I love those moments in photography when you do manage to lift the camera to your eye in that quick moment and get the shot on the hoof that really works.
I couldn’t believe my luck when this man strolled past an arched window in Marrakech. I try to keep my camera in hand, with the strap wrapped around my wrist to avoid any accidental drops, and switched on whenever I’m in a photogenic place and it really paid off here.
To me, he looks like a medieval monk on a secret mission, hunched over, hurrying and not wanting anyone to know who he is.
Possibly my favourite photo of the year but I’ll see what you all think!
It has been lovely to relive the summer days high in the mountains of Northern Tuscany. Our final hike was to the summit of Monte Prado, the highest of the peaks in the Tuscan part of the Apennines.
It was a stunning day – just a few puffy clouds in a perfect blue sky. Once we had climbed out of the village and ascended, most of the walk was along ridges, with staggering views in every direction. I loved it. For some reason, though, I have very few photos from the day. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t because my battery ran out – maybe I was just concentrating on the walking with legs aching from so many steep climbs in the week!
So here are my last few photos from my wonderful Tuscan week.
My first post about Garfagnana took in three glorious walks and plenty of sumptuous pictures of the gorgeous place I stayed. With two more walks to write about, I feel nostalgic for those hikes and the stunning scenery they took me through. My last trip to Italy had been back in 1989; after my week in July, I’m determined not to leave it so long again. When we have the whole world to explore, it’s sometimes easy to forget the riches right on our own doorstep.
Our fourth walk was another circuit; not as high as other days, as the weather forecast wasn’t so good.
The weather was glorious as we set off and climbed higher, passing through a small village where most of us stopped to splash ourselves with cool, crisp, clean water from the village tap. I love the fact that in this part of Italy, the water is so good that you can quite safely drink from the communal tap.
As we left the village, we entered woodland for about 40 minutes. The flowers were gorgeous and pausing to take photos gave me a great excuse to rest in between steep upward trekking!
We emerged from the woods onto a plateau with a vast escarpment above. There’s some kind of technical term for the glacial bowl that formed the plateau but I’ll be buggered if I can remember what that is! Anyhow, it was incredibly pretty, with little stone huts and at the far end a steep-roofed church that fitted perfectly with the trees and rocks behind.
Onward! And into more woodland. The skies darkened and a storm was threatening. Our leader, Liz, reckoned we had just enough time to walk out onto the lookout point before the storm rolled in, so those of us brave enough to go, did. The dogs weren’t happy about it though!
Fortunately Liz had planned her walk well; the promontory that formed the lookout was steps away from a refuge. We started out on the ‘back porch’ but looking at the speed of the incoming storm, we quickly retreated inside. At first we couldn’t see a thing but eventually the eyes adjusted. It was a lovely little place and eating lunch on the pews of this little chapel was great.
There’s nothing quite like the freshness of mountain air straight after rain. Somehow the colours seemed sharper too. As we descended, I was stopping every few seconds to capture the delicate, glorious flowers and baccipretti.
Join me again (tomorrow I hope!) for my final walk in Tuscany.
I started a new job in August. Blogging, creative writing and photography have all taken a backseat while I have been settling in at the Oxford Martin School, part of the University of Oxford. It’s a great job and my first big project was to launch a report called ‘Now for the Long Term’, which makes recommendations to switch political and business focus from short term pressures to long term needs. It has been an exciting time and I’ve met fascinating people, from Pascal Lamy, former Director-General of the World Trade Organisation, to Al Gore, former US vice-president.
But now it’s time to make time for my personal passions. Before I started the job, I booked myself onto a wonderful week-long walking holiday in Tuscany. A small group travelled to an area in the north of the well-known region, which is a far cry from the busy, bustling tourist Tuscany that is flooded with us Brits each year.
Our wonderful tour leader, Liz, met us at the airport and made a quick nip into the centre of Pisa, so those of us who had never been could take in the leaning tower. I just couldn’t resist the very cheesy photo…
This was a week of pretty strenuous walks; we walked steeply up into the mountains most days, seeing very few people as we wended our way up to staggeringly gorgeous views. What really made the trip was having a picture perfect base to wake up in and return to each day. Braccicorti is an agritourismo – an agricultural location that welcomes guests into the farmhouse. Braccicorti is a stunner; it is run by a welcoming, friendly family who make glorious food from mainly homegrown ingredients (or local where it’s not produced on their land). And the setting couldn’t be better. I had a room with a view and there was a fabulous swimming pool for that essential post-hike swim. Here’s a selection of pics to give you a feel for just what an idyllic place it was.
