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July 28, 2017

Experience the nostalgic pleasure of steam train railways around North Wales

Experience the nostalgic pleasure of steam train railways around North Wales

Four steam trains in three days – what a treat. I was on on a very special trip to experience the delights of North Wales Heritage railways, sampling itineraries from specialist railway tour operators Great Rail Journeys and Rail Discoveries.

Ffestiniog Railway

Ffestiniog Railway steam train Merddin Emrys

Engine driver Paul on Merddin Emrys

The heat is overwhelming. There’s a smell of coal dust, hot metal and sea-salt. Steam hisses and a seagull squawks overhead. Adults ready their cameras, children giggle with excitement and the sense of anticipation builds. “Keep right in to the side there and watch that pipe; it’s boiling hot and will give you a nasty burn if you touch it.” Engine driver Paul ensures I’m ensconced in my tiny corner of the cabin, gives a brief nod to stoker Andrew, a piercing whistle shrieks across the river estuary out to sea, there’s a chuff-chuffing from the steam train and we are on our way.

View from inside Ffestiniog Raliway steam engine cab

View from inside Ffestiniog Raliway steam engine cab

I’m on the footplate of the very splendid Merddin Emrys, a push-me pull-you Double Fairlie locomotive, on the  Ffestiniog Railway, fulfilling a life-long dream to travel on the footplate of a steam train. The Festiniog Railway Company, in North Wales, is the oldest surviving railway company in the world. It opened in 1836 to take slate from the quarries of Blaenau Ffestiniog to Porthmadog for export around the globe. We used to holiday in nearby Llandudno and I remember seeing the little train chugging along the track and wishing we could go on it … and now I’m finally here.

Minffordd Station - Ffestiniog Railway steam train - photo Zoe Dawes

Minffordd Station

The train slowly gathers speed as we pass fields of sheep and quaint cottages. People wave as we rumble through Boston Lodge and cows stop grazing to gaze at us as we steam by. At Minffordd, where we pass another steam train going in the opposite direction, I have to leave the engine and join the other passengers in one of the lovely old wooden carriages. We slowly start the steep climb into the mountains where the scenery becomes wilder through the glorious Snowdonia National Park. Sunlight glimmers through wooded groves and we disappear into a tunnel before doing a loop-the-loop at the Dduallt Spiral.

Ffestiniog Railway Bara Brith and Welsh Cakes

Bara Brith and Welsh Cakes

Afternoon tea arrives; a plate of local Welsh Cakes and Bara Brith (fruit loaf) are most welcome. Against railway rules I put my head out of carriage window and watch the steam train puff its way round the curve of the narrow-gauge track. The sight and sound of this sturdy little engine brings back many memories of childhood and a world where time seemed to go at a much slower pace. We arrive at Blaenau Ffestiniog Station and we have a quick look at the brand new, very luxurious, Pullman Observation Carriage, with beautiful wood panelling and maps of the railway route carved onto the tables. On the platform we watch as Paul and Andrew jump on top of the engine to check it and fill it with water.

Steam train at Blaenau Ffestiniog

With its twin funnels and gleaming red livery,  Merddin Emrys is a fine example of a Victorian steam train and I feel privileged to have spent some time in its company.

Welsh Highland Railway

Welsh Highland Railway steam train

Welsh Highland Railway steam train

We had started the day in castle-dominated Caernarvon, boarding the Welsh Highland Railway, UK’s longest heritage railway, that took us inland, past the foot of Snowdon and on to the pretty village of Beddgelert. Our train was pulled by a mighty fine black locomotive, NG/G16 No.87, built in 1937, originally used in South Africa and rebuilt in the Ffestiniog Railway’s own Boston Lodge Works. En route we got superb views out towards the Lleyn Peninsula, beside old slate mines and tiny railway stations, past lakes emerging from steamy windows, near rushing waterfalls and on up into the mountains.

Lake View from Welsh Highland Railway steam train North Wales

View from our railway carriage

Clare, our very informative host from Ffestiniog Railway Company, outlined our route on the map and gave us some facts and figures about the company and its rolling stock. Well-equipped walkers got off at one of the halts to hike up Wales’ highest peak.

Welsh Highland Railway route

Welsh Highland Railway route

As we crossed the impressive Glan-yr-afon Viaduct I gazed up towards the summit of Snowdon, shrouded in mist. This stretch of the track is one of the steepest gradients in Britain, 1-40 and we snaked our way back down through the forest toward Beddgelert, Snowdon playing hide and seek along the way.

Welsh Highland Railway steam train Snowdonia - North Wales

Welsh Highland Railway steam train

As we disembarked in Beddgelert, the rain arrived, not so unusual in this part of Wales. However, by the time we’d got our coach to the quirky village of Portmeirion it had stopped and the sun was peaking out again.

Llangollen Railway

Llangollen Railway Station and 80072 steam train

Llangollen Railway Station and Steam engine 80072

The following day we headed off into the valleys for a ride on the Llangollen Railway, the only standard-gauge heritage railway in Wales. As with many other railway lines, this was originally built for the mining industry, but Llangollen has been a tourist destination for many years. It’s a very attractive town on the River Dee and the railway is its biggest attraction. The quaint Station Building sets the scene with old suitcases piled on the platform and uniformed guards, drivers and other staff bustling about making sure everyone gets aboard in time for departure. We had a reserved carriage all to ourselves again, with scones, jam and cream laid out on crisp white linen – very civilized. The velvet-upholstered seats and lacquered wood panelling all conspired to give that feeling of nostalgia for rail travel in stylish luxury.

