Puccini, porcini, pesto, pasta and the Alpi Apuane – ciao Annie

With a British summer of searing sunshine and blue skies a distant memory it was time to track down the ever considered but never explored mountains of Tuscany.  3 hours on a nifty BA flight, a chaotic Pisa airport, a 10 minute bus trip and the Leaning Tower all pillars and posts was before us..

The Leaning Tower of Pisa

A swift Moretti, a slice of pizza, a riverside gelato and it was all aboard for a taxi ride to the magnificent mountains of Garfagnana where we were greeted with a sun setting across the mountains.

Swimming pool of Tuscany at sunset

A quick dip, well I wanted a swimming gala but sadly no one was playing, then down to the farmhouse of the agriturismo Braccicorti – hello Rupert and Angela, for a hearty Tuscan supper and a few not quite so fine glasses of the local vino rosso.  Ouch.

Garfagnana, Tuscany, Tuscan walks

Morning mist in the valleys

Fab early morning with a little inversion and Incredible views across the valley, vineyards heavy with grapes, figs on the trees, chestnuts, nectarines, apples, plums and more.  This was like an exotic version of Kent, but more than a tad warmer.

A view of vines set to the mountains

Surrounded by produce – all ready for the eating.

Sunday saw a jolly little stride out through the valleys and up into one or two Tuscan villages, a church here a church there but never too far from a glass of birra or a powerful espresso, but as far from Starbucks or Costa as you can get…..no complaints here.

View of Tuscan rooftops

Tuscan tiled roofs viewed from the ramparts of Castiglione

Pania di Corfino was on the agenda for Team Blighty, with a hunt for wild boar and chestnuts, had I misheard?  No matter on we crashed through the  heavily wooded and very beautiful Orecchiella Park breaking out to an impressive open summit – no great pics, sorry.  A ‘nice’ but not challenging day with a sun drenched café finish in town.

Bilberry fields surround Monte Prado

Bilberries, the leaves as scarlet as it is possible to be

Having found no Porcini thus far, plenty of locals plundering the woodland tho’, a punishing climb across the Bilberry fields it was, oh and apparently more Porcini woodland, uh huh.  Monte Prado and the Apennine ridge on the border of Toscana and Emilia Romana a stunning display and beyond anything I have seen even the boldest of Lake District seasons did not compare.

The intrepid guide Clare, season-after-season but even she had never had a season like this.  The downside is the berries are teeny weeny and even the locals need special devices to pick sufficient to make the tiniest pot of jam…. The walk to the summit was easily followed and well worth the effort.

Bilberry fields en route to Monte Prado


Exhausted by the hills it was time for some culture – and with a toot toot of the local train – we were Lucca bound.  A little known but ancient Etruscan city, once ruled by Napoleon’s sister and the birthplace of Puccini, a Pope and a number of other well knowns.  Protected by high ancient walls and filled with interesting buildings of ages past but most importantly host to some of the best grub in the region – this city is well worth a visit.

A statue of Puccing in Lucca

Puccini – resting outside his museum

But enough of this nonsense we were here to march and march we would.  Boots squeezed on and a stride out to Campocatino and on up to the hermits cave.  A seemingly easy walk, but we managed to take a few off pistes, the worst culminating in a challenging clamber across a mushroom clad wood, no porcini, with hidden precipices all trying to lure us their way.

At last some locally sourced Porcini, not picked by us, but purchased by us for a pirate’s ransom.  Delicious.

A pastoral village in Tuscany

Campocatino shepherd’s village

This is an area well worth exploring, known for its bike trails as well as its walking.  The locals have shot most of the birds and the wildlife has suffered too.  Gradually the focus is changing so cross fingers the wildlife will start to return.  The landscapes remain incredible, the hospitality better than France, the food locally sourced, generally fabulous and not insanely priced.

Visit when you can.  It really is well worth a little of your time.

Snow-sleet-ice and a 5 star lunch ahead it would be rude not to…Montreuil here we come

Setting off for Le Touquet in the trusted steed, a beaten up Mitsubishi Outlander, wondering whether the very grey sky was hinting at more snow to come…ummmm my previous trip out had seen a selection of Sevenoaks finest beasts, Mercedes, Beamers and Bentleys doing their mechanical interpretation of Skating on Ice….twits.

Snowy roads in Kent

Snowtastic bob-sleigh roads of Kent

Nothing ventured…off to Le Touquet it was for Alessandra and Annie.  Straight down the M20, onto the Shuttle and boom France in 35 minutes.  Crumbs they are closer than I thought.

A quick dash to Montreuil sur Mer (no longer on the mer though).  A great little fortified, village with narrow cobbled streets and a range of gastronomic stunners.  Previously ruled by both the Brits and the Spanish now firmly and delightfully French.

Picture of Langoustine Starter

Le Patio – followed the locals to this  joint – brilliant

Montreuil – spot on – for a winter afternoon stroll around the ramparts, a quick look at the wine shops and a nod to the Wine Society before we hit the road crossing vast snow covered hills to arrive at Paris sur Plage aka Le Touquet and the Thalasso treats of our spa.