The walks themselves were no less stunning. Here’s a selection of pictures from day one, which took us pretty high up.
Day two saw us climb higher – to 1,754 metres to the summit of Mount Sumbra. Another stunning hike.
Day three was a hot one but I didn’t mind at all, as we took a circular walk in the valley – no uphill climbing means I can cope with any amount of heat! Revisiting these photos in depths of late, chilly & dark, autumn is a joy. I am transported right back into the fields, villages and heat of those July days.
After three days’ walking, we were due for a break. I had been to Lucca in the past, so I decided to stay local and go to the local town – Castelnuovo. The rest of the group did too; I think everyone was too knackered to get up for an early train! It’s a sweet town but I failed to take a single decent photo apart from our gorgeous lunch – a deli just outside the town walls put together a great plate of cheeses and nibbles for us.
Two more days’ walking to come but I’ll leave that for another day!
It’s hard to believe that it’s already two months ago that I was anticipating the arrival in San Francisco of my dear friend Heather. The wonderful thing about blogging after the event is that it gives me a great way to remember every laugh, every bit of sight-seeing and every glorious glass of California red drunk!
There are many fab things to do in SF and I would put The Japanese Tea Garden right up there near the top of the list. It’s a glorious little corner of delicate loveliness. To get there, we walked up through Haight Ashbury, as we had to have a little look at the ‘hippy’ area.
It was a really bright day, so my pictures of the Japanese Tea Garden aren’t brilliant but hopefully these will give you an idea of how nice it is.
We also sauntered around the Botanical Gardens. I like the way the gardens are divided into the world’s regions, so that you step from one type of flora to another.
The next day’s sightseeing was to Mission Dolores and to see the Mission district murals. The first is San Francisco’s oldest building. It’s thick adobe walls mean that it has withstood all the earthquakes. It’s a wonderful chapel with a cathedral next door and I’m glad I visited.
The murals are great. We didn’t have much time, as we were heading off to meet my Aunt and Uncle, flying in from Atlanta that morning, but what we did see were wonderful.
And then it was time to reunite. I have the most welcoming family imaginable in the states and they all ‘re-adopted’ my friend Heather in super quick time (it had been many years since she had visited Boston with me).
Thursday dawned bright and clear again. No San Francisco fog for us at all! After a morning at the Asian Art Museum, we headed off for Sausalito, for gorgeous ice cream and a very hospitable bar, The Wellington Arms pretending (and failing in the best way possible) to be an English pub!
Friday was Dave’s birthday and it was off to Alcatraz for us. I had underestimated how interesting it would be. The culture snob in me couldn’t figure out what could be so fascinating about a prison. I stand corrected. It was superb. Great location with amazing views back to the city and an audio tour that immerses you in the prison stories. I highly recommend going. Alaz (see what I did there?!?!), I forgot my camera.
The day finished with an undoubted highlight of the trip; supper in a private dining room at Restaurant Gary Danko. Great food, pretty place and the best company.
The menu was mouth-watering.
I started with Lobster salad, moved onto the scallops, main course was seared tuna, then cheese and finally a lovely dessert that I failed to snap!
San Francisco has some exquisite museums. SFMOMA, the De Young, the Legion of Honor and the Asian Art Museum were the ones I visited on this trip. I enjoyed all three, although I think the Legion of Honor just pips the others to the post.
SFMOMA is now shut for a few years for extensive work, so I’m glad that I visited when I did. The building is a fantastic example of modern architecture; shapely, colourful and light. The highlight of my visit there was the superb Garry Winogrand exhibition. His work is raw street photography at its best and it was a wonderful reminder of why I love this art form. It’s touring to Washington, New York, Paris and Madrid and I may just have to have a weekend in Madrid to see it again!