Llangollen Railway reserved carriage North Wales

Reserved Carriage

We were being pulled by beautifully restored locomotive 80072, built in Brighton in 1953 to run on the south coast, but left to rot for many years after the Beeching cuts of the 1965, which is when the Llangollen Railway also closed for main-line travel. There are few transport sounds more evocative than the huffing of an engine as it builds up steam on its way out of a station. We got that experience a number of times as there were a three stops along the line, which runs beside the sparkling River Dee, to Corwen. The return journey was equally delightful and everyone thoroughly enjoyed our very special steam train journey.

Llangollen Railway steam train -photo Zoe Dawes

Llangollen Railway steam train

After lunch we went on a leisurely glide along the Langollen Canal on a horse-drawn boat – perfect end to a perfect day.

Snowdon Mountain Railway

Wyddfa steam engine Snowdon Mountain Railway - photo Zoe Dawes

Wyddfa

On our final morning we set off early to get the 9.30am Snowdon Mountain Railway steam train from Llanberis Up the Mountain. We went up and down in glorious sunshine, pushed up by Wyddfa, a Swiss-built engine from 1893, driven by Paul and stoker Robert. It was a truly epic journey – watch out for the story in another article …

Top of Snowdon with Mountain Railway train North Wales - photo Zoe Dawes

Top of Snowdon with Mountain Railway train

Great Rail Journeys and Rail Discoveries Steam Train Tours

I travelled to North Wales courtesy of Great Rail Journeys and Rail Discoveries. Our group stayed in Llandudno at the very comfortable Dunoon Hotel, with superb food in charming surroundings. We also had an excellent Italian meal at the Wildwood Restaurant in the town centre.

Dunoon Hotel Llandudno

Our group at Dunoon Hotel

Great Rail Journeys Railways & Castles of Wales Tour includes a stay at the award-winning Dunoon Hotel, journeys on the Welsh Highland, Ffestiniog and Snowdon Mountain Railways, and excursions to Portmeirion Village and Caernarfon and Conwy Castles. GRJ Independent can also tailor make holidays to the region for those wishing to travel to Wales on an individual basis Save up to £30pp when booking on or before 15th August 2017.More details Railways and Castles of Wales.

Rail Discoveries Railways of Wales Tour includes a stay at the Kensington Hotel, journeys on the Welsh Highland, Ffestiniog and Llangollen Railways, a horse-drawn boat trip on the Llangollen Canal, and excursions to Portmeirion Village and Caernarfon Castle. Save up to £30pp when booking on or before 15th August 2017. More details Railways of Wales.

Andrew and Paul on the Ffestiniog Railway steam train - photo Zoe Dawes

Andrew and Paul on the Ffestiniog Railway

Love Narrow-Gauge Railways? Read my review of Small Island by Little Train – a narrow-gauge adventure by Chris Arnot.

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North Wales Steam Railways

 

July 1, 2017

Canada 150: celebrating this magnificent country’s history and culture in Ottawa

Canada 150: celebrating this magnificent country’s history and culture in Ottawa
Ottawa Canada 150 - photo zoe dawes

Ottawa celebrates Canada 150

Happy Birthday to you

Happy Birthday to you

Happy Birthday dear Canada

Happy Birthday to you!

Maple Leaf platter Canada 150

Beautiful wooden Maple Leaf Platter seen in Ottawa Craft Store

On 1st July, 1867 Confederation united the country’s first three provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Canada (including Ontario and Quebec) into a federation known as the Dominion of Canada. Now, a hundred and fifty years later, the country is celebrating that date with a year long party of events and commemorative memorabilia. I recently spent a week in the capital, Ottawa, where the whole city was en fete and getting ready for Canada 150 in colourful style.

Aberdeen Pavilion Lansdowne Park Ottawa Canada 150

Aberdeen Pavilion at Lansdowne Park, Ottawa

I will be writing about my trip in more detail later, but in the meantime, here are a few images from Ottawa that sum up the beauty, diversity and history of Canada.

Images of Canada 150

Queen Victoria

Portrait of Queen Victoria in Ottawa Parliament Canada 150

Portrait of Queen Victoria in Ottawa Parliament

This glorious portrait of Queen Victoria hangs in Canada’s Parliament Building, reminder of the country’s strong ties to Great Britain and its historic past. On a tour our guide told us it was her favourite painting there and that no-one knows who painted it. The portrait has survived numerous disasters including fire so it’s clearly a survivor.

Canadian Parliament

The Parliament Building with Peace Tower Ottawa Canada 150

The Parliament Building with Peace Tower

Parliament Hill is the focus of the main Canada 150 party held on July 1st, as well as the annual Canada Day celebrations. When I visited, there was a great deal of work being done in preparation for the big day, as well as a lot of renovation work. It’s a meeting point for locals and visitors who enjoy walking round Parliament Hill as well as relaxing on the lawn. NB. From 2018 the main Parliament Building will be closed for at least 10 years for total refurbishment, so get there soon if you want to have a look round!

Aninshinabe Scout

Statue of 'Anishinabe Scout' by Hamilton MacCarthy overlooking Parliament Hill Ottawa Canada 150 - photo Zoe Dawes

Statue of ‘Anishinabe Scout’ by Hamilton MacCarthy

This wonderful statue of the ‘Anishinabe Scout’ was made by Hamilton MacCarthy in 1918. It stands opposite Parliament Hill overlooking the Rideau Canal and Ottawa River. It represents the First Nations people who helped in the development of Canada. All round the city there are many excellent sculptures, some dating back to the 19th century and others very contemporary.

