore to enjoy our last evening. We had dinner at a nice covered outdoor restaurant, I tried the traditional Ligurian trofie pasta with pesto, followed by a nice Panna Cotta with chocolate. After that we returned to our lodgings to watch the last half of the Poland-Russia Euro 2012 match - hopefully, a promising result will signal good fortune for the rest of our trip!

Monday, 11 June 2012

Day 3: Monday June 11th 2012 - Riomaggiore/La Spezia/Manorola/Corniglia

After having breakfast, we started the second day of our Italian adventure in La Spezia. As it's the only town of any size in the area, we headed in to get some supplies and a sim card as the options available in the village where we're staying are limited to (mostly) overpriced tourist essentials and no sim cards. The journey to La Spezia only took 8 minutes, and we spent a little time looking around the shops there, mainly bookshops before returning to Riomaggiore shortly after 12.00.

We bought two Cinque Terre cards, as it is necessary to acquire one before being allowed access to most of the paths. We had reservations initially as at the start of the trail near the railway station it was quite windy and cool. However, these fears turned out to be unfounded, as it was quite calm on the coastal route to the next village, Manorola, and we managed to get a few decent shots on the way there, which took a mere 20 minutes.

Manorala itself is as picturesque and photogenic as Riomaggiore, but instead of just one main street is appears to be divided into both upper and lowers sections, separated by a small piazza (square). The upper section is quieter and less commercial than the bottom half, although the bottom half has a greater selection of shops and places to eat and is a bit more lively. Upon reaching the bottom of the main street in Manorola, the bay opens out more than in Riomaggiore, affording some truly magnificent views of the village itself. Especially pleasing was as we were walking and the sun came out, which resulted in what I expect are some of my best photographs from this trip. After having a bit to eat - a traditional Genovese focaccia bread - we made our way back to the station to catch the train to the next village, Corniglia, as unfortunately the section of the trail between these two villages and the one after (Vernazza) is currently closed.

The train took all of a minute to reach Corniglia, and upon arrival there is the option of taking a bus, or a long but gently inclining set of steps up to the village, as it is located too high on the rock promontory for a train station to be able to feasibly reach it. This naturally leaves Corniglia feeling more secluded than the other two villages thus far, with narrower streets and tightly packed buildings - nevertheless, there is an area for a bus to come up on the only road leading to and from the mountain-top village, which is again quite an chievement. Corniglia itself is not my favourite village, but the different flavour of it was welcome, as the other two are fairly similar to each other, excepting the already-mentioned exceptional views.

Although Corniglia itself is high, walking through the centre of the village shows that there is another village even higher up than this one, although I haven't quite worked out how to get there yet - should I do so, I will definitely try to make it one of my achievements to get there before the end of my time here.

Day 2: Sunday 10th June - Genova/Riomaggiore

After a pleasant nights sleep we woke up to a filling, yet slightly dry, breakfast that would put us on for the flight ahead to Italy. The flight itself did not take much time, and we soon found ourselves on a bus from the airport to the centre of Genova, which also took very little time. The arrivals hall at Genova, it has to be said, leaves little to be desired - no shop as such and no active information point, necessitating a trip to the departure lounge for any essentials. Fortunately, it isn't particularly difficult to purchase a bus ticket to the centre.

The real fun began when we arrived at the main train station. As we were wandering round following all the signs we could see to Platform 13 for our train (it had to be), we kept coming out of the lift each time at somewhere different, and never anywhere near a platform. In the end, we retraced our steps back to the entrance hall and found a subway to our train, and made it just in time. The journey itself was uneventful, and by 16.00 we found ourselves arriving at Riomaggiore.