The day was hot and lovely and after our early start for Glide (an absolute must if you’re visiting San Francisco – see my blog about it here), we were exhausted. Couldn’t resist this snap with Mr Cohiba as we walked toward a sunny spot.
We sat for a while in the Yerba Buena gardens to people watch.
That evening, we hooked up again with my cousin, who works at the new and rather fabulous San Francisco Jazz Center. Andrew’s friend Yoni was with us and we started the evening with Pinot Noir. As Andrew commented ‘You guys have a real problem saying no to Pinot’. It’s true. Very little really good Californian wine is exported to the UK and I really do enjoy the Pinot Noirs that small batch producers create in this sunny state.
We had a great evening, watching banjo player Bela Fleck whilst keeping up to date with his wife in labour via his mobile phone. It should have felt distracting but in fact it was a privilege to be part of it!
The Jazz Center won’t be in any guide books yet, as it’s new. I recommend checking it out if you’re heading to SF. Even if there isn’t a gig that interests you, the food and drink in the bar are superb and the staff are that wonderful breed of U.S. people – truly customer-focused, delivering friendly and attentative service. Okay, I’m biased, as my cousin is a barman there, but…
Monday morning dawned bright and sunny again. We headed off early, intending to visit the Legion of Honor before walking to the Golden Gate Bridge. Alas, we hadn’t read our guide books accurately and the museum was shut but it didn’t matter, as we had intended to hike from Land’s End to the bridge and over anyway. I had walked part of this route with my cousin on the previous Sunday but from the bridge to Sutro Baths. This way round was so much better – each corner we turned gave a new view of the bridge and the coastline is beautiful. Here’s the pics, so you can judge for yourself. The paths are clearly marked and once again, I’d factor this in as an absolute must.
I’m glad we decided not to hire bikes for our bridge visit. Walking over meant that we took our time to take in the architecture, the glow of the ‘International Orange’ paint (note that one down for trivia quizzes!) and the views. It’s only 2km across, so a walk there and back is a breeze (literally – do take something warm, even on a sunny day!)
I would love to showcase Heather’s pictures here, as they are heaps better than mine but you’ll have to make do with what I have!
Over the next couple of days, we visited three more musuems. The de Young is in Golden Gate Park and is a controversial building, as it was resisted by many locals. I’m a fan of modern and striking architecture in unexpected settings but I struggled to see the beauty in the design. However, inside it really works. We went round with a wonderful docent called Lenore, who introduced us to art we simply might have glossed over had we wandered around unguided. It’s worth considering if you go there. Oh, a do make time to go up to the viewing platform – more great views of the city!
We successfully went back to the Legion of Honor, which has the second largest collection of Rodin sculptures in the world. It was exquisite and I very nearly missed it – all thanks to H for spotting that this was something we definitely should get to.
Our third museum was the Asian Art Museum, filled with a mouth-watering array of treasures from all over Asia. Again, we joined a docent, who took us round some of the highlights. As in many museums, Heather and I challenged each other to pick just *one* item that we would take home if we could. We squabbled over this gorgeous rhinoceros and she won.
As I couldn’t snaffle the rhino, I went for a delicate Japanese figure. His enigmatic face makes me happy. I don’t ‘do’ ornaments but if I could lay my hands on something like this, perhaps I would!
A few years’ ago I went on a fantastic trip to Cuba (I can recommend Intrepid Travel‘s itinerary – it was a scorcher!). From one two week trip I made six really wonderful friends, three who (now) live in Australia, one in Cuba and two in California.
Janet and Carol, my Californian friends, weren’t on the same trip as I was but it was these two fantastic women with whom I shared most late nights, as most of my group tended to go home quite early. I chatted happily with Janet and Carol in between fantastic dances with their tour leader, Roger.
When I went to Burma in December, it was a real kick to meet up with Carol and Janet for lunch in the capital, Yangon – they were on the last day of their trip and we were on the first day of ours.
As soon as I confirmed that I would be visiting California, I got in touch with Carol and Janet. Not for us a quick lunch in San Francisco – no, the plan was for Janet and I to travel up from the Bay Area to Carol’s place in Humboldt County. I was excited to get into the heart of the redwood forests.