The Canadian Museum of History

Canadian Museum of History Ottawa Canada 150 - photo Zoe Dawes

This is the stunning Main Hall in Canada Museum of History. The museum is actually in the city of Gatineau, over the river from Ottawa, but feels very much a part of the capital. The lower floor has a large collection of First Nations totems and many artefacts telling the story of the people who lived in this country well before the first travellers arrived. Unfortunately, the renowned Canadian History Hall was closed in preparation for the Canada 150 opening on July 1st but I am sure it is fascinating.

National Gallery of Canada

Maman and the National Gallery of Canada Ottawa - photo Zoe Dawes

Maman and the National Gallery of Canada

A ginormous spider lurks in front of the National Gallery of Canada, quirky monument to the country’s artistic spirit. Towering 30feet above the street, Maman, was made by Louise Bourgois from steel and marble. Inside the beautiful glass museum is a comprehensive collection of Canadian artworks. ‘The National Gallery of Canada strives to provide Canadians with a sense of identity and pride in Canada’s rich visual arts heritage and to make art accessible to all.’ I especially enjoyed the Indigenous Art Galleries, where intricate antler carvings are beautifully displayed next to simple images of wildlife and people.

Maple Syrup

Maple Syrup Stall Lansdowne Market Ottawa - Canada 150

Maple Syrup Stall Lansdowne Market

One of the most famous products of Canada is maple syrup. The Maple Leaf features on the Canadian Flag and the trees can be found all over Ottawa as well as in many other parts of the country. I learnt all about maple syryp production at Fulton’s Pancake House and Sugar Bush, a couple of hours’ drive from the capital. (More on that trip in another article.) There are shops selling this luscioous syrup all over the city and at Lansdowne Park Market I found a stall not only selling it but also explaining the changes in labelling that have recently been brought in.

Obama Cookies

Obama Cookies in Le Moulin de Provence Ottawa Canada 150 - photo Zoe Dawes

Obama Cookies in Le Moulin de Provence

So what has Barack Obama got to do with Canada 150? Well, when he was USA President he visited Ottawa and called into the Moulin de Provence bakery in downtown Byward Market. He bought one of their iced maple leaf cookies. The bakery was very savvy in its marketing them as ‘Obama Cookies’ and now every visitor to city has to try one of these iconic biscuits. Of course, I bought one in a commemorative tin to bring home.

The Rideau Canal and Chateau Laurier

The Rideau Canal and Chateau Laurier Ottawa Canada 150 - photo Zoe Dawes

The Rideau Canal and Chateau Laurier

One of the greatest Canadian engineering feats of the 19th century, the Rideau Canal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, flows through Ontario, finally cascading out into the Ottawa River. Constructed to aid British military operations against a possible American invasion, it was opened in 1832 and is 22km long. It’s the oldest continuously operated canal system in North America and the name comes from the French for ‘curtain’ due to its appearance in the lock system in front of the Chateau Laurier. This famous hotel opened in the early 20th century and was another of the railway hotels that spread across Canada as the trains brought the modern world to this enormous country. I can highly recommend the cocktails in Zoe’s Bar!

Celebrate Canada 150

I travelled to Canada with Air Transat courtesy of Destination Canada with a group of 13 other fab UK travel bloggers visiting 14 cities in celebration of Canada 150. I stayed at the very cool Andaz Ottawa in Byward Market. Many thanks to everyone at Ottawa Tourism and the lovely Canadians for making me so welcome.

If you enjoyed this celebration of Canada’s birthday do share it with others and leave a comment at the end of the post. If you have any tips or stories about Canada, please share those too!

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Canada 150 Ottawa

 

June 30, 2017

Top Tips: A Beginner’s Guide to Hiking – all a newbie hiker needs to know

Top Tips: A Beginner’s Guide to Hiking – all a newbie hiker needs to know

In our latest World Travel Blogger series, hiking expert Rebecca Crawford shares her top tips for a beginner hiker/walker.

Hiking is so much fun, and can be therapeutic at best! You get to exercise and connect with nature at the same time, which unravels a world you had no idea existed in the first place. If you’ve never gone on hikes before, there are a couple of things you need to know before you actually get on that trail. Keep in mind that no one knows everything; but it sure does help having a few tips that will guide you through this awesome adventure and make your first trip a memorable one.

Beginners guide to hiking

Beginners Guide to Hiking

Here are some Do’s and Don’ts as you embark on your backpacking journey, as well as some tricks you can use to make things better and easier on the trail. Read on for a full guide on just what you need to know as a beginner hiker.

1. Do your Research

The moment you decide that you want to start hiking, you should start reading extensively on the subject, as well as watching online tutorials and documentaries so that you get a scope of just what it entails, and what you will need to look out for during your first hike. For instance, you can research on the best pocket knife to use during your hike. There is a whole wealth of information out there, especially on online platforms like YouTube. You can also join hiking communities that are made up of other hikers who will be more than willing to show you the ropes.

2. Plan ahead

Beginners guide to Hiking - map reading

For every successful hike, there was intensive planning behind it. You have to plan out your hike before you embark on it. Get a map and study the trail so that you can get a feel of the place. Get enough gear to last you the whole trip, including food and money. And most importantly, if you will be staying in hotels, make your reservations in advance to avoid the last minute rush.

