Thursday, August 28, 2014

A Midge Too Far: West Highland Way

(Scratch, scratch, scratch)

In Scotland, they have these flying insects called "midgeys". They're smaller than New Zealand sandflies, so one can be lulled into a false sense of security. At first the bites aren't bad, but after a few days they swell up and are crazy itchy.

Midgey Legs, Despite Wearing Gators

My friend M (from NZ) lives in Scotland, and we both wanted to walk the West Highland Way. The full WHW runs for about 150 kms, from just north of Glasgow to Fort William. We were limited on time, however, so we joined the route at the Bridge of Orchy, leaving us the northern 60 kms to complete. That's the hillier end of the walk.

My trip started badly. As I was doing up my pack to head to the station, my hand slid across the edge of my 3-blade razor: lots of blood! I wrapped a 10m piece of gauze around my finger, and made it to the train on time.

The first day of our walk crossed the edge of Rannoch Moor. I'm not quite sure why Rannoch is famous, but the Scots seem very attached to it. Maybe it's just the right ratio of swamp to mosquitoes.

(Scratch, scratch, scratch)

The first night, we made camp at the Glen Coe Mountain Resort. Glen Coe valley is famous as the scene of the massacre of the MacDonalds by their guests the Campbells.

Speaking of plagues upon the earth (the Campbells), the camping ground was plagued with midgeys - they swarmed in clouds around us and we were forced to wear head nets, which are about as annoying as a plague of insects themselves.

We had dinner at the nearby King's House Hotel, which dates from the 17th century.

Some people use baggage carrying services to transport their luggage along the route. We went old school, carrying the full camping kit and food. 

It's possible we were unused to the rigors of tramping, because despite sleeping in a tent next to a car park, we slept for around 11 hours. It was a bad day to start late, because this was our day climbing the Devil's Staircase.


Looking up the zigzagging Devil's Staircase:

Looking back down from above:

My guidebook said that there was a geocache hidden in the cairn at the top of the pass, but as I hunted for it I only found some used underwear. It then became awkward, because my companion decided I was specifically looking for worn undies.

After a long decent, we arrived in Kinlochlevin, which appeared to be a hotbed of anti-English sentiment.

After a long day of walking, we couldn't decide between cooking spaghetti bolognese on the camp stove or buying fish and chips for tea, so we had both.

(Scratch, scratch, scratch)

Day 3 saw us doing another steep climb, before skirting around Ben Nevis to arrive at Fort William. From there, we caught the evening train back to civilisation.

Back in Edinburgh, I celebrated by drinking a milkshake made out of a blended up scone with jam and cream. I know that sounds piggy, but I passed on the one made out of a blended up black forest gateau, so I was actually quite abstemious.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Twerp goes to Antwerp (II)

Antwerp itself is a pretty town. I had planned to spend a day there, but because the ride there was far longer than I expected, I only had an hour before I had to start cycling again.

Heading back up through Holland, I stopped to take a photo of this horse trap passing me.

As I did so, I noticed that one of my panniers was hanging off the bike at a crazy angle. One of the bolts had pulled loose.

Luckily, the bolt was still sitting in the housing and I was able to reattach it.

On the ride, I saw more tulips in the wild than I did on my previous trip to the tulip district around Keukenhof.

So, that was a great ride. I did over 400 kms in 4 and a half days.

This was my favourite part of the trip. Some genius in the marketing department decided to name their chain of petrol stations "Firezone"

A Twerp goes to Antwerp (i)

Over the May Bank Holiday, I once again went cycling in Benelux: this was my fifth trip now and I'm not sick of it. I tried to catch the evening train from Cambridge to Harwich, but because the rail companies are terrible, we were dumped at Ipswich. I had to scramble to catch several extra trains - with a fully loaded bike - and just made it to the ferry before the office closed.

On the Ferry, Waiting to Roll Out

I took the North Sea Route and headed south down the coast. It was the same route that I rode on my first trip in 2009. I made good progress on the first day (120 kms) and made it down to the bottom of Holland, camping a little north of Middelburg.

The camping ground had a nice restaurant, but I couldn't make out a word of the menu so I ordered the house specialty, which turned out to be king prawns in a butter soup. It was nice, although I'm not sure of its nutritional value (actually, I am - not good).