Jumping on the beach at Le Touquet

Jumping for joy – miles of snow covered beaches downtown Le Touquet

The spa is brilliant.  Massive salt water pool, steamy hamman and zillions of very fat French men walking around in dressing gowns and slippers with chihuahua’s in their designer man bags.

Summer prices will be evil but Ale, bargain hunter, snapped up a great price…yee ha.

The beach at Le Touquet with snow on the sand

Snow and ice with a temperature of -x but wow.

The walks, the sand, the beach sailing, the parapenting, the horses….my idea of heaven.  After a ten miler, 50 lengths of the pool, and a quick jog in the gym it was off to “A Table” for an 8 Euro bottle of wine, quality non-stop!

Sunday on the beach at Le Touquet

Cannot imagine a better Sunday than striding up this glorious beach, before heading out to Etaples

Next stop Etaples and the apallingly named, Planete Ocean, for the best fish this side of, well Le Touquet I guess.  Not cheap but wow.   Oysters, scallops and a glutton of bouillabaisse.

Etaples fishermen's stalls being redeveloped

Too cold for the fishermen to sell their fish today?

This is such an easy trip for those of us in the South.  Le Shuttle from less than £100, hotels from less than £50, if you remember the supermarkets are closed on Sunday you may even be lucky enough to nab some cheap Bordeaux, Dijon and Remoulade……oh dear.

Annie on the beach at Le Touquet

What a trip. Even the locals were nice. Do it you know you want to.

Lugnaquilla….what on earth

Annie, missing the company of various mutts got a welcome invite to join some mates in a clamber up Ireland’s 13th highest mountain, at 925 metres and with views across the Irish sea to Snowdonia on a sunny day, the march up Lugnaquilla was a trip not to be missed.

Getting up at the crackle of dawn (in Ireland this appears to be just past 09.00 hrs) and jumping in a somewhat iconic car, a great beast of an old Citroen, the adventure was already underway.  Nearing Glenmalure from Dublin, via Glendalough, (a few detours avoided with the GPS of an old iPhone) we arrived at the first car park, then the second and the ….fourth, yes keep going to the end of the valley and you will be in the right place, we know this as a fell runner from New Zealand told us.  Taking a map should have been a prerequisite but hey this team was being led by Irish so sensible did not feature.

Ummm a few signs and a little reading taught us that the road we were on was built by the military, very narrow with the steep walls of the u-shaped valley climbing up-up-up it feels like miles before you hit the final car park.  (It was only when reading up on the walk, after a few days, that we realised we had walked across a firing range in error….)

The route from the car took us across a footbridge and then striding out we passed a quaint little hostel, stopped for a chat with the landlady who bizarrely has never climbed the mountain, did not know where the path was and had no idea how long it might take…why is she running the hostel?

After a while we hung a left up a forest track and dived straight into the glen and it’s beautfiul river and waterfall, we then spent most of our time looking for the obvious path up, it wasn’t obvious, was very boggy and pretty dangerous….thank the Lord for my new shoes, waterproof with extra grip.

At the top of the Wicklow mountains

We met a total of three other people in our five hour trek, this is not like the English hills, much more remote and untrodden and our decision to make out our own route on the way down was not very wise, or was it?  We scrambled down cliffs and peat bogs, almost fell into rivers and got a few scrapes and bruises, but eventually found a dry grassy spot for our lunch stop totally surrounded by steep hills with stunning views right across to Wicklow and the Irish Sea.If you have mates in Dublin make sure they take you up the Lug, but don’t try to pronounce that in front of the local linguist who was in charge of guiding and all things picnic, and proud of it, or you will be shamed….I was.  Another great stride out but I missed having the company of a mutt or two.

Sand, more sand, dunes, lizards and bugs….the Namib desert was the best of the visit…

A great heave of a Landy turned up at the hotel to take us on our tour of the desert, yes ok it does sound a bit Club 18-30 but there is no way a trip into the middle of the Namib should be taken lightly and Turnstone Tours are ace. 

The highlight of the trip for me was seeing the bacteria filled red water which is responsible for the pinkish hue of the local Flamingo. 

Flamingo red...well not quite but that is some fierce bacteria

Lesser or Greater Flamingo - not sure which...look it up

The area before Sandwich bay is home to a massive set of salt pans where solar evaporation allows for the creation of 400 000 tonnes of salt per annum -yes that it not snow you see in the photo.

I never thought salt could be beautiful...but this really was..

We drove along the beach, inches from the sea for around an hour or so, this is the beginning of what is known as the Skeleton coast and sure enough we saw hundreds of dead seals etc…but due to the extreme conditions they do not decompose rapidly and neither are they eaten away, very weird, (no photos of these  – far too grim).

Picnic anyone, Rufus it would be far too hot for you and no Herdies to chase....