3. Prepare your Hiking Gear

Beginners Guide to Hiking - walking boots

We all know that you can’t just wake up one morning and decide that you are going for a hike. It has to be after days or months of preparation, which also involves purchasing the right gear for your trip.You will need a large and comfortable backpack you can use to carry your clothes, food, sleeping bag, footwear and a camera if you are into photography or you want to capture every moment of your adventure.

For your sleeping bag, ensure that you purchase one that’s lightweight and can fit about two people comfortably, especially if you will be sharing it with your hiking partner. It should also pack small because you will be moving around with it for the rest of your trip. Since this is your first trip, we advise that you borrow a sleeping bag so that you can first try it out and know what to look out for when you will be buying your own.

Pack enough canned foods and water purifiers because you just don’t know the next time you’ll come across fresh drinking water or food. If you are hiking in a large group, it’s better if you carry a stove along with you, to heat food and water, and a large tent you can all sleep in.

4. Get an Experienced Hiking Partner

Beginners guide to hiking - walking

Even after watching tons of hiking documentaries and interacting with other enthusiasts, you should not think that you can handle going out on the trail by yourself. This is because nothing ever prepares you to face the real situation. We recommend seeking out an experienced partner for your first trip. They will help you manoeuvre the trail easily as they teach you the hiking basics that will help you on your subsequent trips

5. Safety First

Beginners Guide to Hiking - First Aid Box

You are going out in the wild and this makes you susceptible to animal attacks as well as diseases from eating contaminated foods and water. Safety has to be one of your key priorities. Ensure that you have a way to keep animals at bay,  especially when you are sleeping. Moreover, bring a hand sanitizer with you to use before handling foods and most importantly, always carry your first aid kit with you. This also means that you have to know basic first aid beforehand to be able to use the kit effectively when the time comes.

6. Keep it short

For your first trip, you want to keep it short because let’s face it, you are never quite prepared to be on the actual trail and even if you have planned for a longer trip, in most cases, you won’t last until the end. Always plan for a shorter trek and keep advancing to longer hikes, and with time as you gain confidence on the trail, you will find yourself going for days without even realizing it.

7. Avoid pitfalls

Snakes crossing Osoyoos Canada

During your research and interaction with other hikers, there are a couple of things you should avoid at all costs. For instance, there are trails you should avoid, plants you should not eat, and other general blunders you should not commit. Always stick to your plan.

8. Be Respectful

When backpacking, you have to learn to respect nature as well as other hikers trekking on the same trail as you. For instance, we advise that you always give the hikers trekking uphill the right of way. Another trick is to always have a plastic bag with you that you can use to carry trash with to avoid polluting the environment.

Also, do not feed wildlife you encounter on the way and never should you talk loudly or play loud music while on the trail. Keep in mind that people resort to hiking to get away from all the hustle and bustle of the city.

9. Hike Your Own Hike

The Paper Bridge Lake District

You will hear this a lot; especially among other hiking enthusiasts. It only means that despite everything you have learned from other people and sources about hiking, when on the trail, it’s all about you. You should focus on getting the most out of your experience with nature and not try to conform to standards that have been put out there by others.

10. Practice

Lastly, you will never be good at hiking unless you are prepared to put a lot of work into it. The first few trips will be tough and you will feel like giving up. Don’t! Keep going back to the trail and trying to be better at it, and eventually you will.

Concluding Thoughts

We hope that you have learned a thing or two about hiking for beginners. We only give tips to improve your hiking experience and you should not feel pressured to get it right the first time. No one does. Just focus on having the best experience and everything else will fall in place.

Loved the tips given? Comment and let us know what you liked best and what we left out. Do not forget to also share this post with other hiking enthusiasts, family and friends.

Author Bio: Rebecca Crawford lives in USA, but loves hiking all over the world. Her favourite is Everest Base Camp Trek in Nepal. It usually takes 16 days, but she likes to slow down, enjoy mountains, company of other adventurers and take more pictures, so it took her 28 days last time. Another of her passion is the ocean, so all short and long hikes along the ocean shore bring a lot of joy. She also writes for Hiking Mastery.

Read more:

Top 3 benefits of walking in the great outdoors

An ideal walking holiday in Yorkshire

June 19, 2017

A quartet of very different Lake District books

A quartet of very different Lake District books

Four special Lake District Books Cumbria

“I’m coming to the Lake District on holiday. What book would you recommend?” Well, that really depends on what kind of book you’re looking for. There are so many Lake District books: traditional guide books, walking books, novels, biographies, photography books, children’s books … Here are four of my favourites.

Lake District Books

I Never Knew that about the Lake District - Christopher WinnI never knew that about the Lake District by Christopher Winn

Did you know that Fletcher Christian, he of Mutiny on the Bounty, was born in Cockermouth? Or that the ‘Yellow Earl‘, past owner of Lowther Castle, was the only man other than Winston Churchill to have a Cuban cigar named after him (the Lonsdale Cigar)? Well, if you read ‘I never knew that about the Lake District‘ you’ll find out hundreds of fascinating snippets and facts about the area. The book is divided up into geographical sections ie The Central Lakes, The Lakeland Coast, Windermere, so it covers Cumbria, not just the Lake District National Park. Charming illustrations by Mai Osawa add to the this delightful book’s appeal. It would make a great gift for a fan of the lakes; I was given it as a birthday present and regularly dip into it. Note to the author: the 201o edition could do with updating as a few things have changed eg many more local breweries and visitor attractions now.