I had completely underestimated, though, just how wonderfully remote Carol’s place was. I had the most fantastic few days, in a place of such peace and calm that if I hadn’t been returning to meet my lovely friend from the U.K. and to reunite with the U.S. branch of my family, I think I may have skipped town altogether!
Janet gamely agreed to travel up Route 1 instead of the quicker Route 101, just so that I could get the feel of the coastal road. Wow, it winds and winds and winds! There were stunning views all the time and it was certainly worth feeling dizzy. For some inexplicable reason, I didn’t take a single photo. I’m blaming the jet lag.
Finally we moved inland and Janet pulled over to let me see my first Redwood Grove. It’s amazing to me that such mighty trees are growing right next to the road – sometimes even beginning to encroach upon it.
After a good eight or so hours on the road, we arrived and Janet pulled off the road onto a dusty track. As we wound up the hill, I was enchanted by the views of meadows. It simply wasn’t what I expected.
That evening we caught up, ate, drank and laughed. All the time, the view from Carol’s deck beguiled me and I came back to it time and again during my few days. I loved it best in the morning, when the breeze rustled the beech tree, the wind chimes sang and the crickets (cicadas?) chirrupped noisily but no other sound could be heard. I meditated, I did some yoga, I read. I was calm.
This short clip doesn’t do justice to it but it helps remind me of the peace…
Carol, Dexter (the dog), me and Janet on the deck:
Janet left the morning after we arrived (all thanks for her for making the trip when she had to dash back!) and Carol, Dexter and I set off for a lovely long hike through meadows and pine woods over to friends about seven miles away. It was a glorious day – clear blue skies but not blisteringly hot.
The next day Carol took me to the ‘Avenue of the Giants’, which delivers what it promises…great big glorious redwoods! Stunning.
It was a wonderful trip and I shall always treasure both the views and the conversations. It has certainly opened my eyes to just how beautiful California is and I will return to see more of it.
Thank you, Carol, for such a lovely visit and to Janet for driving up there!
Next time, back to San Francisco for wine, sight-seeing, family reunions and glorious food!
I’ve had a busy few weeks, so my poor little blog feels rather neglected. I was expecting sun today but as it hasn’t appeared, I’ve finally had a chance to stay in and do a wee bit of editing.
My trip to San Francisco began with the first of many superb brunches at Kate’s Kitchen, just round the corner from my cousin’s apartment. I don’t have photos but I can tell you that if you’re in the area, it’s a must visit. Featured on the front of Jimmy Smith’s ‘Home Cookin’, it’s a great little place with the best scrambled eggs I’ve ever had.
Fuelled up, we set off for Marina Green to begin a six mile walk up round by the Golden Gate Bridge, round the coastal path to Land’s End.
The walk gave us a chance to catch up on a few years’ of gossip. It doesn’t matter a jot that I’m 19 years older than Andrew; we have heaps to talk about. I did manage to look at view after view of the bridge, though. I’m sure someone has written a great book about the psychology of bridges, investigating why they have such an impact on us? It’s not just the fantastic engineering; there’s something that goes much much deeper than that. Whatever the deep-seated fascination, the Golden Gate really does have a visual pull and I took too many photos. Here’s my gallery:
Our end goal was Cliff House, the bistro complex on the site of the old Sutro Baths. It’s a stunning location. With spectacular views of the setting sun, we had a hoot of an evening. A friend of Andrew’s works there, so we sat at the bar, noshing on really rather gorgeous food including a scrummy tuna tartare. Entertainment was provided by a very good-looking guy who ‘races powerboats’. I missed a cue early on in the conversation (old age; getting deaf) and thought he meant speedboats, actual boats that people sit in. Nope. We’re talking remote controlled boats; the kind that sad whiskery guys put on park ponds on Sunday mornings. I’m sure it was all BS, as believe me, I had a wee look around the internet and couldn’t find any evidence of him or the well-paid professional circuit he was ‘leading’ in. But it was entertaining stuff, particularly when he said I could ‘take’ his number in case I wanted to hook up later in the week. I didn’t laugh. I played nice.
A fun end to a superb first day of sight-seeting. The hike was the perfect way to start a San Francisco trip – it cleared the jet lag and gave me heaps of views of that international orange bridge.
Join me next time, when I’ll be off to get back to the Land in Humboldt County.