In the morning, I turned east and headed towards Antwerp. There was a headwind and my progress was slow. I had also misjudged the distance. What I expected to be 60 kms turned out to be another day above 100 kms. While I had a detailed map of Holland, it petered out around the Belgian border and it took me a long, confusing stretch of cycling through an industrial zone before I got to the town centre.

On the way, I encountered my second Benelux cycle race.

Despite the bottle of sunscreen in the photo, I didn't bother to apply any and I now have the outline of my lycra shorts burned into my legs. It's 1 inch lower than the bottom of my rugby shorts, meaning I have a 1 inch white stripe around my legs when I play touch.

I cycled through Antwerp, looking for a bridge across the river to the camping ground. I was exhausted, and the kilometer count continued to mount. I couldn't work out why there wasn't a bridge. (Antwerp actually has escalators that carry you down below the river, and then you cycle under the river before climbing up again.)

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Czech it Out! Prague (3)

On my final day in Prague, death was a theme.

First I went to Olšany Cemetery (which is actually 12 cemeteries) with up to 2 million burials. It's one of the oldest graveyards I've seen, because it was originally created as a plague pit in 1679. Due to its vast size, I couldn't find the plague monument. I pulled out my finest charades move, but it's actually pretty difficult to mime the plague, and the disinterested groundskeeper pointed me towards Franz Kafka's grave instead. Did he die with armpit buboes? I don't think so.

Quite a few graves featured this bird motif.

Unexpectedly, in one corner is a Commonwealth War Graves graveyard, with an over-representation of young Kiwis.

There's also a section for Russian soldiers, with their traditional high body count.

One of the churches in the middle is surrounded by unusual cross. I believe that's an orthodox church.

The New Jewish Cemetery at Olšany is, if anything, more conservative looking than the Christian parts.

As mentioned, its most famous inhabitant is Franz Kafka. Finding it was a bit of trial, although I'm not sure why.

Most striking to me were the plaques on the wall to Jewish residents of Prague who were murdered in WWII.

I then headed back to Prague's Jewish Quarter. The Old Jewish Cemetery dates back to at least 1439. It only covers a small area, but has as many as 100,000 burials. To enable them to fit, extra layers of soil were put down and new graves built on top of old ones. There are 12 layers of graves. It makes for a very chaotic scene.

Certainly the Prague Jews did not fair well in WWII, but the city's 6 synagogues did survive - something that did not happen in a lot of German-occupied cities.

The High Synagogue

The Jubilee Synagogue

Then there was just time for me to stuff my face with one more round of goulash at a golem-themed restaurant before heading to the airport. Excellent trip: I loved the Czech Republic.

Czech it Out! Prague (2)

I was surprised by how busy Prague was, for the shoulder season. However, it is the 6th most visited city in Europe (4.4 million visitors per year) so I guess it's busy all year round.

This is the point on the Charles bridge where John of Nepomuk was thrown into the river for refusing to disclose the queen's confession to the king. The stars around his head represent the stars that appeared on the water when he drowned.

That King was Wenceslas IV, who was also heavily involved in the Hus affair. Bad King Wenceslas?

People being thrown out of, or into, things is something of a feature of Czech history. There were 2 famous defenestrations that led to wars. In the second, in 1618, 3 noblemen were thrown out of a window in Prague castle and fell 70 feet. All 3 survived. Wikipedia notes that: "Catholics maintain the men were saved by angels, who caught them; Protestants believe they fell into a heap of horse manure". Isn't history great?

Near the castle I visited another St Nicolas's church, or as the Czechs call it, Kostel sv. Mikuláše. This one was a bit flasher on the inside.

Then it was a quick jaunt down the road to another cathedral: St Vitus's. This is another impressive slab of building.

I did the various tours around the castle. I wanted a photo of the defenestration window, but some American girls were standing in the way and their high-pitched squawking drove me from the room. I could see the appeal of defenestration.

In the evening, I roamed the streets taking photos.

More love locks on the bridge.

I then finished the evening with a violin concert at Clam Gallas Palace, where both Mozart and Beethoven played. It was breathtakingly magical.

I then strolled back through the old town, past Our Lady church...

and watched the Astronomical Clock report the hour. The American man next to me asked loudly "Was that it?". Yes, you hillbilly, that was it and it's been doing that, with limited interruption, since 1410.

One street over from the clock, I found an icecream bar and ordered a sundae with bananas and peaches. When it arrived, it was huge. A couple of spectators gave me worried looks, but I smiled back knowingly. I've dealt with oversized European puddings before and this one disappeared pretty fast.