More about I never knew that about the Lake District and other books by Christopher Winn

 

Dances with the Daffodils - Matthew ConnollyDances with the Daffodils by Matthew Connolly 

I chose this book from a host of books by local authors laid out on our tables at the Cumbria Family Business Awards 2017. (Well done to the organisers for an original way to support Cumbrian writers.) Author Matthew Connolly explained how the novel was inspired by the story behind one of the most famous English poems, William Wordsworth’s Daffodils. The poet’s sister, Dorothy Wordsworth, wrote an entry in her diary on April 15th 1802 referring to a walk she and her brother took beside Ullswater where they saw daffodils that ‘tossed and reeled and danced’ in the wind. In the book, Luke, who’s returning to the area after 20 years of travelling, visits the lake and sees a ‘thin, gypsy-tanned woman … hopping along the lane like a chaffinch,‘ admiring the daffodils, beside ‘… a tall and ugly mantis of a creature.’ (William). Luke is immediately attracted to Dorothy, ‘as she knelt among the daffodils like some pagan goddess.’ I thoroughly enjoyed this poignant love story, especially seeing Dorothy in a different light, as a feisty young woman, torn between her love for her brother and another. It’s also a love story to south Lakeland, its local culture and heritage, which the author clearly knows well.

More on Dances with Daffodils here

Photographer's guide to Lake District by Ellen BownessThe Photographer’s Guide to The Lake District by Ellen Bowness

‘The Lake District is a beautiful part of the UK and it’s jam-packed with photogenic locations, from lakes and fells to waterfalls and caves.’ The opening to this gem of a book says it all; here is a comprehensive guide to the best places to get the perfect photo of the top sights in the Lakes. Local Ellen Bowness is a self-confessed travel photography addict who shares her professional knowledge of the area so the rest of us can find the perfect location. The book includes directions, maps, parking and satnav information as well advice on the best time of year to visit. Many popular sites feature, including Cat Bells overlooking Derwentwater, Grasmere and Castle Rigg Stone Circle, but also lesser known gems like Innominate Tarn,a favourite of Lakeland walker Alfred Wainwright and Ritson’s Force at Wasdale Head. One for photographers of all levels from beginner to expert.

More on The Photographer’s Guide to the Lake District here

Small island by little train - Chris ArnotSmall Island by Little Train – a narrow-gauge adventure by Chris Arnot

OK, this book is not only about the Lake District; it’s a journey round the nation’s narrow-gauge railways, but it has a very interesting chapter about one of this area’s most popular tourist attractions. In a chapter entitled ‘Return Ticket to Red Squirrels’ author Chris Arnot travels on the Ravenglass and Eskdale Light Railway. which runs through some of the most beautiful scenery in England. He also meets some of the enthusiasts who run L’al Ratty, as it’s known locally. He talks with Peter Van Zellar, who sums up the appeal of this country railway. “You are conscious of being part of the scenery but, beyond the track, that scenery changes every day. You might see a buzzard one minute and a herd of red deer the next.” The author shares some local history and has a humorous style reminiscent of Bill Bryson and his Notes from a Small Island, on which this book is vaguely modelled.

Disclosure: I was sent this book by publishers The AA for review. It fits very nicely within into the Quirky Travel niche.

More on Small Island by Little Train here.

I hope you have enjoyed this review of some Quirky Travel Lake District Books. What’s you favourite book about where you live? Please leave your thoughts and any recommendations in the Comment Box below 🙂

January 31, 2017

Perth Harbour: discover Aboriginal traditions in Western Australia

Perth Harbour: discover Aboriginal traditions in Western Australia
Go Cultural Tour Walter Perth Harbour W Australia - photo zoe dawes

Walter McGuire

Welcome to the land of the Nyungar People. Where we stand today would have originally been the river …” Walter McGuire greeted us in the language of his ancestors at Elizabeth Quay on the shores of Perth Harbour. Walter is a traditional owner of Nyungar Boodja (country), including the Whadjuk lands on which Perth city now stands. He runs GoCultural Tours and he was giving our group a talk on the history of the Nyungar (Noongar) people of Western Australia, their Dreamtime stories and how they lived in days gone by.

Go Cultural Perth

www.gocultural.co.au

Walter sang an Aboriginal song, clacking together two boomerangs to create a hypnotic rhythm. In the past, a welcome ceremony could have taken days or even weeks. “The boomerang (kali or kylie) would traditionally have been made from mulga or Black Wattle. They were used for hunting, killing kangaroos and sometimes fighting. The ones you throw away and don’t come back are … sticks.” Walter and his partner Meg daubed a mark of white clay on our foreheads and explained how this would be used in ceremonies and also in artwork found in caves around Australia.

Ochre welcome mark - Noongar Perth

Nyungar welcome mark

On the ground lay a kangaroo skin, on top of which was a basket full of intriguing objects. Walter and Meg proceeded to tell us about each one, and their significance to Nyungar everyday life. Wilgi (red and yellow ochre) was obtained from a site now occupied by Perth Railway Station and was used in all kinds of Aboriginal ceremonies as well as traded with peoples to the east of Australia, possibly as far as Uluru.