It was at this point that I began to really feel as if I was on holiday. The sun wasn't shining too much, and the weather not as warm as expected, but the views upon arrival were certainly spectacular, and a mere taster of what was to come. We checked into our B&B, which is in a good central location, with plenty of snacks and, unusually, a real coffee machine for making your own lattes and hot drinks, very satisfying. Noises from the street outside drift in from the window, providing an instant connection to local life, with piano music drifting in through the open window and cheers from those watching the football down below (Italy vs. Spain, so an important match).

After getting settled in, we did a little bit of exploring in the shops and had something to eat, just getting to know the city. As it started to get dark, we settled down for the second match of the day, and during the half-time break, I wandered off to the waterfront to take a magical night time shot of the houses lit up along the cliff. Although not quite as good as some of the commercial photos available, it was nonetheless unedited and very satisfactory from my Canon camera. Here's hoping the results will be as good from tomorrow!

Day 1: 9th June 2012 - London/Essex

As I was flying out tomorrow (the 10th, despite it being the 11th when I'm writing this) it was decided to spend a little time in London, as check-in at the B&B where we were staying wasn't open until 6pm, due to it being a privately owned guesthouse near the airport with very little to do in the area.

Upon leaving the impressive newly renovated Kings Cross station, instead of taking the tube I decided to take my usual route down Judd Street, where one of my favourite bookshops exist, a language bookshop. As there wasn't too much time however, we pressed on and I decided to take a slightly different route to normal down one of the other side streets. This is one of the great benefits in London - you can take a different street you've never taken before, and discover something new and exciting that you've never seen. This was what happened to me on this occasion, as I found a marvellous bookshop called Judd Books which had a great selection of everything from travel and history to politics and languages, and all at very reasonable prices. In particular, there was a great section on the Balkans featuring some quite rare books. Made a mental note to return here on my way back home, as baggage allowances wouldn't allowed to take everything with me!

After leaving Judd Books, found another quirky little bookshop in a basement just off the Brunswick shopping arcade. Not quite as good value as Judd, but a great find nonetheless and it would be easy to spend a few hours there! As time was marching on we moved into the centre of London for a bite to eat before taking the train to Stansted for the bus to the B&B. The B&B was a pleasant surprise. Mercifully quiet, on a peaceful street 3 miles from the airport in the heart of Essex, it is easy to believe you are somewhere else entirely. The hotel owner was actually Polish so had a gold chat with him before settling I'm to put room. I think I made him homesick for his homeland!

After a quick drink in the room, we removed to the bar down the road that had been recommended to us, which was very small but turned out to be a delightful little country establishment where a drink and a home-cooked meal could be enjoyed. Characterised by wooden-beamed ceilings and food available until 11pm, little more could be asked for in such a pleasant location! As it was already 10 however, and we had already eaten, we retired to our room after one drink, to get a good nights sleep for tomorrows flight to Genova.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Cycle trip 4: Aberdeen to Kintore

Date: 21st April 2012
Length of route: 33.5 miles/53.9km
Route: Old Aberdeen-Bucksburn-Dyce-Blackburn-Kintore
Difficulty level: Medium

As I was doing some volunteering in Kintore this weekend, but had planned to do another cycle ride for some time, I decided to make the journey to Kintore by bicycle, as there are plenty of back country lanes along the way begging to be ridden on the bike. I started out as usual by leaving Old Aberdeen and taking the National Cycle Route 1 towards Dyce, which avoids most of the busy traffic, but involves a few slightly rough roads - although the off-road sections nearer to the airport are pleasant and smooth, and avoid the unpleasantries of the roundabout in the vicinity.

After going down by Dyce train station (for the airport), I turn onto the Fomartine and Buchan Way former railway for a short way before turning off onto the Pitmedden Road. Initially, this is a rough unpleasant road passing through an industrial estate, but as you come to the junction and cross over to continue on the same road, things quieten down and the vistas of the countryside start to open up, although there is a reasonable bit of climbing initially - although that simply means a great downhill on the way back. I passed a few fellow cyclists, but very few cars, on the way, all of whom nodded or acknowledged me - one of the pleasanter aspects of cycling, a bit like the greeters you meet traditionally on hiking trails.