A bit of a march up the dunes for a look at the lagoon and the strange adapted wildlife and then we went dune bashing, which was absolutely fantastic.  Ernest, our guide, would not let me take the wheel, shame but with a 32 degree drop things were a bit challenging for a female driver (apparently)…

I am pretending to be dead....but I don't think they believe me..

After our picnic on top of the dunes we drove at pace across the desert only to find that the intense rainfall over this wet season (my burnt nose would suggest otherwise) had caused our route to become flooded, quick detour up and over made it pretty exciting. 

We ended the day with supper at the Jetty1905 restaurant with window views to a sunset, the food was not amazing but the glass floor over the sea was.

A truly great day and my last in Namibia, back to Cape Town on Thursday and London on Saturday.  I may share my trip to a landmark CT restaurant for my last post….if you are very lucky.

Swakopmund – Dolphins, Sunfish, Seal and Pink Pelicans….with a few Oysters to wash them down

Swakopmund, famous for its fantastic Oysters, sea life and sand dunes, is our final stop on this three week Safari.  The Hansa Hotel, very historic and fairly grand in its own way, is our residence for three nights.  Today we trekked along the sea road for 33k to Walvis Bay, site of a unique landscape which lends itself to stunning wildlife due to a huge protective sand spit.

The boats are well known to the seals, birds and dolphins so getting up close is never in doubt.  We saw everything we expected and also found a 300Kg Ocean Sunfish, not great photos so none of those, nor the heavyside dolphins which we saw hundreds off.

Now where is that fish...Rufus they are starving me...

We were dive bombed by a series of stunning pinkish Pelican who were expecting us to throw them our lunch, I think.  I am not a birdy but they are pretty awesome.

Pelicans dive bombing the boat

As we raced past Pelican Point sand spit we caught sight of this Black Backed Jackal stealing fish from the Pelicans I guess.  Brilliant.

Get off its mine...

A great day in a growing town, I fancied the sea kayaking, dune boarding, quad biking and other risky activities but no one else was playing…time for the shops I think.

Little Ongava – the hunt for Black Rhino – ummmm we had already seen one…ooops

Our trip from Epacha to Little Ongava took a mere 40 minutes, hurrah.  Wow, who knew that a Safari could be as fabulous as this.  An entirely private guide, chef and suites, all in a tree top setting overlooking the extensive wildlife.  I could not recommend it more. 

Our stated aim was to continue the hunt for the elusive Black Rhino, ummm when our guide checked out our photos it turned out the Rhino we thought was white was indeed Black…..Good grief did we feel dumb.  So for completeness I include a picture of one of the White Rhino we saw at Little Ongava.

I am bigger, have a wider mouth and a gap between my horn, I am a White Rhino twit

I love a Defender and just in case I am invited to work at an Auto Show I got some practice in with a full length pose on our guide’s truck….ha ha.

Ummm a bit scruffy and not the best background but its a Landrover so who cares..

Being slightly disappointed with our trip to Etosha in the morning everything took a turn for the better when we saw a Lion with a full mane playing around with his mate.  Not a great pic but I include it anyway.

A fuzzy Lion having an argument with his mate...sorry no pic of the mate...

Today we race off to Swakopmund, along the Trans Kalahari Express and through the Namib desert, at the seaside, for Oysters, desert safari and a glimpse of some Dolphins from a boat.   But before we leave a quick picture of Wilhelm sliding about in the water checking our route…..he got v muddy but never actually fell in…

This was almost a point of no return, Wilhelm saved the day but almost met with disaster...

Apols for the style of the Safari Blog, I have specific requests as to what I should include and that is “pictures of animals”…so there you are.

The hunt for Black Rhino failed so a bit of a swim and a picnic instead….

Giraffe snaffling before the storm hits in Etosha park

Almost a fiasco…our chef, a young lad who played Rugby for France and Belgium, wrote his Landcruiser off yesterday, when trying to avoid a Black Backed Jackal.  Jackal survived but our dinner was cooked by a sub, no worries at all, we had an excellent Kudo fillet and some other local treats….

Epacha is set in the hills outside Etosha, with a game park of its own, hosting Black Rhino, Sable and all the other local wildlife, (Giraffe, Oryx etc).  Waking up early and diving into the Defender we set off at pace looking for waterholes which the Rhino typically frequent, no such luck today.  The whole area is very wet at present and as such the water holes are not really seeing as much wildlife, no matter, we did spot our first hertybeest. (spelling)

One glass of champagne too many and as for the crisps....swimming lengths later I think

A quick glass of the local Champagne was served by Klaus and then back to the swimming pool and Jacuzzi…

No glamour shots I am afraid, we are all a bit modest for that

Annie is happy again.

Tomorrow, Saturday, we set off bright and early for a swift 40 minute drive to Little Ongava where we will stay for two nights.  Renowned for their Black Rhino we should be in luck.  No Jacuzzi here but a private plunge pool awaits….swimmers are at the ready.

Ah a late addition the Bull Elephant from Etosha…sorry he was a bit distant..

Billy No Mates here....where is everybody?

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