Nyungar objects Perth Australia

Nyungar objects

Walter passed round a curious piece of wood with a shiny, many layered surface; it looked as if it had been highly lacquered. “This is balga (xanthorrhoea). Nyungar people would use the spike of the plant as part of spear shaft and the resin is also used as an adhesive in spear-making. It can fix leaks, for example in a coolamon.” I’d come across a coolamon before, on a Bush Tucker Walk in the Northern Territory. It’s a curved container used to carry water, fruit, nuts, even babies, and is often decorated with attractive etched markings. A shaggy piece of bark, known as bibool (Swamp Paperbark) would be used as roofing for a mia-mia (shelter) or as a torch. Its bark has a high oil content. A fascinating insight into a totally different way of life, utilising every bit of nature around.

Go Cultural Tour Perth WA

Sitting on the grass overlooking Perth Harbour, learning about Nyungar culture in spring sunshine from a knowledgeable elder, was a real privilege. Walter’s passion for his people’s heritage came over in everything he said. He spoke of the ‘Era of the White Man’ when James Stirling set up the Swan River Colony in the 1820s, which developed into vibrant Perth, the way his people were treated in the early days, getting the vote in 1967 and the pride he felt in his being the only ‘mob’ to be recognised as traditional owners of the city.

Walter modelling a kangaroo skin Perth Australia

Walter modelling a kangaroo skin

Finally we walked along the quay to a giant silver bird, wings outstretched pointing out across Perth Harbour. Called First Contact, it was created by Noongar (Nyangar) artist, Laurel Nannup. “First Contact is inspired by the Noongar people’s first visions of European settlers, whose distant sailing ships looking like floating birds bearing the white-faced spirits of their ancestors.” Walter picked up his boomerangs and sang a song of farewell, a fitting end to a fascinating tour.

First Contact - silver bird sculpture - Perth Harbour WA - photo zoe dawes

‘First Contact’ Perth Harbour

Nyungar Aboriginal Greeting by Walter McGuire – Perth


I travelled to Perth, Fremantle, Rottnest Island and Margaret River courtesy of Tourism Western Australia #justanotherdayinWA. It was a memorable trip with some amazing experiences unique to this part of the world.

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Perth Harbour - Aboriginal Culture - WA - pinterest

January 28, 2017

Dunster by Candlelight on a winter’s eve in Exmoor

Dunster by Candlelight on a winter’s eve in Exmoor

Dunster by Candlelight - medieval village in Somerset on the edge of Exmoor

The giant stag, carried aloft on strong shoulders, glows an unearthly white. Cowled figures carrying candles walk silently past. Lords and ladies dressed in rich flowing garb stride proudly past. Children carrying lanterns are shepherded down along the road. A musician plays a tin whistle as the procession wends its way past hundreds of people lining the streets of the medieval Dunster. Every shop is brightly lit and there’s a carnival atmosphere, mixed with a sense of awe.  It’s the 30th anniversary of Dunster by Candlelight, a weekend of festivities and general merry-making that attracts visitors from around the UK and overseas.

Dunster at night Exmoor - photo zoedawes

Dunster at night

Dunster is in Somerset on the edge of Exmoor National Park in south west England. The village developed over the centuries around Dunster Castle which dates back to the 11th c. Mentioned in the Domesday Book, the castle was in the Luttrell family for hundreds of years; it’s now owned by the National Trust. The wool and cloth trade brought wealth to the area and the octagonal 17th c Yarn Market still stands in the heart of the village. Nowadays, Dunster is famous for being one of the best-preserved medieval villages in England. I’d never been before, so to see it during the Dunster by Candlelight festival was a real treat.

Dunster by Candlelight town and Castle Exmoor

Dunster by Candlelight

Buses shuttle visitors from nearby towns; I got on at seaside resort Minehead overlooking the Bristol Channel. I follow the procession from its starting point at Dunster Steep near the car park.  Villagers dress up as nobility and peasants, carrying racks of candles in jars or playing instruments. Two stilt walkers tower over us, one dressed as the devil with very realistic horns. We wend our way along the High Street past the Yarn Market towards the castle, lording it over us on a hill above the village. Turning off along Church Street we pass St George’s Church, where a choir sings Christmas carols. In a walled garden a man wielding a chain-saw is carving an eagle out of a tree trunk.

Dunster Wood Cutter

Along West Street we are entertained by a band of energetic drummers and candlelit Fire Spinners twirling and swirling. Collecting boxes are shaken and filled by generous onlookers. ‘The heart of Candlelight focuses on raising funds for St Margaret’s Hospice, which provides so much comfort for those who so need it’, writes Chairman Andy Fay in the excellent Dunster by Candlelight programme leaflet. Father Christmas waves as we walk by.

Dunster Father Christmas

The procession ends at the 17th c Water Mill, where the miller is milling by candlelight. The mill still produces flour and has a popular Tea Room. The stag is gently removed from its plinth and the racks of candles are laid down. There’s a general air of merriment and relief. The following eve, Saturday, the villagers will be doing it all again, but for now they can relax and enjoy the rest of the evening’s events.

Dunster Castle

I make my way up to Dunster Castle, focal point for the village, brightly lit and enticing with the smell of BBQ sausages and burgers. The Stables have been converted into a Christmas Market, selling local food and drink and handmade gifts. People jostle each other to get a better look at the tasty treats on sale. I’m tempted by tiny Christmas Cakes, some very moreish-looking frosted baeks and jars of home-made preserves. I finally choose chocolate dogs and a bottle of Spiced Somerset Chaider.