As I was going along the back trails, I was intrigued to see an old railway carriage turned into a shed at one of the farms - it looked very old, and as the owner of the farm saw me photographing it, she informed me that it was very old, probably 1950's and that it was probably 'held together by paint'! An intriguing thing to be sure, and something you most likely wouldn't see as you go by in the car, although not many cars pass this way due to the narrowness of the path, making it perfect for cyclists.

Kintore itself is a very pleasant little town/village, with all the local produce and amenities you would expect in such an area - I had lunch in one of the local cafe's, a nice but rather salty chicken and leek soup. At the end of the day, I had the cycle back the same way I had come to look forward to, which actually involves an even nastier climb back up, thanks to the thrilling downhill I had taken on the way out. It was this that made me rank the ride overall as of medium difficulty, as the hill was not welcome at the end of the day, although I'm still thankful I was doing it on the new lighter bike rather than the heavier yellow bike - even if it did get rather wet! As I am wont to do, I made a couple of diversions on the way back, to see the runway lights of the airport, and also to see the old Dyce churchyard and some ancient monumental stones (which I didn't find, but were supposedly signposted that way). Nevertheless, this resulted in an overall milage of 33.5 miles - not bad for a day of cycling AND volunteering, but one that I slightly regretted the next day with the tiredness I felt... All in all though, apart from the rain on the way out, a pleasant and successful cycle ride, and easily the most ambitious I have yet undertaken in this area.

For full route information:

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

New brakes

Despite being only six months old, I was having problems with the front brake on my yellow bike, as it seemed to be stiff and wasn't braking effectively at all, despite having just fitted brand new brake pads and riding in dry weather. As such, I took it in to the bike shop to have it seen to, with the conclusion that the brakes were quite cheap and needed replacing. Since I mainly used the front brake, and to have both replaced would have been quite costly, I decided to have the front brake replaced and fitted, with the option of having the rear brake done at some future time. As you can see, the new brake looks considerably better quality than the old:


The new brake looks so good in fact, that it makes the brakes on my more expensive road bike look cheap. Nevertheless, the brakes on my new bike are more effective, as they have a very short drop, where-as the yellow bike requires brakes with a long drop, which inevitably compromises a little braking power. Still, it makes one wonder how my new bike would perform if I chose branded brakes for that at some future time. The world of bike customisation appears almost endless...

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Scottish Highlands trip: Day three - Corpach-Fort William-Inverness

Today was our last day, and we had a bit of time to spare in-between checking out of the hostel and our bus back to Inverness, we decided to use the time to do a bit of walking. Corpach, the village where we were staying, forms part of the Great Glen Way, the hiking trail from Fort William to Inverness. Since the part of the trail from Corpach leads all the way to the bus station in the centre of town, we decided to do that instead of taking the bus.

The beginning of the trail leads you past the tiny railway station in Corpach and out on to the water front, which on a clear day, affords an excellent view of Ben Nevis in the distance, with its snow caps gleaming. Luckily for us, the sun decided to come out as we started walking. After a short while, the track leads through a small foresty section onto what feels like a seafront, reminding you how close to the sea you actually are in Fort William, even though you can't see it.

Eventually, the route joins up with the road again for a short way, before bypassing a small island and then crossing over a railway bridge to lead you back towards town. As you go along the field, remains of an old castle can be seen on the left, reminding you that this was once Fort country held by the Romans many years ago. Although Fort William is obviously more residential now than anything else, it's tranquil location allows your imagination to wander back to those times with ease, and it is easy to get the impression that very little has changed in these parts for hundreds of years.

All in all, I can say that Fort William is my favourite part of Scotland that I have seen so far, hands down. The peace and tranquillity of the location, combined with the almost complete lack of modernity makes Fort William a very appealing spot for getting away from it all, and I most definitely intend to return before my time in Scotland is done.