On the second day in Morocco my friend Liz and I decided a day trip out of the city was in order. A lovely couple from our Riad decided to join us and I imagined a trip for just the four of us. I should have realised that for 200 dirham it wouldn’t be quite that exclusive!
We were taken by taxi to a petrol station near the Koutoubia Mosque, where we joined about 15 others on a minibus.
It was a nice trip but rather cheesy. We headed into the Ourika Valley.
Our first stop was at a herb/argan oil place. Although touristy, it was genuinely interesting and I bought Amber perfume, which I love (still haven’t quite worked out what Amber actually IS though!).
Onto our next stop, which was truly cringe-worthy. A beautiful Berber man guided us round a ‘traditional Berber house’. I don’t like being shown round people’s houses when I’m not a real guest. What need do I have of gawping at someone’s bedroom or storeroom? I was glad to leave simply because I felt it was a plastic experience.
We headed up the valley to go see some waterfalls. This was huge fun, with local daytrippers as well as international visitors.
Clambering ensued, to reach a small and then a larger (just) waterfall. They weren’t spectacular but it was fun watching our guide scamper around sure-footed as a mountain goat, helping everyone from slip-sliding middle-aged women to a five-year old girl. Moroccan men showed off by leaping from rock to rock, while women with high heels or backless slip ons tip-toed up and down, much to our amazement.
I have no photos, as they died in my memory card crash. Hot and thirsty, we tripped back to the city and headed for our rooftop haunt to watch the sunset and the world going about its business.
It was a touristy, fun day. I wouldn’t particularly recommend the trip we did but it’s a nice punctuation if you’re only going to be in Marrakech and want to see something else of Morocco.
Our third and final day started early-ish. The Majorelle Garden was top of my list of things to do as, along with the Ben Youssef Medersa, I had missed it last time. I had read that it’s super busy by 10 a.m. so my original plan was to be there for eight. That didn’t happen but thankfully it was still quiet when we got there at 9 am. I really would recommend being the first in, as by the time we left, it was getting busier.
You can read about the gardens here. It’s a gorgeous walled garden, filled with water features, the famous ‘majorelle’ blue at every turn and urn, and is delicious in its clever walkways and bowers.
It is also very difficult to photogrpah! Here’s my poorly attempts at capturing some of the delight.
We returned to the square – well, it was time for coffee and, of course, more people-watching!
Next up was some actual shopping rather than simply ‘souking’ up the atmosphere. Liz wanted a rug. I didn’t, as there is no space for any more. We headed for the carpet section and I was immediately distracted by a cute little kitten.
Liz bought a rug and, inevitably, I did too! I have a high atlas one (traditional deep red kilim) but simply couldn’t resist the Berber colours and designs.
Once you have decided to buy a rug, it’s a hugely enjoyable process. The key to it is to start with a rough budget in your head. If you can afford to spend £100, for example, don’t go crazy and spend double the amount!
Choose your shop, accept a glass of mint tea, sit back and let the show begin. As many rugs as you want to see will be arranged in front of you. Then you narrow it down to two or three. If you don’t think they’re quite right, look at more until you stumble across ‘the one’, the rug that makes your heart sing.
Once you have it sight, start the negotiations, keeping hold of your budget and feeling confident that hard-bargaining on both sides is all part of the fun. If you can’t get down to a price you’re comfortable with, then be prepared to walk away.
But don’t walk away too early as a tactic!
I don’t know why I thought I would come away empty-handed. As Liz bought her big rug, I salivated over another that she had rejected. Alas, it was way outside my budget so I negotiated on a smaller one instead. We were all happy!
We couldn’t leave before trying out a traditional Berber wedding cloak!
More shopping and then lunch. Yes, you’ve guessed it – more people-watching.
We wandered around and deliberately got lost. Now that we had done our essential shopping, we were happy just to discover.
By this time we needed a rest. On the way back to our Riad, I took three of my favourite photos of the weekend.
Our pretty Riad was the perfect place for a rest.
Before we knew it, it was time for our final night in the Jemaa el-Fnaa. The food from the stalls is far more interesting than what we had eaten in restaurants and I only wish I hadn’t been so chicken before!
And so the long weekend drew to a close…back home to cold old Britain!