Dunster Castle Christmas Market products

Inside the castle the Quantock Musical Theatre Choir is entertaining an appreciative audience in the Drawing Room. In each of the ground floor rooms an enormous Christmas Tree, beautifully decorated, adds a festive note to its historic contents. It feels as if the Luttrell family have invited us in to help them celebrate a very special Victorian Christmas.

Dunster Castle Christmas Exmoor

Back in the town I head off to the old Tithe Barn, where a man with a python round his neck is scaring and enthralling the audience in equal measure. Beside the path I find Ian Mabbutt and Seb Jay with a large telescope pointed up into the winter sky. Ian runs West Withy Farm Holiday Cottages, where I am staying whilst in Exmoor. Seb, a noted astronomer, runs Dark Sky Telescope Hire. “Exmoor is a great place for stargazing; it’s Europe’s first International Dark Sky Reserve. Once you get out of the populated areas, the stars take your breath away.”  Later that evening, back at West Withy Farm, Seb gives a master class in the skies above us.

Dunster Christmas Bauble

Dunster Christmas Shop lures me in with its charming display. Among the Santas, bells, elves and snowmen I see a pretty bauble with a hand-painted scene of Dunster; perfect souvenir of my visit. (More on the Dunster Christmas Bauble here.) In the street outside a man with a marked resemblance to Harpo Marx is playing a piano whilst another man juggles fire and plays a harmonica on top of it. The audience are laughing delightedly at their antics; it sums up the joyful spirit you find at Dunster by Candlelight. One day I will return to see Dunster by Daylight …

Dunster by Candlelight street artists - Exmoor - photo zoe dawes

Many thanks to Visit Exmoor for hosting my weekend, and to Ian and Lorena of West Withy Farm for their warm welcome, hospitality and invaluable advice on what to see in this beautiful area in south west England.

Read more: A winter weekend in Exmoor

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January 21, 2017

Top 10 Tips for Food and Drink in Rome

Top 10 Tips for Food and Drink in Rome
La Renella Bakery in Trastevere Rome - photo zoe dawes

La Renella Bakery in Trastevere

Food and Italy; they go together like cheese and wine. With a culinary heritage going back centuries, Italians pride themselves on their knowledge and love of good food and drink. Rome’s historic sights attract visitors from around the world but the way to its heart is through its food and drink. Here are my top tips for making the most of Rome’s foodie scene.

Eating out in Rome

1.  Ask a Roman

Rome Restaurant L'Arcano

Ristorante L’Arcano

Rule Number One is always ‘Ask a Local’. Of course, you can use websites, blog posts, guide books and people who have visited but to discover the best places to eat and drink in Rome ask a Roman. It may be the hotel receptionist, someone you meet in a cafe or a friend of a friend. I got excellent tips from Citalia Rome Concierge Dany, who loves his city with a passion and was able to give me some very useful insider foodie tips. They included suggestions places for quick snacks, traditional meals, fine dining, good wines and local markets.

2. Try street food including ‘pizza al taglio’

Pizzarium Bonci Rome - photo Carlo Pesacane

Pizzarium Bonci – photo Carlo Pesacane

Pizza is Italy’s most famous export and Rome is renowned for the quality of its wood-fired pizzas. Search out the ‘hole in the wall’ pizzerias to try ‘pizza al taglio (a slice of pizza)  You can find these pizzerias all over the city. Da Remo (Piazza Santa Maria), Pizzarium Bonci (Via della Meloria) and La Boccacia in Trastevere come highly recommended. Eat on the hoof or sitting beside one of the historic sights.

Pepy's Bar Pizzeria Rome

Pepy’s Bar

I got a tasty artichoke and mushroom pizza to take-away from Pepy’s Bar on the Piazza Berberini. Their sandwiches are works of art. Other street food includes delicious pastries and pies; check out La Renella, one of Rome’s oldest bakeries, founded in 1848 (see photo above.)

3. Explore Trastevere by night

Papa Re Restaurant, Trastevere

Papa Re Restaurant

The narrow streets of Trastevere (across the Tiber) are crammed with excellent bars, cafes and restaurants. It’s difficult to get a bad meal here but rule of thumb says the more Italians there are and less tourists, the better the restaurant will be. Down a tiny lane away from the main area, I saw about 20 people (looking Italian) waiting patiently for a simple restaurant called da Enzo to open.. That’s a good sign. Wandering about in the early eve, I found a tiny bar buzzing with lively chat, serving a good selection of anti-pasti and simple main courses.

Aperol Spritz in Trastevere Bar, Rome

Aperol Spritz in Trastevere

I sat outside with an aperitif, Aperol Spritz (prosecco and Aperol), a dish a VERY fresh pistachios and watched the world go by. I can’t remember its name, but it was just round the corner from Le Mani in Pasta which is on Via dei Genovese (see Tip 4).

Rome at Night

4. Eat like a Roman

Artichokes in Trastevere Rome - photo zoe dawes

Artichokes

Seems obvious but so many people go abroad and then look for food they have back home. Search out Rome specialities like carciofi (artichokes) cooked in various ways, saltimbocca (veal escalope), gnocchi (potato dumplings), bucatini all’amatriciana (tomato-based sauce with pancetta, chilli and cheese) and suppli (fried rice balls coated in breadcrumbs with cheese or other filling) similar to arancini found in other parts of Italy. Freshly baked Italian bread such as focaccia with goat’s cheese is a simple treat.