Scottish Highlands trip: Day two - Inverness to Fort William

We had to be up early for the journey to Fort William for our bus at 8:45am - as we were all still tired, we struggled to stay awake on the bus, but it was worth it for the scenic journal and picturesque views. The road from Inverness to Fort William follows the Great Glen Way, a walking and cycling trail taking in Fort Augustus and going alongside the famous Caledonian Canal, designed by Thomas Telford, for a considerable way.

Although Fort William itself is not a beautifully picturesque town, it is a pleasant and charming place on the solitary High Street. Clearly though, it's majesty lies in its location. It is quite literally in the middle of nowhere, surrounded on all sides by unspoiled countryside and soaring mountains, not least of which is Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK at 1344m. It is truly a delight to be here, away from the mass populated and urban settlements of much of the rest of the UK. After arrival, we went to check in to our hostel, but as the check-in was not until 4:30pm (rather late, we thought), we left some of our things and went back into town.

Whilst in town, we ate dinner, then decided to go for a walk. At the back of the leisure centre in Fort William is the start of the hiking trail that leads up to Glen Nevis, Ben Nevis's little brother. Climbing swiftly, it is a wonderful little trail that affords some stunning views, in particular from a large painted Scottish flag on the ground. We spent some time here taking photos until the rain began to come down (again) and we headed downhill and took the bus back to our resting place for the night.

As we couldn't find anywhere reasonably priced to stay in the centre of town, we had booked a room in a cosy little cottage called Farr Cottage in a small village outside Fort William known as Corpach. As it turned out, this was an ideal place to stay whilst in the countryside, with it's own conservatory, bar and games to play and situated nicely on the edge of the river, it was extremely comfortable and welcoming. Particularly at night, when we were all playing games together in the back without a sound to be heard outside, you could almost convince yourself that you were in a ranch out in the American countryside. Such escapism from life as this is hard to find and I genuinely hope this little place retains its character in the future. I for one will definitely be returning, as I still intend to do the train journey from Fort William to Mallaig - now famous as the railway featured in the Harry Potter movies, but known long before this as one of the most scenic railway journeys in the world.

Scottish Highlands trip: Day one - Aberdeen to Inverness

It was decided before the Easter holidays that I, along with some of my classmates, would go on a trip together around the Scottish Highlands, taking in Inverness and Fort William, before the start of the new term. For the first day, we travelled to Inverness from Aberdeen using the Megabus coach service - costing just £1 each way, making travel very cheap and comfortable, although quite long - 4 hours in all to travel the 105 miles of the route.

Inverness is, essentially, the cultural capital of the Highlands, where most of the residents of the region to come down and do their shopping when looking for something a little more than food essentials and when wanting to experience some level of city life and human connections. Although not a large city, Inverness is the largest city of note in the north of Scotland, and is where the cultural life and commercial bustle meet.

Having said that, it certainly isn't overwhelming, and provides a nice, gentle introduction in the ways of Highland life, set as it is on the scenic Loch Ness with snow-capped mountains in the distance. As a starting point for our exploration of the city, we took a walk to the Ness islands, roughly a half walk from the city centre. These islands are really beautiful, full of green trees and swirling brooks, each very small and connected by a series of quaint Victorian bridges. I imagine it would be wonderful to walk there at night when it is lit up, although I'm not sure I'd be so confident to try it!

After our walk, we headed back to our hostel for dinner, which was located just up from the castle on the hilltop. This made for a very nice location, as our room was at the top and looked out over the lake and the surrounding countryside - very peaceful. After dinner, we were planning to go to Hootenanny's, the popular live music bar in these parts, but as everyone was tired we just decided to stay in the cosy living room of the hostel and chat over a few drinks - after which we retired to bed, looking forward to the journey to Fort William tomorrow! I'm not sure about the rest of the group, but it would be my first time there, and I was really looking forward to it.