Italian food in Rome - collage zoe dawes

Italian Food

5. Understand the Italian menu

Le Mani in Pasta menu Rome

Le Mani in Pasta menu (English translation)

The majority of restaurants in Rome will have menus in English but it is worth understanding the different courses. Antipasti (starter) may include cured meats, cheese, bruschetta (toasted bread with toppings), olives. Primi (first course) is usually a pasta dish or soup. Be warned, this may fill you up so much you won’t have space for Secondi (second course). This consists of either fish, meat, chicken and more commonly nowadays, a vegetarian option.

Fontana di Venere dinner Rome

Fontana di Venere dinner

Contorni are vegetable or salad dishes. Dolci is dessert, which could be tiramisu (coffee and cream), gelato or maybe panne cotta (cooked cream). Finally you may have a Caffè (coffee) or Digestivi (liquor such as grappa or limoncello) or both. Lunch is from around 12 noon – 2.30pm and dinner from 8pm – 11pm. (Adapted from Walks of Italy How to Read an Italian Menu.)

6. Eat well in in a Trattoria

Chef cooking spaghetti carbonara at 'Le Mani in Pasta' Trastevere Rome

Chef cooking spaghetti carbonara at ‘Le Mani in Pasta’

If you want simple food, served with (usually) friendly service, look for a trattoria, or osteria. These traditional restaurants, usually family-run, can be found all over Rome, but especially in Trastevere. They often have tables outside and offer a decent range of ‘home-made’ dishes and wines. The Menu de Dia, is good value, with a basic choice of starter, main and often dessert, plus a drink included in the price. One of the best meals I have ever eaten was at Le Mani in Pasta a stylish osteria in Trastevere. (See menu above.) The starter was sublime: bresaola (cured beef) with soft, creamy buffalo mozzarella and grapefruit slices. The sharpness of the fruit cut through the cheese and, despite it being such a large plate, I ate every divine mouthful.

Bresaola, mozarella and grapefruit - Le main in pasta restaurant, Rome - photo zoe dawes

Bresaola, mozarella and grapefruit

The waiter recommended house speciality spaghetti carbonara; I watched the chef cooking it through the kitchen window. It was glossily rich and went very well with Le Rubie, the house red from Lazio region. (See photo of spaghetti carbonara dish here) For dessert I had a refreshing lemon sorbet and finished off with an espresso.

7. Visit one of Rome’s markets

Cheese counter at Farmers Market Rome

Cheese counter at Farmers Market

One of the best ways to get a flavour of Rome is to wander round one if its markets. Here you will see the Romans doing one of their favourite things; debating which is the best meats, cheese, vegetables, fruit, flowers, wine, pasta, pulses, olive oil and flowers to take enjoy at home. Campo de’ Fiori is the best known, but for a quieter experience, try Circo Massimo Mercato di Campagna Amica (Circus Maximus Farmer’s Market.)

8. When in Rome – eat gelato

Pistachio Gelato in Rome Italy The Quirky Traveller

Enjoying my pistachio gelato in Rome

Italy has the best ice-cream in the world. Well, to be accurate, gelato is not ice-cream. It has a lower fat content but more sugar with fruit or nut flavourings . So when in Rome, eat gelato. Virtually every street in the main tourist areas of the city have a gelateria (ice-cream parlour) and it’s difficult to get a bad one. The best-known is Giolitti (Via degli Uffici del Vicario), a 19th c café near the Pantheon. One of my favourite flavours is pistachio; go for the sludgy green, not bright green, as it will be natural not artificially coloured.

9. Avoid the worst pizza in Rome

Rome's worst pizza at L'Ottagona

Rome’s worst pizza at L’Ottagona

A tip from Dany, the Citalia concierge; avoid cafes, bars, restaurants and shops right next to the famous sights like the Colosseum, the Parthenon and the Forum. Common sense, yes, but let this be a warning to you. I was joining a Grey Line tour of the Vatican City and we met beside cafe bar L’Ottagono, in Piazza del Risorgimento. I’d not eaten so for speed, even though Dany had told me to avoid it, I ordered a pizza. Don’t. It was as bad as it looks here; overcooked, flabby, salty ham and stringy cheese …

10. Shop for food and drink souvenirs

Panetteria Romana in Rome Italy

Panetteria Romana

Take home a flavour of Rome (import regulations permitting!) from one of the many foodie shops, delicatessens or wineries in Rome. Olive oil, fresh herbs, cheese, olives and pasta are all easy to pack and will remind you of Rome. Lazio region wines include some very good whites, including Orvieto and Trebbiano d’Abruzzo and reds from such as SangioveseMontepulciano and Merlot grapes. I brought back a rope of garlic bulbs and some fragrant rose-flavoured biscuits from the market and crunchy almond biscotti from Paneterria Romana in Trastevere. Delicious flavours from a tasty weekend in Rome …

Italian delicatessen Rome

Italian delicatessen Rome

Many thanks to Citalia, leading specialist in Italian holidays, who organised 48 hours in Rome weekend. They earned the title of ‘Best Tour Operator to the Italian Peninsula for six consecutive years. The Citalia team are friendly, expert and knowledgeable in all things Italian and have local concierges in each destination for personal recommendations, advice and help with day trips, car hire, or restaurant bookings. For more information visit the Citalia Rome page. This trip was a Travelator Media world-wide campaign. Find out more about Travelator Media here.

I do hope you have enjoyed this taste of Rome – leave a comment here and if you have any tips for where else to eat in Rome I’d love to know.

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